The best books to reassess the nature of nature

Richard Hardack Author Of Not Altogether Human: Pantheism and the Dark Nature of the American Renaissance
By Richard Hardack

Who am I?

I received my Ph.D. and J.D. at Berkeley, and my next book Your Call is Very Important to Us: Advertising and the Corporate Theft of Personhood, is forthcoming from Rowman & Littlefield. My research into literary and legal history made me fascinated with how people project hopes and fears onto the social construct of nature. How does one explain the contradictory ways white men imagined they could transcend painful isolation by merging into a nature coded as non-white and female? These fantasies play out in popular culture, e.g. in Avatar, in which men seek the unobtanium they lack: a nature that was always lost/a retroactively-constructed fantasy, and a cover for what it seemed to oppose—finally the corporation.


I wrote...

Not Altogether Human: Pantheism and the Dark Nature of the American Renaissance

By Richard Hardack,

Book cover of Not Altogether Human: Pantheism and the Dark Nature of the American Renaissance

What is my book about?

A surprising number of nineteenth-century American thinkers were pantheists: they believed that God inheres in all things, and that men could achieve a sense of belonging they lacked in society by seeking oneness with nature. However, writers such as Emerson, Hawthorne, and Melville conceived of nature as everything "Other"―other than their white male Protestant culture. This male conception of nature became racialized, and the divine became associated with African American and Native American identities, as well as with femininity—the Other or “not-me” of these writers, and a repository of all they lacked. My aim was to reinterpret familiar texts through a lens, that of pantheism, that is unfamiliar to most readers, but helps provide context for how strange but still relevant these writers are.

The books I picked & why

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Moby-Dick

By Herman Melville,

Book cover of Moby-Dick

Why this book?

Writing to Hawthorne, Melville invoked “the all feeling,” a pantheistic oneness with nature. But Melville always qualified such feelings: “what plays the mischief with the truth is that men will insist upon the universal application of a temporary feeling.” Melville elaborated on his pantheism to his main squeeze—his belief that one could transcend isolated male individuality by merging with a divine nature: “I felt pantheistic then—your heartbeat in my ribs and mine in yours, and both in God’s. The Godhead is broken up like the bread at the Supper, and we are the pieces. Hence this infinite fraternity of feeling.” Moby-Dick’s narrator is overtaken by the same temporary feeling of infinite fraternity, achieved through a pantheistic fusion of bodies in nature. Moby-Dick stages a contest between Ishmael’s desire to merge with nature and Ahab’s attempt to dismember the totem of nature that dismembered him. 


Demonology

By Ralph Waldo Emerson,

Book cover of Demonology

Why this book?

Though it focuses on dreams and the occult, the ulterior subject of Emerson’s Demonology is the arcane inversions, doublings, and “unconscious” of transcendentalism. Between many of Emerson’s pronouncements falls this shadow of Demonology, which provides key tenets of his philosophy. Demonology is the cumulative residue of an attempt to explain away that which resists Emerson’s theory that nature is consistent, explicable, rational, and benign. Encapsulating the uncanny, and the inexplicable forces of dreams, animals, and pseudosciences, Demonology consolidates all that is “outside” and negated for Emerson—everything that is, in his terminology, “not me.” Demonology locates the cracks in Emerson’s consciousness, as well as the hobgoblins in his notion of Reason. Emerson’s conception of nature here is notably modern, and often sounds Lacanian—the demonological exception or irrational, that which cannot be fully understood or described, is the necessary anomaly or remainder on which the universality of nature depends.


Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

By Annie Dillard,

Book cover of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Why this book?

Throughout her putative nonfiction, the naturalist Annie Dillard locates her voice using the framework of nineteenth-century Emersonian pantheism; she seeks knowledge, inspiration, and even identity from an impersonal nature coded as male. Most strikingly, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is not the autobiographical nature writing of a contemporary woman, but the trickster fiction, or tinkering, of a postmodern confidence woman impersonating the voice of a fifty-year-old man. Winning a Pulitzer for non-fiction, Dillard anticipates an era of James Freys and falsified memoirs; but Dillard’s “transgressions” are deliberate literary devices, highlighting the way nature is a social construct. She subverts two genres, women’s memoirs, and nature writing, that many readers trust as inherently authentic, by treating them as subject to manipulation. As an emblematic example, the image that opens and closes Pilgrim—of Dillard’s cat that mauls her chest, evoking the violence of feral nature, was appropriated from a graduate student—neither the cat nor the scars are hers, but another impersonation. 


Jazz

By Toni Morrison,

Book cover of Jazz

Why this book?

American pantheists imagine a self whose body and will are possessed by the force of nature. Transcendentalism, which focuses on nature, and Modernism, which focuses on urban technology, both stage American double-consciousness, and generate a series of ungoverned bodies, of arms and hands with wills of their own. For Morrison, blacks become nature-possessed, City possessed, narrator possessed, and music possessed. In Jazz, Morrison conjoins the natural and the mechanical as a representation of black double-consciousness. It is only music—half Nature, half City—that transcends double-consciousness and restores nature to itself, when, as Morrison tells us with a tip to Charlie, "the winds blew and so did the musicians. From then on the bird was a Pleasure to itself and to them." For Morrison, the Harlem Renaissance occupies the juncture where the transcendental Nature of the American Renaissance is transformed into the transcendental black City of modernism. 


Against the Day

By Thomas Pynchon,

Book cover of Against the Day

Why this book?

Pynchon’s Against the Day stages a form of pantheism in which everything bears some form of consciousness, which, like nature, has no border. Cyprian considers that “the earth [might be] alive, with a planet-shaped consciousness”; and it is “as if silver were alive, with a soul and a voice.” Pynchon’s characters live in a pantheistic universe in which everything is part of nature and alive—where the wind tries to wake them and the world has a consciousness. Pynchon updates Melville in Mardi, in which, e.g., a character asks, “Think you there is no sensation in being a tree? Think you it is nothing to be a world? [The world of] Mardi is alive to its axis.” In ATD, “the steel webwork was a living organism”; even an “egg yolk [can be] perhaps regarded as a conscious entity.” Consciousness can’t be confined to people: all entities have the potential to become not just characters, but narrators in Pynchon’s world. 


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