By Carter B. Horsley
Simon Schama, a professor of history at Columbia
University who was named art critic of The New Yorker
magazine after the publication of this book, is undoubtedly a
brilliant scholar and, as this weighty tome attests, a poetic
and emphatic writer.
His work is a voyage into the myths of environment,
a Hardyian exercise in mental independence, a Melvillian attempt
to transcend historical relevance. His Platonic dialogue with
his readers strives to unearth the primal associations of perception
and interaction in a multicultural universe.
In the process, Schama weaves virtuosic tapestries
of forgotten facts and forgetful times, dabbling in manifest destinies,
subconscious texts and symbolic images.
The book is storm-tossed, bouncing from the
shoals of obscuranta to the heights of creative invention. His
verbal engines churn out tidbits and asides with great punctuality.
This is a very, very ambitious endeavor that excites the imagination
even if, in the end, it frustratingly leaves the reader dangling.
The ultimate questions are not answered and the lyrical becomes
Schama has many, many tales to tell.
Some, like those of Robin Hood, Bernini, and
John Ruskin, are not unfamiliar, and others, like those of Claude
François Denecourt, "The Man Who Invented Hiking,"
Henriette d'Angeville, an Alpine mountaineer known for her motto
Vouloir, c'est pouvoir ("To will it is to be able
to do it"), and Salomon de Caus, a hydraulic engineer, are
not so well-known.
They are all fabulously interesting, especially
in Schama's prose that, while full of multilingual references
and a most imposing vocabulary - that revels in "schadenfreude,"
"hypaethral," "bosky," "shallop."
"diapason," "thaumaturgic," "peckish,"
"tumulus," gutta-percha," "debouch,"
and "pottage," to say nothing of "huzzahed,"
"polymathic," "dey," "runnels,"
"galimafries," "pismire," "bragget,"
"galliot," "perruque," and "cordilera,"
the latter group of which surely challenges most on-line dictionaries
- is quite capable of simple declarative and quite modern exclamations.
Intimidating in its run-on enthusiasms and
digressions, "Landscape and Memory" is, nevertheless,
rhapsodic. Its real flaw is that it is too short. Schama takes
his readers on quite dizzying expeditions across many histories
and then dumps them, however graciously, as he changes course.
The reader scurries to catch up and has a very difficult time
keeping up. There are a lot of italics here and many need little
translation: difficoltà and érudit,
Occasionally, Schama slips into the personal
mode and such expression does help a bit in explaining this weird,
kaleidoscopic trip through myriad cultures.
One almost feels that Schama is writing exclusively
for Robert Hughes, Time Magazine's incisive art critic, or John
Simon, New York Magazine's acerbic theater critic, or the late
Bertrand Russell. This is fustian, to use one of Schama's favorite
words, pyrotechnical historicism of a very high order, indeed.
One cannot but marvel at the command of culture
at Schama's fingertips. In some cases, it is a bit superficial,
as in his discussions of Hudson River School painters, or early
Chinese paintings, but not inaccurate and usually quite illuminating.
Art, in fact, plays an important part in this work and not just
because of the 250 black-and-white illustrations and 45 color
plates that justify the book's cost. Art has to do with perception
and perception is what Schama's book is about and how it is often
clouded with historical and mythic memories.
"Even the landscapes that we suppose to
be most free of our culture may turn out, on closer inspection,
to be its product," Schama observes. "And it is the
argument of Landscape and Memory, Schama continues, "that
this is a cause not for guilt and sorrow but celebration...The
brilliant meadow-floor [at Yosemite] which suggested to its first
eulogists a pristine Eden was in fact the result of regular fire-clearances
by its Ahwahneechee Indian occupants. So while we acknowledge
(as we must) that the impact of humanity of the earth's ecology
has not been an unmixed blessing, neither has the long relationship
between nature and culture been an unrelieved and predetermined
calamity. At the very least, it seems right to acknowledge that
it is our shaping perception that makes the difference between
raw matter and landscape...What lies beyond the windowpane of
our apprehension, says Magritte, needs a design before we can
properly discern form, let alone derive pleasure from its perception.
And it is culture, convention, and cognition that makes that design;
that invests a retinal impression with the quality we experience
Schama notes that many contemporary landscapists
"have tried hard to dissolve the artistic ego within natural
process...to produce an anti-landscape where the intervention
of the artist is reduced to its most minimal and transient mark
on the earth...But while much of this minimalist landscape is
always stirring and often very beautiful, it seldom escapes from
the condition it implicitly criticizes."
Environmental historians lament much, but Schama
insists on a more optimistic bent: "For if the entire history
of landscape in the West is indeed just a mindless race toward
a machine-driven universe, uncomplicated by myth, metaphor, and
allegory, where measurement, not memory, is the absolute arbiter
of value, where our ingenuity is our tragedy, then we are indeed
trapped in the engine of our self-destruction."
Schama seeks to go "to the heart of one
of our most powerful yearnings: the craving to find in nature
a consolation for our mortality."
Along the way, he recognizes Platonic desire
for perfected ideals, but also makes a stop in Herman Görings's
forests, ponders the bison in Poland, meandering libation stone
tables ritually filled by priests along the Nile, Florence Nightengale's
distaste for the hideousness of temples open to the sky in Philöe,
Gutzon Borglum's evasion of Susan B. Anthony supporters wanting
to add her visage to Mt. Rushmore, and Aby ("God is in the
details") Warburg's "nightmares of the earth slopping
The book is divided into sections on wood,
water, and rock. Issues such as nationalism, religion, heroism,
Romanticism and the Sublime are peppered throughout. It has the
rush of a subway training passing through all the neighborhoods
of the global city, logically and methodically persevering through
thick traffic with inevitable momentum, much passion and much
racket. The journey is all scenic nooks and crannies.
What's missing is the author's overlook.
Schama does not shy away from sweeping perspectives
and penetrating insights. Indeed, his knowledge of fluvial flows,
arboreal thrusts, and beclouded peaks is awesome. His wildernesses
The illustrations are an odd but quite interesting
lot, well illuminated by a careful reading of the text. Whether
he is extolling the insights of painters Anselm Kiefer, or J.
M. W. Turner, or John Robert Cozzens, Schama scores lots of aesthetic
points while also setting up huge, moving targets of opportunity
for the readers' imaginations.