Friday, May 21, 2021


 I've been reading The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World, by Andrea Wulf, and have decided to give up. My idea was that I would delve farther back into romanticism and naturalism and develop a clearer picture of the zeitgeist that developed between Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) and Charles Darwin (1809-1882). Von Humboldt (1769-1859) fits that period perfectly. Although he was not a Romantic per se, he influenced both Goethe and Darwin, so he managed to become a significant historical figure. He also had an obvious influence on less-famous writers such as G.H. Lewes. Under slightly different circumstances I might have finished the book, but there were a couple of problems with it that put me off. First, Wulf seems to have written with the specific purpose of producing a bestseller, which means that the quality of the writing is significantly lower than one finds in, say, Maurice Cranston, Andrzej Franaszek, Rosemary Ashton and other biographers I've read. This doesn't mean that the book is of no value, but that I don't find it particularly informative or perceptive. Second, I am having a hard time identifying with von Humboldt because of his frenetic behavior. On the positive side, he was extremely curious and loved to explore, but, on the negative side, some of his ideas were naïve and have been surpassed by modern science. He was one of the first writers to develop a sense of ecosystems and the possibility of anthropogenic climate change, but, preceding Darwin, he never came up with a comprehensive scientific worldview. I think that he was a model not only, as Wulf notes, for Goethe's Faust, but also, possibly, for Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and perhaps even Flaubert's Bouvard and Pécuchet. Von Humboldt more than anyone else popularized the idea of amateur scientific observation and exploration, which reached a peak in the mid-nineteenth century. However, the detailed record of his life seems somewhat limited, perhaps because he was homosexual. Generally, that kind of information was not recorded in the past, and it leaves a gap in understanding his private life. While, in the case of Bertrand Russell, Ray Monk overwhelms the reader with details of his daily life, Andrea Wulf had comparatively little information to work with. In sum, I was put off both by Wulf's writing style and the narrow view of von Humboldt's life, even though he influenced others, such as Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Goethe and Darwin. After one hundred pages I felt as if I was forcing myself to continue reading – something I've stopped doing in recent years.

In other news, I am still trying to break out of the pandemic mindset, but progress is slow. The weather abruptly changed from very cold to very hot, and I've planted my tomatoes much earlier than usual. My regular summer outdoor chores are time-consuming, but there is still a lack of the minimal social interaction that I was used to. During the winter I like being curled up with books, but less so when it is warm. We did have an outing to the Southern Vermont Arts Center in Manchester, which was a nice change. Driving in Vermont in mid-May is extremely pleasant. If I can get out a little more and find a decent book to read, I should be in good shape. I am starting on a new book search, and, if that fails, I may end up resuming posts on general topics like the ones I used to make quite often. As always, I am open to suggestions, and I am not committed to a fixed format for this blog.

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