Nature, in truth, is not just something external on which we work, but also within us. We too are nature. “My tears well up,” wrote the German Romantic poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. “Earth, I am returning to you.” Adorno took our overawed sensations when confronted with the magnitude of untamed nature as a signal of an awareness of our natural essence. The sublime — whether encountered in the world or in art — provokes in us tears, shudders and overwhelming feeling. Our ego is reminded of its affinities with the natural realm. In our collapses into blubbering wrecks, eyes wide and wet, we become simultaneously most human and most natural.
For someone associated with the abstruseness of avant-garde music and critical theory, Adorno was surprisingly sentimental when it came to animals — for which he felt a powerful affinity. It is with them that he finds something worthy of the name Utopia. He imagines a properly human existence of doing nothing, like a beast, resting, cloud gazing, mindlessly and placidly chewing cud.
To dream, as so many Utopians do, of boundless production of goods, of busy activity in the ideal society reflects, Adorno claimed, an ingrained mentality of production as an end in itself. To detach from our historical form adapted solely to production, to work against work itself, to do nothing in a true society in which we embrace nature and ourselves as natural might deliver us to freedom.
Rejecting the notion of nature as something that would protect us, give us solace, reveals us to be inextricably within and of nature. From there, we might begin to save ourselves — along with everything else.
Esther Leslie is a professor of political aesthetics at Birkbeck College, University of London, and the author, most recently, of “Liquid Crystals: The Science and Art of a Liquid Form.”
Now in print: “Modern Ethics in 77 Arguments,” and “The Stone Reader: Modern Philosophy in 133 Arguments,” with essays from the series, edited by Peter Catapano and Simon Critchley, published by Liveright Books.
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