The Trouble with Nature imagines a troubled Edmund Burke reworking his aesthetic treatise, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (first published 1757), by travelling to the Alps in 1769 to experience the sublime for himself. Filmed with a small crew, two professional actors, and no financial support, the production of The Trouble with Nature is almost as quixotic as the film’s subject matter. Edmund Burke, played with a mixture of foppish ennui and frustrated awe by Antony Langdon, is accompanied by his own female Sancho Panza in Nathalia Acevedo’s Awak, a servant sent from the Americas by Burke’s brother, whose very presence serves to subvert Burke’s quest for mastery: her practical, female, colonial identities combine to quietly question the grounds of Burke’s desires. The film is a fantastic intervention into Burke’s aesthetic theories: his absurd Grand Tour of the Alps and his unlikely relationship with Awak are filmic fictions. However, the film offers its own aesthetically stunning, thought-provoking, and even funny philosophical enquiry into our vexed relationship with nature, and its roots in Enlightenment and Romantic thought.
Mirroring the film’s two-hander between Burke and Awak, this review takes the form of a conversation between Mary Fairclough and Andrew McInnes.
AMC: Thanks so much for bringing this film to my attention. In The Trouble with Nature, Burke carries a copy of his treatise with him on his journey across the Alps. What did you think of the film’s engagement with A Philosophical Enquiry?
MF: The film uses the Philosophical Enquiry in brilliant ways, which made me think again about the book itself. The real Edmund Burke was an empirical philosopher, and his arguments in the Philosophical Enquiry are built around the evidence of the senses, but the film helped me see how funny it is that he wrote about the sublime in nature from his house in London, without ever having experienced such scenes. So it makes sense that he might test out the theories in the book with what the film calls ‘field studies’ and ‘experiments’. But of course the experiences we see in the film can’t match up to the book’s theories, and Burke finds that very confronting! The book feels like a protagonist in the film: Burke carries it everywhere, and it gets wet, and dusty, as the journey proceeds. When unsure of himself, he reads out sections from the book to try and form his responses, but the theory just doesn’t fit the practice. The film is really interested in scale, and we see how laughable it is that the sublime might be contained within this little book. I wondered whether the film might discuss the beautiful as well, as Burke quotes once from that part of the book, and Awak is a figure who undoes Burke’s feminized models of beauty in the Philosophical Enquiry in really interesting ways; but the film keeps its focus on the sublime.
MF: You’re interested in the connections between the sublime and the ridiculous, and The Trouble with Nature certainly is too. What did you make of the film’s treatment of the ridiculous?
AMC: I really enjoyed how the film makes much of the mismatch between Burke’s sublime theories and his more ridiculous experiences in the Alps. Later aesthetic theorists than Burke such as S T Coleridge and Jean Paul Richter argue that feeling ridiculous arises from the disproportion between our finite existence and our desire to experience the infinite, and I think The Trouble with Nature embodies this idea! Its sensibilities flip between an awestruck appreciation of its mountainous scenery and a more subversive sense of its main character’s failings: Burke declares human mastery over nature in the film, but the trouble with nature, as it were, is that it escapes mastery, causing Burke discomfort and embarrassment. Attacked at one point by an army of ants, he protests: ‘That’s the trouble with nature, it’s so insistent!’ At anotjer, he memorably tries hallucinogenic mushrooms at one point, vomiting, then growling like an animal at a tree! In my research on the ridiculous, I argue that the ‘ridiculous’ (as opposed to ‘ridicule’) also encourages a feeling of togetherness, through shared laughter. I think the film works toward this other sense of the ridiculous too. For example, the relationship between Burke and Awak matures over the course of the film, so that, whilst Awak never laughs with Burke, nor does she laugh at him – I don’t think she laughs in the film – but when they share a hug towards the end of The Trouble with Nature it feels like this odd couple have reached a strange new kind of relationship.
AMC: You said that Awak is a figure who undoes Burke’s feminized models of beauty in the film – how does she accomplish this?
MF: Nathalia Acevedo is a beautiful woman, but Awak’s character and her engagement with the world contest Burke’s statements about beauty in the Philosophical Enquiry, where beauty is defined through smallness and smoothness. In his book ‘An air of robustness and strength is very prejudicial to beauty. An appearance of delicacy, and even of fragility, is almost essential to it.’ In the film Awak marches with Burke up mountains and down valleys while carrying all their possessions, and she protects and rescues him from scrapes throughout. And more fundamentally, Awak subtly challenges Burke’s insistence on aestheticizing people and things. When he asks her whether Native American people venerate darkness and obscurity (another snippet from the Philosophical Enquiry), she replies: ‘Not really. Darkness comes every night’. While he sees ruin and emptiness in the Alps, she forages, bathes, and interacts with her environment. And while for Burke in the film, ‘enlightenment’ comes from the mastery over the natural world, for Awak ‘illumination’ comes from knowing that ‘Nature has a soul. We all have a soul. And maybe it’s the same soul.’ There’s a suggestion at the end that Burke may have absorbed this idea, but it’s complicated by the film’s commitment to the ridiculous, which I enjoyed very much.
We could talk more about the visual sumptuousness of the film, or the way it provokes questions about climate change today – there’s so much to discuss! – but instead we urge our fellow eighteenth-centuryists to catch the film before it – like the glaciers around Mont Blanc – might disappear forever!