James Reich on Existential Fiction and the Imprint of Nature

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In addition to my work as a novelist, my field is ecopsychology. Ecopsychology is concerned with the repression of what biologist E. O. Wilson termed biophilia, or our innate affinity with our biosphere, with nature. I work with specific attention to the formations of psyche/place, the repression of this relationship with(in) nature, and its irruptions into consciousness in literature and culture in general. Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a spectacular example of such repression and its dynamics. Alienation from nature, extinction of species, loss of biosphere, and the mourning of biophilia leaves all of its characters pathological. It is the absence of biophilia that betrays an android. The abjection of nature and its uncanny turn or return present an existential crisis.

In an ecopsychological analysis, it is not quite ‘alone’ that Meursault kills the Arab in Albert Camus’ L’Étranger. The borrowed revolver is fired in conspiracy with the cosmic landscape of the Algerian beach, at the insistence of the sun. In a different setting, I think of the psychotic Daniel Paul Schreber who believed that the spectral, even sentient rays of the sun “forced my nerves to perform the movements corresponding.” Meursault is not so mad nor cosmically inclined as Schreber, but the intervention of nature is similar enough.

I call this Algerian beach landscape ‘cosmic’ after Christian Norberg-Schultz’s definition in Genius Loci: Towards a Phenomenology of Architecture, and his identification, however imperfect, of cosmic, romantic, and classical landscapes. Each has its genius loci, or spirit of place. The cosmic landscape of desert or shoreline, of sand, rocks, and sun is one of existential exposure. Schultz makes the point that the murderer in L’Étranger misses:

“The two psychological functions involved may be called ‘orientation’ and ‘identification.’ To gain an existential foothold man has to be able to orientate himself; he has to know where he is. But he also has to identify himself with the environment, that is, he has to know how he is a certain place.”

Briefly, before the killing, Camus suggests that Meursault might escape his fate by ascending the wooden steps to his comrade Raymond’s bungalow and to the town, but he does not. For, to climb the steps would be to capitulate to mourning his mother’s death. Grief is not beneath Meursault; it is merely that he does not rise to it. He weighs it: “To stay or to go, it amounted to the same thing.” And so it is, having made that error of judgment, that he returns indifferently, unconsciously to the crucible of the shoreline, the sand, rocks, the terrible sun, and his fatal encounter with the Arab.

Our presence within nature, as part of our environment and its formation, means that there is no character formation distinct from it.

In “The Baptism of Solitude,” Paul Bowles describes the encounter with the cosmic landscape of the Sahara:

“Here, in this wholly mineral landscape lighted by stars like flares, even memory disappears; nothing is left but your own breathing and the sound of your heart beating. A strange, and by no means pleasant, process of reintegration begins inside you, and you have the choice of fighting against it, and insisting on remaining the person you have always been, or letting it take its course. For no one who has stayed in the Sahara for a while is quite the same as when he came.”

In his encounter with the cosmic landscape, Meursault permits it to—in Bowles’ terms—“take its course.” In the process, it may be that Meursault panics, that firing the revolver is his desperate attempt at gaining an existential foothold, to break the sublime influence of the place, of nature. Or it may be that he submits to identification—the French part of his being forever estranged from his Algerian aspect, how he is there by violence. The killing of the Arab is self-annihilating in more than one respect.

In my own fiction, I have been drawn to the desert landscape often. Sometimes it is the blooded sands of New Mexico where I live, and sometimes it is Mars, Egypt, or Palestine, or all of these simultaneously. When we ask, as Bowles did frequently, what can happen to a person who is alien to this place, or how might the people of such a place endure, we are asking about the imprint of nature upon psyche and vice versa, for they are contingent.

Ironically, it is our very estrangement from nature that permits the experience of the sublime, which is also Bowles’ “strange, and by no means pleasant, process of reintegration.” Reintegration being the vital word. In his 1757 treatise A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful Edmund Burke wrote: “The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is Astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all motions are suspended, with some degree of horror.” Burke goes on, in his Section XIV on Light, to anticipate something of Meursault’s predicament, noting “such a light as the sun, immediately exerted on the eye, as it overpowers the sense, is a very great idea.”

Romanticism was, in large part, an acknowledgement of the effects of alienation from nature, or the return of repressed, now unconscious ecological material. Many of its towering moments—and here one thinks of the evocations of Wordsworth and Mary Shelley—involve the kind of shock and awe encounters with nature that are only possible under conditions of estrangement and reintegration. Frankenstein is distinctly Burkean and explicit and lavish in its alignments of the natural environment and emotional affect.

As much as Frankenstein projects his human pathos upon the glaciers and into the rain, we understand the reciprocal force of “the awful and majestic in nature…solemnizing [his] mind.” We understand it because the evolution of emotional affect occurred within primordial nature and not distinct from it. Before psychology occurred in offices and upon couches, it occurred in nature and was informed by it. In the right light, the pathetic fallacy is not so much a maligned literary device, or anthropomorphic conceit, as it is an attempt to reintegrate alienated emotions with their environment, to make sense of contingency.

Existentialism reminds us that being is really being-there. Our presence within nature, as part of our environment and its formation, means that there is no character formation distinct from it. That should be true of fiction, also. That ontology and contingency is what gives L’Etranger its existential force, likewise Bowles, Shelley, and Dick. Neither the sublime nor the genius loci are identified arbitrarily. They emerge from experience and consensus that yes, this or that encounter within nature/psyche is consistently affective. In fiction, as in reality, we dismiss nature at our peril.

For my own part, an Existentialist indebted to Romanticism, in The Moth for the Star, the desert, the glacier, and the city, are psychic realities as much as they are landscapes. I am working always at this process of reintegration.


The Moth for the Star by James Reich is available from 7.13 Books.

James Reich

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