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Natural aesthetics and political activism

Natural aesthetics and political activism

Rosa Luxemburg, Communist and political activist, wrote to a friend from prison, ‘To be a human being means to joyfully toss your entire life in the giant scales of fate if it must be so, and at the same time to rejoice in the brightness of every day and the beauty of every cloud.’[i]

She had studied zoology and botany at the University of Zurich from 1890, and in a later letter (still imprisoned) she wrote, ‘Yesterday I was reading about the reasons for the disappearance of song birds in Germany. The spread of scientific forestry, horticulture, and agriculture, have cut them off from their nesting places and their food supply. More and more, with modern methods, we are doing away with hollow trees, waste lands, brushwood, fallen leaves. I felt sore at heart [for the] destruction of these defenceless little creatures, that the tears came into my eyes.’[ii]

Scarlet Honeyeater in the garden

Australia’s threatened birds have declined by 59% over the past 30 years.[iii] In the UK alone, there are 40 million fewer birds than 50 years ago, and in North America, there are 2.9 billion fewer birds than during the 1970s. The World Conservation Union (IUCN) reports that 14 per cent of all the world’s bird species are included on its Red List of species at risk of extinction.[iv] And WWF’s Living Planet Report 2020 reveals global wildlife populations fell by 68%, on average, between 1970 and 2016, while some Australian populations plummeted by up to 97%. This includes more than 1100 populations in Australia, with almost all showing continual declines.[v]

Rainbow Bee-eaters, Urunga

That autumn Rosa wrote, ‘The sky shines with a clear blue light, and in it floats the silvery moon. Every day at this time hundreds of rooks fly across the yard in a scattered flock, passing high in the air on their way back from the fields to the rookery where they spend the night . . . These rooks seem to me so full of grave importance, when I watch them evening after evening as they trace their accustomed homeward path, that I feel quite a veneration for them and continue to gaze after them till the last one has vanished. Then I wander up and down in the darkness, watching the prisoners who are still busily at work in the yard as they flit to and fro like vague shadows. I rejoice that I am myself invisible, so completely alone, so free with my reveries and the stolen greetings that pass between me and the rooks . . .’[vi]

She was murdered just over a year later, a few weeks after she and Karl Liebknecht (killed with her) had founded the German Communist Party. And not by right wing thugs (as most believe), but under orders from Gustav Noske, Minister of Defence in the Social Democratic party (SPD) which led fledgling Weimar government.[vii] Her body was dumped in Berlin’s Landwehr Canal and not found until five months later in June 1919.

When I was in Berlin in the nineties, I wrote a poem for her, which I have lost. She wrote, ‘You are mistaken in thinking that I have a prejudice against modern poets . . .  I don’t understand Hoffmannsthal, and I know nothing of George. It is true that in all of them I take somewhat amiss the combination of perfect form with the lack of a grand and noble philosophy.’[viii]

Pied Cormorant, Nambucca River

I hope that we have learnt to be suspicious of grand philosophies. The Pragmatist Richard Rorty thought that the job of philosophers, poets, writers and artists was to do, ‘what we can do so as to get along with one another, how we can arrange things so as to be comfortable with one another, how institutions can be changed so that everyone’s right to be understood has a better chance of being gratified.’ [ix]

We have to be inventive but grounded. Rorty wrote, ‘To fail as a poet – and thus, for Nietzsche, to fail as a human being – is to accept somebody else’s description of oneself, to execute a previously prepared program, to write, at most, elegant variations on previously written poems.’[x]

Richard Rorty talks of enlarging our sense of solidarity, rather than focusing on justice: ‘We can recognize the private realm of self-creation, and the public realm of social interaction/ culture, etc. which over time creates an increasingly broadening understanding and commitment to human (and natural) solidarity. They are not necessarily contradictory.’ However, that stance does not take into account the power structures of capitalism, the ideologies and institutional and presumes the distinction he draws between the private and the public. >>

Both Communism and Justice are transcendental terms, with no fixed meaning. See my post Poetry and democracy.

‘On the day He was to create justice
God got involved in making a dragonfly
and lost track of time.’  Anne Carson[xi]

Striated Heron on nest, Coffs Creek

‘As a pragmatist, Rorty urged us to give up the search for the elusive ‘something’ which defines truth or justice etc, or which reveals the ultimate nature of X. Instead, we should just work with whichever account of x delivers the practical goods, the results … Philosophy – one voice in the conversation – would be done better if more modest, piecemeal and low-falutin.’ Gideon Caldor [xii]

Rorty is an ironist, ‘someone who fulfills three conditions: (1) She has radical and continuing doubts about the final vocabulary she currently uses, because she has been impressed by other vocabularies, vocabularies taken as final by people or books she has encountered; (2) she realizes that argument phrased in her present vocabulary can neither underwrite nor dissolve these doubts; (3) insofar as she philosophizes about her situation, she does not think that her vocabulary is closer to reality than others, that it is in touch with a power not herself.’ [xiii]

I agree, but the question then becomes, what can an ironist be committed to apart from irony?

I believe natural aesthetics can easily lead to an appreciation of nature which lead to respect, understanding and then on to galvanise political action, without worrying about ontology, or epistemology, or larger transcendental terms.

Striated Pardelote in garden

[i] A 1916 letter to Mathilde Wurm (journalist and SPD politician) who with a fellow Dora Fabian committed suicide in exile in London, 1935

[ii] 2 May, 1917. See Michael Kandelaars, ‘Marxism and the natural world’, Marxist Left Review, No 11, Summer 2016.

[iii] Elisa Bayraktarov, Jaana Dielenberg, ‘Australia’s threatened birds . . .’ 3.12.2019.

[iv] Mark Rowe, ‘Dossier: the silent chorus – declines in the bird world’,, 14.10.2020

[v] ‘World wildlife populations fall 68%, Australia contributes to decline’,10.9.2020.

[vi] Letter to Sophie Liebknecht, second wife of Karl Liebknecht, Breslau, 24.11.1917.

[vii] Kate Connolly and Josie Le Blond, ‘Germany remembers Rosa Luxemburg 100 years after her murder’, The Guardian, 15.1.1. 2019.

[viii] Letter to Sophie Liebknecht, ibid.

[ix] Richard Rorty, “Heidegger, Kundera, and Dickens”, in: Essays on Heidegger and Others: Philosophical Papers II, Cambridge UP, 1991, p78.

[x] Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, New York: Cambridge UP, 1989, p28.

[xi] Anne Carson, ‘God’s Justice’ in Glass, Irony and God, New Directions, 1995.

[xii] Gideon Caldor, ‘Richard Rorty’, Philosophy Now, 2000,

[xiii] Richard Rorty, 1989, p73.

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