Re­viv­ing Hum­boldt

An­drea Wulf res­ur­rects the for­got­ten in­tel­lec­tual ex­plorer, Alexan­der von Hum­boldt, whose work has left a last­ing im­print on our un­der­stand­ing of weather, ecol­ogy and ge­og­ra­phy


A new book seeks to re­vive the legacy of the Prus­sian poly­math among to­day's gen­er­a­tion

MORE THINGS— rivers an­i­mals, plants, towns, mu­se­ums and moun­tains—are named af­ter him than any­one else in his­tory. Amer­i­can poet R W Emer­son de­scribed him as “one of those won­ders of the world”. The New York Times por­trayed him as some­one “whose fame no na­tion can claim”. And the first ob­ject to be named af­ter him was a new plant species from In­dia, Hum­bold­tia lau­ri­fo­lia!

Alexan­der von Hum­boldt was a Prus­sian poly­math, nat­u­ral­ist and an in­de­fati­ga­ble ex­plorer, whose de­tailed ac­counts of na­ture have left a last­ing im­print on mod­ern sci­ence. An­drea Wulf ’s nar­ra­tive of this truly Re­nais­sance man is so af­fect­ing that by the time one fin­ishes read­ing the book, one is left feel­ing at once daz­zled and puz­zled. Daz­zled be­cause Hum­boldt’s sump­tu­ously eclec­tic life al­most de­fies credulity; and puz­zled, be­cause one fails to un­der­stand how pos­ter­ity for­got “the great­est man since the Del­uge” whose life and work in­spired grandees no less than Goethe and Dar­win, not to men­tion a host of po­ets, writers and artists.

In­tel­lec­tual con­queror

Hum­boldt was born in Berlin in an aris­to­cratic fam­ily. His fa­ther died early, leav­ing him and his el­der brother in the care of his mother. Hum­boldt loved col­lect­ing stuff even as a child—plants, shells and in­sects, a pen­chant that earned him the ti­tle of “the lit­tle apothe­cary”. He also de­vel­oped an in­cur­able itch for travel: when Hum­boldt was in­tro­duced to Fredrick the Great, the king asked him if he wanted to be a con­queror like his name­sake. Hum­boldt’s repar­tee was: “Yes Sire, but with my head.”

How­ever, he had to con­tend with two ob­struc­tions. The first

was his mother’s in­sis­tence that he be­come a civil ser­vant. With no money of his own, he had no choice but to ac­qui­esce. Nev­er­the­less, he found a way by en­rolling him­self in a min­ing academy that would not only as­sure him a min­ing in­spec­tor’s job, and thereby ap­pease his mother’s wishes, but also al­low him to in­dulge in his twin pas­sion for the nat­u­ral world and travel.

As serendip­ity would have it, while work­ing as min­ing in­spec­tor in the cul­tur­ally vi­brant city of Weimar, Hum­boldt be­came friends with Goethe, of­ten de­scribed as Ger­many’s Shake­speare. Wulf paints a lovely por­trait of their in­tel­lec­tual bond­ing, evok­ing with equal felic­ity the volatile zeit­geist of the time. Hum­boldt rubbed off his pas­sion for sci­ence on Goethe, a ca­ress that in­spired the char­ac­ter of Faust in his fa­mous epony­mous play Faust. Re­cip­ro­cally, Goethe taught Hum­boldt to look at art, na­ture, ra­tio­nal­ity and imag­i­na­tion through a sin­gle prism. As Hum­boldt wrote: na­ture must be ex­pe­ri­enced through feel­ing—a world­view that in­spired all his fu­ture jour­neys and re­flec­tions.

The sec­ond ob­struc­tion was the sud­den erup­tion of revo­lu­tions and wars in Europe that aborted his travel plans. How­ever, he some­how man­aged to charm the King of Spain into giv­ing him a pass­port to travel to South Amer­ica. He was then 30 years old.

Wulf de­scribes Hum­boldt’s adventures in Ama­zo­nia in viv­i­fy­ing de­tail. How he nav­i­gated trop­i­cal jun­gles and climbed icy vol­ca­noes; his cross­ing of the An­des on mules; his hor­ror at the sight of blacks be­ing auc­tioned as slaves; his two-year de­tour to Mex­ico and the US, where he ex­plored the relics of Mayan civil­i­sa­tion, and com­muned with Thomas Jef­fer­son; and, amidst all his adventures, in some of which he had a close brush with death, he could not let go of his fren­zied ob­ses­sion for col­lect­ing, mea­sur­ing, sketch­ing, clas­si­fy­ing, and ques­tion­ing.

The hu­man touch

He re­turned to Europe af­ter five hec­tic years, armed with a mas­sive col­lec­tion of nat­u­ral ob­jects and mea­sure­ments. He spent the next two decades dis­till­ing his ex­pe­ri­ences into a five-vol­ume tract called Cos­mos, in which he weaved to­gether var­i­ous branches of sci­ence and cul­ture into one seam­less tapestry. Be­sides, he also wrote the clas­sic Per- sonal Nar­ra­tive. Both these works have in­spired a galaxy of sci­en­tists, writers, artists and ex­plor­ers.

Hum­boldt didn’t fit the car­i­ca­ture of a sci­en­tist con­cerned only with the world of things, and un­sym­pa­thetic to the life of feel­ings and peo­ple. Wulf paints a hu­mane por­trait of him as a gen­er­ous man of lib­eral val­ues and pro­gres­sive ideas. For in­stance, trou­bled by the mis­er­able work­ing con­di­tions of min­ers, he de­vised a breath­ing mask as well as a lamp for them.

But, per­haps most strik­ingly, on his re­turn to Europe, he wrote a scathing in­dict­ment of Span­ish colo­nial­ism in Latin Amer­ica in his widely-read Po­lit­i­cal Es­say on the King­dom of New Spain. As Theodore Zeldin wrote in his His­tory of In­ti­mate Hu­man­ity, “The im­por­tance of Hum­boldt is that he dared to make a link be­tween know- ledge and feel­ing, be­tween what peo­ple be­lieved and do in pub­lic and what ob­sesses them in pri­vate.”

One of Hum­boldt’s dreams was to travel to In­dia and sur­vey the Hi­malayas so that he could com­pare it to the An­des. Wulf gives a fas­ci­nat­ing ac­count of his many aborted at­tempts to ob­tain a pass­port to In­dia, which, she tries to demon­strate, the East In­dia Com­pany de­nied him be­cause they were aware of his strong dis­ap­proval of colo­nial­ism. Hum­boldt’s Hi­malayan dream re­mained un­ful­filled. How­ever, at the age of 60, he trav­elled over 16,000 km to the Al­tai Moun­tains across Rus­sia.

The book is a short trailer of Hum­boldt’s in­cred­i­ble and in­spi­ra­tional life. It would be a fit­ting trib­ute to Hum­boldt if he, as one re­viewer sug­gested, is added to ev­ery school syl­labus in the land.


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