These are a few notes on a recent French book that compares how a long European tradition and an even longer Chinese interpretation have framed their notions of landscape and painting. In Vivre de paysage ou l’impensé de la raison (Paris: Gallimard, 2014), François Jullien sets out to understand their vastly different approaches and suggest that something very important can be learned from the Chinese tradition of thought.

Reading the first pages on the notion of landscape was problematic. I thought first of all about the multitudes preoccupied by their means of survival in a rather dangerous and often unjust world, who not only dwelled but labored in a familiar, close-by, unforgiving, recognizable country (a “pays”), and who could not easily take their distances from what European painters conceived of as landscape from the fifteenth century on, and what the Chinese artists, much before even—about a thousand years—thought of as mountain(s) and water(s). In my childhood, as best I can recall, no usage of the word or concept of landscape as something extracted from the surrounding cosmos by the bourgeois, politically empowered subject, no possibility of retreat—a retreat mediated by the servants and massive labor at the service of elites—from the natural world, however mediated by hand tools and animals. One had to obey the seasons and the rhythms of a vacation-less working year. Two memories on this topic: a man using the Breton word kaer (idea of beauty and abundance rolled into one, quite different from koant = pretty, and brav = beautiful) to describe a field of ripening wheat, without wild oats, behind the cowshed, flat like a table. Not to describe the field itself, surrounded by embankments and gently sloping towards the creek, but the wheat that had grown, a threatened miracle that came from long days of preparation and sowing, rains and sun in season, all things one couldn’t (or didn’t dare to) expect and contemplate as acquired objects. Kaer like a young wife with children, but also the family through her. Second memory: another man reminiscing on his return at the end of May 1945, after five and half years as a war prisoner, and telling of his emotion when he saw the beautiful country from the height of Belle-Vue before la Roche-Derrien, in Brittany, on his way, on foot, to see his mother and family. There too, no usage of the word or concept of landscape, no attempt at transcending the country, no daring to set oneself epistemically above or before things, but the shock of having been separated from his milieu and recognizing life and the land that allows it as miraculous gift.

But back to Jullien’s book on the concept of landscape in European and Chinese thinking and art. Its basic question concerns the turn that European languages and thought have given since the fifteenth century to a perspective on the world (or: in reverse, how our perspective on the world became enshrined in our language). Our perspective, our vision, is based on a radical separation of subject and object. Does this transcendental perspective prevent us not only from being in the world but even from thinking about it properly (politically for instance), when we could have continued to be immersed in it and kept thinking about this immersion in the mode of Chinese thinkers, poets, and painters? To rethink our relationship to the world like Chinese thinkers would mean to abandon any ontology (Jullien 80). No creator god, no transcendence—I add no world outside—but dynamically bound polarities (82–83). No domination of an object by a subject narrowly and rigidly set as spectator or voyeur, no paralyzing assignation. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, however, some progress was finally made in Europe, or rather this deranged objectification of the world began to be questioned in many attempts to abandon ontological purity and epistemological superiority. European painting, music, literature, and even perhaps politics, reached fitfully for a pre- or post-modern stance, for a world beyond objectification. Jullien argues that Chinese intellectuals had reached that view more completely and organically already at the beginning of our era, sometime at the beginning of the fourth century. In other words, Europe has begun reevaluating its old “investments” in the matters of truth and freedom, and there is a chance that it has become seriously interested (inter-esse!) for now a century and a half in the landscape and milieu in which it lives.

Reading this book led to two questions. The first one concerns the origin of this Chinese intellectual way of thinking about their world. The work of food production and its accompanying transformation of the landscape, as I already suggested above, who accomplished it and at what cost? Jullien quotes two or three poems that make clear allusions to this aspect but he does not pursue the matter (I quote them below). He suspends or even avoids all social and political analysis—or at least this is the impression he gives. A landscape, whether it is a belated product of a European visual abstraction (since the sixteenth century) or a much older Chinese encounter of “mountain(s) and water(s),” is partly generated by the long, cross-generational work of a majority of the people in these agrarian societies. Rivers, plains, terraces, cultivated plants, forests, all are partly the product of unceasing, difficult work and engagement with a nature that becomes such through them.

My second question is inchoate. It concerns the nature and rhythm of the long economic, social, political and religious developments of those two large human groups (Chinese and European). Why in China did one continue to look at the world and humankind as constituting their horizons and infinity (beyond the horizon) from within themselves and achieving their balance in themselves? Why did Greek thinkers, so differently, begin to posit a separation of spirit or soul and matter, and especially why did Israel develop a faith in a creator god radically other than its creation? Jullien reflects on Greek thought—positively regarding Heraclitus and his polarities, since they do not seem antinomic to Chinese notions, but negatively regarding Plato and the dualism we inherited from his tradition—. He pays no attention at all to monotheism, which is surprising in a book that takes the long view on Europe. It seems to me that a proper history of monotheism would show it emerged as a powerful critique of politically domineering and conquering mythologies in which precisely the absence of radical horizon and termini went together with an ideology of permanent equilibrium. Something perhaps not so different from the Chinese political configurations and wisdom of the past and not necessarily as properly balanced as Jullien imagines?

One would have to understand better once more how this monotheism was radicalized by the messianism of Jesus’ followers and how it eventuated into a temperate or negotiable dualism in which the status of the world has long been intensely debated. The most fundamental aspect of it is the sense that the life of many at its most material—production of food, reproduction of life, poverty of means, health, etc.—was transformed by the belief in the incarnation. The fact that the language and idea of “landscape” or “paysage” appear in sixteenth-century Europe seems to be a new development tied in part to this Greco-Christian dualism, as Jullien says only in passing. It is made especially possible by the new economic developments in the European sphere. Jullien speaks of science but very little of the economy. These economic developments can hardly be separated from religious faith. The influence of the notion of incarnation and creator god remained clear in paintings of biblical scenes in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. I like to think it was still profound in the inhabited landscapes of Brueghel and Bosch.

Human labor briefly appears in a discussion of what Jullien calls “connivence” [= complicity], which he insists he finds in Chinese thought because it was not encumbered by the radical separation between subject and object that all too long burdened European thought. Pages 225–26, he quotes the Tang period’s poet Liu Zongyuan who describes this complicity:

First, the land had to be reclaimed: to scythe the rotten grass, cut the worm-eaten wood and burn it. From the pruning a landscape is born: ‘Great trees rose up, beautiful bamboos appeared, strange boulders showed up.’ ‘It is from within this that one began to contemplate.’

Jullien misses the point when he continues somewhat indifferently: “Here contemplation is born from ‘the milieu.” Much more is at stake or then one has to explain “milieu”. The poet invites us to think of contemplation as grounded in a landscape where human labor can be conceived of as dwelling, receiving from nature, giving in return, and in turn being received by others.

One of the last quotations by Jullien comes from the thinker Shitao (eighteenth century) who most radically spoke of a co-birthing of the self and the landscape (Jullien 233). Jullien thinks that

this is precisely how landscapes become such: it is not me, autonomous subject, initiating subject (knowing subject), who uses it [= dispose de lui], but the landscape lays me out as well [= me dispose]. Most exactly, ‘ego’ and ‘landscape’ give birth to each other [= chacun des deux met l’autre au monde].

It seems to me that Jullien is contradicting his own vision by using the notion of landscape as a separate ontological category. Concerning this reciprocal birthing, Jullien could have paid much more attention to the role played by human labor in tension with the natural world (nature = naturus, about to be born), each giving itself to this making of the world as well as offering itself to taste, touch, smell, hearing and sight.

2 thoughts on “landscape”

  1. If I remember correctly, a Chinese landscape painting rarely if ever has people in it. In European tradition, you often see e.g. wanderers or people harvesting etc. And I think this is a pointer: land-scape refers often to a piece of the Earth’s surface that has been changed, “sculpted” by human endeavor while the Chinese seem to leave this “subject” out of the equation.

  2. Thanks for the comment, which makes me want to learn about Chinese painting and especially landscape painting. My notes are reacting at the “European” side of Jullien’s book, as I know precious little about Chinese tradition. I just went to the Wikipedia’s article on “landscape painting,” which has this splendid landscape, ca. 600 CE, with tiny human figures on water and land.

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