A Longing For Wide and Unknown Things: The Life of Alexander von Humboldt

Maren Meinhardt
Hurst, £25, ISBN: 978-1849048903, PP320
by Brian Morton


August 11, 2018 | by Brian Morton

My grandfather had two intellectual heroes. One was Sir Humphry Davy; the other was Alexander von Humboldt. The connection was mining, and specifically the fact that both men developed improved miners’ lamps. To my grandfather, the safety of his men was a greater human good than a cure for cancer.

He owned a very early Davy lamp, which sat on a dresser, was promised to me, but mysteriously disappeared after his death. As did, a small steel engraving of Humboldt, based on the 1843 Joseph Stieler portrait. When eventually I saw the original, I was struck by how unreadable was Humboldt’s expression, which is somehow open and profoundly guarded at the same time.

The same impression flows from Maren Meinhardt’s fine biographical study, which offers new insights into the man without in any way extending the research done by previous biographers such as Lotte Kellner and Helmut De Terra. Her book concentrates very largely on his upbringing, early career and defining voyage to South America, which lasted from 1799 till 1804, and almost nothing at all on the next fifty-five years of his life, which saw the rise of an international reputation that amounts almost to a cult.

It is difficult to sum up Humboldt’s achievements. They were in the fields of mining engineering first, a non-obvious career for a man of his interests but crucial to his philosophy and methodology, but also plant science and botanical geography, metal currency, meteorology and even climate change, which he seems to have been the first to discuss as a global phenomenon. The name Humboldt is perhaps most commonly associated with the cold, low-salt Humboldt Current (a designation he never used or acknowledged) that runs up the West coast of South America, but he is also remembered in an Alaskan glacier, mountains in Venezuela, New Zealand, New Caledonia, the US and Antarctic, more than a dozen locations across the Americas, five universities (though the one in Berlin is co-named for his brother Wilhelm), an asteroid, a lunar ‘sea’ and a dozen species – including a penguin, a squid, an oak and a river dolphin – that were previously unknown to science. His intellectual contacts included Goethe and Thomas Jefferson. Louis Agassiz was his student. He inspired John Muir, Emerson and Thoreau, and Washington Irving. His influence on Darwin and Wallace was incalculable; the seven volumes of Humboldt’s Personal Narrative – an English version of his Relation historique du voyage aux regions équinoxiales du nouveau continent – went with Darwin on the Beagle. Edgar Allan Poe dedicated his strange prose poem Eureka to Humboldt. Simon Bolivár said that he was a greater man than Columbus, who is probably the only other non-divine person with so many memorials around the world.

And yet, we know almost nothing about Humboldt the man. If mentioning the abrupt cut-off of Maren Meinhardt’s account sounds like a quibble, it is not. Nor is pointing out that her book has no map or diagram of Humboldt’s journeys. But while A Longing For Wide and Unknown Things will send a curious reader many times to the atlas, the absence of an easily followed itinerary is also a strong reminder that Humboldt’s journeys were also inward ones, and involved not just mileage, but also depth.

It began with mining. To the Romantic imagination, going deep into the earth was a profound psychological experience, akin to but different from that of climbing high mountains. Humboldt combined the two when he produced a cut-away of the South American continent, made through the peaks of Chimborazo, which was then believed to be the highest in the world above sea level but which is still acknowledged as the farthest point from the earth’s centre. On the exposed face of the rock, Humboldt wrote the names of plant species that could be expected at different altitudes. As Meinhardt says, the effect is aesthetic rather than particularly useful, since the names are in the tiniest script.

This is somehow typical and telling. Humboldt does not seem to have been particularly interested in reputation or fame. He cheerfully ceded co-authorship of the great work of 1814 to 1825 to his travel companion Aimé Bonpland, even though the Frenchman only contributed one volume. It may be that Humboldt was so wedded to the Romantic preference for fragments and for the unattainable that he was a poor finisher. He didn’t complete a university degree, despite three starts, and all his great work was done on the foundation of a diploma from the Freiberg School of Mines. He struggled on the slopes of Chimborazo, but made no further attempt to complete the climb. His great work Kosmos – the work that inspired Poe and for which Humboldt is seen holding a cartoon or prospectus in the Stieler portrait – was never finished. It was to have been a project that unified the natural sciences, but as Humboldt himself said in a different context, ‘the seemingly unattainable holds a mysterious attraction’.

The use of ‘seemingly’ is important. It looks very much as if Humboldt’s characteristic response was to hold back. He certainly held back from people. He was outwardly gregarious, even passionate in his friendships, but denied any ‘sensual needs’. He may have been asexual, but there are rumours of visits to bawdy houses in Quito. He may very well have been gay. He was a favourite subject for early sexological researchers who wanted to reclaim him from the mythifiers who had bleached him clear and clean of all physical need or desire. His friendships with men have a peculiar intensity. He wrote love letters to Wilhelm Gabriel Wegener, a theology student. He then lived with a soldier Reinhardt von Haeften, and even proposed a ménage à trois when the young man became engaged. He lived cheek by jowl with Bonpland for five years, often in inhospitable places, and he later lived with Joseph Louis Gay Lussac and François Arago, the latter also married, but more crucially also a scientist.

It may very well be that Humboldt had found a way of not so much sublimating as expressing those ‘sensual needs’ through scientific activity. It seems improbable to us, who so readily accept homosexuality as a social norm that we look for it even where it is not present, or use terms like ‘married to his work’ for men who seem to have no time or inclination for a romantic life. The issue becomes clearer – and Meinhardt does very well in conveying this without making a specific point of it – that Humboldt seems to stand on the cusp of modern science, indeed as one of its founders, but with a foot planted very firmly in an older mystical/magickal understanding of science as a branch of the occult and esoteric.

When he spoke about his forerunner, the cartographer Charles Marie de la Condamine, he commented that the Frenchman ‘did not go beyond quantity’. This is an important distinction because it was central to Humboldt’s way of thinking that all the taxonomising in the world did not reveal ultimate answers, that all the carefully rescued samples did not add up to true knowledge. Time and again, he refers to understanding in terms of profound intuition, a process of sinking into the landscape (again the Romantic trope of mines and caves) and understanding its flora and fauna as part of a breathing, dynamic system. The poet and mystic known as Novalis – who also began his career working in the salt mines of Saxony – invented the symbol of the ‘blue flower’ in his novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen. It came to represent not just Romantic beauty, but also a search for the unattainable. One hardly needs to note that Humboldt didn’t just create floral metaphors; he botanized in the field, and could not just taxonomise any blue blossom he found but also point to its proper altitude, soil and wider ecology. Even so, that isn’t to caricature Humboldt as a scientific modernist. His approach to science is actually much closer to Novalis’s dream of ‘universal progressive poesy’.

This point heaves close in Meinhardt’s chapter on ‘The Compensations of Mining’ but is never quite stated. She does, however, show how the Ofterdingen miners are pulled in two directions, deeper into the earth, but also intensely peripatetic and restless. This had a resonance for my grandfather as well; as a 19-year-old, he climbed out of a West Lothian pit and went off to become a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps. Meinhardt’s beautiful title – which I’ve already heard misquoted as ‘wild and unknown things’; the real version is important – suggests how deeply Wanderlust settled into the Romantic philosophy. Novalis, perhaps anticipating Tennyson’s Ulysses, writes ‘Come, friends, let us flee / The shackles Europe builds, / And go to unspoilt Tahiti’. It’s difficult to determine what shackles precisely held down Humboldt. He had no close connection to his mother, who seems as glacially remote and uninviting as the upper slopes of Chimborazo. To his brother Wilhelm, he is clearly the family oddity, viewed with affection but not much in the way of real understanding. He looks out at us from the Stieler portrait, almost pretty even in middle age, wrists crossed demurely in his lap, a globe at his side and Kosmos in his grasp. There are other portraits, by German and American artists, taken at different ages, but until now there has been nothing to match the Stieler canvas. A Longing For Wide and Unknown Things is that comparatively rare thing, a completely convincing biographical portrait of a highly complex individual, done in less than 250 pages. If it isn’t insensitive to say it, this is a book about a scientist that could only have been written by the widow of a poet, who’s revealed as a poet herself. Maren Meinhardt was married to Mick Imlah until his early death in 2009. We should note, in passing, that Imlah’s first book was called The Zoologist’s Bath and that, since the Poet Laureate’s Ulysses has been invoked, he was also a rare latter-day supporter of Tennyson, the poet who gave us our Novalis-like image of nature – ‘red in tooth and claw’ – as a predatory beast. It’s tempting to add an epigraph to Meinhardt’s lovely, profound book. The opening line of one of Imlah’s poems seems apposite here: ‘Where are you taking us, sir?

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