Decomposing the Picturesque and Re-Collecting Nature in Dorothy Wordsworth's Scotland 1

By Van Renen, Denys | Journal of Narrative Theory, Summer 2015 | Go to article overview

Decomposing the Picturesque and Re-Collecting Nature in Dorothy Wordsworth's Scotland 1


Van Renen, Denys, Journal of Narrative Theory


In Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland, A. D. 1803, a travelogue finally published in 1874, Dorothy Wordsworth seems to reveal her objective, and that of her brother and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in visiting "North Britain," declaring "That's what we wanted!" when she spots the mountains surrounding Tarbet on Loch Lomond.2 Wordsworth gushes, "at a sudden turning looking to the left, we saw a very craggy-topped mountain amongst other smooth ones; the rocks on the summit distinct in shape as if they were buildings raised up by man, or uncouth images of some strange creature" (90).3 This passage characterizes her pursuit of picturesque landscapes, an aesthetic that unifies disparate features of the physical and built environment into a "picture," and thereby masks the cultural practices, historical processes, and environmental degradation of Scotland. She domesticates Scotland by synthesizing its topography into an already determined totality. When she, however, encounters "untidy" forms, Wordsworth demonstrates an uncharacteristic tetchiness because her surroundings rupture her aesthetic sense, including preconceptions of Scotland as a premodern and pristine wilderness.4 At other times, though, she balks at the uneven cultivation of the land, lapsing into a state of incredulity: "Why did the plough stop there? Why might not they as well have carried it twice as far?" (55).5 Wordsworth's narrative exemplifies the aesthetic of the picturesque at the same time as she registers its limits.

Because Scotland destabilizes her subjectivity, she apprehends the worldview that pictorial aesthetics not only entail but also foreclose-a worldview summarized vividly by Malcolm Andrews: there is "something of the big-game hunter" in tourists seeking the ideal landscape, "boasting of their encounters with savage landscapes, 'capturing' wild scenes, and 'fixing' them as pictorial trophies in order to sell them or hang them up in frames on their drawing room walls" (67). The ideal pictorial composition isolates and removes objects from their surroundings, creating a state of exception or "zone of indeterminacy" that fixes nature as neither property entailing certain rights nor wilderness (Agamben 37). In The Open, Giorgio Agamben theorizes the border, the "separation and proximity," between animal and man: man possesses the "essential gaze of authentic thought" in order to "see the open which names the unconcealedness of being," or the radical heterogeneity of his surroundings, but, in order to do so, separates himself from the environment. The animal, in contrast, lives within a "spellbinding and intense" relationship to its surroundings, yet the animal cannot extricate itself from this attraction (59, 58, 59). Wordsworth demonstrates how the picturesque accentuates this "caesura" between man and animal (Agamben 15). Her production of "Nature" or a "green consciousness" causes humans to live in a state of suspension that extends Agamben's depiction of the "anthropological machine," a metaphor for the ways in which man excludes and "isolat[es]" his natural characteristics (33, 37). For Wordsworth, the picturesque sharpens her senses, presumably leading to the potential for radical revelation (unconcealedness) of her surroundings. Nonetheless, it drastically compresses her perceptual world, reducing the multiple ontologies of her surroundings into a landscape that cannot be processed as a part of civilization nor appreciated for its otherness.

Picturesque discourse governed the late-eighteenth-century "imagination." Scotland, with its ruins of the feudal system and countryside in varying states of cultivation, provided apposite landscapes for English tourists. In an article that has been frequently cited since its 1964 publication, John Nabholtz argues that, in Scotland, Wordsworth "was looking for harmonious visual compositions which brought into unity varied and intricate parts-in effect, the definition of pictorial composition developed in the picturesque literature of the eighteenth century. …

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