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  • Vicissitudes of the German Antaeus Complex: Ego Strength Through Mother Nature
  • Donald Kuspit

and when Nature has instructed you, the strength of your own soul will be revealed. . . . Eternal nature, where shall I grasp you? Where are you, breasts, you springs of life on which hang heaven and earth, toward which the parched heart presses? . . . Spirit of the Earth, you are nearer to me; already I feel my powers increasing, already I glow as if I’d drunk new wine, I have the courage to venture into the world. . . .

—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust, Part I 1

Here, in the midst of the mountains, high above the wooded, gloomy earth, which seemed still darker against the sparkling skyline of a summer night, and a vault of stars flaming above me, I sat all by myself in this desolate place for a long time, feeling that I had never known such solitude before.

—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe,
Truth and Fantasy from My Life2

. . . only black rain out of the bruised and swollen clouds . . . is fit atmosphere in such a land. The rain drives on, the stinking mud becomes more evilly yellow, the shell holes fill up with green-white water, the roads and tracks are covered in inches of slime, the black dying trees ooze and sweat and the shells never cease . . . they plunge into the grave which is this land. . . . It is unspeakable, godless, helpless.

—Paul Nash, War Artist 3

Ever since Albrecht Dürer’s studies of a Wire-drawing Mill and the Cemetery of St. John, both 1494, the first autonomous landscapes in German art, and especially with “the magnificent drawing entitled ‘Wehlsch Pirg,’ that is: South-Tyrolian Mountains,” 1495, in which “Dürer achieved a panoramic or even [End Page 165] cosmic interpretation of scenery,” 4 the Germans have claimed a special rapport with nature. This privileged relationship reached an early climax in the pictures of the Danube School artists, particularly in Albrecht Altodorfer’s remarkable Forest with St. George and the Dragon, 1511, in which man and nature are intimate to the point of merger. Indeed, nature dominates and dwarfs—virtually encompasses and almost extinguishes—the human. As Otto Benesch writes (1965), “It is difficult to distinguish the figure of the saint in his plumed helmet from the thicket of the high forest . . . the holy legend is reduced to a sparkling colour spot” (44). The saint is immersed in the “unlimited” forest as though he was a male Daphne about to become another tree; his plumage is easily mistaken for another bright branch. His elegance is to no avail: he is swallowed up by “the overwhelming richness of uncouth nature” the way Jonah was by the whale.

Does he, alone in the depths of the forest, find the courage to face and slay the dragon—they are about to do battle—the way Jonah, alone in the belly of the whale, found the courage to carry out God’s mission? I think so: the ability to be alone, in D. W. Winnicott’s sense, is a basic sign of ego strength. Of course, Winnicott’s point is that one is not alone: the mother of one’s being is inside one, secretly caring for one, her goodness invisibly surrounding and supporting one. She is the emotional atmosphere that makes it possible to be alone and act in the world without succumbing to it. Similarly, the forest forms a protective motherly atmosphere—a strong, sustaining, vitalizing presence, amounting to an extended aura—around the saint. He seems unaware of it, but this suggests how completely a part of him it is. He seems to be an extension of it, as Benesch says; it lends him its energy, vivid in the play of light on the leaves, and strength, evident in the sturdy trunks of its trees. Yet he is separate enough—man enough—to face the dragon alone, and find the strength and steadiness of purpose to slay it. The dragon, of course, represents evil—the devil—and the saint rids the forest of it. Can one say that it represents the inherent evil of the world? Mother Nature, in comparison, seems inherently good, which, in...

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