Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Alexander von Humboldt anew

Voyages aux régions équinoxiales du nouveau continent

 A new book on Alexander von Humboldt has appeared (so far only in the UK), the second in the last few years. (Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature was published in 2015 to great acclaim.) Entitled A Longing for Wide and Unknown Things: The Life of Alexander von Humboldt, its author is Maren Meinhardt.  I came across a review of it today in the Literary Review, an English publication that was the first out of the gate on reviewing the English translation of Rüdiger Safranski’s most recent book on Goethe (discussed here in my blog: ). The title of the Humboldt review is "He Never Sat an Exam," which refers to AvH’s slowness as a young scholar, indeed, per the reviewer (Peter Moore), his reputation as an “unpromising boy.” Wilhelm, his brother, was the genius in the family.

Humboldt is somewhat like Goethe, in popping up in the most varied contexts. Besides Daniel Kehlmann’s Measuring the World, a few years back I read An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, a very charming novella by the prolific Argentinian writer César Aira. The landscape painter in question was Johann Moritz Rugendas (1802–1858), one of a number of German painters who traveled to the New World during the "century of peace" following the Napoleonic wars. Rugendas's travels took him to the Spanish, French, and Portuguese colonial territories. The novella concerns Rugendas's attempt to portray the landscapes of the Caribbean and Central and South America according to the physiognomic theories of Humboldt. The term “physiognomy” is suggestive of Lavater, of course, Goethe’s erstwhile friend, neither of whom is mention in the novella.

Views of the Cordilleras, pl. 41
Rugendas, as portrayed in the novella, is continually making sketches that will then be integrated into a meaningful "totality," a Naturgemälde. The backdrop is the imposition of the European colonial vision on the non-European continent and people, which leads to the "episode" that changes the life of the painter Rugendas.

According to the publisher’s page on the new Humboldt biography, the author and her two daughters retraced Humboldt’s footsteps in Ecuador in the summer of 2014. Very impressive. I once followed in Goethe’s footsteps in Sesenheim.

Image credits: Cambridge University Library; Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University