A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
“Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
On a hike between the mountains and valleys of Los Cabos, Mexico, I gripped onto the grace of my surroundings for dear life. We paused atop a cliff for a quick apple juice and Ritz crackers break—me, my brothers, and our tour guide Ramone. As I perched upon a crooked rock that dug uncomfortably into my bottom, my eyes scanned the terrain before me, where spurts of bright green burst from the earth and mountains of violet blessed the horizon. At once, I knew we didn’t belong here. When I opened my mouth to talk to my brothers or Ramone, I heard my voice slice shrilly through the bird-chirping, tree-rustling silence that defined the landscape.
Out of place, we belonged elsewhere—in a civilized world of engines and electricity and noise. But I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to drink up the beauty for as long as possible before returning home.
An old man wearing tribal stripes stomps on a chromic drumset, creating powerful beats that make Manhattan pedestrians stop for a moment to snap pictures and tap feet, before they walk on by. They walk by the art vendors with their plastic tables that showcase exquisite creations which took sleepless nights to complete, desperate to sell them at values far underpriced. They walk by the sporadically-placed oak trees, stripped of all signs of life as the dismal January draft tints the sky in grayscale. Some pause at the subway station placed smack in the center of this world, and then proceed to disappear into the cement underground. Some cross the streets flashing of red, yellow, and green lights, and wander into Diesel, Nordstrom, or Whole Foods with credit cards in hand. And all pedestrians, on this tepid afternoon amidst New York’s warmest winter, walk right passed the figure of a small, precious man in a marble dhoti standing hunched over his walking stick, without so much as a second glance.
Seated on a bench at the southwest corner of Union Square Park, I shiver from the wind despite these crazy days of global warming, of ozone’s warning that man is pushing nature’s limits—and yet we feel ignorantly giddy about the unfathomable spring weather in January. Beside me stands the Mahatma Gandhi statue, a memorial created in 1986 as a tribute to this extraordinary man who once fought a war with nothing but words and self-sacrifice. Below his marble statue rests a plaque that reads, “My optimism rests on my belief in the infinite possibilities of the individual to develop non-violence… in a gentle way you can shake the world.” And gentle indeed, the statue remains a reminder to New Yorkers that peace and love will prevail in the end.
Except for the fact that three centimeters away from these delicate words, an empty plastic cup lies carelessly tossed onto Gandhi’s feet, alongside rotten orange peels and white, toilet paper material. An intricate fence surrounds the statue, encasing something that tries to resemble a garden. But the pink blossoms that may hopefully open their eyes in the spring, today remain closed from fear of winter’s mood swings. Instead of petals, Gandhi is surrounded by twigs that try to stand tall as trees and an array of yellow, hay-like weeds. Dark green bushes perk up at the outskirts of the garden; they contain a hint of ruby blossom, eager to bring some life to Gandhi’s garden. My eyes focus on these tiny blooms of red, desperate to find a trace of beauty in Gandhi’s surroundings.
The search for beauty is an age-old quest that seems to acquire increasing difficulty as the years pass by. Painters and photographers try to capture fleeting moments of it. Poets try to meditate on its memory. Critical theorists lament its loss. But throughout its history, there has rarely been an adequate definition of “beauty” to understand what exactly we so desperately yearn to discover and embrace in this world. In his essay suitably titled “Beauty”, Ralph Waldo Emerson takes a stab at this abstraction that has seduced our desires for so long: “I am warned by the ill fate of many philosophers not to attempt a definition of Beauty. I will rather enumerate a few of its qualities. We ascribe beauty to that which is simple; which has no superfluous parts; which exactly answers its end; which stands related to all things; which is the mean of many extremes. It is the most enduring quality, and the most ascending quality” (Emerson, 1860).
That which is simple, relates to all, endures and ascends. Emerson’s list of qualities to define beauty leads him to believe that we can only truly discover it in nature. He revels that we can only experience this ascension with “the extension of man, on all sides, into Nature, till his hands should touch the stars, his eyes see through the earth, his ears understand the language of beast and bird, and the sense of the wind” (Emerson, 1860). Essentially, his poetry explains that all things organic provide possible experiences of true beauty, if mankind absorbs it fully. Since nature surrounds us in every direction, beauty must exist as the “normal state” of the world that which nature has continued to preserve.
But Emerson does not live in today’s world.
Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer critique today’s world of modernity as a society of “hyper-commercialism,” in which the culture industries have taken over by bombarding us with advertisements and consumerism. They believe that human beings have destroyed enlightenment and nature by building this capitalist society, due to a desperate need to dominate all that they discover in the world. To these critical theorists, what “motivates such triple domination is an irrational fear of the unknown,” of lacking absolute control of their environment and fate. By dominating their surroundings, mankind has essentially destroyed nature, and likewise beauty.
Not only does hyper-commercialism destroy beauty, but Adorno believes the culture industry has also diminished all forms of humanity within ourselves: “What has become alien to men is the human component of culture, its closest part, which upholds them against the world. […] Their own conversion into appendages of machinery, is for them a mirage of closeness” (Adorno, 1951). Thus, within the uproar of traffic jams, fast food chains, and ATM machines, Corporate America has turned us into a world of mechanical robots not only stripped of natural beauty, but of closeness and humanity.
I rise from my bench in Union Square and approach the iron fence that encompasses Gandhi, determined to discover beauty despite the layers of hyper-commercialism touching all sides of us. I walk up the steps and attempt to capture a center view of the marbled Gandhi to engrain in my mind. But before I can focus on him, my eyes regrettably center on something even more powerful that has invaded my vision. Pasted on the fence with bright blue tape, a ripped sign ripples in the wind which reads, “CAUTION: RAT POISON has been placed in this area.” Caution, Rat Poison? As I try to close my eyes and once again respect the spirit and dignity of “Mahatma”, of the great soul as it translates, the only thing I can envision is the image of that rat poison sign.
It is difficult to know if mankind can ever exist peacefully with nature without spoiling it somehow, without ridding it of its pure beauty. Film reviewers speculate that the 2005 adaptation of the movie King Kong was such a box-office hit because it presents an epic allegory that examines the inherent tension between nature and civilization, and the human place in either sphere. Director Peter Jackson recreates the scenario of 1930s urban filmmakers that eagerly leave the modernity of their Manhattan lives and embark on a journey to document faraway lands. The expedition begins as a means to corporate media success, but instead leads the movie crew to Skull Island—a place comprised of wild jungles and uncivilized “barbarians” whose existence is unknown to the civilized world.
The film’s very essence lies in this island of jungles and danger and nature. For it is here that the lead character discovers the true meaning of beauty, humanity, and love—only within this kind of world, where mankind has not yet destroyed nature: “in the wilds of nature, the trappings of civilization might be shed, one’s character laid bare and a more authentic self found” (NPR, 2005). Only in such an environment can we find untainted, true beauty that has not yet been spoiled, without a “Caution: Rat Poison” sign to diminish it somehow.
But this pure beauty does not last long, thanks to mankind. The most powerful scenes in King Kong lie in the last half an hour of the film, where the human beings forcefully unearth King Kong from his home of wild nature and bring him to live in a corporate world of skyscrapers, automobiles, and money. As we witness the “beast’s” misery and the people’s apathy in the final scenes, it is clear that King Kong does not belong here. Humanity’s apathy and lack of compassion, under the influence of commercialism, finally kill the peaceful beast in the end.
I feel a sense of absence as I gaze at the Gandhi statue standing alone and forgotten, surrounded by dead trees, discarded debris, and cigarette smoke. From a sociological perspective, I understand why it stands here, in Union Square Park of downtown Manhattan. The Union Square landmark is recognized as the pinnacle for libertarians, holding numerous democratic, political demonstrations throughout history. The bustle of voices, music, and laughter that usually bounce about the park seems an appropriate frame for this beautiful memorial. It is meant to remind the everyday citizen that peace conquers war, even in modern times of such political tumult. To some, then, the location of this statue may be perfect.
But to me right now, it seems painfully inappropriate. New Yorkers continue to breeze right past all sides of myself and Gandhi, their minds fixated only on shopping away last week’s paycheck instead of paying homage to this great man and his life-changing ideologies. Despite the humane intentions of positioning Gandhi here in Union Square, the memorial does not seem to inspire anyone. It goes unnoticed.
I yearn to unearth the marbled Gandhi from this place and bring him somewhere else—to Skull Island, the rocky terrain of Mexico, or somewhere untouched by Corporate America. To a place where nothing but an orange sky hangs above him, and bright green and chocolate earth caress his bare toes. It seems that only this untouched environment can contain true peace, the gentle kind that Gandhi insisted would triumph in the world. I want to bring him to this point of peace, where people will travel from all over the world to come here, absorb the true beauty that envelops him, and remember his legacy within this frame only.
However naive it may seem for today’s jaded citizen, Mahatma Gandhi’s dream was for world peace, harmony, and an understanding that violence and hatred will solve no problems in the end. His vision of the “human touch” defines his legacy, in which the foundation of his quest for peace is contingent upon human love and compassion for others. Gandhi’s politics affirm that interpersonal relationships based on respect, understanding, acceptance, and compassion, rather than selfishness and self-interest, are critical to the movement towards a non-violent world. Human beings can only achieve true global peace when we open our heart to those around us and turn our consideration outwards instead of merely inwards. Yet in today’s urban society of economic competition and advertisements, it seems that hyper-commercial life does not allow time for us to consciously turn outward. So absorbed are we in ourselves and our thirst for materialism, that we often forget to think about those around us, or marbled in a statue beside us. If compassion fails to exist in this environment, how can we find beauty?
Like Adorno and Horkheimer, my brother too hates capitalistic culture. It pains him that a Starbucks has arisen on every corner of America and beyond; that Los Cabos, Mexico has traded its prickly cacti and taco stands for a Costco, Blockbuster, and Home Depot.
One late afternoon in the summertime, he and I stopped by Stamford in the drive home to our Connecticut suburb. I was craving a Cheesecake Fantasy sundae from Cold Stone Creamery like you couldn’t imagine, and had parked the car to shuffle around for loose change with which to purchase my sinful gluttony. Suddenly, my brother started crying. It was a silent weep at first that became more audible within seconds. I didn’t know what to do or say.
“Look at this… it’s so ugly,” he gestured around him. “There is nothing beautiful about any of this.” He was referring to the Bed Bath and Beyond, Starbucks, Coldstone, Borders Bookstore, three banks positioned across the street, gas stations, and gas-guzzling SUVs surrounding every degree of us in the parking lot.
It was the week of the one-year anniversary that marked our father’s death, and we all lingered on a steep edge, battling a fragility beyond imagination (except to those who have been there). I felt empathy with my brother’s desperate need to find something beautiful to hold onto, to remind him of happiness and love and Dad. But what could I offer him this very moment from the corporate jungle of suburbia? We could not transport to Mexico with its crashing waves and rocky terrain, nor to India with its sun setting over the Himalayan Mountains. We were stuck in a jam-packed parking lot, staring at a family loading their SUV with shopping bags. I scanned our commercial surroundings to search for something comforting, considering a Mocha Latte, ice cream cookie-wich, or National Geographic magazine. But I knew I would not discover anything here to quench my brother’s thirst for beauty.
Until I looked up at the sky and saw that it had transformed into an overpowering spectrum of orange, pink, and violet as we had been talking.
“Look up,” was all I said to him.
Suddenly it started to downpour. It had been drizzling slightly during the past twenty minutes, but the storm that occurred now conquered the streets, cars, and buildings until everything became a washed-out watercolor of swirling designs. Lightning flashed across the sky, cutting through the pink and violet every ten seconds. The car stayed quiet for hours, or maybe minutes I will never be sure, as we shared an ascension that will forever fail to be captured in paint, in words. I glanced at my brother as he absorbed the flashing sky. I felt overwhelming peace as I watched him shut out the corporate invasion around us and discover beauty in the heavens above us.
In his renowned book “Walden Pond”, Henry David Thoreau documents a life of solitude, in which he isolates himself from the commercial world and finds companionship in the tree-rustling silence of nature. As he proceeds into a complete state of reclusion, he acknowledges a “slight insanity” in his mood because of his separation from other human beings. However, he quickly undercuts this experience by grasping onto Mother Nature’s friendship as a way to defeat loneliness: “In the midst of a gentle rain while these [lonely] thoughts prevailed, I was suddenly sensible of such sweet and beneficent society in Nature, in the very pattering of the drops, and in every sound and sight around my house, an infinite and unaccountable friendliness all at once like an atmosphere sustaining me, as made the fancied advantages of human neighborhood insignificant, and I have never thought of them since” (Thoreau, 1854). To Thoreau, then, the natural object grants enough compassion and love for him that he feels no need for human beings. Whenever the slightest pang of longing for humanity hits him, he embraces the natural beauty around him instead, personifying it as friend enough to offer him inner tranquility.
Thoreau discusses the concept of human grief in relation to nature as well, saying that if a man ever feels an emotion as dark as that of grief, Mother Nature is all he needs to bring him comfort: “all Nature would be affected, and the sun’s brightness fade, and the winds would sigh humanely, and the clouds rain tears, and the woods shed their leaves and put on mourning in midsummer, if any man should ever for a just cause grieve” (Thoreau, 1854). He claims to discover enough compassion in nature’s beauty to heal; nature seems to cry and mourn with him in times of utmost agony.
Yet as I frame Thoreau’s discovery in light of my own interactions with grief, I cannot help but wonder which possesses more power: compassion found in nature, or that found in humanity? In recalling the darkest hours felt by me and my family after the loss of my father, it was not nature who held my hand, listened to my memories, fears, and regrets, and offered me words of solace. It was the people around me that turned their hearts outward to offer compassion and provide hope. It was I who told my brother to look at the sky, he who presented me with a shared human moment that will always stay cherished. There exists a semblance of incomparable beauty that rests in such human compassion, even in a place consumed by materialism. I remember talking for hours with my friend Chris about my father and his dreams, one August night in my gas-guzzling SUV in the middle of a highway traffic jam, while he listened with his arm around my shoulder. Could I find this sort of beauty in a secluded place like Walden Pond, away from all mankind?
I question the notion of unconditional love and compassion in Nature. If nature is supposed to be synonymous with beauty and peace like Emerson and Thoreau claim, how would they explain the instance of natural disasters? True, in a secluded place of nature untouched by mankind, no “Caution: Rat Poison” sign would emerge to spoil the beauty. But there are avalanches and tsunamis, hurricanes and drought. Nature alone can destroy nature; the simple shift of the Earth’s crust creates an earthquake powerful enough to dismantle all the trees from their roots, or even trigger a volcano that will blacken every inch of soil surrounding it. A long-lasting drought will transform green leaves and rose blossoms into nothing but dry, brittle ash. How can this be beautiful?
Mankind destroys nature by diminishing the ozone layer with chemical pollution, by knocking down trees to built condominiums—this is for certain. But the relationship is reciprocal. A flashback into the past decade will show profound cases of nature’s ruthlessness to mankind, devoid of compassion, peace and love. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy unleashed its demons to destroy countless streets and buildings that lay in its path, leaving at least 22,000 families without a place to call home. Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf of Mexico in 2005, flooding 80% of New Orleans and killing 1,418 human beings. The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake created a tsunami that ripped through forests and beaches, destroying homes and killing 283,100 innocent people. It is ironic that we choose to personify these disasters by giving them names like “Sandy,” “Katrina” and “Andrew”. Perhaps we have become so accustomed to associating man with violence that we subconsciously correlate the two, even when man has no part in the crime. A person has not committed these acts of violence at all; only nature can be held responsible for such ugliness.
In these cases, it is difficult to find beauty in nature. Yet we can easily discover it elsewhere—from the acts of kindness performed by people, both affected and unaffected by the disaster. From those who extend their hands to pull others away from the destruction, or who offer their houses as a place of shelter to the newly homeless. And from those far away, who contribute to relief organizations, providing donations for the victims to help them rebuild and recover their shattered lives. We can even discover beauty in hyper-commercialism itself, as persistent media coverage helps to maintain the awareness and compassion of those untouched by the disasters, and hundreds of corporations incorporate public awareness into their advertising campaigns, urging consumers to direct their money to human support instead of materialism. Beauty thus exists here in the realm of human compassion, in a form that cannot be found elsewhere, much less in the predator of nature itself.
I realize that I cannot unearth the Gandhi memorial. I cannot bring it to the imaginary island that King Kong reigns over or any other place untouched by mankind. But something inside of me shifts as I reconsider why exactly I yearn to move it in the first place. True, the commercial environment surrounding it lacks the simplicity, purity, and tranquility that I discovered on my hike in Mexico, or Thoreau at his Walden Pond. But even in those remote places of nature unspoiled by man, the destruction of beauty can occur quickly and suddenly, with a shake of the earth or a rip of a cloud. Perhaps, then, the desire to find beauty in my physical surroundings has been the wrong question all along.
The brilliant and tormented Edgar Allen Poe focused his entire career on this timeless search to discover beauty. At the end of all his poetry and prose and questions about human existence, he concluded that “beauty of whatever kind, in its supreme development, invariably excites the sensitive soul to tears” (Poe, 1846). To Poe, this excitement could only emerge in times of extreme melancholy. But I choose to interpret his revelation in a different way: that it emerges in times of compassion. Emerson attributed his definition of beauty to “the most enduring quality, and the most ascending quality.” Sure enough, as I am certain Gandhi would agree, it is compassion that stirs the soul, opens the heart, evokes tears. Whether surrounded by untouched nature or corporate humanity, wherever compassion endures, beauty will ascend.
I return to Union Square several weeks later, in the middle of the biggest blizzard to hit New York City since 1869, measuring an all-time largest amount of 26.9 inches. My brother and I dive head-first into snow piles, throw balls of fluff at each other, slip and slide on patches of ice. I have told him about the Gandhi memorial, which he said that he also never noticed during his five years living in New York City.
As I lead him to the iron-fence that encloses the statue, he exclaims to my surprise, “It’s incredible!”
I had expected him to agree with my former theories about apathy, about the destruction of beauty by commercialism, and the inappropriateness of the statue in such a capitalist context. Instead, my brother’s response throws me completely off-guard, and I watch him absorb something beautiful in this site that I have yet to discover from where I stand.
I lift my eyes to focus on the Gandhi memorial ahead of us and perceive it as he does, and then something ascends within me. For, adorned carefully on the snow-covered neck of Gandhi, there rests a delicate set of Hindu rosary beads, along with a lei of marigold flowers. And someone carefully placed a pink, fully-awakened flower at Gandhi’s feet during the blizzard today, for it lies uncovered by the snow. Several feet away from me and my brother, a tall man dressed casually in a North Face fleece aims his expensive Casio digital camera at the statue, eager to capture Gandhi from all angles.
As I let all this sink into my vision—the golden blossoms beaming against the contrast of the black memorial and the white snow, the pedestrian who has paused from the New York hustle to document this Gandhi statue which proudly stands in the snow-covered park—I realize that Adorno and Horkheimer were wrong. Capitalism hasn’t destroyed every single shred of beauty in our surroundings. If compassion can exist in the form of a flower or the click of a camera, then pure beauty is still worth searching for.
And just when we are about to turn around and leave the memorial site, I raise my eyes in time to see streaks of orange, pink, and violet splash above my head as the sky gazes down at the blanketed park. In this moment I feel a breeze of healing sweep inside of me, as nature entwines with humanity to bless Gandhi’s memory, and to excite my soul to tears.
By Nisha Gupta