A mountain of dazzling mythologies
Roy Foster finds omniverous learning and "merciless enthusiasm" in a brilliant study of man and nature
Saturday 15 April 1995
Simon Schama is an historian who - in the grand tradition - annoys other practitioners while entertaining a public; but he is also a far more formidable intellectual operator than this implies. His scholarly reputation was made by a great book on the golden age of Dutch culture, and his popular appeal assured by a Carlylean panorama of the French Revolution. He has earned the freedom to do what pleases him, and is the pay-off.
Schama tackles the pathetic fallacy of landscape, exploring how cognition creates "nature" and how human societies invest their surroundings with self-referencing significance, often through artistic sleight-of- hand. The structure is thematic. Three main sections deal with forests, rivers and mountains, their cultural interpretation, artistic treatment and mythological significance. The illustrations are breathtaking, running through the text like footnotes as well as blazing in full colour plates; the intellectual command is masterful, the range of reference astonishing, the speculative generosity never less than engaging. The subject has - in its constituent parts - been intensively prospected by scholars; Schama omniverously invades their territories and on one level his book is a brilliant synthesis, as he himself emphasises in the text as well as the footnotes. But original research is skilfully blended in, on matters as diverse as the Nazi campaign to capture the Codex Aesinas of Tacitus's Germania, the sculptor of Mount Rushmore and the ideas of the 18th-century savant Joel Barlow. More importantly, the blend of themes and ideas is all Schama's own and must be saluted as such: even at the expense of wishing, like Melbourne with Macaulay, that one could be as cocksure about anything as he is about everything.
His argument, in the end, is optimistic: "environmentalism" (which is nothing new, as he demonstrates) presupposes our possession of the wilderness and is itself a kind of fallacy, but a creative one. And the two-way traffic with natural environment, which has characterised social development, has contributed to cultural memory in a manner that enhances the sum of human experience: even if it has been put, on occasion, to pretty suspect political uses. Continuity of metaphor is at the centre.
The best, and most bravura, section is on Wood - perhaps because it is closely related to the construction of national identity, a subject on which Schama is never less than brilliant. The origin of Lithuanian forests are projected forward to the Nazi cult of trees; Robin Hood and the Merrie Greenwood counter- culture relates to the actual state of the medieval forest economy; John Evelyn's Silva, hunting in Stuart England, and the history of landscape gardening; American redwoods are revealed as the correlative of heroic nationalism, and Yosemite as a protestant Paradise. Schama's particular interests are given full rein, notably on the connections between Nazi totalitarianism and environmentalism: the iconoclastic artist Anselm Kiefer provides a reference point, related both to Tacitus and Caspar David Friedrich (with the history of the bison as an unexpected leitmotif). In this as in other sections a gallery of eccentric individuals troops in and out: Julius von Brincken, high priest of the bison cult, Joseph Ernst von Bandel, monumental sculptor of Second Reich kitsch, Claude Franois Denecourt, "The Man Who Invented Hiking," and assorted unspeakable American nature poets.
The morality of wood figures large: foreign timber in English ships was held to breed worm and rot, and the German idea of the vibrant forest posited against arid Latin masonry is related to European national struggles long before Romanticism as well as after it. In a brilliant closing image the Holzweg, or forest trail, leads to the witch's cottage. Nor is this all. It is impossible to enumerate all the good things in this book, but attention should be drawn to the dazzling treatment of Turner and the Thames, the analysis of universalist ideas behind Aby Warburg's cultural history, James Hall and the origins of Gothic, the fluvial of the Nile, and the iconography of Bernini's foundations.
All this involves risks. A landscape is, as Schama shows, more than a landscape. But he moves on so enthusiastically to anthropomorphism, diet historiography and Jewishness, that one wonders where the frame stops. In the section on water, it is for some time unclear what obelisks have to do with the subject: then, with the transport of Cleopatra's Needle by barge to England and its erection by the Thames, he delivers the theme beautifully. A section towards the end, on snakes and gardens, similarly demands applause. As the borders expand, ideas crowd in on the reader as well as on Schama. One wants to call in absentees, like Ernest Thomson Seton, forgotten laureate of wolves and racoons, marketing the American wilderness-myth in the age of industrialisation; or add instances of emblematic landscapes magically repelling the invader (wintry Russia, boggy Ireland, the White Cliffs of Dover). If this book does nothing else it makes you think, and what sounds through it is the voice of a wonderful teacher.
And like all wonderful teachers, he can drive you mad: often through his own merciless enthusiasm. Other books are constantly "devasting," "stunning," "beautiful," "gripping." The adjectives pile up in stereo: "brilliant, taunting birds and shrieking, crested monkeys dart about immeasurably high branches"; even the youthful Schama's girlfriends are "crisply shirtwaisted."
Personality cameos are fired at the reader like powder-shot. And the author, his ancestors, his father, his children are constantly dragged in to pose against the wilderness like the Schama Family Robinson ("What was this thing my family seemed to have about forests?") It is easy to gripe, and in doing so to lose sight of the way Schama is trying to demonstrate the inherited patterns of response lying beneath our present-day comprehension of woods, parks and wildernesses. In his eyes, his own experience stands for Everyman.
This raises large questions. One is the issue of boundaries: where does this kind of Jungian history stop? Stirring up the great pool of common memory can set off ripples of fascinating interaction; but it can sometimes start a stream which follows the personal preoccupations of the magus rather than creating convincing patterns of connection. And what comes through overall is personality, bringing us back to the question of the kind of historian we are dealing with; and how he is dealing with us. Schama's preoccupation with autobiography and landscape harks back not only to Wordsworth, Ruskin and Proust but for that matter to HG Wells and his novel The Bulpington of Blup; his encomia on the Thames and his ventures into historical reconstruction summon up GK Chesterton ("A blare of brass by the edge of the Bidassoa, so loud it shook the water, too loud for the gaunt old King of Spain, whose eyes were rheumy and myopic but whose hearing was still acute. Not loud enough for the strapping young King of France. . ."); his account of the doomed Fouquet showing the fountains of Vaux to his sovereign is straight out of Dumas. It is not coincidence that Macaulay comes to mind, as does the ingenious pattern- making of his underestimated contemporary, Buckle.
For what Schama has done is to take the late 20th-century historian's preoccupations with mentality, identity, mythic construction, cultural implication, and to process them through the brilliantly-coloured magic- lantern style of the classic 19th-century populists, bursting with sentimental exuberance. Like them, he will be accused of haute-vulgarisation; like them he will cheerfully survive his critics - and so will his audience.
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