A man for all seasons who summed up the Kosmos

Alexander von Humboldt
July 28, 2006

Natural historian, explorer, ecologist, meteorologist, taxonomic botanist and mineralogist, founder of physical geography and of much of earth science (especially geomagnetism), diplomat, prodigious letter writer (some 50,000) and author of more than 600 miscellaneous books and articles, populariser of science, promoter of international collaboration and of scientific conferences, tutor to the Crown Prince of Prussia and chamberlain at the royal court - all these attributes are associated with the polymathic Alexander von Humboldt.

Much has already been written about this iconic figure, whom the German people regard as one of their illustrious heroes, and whose long life (1769-1859) brought him into contact with numerous eminent contemporaries, such as Thomas Jefferson, General Sir Edward Sabine (president of the Royal Society, 1861-71), Simon Bolivar, Francois Arago and many other French savants with whom he fraternised during his lengthy sojourn (1804-) in Paris. But this book is no conventional biography that delves into the inner qualities and detailed personal life of Humboldt. Rather, it is a critique on the multifarious ways in which he has been perceived and configured.

Most of Humboldt's written work was in French, and the 30-volume monumental expedition record of his American journey, under the title Voyage aux Regions Equinoxiales du Nouveaux Continent (1805-34), was, at the time, compared to Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier's editorship of the Napoleonic edition of the Description de l'Egypte (1809-22) in terms of its magnificent execution. But in 18 Humboldt left Paris and returned via London to Berlin where, after a great deal of activity, he passed away some 30 years later. In the period starting November 3, 18, to April , 1828, he delivered 77 lectures at the University of Berlin and the Sing-Akademie before a mixed public. These he later published as his magisterial Entwurf Einer Physischen Weltbeschreibung: Kosmos (1845-62), a series of volumes in which he liberated "the treasures of science from inside the dark walls of laboratories and inspired a scientific Volksliteratur". Kosmos provided the link between Humboldt and the German nation. As one commentator put it:

"Such a view of nature had never been opened up to the people; such a wealth of ideas and facts, so lucidly united into a harmonious whole, had never been presented to them."

What makes Nicolaas Rupke's "metabiography" so engaging is that it addresses the question of whether, in writing about iconic figures (such as Franklin, Pasteur, Goethe, Faraday or Shakespeare), one is able to connect with the essential person. Or is one involved in a more complex process that entails appropriation, "whereby the life, work and impact of our heroes are told and retold as building blocks of contemporaneous socio-political institutions"? Rupke examines how Humboldt has been portrayed in the biographical literature of his fellow Germans through the various periods of German political history.

We are reminded that, like Darwin, Goethe held Humboldt in the highest regard: "What a man he is! Long as I have known him, he ever surprises me anew. He has not his equal in knowledge and living wisdom." Bismarck, on the other hand, ridiculed Humboldt: "A boring old man, obliged to entertain, ignored by all, a pathetic figure who ate too much and talked too much."

Rupke also charts sequentially how Humboldt was appropriated for their own purposes by the Wilhelmian court, the Aryan supremacists of National Socialism under Hitler, the East German anti-slavery Marxists and the West Germans who highlighted his philo-Semitism through recalling Humboldt's good relationship with Moses Mendelssohn and his family. Humboldt's proto-feminism, apparent from his scientific correspondence with the gifted Mary Somerville and Caroline Herschel, and his possible crypto-homosexuality are also adumbrated.

Rupke's meticulous analysis is fascinating on many scores. Few would dispute his quip that scholars who set out to describe only the facts have traditionally been among the most tendentious advocates; and likewise that "the writing of history or even the conduct of research (into it) cannot take place above the quotidian rough and tumble of ideology and politics".

Two thoughts occurred to me in pondering Rupke's thesis.First, it is not uncommon for individuals whose works have a social dimension to be appropriated by widely disparate bodies. When in 1971 the bicentenary of the birth of the manufacturer and utopian socialist Robert Owen was celebrated in Montgomeryshire, the Conservative, Labour, Liberal and Welsh Nationalist parties each held separate meetings to honour one of their heroes. Second, it is of historical interest to note that Humboldt's landmark popularisation of science lectures (the Kosmos series) began in 18 at about the time that Faraday (whose sagacity Humboldt extolled) initiated his famous Friday evening discourses (1826) in London.

Sir John Meurig Thomas is a former director of the Royal Institution and former master of Peterhouse.

Alexander von Humboldt: A Metabiography

Author - Nicolaas A. Rupke
Publisher - Peter Lang
Pages - 320
Price - £22.80
ISBN - 3 631 53932 0

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