Nature in Nuremberg: A Study of W G Sebald's After Nature
Chandan Kumar Panda
Chandan Kumar Panda obtained his Ph.D degree from the EFL University, Hyderabad, India in the year 2015. He received the DAAD fellowship to pursue a short-term doctoral research for six months in Germany. Currently he works as Assistant Professor at the Department of English, Rajiv Gandhi Central University, Itanagar, India.
W. G. Sebald discusses the Nuremberg tragedy during the Second World War in his book After Nature. This paper makes an attempt to study Sebald’s perception of the disaster inflicted technologically on Nuremberg destroying the natural beauty of the said city. The disturbed geopolitics between England and Germany resulted in damaging nature. Their technological prowess and scientific might were engaged in crippling nature. The growing rivalry between two nations led to legitimizing violence as the befitting medium to settle their antagonism. This legitimization of violence upon nature seems to have its root in modern science and its promotion of instrumental rationality. The scientific degradation of nature corroborates with the Biblical permissiveness towards an exclusively anthropocentric creation. The European perception of ecology is coloured by the Biblical and scientific reification of nature. This study therefore tries to trace the root of the European historical negligence of nature. The Biblical anthropocentrism and the Cartesian mechanistic rationality inspired by the progressive success of science seem to have uprooted the human organic faith in nature.
Keywords: Nature, history, Cartesianism, instrumental rationality, Biblical anthropocentrism, science, violence.
It was in the night of August 28, 1943 Nuremberg experienced a terrible conflagration which devoured the large city as 582 British aircrafts orchestrated the most dangerous blitzkrieg to subdue the enemy nation by resorting to retaliatory reaction . Nature, though never a party to the vested human interest, got crushed in the crossfire of history. It may be said that human enmity victimized nature. It disfigured nature with an intention to foreground the European r national animosity and empire building desire. The human, primarily European and decisively post-Enlightenment, expansionist and tyrannizing tendencies forced nature to undergo its dystopic vicissitudes. Gruesomeness replaced grace and barrenness bliss. Sebald nostalgically recollects the beauty of Nuremberg, primarily of its sublime natural surroundings. But the tragic intervention of war inspired by the European sinister zeal of flexing each other’s territorial muscles seems to have found its viciously glaring manifestation in Nuremberg. The beauty of Nuremberg became mere memory. Therefore, Sebald writes in After Nature, “The date is August 26 1943. On the 27th Father’s departure for Dresden, of whose beauty his memory, as he remarks when I question him, retains no trace. During the night of the 28th 582 aircraft flew in to attack Nuremberg” (85-86). The gruesomeness and barrenness is the disfigured suffix that the air raid has attached to the scenic landscape of Nuremberg. Looking at such a tragic trajectory Sebald in After Nature anticipates the possible consequences.
His anticipatory apocalypse gets well-articulated in his statement that borders on a dystopic prophecy, “In the future death lies at our feet” (84). In the vicious geopolitics of the modern predatory power-seekers nature found itself in the position of a prey. Nature in Nuremberg experienced a demonic example of human mechanical notoriety. The human diabolism deformed nature. Machine surprised nature with its invasive intervention. The human conceit enslaved science to enlarge the degree of devastation to immeasurable amplitude. This paper therefore intends to explore the destructive dimensions embedded in the human capacity for invention and innovation captured through the literary lens of Sebald. Moreover, this paper begins with a diachronic study of the western ecological thinking determined by the Biblical prescription of anthropological dominance over nature, the Enlightenment philosophy of instrumental rationality and the mathematically configured mechanistic logic of modern science. The thesis that this paper attempts to establish is that the Nuremberg technological massacre on nature is a product of the dominating streak embedded in the western ecological thinking. The snowball effect of anthropological dominance over nature found its most aggressive manifestation in Nuremberg in particular and the Second World War in general. Therefore, before venturing into the specifics of Sebald’s After Nature and his argument of disproportionate devastation of nature owing to war interventionism, it seems pertinent to examine the genealogy of western ecological thinking which precipitated the large scale damage on nature during the Second World War.
Modernity and Nature
The urgency for modernity and the concomitant desire for territorial expansionism and political supremacy have made nature suffer extensively. The human progress happens in nature not outside it. There is nothing called outside. Beyond nature human civilization is impossible. In fact there is nothing human beyond the boundary of nature. Nature is the embryonic envelop in which the human civilization comfortably advances. In other wards, it is both the shell and the substance. The human blindness to the above facts of nature seems to have turned them astray. In the name of progress the gradual destruction of nature is legitimized. The gaze that is thrown upon nature is very objective in nature. Profit is its core aspiration. The human oblivion towards the realities of nature has put nature in the most hazardous conditions. Time and again with human development nature has received the maximum hit. The human disfavor towards nature suggests degeneration. Such a dangerous adventurism does not need to be condoned for the sake of the grand bandwagon of being modern. The triumph of technology should not be exhibited in the domain of nature or at the cost of nature. There persists a grand illusion that wilderness is nature’s habitat. The human civilization has a distinct existence apart from nature and outside nature. They seem to have become oblivious of the fact that not only the wilderness is a constituent of nature but also the human civilization. The human civilization is cultural evolution in nature.
Nature’s infinite patience is taken to be its helplessness. With the maniacal advance of modernity and the corresponding technological notoriety, nature has experienced the unregulated and irrational human atrocity. In the Nuremberg episode, modernity, an aspect of human history, manifested its violent visage against nature as it treated the latter as a theatre for experiments and explorations Bringing nature to laboratories and conducting insane experiments seems to be the trends adopted in the post-Enligtenment period. The pursuit of similar trends and beyond with competitive rigour and more scientifically sophisticated manner finds its dramatic surge in the contemporary time. Here the nature contra human position is not argued. The scientific methods and its unregulated and in conscientious deployment in nature to maximize human achievements seem to have exacerbated nature-human cohesiveness. The distance between the two never proved healthy for none. The myth of success by using or bruising nature seems to have misled humanity towards its annihilation. The anthropological triumphalism over nature is modern delirium. In Dialectic of Enlightenment, Theodor Adorno argues, “Enlightenment understood in the wider sense as the advance of thought, has always aimed at liberating human beings from fear and installing them as masters. Yet the wholly enlightened earth is radiant with triumphant calamity” (1). Europe, the self-declared rational master of the globe and its aspiration to colonise the latter by whatever means is a product of Enlightenment tutelage. The liberated race became the master race and legitimized its rational superiority. Adorno and Max Herkimer criticized these dialectical tendencies of the Enlightenment. The birth of modern science corroborated with the European domination of the globe. Therefore, the progressive decline of the importance of nature in human scheme of things traces its genesis to the development of the scientific doctrine of rationalism during the Enlightenment period
Heidegger and Technology
Much of Martin Heidegger’s Question Concerning Technology is a product of his deep understanding of the time. Being a modern philosopher, modern history helps him to construct many of his philosophical concepts. Technology offers tools to penetrate the depth of nature. Heidegger strongly claims that the technological method of revealing the nature of nature is partial and impoverished. This monstrous method increases the possibility of ‘devastation of the earth’. What Sebald witnesses in Nuremberg is Heidegger’s precise suggestion of the devastation when technology replaces the organic human interaction with nature. To substantiate this theoretical argument Sebald’s take on technology needs to be mentioned, “Cities phosphorescent on the riverbank, industry’s glowing piles waiting beneath the smoke trails like ocean giants for the siren’s blare, the twitching lights of rail and motorways, the murmur of the manifold proliferating molluses, woodlice and leeches, the cold putrefaction, the groan in the rocky ribs, the mercury shine, the clouds that chased through the towers of Frankfurt, time stretched out and time speeded up, all this raced through my mind and was already so near the end that every breath of made my face shudder” (112-13). This is what is the visage of the modern city of Frankfurt. Industry paints the city with soot and smoke. Much of contemporary distress as understood by Heidegger is a matter of alarming ascendancy of faith in technology. He wrote “Everywhere we remain unfree and chained to technology, whether we passionately affirm or deny it” (4). The overwhelming pervasiveness of technology, and the contemporary vigour that informs it, dwindles the importance of the fundamental and essential human conception of nature . Here the fundamental difference between tool and technology needs to be highlighted. Tool pertains to the useful equipment which facilitates the daily human activity.
The daily human activity constitutes human interaction with nature. The basic human ends and needs are fulfilled because of the daily human interaction with nature. For instance a piece of plough, it is made of timber. For the production of one tool many tools are used efficiently by the skillful hands of a few artisans. These tools are used to produce something for human consumption from nature. Tools stand between human and nature. Tools evolve human beings from state of nature to culture or from the stage of raw to the cooked. But the tool-human-nature symbiosis got ruptured owing to the intervention of technology. A tool can be a piece of technology but technology is not just a tool. It is beyond the features and functionalities of a tool. Technology, as Heidegger understood and in the modern parlance, is a sophisticated method or a piece of mechanistic engineering which is used in order to disturb peace of nature. For instance, mining technology is not just a tool but a whole set of apparatus to disembowel the earth causing extreme unease to the structure of the earth. Tools facilitate human efforts to interact with nature in order to make a living. But technology on the contrary reveals the nature of nature by applying force. This application of force is a form of violence. That disturbs the organic human interaction with nature. Here begins domination. Heidegger quite rightly mentioned in his “The origin of Work of Art” that the nature of nature is to conceal. In the Second World War it became obvious how nature was used against inflicting injury upon nature. The argument that is foregrounded here is that of the in-conscientious use of technology primarily in the 20th century to wreak havoc on nature. The European expansionist aspiration and the schizophrenic redefinition of nation-state along the line of racial uniformity bound technology to obtain these ends.
Heidegger suggests that technology not only alters the organic and primordial human conception of nature but also makes human beings oblivious of the fact of the existence of such a conception in human history. The temporal break from the organic civilization towards the technological one may have started when the rational and scientific world view promoted by the Enlightenment became convincingly the cardinal civilizational ethos in Europe. Therefore, to counter such a mechanistic and methodical conception of reality there emerged the romantic reactionary thinking. If that organic bonding with nature had not ruptured, another retaliatory epistemic movement would not have emerged. Much of modern derangement springs from this forgetfulness. This oblivion destroys the intimate human companionship with nature.In Heidegger’s view in Being and Time, the question of meaning of being is forgotten by the western philosophical tradition, and also it has forgotten the fact of forgetting, “... the question of the meaning of being was not only unresolved, not only inadequately formulated,but in spite of all interest in "metaphysics" has even been forgotten” (19). The same oblivion of the importance of syncretic nature-human relation seems to have fallen upon the technologically empowered humanity. As conceived by Heidegger, the asymmetry that the intervention of technology causes poses the supreme danger to the prevalent symbiotic structure of the nature-human relations. This technological conception of nature is derivative and secondary which further complicates the prevalent primordial perception of nature and facilitates faster forgetting. The transition in the human thinking from the organic to the technological seems to have occurred because of the triumphalistic tendencies of science and technology. Modern technology offered the most surprising results. It enhanced human comfort. It reduced human efforts. The ease with which it functions and the comforts that it provides, though at a certain cost, attracts human attention.
The instrumental conception of technology engages technology as a means to an end. The increasing circulation of the instrumental notion of technology coinciding with the outbreak of the Second World War seems to have replaced the anthropological definition of technology. Technology as a human activity and not just a means to achieve some utilitarian or malicious ends seems to have lost its conceptual and empirical relevance. It sounds more alarming that the technology serves as the medium to encourage the will to mastery. Therefore, Heidegger points out, “The will to mastery becomes all the more urgent the more technology threatens to slip from human control” (5). The deployment of technology and its instrumental makeover during the Second World War serve the human will to mastery. . Heidegger concludes the essay with a great deal of optimism obtained from the prophetic pronouncement of Hölderlin, who wrote in “Patmos”, “But where danger is, grows the saving power also” (54). The optimism of Heidegger as enshrined in the concluding passage of his essay “Question Concerning Technology” is not Sebald’s reality, “The closer we come to the danger, the more brightly do the ways into the saving power begin to shine and the more questioning we become. For questioning is the piety of thought” (35). Sebald does not emphasise on the recovery aspect in the post-disaster temporality. He demonstrates the finality of loss. This sense of finality is well explained in his statement, “In the future death lies at our feet” (84). The ‘piety of thought’ as a consolatory conclusion or a mystical compensation for Heidegger does not corroborate with Sebald’s line of narrative demonstration. For Sebald, Dresden is disfigured. The English technological prowess has left its sinister imprint on the landscape of Dresden which can never be recovered. Its beauty is reduced to memory. Therefore, Sebald makes it evident in his statement, “...Dresden, of whose beauty his memory...” (85).
The notion of the world as material substance meant to aid and advance human activity is precisely, in Heidegger’s understanding, a teleological assumption. Nothing in nature exists without a purpose. Existence implies purpose in the teleological sense of things. Therefore, in the same logic, nature has purpose. It is, as it is commonly understood, to serve and sustain the species. The human species being the superior to all other entertains this misconception that nature serves the human. Such an assumption supersedes the primordial and organic consciousness of the world. The human instrumental reason that promotes the above assumption replaces the human intuitive anchorage with nature. But with this replacement there occurs the human self-divorce from the biotic unity with nature. The technological perception equimentalises nature and applies utilitarian gaze into it. Nature is defined by its use value not by the life-giving potentiality and actuality that it naturally is.
Cartesian Mechanistic Naturalism
The modern positioning of nature as mere commodity destroys the human-nature balance. In the absence of that indispensable balance the human-nature relation suffers. The Nuremberg incident is the most violent demonstration of this altered attitude towards the human relation with nature. The diabolic exhibition of technological terror in the skies of Nuremberg defines the British technological ego and the retaliatory rampage against the Duetsche air raid in England. In this section an attempt is made to study the Cartesian rational philosophy which develops a rational ecosystem. This rational ecosystem stands in opposition to nature. It promotes rational individualism. Nature therefore seems conquerable by application of human reason. The Enlightenment epistemological foregrounding of supremacy of human reason seems to have offered the necessary stimulus for the emergence of modern mechanistic science. It is therefore argued here that Nuremberg technological notoriety seems to be the effect of Cartesian rationalist absolutism and rational individualism. Such a massacre was committed with impunity and without hurting the collective moral architecture of Europe. Therefore, it leaves enough space for retrospection as to why such a massacre happened. It not only happened once but continues to happen. It seems there is no end to it. The trail of terror and the production of the resources of terror find no moral boundary in Europe.
The absence of moral scruple or ethical compunction against the mindless application of technology to wreak havoc is presumed to have its origin in the Cartesian dialectical thinking. The European civilization owes substantially its epistemological inheritance to the Cartesian model of thinking. Therefore, Nuremberg tragedy reflects the European commitment to the Cartesian rationalist paradigm. This attitude is a consequence of the human acceptance of the indifferent modern Cartesian conception of nature which militates against the primordial Greek conception of nature as ‘self-blossoming’ physis. The divorce from the Greek conception of nature which emphasizes on the human essential relation with nature deranges humanity to objectify nature for pure profit. Nature is taken to be the storehouse of profit. It is through the application of technology more profit can be made. The human greed for more and more destroys nature. The irrational and insensitive adherence to the Cartesian thinking in modern times engages human beings to introduce machines in order to confront nature and if needed to destroy it. The Cartesian foregrounding of reason and doubt seems to have deconstructed the theory of divine inherence in nature. The process of objectification of nature corroborates with the human alienation from the organic unity with nature. The technological massacre in Nuremberg is a mere miniature in comparison to the mammoth in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The notion of objectified Cartesian construction of nature leaves no apprehension or remorse to stop the injury doggedly inflicted upon nature. The human aspiration for disclosing the untouched depth of nature happens to have been the cause for the invention of technology.
However, here no attempt is made to question the historical and epistemological importance of Cartesianism. It is in fact a monumental milestone in the evolution of the European critical thinking. It is arguably the most formidable intellectual tradition that has given rise to many socio-political and philosophical theories. But what seems problematic here is that of the Cartesian claim of the absolutism of reason and rational paradigms. That which is humanly impossible is made possible through the sinister machine. The human intelligence invents technology that is precise and clinical and rigorous to percolate the anonymous interiority of nature. With the relative success of technology the human monstrosity seems to have been heaped upon nature in order to multiply their gain. Nuremberg is just one such tragic case of technological terror. The world has seen many more technological assault from the beginning of the 20th century. The human instinctual need for violence received more sophistication and depth with technology. The technology here pertains to the weaponry which holds potentiality for massive and mass destruction. A retrospective look at the 20th century offers enough demonstration of human monstrosity with the aid of technology. The trail of that monstrosity seemingly gains prominence in the contemporary time too. And technology has also evolved into extremely precise and more sophisticated stage. Sebald disturbed by the fact of human predilection for violence downpours his disappointment in the line, “What is this being called human? A beast, shrouded on deep mourning, in a black coat lined with black fur” (57).
The mysterious process of physis which made the ‘blossoming forth’ possible becomes progressively redundant because of the introduction of technology and the Cartesian tools. The radical methodological change that René Descartes employed to understand nature seems to have metamorphosed the very existing approaches to study nature. For Descartes there is nothing that we know without doubt. So, it is doubt that makes us know what we know. The existing approaches to nature are doubted. With Descartes and Bacon the mechanistic and scientific naturalism as the system of approaching nature is not only introduced but also is reincarnated in the subsequent centuries of studying nature. The Baconian dictum ‘knowledge is power’ seems to have applied on nature to know its processes and programmes in order to control and use it. The objective empirical science strives to disclose nature not just for the human desire for knowing in the Aristotelian sense but to use as and when needed. The modern mechanical science is characterized by its instrumental value. It does not search for truth. It accumulates knowledge. With the unbridled advancement of technology, the green cover on the earth is reduced to the wastelands of industrial and concrete districts. The uncontrolled atrocity of technology on nature has dimmed down its beauty and exuberance. Technology guarantees nature’s subservience to science. Therefore, much of modern decadence and human degeneration seem to have happened due to the contemporary vigour and flair for technology. Technology does not blossom forth as does a phenomenon of nature in the domain of nature. In the field of nature, the events of nature blossom forth. Nature does not act compulsively. There is inherence of design which governs the events of nature. Nature does not have design. It itself is that design. Spontaneity is nature’s nature. It does not have that subject-object taxonomy. It is what it is. A rose blossom because it blossoms. It knows no why and no because. It is its nature to blossom.
But in the domain of science there are many causes and ‘becauses’. Science is not governed by the character of spontaneity. There is always a human design involved in it. There has to have a hypothesis or a problem. In the absence of a hypothesis or problem, science loses its mileage to move. Nature does not involve itself in hypothesis-making or problem-solving pursuits. Things happen in nature as they happen. There is no normative prefix or suffix attached to it. But the domain of science stands completely contrary to nature. Science is a study of nature to know nature’s nature. By virtue of the knowledge of nature’s nature, the forces of nature are used for human development. Science offers methods to use the vast field of forces that is nature. But forces of nature can only used by sheer obedience to the nature of those forces. For instance, constructing a dam across a river requires the construction of outlets to allow the force of water to pass when in excess. This urgency of obedience seems to have been forgotten. The technology-driven civilization seems to have accepted this misconception that by the deployment of technology nature can be tamed. The over-emphasis on modern pragmatism diminishes the significance of human reverential perception of nature. With the popularity of modern instrumental science, the scientific and the natural fail to complement each other. They stand contrary to each other. Not complementarity but contradiction becomes the underlying reality of their relation. A pure instrumental and technological gaze is thrown at nature. It is a kind of gaze that hides the will to power.
The essential and theoretical underpinnings of the scientific and the natural militate against each other. The former is determined to reveal whereas the latter seeks to hide. Much of human awe and indebtedness towards the vastness and variety of nature by virtue of commonsense and convention seem to have mitigated with the universality of the scientific view of nature. The deep human attachment with nature as one integrated and organic unity gets radically replaced by the objectified supposition of nature and the detached spectatorship of nature reducing it to tourism, and adventure. The concretized and technologized contemporary civilization has pushed nature to the margins of city boundaries or even further. Visiting nature seems to be a contemporary pastime. Here nature is understood as rivers, mountains, seas etc.. It stays away from the city-dwellers. Those places of nature have been highly commercialized. Commercial interests have also destroyed the beautiful scenic grandeur of those places. The tired city-dwellers make seasonal tours to the hill stations or sea-side beaches. Nature- human companionship is intersected by commercial considerations.
Science and Instrumental Rationality
Science is indubitably indispensable for the rational development of human history but not the science that dominates. For a syncretic civilization attention must be given towards the preservation of biodiversity and respect for nature is a minimum necessity. The modern tendency to proliferate the likes of Nuremberg would reduce human civilization to empty burial fields. What seems to be advancement in modern human history with the success of science may prove in the long run a mere human regression. Through the monstrous means human history would never move towards a safe future. It would move, as it inevitably moves, with apprehension and pretension. A pretentious advancement, which is otherwise called the metonymy of success in the modern idiom, seems to be a necessary signifier for the movement towards a technological tragedy. The Cartesian scientific picture of nature deludes humanity to nurture an imagination of nature being controlled, noosed and triumphed over. But to develop trust in that awkward imaginative conception of nature peddled by science would be a disastrous decision for the human beings ever to take. Its consequence would require the Herculean energy to bear the burdens of human miscalculation.
The ‘revealing’ that is done by technology, as Heidegger suggests in Question Concerning Technology, is of a partial kind. Technology cannot reveal the being of nature. It is a set of structures and each has certain specific function to perform. They may merely scratch the surface but do not have that infinite potentiality to disclose the depth of nature. Technology seems to have disclosed certain aspects of nature which remained unknown to the pre-technological people. The term ‘pre-technological’ is perhaps not the right expression because the person who invented wheel is as much an engineer as his modern counterpart. Therefore, Levi Strauss in Structural Anthropology writes, “… man has always been thinking equally well; …” (31) The terms such as ‘pre-modern, pre-scientific’, ‘pre-technological’ and ‘pre-logical’ are the coinages made by the moderns to declare their superiority over the ancients. But such categorizations or nomenclatures are absolutely reductionist. Such reductionism is not the outcome of a proper evaluation but mere conjectures.
To give credit to science for inventing the most sophisticated tools to reveal the essence of nature seems to be a dangerous move. Science is a human attempt through tools and clinical observations to understand nature. But to consider this attempt a potential instance of human victory over nature is pure puerility. To take this fallacy for truth and to resort to blind experiments on nature based on this truism engenders sinister consequences. Such a scientific reality seems to be the mood of time. The modern scientific tendency towards the objectification of nature creates the Nuremberg situations. Nuremberg is the consequence of the human acceptance of the objectified view of nature. The scientific advance into the depth of nature seems to have tampered the ethical or spiritual content of nature. In the absence of the ethical and mystical underpinning in the world of nature, nature gets isolated and reduced to mere physical reality. The technological triumphalism is the outcome of human abstinence from the perennial perception of nature as the manifested divinity. Not only such a perception has been compromised but also there is seen alienation in the human symbiotic relation with nature. This alienation springs from the forgetfulness of the organic human-nature unity as one totality. Human beings as microcosm are a micro reality of the greater reality that is nature. Owing to the increasing human reliance upon the instrumental rationality, the human beings have gradually alienated themselves from the constitutive and integrated nature-human perennial self. The oneness with nature seems to have ceased to exist. The syncretism does not work anymore as the increasing distance between them seems unbridgeable. Human beings are inseparable from nature because they are one necessary aspect of nature and not necessarily the most exclusive. The sense of exclusivity springs from the fact of human forgetfulness of the inevitable unity.
Nuremburg: Its Final Cry
The increasing adherence to the instrumental nature of human rationality seems to have disturbed the constitutive oneness with nature. In the absence of that primordial bonding and creative anchorage between nature and human beings, the crisis becomes evidently visible. Nuremberg happened owing to the human refusal of the significance and indispensability of that bond. Nuremberg is the expression of human separation from the benediction of and federation with nature. Looking at such a tragic trajectory of human greed and uncalled for adventurism Sebald perceives of an impending disaster, “In the future death lies at our feet…” (84). The contemporary humanity deluded by the sheer technological power breaks the limit.
Sebald describes the city of Dresden whose unparalleled natural beauty attracted many. The exciting curvature of Elbe River and its scenic mountains and forts and the grandeur of nature experienced a shocking devastation by the British Air Force in order to weaken the neurotic advance of Hitler. The unstoppable militaristic juggernaut of Hitler brought disaster to his nation. The British retaliatory action against Hitler hit Nuremberg until its last cry. Nature suffered irreparably in the clash of egos between Churchill and Hitler. The British sinister exhibition of its technological prowess in terms of causing massive decimation in Dresden cautioned the world of its technological superiority. In other words, to prove itself as technologically powerful England used the opportunity provided by Hitler. The most primitive human proclivity for power struggle was thus realized, and nature, Sebald notes, received the brunt of this. The underlying parody of the ego battle was indicative of human ignorance. The competitive exhibitionism destroyed nature.
The need for a protective attention towards nature was forgotten. With the technological sophistication the ethical urgency towards a syncretic existence was neglected. Much of modern competition for being technologically superior seems to have promoted the human aspiration towards producing, procuring and proliferating weapons of mass destruction. In the name of civilizational growth, nature is destroyed. The human technological creativity is invested towards making preparation for destruction. Nuremberg is the expression of such a consistent human preparedness to pour terror if provoked. Therefore, Sebald seems shocked by the greyness of the sky and its expansive visibility and writes, “… this sky so grey? So unremittingly grey and so low, as no sky I have seen before” (109-110). For Sebald’s father who left Dresden on 7th August 1943, the exuberant city with its breath-taking and picturesque natural envelop remained just a memory or a dream. The following day of his departure the city seemed skeletal and was reduced to swirling smoke, charred stumps, and the human cries. Such an infernal appearance of the city was being technologically painted by the British imperial ego and Hitler’s obsession for absolutism. Both Hitler and Churchill employed technology to destroy each other. In the battle between a neurotic and a maverick, nature got crushed. Sebald, therefore, rightly suggests in After Nature that after nature is death. Without the immediate reparatory or restorative attention towards nature, nothing can avert destruction.
Sebald refers to the painting of Altdorfer which hangs against the wall in the Vienna art historical museum. It expresses the image of the burning city. The painting attempts a pictorial depiction of the burning city:
On the horizon a terrible conflagration blazes, devouring a large city. Smoke ascends from the site, the flames rise to the sky and in the blood-red reflection one sees the blackened facades of houses. In the middle ground there is a strip of idyllic green landscape, and closest to the beholder’s eye the new generation of Moabites is conceived. (86)
With the aid of militaristic machine, human beings could expand the length and duration of devastation unimaginable in human terms and capacities. The destructive streak ingrained in human instinct seems to have reincarnated in modern times under the auspices of technology. The new-found trust in technology seems to have restrained human beings not to rely on dialogues to resolve conflict but to resort unconscientiously to the instrumental intimidation. This modern method of conflict resolution victimizes nature.
Churchill found the retaliatory air raid against Hitler appropriate. Nature therefore suffered the most. The military confrontations during the Second World War bruised nature pitilessly. The decision to drop atomic bomb and the subsequent execution of the same devastated nature though it was directed against the Japanese people and Japanese imperial ambition. But nature was crushed in the crossfire of history. The methods of conflict resolution always inflicted injury on nature. The moderns weaken the protective gear of nature in order to prove their technological heroism. This kind of accomplishment invites danger not only to nature but paradoxically to them. The underlying contradiction of such deluded heroism is that human beings do not realize that harming nature is equal to harming themselves. Ironically it is an attempt to break the foundation on which one stands with solidity. The human race cannot exist outside the protective envelop of nature. The Nuremberg incident is therefore the triumph of human ignorance.
Human creativity is not engaged in inventing the constructive procedures of peace or enduring possibilities of arriving at the mature and permanent mutual agreements through open-hearted discussions. Such time-tested methods of resolving human conflict is substituted by the silent preparation for destruction of enemy territory and people through the manufacture of lethal weapons. The uncanny aspects of modern modalities of addressing the human conflict emerge inarguably out of the persuasiveness towards war and destruction. At Nuremberg humanity experienced the similar human predilection for extermination. The unscrupulous application of scientific and instrumental rationality on nature in order to be a part of modernising venture seems to have invited more trouble for nature. The earth, the only planetary home where life exists is perennially characterized by fullness, profusion and variety. But the asymmetry that we see today on the earth is caused by the human greed. The desire for accumulating more beyond the human needs and the tendency to prove the human and national superiority seem to have decimated the balance in the biosphere. The ecological crisis that we experience today seems to have been engendered by the technologically fanatic and exploitative experiments. The schizophrenic situations that humanity has arrived at by seriously abusing nature beyond the tolerable limit is owing to the utter disregard towards nature. Paradoxically such a human adventurism seems to have ruined the home that shelters. To break the house that shelters is to expose oneself to the known as well as the anonymous dangers. If this be called progress, it is mere reverie. By breaking the eco-system that protects, no progress of any sort can be attained. The awakening from the arrogance of ignorance should not be deferred. The speed with which the disintegrating mechanism is at work, it is not that far to witness the retaliation from nature. Ecological awareness need to be dawned upon the humanity before the ongoing technological damage reaches the irreparable height.
To diagnose the underlying causes that altered the human perception and treatment of nature is to arrive at certitude that the objectifying and deductive methodologies of modernity seem to have imparted enough confidence to alter the perennial ethical imperatives embedded in the world of nature. This ethical clearance helped science to hurl assault on nature. The anthropological invasion into the domain of nature aided by the instrumental rationality seems to have disturbed the balance in the biosphere. The growing acceptance of the objectified view of nature promoted by modernism may have ensured the shift of perception and understanding of nature. The Nuremberg technological pogrom appears to have engendered from that obsessive adherence to the doctrines of modernism. The contemporary ecological crisis is anthropogenic in nature. The Nuremberg massacre of the human civilization and nature is a not a feat orchestrated by any supernatural agency. It is a deliberate and organized human misconduct. The intent is apparent. It is to dominate. Much of western attitude towards nature is conditioned by the Biblical command to dominate and to multiply as enshrined in the Book of Genesis. The western ethos is much influenced by this theological injunction which is overtly anti-nature. In the western thinking asymmetry in the eco-system is theologically sanctioned. Such a theological permissiveness seems to have abandoned nature as mere protective envelop designed to serve the higher species. Therefore, the Semitic or Abrahamic religions scarcely promote nature worship. Animism is heresy. The monotheistic faiths of the Abrahamic parentage hardly sanctify the cultural viability of animism. Therefore, the pre-Judeo-Christian faith systems are looked down upon and declared primitive. Such an underlying theological normative principle seems to have determined the western thinking. The Cartesian doubt and the nihilistic streak of modernism are the effect of prolonged association with such a structure of thinking. The ruthless and systematic assault on nature by modern science does not surprise them as their theology proscribes the possibility of divine immanence in nature. The Nuremberg tragedy seems to be just the fulfillment of the Biblical injunction.
The clinical rigour with which modern science advances into the domain of nature makes it evident that the underlying impetus behind such a reckless advance is nonetheless the western thinking. The monotheistic belief in the transcendental world neglects the phenomenal world. The western mind due to its firm anchorage in the theological doctrines seems to have treated nature inferior in comparison to the superiority of the transcendental home. The Platonism embedded in the Christian theology appears to have transformed the western thinking towards transcendentalism. The ecological woe that we experience today is a result of the consistent attempt made by the western scientific tradition to demystify nature. The modernism of the west, which is so characteristically scientific, has given rise to three distinctive principles, which add woe to nature, as suggested by Joshtrom Isaac Kureethadam in The Philosophical Roots of the Ecological Crisis – ‘an exaggerated anthropocentrism’, ‘a mechanistic conception of the world’ and ‘the metaphysical dualism between humanity and the rest of the physical world’. (5) Such tripartite foundations of modernism seem to have impacted adversely the ecology.
The Modern Anthropocentrism
The modern anthropocentrism, which prioritizes the subject, relegates nature to secondary position. It establishes the notion of nature as the physical and objectified other. In the process of othering the human beings have alienated themselves notionally from their physical environment. To arrive at scientific certitude, reason is the tool. In the process the human cerebral function is instrumentalised. In the Cartesian system this aspect of human constitution is declared superior. It becomes the engine of human system. And it is declared to be the most essential and indispensable. In its absence the human system is reduced to mere bestiality. The Cartesian identification of subject on the matrix of rationality may have promoted the dualism between mind and matter. The Cartesian assumption of exploring the unexplored depth of nature through reason appears to have given the latter the instrumental character. Such a philosophical assumption seems to have encouraged asymmetry in the human approach and association of things and events in the world of nature. With the renewed conceptualization of the world of nature much human sagacity with nature has been lost. The use of mechanical modalities to study nature seems to have been encouraged.
The mechanistic worldview peddled by the western model of modernism practices reductionism. It reduces nature to mere physical phenomenon and the field and object of experiments. Descartes, being the precursor of such a world view in the field of philosophy and much of his philosophical precepts and mathematical deductions are absorbed in the early science, seems to have removed the immanence of the intrinsic teleology from matter. In the absence of the teleological inherence, matter becomes inert. The western science embodies certain methodological and conceptual characteristics from the Cartesian epistemology. The extension of disenchanted and instrumental notion of nature designed for human consumption demystifies nature and promotes inattentiveness towards the essential nature of nature. Animism is replaced by mechanism.
The shadow of Descartes extends from the early modern period to the high modern and pervades the contemporary outlook towards nature. The deliberate and the ever-increasing human divorce from the organic nature-human continuum may have been inspired by the increasing allegiance to the Cartesian theoretical and mechanistic knowledge system. The ramifications of such Cartesian theoretical postulations around the nature of nature are felt in the contemporary time in the form of Nuremberg tragedy. The extent of exploitation has crossed the bearable limit in the recent times. The human innovation and progress has happened resorting to savage brutality on nature. In the absence of any immediate retaliatory response from nature seems to have encouraged the experimenters to maximize the extent of exploitation. This kind of human naivety with regard to the consequent repercussions of dangerous experiments may prove lethal in the long run. .The infinite patience of nature need not be confused as nature’s passivity. No act of human cognition can determine the nature of nature. All that human deductionisms are mere assumptions. No speculative theory is exhaustive and true.
The exploitative and aggressive human parading into the depth of nature in order to exercise human hubris seems to have been materialized at the cost of causing injury to nature. The theological and Cartesian license and scientific motivation to objectify nature have steered humanity towards derangement by imposing the cleavage between the pre-Christian notion of nature and the scientific notion. The Biblical injunction of human domination over other species and the subsequent corroborative philosophical and scientific rejoinder to the exploitative promotional has resulted in the most horrendous human savagery on nature. In the Book of Genesis (KJV) 1:26 it is written as the revealed voice of God, “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” In 1:28 of the Book of Genesis the anthropocentric ascendancy over nature is reiterated, “And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” This divine sanctification of human dominance over other nature appears to have influenced the modern science. The European ecological psychology seems to have been determined by the theological permissiveness of dominance.
Nuremberg is one such story that caught Sebald’s attention. The modern delusion that centralizes human subject and reason over and above other considerations has pushed nature to the margins of negligence and unimportance. With the birth of modern subject, that is scientific and rational, nature is subjugated and delinked. The significance that it had had in the human scheme of things seems to have lost. It is no more that inevitable other not to be dispensed with but the other to be utilized in order to fulfill human needs. Reason is inarguably the most indispensable aspect of human cognitive field, but its diabolism and insensitivity emanate from the human over-indulgence in its embedded instrumental characteristic.
Sebald therefore tries to show the devastation that Nuremberg experienced owing to the ego-battle to prove the territorial or national superiority over the competing and rival nations. What Churchill did to Germany was proportionately responded with the similar scale of violence by Hitler upon England. In the ego-clash between the two enemy nations nature had to bear the brunt. They spewed their venom on nature. The technological rampage into nature was brutally conducted with impunity. The patient and silent nature experienced its own paralysis owing to this atrociously unethical and unnecessary technological invasion. The narrow and limited territorial nationalism failed to acknowledge the importance of the grace of nature for human existence. With the modern definition of territory or nation-state boundaries there emerged the will to expansion and annexation through force and control. The virtue of oneness of nature and with nature was forgotten. The meaningless territorial battles were fought. The massive manufacturing industries for producing arms and ammunitions were established in order to confirm human superiority. But paradoxically, from a vantage point and through a neutral lens all these petty human efforts to exercise the will to power through destruction appear to be pure human travesty and the primitivism of the so called enlightened. Therefore, the Nuremberg tragedy was a consequence of the absence of the ethical underpinning in the structure of the human-nature relation. The ethical undercurrent is not only absent but tragically its need is forgotten. The human myopia not to acknowledge the necessity of that ethical deep structure in the nature-human relation seems to have encouraged the Nuremberg tragedy.
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