Home » biography, OL Weekly

Book Review: The Invention of Nature

By (September 6, 2015) No Comment

The Invention of Nature: the invention of nature

Alexander von Humbolt’s New World

by Andrea Wulf

Knopf, 2015

Goethe, as Andrea Wulf reminds us in her exuberant, delightful new book The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World, considered German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) a fountain – “a fountain with many spouts from which streams flow refreshingly and infinitely, so that we only have to place vessels under them.”

The rest of the Western world shared Goethe’s appreciative amazement, borne along by von Humboldt’s endless flow of publications (as Wulf winkingly reminds us, even the author himself eventually lost track of how much he’d actually written – if you’re prolific enough, this can happen), a flow which in many ways culminated with his enormous magnum opus, commencing in 1845, called Kosmos. It would be natural at this point to point the reader’s attention to a gorgeous illustrated English-language translation of Cosmos, maybe from Viking or Knopf, but of course no such volume currently exists, although Wulf’s rightly glowing description of it will make any such reader wonder why:

Cosmos was unlike any previous book about nature. Humboldt took his readers on a journey from outer space to earth, and then from the surface of the planet into its inner core. He discussed comets, the Milky Way and the solar system as well as terrestrial magnetism, volcanoes and the snow line of the mountains. He wrote about the migration of the human species, about plants and animals and the microscopic organisms that live in stagnant water or on the weathered surface of rocks. Where others insisted that nature was stripped of its magic as humankind penetrated into its deepest secrets, Humboldt believed exactly the opposite. How could this be, Humboldt asked, in a world in which the coloured rays of an aurora ‘unite’ in a quivering sea flame’, creating a sight so otherworldly ‘the splendour of which no description can reach’? Knowledge, he said, could never ‘kill the creative force of imagination’ – instead it brought excitement, astonishment and wondrousness.

For 50 years, von Humboldt travelled and questioned and wrote and systematized, studying everything from plants to volcanoes and maintaining a lively correspondence not only with all the scientists of his time but also politicians and leaders like Simon Bolivar and Thomas Jefferson. Wulf probes into every nook and cranny of that life, and although that life has been written up ably many times in the past, Wulf’s book surpasses Helmut de Terra’s companionable popular 1955 volume Humboldt: The Life and Times of Alexander von Humboldt, and it likewise surpasses in its sweep and insight Nicolaas Rupke’s challenging 2005 book Alexander von Humboldt: A Metabiography. In Wulf’s book (beautifully produced by Knopf – a heavy, generously-illustrated hardcover), von Humboldt’s vibrant personality is in the spotlight the entire time, the sometimes refractory, always intriguing “man of contradictions” who’s painted so vividly and sympathetically by Wulf:

He was a fierce critic of colonialism and supported the revolutions in Latin America, yet was chamberlain to two Prussian kings. He admired the United States for their concepts of liberty and equality but never stopped criticizing their failure to abolish slavery. He called himself ‘half an American’, but at the same time compared America to ‘a Cartesian vortex, carrying away and levelling everything to dull monotony.’ He was confident, yet constantly yearned for approval. He was admired for his breadth of knowledge but also feared for his sharp tongue. Humboldt’s books were published in a dozen languages and were so popular that people bribed booksellers to be the first to receive copies, yet he died a poor man. He could be vain, but would also give his last money to a struggling young scientist. He packed his life with travels and incessant work. He always wanted to experience something new and, as he said, ideally, ‘three things at the same time’.

Wulf is unquestionably right that von Humboldt – a happy, sarcastic, preternaturally talented polymath – is far less well-known outside of Germany than he should be. If The Invention of Nature reaches the wide readership it deserves, we can hope that situation will change.