HiN - Humboldt im Netz

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Rex Clark

Alexander von Humboldt’s Images of Landscape and the ‘Chaos of the Poets’

3. Bürger's Münchhausen

Gottfried August Bürger’s Wunderbare Reisen zu Wasser und Lande, Feldzüge und lustige Abenteuer des Freiherrn von Münchhausen is a collection of short tall tales, travel adventures, and humorous exaggerated stories of all kinds. The first editions of the Münchhausen tales were produced in several English editions by Rudolf Eric Raspe beginning in 1785. This material was translated, revised, and expanded by Bürger, with the second edition of 1788 used as the standard text.[1] The origins of many of the tales are taken from many cultures and different eras, some dating from antiquity. The episode of the volcano is a humorous mixture of fantasy and classical mythology.

The narrator Münchhausen begins his description of the trip to Mt. Etna in Sicily with a satirical comparison to an actual travel book. He uses this comparison to belittle the attention to boring details and the purely financial motives of travel writers:

Auf meinem Wege dahin stieß mir nichts Merkwürdiges auf. Ich sage mir; denn mancher andere hätte wohl manches äußerst merkwürdig gefunden, und zum Ersatz der Reisekosten umständlich dem Publikum erzählt, was mir alltägliche Kleinigkeit war, womit ich keines ehrlichen Mannes Geduld ermüden mag. (99)

This gives us an example of the attitude of the narrator who is quick to boast of his own superior wit and intelligence. The condescending attitude towards travel literature is a way for Bürger to ridicule the contemporary trend toward detailed factual travel reporting, but it is also at the same time in keeping with the goal of a fast-paced narrative to entertain the reader and it is in character with Münchhausen’s travel goal of seeking adventure. The following comment combines the motives of danger and adventure we have seen in the description of volcanoes and a nod to the goal of research and fact gathering:

Eines Morgens reisete ich früh aus einer am Fuß des Berges gelegenen Hütte ab, fest entschlossen, auch wenn es auf Kosten meines Lebens geschehen sollte, die innere Einrichtung dieser berühmten Feuerpfanne zu untersuchen, und auszuforschen. (100)

After arriving at the top of the crater, the narrator comes to the moment where he is faced with the difficulty of describing the inside of the volcano, a moment that seemed to challenge even Goethe. Münchhausen dodges the expectation of a description by again cleverly making fun of the existence of so many accounts from other travelers:

Nach einem mühseligen Weg von drei Stunden befand ich mich auf der Spitze des Berges. Er tobte damals gerade, und hatte schon drei Wochen getobt. Wie er unter den Unständen aussieht, das ist schon so oft geschildert worden, daß, wenn Schilderungen es darstellen können, ich auf alle Fälle zu spät komme; und wenn sie, wie ich aus Erfahrung sagen darf, es nicht können, so wird es am besten getan sein, wenn nicht auch ich über dem Versuche einer Unmöglichkeit die Zeit verliere, und Sie die gute Laune. (100)

Münchhausen saves himself from finding the language to describe the crater by taking a more direct route to investigating the volcano. He simply jumps into the lava where he sinks to the bottom and finally arrives at the site of Vulcan’s workshop:

Das erste was ich gewahr wurde, war ein abscheuliches Poltern, Lärmen, Schreien und Fluchen, das rings um mich zu sein schien.—Ich schlug die Augen auf, und siehe da!—ich war in der Gesellschaft Vulkans und seiner Zyklopen. Diese Herren—die ich in meinem weisen Sinne längst ins Reich der Lügen verwiesen hatte—hatten sich seit drei Wochen über Ordnung und Subordination gezankt, und davon war der Unfug in der Oberwelt gekommen. (100-1)

Bürger depicts the workings of a volcano by invoking mythological characters, and then giving them a comical treatment tinged with political commentary. In a subtle analogy criticizing the contemporary aristocratic ruling class, the subterranean figures in positions of power, who hold sway over events on the earth above, are so busy with juvenile bickering about rank that chaos results among humans. Where Goethe’s treatment of the volcano relied on simple eye-witness descriptions mixed with a few philosophical musings, this account puts the volcano into the realm of myth and supernatural gods whose actions have unintentional effects on the helpless and unknowing humans on earth.

The explanation for volcanic eruptions is not however without a sense for logical causality. As it turns out, the structure of the volcano can be easily explained as just a byproduct of technical processes in Vulcan’s smithy and some difficulties with his apprentices:

Vulkan gab mir eine sehr genaue Beschreibung von dem Berg Ätna. Er sagte mir, daß derselbe nichts als ein Aufhäufung der Asche wäre, die aus seiner Esse ausgeworfen würde, daß er häufig genötigt wäre, seine Leute zu strafen, daß er ihnen dann im Zorn rotglühende Kohlen auf den Leib würfe, die sie oft mit großer Geschicklichkeit parierten, und in die Welt hinaufschmissen, um sie ihm aus den Händen zu bringen. “Unsere Uneinigkeiten”, fuhr er fort, “dauern bisweilen mehrere Monate, und die Erscheinungen die sie auf der Welt veranlassen, sind das was ihr Sterbliche, wie ich finde, Ausbrüche nennet.” (101)

Bürger’s fictional treatment of the volcano is curious mixture of the fantastic combined with the logical reasoning of the modern natural observer. This passage is a good example of how Bürger often uses the logic of ordinary objects and processes as the basis for bringing a convincing level of realism into Münchhausen’s exploits. In the middle of a wildly absurd situation we receive an explanation in the plausible style of a lecturing professor on the causes of natural phenomena—volcanic eruptions are just a result of the work in the smithy.

Bürger uses the freedom of fictional situations when needed to criticize writing conventions or to carry out veiled social satire. In part, the Münchhausen story is a parody of the traveler writers of the day who visit the same famous landmarks and repeat with tedious detail their experiences. Bürger’s response to this is a revival of the fantastic lies of older travel literature and a recursion to mythic figures in comic form. He follows the form of a travel narrative, for example, by investigating and reporting on the exact structure and workings of the volcano. He retains the narrative forms of travel reports and fills them with fanciful adventures and mock explanations with language and metaphor drawn largely from traditions of popular literature. While the complex language of fiction is difficult to compare with the writings of Goethe and Humboldt, who may make philosophical musings but do not wander from the track of factual reporting into pure fantasy, it can be seen that in his mixture and parody of styles Bürger often uses images taken from a modern world of human-scale inventions and mechanical technology which compete with the powers of nature.

Yet the descriptions of nature are from a mythical figure and the causes of natural forces in the final instance are personified into the actions of the gods. The relationship of humans to nature is cast in terms of age‑old stories and myth, although Bürger’s comical treatment of these tales clearly shows they are not serious explanations of nature. By contrast Goethe still uses images which evoke the power of dragons and to conclude his commentary he makes some remarks on heaven and hell which give cosmological meanings to certain features of nature. Humboldt, however, moves much further to realign the relationship of humans to nature.



[1] Gottfried August Bürger. Wunderbare Reisen zu Wasser und Lande, Feldzüge und lustige Abenteuer des Freiherrn von Münchhausen. Nach der Ausgabe von 1788. Ed. Irene Ruttman. Stuttgart: Reclam, 1969.

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