Romantic Geography: In Search of the Sublime Landscape, by Yi-Fu Tuan

Robert Mayhew on the human need to travel to extreme environments that nourish the spirit

November 21, 2013

Romantic Geography is Yi-Fu Tuan’s meditation on what he poses as a paradox: the persistent splicing together of a romantic spirit with geographical enquiry. For Tuan, geography is a remorselessly factual enquiry, tied to the actual and the empirical and therefore mundane in both senses of the word, whereas romanticism is, in his (somewhat quixotic) definition, the polar opposite of this in its attention to the emotions and to polarised extremes, both personal and environmental; it is “an extra or a luxury that is unnecessary to civilization and its survival”. Characteristically, for Tuan, these opposites come together in that the drive to extremes is itself a necessity of the human spirit.

He draws on a huge range of case studies from antiquity to modern US cities to think through these claims, suggesting, for example, that although the polar explorers of the late 19th century such as Fridtjof Nansen, Richard Byrd and Ernest Shackleton produced scholarly scientific essays redolent of mundane geographical imagination, they were in fact drawn to the blank spaces of the extreme latitudes by a romantic belief that “life is more likely to yield its deepest meaning when one is surrounded by ice than by books”. Other sections demonstrate that deserts, forests and oceans have also had their habitués who straddled the same binary between science and quest.

It is, then, a curate’s egg: Tuan devotees will doubtless adore it but the non-aligned will find it to be good only in parts

If Romantic Geography is a study of the polarised values that draw the scientific and the emotional into a complex dialogue through the works of explorers, scholars and writers, it also bespeaks another binary, veering as it does between the profound and the trite. There are luminous moments that punctuate this short tract, as in Tuan’s discussion of being in an aeroplane as an experience of “the thinnest partition, the sharpest contrast between order and chaos, civilization and primitivity” with newspapers and coffee within, but the threat of “instant death” without, from which we are “separated by a mere plate of glass”. Who has not had an intimation of this polarity that he encapsulates so pithily? And yet Romantic Geography has an equal number of moments of false grandiloquence: “civilisation has produced three distinctive human types: aesthete, hero, and saint”, in particular, struck me as nonsense. More importantly, Tuan contrasts romanticism with what he calls “conservative, housekeeping notions [such] as environmentalism, ecology, sustainability, and survival”. To the extent that we can draw genealogies from romanticism to all of these “housekeeping notions”, and that each of these notions has well-attested radical strands, Tuan is not merely being overblown here but downright misleading.

Romantic Geography is, then, a curate’s egg: Tuan devotees will doubtless adore it but the non-aligned will find it to be good only in parts. And yet it would be remiss not to mention Tuan’s excellent conclusion. Here, he meditates on how academic writing fails to attract a general audience as it talks “to a…restricted group and, in the extreme case, to a mere coterie”, while magazines such as National Geographic, in encoding the lure of the romantic, have a wide readership. Tuan calls on scholars to write for a general audience, inspiring and enthusing them, but in a way wholly divorced from the jargon of “impact”, a term that itself recapitulates the problems of academic “coterie speak”. Tuan has successfully achieved such a feat in talking about complex issues in a language accessible to all for half a century. We would be the poorer without his efforts, however variable they are when placed under the critical microscope.

Romantic Geography: In Search of the Sublime Landscape

By Yi-Fu Tuan
University of Wisconsin Press, 184pp, £21.50
ISBN 9780299296803
Published 19 November 2013

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