Caspar David Friedrich and Animism: Chiming in on a Video Essay by Nordic Animism

#animism #aesthetics #CasparDavidFriedrich #Kant #theology #art #romanticism

Yesterday, I watched a video by the Danish scholar Rune Rasmussen, an independent scholar who makes online teaching material (and other things) under the Nordic Animist moniker. His work is fascinating and thought-provoking, and I recommend looking into his work if you're interested in topics like environmentalism, land-connectedness, animism, traditional Nordic wisdom, or similar topics. And he does it all while critiquing white supremacy, so he's a much-needed voice within the Norse spheres of online intelligentsia.

In the above video, Rune discusses how the era of Romanticism (roughly speaking, the 1800s) was permeated with a nostalgia for the beauty of the natural world and pre-Christian history, such as the Viking age and its relics. However, these Romanticists did not allow their nostalgia to move them into a deeper sense of connection to the beauty of the natural world. Instead, they viewed nature with an almost cold, disconnected gaze, looking at a forest or mountain no different than one would look at a painting in a museum. Rasmussen uses Caspar David Friedrich's famous painting “Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog” as a prime example.

Rasmussen claims that in contrast to the disconnected, disinterested gaze of Romanticism, we need to instead cultivate practices and ways of being that deeply connect us back to the natural world, rather than viewing ourselves as separate from it. Of course, one of the problems with doing that is how so much of our modern world is, through its architecture and geography, anthropocentric and designed to keep us separated from nature.

It's a great video, and I encourage you to check it out. One reason why I thought it was so intriguing is because the Romantic era is fascinating to me. 19-20th-century theology, philosophy, and art are kind of like my intellectual comfort food (though I don't claim to be an expert). Thus, I wanted to jump on the opportunity to make some additional comments about what Rasmussen said because I think it's a very important topic.

Regarding the context of Romanticist art, I think it's important to acknowledge the influence of Immanuel Kant's theory of aesthetics. To give a very rough summary, Kant based his theory of aesthetics on the idea that beauty is a subjective experience, arising from a harmony between our cognitive and sensory faculties. According to Kant, our perception of beauty depends on our ability to recognize order and harmony in the natural world and in artistic creations. Kant argues that beauty is not a property of objects themselves, but rather a product of our own cognitive faculties, and therefore cannot be objectively measured.

Now here's where things get interesting. One of the central components of Kant's aesthetics is the notion of disinterestedness. According to Kant, in order to have an aesthetic experience of something, we must approach it with a disinterested attitude. This means that we must focus on the object's form, rather than its function or practical use. We must also approach the object without any personal biases, desires, or interests that might interfere with our ability to appreciate it for its own sake. Kant argues that the disinterested attitude is necessary for aesthetic judgment because it allows us to appreciate the object's beauty in a pure and unadulterated way.

Sound familiar? That's basically what Rasmussen was critiquing in the video about Romanticism. My understanding is that such a theme within some of Romanticism is a result of Kant's influence, particularly his notion of disinterestedness. It's no wonder then that almost every copy of Kant's “Critique of Pure Judgment” actually has Friedrich's “Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog” on the cover!

So how do we move forward? Shockingly, I think that Romanticism — and Caspar David Friedrich in particular — might point us in the right direction. Like Virgil in Dante's Inferno, they cannot take us the full way to Paradise, but I do think they offer some form of guidance toward our goal, especially in the case of those who would normally put up their guard against anything animist, which is quite prevalent in the Christian circles I often interact with.

I won't contest Rune's critique of Friedrich's “Wanderer” painting in the video. However, if one engages with the rest of Friedrich's paintings, I think there's a case to be made that Friedrich is something of a quasi-animist within the Protestant Christian tradition of that era. In fact, many of his paintings push against Kant's theory of aesthetics.

To lay the groundwork, it's useful to point out that around the time of Friedrich, there were more intellectual influences and movements than simply Kantianism. That era also saw the rise of the theologian and philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher as well as the post-Hegelians. Schleiermachian theology seems to be an influence on Caspar Friedrich's paintings. Schleiermacher believed that religious experience is primarily characterized by a feeling of absolute dependence — the moment of recognizing one's own finitude in contrast to the Infinite beauty and majesty of God. It's something of a theological notion of the sublime — an experience so awe-inspiring, beautiful, and magnificent that it becomes terrifying, such as standing on the edge of a cliff (again, back to Caspar Friedrich's painting). However, for Schleiermacher and for Caspar Friedrich, the sublime is something that ought to inspire a sense of worship, rather than disinterestedness. The feeling of finitude when faced with a mountain or forest ought to make us think about how much greater God's Infinite majesty must be, and thus be compelled with a sense of worship and recognition that we must place our total dependence on the One Above All.

Now, if the story stopped there, we could still be left with the problem of disinterestedness. After all, we might still be only looking at nature rather than connecting to it. However, I think it's also important to mention the post-Hegelians and Friedrich's own way of relating to nature.

To give a very rough summary, many of the post-Hegelians, talked about God using many phrases, such as “the Absolute,” which were influenced by, you guessed it, Hegel's philosophy. One of the perspectives used to describe God was God as the animating principle of all reality. Thus, in contrast to a Cartesian dead, machinic matter, the world is radiating with life because it is animated by its Creator. Nature, creation, and the material of the world are given a supramundane sacredness through the life-giving, animating power of God, who is the Absolute Ground of all being.

Such a perspective fits the Romanticist's love of nature. But it seems to me that the implication of this perspective is that, to be truly religious, one must be connected to nature. To love the Creator, one must love the Creation. I actually believe that, in many of Friedrich's paintings, we see this post-Hegelian, Schleiermachian Christian quasi-animism in operation.

For example, Friedrich painted an image of a wooden crucifix standing in the middle of some evergreen trees in the depths of winter. In the background, there is a large cathedral clouded by fog. If one looks closely, we can see footsteps and hiking sticks in the snow leading up to the crucifix. According to my understanding, Friedrich meant this as a statement about how true religious devotion requires one to venture out into nature, even in its harsh conditions. It is by connecting to Creation that one will encounter Christ. In fact, for this painting, enduring the harsher aspects of nature, such as the frigid winter, draws us into a deeper understanding of the love of God displayed in Christ's passion. The humble crucifix contrasts with the giant cathedral in the background obscured by fog which, though beautiful in its own way, can lead to a disconnection from nature if one were to reside only in the cathedral. Instead, it is a connection to Creation that prompts the endurance of faith, which is symbolized in the evergreen trees, which are a common symbol in Friedrich's paintings for the endurance of faith because evergreen trees remain green regardless of the season.

Another example in Friedrich's work depicts two men joyously gazing at the moon during a night walk in a forest. I'm not sure to what extent Friedrich was concretely influenced by St. Francis, but it seems to me that Friedrich has captured a Franciscan attitude toward Christianity. As the Canticle of St. Francis says, “Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars, / In the heavens you have made them bright, precious and fair.”

I say that Friedrich was a quasi-animist not only because he thought nature was important for religious experience, but also because he believed that nature is animated by the presence of God, and learning how to “read” creation around us will direct us into a deeper worship and love of God. I say 'quasi'-animist because I don't know what Friedrich would think about the flows of non-human subjectivity or consciousness that might inhabit the natural world. However, he certainly believed that God's divine subjectivity and personhood flow through nature. From a Christian perspective, one might say that God is the ontological foundation of the flows of non-human subjectivity attested to by animism, similarly to how God is the ontological foundation of human subjectivity and being.

Out of this belief that God operates through God's Creation, Friedrich developed an uncanny and quite impressive ability to “read” natural landscapes theologically and religiously. He would spend hours hiking through forests and mountains and would see everything around him as permeated with religious symbolism. The Kimbell Art Museum's description of “Mountain Peak with Drifting Clouds” gives a very useful example:

“While the rendition of the drifting clouds suggests a naturalist’s awareness of meteorology, Friedrich almost certainly saw in them a symbolic meaning; veiling the distance and casting shadows across the landscape, they are an image of the shifting, imperfect conditions that nature provides for the illumination of the spirit. In the foreground a toppled tree is portrayed in matter-of-fact detail. It may symbolize mortality as a barrier to spiritual progress: according to some interpretations of Scripture, nature only became subject to death when the Fall of humankind corrupted the originally blissful landscape of Eden. Even the leafless evergreens in the middle distance (trees often understood as premonitions of eternity, given their relative immunity to seasonal change) bear witness to death. Finally, far off in the distance, as if in a separate realm all but inaccessible to human striving, Friedrich includes a fortresslike mountain peak––a revelation, perhaps, of the possibility of salvation.”

It seems that, for Caspar Friedrich, if one is truly connected and embedded within nature — not just disinterestedly, but truly willing to pilgrimage through the snow — then one will be directed to worship. As I interpret Friedrich, his landscape paintings become quasi-iconographic, a window through which heaven breaks into our world. Friedrich is trying to show us how heaven is breaking through into the Creation that exists all around us, but we need to go out into nature in order to experience it. And if the landscape paintings are iconographic, then perhaps it teaches that one of the avenues back to land-connectedness is through liturgy and ritual. Within the Christian tradition, there is actually a fascinating illustration of this in the Ethiopian Orthodox forest churches. Their worship practices and worship spaces cannot be separated from the forest around them.

Of course, this might not be the most satisfactory answer for those working within a pagan animist tradition. Nonetheless, I think it's a very important question for Christians to consider how our liturgical practices and sacred spaces might move us back toward connecting with the land.