Killing the Beautiful Soul
By Jordan Lee
23rd August 2022
WE LIVE IN an era of organic food, of recycling and electric cars; we routinely purchase our paper straws and applaud when politicians make even the slightest mention of climate policy. Our generation is more ecologically conscious than any generation before and yet never has humanity been more alienated from nature.
Despite this growing disconnection, nature as we know it is a relatively modern conception. The idyllic English landscape, our longing to return to the spiritually pure wilderness, to the beautiful forests and green havens that shelter us from the harsh realities of the industrialised world, are all perceptions of nature birthed by the romantic period. Romanticism, although associated with the 18th and 19th century artistic movement, continues to be the framework within which we view the environment. This mystical, nostalgic relationship we feel towards nature has become a feature of contemporary environmentalism. Nature has been presented as ‘out there,’ as other, seperate from the ‘here’ that is human. We have built an ontological wall between the subject and the object, between humanity and nature, and in doing so synthesising the moral with the sublime. The problem of ecology is now understood as an aesthetic problem, a battle between the pure and the impure. Romanticism has fundamentally changed our perception of nature from a passive assemblage of objects to a cathedral of creative and divine experience. Nature has become ideology.
We have become infected with an attitude of what Hegel calls ‘the beautiful soul.’ The beautiful soul is our judging consciousness, a moral conception that pits one's inner goodness against the ominous external. It is blameless and virtuous in the face of a world that is not. The beautiful soul attempts to cleanse itself from corruption, projecting its own sickness onto the world, whilst remaining disconnected from reality. I use the beautiful soul here not as an accusation, but rather as a self-diagnosis for our modern condition.
It's reality that's evil. I am but a beautiful soul, whose innocence is tarnished by the depravity at which I gaze. But this attitude itself, this beautiful soul is the evil. As Timothy Morton explains the “evil is not just in the eye of the beholder it is the eye of the beholder.” The gaze that sees the world as destructive is in itself destructive. Such pseudo righteousness is the evil in the world it claims to see, and yet the beautiful soul ‘cannot see that the evil that it condemns is intrinsic to its existence,’ for the beautiful soul is trapped in a cycle of its own hypocrisy. So it seems we are left with one of two positions. The infected can either refrain from activity, favouring to witness and condemn the fallibility of others; or callously take up arms, stopping at nothing to vanquish the evil they see. The choice between passivity and terror scarcely resembles a choice at all. Then how do we step forward? How do we embrace the beautiful soul?
Timothy Morton's work brilliantly extends Hegel's beautiful soul, in order to explain the ecological. For Morton the modern understanding of nature remains the romanticism. Nature and philosophy are separated by the beautiful soul. To its detriment, this syndrome has become a defining feature of new wave environmentalism. Contemporary environmental movements often fall victim to this ethical oversimplification. It is often the environmentally conscious among us who are the most guilty of the hollow moralism of beautiful soul syndrome (as a vegan myself, I am all to culpable). But we environmentalists must shed this kind of cost-free moral superiority central to our conceptions of nature. We must learn to care irrespective of our complicity in the crime, to take responsibility for our gaze. If one chooses not to consume meat for the sake of the planet, or if one chooses not to drive so as to limit pollution, then one must do this without consuming the pleasure of looking down on their fellow humans (or non-humans).
The romantic image of nature must be eradicated from ecological thinking. We must embrace that nature is also a dirty, barbaric, twisted slime of shit and bones. The facade that David Attenborough style emotional pornography accurately depict the realities of the environment is precisely the problem facing ecology. Romanticism has been left to bleed into environmentalism, but this wound has cut so deep that a mere bandage will not suffice.
Thus, we must ask ourselves, as Paul Kingsnorth does, “is it possible to see the future as dark and darkening further; to reject false hope and desperate pseudo-optimism without collapsing into despair?” The answer ecology so desperately needs, is yes.
The question then remains how the hell do we do this? One cannot simply wash their hands of the beautiful soul, for this fight is a paradoxical one. If we assume moral superiority from the beautiful soul, if we stomp and spit all over it, then we ourselves become infected with the beautiful soul syndrome we are trying so hard to defeat. Thus, to move beyond the beautiful soul we must accept responsibility and offer forgiveness to the syndrome that haunts us. We have to jump headfirst into our own hypocrisy, towards an ecology that is darker, more ominous and even sinister at times. We are not beautiful souls; our souls are deeply damaged and flawed. We cannot turn away from the ugly side of our existence. We must move towards what Morton has called ‘dark ecology.’
The real challenge comes not from using LED light bulbs or sorting the paper from the plastic (though we all should), the challenge facing us is to demystify nature from a philosophical point of view. We must strive to de-fetishize ecology, by obliterating the false opposition between nature and humanity. Dark ecology requires us to “love the disgusting, inert, and meaningless,” not just the romantic depictions in BBC documentaries.
F COURSE, WE are all hypocrites, but we must learn to be honest with our hypocrisy. Nature is an idea and a pervasive one at that. Like any idea it cannot be detached from the attitudes we hold towards it. Changing the way we act means nothing without first changing the way we think. Let us abandon the ‘green’ fantasies we hold of nature. Ecology is not some remote, stable thing. Ecology is our strange coexistence on this very peculiar planet.
The very refusal to become attuned to the uncertainty and oddity of life (in all its forms) has served to construct the frontier between the human and the non-human, between nature and the unnatural. We must attempt to embrace Morton's dark ecologies, abandoning our tendencies to avoid any familiarity with the strange. There's a peculiar unknowingness to the ecological, and that's ok. Let us embrace it. ‘Instead of whistling in the dark, insisting that we’re part of Gaia, why not stay with the darkness?’