Voyage into Substance is a study of illustrated scientific travel accounts from 1760 to 1840. It is itself beautifully illustrated; the pictures are always intriguing and a delight. It has been magnificently printed with grandiose margins by the MIT Press abetted by grants from the J. Paul Getty Trust, the Millard Meiss Publication Fund of the College Art Association of America, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. The money has been well spent on the illustrations, but the text is another matter: often inaccurate, consistently obscure and unconvincing, it unravels at once like a cat’s cradle the moment one examines it closely.
At the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth, the travel book was immensely popular, surpassed only by the novel. To be the first voyager to print an account of an exotic clime with illustrations was a great ambition: it assured one’s fame and probably even one’s fortune. It was still a time of exploration and expansion into unknown regions, and travel books astonished the public with views of esoteric landscape, rare plants, and animals. Accounts of one’s own or neighboring countries were almost equally appreciated as popular sociology that described life in Paris under the Revolution; patterns of behavior and culture in Russia, Italy, and the Netherlands; picturesque customs in Switzerland and Portugal.
These different accounts provided material for philosophy and ethics as well as for political thought: they stimulated speculation. Perhaps the most famous example is Diderot’s Supplement to the Voyage of Bougainville, in which the incestuous customs of Tahiti inspire grand observations about the relativity of ethics. The travel books transformed European culture: they overturned most established ideas of anthropology, geography, poetry, philosophy, morals, economics, religion, and the biological and physical sciences. Few, if any, of these voyages were undertaken with the purely objective purpose of gathering facts: they were motivated by a profound dissatisfaction with contemporary culture, a dissatisfaction most often vague and unfocused. The revolutions in art, science, and philosophy as well as in politics were fed by the books of travel, by the disorienting visions of new landscapes and alien civilizations.
Professor Stafford attempts to make the immense mass of material on travel manageable by concentrating on scientific voyages: her subject is the relation between scientific description and illustration. She feels that “the cultural and geographical ramifications” of this literature have already been dealt with in “masterly studies” by other scholars, and she leaves them largely aside. Virgin territory is, of course, as much the prerequisite for a thesis subject as for a voyage of exploration, but this was not a wise decision: the relations between science and art depend too much upon the rest of culture and upon politics.
An opening chapter summarizes the work of various recent literary scholars on the development in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries of a plain prose style—which Stafford believes was characteristic of travel writing and opposed to the earlier style of description heavy with metaphors. Stafford next considers writings that classify natural phenomena encountered by travelers into two simple categories: solid (rocks, minerals, mountains, crevices, grottoes, caves, deserts, jungle vegetation) and evanescent (snow drifts, clouds, vapors, fog, active volcanos, geysers, waterfalls, glaciers, and windstorms). Later chapters treat of the relation of scientific treatises to travel literature, and of the psychology of the voyager who felt himself freed from traditional preconceptions and was trying to read nature directly. The final sections are the most ambitious. Here Stafford attempts to make a sharp distinction between the contemplative reverie of writers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Etienne Pivert de Senancour and the “mental alertness” of the traveler, and speculates on the influence of the experience of travel on the development of art.
Throughout the book Stafford relies on a facile opposition between metaphorical style and plain description, reverie and alert observation, tradition and unprejudiced, objective experience. This is perhaps the most specious aspect of her approach, and derives, I think, from her attempt to separate the scientific voyage from the others—most voyages, in fact, were both scientific and cultural. Even the amateur dilettante, the young virtuoso (as the connoisseur of science and art was then called) off to see Roman antiquities, botanized on the way and observed the mineralogical structure of the scenery—it was expected of him, a part of his social training. The accounts of scientific expeditions, too, are filled with philosophical and political musings on primitive civilizations and purple passages of romantic prose in the face of sublime scenery.
The distortions that Stafford’s easy binary scheme constantly impose on her material can be seen in her treatment of Ruskin’s hostility to Constable, and his preference for Turner:
It is as just such a painter of inchoate process or of the nebulous, not of clouds per se, that Ruskin values Turner over Constable…. Yet there is a deeper opposition at work in Ruskin’s unflattering comparison of the two masters, one that again devolves on the contraries of art and nature. Constable’s fundamental thesis (declared in his second lecture on landscape) that the painting of natural phenomena might legitimately be regarded as experimental science, that is, involved with “a constant process of learning through close observation of the phenomena in nature,” becomes by the time of the last lecture overtly seditious to art precisely on the question of the role of tradition and convention. How could Ruskin, as advocate of the eminently artful Turner (so visibly devoted in his youth to Claude), respond favorably to the revolutionary idea attacking mimesis, first countered within the pages of the factual travel account? Constable bluntly states:
“It appears to me that pictures have been over-valued; held up by a blind admiration as ideal things, and almost as standards by which nature is to be judged rather than the reverse; and this false estimate has been sanctioned by the extravagant epithets that have been applied to painters as ‘the divine,’ ‘the inspired,’ and so forth. Yet, in reality, what are the most sublime productions of the pencil but selections of some of the forms of nature, and copies of a few of her evanescent effects; and this is the result, not of inspiration, but of long and patient study under the direction of much good sense.”
It is difficult to pack a greater amount of misunderstanding into such a short discussion. One of Ruskin’s arguments for the superiority of Turner over Constable was Turner’s greater scientific precision, not only in the representation of vapor and mist but of solid objects. He complains that the leaves of Constable’s trees are all alike, while Turner carefully distinguishes the leaf forms of each variety of tree. To describe Constable’s ideas as “overtly seditious to art” and Constable himself as an artist less devoted to seventeenth-century models of landscape than Turner is ludicrous. It is true that Constable was less devoted to Claude than Turner was, but he was more dependent on the Dutch masters. In the politics of the nineteenth-century art world, Claude and the Italian tradition to which he belonged represented the academic tradition, but the great Dutch painters were the mainstay of those artists like Constable who were determined to purge landscape painting of its old-fashioned historical trappings, its conventional staffage.
I do not know, moreover, what Stafford means by saying that the attack on mimesis is “first encountered within the pages of the factual travel account”: the attack on mimesis, on imitation as opposed to the real thing, appears in many discussions of aesthetics in the second half of the eighteenth century—in fact, there are classical precedents as early as Plato—and there is no reason to give priority to travel literature. Finally, to imply that the quotation from Constable is in any sense revolutionary is astonishing: the ideas in the passage are pious commonplaces drawn from a long succession of texts on the superiority of nature to art. Constable was indeed a revolutionary artist, but he was capable of justifying his practices by the most obvious generalities, expressed here with admirable energy and passion. The idea of painting as an experimental science is considerably more original, but we must remember that it was formulated by the man who also claimed that painting was another word for sentiment.1
It is possible to extract a certain intermittent enjoyment from Professor Stafford’s prose. Here is a new way to say that it is difficult to walk through a jungle: “The organic insistency seemed to exclude, or at least undermine, any human incursion.” (“Undermine” is almost a stroke of genius as it trembles excitingly on the edge of malapropism.) And when we turn from the mountain range to the mountains, the decision must be given an air of importance. “Consonant with the formal interest in accurate panoramic views of distant, heterogeneously contoured mountain chains was the myopic scrutiny of individual peaks.”
Stafford is the mistress of the inapt word, which has the dramatic effect of an instrument suddenly playing out of tune. About the mountains of Abyssinia, she writes: “To comprehend the character of these upheaved peaks, one must consult Henry Salt’s deliberately inurbane renderings (figures 36 and 37).” This is placed beside the two landscapes, both of which look very “urbane” to me, academically constructed with the expected tree in the left-hand foreground as a repoussoir. Stafford’s style is basically the academic manner considered proper for a thesis, enlivened by flights of fancy of “post-modernist” criticism, and the kind of circumlocution that policemen are popularly supposed to use when they give evidence. These pleasures, however, pall over 486 pages, and pale beside the distortion in the presentation of her travelers’ accounts.
Some of the distortion of evidence comes directly from Stafford’s method of dominating her monstrous pile of material. Four hundred travelers troop facelessly through her pages: when they are allowed to speak for themselves, the quotations are chosen not to reveal their own ideas but someone else’s thesis. More than a thousand (perhaps more than two thousand) scholars, critics, philosophers, and historians fill the pages of Stafford’s notes and her bibliography of secondary sources, and every one of them is grist to her mill. Indeed, the mass of secondary sources is the most impressive aspect of Stafford’s volume. The list is very up-to-date. The result, however, is that one rarely finds a direct response to a primary text: each one is seen through a grid of someone else’s analytic system. There is a heavy and not unjustified reliance on modern French critical thought from the famous and stimulating Michel Foucault and the relentlessly imaginative Gaston Bachelard to the more recent and wholly admirable Jean-Claude Lebensztejn, whose collection of essays, Zigzag, helps Stafford to round off her final page.
The treatment by subject matter with little regard for author, chronology, or even geography makes things worse. We rapidly survey descriptions of caves ranging over half a century and from (in that order) India, Venezuela, Malta, Indonesia, Yorkshire, and the Pacific, written by travelers of four different nationalities. The next page of text similarly surveys descriptions of mines, suggesting that Stafford is going through her card file of caves and mines (and, later, of geysers, waterfalls, volcanoes, creaking and crunching sounds made by glaciers and large masses of ice, etc.). All particularity disappears, and the conclusion is general and unexciting: the exploration of mines and caverns encouraged a taste for rocky scenery—“rupestral localities” is Stafford’s more impressive phrase.
The relation of the travel voyage to art, the principal subject of the book, is consequently very thinly developed. What concerns Stafford is mainly the subject matter of the images: about what the images actually look like she has little to say, and that little comes mostly from other art historians (Louis Hawes’s essays on Constable, for example). Stafford’s visual sense is stimulated largely by balloons, on which she has made herself an authority, and there is, indeed, a tiny emblematic representation of a balloon on her title page.2
The period that Stafford deals with was one of radical and far-reaching experiment with the formal aspect of landscape, and the principal agent behind these changes was travel literature. Some books show an interesting tension between old and new ways of illustration: a good example is the fascinating Voyage pitturesque, or Picturesque Voyage and Navigation on part of the Rhone, considered unnavigable. Means of rendering this section useful for commerce, by Boissel de Monville of 1792 (unmentioned by Stafford). (See illustration on page 55.) This book combines adventure, geology, and engineering, all tied together by romantic sentiment. A moving description of a trip on the wild water of the Rhone not far from the source, speculations on the millennial development which created this section of the river, and detailed proposals for a dam all find a place here. The illustrations, too, combine all of this and attempt to render the terrifying adventure, the different geological strata, the engineering possibilities: these struggle for expression against the traditional ways of representing landscape, and often overcome the conventions.
“All modern landscape comes from topography,” remarked Goethe at this time. Old forms and traditions were resistant, of course: Brilliant studies by Bernard Smith3 have shown how the artists of Captain Cook’s three voyages to the South Seas from 1768 to 1780 were influenced by Baroque conventions of landscape. Even the initial sketches betray this influence, and when they were later engraved for publication, the landscapes of Tahiti were made to resemble English parks. The demands of topography and the desire to register the details of the voyage gradually ended these conventions, and a new and far more complex way of describing the scenes of nature arose toward the end of the eighteenth century, which cannot be adequately understood or classified simply as scientific or objective, since it appears equally important in sentimental literature and poetry and in geology books and travel accounts.
To see what happened we must try to restore their physiognomy to a few of the writers who flit briefly through Stafford’s pages. We may take as an example the strange figure of Ramond de Carbonnières, who has a cult following in France (there is even a society dedicated to his memory). He is allowed entrance into Stafford’s work for his appreciation of colossal mountains. Here, typical of the way she uses her hundreds of witnesses, is what she makes of him. She begins with a disquieting inaccuracy:
But the crowning achievement of such forays [in the Alps] remained the Bernese Oberland, systematically explored by the “tireless” Marc-Théodore Bourrit and that pioneer of Mont Blanc, Horace-Bénédict de Saussure. William Coxe toured this region in 1779. Two years earlier, Ramond Je Carbonnières—by then already famous—left his imprint on Swiss soil.
Ramond was by no means famous in 1777, as Stafford informs her readers—gratuitously, since the information is hardly necessary to her argument. Ramond’s reputation begins with his translation of William Coxe’s travels in Switzerland of 1781, which gave him the opportunity of adding his own reflections which so impressed Wordsworth later. Before then he had written some poems and a little play modeled on Goethe’s Werther, with a romantic young hero who commits suicide (he does away with himself, not at home like Werther, but on top of a mountain, the only sign of what would become Ramond’s major interest). None of this juvenilia brought him anything like a popular success and almost all of it was published only after his return from Switzerland.
How does the nugget of misinformation I have quoted find its way into Professor Stafford’s work? I think I have stumbled on the answer. Note 66 refers us to a very interesting book by an author by the name of Numa Broc: Les Montagnes vues par les géographes et les naturalistes de langue française au XVIIIe siècle (Paris, 1969). Stafford does not direct us to any particular section of this book, out on pages 31 and 32 of his book we find that Broc writes about “1777, that lucky year for the Swiss Alps, with the young Ramond and the already famous Saussure.” Stafford got it backwards. It is, after all, to quote Pooh-Bah, one of Stafford’s stylistic predecessors, “merely corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.”
She returns to Ramond a few pages later and here I must quote her at greater length, since the misrepresentation of an important but neglected writer reveals her way of dealing with her material:
Although Switzerland seriously entered the European consciousness around 1760, the assimilation of the Pyrenees occurred only during the 1780s. The young Ramond de Carbonnières, as secretary to the Cardinal de Rohan (whom he followed into exile), translated William Coxe’s Letters on Switzerland and augmented them with his own Observations faites dans les Pyrénées (1789). From these scientific ponderings to the publication of his masterpiece, Voyage au Mont-Perdu in 1801, Ramond accomplished for the limestone chain of the Pyrenees what William Brockedon and Major Cockburn in the fullness of time achieved for the granitic Alps. His description of the Pic du Midi as viewed from Bagnères deserves quotation because it succinctly demonstrates why such colossi seized the imagination:
“One cannot take a step in this place over which I am roaming without all things forcing one back to the Pic du Midi. Ruler over the best-known section of this terrain, it forms everywhere the most imposing object of the scene. Its situation from the plains presents the extraordinary spectacle of an elevation that one rarely beholds from so close up, and its apparent dimensions, coupled with its relative height, seem to subjugate the higher mountains that are grouped behind it. Inaccessible from the side where it presents itself most majestically, it has twisting avenues that lead gently to the summit….”
Ramond’s persuasive and enthusiastic praise of towering natural monuments, including the semicircular amphitheater of Gavarnie, the legendary Brèche de Roland, and the formidable and supposedly inaccessible Maladetta viewed from atop the marble boulder Penna Blanca proved memorable. Moving easily between the domain of cascades and frost and the region environing the colossus La Maudite, the Alsatian engraver, writer, and naturalist Ramond evoked the magic of the Pyrenees and claimed them for art and science. Ramond’s Observations and Carnets pyrenéens (1789) belong within the province of this study because his numerous climbs (he scaled Mont-Perdu 35 times between 1787 and 1810) were not mere touristic adventures. He explored the Pyrenees in order to study their geology, to determine the climatological elements, to ascertain mean temperatures and barometric pressures, to gauge prevailing winds and the system by which clouds were formed, to witness atmospheric phenomena, and to catalog the varieties of vegetation. This information was conveyed in a warm and informative style worthy of his Alpine rival Saussure. Like the Genevan, Ramond was no dilettante, having studied botany with Antoine-Laurent de Jussieu. Before the revolution of 1789, Ramond laid the groundwork for the critical reception of Baron Taylor’s expansive Voyage pittoresque. (Taylor’s volume on the Pyrenees did not appear until 1843.) Influenced by Ramond’s magisterial formula for a voyage of discovery, Chapuy’s work for Taylor seeks to emulate his predecessor’s observational rigor in the examination of natural sites and monuments.
This is, oddly, both long-winded and insufficient. Why are we told, as almost the sole detail of Ramond’s life, that Ramond was secretary to the Cardinal de Rohan when he translated Coxe? For a reader unfamiliar with Ramond, it would have been at least as interesting to learn that he attended the University of Strasbourg at the time that the student movement, later to be called the Sturm und Drang, began with the small circle around Goethe, and that he belonged to the club which fostered the new ideas. It was with one of Goethe’s closest friends, Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz, that Ramond first visited the Alps, and it was to Lenz, the greatest of the Sturm und Drang poets and dramatists after Goethe, that he dedicated his earliest published work. The relation between German and French Romanticism is much earlier and more intimate than many of the standard accounts would have it, and Ramond is perhaps the most important direct link between the two before 1790.
We could also have been told about Ramond’s influence on Wordsworth (whose first important poem, Descriptive Sketches, is not only inspired by Ramond’s writing on the Swiss Alps but translates a long passage from it). We could have learned of his importance for the early French Romantics, like Chateaubriand, who claimed to imitate him in his description of the American landscape, or Senancour, who said that Ramond was the finest model for descriptive landscape prose, or Charles Nodier, the leader of the most important early Romantic group in France, who idolized Ramond and even reprinted his juvenilia. (“Baron Taylor’s expansive Voyage pittoresque” is commonly referred to as “Taylor and Nodier,” and Stafford’s erasure of Ramond’s greatest admirer reveals her habit of eliminating the most relevant details.) Even Ramond’s close friendship with the naturalist Culvier would have interested us, or his contact with Wilhelm von Humboldt, who started his study of the Basque language (which became the first great work of comparative linguistics) with a visit to Ramond in the Pyrenees.
Stafford’s preference for insignificant detail, her almost unerring choice of the irrelevant fact, is more disturbing than the inaccuracy of her work, but inaccuracy is present in this passage as well. I do not imagine that the reader will be surprised or even interested to learn that Ramond was not, in fact, in the employ of the Cardinal de Rohan when he translated Coxe: it was probably the success of this book that attracted the cardinal’s attention.
Further, the claim that Ramond “augmented” his translation of Coxe’s Letters on Switzerland “with his own Observations faites dans les Pyrénées” is a confusion. Ramond augmented Coxe with his own observations on the Alps which he inserted into his translation of Coxe published in 1781. These pages made him famous: his addition eclipsed the original English book and were translated into English, much to Coxe’s displeasure. The Observations faites dans les Pyrénées came eight years later: if they augment anything, then they augment Ramond’s augmentation of Coxe. Ramond’s Carnets pyrénéens do not date from 1789, as Stafford says, but from 1792 to 1795 and they were published only in 1939. Stafford calls the Voyage au Mont-Perdu of 1801 Ramond’s masterpiece, but these details suggest an imperfect acquaintance with the earlier works; above all she does not seem to know that Ramond wrote brilliantly about the Alps. Neither the Observations nor the Carnets is adequately described with the ungainly phrase “scientific ponderings”; they contain many pages on the picturesque customs of the region and long purple passages of artistic prose.
Her account of Ramond’s activity even misrepresents him as a naturalist. He was not much of an engraver, and as a scientist he was far less remarkable for his own observations, in which respect he cannot be compared to Saussure, than for his powers of synthesis, his general views. In this paragraph Stafford has drained away almost everything of interest about Ramond except the variety of his scientific interests, and these are presented with little understanding and with no relation to the rest of his career or with any feeling for how his ideas developed.
Ramond is one of those late-eighteenth-century writers who initiated a new way of describing natural phenomena. He does not so much describe the landscape as the act of seeing it: at the same time—and here lies the most striking originality of Romantic description—the immediate visual sensation brings an awareness of the landscape’s history, geological, botanical, or sentimental.
Ramond was interested above all in the origin of glaciers. In his Observations faites dans les Pyrénées, he recounts his discovery of a mass of ice which was, however, not a glacier, but a cavern created by the snowfalls of successive years, which only partially melt during the summer and then freeze again to be packed down by next year’s falls:
I was, then, buried under forty feet of snow, and I distinguished all the layers. I saw the great winters, separated by many years, distant by several inches. I recognized the scorching summers by the thinnest and most transparent bands; the mild years by the more porous layers. I observed above all, in the entire mass, the insensible transition from the light hexagonal snow to the heavy globulous snow; from this to the opaque half-ice, crumbly and reducible to spherical particles; then from this opaque ice to a harder, more transparent ice, whose broken edge, however, was furrowed by a network of crossed striations, which displayed the soldering together of its different parts; and finally from this ice, as yet hardly coherent, to a band of ice completely hard and of such transparency that I distinguished the smallest objects perfectly across fragments four inches thick. This ice, however, still enclosed air bubbles: it was still light, and the break did not present absolutely plane surfaces. The layer, besides, was very thin: it carpeted only the lower surface of the snows, and the vault of its caverns.
Every detail brings a sense of its history, but the significance of the past appears almost paradoxically as immediate sensation. “I saw the great winters…. I recognized the scorching summers.” Time is revealed by the immediate perception of space: “Separated by many years, distant by several inches.” The oldest ice has become transparent and hard. The two time scales of immediate vision and the slow passage of years and decades merge.
Neither the precise observation of nature nor the sense of long-range development is new. Many writers since the Renaissance have found ways of expressing an intensely penetrating experience of things seen (one famous sixteenth-century example is Roger Ascham’s description in his book on archery of wind patterns revealed in falling snow). Buffon’s speculations about the history of the earth and the origin of mountains initiated discussion and controversy throughout the later eighteenth century. The discovery of fossil seashells high in the Alps made a great impression: Was the entire earth, mountains and all, covered by the ocean, which then receded, or did the mountains rise above the sea by volcanic eruption? (Voltaire, fearful that the biblical story of Noah might appear to be proved true, declared that the shells were not fossils: they were oyster shells thrown away by pilgrims on their way to Rome.)
What was new was the combination of immediate perception and the sense of immensely slow natural development. This interaction of two time scales (or even multiple ones) found its most striking expression in topographical description, in the so-called portrait landscape—the image not of an ideal landscape, but of a real place, made instantly recognizable by the terms of the description. The beauty of the portrait landscape was indistinguishable from its exactness and its precision.
Scientific description spills over easily into sentimental meditation. In a notebook of the 1790s (not published before the twentieth century) Ramond describes the forms of the granite mountains in the Pyrenees:
The blocks of granite with which the soil is formed, covered and strewn, present a reddish hue caused by the decomposition of mica. The granite still in place seems less colored. It is a white grey which cannot fail to draw the least attentive eye, struck by the ferruginous color of the rocks in all the neighboring valleys. Everything is different here from that which one has seen elsewhere. The granite mountains have more regular pyramidal forms, spiky summits, more uniform slopes. The region that I traversed was only a mass of large and small peaks, all more or less similar. An identical color diffused over all these rocks augmented the severe and somber tranquility of the landscape. Some groups of knotty and bizarre pines ornamented the least elevated pyramids with a verdure that sympathized with them; and the snow covering its high summits served to cut them off in a more trenchant manner from the deep blue of the sky. The calm of which this region gave me the idea comes from something other than the absence of living beings, the silence and the distance of habitations. It comes from the form itself of these rocks which rest on their bases and affect none of those inclined, contracted, menacing positions presented by the stretches of schist mountains; they have an air of repose and attest the antiquity of the times that saw them born. Even their destruction has nothing disquieting. It seems regular and tranquil. Their ruins announce no catastrophes. They appear to be there only to prove that nothing here below is immortal.
The poetic sentiment, even the unobjectionably trite moral observation, come from Ramond’s sense of time and long-range movement. For the Romantic philosopher, granite had a special significance: it was believed to be the oldest building block of the earth. The “air of repose” attests to that antiquity, a witness to the thousands of years of erosion that made the granite shapes so much more regular than that of the ranges of schist mountains. The belief in the latent expressiveness of forms was an essential part of late-eighteenth-century aesthetics, but it unites here with geological speculation.
One passage in Ramond remained famous long after his books had ceased to be printed, and it was included in anthologies for high school students until very late in the nineteenth century. It describes his descent from the glacier above the circus of Gavarnie on the border between France and Spain (already one of the more important tourist sites in the eighteenth century because of the spectacular scenery) into the Valley of Gedro, with its swift mountain stream. These pages reveal the Romantic sense of the complexity of time in landscape at its most extraordinary. The specific moment is early evening, when the atmosphere becomes momentarily heavy, and the sense of smell becomes keen:
From the height of the rock of Gavarnie, I had passed from winter to spring: from Gavarnie to Gedro, I passed from spring to summer. Here, I experienced a soft and calm warmth. The newly mown hay exhaled its rustic smell: the plants gave out that fragrance that the rays of the sun had developed, and that its presence no longer dissipated. The linden-trees, all in flower, perfumed the atmosphere. I entered the house from which one sees the hidden falls of the torrent of Héas. At the end of the courtyard, there is a rock which overlooks them, and I went to seat myself there. Night was falling, and the stars, successively and in order of magnitude, pierced through the darkened sky. I quitted the torrent and the crash of its waves to go breathe again the air of the valley and its delicious perfume. I reascended slowly the row I had come down, and I sought to account for the contribution of my soul to the sweet and voluptuous sensation that I felt. There is something mysterious in odors which powerfully awaken the remembrance of the past. Nothing recalls to this extent places that one has loved, situations that one regrets, minutes whose passage leaves traces all the more profound in the heart that they leave so little in the memory. The odor of a violet restores to the soul enjoyments of many springtimes. I do not know what sweeter instants of my life the flowering linden-tree witnessed, but I felt keenly that it stirred fibers that had long been tranquil, that it stimulated reminiscences linked to happy days; I found, between my heart and my thought, a veil that would have been sweet, perhaps,…sad, perhaps…for me to raise; I took pleasure in this vague reverie so near to sadness aroused by the images of the past; I extended on to nature the illusion that she had caused to be born, by uniting with her, by an involuntary movement, the times and the events of which she had stirred up the memory; I ceased to be isolated in these wild places; a secret and indefinable intelligence established itself between them and me; and alone, on the banks of the torrent of Gedro, alone but under that sky which saw all the ages flow away and which encompasses all the climates, I abandoned myself with emotion to a security so sweet, to this profound sentiment of coexistence inspired by the fields of one’s own country.
This is, already fully developed, the Proustian theory of memory: the most powerful and profound memories are those that cannot be consciously recovered, and can only be called up from the past involuntarily by the sensations of taste or smell. The coincidence is not fortuitous: Proust knew this page of Ramond. He perfidiously attacks Sainte-Beuve for praising minor authors like Ramond de Carbonnières instead of major figures such as Stendhal and Balzac (in his essay on Ramond, Sainte-Beuve quotes, in fact, from this page and discusses it).4
This prefiguration of twentieth-century thought would be merely a curiosity if it did not arise directly from the attempt to read a complex sense of time into the description of a landscape. A site has a sentimental as well as a geological history: the buried strata of the past are directly evoked by the sensations of the present. When Ramond writes of the “fragrance that the rays of the sun had developed and that its presence no longer dissipated,” three scales of time coexist: the weeks and months of growth, the movement from daylight to sunset, and the brief moments of evening when we are most strongly aware of the odors of the countryside, when nature makes herself felt. There was much eighteenth-century speculation on the role of association, purely mechanical and involuntary, in the process of thinking, notably by philosophers like David Hartley, so much admired for a while by Coleridge, and by the French idéologues (such as Maine de Biran) who were a major influence on Stendhal. For Ramond, memory is built into landscape like its geological structure: the landscape reveals its past to the present observer, and his past as well. The movement between nature and observer is convoluted: “I extended on to Nature the illusion that she had caused to be born, writing with her—by an involuntary movement—the times and events of which she had stirred up the memory.”
This is not merely the critical enlightenment that is speaking but the essential self-alienation of the early Romantics. For the early Romantic, classical art was naive, a direct response to the world, but modern art was critical and self-conscious (what Schiller called the sentimental). Ramond yields gratefully to the urge to identify himself with the landscape which has acknowledged his presence, but he is, in passing, skeptical enough to analyze, and even to deconstruct, the mechanism that makes this possible.
At the heart of this passage, there is a half-lie: Ramond knew perfectly well which happier days were being brought back by the smell of the linden trees. He had lived for a year in this Valley of Gedro with the woman he loved. Nevertheless it is important to him—and no doubt partially correct—that the memories recalled by the sensation of smell be imprecise. The immediate sensation of the present moment expands to cover a whole range of the past: it does not pinpoint an event, but diffuses itself over the physical system of the individual until his entire body begins to stir with habits half-remembered, long periods of which the contour remains slightly blurred. I do not think it was possible to understand this before the end of the eighteenth century. A new way of looking at nature, which simultaneously superimposes different scales of time, and an original way of describing landscape, create a new kind of psychology.
Stafford cannot clarify this because she wishes to separate science from culture, to distinguish what she conceives as clear-sighted observation from revery. A figure like Ramond shows us that this kind of distinction is unworkable. Toward the end of her book, she briefly mentions Ramond and the reading of the past in the immediate sensation:5
The swift incursion of an intense, unalloyed present marks the discourses of Saussure, Ramond, Laborde, and Deluc. On the heights, these naturalists experienced a sudden physical (not just intellectual) revelation that fathomed in a flash the turbulent structural secrets of the world’s great mountain chains.
She follows this with an account of terrifying experiences of great heights and depths, enormous masses, erupting volcanoes, balloon ascents, and so forth, all of which induce this singular sensation.
This is perhaps Stafford’s greatest confusion. These perceptions of the past within the present are not singular but commonplace; they are not “a sudden physical revelation” but an everyday habit of viewing the world and nature. They are at once a style of description and a normal part of late-eighteenth-century sensibility. Reading the past into the direct experience of the present had, one might say, become second nature to the early Romantics—not just the past, but many different kinds of past, millennial, annual, seasonal, diurnal, momentary.
Goethe’s Letters from Switzerland of 1779 begin typically with the mixture of immediate sensation and feeling for long-range time:
Through the back of a high, broad chain of mountains, the Birs, a massive river sought a way for itself in primeval time. Some time later, necessity anxiously clambered through its gorges. The Romans widened the road and now it is easily negotiated. The water rushing across boulders and the road go side by side, and in most places make up the entire breadth of the pass, closed on both sides by cliffs, which can be grasped by slightly raising one’s eyes. Toward the rear the slopes of mountains gently rose and the peak was hidden from us by mist.
Only the magisterial ease with which Goethe comprehends the creation of the landscape along with the sense of moving through it is out of the ordinary.
Reverie was acknowledged by the early Romantic generation as a way of sensing the slower processes of nature, the movement of long duration. Stafford’s absolute opposition of reverie and alert observation, her insistence that they are mutually exclusive, is false: they were essentially related. We have seen in Ramond how one slips into the other without transition. With Senancour, the greatest of the landscape poets in prose, reverie is the most intense form of scrutiny:
It is in these wild places that the solitary man receives a ready energy from the inanimate; see him on this bank in the valleys’ shadow. Seated on the mossy trunk of a fallen fir-tree, he considers that superb stalk nourished by the years, and that the years have sterilized; and those numerous plants choked under its vast ruin, and the vain power of its branches buried under the tranquil waters that they protected for three centuries with proud shade. He hears the mountain wind come down to be swallowed up in the shadowy forest, to strive to disturb it in its depth. He follows the fall of a leaf from the beech tree: an invisible breath carries it on the agitated wave: it is the unexpected moment when the animated multitude of which it was the food and the country will finish its ephemeral destiny in the watery abyss. He observes the immobile rock; twenty centuries have started its inevitable destruction. The waters have fatigued its base with their perpetual undulation. The exertion of the air has dried out its ruined front. In its imperceptible cracks lichen and moss have crept to devour it in silence: the twisted roots of a yew tree, still weak and already old, work constantly to separate its half-opened parts. Can you really conceive this solitary man? conceive everything he experiences at the heart of movement and silence, vegetation and ruins? Do you see him advance with the waves, bend with the branches, tremble with the fugitive bird? Do you feel him when the leaf falls, when the eagle screams, when the rock cracks?
This, the end of the eighth reverie on the Primitive Nature of Man, is not merely an identification of the self within the landscape, or a reading of the past into the present moment. It is a complex meditation on the different strata of time, the interaction of the different speeds or tempos at which the energies of nature move from the fall of a leaf and the instant death of the insects that feed on it to the millennial erosion of the rock by air and water. Behind this passage are decades of writing in geology and botany, accounts of voyages, speculations on the natural history of the earth. The representation of the universe as process was the explicit ambition of many of these writers, but representing the complexity of natural process was the achievement of only a few. The different ways that time moves is a theme common to almost all those who tried to describe landscape, but rarely conveyed with the richness of Senancour’s magnificent phrase, paradoxically combining physical sensation and long-range process, “this earth which vegetates and mineralizes under our feet.”
I have had to quote at length from these writers to make it clear what project they were engaged in. Professor Stafford’s quotation of short extracts, single sentences, bits of phrases is a method profoundly mistaken, inapt for her variety of history—basically, what one calls l’histoire des mentalités, the historical development of modes of thought. She appears, with her hundreds of fragments and the obliteration of their context, to wish to prove her points by induction, by the piling up of convincing evidence. This kind of history, however, cannot be demonstrated by induction, by the weight of numbers. Every witness needs to be interpreted from within. The necessary art consists in something like tact: to give the illusion that each witness was contributing by his own volition.
The change in the way nature was described that we find in travel accounts around 1800 had extraordinary results. There was a revolution in lyric poetry: with Wordsworth, Hölderlin, and others, landscape poetry—once considered a minor genre—attained the weight and the importance of the epic. Painters like Constable and Friedrich effected a comparable revolution: Landscape painting became the vehicle of the sublime without recourse to historical allusion or even the picturesque, in the simple representation of the simplest everyday scenery. The German Lied was created largely out of the transformation of landscape poetry, and a song cycle, like Schubert’s Winterreise—a series of landscapes—attained the weight and importance of a symphonic or operatic work. We might say that Romantic art was made essentially out of geology treatises and travel books, out of the complex new sense of time that they initiated.
November 6, 1986
The misrepresentation of Ruskin is not isolated in this book: the references to many other writers—Locke, Addison, Shaftesbury, W.K. Wimsatt, and so forth—are similarly unhappy. ↩
The balloon ascents of the late eighteenth century did indeed seize the popular imagination, but to suggest, as Stafford does, that “the invention of the balloon stands behind his [Boullée’s] drawing for Newton’s cenotaph” is unconvincing: the spherical shape of the cenotaph is not all that different from Boullée’s Temple of Reason. ↩
European Vision and the South Pacific (published in 1960 and expanded in 1985, Yale University Press), and The Art of Captain Cook’s Voyages (with Rüdiger Joppien, two volumes published by Yale University Press in 1985 with a third to come). ↩
Other eighteenth-century writers had made the connection between sensation and memory, notably Addison: ↩
She is once again following, and partly translating with grotesque overemphasis, a suggestion of Numa Broc, to which she gives the page reference. ↩