There are men with a yen—no hobbit in their shire—who as ‘liminotropes’ are irresistibly drawn to the limits of the known. In Europe they expanded the bounds of their reality through Jason and his Argonauts … to Marco Polo …
to that liminomanic (?), Alexander von Humboldt, who at the turn of the nineteenth century critically focused his manifold interests on South America, journeying through what was then called New Granada and Peru (today Venezuela, Ecuador, and–of course- Peru) transforming Europe’s perception of the ‘New World.’ To the right, Humboldt is depicted in his latter years, the Ecuadorian volcano, Chimborazo his background, avoiding our eyes with introspection, annotating what I take to be his memoirs–the portrait a metonymy for memory. His exploits were so huge, and branching in so many directions, that I am tempted to say that Humboldt must be one of the few ambitious men in history who remembered becoming what they dreamed to be (for his exploits, see The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World ). What Humboldt himself wrote, remembering what inspired him–and the exemplar that he was–is: “What we glean from travellers’ vivid descriptions has a special charm; whatever is far off and suggestive excites our imagination; such pleasures tempt us far more than anything we may daily experience in the narrow circle of sedentary life.”
Humboldt helped turn the tropism of distances such as his into a trope of the nineteenth century itself, one aspect of so-called ‘Romanticism.’ Below, seemingly dressed for the city–no less somber in his black than Humboldt–Keats is likewise situated in Nature and ignoring our attention, no doubt dreaming of far off things. Perhaps he is remembering his sonnet, On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer (1816):
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
Keat’s poem is an extended metaphor for wonder as liminal; it depicts—as in Humboldt’s explorations—the far edge of the new as existing in what was (and still is, in a fading sort of way) the New World.
Darwin was not strange to the charms of that New World. Born1809, he went to Cambridge to study in1828. There, while engaging in such studies and staid pursuits as are proper to the country gentleman, he acquired a passion for Humboldt’s hugely popular account of his travels (Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America, During the Year 1799-1804) and radically changed the course of his life by planning to follow in Humboldt’s footsteps. He also read the Romantic poets. And there is no doubt in my mind that ‘liminotropism’ led the bookish, land-bound Darwin to attempt distant escapes eastward by sea, until at last he managed to board the one ship that would take him, the Beagle. He brought with him all seven massive volumes of Humboldt’s Personal Narrative…. (What Charles Darwin read on the ‘Beagle’). However, the Beagle’s mission radically redirected Darwin from Humboldt’s ‘footsteps’ shown below:
The irony is huge, that by totally failing to follow Humboldt’s actual path (save for the initial sailing south for the trade winds), Darwin went on to craft his theory of evolution. And he ended up at first, not in lush jungles teeming with tropical life, but—of all places!—barren Patagonia, devoid of everything … as he himself retrospectively comments in his Journal and Remarks, 1832-1836:
In calling up images of the past, I find the plains of Patagonia frequently cross before my eyes: yet these plains are pronounced by all most wretched and useless. They are characterized only by negative possessions; without habitations, without water, without trees, without mountains, they support merely a few dwarf plants. Why then, and the case is not peculiar to myself, have these arid wastes taken so firm possession of the memory? Why have not the still more level, the greener and more fertile Pampas, which are serviceable to mankind, produced an equal impression? I can scarcely analyze these feelings: but it must be partly owing to the free scope given to the imagination. If, as the ancients supposed, the flat earth was surrounded by an impassable breadth of water, or by deserts heated to an intolerable excess, who would not look at these last boundaries to man’s knowledge with deep but ill-defined sensations?
Darwin’s fascination with Patagonia’s “negative possessions”—to me powerfully reminiscent of Keats’ “negative capability”—underscores the ‘romanticism’ that underlay his notion of science as something done by a traveler in a place (in Humboldt’s words) “far off and suggestive,” And also, as something which can come into its own in retrospect….
What I propose is that, whatever Patagonia might be in itself, what Darwin made of it is an extension of the Humboldtian dream become an icon … farther off for Europe, even, than the marvels of Venezuela and Ecuador, and by its very emptiness a kind of screen on which the inheritors of ‘romantic’ imagination are able to project their dreams….
Edgar Allan Poe dedicated his extraordinary universe-encompassing poem, Eureka, to Humboldt. And in his Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, surely–to my mind at least—Poe is operating on the assumption that Patagonia is the bound of the known … and beyond it the snowy screen–or screed- of dreams.
Barry Lopez, in his remarkable book, Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape, explores, and meditates upon, that other northern limit of our terraqueous globe.
And in Bruce Chatwin’s eponymic work, In Patagonia, fittingly, and quasi-scientifically (as one following Darwin’s trajectory), Chatwin begins his narrative with these words:
In my grandmothers’ dining room there was a glass-fronted cabinet and in that cabinet a piece of skin. It was a small piece only, but thick and leathery, with strands of coarse, reddish hair. It was stuck to the card with a rusty pin….
‘A piece of brontosaurus….’
This brontosaurus, I learned, had lived in Patagonia, a country in South America, at the far end of the world.
Stay tuned. There’s always more to Patagonia….