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Landscape and Memory

By Simon Schama

Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1995, pp. 652, $40

"Revelation  Impending"

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 ellipsis....

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, for example.

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 as beauty."

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 in blood."

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 are unwilted.

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.


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