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The West's tragic way of thinking 

The ecology of beauty
Forfatter: Erland Kiøsterud
Forlag: Oktober (Norge)
AESTHETICS / In Kiøsterud's eco-philosophical text, 'beauty' becomes a riddle as much as a solution, a question as much as an answer. Is it possible to find beauty on nature's own terms – a beauty you cannot own?


Erland Kiøsterud has long had his way eco-philosophyske kaleidoscope of concepts, and in this new essay, beauty has taken center stage. During the text, it becomes beautiful something more and something different than we are used to thinking: an experience where everything comes into play – and is at stake. 

In an ecological context is skjønnhet and natural beauty obscure and enigmatic. The question of why flowers and animals strike us as beautiful has been attempted to be answered with developmental theories, such as in the natural philosopher David Rothenberg's The Survival of the Beautiful (2013), which emphasizes attraction and sexual selection in nature, something Elizabeth Grosz has also written profound essays about, which Chaos, Territory, Art (2017) or her philosophical Darwin study Becoming Undone (2011) 

That living things are sensually stimulating, that animals have a sense of aesthetics, explains the splendor of the peacock, but it says nothing about the beauty of the mountains or the blue glow of twilight. In any case, Kiøsterud is looking for something far more than naturalizing the experience of beauty or explaining it. 

The craving for beauty

For Kiøsterud, beauty is something that all living things yearn for, and as such it can also become dangerous – it can lead to greed, possessiveness and looting. When we build ourselves a cocoon of order and well-kept wealth, there is always a danger that at the same time we soil something, or help steal something from the outside world. 

Beauty is the excess of calm and safety that all animals seek.

We can easily think of quite literal examples of what Kiøsterud is talking about here, such as the fact that some of the most colorful and beautiful birds – the jungle cock and certain subspecies of the bird of paradise, for example – have been hunted almost to extinction precisely because of their plumage. But Kiøsterud thinks deeper than this: Beauty is the surplus of calm and security that all animals seek, a state of flourishing. When man therefore – almost instinctively – seeks beauty and self-fulfillment, it potentially happens at the expense of animals and ecosystems. Beauty is used up instead of being cultivated and given space. We break some eggs to make our omelette, as it is called, but the eggs are not our own. So how much destruction can our own creative urge defend? 

One of the most distinctive things about Kiøsterud's thought project is the ambiguous reminder that our view of nature is charged with our own values, that ecosystems collapse and suns go out with a crushing indifference – a bit like Shiva in Indian mythology both creates and destroys. He holds this illusionless cosmic vision together with an intimate, subjective perspective: We are human, we are alive, we seek meaning. We naturally yearn for beauty, and we shun the destruction when it affects us or goes too far, which we often only see when it is too late. 

We are human, we are alive, we seek meaning.

The subject, the human being who experiences and reflects in Kiøsterud's text, is nevertheless not always himself; it is an amorphous I-voice that wanders through the story. In this way, he can empathetically give glimpses of different understandings of nature, from the Stone Age man to the Renaissance scientist and the industrial pioneer, all of whom are understandable enough, but who in some cases have also led us astray. The kaleidoscopic i The ecology of beauty becomes more prominent with all these glimpses and fragments, but at the same time a structure, an argumentative pattern emerges.

The impermanence

It is above all the Western concept of beauty that is problematized by Kiøsterud: Plato – and Western man since Christianity – yearned for an unchanging and eternal beauty (which should also be true and good). But precisely that which is unchangeable, that which is elevated above our world of experience, becomes ecologically suspect. With its sterile geometry, the mathematical and transcendent beauty is alien to the change that characterizes all living things. Crystallized forms are mortal and dead. The attempt to isolate the beautiful and make it an invulnerable amulet in defense against the passage of time, so to speak, brings nature at a distance. 

Erland Kiøsterud. (Photo: Truls Lie)

Nature's timelessness is different, writes Kiøsterud, because it lies in the present, in the ephemeral moment. IN Easts philosophical and aesthetic concepts, he finds here, as in previous books (see, a contrast to the West's problematic mentality. The Zen Concepts 'sabi' and 'wabi', which revolves around impermanence's own beauty, about sadness and acceptance. Also the concept of tao 'qi' has to do with change's own forces, the active in visible and invisible processes. This is a beauty on nature's own terms, which also implies an acceptance of death. 

Violence in art

The comparison between the East and the West, where Kiøsterud is inspired by thinkers such as François Jullien and perhaps also Augustin Berque, is not just about aesthetics, but about metaphysics and politics. In a crucial passage, Kiøsterud writes about Vestens art: "Art was perceived as something more understanding, truer that obeyed something higher than nature. This celestial aesthetic, coupled with an oversized ego, created a heroic, otherworldly, but also sad art. Sad because both the practice of violence and the victim who was exposed to the violence in art were heroised, the suffering beautified and deified. Maybe we knew deep down that we were guilty of hubris?”

"The celestial aesthetic, coupled with an oversized ego, created a heroic, otherworldly, but also sad art."

When Kiøsterud writes that the West's concept of beauty has also led to suffering and violence, yes, even to an aestheticization of suffering and violence, he is completely in line with the Hong Kong philosopher Come on Hui, as in his last book Art and Cosmotechnics (2020) point out that the openness to the endless and enigmatic in the East has its counterpart in the West's tragic way of thinking. The West's deepest logic is characterized by limits, heroic transgressions and punishment – whether it comes in the form of divine answers or fatal consequences, as in climate and environmental contexts. 

Nature's own handicraft

But there are also other references in the essay that are just as interesting, for example the Sami term 'duodji', which the book depicts as nature's own handiwork. This is what man takes part in when he makes objects, a wisdom that lies in the subject, the craftsman, the nature that has produced it, the tradition, the landscape itself. Here, aesthetics is the opposite of a cutting off, it is an interweaving, something that happens in association with nature's own artistry. The connection with the reflections around animalone's language and meaning-making, the signs and patterns in all living things (which, incidentally, have been explored in the new research field 'biosemiotics'), are profound and make the 'duodji' concept an opening towards a completely different understanding of form, meaning and beauty . 

The considerations about 'duodji' return, indirectly and in an expanded form, as a model for all the search for beauty in the age of eco-disasters. But this answer is not a solution, understood as something definitive. It is rather an attitude, an open investigation and an investigation where the riddles are not a lock to be opened, but rather have the character of being an exchange of glances, a confidential distance. Here, Kiøsterud himself becomes enigmatic, and the references are only vaguely mentioned in some places without explanation. 

Something unknown that will never be discovered 

When Kiøsterud casually mentions the Zen term 'yugen', it is like a small nod to those who know it, or like a track on the road, half erased. The term 'yugen' could have been a universal key to the entire book, because the term itself is unclear: According to the Zen aesthetician Zeami #Motokiyo (1363–1443), it refers precisely to a contact with something unknown that will nevertheless never be revealed: "To enter a deep forest with no thought of returning. To stand on the shore and watch for a boat that disappears behind distant islands.”

A beauty that cannot be held fast, that is allowed to be fleeting, ultimately also becomes the source of ecological surplus, a sensuous ecology with a new concept of wealth that comes in the book's closing sentence: "The access to beauty is inexhaustible when I don't need it and can share it with everyone.” Here, Kiøsterud's text glows with a mysterious insight and a promising atmosphere. When I allow myself to reveal the end of the book, it is in the knowledge that it is really a beginning. 

See also MODERN TIMES's earlier video interview with Kiøsterud here.

Anders Dunk
Anders Dunker
Philosopher. Regular literary critic in Ny Tid. Translator.

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