Helen de Cruz is a British Academy postdoctoral fellow at the University of Oxford, affiliated to the Faculty of Philosophy and Somerville College. She has authored numerous journal articles on a variety of issues within philosophy of cognitive science, philosophy of religion, naturalistic approaches to epistemology, and the integration thereof. Her personal webpage can be found here.
Hayao Miyazaki’s animation movie Ponyo features a tsunami. The tsunami is shown in its full threatening and destructive power, yet is rendered with a great aesthetic sensibility. On several occasions, Miyazaki expressed his aesthetic delight in natural disasters, and defended it as follows:
There are many typhoons and earthquakes in Japan. There is no point in portraying these natural disasters as evil events. They are one of the givens in the world in which we live. I am always moved when I visit Venice to see that in this city which is sinking into the sea, people carry on living regardless. It is one of the givens of their life. In the same way people in Japan have a different perception of natural disasters. (source)
Miyazaki is not the only artist to find inspiration in natural disasters. William Turner depicted with gusto a hapless steamboat, struggling in a snowstorm. That we find aesthetic delight in natural disasters is puzzling. Why do we sometimes delight in natural disasters? And is it morally appropriate to do so? These questions have not often been addressed because both aesthetics and psychology have tended to focus on positive and pleasurable aesthetic properties of nature, such as the delicacy of a flower, the slow twirling of autumn leaves, the majesty of a waterfall. But we are not only be moved by nature (as Noël Carroll describes our intuitive and visceral response to nature) in its delicate, pretty form, but also in its destructive form.
There is a wealth of research indicating that humans prefer natural, green environments (e.g., farmland, forest, oceanside) to built, urbanized surroundings. In his recent book, The Artful Species, Stephen Davies points out that evolutionary approaches to landscape aesthetics tend to equate desirability with beauty: the hidden assumption is that we take aesthetic delight in environments that are attractive to live in. Evolutionary aestheticians have launched the “savanna hypothesis”, which stipulates that a large part of human evolution took place in savannah-like landscapes with plenty of access to water and food sources (such as fruit-bearing trees). This sort of environment, unsurprisingly, pops up as the image of paradise across cultures (the garden of Eden in Christianity and Judaism and Jannah in Islam for example). This is exactly the sort of environment that is popular in landscape and park design, such as the grounds of Blenheim Palace where I regularly walk.
But this evolutionary story is inadequate. The fate of the work of the garden architect of Blenheim, Capability Brown illustrates this well: shortly after his death, his works became depreciated as smooth and bland by a public that had become more excited by wilderness rather than meticulously kept Italian gardens, stark snowy mountains rather than gently sloping hills, a stormy sea rather than a calm lake. Davies suggests that the great adaptability of humans to their environments could be key: people can feel at home in a wide range of environments, often molding them to their own needs, such as the arid wastes of northern Australia or polder landscaping. However, that still does not explain why we can be fascinated, and sometimes even aesthetically moved, by things that are definitely not conducive to human flourishing, such as volcanic eruptions, tornadoes or tsunamis.
Such ambivalent aesthetic experiences of nature in its forbidding forms are encapsulated in Kant’s concept of the sublime. According to Kant, volcanoes and tornadoes provide both aesthetic pleasure and displeasure. We feel pleasure because of our superiority of reason over nature (this is why we only appreciate the sublime when we have some safe distance from the natural disaster at hand), yet also displeasure, an awareness that we are physically powerless in the face of such events. We oscillate between these feelings of attraction and repulsion. How can we make sense of the sublime within contemporary cognitive psychology? The feeling of repulsion could be explained by an evolved aversion to events that are potentially dangerous. But how to account for the feeling of attraction? Awe, an emotion that is still in need of further study, may be a good candidate for this.
The prototype model of awe by Keltner and Haidt suggests that awe – the emotion most commonly associated with the sublime – is elicited by stimuli that are vast and that prompt a need for psychological accommodation. Keltner and Haidt see awe as an adaptive emotion that arose in our primate ancestry, in particular, in the need for lower-status individuals to recognize the status of higher-status individuals within the group: by feeling awe for an alpha individual, one would desist in fruitlessly trying to challenge his or her authority, which would have been adaptive. Keltner and Haidt propose that the primordial form of awe is the emotions a low status individual feels towards a powerful one. This model does not explain why awe is felt in situations other than the social domain, such as when we are confronted with natural disasters. We do not feel social emotions like shame or guilt in the presence of landscapes, whereas a site like the Grand Canyon elicits awe – indeed natural landscapes are more frequent elicitors of awe than other humans according to self-reports. Keltner and Haidt’s explanation for this is that the features of powerful others that elicit awe, such as high rank, dominance or fame can be transposed in landscape terms, such as physical vastness. To me, this is quite a stretch (for instance, they think vastness can not only be social or physical, but also conceptual, as when we are in awe of the scope and power of a mathematical formula, or a scientific idea).
A complicating factor in the psychological study of awe is that its negative valence has disappeared in the shifting semantics of the term. Awe used to be an ambivalent term, for instance, awe and fear are synonymous in the Hebrew Bible, as still clear in terms like a ‘God-fearing person’. When Haidt asked his students whether they felt awe at the 9/11 attacks, they were reluctant to do so. “I think our current use of the word awe has been bleached into a positive emotion, so people in my emotion class were reluctant to say they felt awe on 9/11” (Haidt, quoted in Sundararajan). So we have a concept that is disappearing in everyday discourse, even though the emotion associated with it still occurs.
We are sometimes aesthetically moved (awed) by natural disaster, and from a psychological perspective, it is currently unclear why this is the case. Moving into the normative domain, Yuriko Saito argues that such feelings should be resisted: it is not morally appropriate to appreciate the sublimity of a tsunami, volcanic eruption or tornado, given the pain and suffering it provokes. Clearly, natural disasters were not produced with artistic intent. Nevertheless, according to Saito, “our human-oriented moral sentiments do dictate that we do not derive pleasure (including aesthetic pleasure) from other humans’ misery, even if it is caused by nature taking its course”. There are theological parallels. In the Hebrew Bible, Elihu, one of Job’s friends cites his aesthetic appraisal of storms and floods as marks of God’s divine majesty; ironically, the very same things that destroyed Job’s house and killed his children. One cannot help but feel how insensitive and morally objectionable Elihu is when he says this.
When discussing the question, Bruce Janz (UCF) remarked that such aesthetic delight would “certainly be morally risky, in the same sense that humor based on things like race or religion can be morally risky.” What does it say about someone who finds, say, sexist jokes funny, whereas others find them demeaning? “Did those others find them not funny at all, or did their moral sense override their sense of humor?” Similarly, what does aesthetically appreciating natural disasters say about that person? Does it indicate a decreased sensitivity for the suffering associated with these disasters? This may explain the moral risk involved in the aesthetic delight in natural disasters. Perhaps this would still allow for such aesthetic appreciation under some conditions, for example, when one is in a situation where the safe distance is smaller or gone, as when one lives in an environment where one could be affected by it.