The Invention of Nature - The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the Lost Hero of Science
by Andrea Wulf
Published October, 2015
The luminosity of the ocean counts as one of those gorgeous occurences in Nature that give rise to wonderment, even when one has watched it return nightly for months… indescribably glorious is the spectacle that a pod of frolicking dolphins create in the tropical seas by the dark of night… their paths traced out in sparks and intense light… When we bathed at Cumaná on the Gulf of Cariaco and walked about naked in the pleasant night air along the lonely shore, various places on our bodies continued to glow… During my voyage across to South America, I occasionally placed a Medusa on a tin plate. If I struck the plate with another metal object, the smallest vibrations of the tin were sufficient to cause the animal to luminesce. — Alexander von Humboldt, Views of Nature.
When cultural commentator Phillip Adams was angered by the inaccuracies of Where the Green Ants Dream (1984), Werner Herzog’s feature film about Aboriginal land rights, he described the director as a ‘wild-eyed German genius whose personal genre involved depictions of disastrous encounters between indigenous people and deranged Europeans’. Over thirty films and three decades later, Herzog is still a relentless explorer of other worlds. Also an occasional actor, it was fitting that he should make a cameo appearance as Alexander von Humboldt in Home from Home (2013), Edgar Reitz’s epic film about nineteenth-century Germans who dream of going to Brazil.
From early childhood, Alexander von Humboldt dreamed only of leaving Germany. In this he was not alone. There’s an intriguing species of such dreamers who (if we’re looking for a nomenclature) might be dubbed Homo qui reliquerit Germaniam. They are exiles and emigrants and explorers like Karl Mauch, Heinrich von Poser, Heinrich Barth, the Merians mother and daughter, the Forsters father and son who sailed with Captain Cook on his second voyage, the Schlagintweit brothers, the Schomburgk brothers, Reitz’s cinematic Simon brothers, Ludwig Leichhardt, Ferdinand von Mueller, Ludwig Becker, Hermann Beckler, the Austrians Baron von Hügel and Ida Pfeiffer, the fictional Peter Schlemihl and his author Chamisso. They shared an elemental urge to leave home. Some even got as far as Australia, others (including Humboldt) tried but didn’t succeed.
Born in Berlin in 1769, he had a privileged but unhappy childhood. He was nine when his father died. His mother was emotionally distant from her children. At home at Schloss Tegel — though barely a castle, a Schlösschen rather than a Schloss, as the novelist Theodor Fontane quipped — he and his brother Wilhelm were educated by tutors. While Wilhelm was studious, Alexander was restless and a bit wild, preferring to roam outdoors or read about explorers. Perhaps he was a boy like Max in Maurice Sendak’s children’s classic Where the Wild Things Are, who misbehaved and his mother sent him to his room without supper and deeply hurt by this punishment, he dreamed himself into a grand adventure, he wanted to be far away, but also ‘where someone loved him best of all’.
We have to speculate about such feelings, because Alexander’s most recent biographer Andrea Wulf chooses not to delve too deeply into questions of love and intimacy. She doesn’t psychologize. Instead, she steers a clear course to reclaim him as the lost hero of science, concentrating on larger perspectives — his adventures and discoveries — which unfold as follows.
Wilhelm enrolled in law at the university of Göttingen, where Alexander joined him for a year to study science, mathematics and languages and where he was strongly influenced by the charismatic physician Johann Friedrich Blumenbach. Like many others at that time, including Kant and Goethe, Blumenbach was on a quest to find life’s creative force, its Bildungstrieb. They looked for this essence in electrophysiology. Alexander too was intrigued by galvanism and in his spare time experimented on himself. Wulf describes how ‘with a scalpel he made incisions on his arms and torso. Then he carefully rubbed chemicals and acids into the open wounds or stuck metals, wires and electrodes on to his skin or under his tongue. Every twitch, every convulsion, burning sensation or pain was noted meticulously’.
It was in Göttingen that Humboldt met the naturalist and revolutionary Georg Forster and in the spring and summer of 1790 the two travelled along the Rhine to the Netherlands, and on to England, returning via France. Wulf passes over this relationship without too much fuss, but contemporary friends like Julius Löwenberg saw Forster as Humboldt’s ‘guiding star’, ‘with whom he enjoyed the deepest sympathy in all his tastes and pursuits’. In London, Humboldt was enchanted by views of the Thames busy with ships from around the world and inspired by his meetings with globetrotters like William Bligh and Joseph Banks. He was fired up to begin his own journeys. But first he wanted to learn more about geology and enrolled at the mining academy in Freiberg near Dresden, which led to an appointment as mining inspector, with work across Europe, just as he’d hoped. Deeply concerned for the welfare and education of miners, he wrote textbooks, founded a school, advocated for better conditions and invented safer equipment for them, including a filtered mask and a reliable lamp.
In 1794 Alexander visited Wilhelm and his wife Caroline in Jena, where they were part of a circle around Germany’s most celebrated poets, Friedrich Schiller and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Everyone, it seemed, was reading Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and discussing rationalism, empiricism, and the concurrence of interior and exterior worlds. Goethe and Alexander also shared an interest in botany, zoology, and geology. It was the beginning of a close friendship. Goethe said Humboldt gave him more in an hour than he would have gained from a week of reading, their talks made him ‘dizzy with ideas’, and it’s likely that Humboldt’s vast intelligence and impatience to gain even greater knowledge inspired Goethe’s Faust, his highest literary achievement.
When their hard-to-please mother died in 1796, her sons did not attend her funeral. They were liberated. Alexander resigned as mining inspector and looked for an opportunity to join a voyage of discovery. To prepare himself, he read more books, bought and tested instruments, acquired mountaineering skills in the Alps, studied plants in hothouses and botanical gardens around Europe, and interviewed scientists.
In Paris he met the botanist Aimé Bonpland and with similar ideas, they formed a team. There were several failed attempts to join expeditions, including one led by Nicolas Baudin to map the coast of New Holland. In the summer of 1799, when they finally set out for South America on the Spanish frigate Pizarro, Humboldt noted in his diary that he was in a good mood, as befits the beginning of a great work. Seeing the constellation of the Southern Cross for the first time was his childhood dream come true.
In the colonial province of New Andalusia (today’s Venezuela), where they arrived in July 1799, they were overwhelmed by nature’s abundance. Bonpland thought he’d go mad ‘if the wonders don’t stop soon’. By boat and with a servant they travelled from Cumaná to Caracas, then with four mules south towards the Rio Apure, a tributary of the Orinoco, with a detour into the Aragua Valley, where corn, sugarcane and indigo were grown. The farmers were proud of their crops but concerned about soil erosion and the falling water levels of Lake Valencia. It was obvious to Humboldt that agricultural practices such as deforestation and irrigation were destroying the environment.
Humboldt and Bonpland continued south across hot and dusty plains. At a small town they were told about electric eels in nearby ponds. To demonstrate the eels’ powerful shocks, locals herded wild horses through the ponds, creating a horrific scene. Undaunted, the two scientists then also tested the eels’ electricity on themselves, enduring shocks until they were sick.
With a small entourage and a growing menagerie of birds and monkeys and a dog, they travelled by boat to the confluence of the Apure with the Orinoco, and along that river until they found the Casiquiare, to test the rumour that it linked the Amazon and Orinoco. These waters were teeming with fish, river dolphins, boa constrictors and crocodiles. Along the shoreline they spotted capybaras, tapirs, jaguars, flamingoes, herons and spoonbills. At night they lit protective fires on riverbanks and hung their hammocks in trees. For Humboldt the nocturnal sounds were a chorus of ‘many voices proclaiming to us that all nature breathes’. He was moved by the beauty, and the perpetual fight for survival in the forest. He tasted the river water to detect changes; the Orinoco was disgusting and the Rio Atabapo delicious. When they finally reached the Casiquiare, they found that local tribes already knew it connected to the Amazon.
By July 1800 they had left the jungle and with a lot more luggage, including more menagerie cages, they were on their way back across the now soggy plains. From Cumaná they sailed to Cuba. And they still hoped to join the Baudin expedition, if they could manage to catch up with it. They sorted the specimens they’d collected. To avoid losing their collections at sea, they split them up, sending some to France, others to Germany, via Joseph Banks in England.
In his letters to friends Humboldt describes the marvels he’s seen and the dangers he’s escaped. He declares he’s never felt better. To a close friend (identified by Wulf in her chapter notes as Christiane von Haeften), he wrote ‘and you, dearest, how is your monotonous life?’ Wulf lets the comment stand as a humorous swagger. But in fact, Christiane had just given birth, hardly a monotonous moment, and her husband Reinhard von Haeften has been identified by other biographers as one of Humboldt’s lovers.
In March 1801 Humboldt and Bonpland sailed from Cuba to the coast of what is now Colombia. They were still heading to Lima to join Baudin. En route they stopped in Bogotá to meet the famous botanist José Celestino Mutis. And in Quito in January 1802 they heard that Baudin’s route to New Holland had been wrongly reported, as he was sailing via South Africa, not South America. Humboldt promptly adjusted his plans and set out to study Andean volcanoes. He wrote that nothing could ‘conjure up something as sinister, mournful, and deathly’ as what he saw when he looked into their craters. Many years later Goethe teased Humboldt about his passion for volcanoes, announcing that a friend of his, the brilliant Polish pianist and composer Maria Szymanowska, would come to visit: ‘I’m sending you a female volcano’.
In Quito Humboldt met tall, dark and handsome Carlos de Montúfar. He was not a scientist but — as ‘Humboldt’s Adonis’, it was rumoured — he was invited to join the expedition. Wulf believes their friendship was platonic and that Humboldt replaced sexuality with other kinds of ‘strenuous activity’.
One such exertion was his ascent of Chimborazo in the Andes on 23 June 1802. At one stage he and his three companions crawled on hands and knees along a high narrow ridge in some sections only two inches wide. Their clothes and equipment were inadequate, ‘ice crystals clung to their hair and beards’, the high mountain air made it hard to breathe, the rocky terrain had torn their shoes and made their feet bleed. If anyone lost his grip, he’d fall 300 metres down a sharply serrated cliff. It’s often been told that despite the dangers, Humboldt the scientist kept observing, measuring, collecting, making notes, and from this moment he came to understand nature’s diversity from a ‘higher point of view’.
This Chimborazo climb was ‘the crown of his obsession’, and all the dangers and difficulties were overcome by the sheer thrill of what he saw, ‘vegetation through the lens of climate and location: a radically new idea that still shapes our understanding of ecosystems today’. In a fine drawing that depicts a cross-section of Chimborazo, Humboldt listed the plants that grew at different altitudes, ranging from tropical palms at the base, to lichens at the snow line, with densely written marginal notes on temperature, humidity, and atmospheric pressure.
The explorers proceeded south. As well as gathering scientific information, Humboldt studied ancient manuscripts and recorded what he learned about indigenous people, their languages and culture. He lamented the devastation of cinchona trees. Since it was discovered that the quinine of their bark was a cure for malaria, they were stripped and left to die. And pursuing his geomagnetic interests with constant measurements, he discovered the magnetic equator. From Lima they sailed towards Guayaquil and along the way he documented the rich waters of the cold current running along the west coast of South America. It now bears his name.
After a year in Mexico City, which he spent mostly in libraries and archives, they went north and in May 1804 arrived in Philadelphia. He wanted to meet President Jefferson, whom he admired for his political ideals, scientific interests and progressive agricultural practices. Both men loved reading and measuring, they understood and liked each other and met several times. Humboldt briefed the President and his advisors about Latin America. But on slavery they disagreed profoundly. Jefferson could not bring himself to abolish it, while Humboldt saw it as an evil tyranny. His South American diaries are full of descriptions of the miseries of slaves and the cruelties of plantation owners. Unlike Jefferson, Humboldt believed in a common humanity with all ‘alike designed for freedom’.
At every moment he was outspokenly critical of Spanish colonialism. In Mexican mines he’d studied their geology and productivity, and denounced the terrible conditions of indigenous labourers. He’d seen people impoverished by the loss of subsistence farming, trees destroyed and soils made barren for the sake of monocultures, like indigo in the Aragua valley and sugar in Cuba. Wulf stresses that ‘Humboldt was the first to relate colonialism to the devastation of the environment’.
In August 1804 he arrived in Paris to a hero’s welcome. He’d brought back an immense number of items, notes, and 60,000 plant specimens, many never seen before: ‘The French Board of Longitude used his exact geographical measurements, others copied his maps, engravers worked on his illustrations and the Jardin des Plantes opened an exhibition displaying his botanical specimens.’ Wulf compares the importance of his rock samples from Chimborazo to those brought back from the moon in the twentieth century. He worked hard preparing and delivering lectures, and distributing his specimens to scientists across Europe, drank a lot of coffee and slept very little. And all the time he ignored requests to return to Germany.
For a short period Napoleon’s Paris was in a state of perpetual intellectual excitement. Here Humboldt, Montúfar and Bonpland kept company with a group of South Americans, including the future revolutionary Simón Bolívar, who was deeply disappointed when his hero Napoleon crowned himself emperor. Then the three explorers went their separate ways, Bonpland to see his family at La Rochelle — and in gratitude for Bonpland’s loyal friendship, Humboldt organized for the government to pay him an annual pension — and Montúfar to Madrid and then back to South America, where in 1816 he was executed as a revolutionary. In Views of Nature Humboldt wrote that Montúfar ‘was a fine young man…who…courageously met a violent but honorable death in the war of independence that rose from the Spanish colonies’ noble and impassioned love of freedom’ and that ‘Bonpland and I cannot utter [his name] without a pang of sorrow’.
Humboldt had met the young chemist Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac, who flew hot air balloons to study magnetism, temperature and air pressure, and they began lecturing and travelling together, including a crossing of the Alps into Italy, to visit Wilhelm, now Prussian Minister to the Vatican in Rome. Bolívar also arrived in Rome. A small group then left for Naples, where Humboldt set off immediately to climb Vesuvius as it was erupting. He wrote to Bonpland that the spectacle was nothing compared to what they’d seen in South America.
Late in 1805 Humboldt finally returned to Germany, stopping in Göttingen to visit old friends and arriving in Berlin in the most awful winter weather. He got sick. But he had spent most of his inheritance and was glad of a large pension offered by the king, who made him his chamberlain. A family friend gave him the use of a house, so he could continue to work. He was impatient with Bonpland’s lack of progress in compiling their botanical notes for a book and decided to produce his Essay on the Geography of Plants alone. The first of his thirty-four-volume travel accounts, it was based on his detailed sketch of Chimborazo and drew on Friedrich Schelling’s philosophy, which regarded the Self as identical with nature. It was dedicated to Goethe.
Humboldt wanted to return to Paris but was prevented by Napoleon’s wars. ‘Buried in the ruins of an unhappy fatherland’, as he wrote to a friend, he now wished he’d stayed in South America. He poured this yearning into a new work of scientific lyricism, Views of Nature, establishing himself as a writer as much as a traveller. Wulf points out that even the annotations ‘were gems in themselves… little essays… fragments of thoughts or pointers towards future discoveries’ such as his influence on the writing of Thoreau and Emerson, and Darwin’s theory of evolution.
The Prussian king sent Humboldt on a diplomatic mission to negotiate with Napoleon, who did not like the German explorer. The mission failed but Humboldt stayed on. When Napoleon tried to deport him, the scientific community protested. Humboldt was too well-connected and widely admired. By early 1810 he finished Vues des Cordillères et monuments des peuples indigènes de l’Amerique, a folio edition of superb engravings. Bonpland had become head gardener for the Empress Josephine at Malmaison. Gay-Lussac got married, replaced in Humboldt’s affections by the mathematician François Arago. And Wilhelm, now Prussian ambassador in Vienna, was disturbed that his brother had ostentatiously ‘stopped being German’.
Inspired by Humboldt’s descriptions of South American landscapes, Simón Bolívar was homesick. As waves of revolutionary uprisings against Spanish rule gripped the continent, he returned to Venezuela to participate in the overthrow of colonialism. Wulf describes him as a forceful leader with a soft side, a dancer and reader, whose belief in the power of the written word had him transporting printing presses on his campaigns across the Andes. The rebellion turned into bloody warfare. And in Europe and North America, leaders depended on Humboldt to explain what was happening, while Bolívar himself was consulting his old friend’s Political Essay of New Spain (1811), to find out more about places, people and widespread examples of Spanish abuse of colonial power, based as Wulf points out, on Humboldt’s ‘own observations, supplemented with information he had received from the colonial scientists whom he had met during his expedition…underpinned with the statistical and demographic data from governmental archives, mainly in Mexico City and Havana’. Over many years, as Bolívar led his troops in their freedom fight, he found himself on plains Humboldt had crossed and on mountains he’d climbed. His poem ‘My Delirium on Chimborazo’ (1822) celebrates the liberation of Latin America. Humboldt praised him for what he had achieved.
In his writing, Humboldt had equated Spanish colonialism in South America with British rule in India. Now he wanted to travel to India, to climb and study the Himalayas. And although in England he was well received by leading scientists, admired by Wordsworth and Coleridge, and his books were popular, the East India Company saw him as a threat and did not give him permission to travel. Making matters worse, he’d intended to stay with his brother, now Prussian ambassador to Britain, but Wilhelm disapproved of his male companion and withdrew his hospitality. He visited London again the following year and was sure this time his application to travel to India would be successful, since he’d obtained the promise of financial assistance from the Prussian king. And so he bought new instruments, planned his route, was learning Persian and Arabic. But again he was refused a permit.
Napoleon had lost at Leipzig, was exiled to Elba, escaped, was beaten at Waterloo and exiled to St Helena. Josephine had died in 1814 and by 1817, Bonpland had returned to South America, where he ran into trouble for growing yerba mate near the border with Paraguay, was accused of being a French spy and imprisoned; both Bolívar and Humboldt did their best to have him released.
In Paris Humboldt received many visitors, including the British geologist Charles Lyell, with whom he discussed his discovery of isotherms, which Lyell then applied to his own theories of the earth’s geological variations. He was generous with his ideas, money (what little was left) and time and helped other scientists in their careers. But with the ultra-royalists’ return to power, Paris had changed. The works of Rousseau and Voltaire were being removed from libraries and scientific theories were questioned by religious leaders. Humboldt was now in his mid fifties, poor and suffering from rheumatism. With the Prussian king still paying him a stipend and urging him to return to Berlin, Humboldt finally gave in.
He took a detour via London, meeting with the mathematician Mary Somerville and the botanist Robert Brown who told him about his exploration in Australia. In a diving bell he accompanied Isambard Kingdom Brunel to view the tunnel being built under the Thames. He arrived in Berlin in May 1827, dreading a life centred on the royal court. Friedrich Wilhelm III had a tight grip on the state, from censorship to militarism, and expected loyalty for supporting Humboldt financially all these years.
Nor did things look good elsewhere. In Europe Metternich was crushing democracy, in South America Bolívar the freedom fighter had become dictatorial, and parts of the United States still had not abolished slavery. Disillusioned, Humboldt concentrated on science and education, starting with a series of popular lectures. Newspapers described audiences mesmerized by the irresistible power of Humboldt’s wonderfully associative thinking. Next he organized an international science conference, where excellent meals, concerts and excursions, as well as meetings at the botanical garden and in museums, facilitated talk and the flow of ideas. The mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss said the event was like pure oxygen.
He visited Goethe. And Wilhelm, who was now living at Tegel. He stayed in close touch with his brother and sister-in-law during her illness. In April 1829, a few weeks after her death, he set off with three carriages and a small team — some scientists, a hunter, a French count, a cook, and Cossack guards — to travel across Russia. He’d been invited by the tsar to ascertain the nation’s mineral wealth and to suggest more efficient methods of mining. But he was forbidden any commentary on Russian politics or social conditions. When his team discovered diamonds in the Urals, Humboldt felt he’d fulfilled his duties.
And so, on reaching the easternmost point of their route, Humboldt decided to take a huge detour across the steppes covered in summer flowers, to see the Altai Mountains. He likened the steppes to the plains of Venezuela and now wanted to compare the Altai to the Andes. When they were warned by villagers about an anthrax epidemic, Humboldt reckoned that at his age nothing should be postponed and the group rushed ahead, through scenes of death and despair where the disease had struck. Early August they arrived in the mining districts of the Altai foothills and moved on to what is now Kazakhstan. Leaving their carriages and baggage at a fortress, they continued their climb. This was to be the ‘real joy’ of the expedition, but snow made the mountains impassable and they did not get far. Humboldt was keen to cross the Chinese-Mongolian border, follow the Russian-Chinese frontier and take a second long detour to the Caspian Sea.
To reach the shores of the Caspian had been another childhood dream and now, as Wulf explains, ‘he was happy. He had seen deep mines and snow-capped mountains as well as the largest dry steppe in the world. He had drunk tea with the Chinese commanders at the Mongolian border as well as fermented mare’s milk with the Kyrgyz’, in his honour a Kalmyk choir had sung Mozart overtures, he’d watched a naked Indian fakir in Astrakhan, and in Orenburg a political exile showed him his treasured copy of Humboldt’s Political Essay of New Spain. He’d measured everything measurable and was returning with vast collections of plants and rocks and sketches, and for his brother’s linguistic research, some ancient manuscripts.
By mid-November the group was welcomed in Moscow and St Petersburg. He was introduced to the poet Pushkin, advised officials against further deforestation, lectured on geomagnetism, and asked the tsar to pardon political exiles he’d met. He proposed that Russia should be part of a global collaboration on collecting and analysing scientific data. The travellers spent Christmas in Königsberg and a few days later arrived in Berlin. Humboldt was said to be fizzing with excitement.
When Charles Darwin set out as naturalist on the Beagle in 1831, he took Humboldt’s seven-volume Personal Narrative, which had — along with Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology — motivated him to go on this voyage. From South America, where the flowers would ‘make a florist go wild’, he wrote home to say ‘I formerly admired Humboldt, I now almost adore him’, ‘like another Sun [he] illuminates everything I behold’ and asked his family to send him more of Humboldt’s books. Wulf selects quotes from Darwin’s own writings that are clearly echoes of his mentor’s words and feelings, suggesting that throughout this expedition Darwin conducted an inner dialogue with Humboldt about the interconnectedness of nature. Just as Humboldt had documented variations of geography, botany and climate, so Darwin was observing the migration and transformation of species. Both returned from their travels with evidence of change and adaptability in nature. When Darwin published his Voyage of the Beagle in 1839, he sent a copy to Humboldt, who replied with praise and was proud to have been its inspiration.
Joseph Dalton Hooker called on the 75-year old Humboldt in Paris, with instructions from Darwin to ask him certain questions. He was shocked by his stoop, disarmed by his distinctive loquacity, and pleased that his mind was still sharp. Humboldt showed him the proofs for the first volume of Cosmos, which he’d been working on for a decade. At a time when the sciences were being professionalized as separate disciplines, Humboldt resisted this trend. Determined to describe all of nature in a single book, he called in his contacts. It would be a collaborative project.
Cosmos was a bestseller and widely translated. A dreadful translation appeared in a hurry in England, snapped up by Darwin and Hooker and Lyell. The second volume appeared in 1847 and was another huge success. The book included a discussion of feelings, the senses and the mind, history, poetry and art in relation to nature. In America, it inspired Emerson, Poe and Whitman, and most importantly Thoreau, who measured and recorded and interpreted what he saw on his daily walks around Concord, intent on combining science and imagination, as he wrote and rewrote Walden.
Although Humboldt had hoped for constitutional change to happen peacefully, when European politics erupted in 1848, he led a funeral procession for fallen revolutionaries. He believed people’s striving for freedom and change is ‘eternal as the electromagnetic storm which sparkles in the sun’, and thought a united Germany should be a federation of states, one organism made up of separate units, as in nature.
He was working on a third and then a fourth volume of Cosmos and new editions in German and English of Views of Nature. Revered as ‘the world’s greatest living man’, he attended to an ever growing bulk of correspondence, wrote hundreds of references, received seemingly endless streams of visitors, and continued to support young scientists and explorers and artists, including Louis Agassiz, Joseph Dalton Hooker, and the far-roaming Schlagintweit brothers. They all happily brought information back to him from around the globe. He regretted not having climbed the Himalayas. He kept trying to persuade people to build a canal across Panama. And he continued to be outraged about slavery in America. Letters from Bonpland were a great joy; after his ten years in prison, Bonpland had chosen to stay in South America where he died in 1858.
In his last years Humboldt’s life was more solitary. At the Linnaean Association in Pennsylvania in the late 1850s he was described as great and gentle, but bent ‘under the weight of years and honors’. It was said that whenever he was recognized in public, there was a silent parting of the crowd to let him pass, with reverent whispers of ‘there goes Humboldt’. His apartment in Oranienburger Strasse was always heated to tropical temperatures and he was cared for by his devoted servant Johann Seiffert. As he got older and weaker, ‘labouring under extreme depression of spirits, the result of a correspondence which daily increases’, he placed an ad in the paper begging people to stop writing to him. He completed the fifth volume of Cosmos in April 1859, collapsed and — after exclaiming at the beauty of sunbeams dancing on the wall — died a month later. He was given a truly grand funeral.
Those close to Humboldt said he had a generous heart and an often malicious tongue. We’re told his mind moved so quickly, that he ‘could hardly keep up with his own thoughts’ and because he was thinking aloud he always spoke like an ‘overcharged instrument’. People listened. His ideas and travel stories were riveting, his voice was gentle and he always had something urgent to say. Still, Balzac and others made fun of his incessant speech. And he was seen by some to be both haughty and humble, rather unworldly and unable to connect with people, the kind of person who appears lonely in a crowd. Wulf’s Humboldt stands alone. As I’ve mentioned already, her biographical narrative does not dwell too much on questions of affection. And yet there is plenty of evidence that he cared for people, that he was deeply attached to his brother and sister-in-law and formed many real and lasting friendships. I especially like the fact that his writing often expresses conviviality and collegiality, and he prefers to say ‘we’ rather than ‘I’.
His ideas were taken up passionately by the American environmentalist George Perkins Marsh, whose Man and Nature (1864) gained global significance for new generations of conservationists. The artist and scientist Ernst Haeckel — credited with coining the term ecology — immersed himself in the life of his hero, from swimming in the lake at Tegel to following in his footsteps on Tenerife. In 1882, Humboldt’s Personal Narrative was the last book Darwin chose to read before he died. John Muir understood the delicately balanced environments of forests and started writing as an activist, ‘to do something for wildness and make the mountains glad’. In California in 1892 he founded the Sierra Club. Muir’s words, ‘How intensely I desire to be a Humboldt’, apply to generations of hikers and naturalists worldwide and to the present day.
Everywhere places, creatures and plants are named after him. Books by and about him are readily available, including the Personal Narrative (1995, translated by Jason Wilson) in Penguin Classics, Mark Person’s translation of Views of Nature (2014), Aaron Sachs’s The Humboldt Current (2006), a history of exploration and environmentalism in America, or for the true enthusiast, the monumental and beautiful German edition of Humboldt’s Kosmos (1845, 2004), to name just a few. The online Humboldt im Netz (International Review for Humboldt Studies) is an excellent site, an archive and a lively hub of scholarship, news and events.
Wulf’s The Invention of Nature shines its spotlight on that arc of environmental knowledge linking Humboldt’s late eighteenth century to our twenty-first. If he was ever forgotten in the English-speaking world, then this biography places him once again where he belongs, with Charles Darwin and James Cook, Ernest Shackleton and David Attenborough, Rachel Carson and Jane Goodall, the great natural historians and scientific adventurers.
Perhaps unintentionally Wulf has performed another feat. She has rescued Humboldt from the frivolities and inaccuracies drawn by Daniel Kehlmann in his novel Die Vermessung der Welt (2005; Measuring the World, 2006), which presented variously as scholarly satire, historical novel, and double biography (Humboldt shares the stage with Gauss) and was a bestseller and prizewinner, widely translated, enthusiastically reviewed. I read it in less than a day and thought it was a slight work. I assumed it was a case of an author (and his publisher) pulling the wool over readers’ eyes. In an interview Kehlmann declared that his Humboldt is a classic example of a repressed hysteric, and his novel is about what it means to be German. He wondered what science offers us, in any case, and he commented that measuring makes the world much less attractive. He declared Cosmos to be an unreadable nightmare and its author incapable of feelings, or if he has feelings then only for plants and animals and measurements, moreover he was not a great scientist, his scientific discoveries were negligible. Like a squinting schoolboy, Kehlmann confessed he had fun writing the book.
Few reviews questioned the Kehlmann phenomenon, few attempted to fathom the novel’s success, until Ottmar Ette, Humboldt expert and Professor of Romance Languages and Comparative Literature at the University of Potsdam, offered a rejoinder. He says that Kehlmann turned ‘the author of Cosmos into a complete moron’ and he can well believe the book was fun to write, as it relies on a cheap trick of reducing a great man to a burlesque of human weaknesses.
Kehlmann claims to have researched Humboldt intensively. But Ette points out that since Kehlmann considered Humboldt’s work unreadable, he can hardly know it first-hand. Instead it looks like he collected third-hand anecdotes and old clichés which he reworked as fiction. Furthermore, those clichés were spread by deeply conservative German critics of Humboldt — the anti-French, anti-cosmopolitan kind — and perhaps this is why ‘a kehlmannized Humboldt must have seemed so very familiar to German readers’. Ette warns about authors who say they’re revealing hidden truths, as Kehlmann does. Often it’s an empty boast. And it can be especially deceitful in novels insisting they’re based on real people and real events.
If as a reader you don’t know any better and if such a novel is entertaining — funny or suspenseful or seemingly authentic — you might believe what you’ve read, or you might not even care that it’s a hash of facts and fibs. In this post-truth era, which is not just a manifestation of contemporary politics, but also implicates science and literature, I applaud critics like Ottmar Ette and biographers like Andrea Wulf, for directly or indirectly challenging novelists like Kehlmann, and for reasserting the relevance of people like Humboldt.
It doesn’t matter that Wulf’s The Invention of Nature is a bit breathless in keeping up with its dazzling hero, and a bit coy about his relationships, because above all the book is intelligent, an optimistic history, well researched, well written, and an ecological cri de coeur.
Adams, Phillip, The Wrath of Herzog, The Australian, 11.6.2011
Bell, Stephen, Life in Shadow: Aimé Bonpland in Southern South America 1817-1858, 2010
Ette, Ottmar, Alexander von Humboldt in Daniel Kehlmanns Welt. HiN – Humboldt im Netz. Internationale Zeitschrift für Humboldt-Studien (Potsdam, 2012) XIII, 25, p34-40
Humboldt, Alexander von, Views of Nature, (trans Mark W. Person), 2014
Kehlmann, Daniel, Measuring the World, (trans Carol Brown Janeway), 2006
Löwenberg, Julius, R. Avé-Lallenant, A. Dove, Life of Alexander von Humboldt (1873, trans J & C Lassell), republished 2009
Marks, Diana, Molas – Dress, Identity, Culture, 2016
Reitz, Edgar, Home from Home (Die andere Heimat – Chronik einer Sehnsucht), film 2013
Rupke, Nicolaas A., Alexander von Humboldt: A Metabiography, 2008
Sendak, Maurice, Where the Wild Things Are, 1963
Interview with Daniel Kehlmann
Special thanks to Justin Gleeson for help with the Latin phrase Homo qui reliquerit Germaniam