Rediscovering Humboldt beyond the familiar
Oliver Lubrich has published an anthology of the Complete Writings of Alexander von Humboldt. In this conversation, the literary scholar, since 2011 Professor of Comparative and Modern German Literature at the University of Berne, tells us what new insights these writings afford.
Professor Lubrich, in your doctoral thesis you linked Alexander von Humboldt with Dracula's creator Bram Stoker and with Ernst Jünger, the polemical author of Storm of Steel. What do they have in common?
All three are concerned with the question of how we perceive cultures that seem completely alien. Ernst Jünger describes war as a violent kind of expedition and an extreme form of ethnography; Stoker's Dracula begins as the report of a journey from London to Transylvania. Humboldt was concerned with how Europeans in 1800 could understand overseas indigenous, colonised peoples through participatory observation.
Was there something in particular that first triggered your decades-long occupation with Humboldt?
Travelling through South America as a student in the 90s, I came across a monument in the Venezuelan Andes: "Humboldt and Bolívar". You can hardly get any grander in terms of the politics of remembrance: the Liberator and his inspiration. So I started looking for Humboldt's works in bookshops when I was back home in Berlin. But there were only a few; to this day there is still no complete edition of his travel account. Considering the current hype surrounding Humboldt, this is really quite astonishing. My interest began with the question: Why is it that the work of an author of such international renown is still largely unexplored?
One of your biggest projects prior to this was the 2014 edition of his Complete Graphic Works with more than 1500 illustrations. This year you've published Humboldt's drawings. What challenges did this entail?
With the printed graphic works it was a matter of first gathering together all of Humboldt's books, essays and articles and then going through them all in order to be as exhaustive as possible. For the edition of the drawings we scoured his unpublished works – taking care to avoid the pitfall of declaring every scribbling, every line on a scrap of paper to be a work of art and a stroke of genius.
You've now published Humboldt's Complete Writings – a compilation of everything not published in book form, totalling more than 3600 articles, papers and essays. How did you go about this?
We began of course by looking at the information in existing bibliographies. There was, for example, a continuous record at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities that included his contributions to journals, edited volumes and the like. But what we've now compiled is about five times as much. So how did we find this unidentified material? To begin with – quite simply, but very laboriously – by scouring historical journals from start to finish. Then we went through Humboldt's known writings digitally to see where he referred to his own works in self-citations. We also surveyed the 70 or so editions of letters and combed through databases. We were thus ultimately able to compile more than we ourselves might initially have expected.
In the first article, dated 5 January 1789, Humboldt writes to the editors of the Gazette littéraire de Berlin about a poisonous tree. What motivated him to put pen to paper?
Humboldt wrote this first text at the age of 19 in Berlin, in French, and anonymously: "From a young nobleman of this town". But certain fundamentals of his intellectual personality are already apparent – in particular that of the Enlightenment scholar and scientist. At the time there were a number of myths surrounding a poisonous tree in eastern India, today's Indonesia, which purportedly caused birds flying over it to fall dead to the ground. Humboldt now sought to verify these legends on the basis of the available evidence. He drew political significance from a subject of natural history.
He described how the indigenous peoples used the poison against the Dutch. Because the tree is in fact poisonous; it just does not give off poison over a wide area. Humboldt was thus describing an act of anticolonial resistance. And he criticised the church for using legends to keep the indigenous peoples in a state of dependence. In this context, still before the French Revolution, he invoked Voltaire: "The priests are no different below the equator either."
Where can we discover aspects of Humboldt that are not already familiar from Cosmos and elsewhere?
It is above all as a writer that we discover him in a new and different way. Humboldt has so far been known as the author of vast, sprawling projects: Cosmos – the whole world in a book. An account of his travels through America in three volumes – breaking off halfway. Through his shorter writings, which for a long time remained under the radar, we now recognise him as an extremely versatile and sophisticated author of many different genres, with a very broad repertoire. Humboldt was a great and very media-savvy communicator who addressed different target groups, each in a different style.
What development do these writings demonstrate?
We can observe chronologically how his thought and journalism changed over the course of seven decades. In the first ten years, Humboldt mainly published articles in specialist fields. We have this cliché that Humboldt was "the last universal scholar". But in his early years in particular, his work was often very specialised; he published papers in journals on mining or botany. With his journey to the Americas he began combining more and more different forms of knowledge in order to do justice to the nature of the tropics and the cultures of the "New World" in all their complexity.
In the last text, dated March 1859, Humboldt, now advanced in years, makes a plea "for help", asking to be spared further requests. What does this tell us about the author's frame of mind?
This wonderfully oddball text gives us an impression of what a sarcastic – and, I would say, typically Berlin – sense of humour Humboldt had. The very idea of placing a "cry for help" in the newspaper and declaring that he couldn't keep up any more, that he was getting too much mail! Humboldt also proves once again his prowess as a stylist here, because this piece of writing by the almost 90-year-old consists of just two sentences: one very long, and one very short. As if he wanted in his final article to reconcile the eras between which he had written: baroque opulence and scientific concision. We can also retrace how widely publicised Humboldt's cry for help was, with 130 reprints in the space of just a few days. If even people along the Mississippi were reading that Humboldt was overwhelmed by all the letters he was receiving, this documents very strikingly his international renown.
Are there still gaps in the publication history?
It is of course still possible that further texts may be found. This is the first compilation of this group of works, with twenty times more pieces of writing than had ever been reprinted since Humboldt's death. But for another text to be found in Peru in the coming years, or a publication in Arabic, or a piece in a German-language newspaper – that's very possible and even probable. Humboldt's letters are also still far from being fully edited.
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