What Victorians Knew Better Than Us Moderns About Nature | Connor Tomlinson
Connor Tomlinson is Policy Director at The British Conservation Alliance; opinion contributor, Young Voices.
One of the few things Karl Marx articulated well was that “history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce” (or was that George Lucas?). At a time when sexual contact is banned between separate house-holds under the sixth most severe lockdown restrictions worldwide, one of few recreational activities British subjects can still legally enjoy is walking in the wilderness. Parallel to appreciation of natural beauty resurging in cultural consciousness, rediscovering prayer is getting Brits through confinement. According to former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, the British government’s COVID response has instigated a “historic spiritual moment”. People need meaning beyond unreliable, partisan political spats in Parliament, where they feel no principle is safe from transgression. Values can only be reliably reflected in one’s family, and in the transcendent meta-personality to be emulated, and be beholden to: God.
This coalescence of legislative tyranny and fortification of spiritual commitments, happened two centuries prior. At a time in which prostitution was cracked down on by the Contagious Diseases Act, Victorian England’s philosophers and theologists attempted to fortify Cartesian body-soul dualism against emerging psychoanalytic, materialist, and socialist critiques. A new school of dogmatic empiricism threw the baby out with bathwater, by conflating pre-scientific scriptures with scientifically verifiable phenomena. Orthodox Christians—instrumental voices in preserving the utility of liberalism’s foundational moral mythology—found their faith preserved in the ways which our senses interact with the natural world.
Vision gained scientific and philosophical significance in post-industrial theological discourse. The eye was the sole organ to which a royal physician was dedicated. Sight was a precondition of individuals gaining ‘liberal subjectivity’: acknowledging their status as autonomous moral actors, by ‘disembedding’ themselves from a ‘viewed world’ of non-sentient objects. The discriminatory value judgement implicit in vision—determining what warrants one’s attention—grants people ‘volition’; and ‘volition’ was the metric by which Victorians deemed societies civilised. Vision, for Victorians, became the ‘sense of phenomenological individuality par excellence’, establishing the eye as something which ‘demonstrated the superiority of human civilization over that of animals and quadrupeds.’
Simply put: “I see, therefore I am”.
The Victorians’ physiological conceptualisation of the mechanics of vision was modelled on another sense: touch. The eyes were thought to be ‘an opening into the body’: a ‘tactile surface’ by which autonomous subjects establish ‘proximate contact’ with the world’s objects. Through a ‘cutaneous rubbing of surfaces’, it was believed objects made ‘impressions’ both physically and psychologically on the subjects observing them.
Herbert Spencer (progenitor of the phrase ‘Survival of the fittest’) stated that eyes are ‘essentially dermal structures’: evolutionary products of the ‘outer layers of skin.’ They act in concert with our other ‘organs of sensation’ to interface with the world of objects, operating in a ‘state of dynamic equilibrium’, ‘midway between inner and outer aspects of being’.
As the organ which establishes reciprocal contact with God’s creation, eyes became ‘a Ruskinian portal to the soul’: a conduit for establishing re-connectivity to the soul scientific inquiry has distanced man from, through observing natural beauty as evidence of intelligent design. John Ruskin urged we observe ‘the beauty of Nature’ with pious sobriety ‘to improve the minds of the populace’, and stated ‘all other efforts in education are futile’ unless one cultivates a ‘love [of] fields, birds, and flowers.’ The dirtiness and population density of urban environments, detailed famously in Dickens’ novels, is given an additional abrasive, claustrophobic dimension by understanding sight as “brushing up against” all objects and persons in proximity. By contrast, the openness of a regenerated British wilderness would be psychosomatically liberating.
But, paradoxically, Ruskin’s appreciation of nature was a product of industrialisation. Nature, predating urbanisation, was ‘wilderness’: where predators lurked in dense underbrush, and the Biblical doctrine of dominion took practical precedence over conservation. UK woodland coverage decreased from ninety percent in 2,000 BCE, to four percent by the nineteenth century. Adopting fossil-fuels enabled global forestry to regenerate, following centuries of depletion by domestic reliance on wood-burning (when 120,000 trees were felled annually). Without coal, there would have been no woodland landscapes for Romantics and Burkean Conservatives to admire as sublime.
These notions of tangible connectivity to one’s environment made the eyes the sensory utility for Christian Victorians’ ratification of dualism. The Gospels cite the eye as ‘the light of the body’, and capable of filling ‘thy whole body’ with the ‘light’ Christ himself is analogised as. Thomas Hardy’s Tess D’Urberville says ‘A very easy way to feel [our souls] is to lie on the grass at night, and look straight up at some big bright star’; mentally transcending your body, ‘which you don’t seem to want at all.’ Even Charles Darwin experienced cognitive dissonance about eyes: thinking it ‘fundamentally improbable’ they were ‘the product of utterly blind evolutionary processes’.
Across the Atlantic, American transcendentalists came to similar philosophical conclusions. Wood declined from providing eighty percent of the United States’ energy in 1860, to below eight percent by 1920. As depicted by Christopher Pearsee Crach, Ralph Waldo Emerson argued one should become a ‘transparent eyeball’: observing this regenerating wilderness’ ‘immortal beauty’ to repeal the ‘mean egotism’ obstructing connectivity to ‘currents of the Universal Being’. Consciousness of self as subject through vision became associated with fulfilling the duty God imposed on man: attentive stewardship of Eden.
This philosophy also informs modern readers as to why Realist description is so extensive in Victorian fiction. In cataloguing all objects by tactile sight, subjects are thoroughly interrogating their environments for connectivity to the waning influence of transcendent meaning. Meta-textually, vision enables the subvocal absorption of the written word: reading is phenomenologically both a visual and auditory exercise. Fiction is thus a medium through which sight can mine mimetic transcriptions for evidence of the transcendent. This relationship between tactile sight, fiction, and the soul is further substantiated by the earliest books adapted to James Hatley Frere’s tactile phonetic reading system for the blind (a precursor to Braille’s) being the Old and New Testaments. A consideration of highest priority when innovating ways for the sightless to receive equal education opportunities was to provide them the seminal texts for establishing connectivity to the Christian God.
The Victorians’ beliefs about sight being a tactile sense were physiologically misguided. Their localising of an individual’s relationship to the conceptually transcendent in our intuitive recognition of natural beauty, however, remains a profound realisation. Industrialisation constituted not only a necessary technological stage in human development, but also a precondition to our innate penchant for religiosity sustaining the pathologized reason of Enlightenment ideologies. From Ruskin’s Lake District, to the poppies populating Flanders’ Fields, and Britain’s rejuvenated forestry through 2020, nature has sustained the human spirit through numerous crises. We would do well to remain the stewards we were charged with being, if only for the selfish reasons of improving our wellbeing.