HiN - Humboldt im Netz

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Rex Clark

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

4. Humboldt and the volcanoes of South America

Humboldt’s climbing expeditions were legendary and his interest was especially drawn to active volcanoes. Since the time spent in the volcanic regions occurred after the end of his incomplete published travel narrative,[1] the volcano descriptions are drawn from the edited version of Humboldt’s manuscript journals which include his travels in the Andes: Reise auf dem Río Magdalena, durch die Anden und Mexico.[2] In his journal entries, written in German until he reaches the city of Quito in early 1802 and thereafter mostly in French, Humboldt often speculates and searches for words to explain earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Of course, Humboldt felt that the study of volcanoes could yield answers to the fundamental debates of the Neptunists and the Plutonists on the forces which created terrestrial features.[3] But Humboldt also makes use of the danger and adventure element in some of his description of volcanoes. He did not need to offer philosophical musings or mythological comedy for the sake of effect, for he risked his life on several occasions to get as close as possible to active volcanic craters. For example, during the first visit to the crater of Rucupichincha near Quito, Humboldt along with a native guide, Philippe Aldas, walked out on an eight-inch thick snow shelf connecting two rocks bridging over the hot crater. He realizes the danger only when he looks back and sees the glow of the burning crater through the thin ice sheet:

Nous serions donc tombés à 200 t[oises] de profondeur et dans la partie du cratére qui est la plus enflammée et san qu’à Quito, si non par les traces dans la neige, on eut su ce que nous étions devenus. … Nous commençâmes à examiner le danger duquel nous nous étions tirés. Nous jetâmes une pierre sur la neige plus proche du trou par lequel nous avions vu la flamme de soufre. Cette pierre agrandit le trou et nous nous rassurâmes que nous avions marché sur une crevasse entre les deux rochers … et qu’une couche de neige gelée, mais à peine de 8 pouces de grosseur, nous avait soutenus. (1: 203)

After reaching the crater, just as with our previous travelers, Humboldt stands at the edge and seems to reach for words to describe what he also feels is a disagreeable scene below. He turns to other writers to find adequate comparisons, makes analogies with the underworld and invokes well-known poets and works:

Aucune langue n’a des mots pour exprimer ce que nous vîmes. […] M[onsieu]r de la Condamine a très bien comparé cet endroit au Chaos des poètes. On croit voir un monde détruit et sans espérance de pouvoir jamais servir de demeure à des être organisés. Je n’ai rien vu dans le monde qui m’aye laissé une impression plus profonde, mais en même temps plus désagréable. (1: 203-4)

Je me sens étouffé (ansio[so]) en écrivant ces lignes. Je me crois encore suspendu sur ce gouffre affreux. La couleur sombre et lugubre, la grandeur des masses et surtout le peu de clareté avec laquelle on découvre les objets, ce voile mystérieux des vapeurs qui dérobe une partie en découvrant une autre—tout cela monte l’imagination et l’exalte comme un Chant du Paradis perdu de Pope.[4] (1: 204)

Humboldt seems to be following a script of volcano descriptions as he looks down into the depths and he tries to evoke literary allusions which will match the stimulation of the imagination to be expected at such a moment. The ‘chaos of the poets’ referencing Condamine, the leader of the earlier French expedition to measure the equatorial meridian, is similar to the use of the phrase by Descartes. It is the cosmology of the mythical, pre-rationalistic world transmitted to us by the poets of antiquity. In the Discours de la méthode even if one concedes an imaginary world of chaos as described by the poets, the divine laws will form a rational world.[5] Humboldt also seems willing to concede that the poets can best describe the chaos, but just as quickly he wants to look for a way to delineate the structures of primary causation, of course, in a completely secular manner. Seemingly following narrative conventions, he feels obligated to attempt a literary description, yet he moves on to other metaphors and perspectives to try to capture aspects of the volcano’s structure and workings. The language of myth and poetry is no longer adequate to the narrative task.

Turning from this descriptive mode, Humboldt now begins a rational examination of what he sees in order to explain both the viewing conditions and the phenomenon of volcanic activity. The viewing experience is compared to a modern invention – the magic lantern:

Les vapeurs sont dans un mouvement continuel dans l’intérieur du cratère, agitées par la chaleur du feu volcanique. A peine a-t-on fixé les yeux pour bien examiner une partie, que déjà cette partie s’obscurcit, et que l’on choisit une autre, également frustré dans ses espérances on croit voir une lanterne magique dans laquelle les images ne sont pas placés dans le foyer des verres. Tout ce que l’on voit intéresse, inspire de l’horreur, mais on ne peut développer ce que l’on a vu. Il est certain que dans une position aussi critique, incommodé des vapeurs sulfuriques et l’imagination aussi montée, on juge très mal de la grandeur des objets. (1: 204)

Yet the view of nature is obscured and flawed, and Humboldt waits in vain for a clear perspective. The magic lantern of nature, it seems, has not been properly loaded with images. This appearance of nature, where he is inconvenienced by the vapors and his own imagination, like the descriptions of poets, does not provide him with a means of explaining the volcanic structures.

In the following passage, Humboldt carries out a long comparison of European and American volcanoes. In comparing them, he begins to analyze them in terms of a mechanical system. Humboldt conceptualized volcanoes as structures where the shape and strength of the solid sections of mountains function as containers with openings and connecting passages where pressures, fluids, and gases interact in ways he explicitly compares to mechanical systems. First the inside properties of the volcanoes are compared:

[Die] Vulcane in Süd-Amerika [sind] ganz anderer Art als in Europa, mehr Objekte der Physik (Luft- und Wasser-Phänomene) als der Mineralogie. Von großen Lavengüssen wie am Vesuv und Ätna habe ich nie gehört, selbst [der] Cotopaxi und Tungurahua scheinen Lava nur in geringer Quantität hervorzubringen. (1: 147)

Next the effect of the greater height of the American volcanoes is considered. Like any good mechanical engineer, the weight of the matter and the height to which it is to be moved through the volcanic system is calculated in terms of the amount of power necessary:

Wegen [der] Höhe kommt [die] geschmolzene Steinmasse, welche sie gewiß in ihrem Busen wie Vesuv und Ätna verbergen, selten bis an den Schlund, nur elastische Flüssigkeiten (Wasser und Dämpfe) steigen bis dahin, wegen ihrer Leichtigkeit. Es gehört eine grenzenlose Vermehrung der Kraft dazu, wenn [der] Antisana aus [seinem] Gipfel Lava speien sollte und in Menge. (1: 147-8)

Finally, given these variables of the height, weight, and power of the exploding volcanic material, Humboldt now considers the necessary size of the openings which are made during an eruption:

Vielleicht [sind] deshalb auch große Krater, eigentliche Krater so selten, die so nur bei Auswürfen von Steinmassen entstehen. Dämpfe elast[ischer] Flüssigkeiten bedürfen nur kleinerer Mündungen und so die bocas des Puracé. Diese Ideen erklären wenigstens etwas. (1: 148)

Humboldt’s last sentence shows that his goal is not to describe in words the natural features of a volcano, but to “explain” with “ideas” the function of the landscape he sees before him. The point of his explanation is to show how the volcanic mountains are part of a dynamic pressure system which he links to earthquake activity. The objects in front of him mutate and the vocabulary begins to reflect the principles of the fluid system. We have “Steinmassen” rather than isolated rocks, and we have fluids which are “elastic” changing to steam. Now that these objects are better understood when seen as part of a system governed by physical laws, volcanic activities become part of a predictable, understandable model. Earthquakes are caused by an interruption of the flow of steam vapor to mouths of volcanoes. In other words, the safety valves of the earth’s machine become stopped up and this is the cause of earthquakes:

Les éruptions des volcans et surtout ceux de Cotopaxi ne sont pas accompagnées de tremblements de terre, ou si l’on en a senti, ils ne sont que légers. Les grands tremblements de terre, qui ruinèrent Latacunga en 1698, 1736, 1757, étaient sans éruptions du volcan. Il paraît qui quand la communication avec la bouche des volcans est interrompue et que les vapeurs n’y sortent pas qu’alors la mine joue par en bas. Las erupciones desahogan, dit ici le peuple et avec raison. Le tr[emblement] de t[erre] est l’effet d’une éruption empêchée. Il en est de même de Tungurahua. Il est le moins à craindre quand il jette des flammes. (1: 200)

Now that Humboldt has conceptualized the volcanic landscape in terms of scientific laws, his descriptive language finds an appropriate metaphor, a human-scale invention based on similar principles:

Voll Neugierde, aber nicht ohne Furcht, näherten wir, Bonpland und ich und die Indianer (denn die Gefährten kamen spät nach) uns dem Schlunde, der boca grande, eine kaum 6 Fuß lange und 3 Fuß breite Öffnung, aus der rothgelbe Schwefeldämpfe mit einem Gezisch und einem Geräusch ausfahren, welches kaum mit irgendetwas zu vergleichen ist. Vierzig Schmiedeessen in vollem Gebläse geben minder Geräusch. Am ähnlichsten ist das Gezisch den Dämpfen, welche aus der Feuermaschine (Steam-engine) ausfahren, wenn man das Ventil am Cilinder plötzlich öffnet. (1: 145)

In the preceding passage Humboldt has approached the crater of the volcano and is searching for the right images and metaphors to express what he experiences. To do so he reaches into the vocabulary of new technologies to find an analogy for the sounds of the volcano. Like Bürger, Humboldt first looks to images from the forge of the ironsmith to convey the heat and noise of the scene before him. But finally Humboldt finds a new source of descriptive language to portray the volcano landscape. It is the steam engine, so new to the German language that he uses English terms and spelling. It is this new invention of the dawning industrial age that provides the best image to illustrate the workings of the volcano.

In light of the earlier examples from Goethe and Bürger, the mythical language used to describe the workings of nature and to relate the natural world to human thinking has given way to metaphors of human-scale constructions as a model for nature. Humboldt has confronted the traditions of myth, classicism, and the ‘chaos of the poets’ with inventive images of landscape based on scientific principles. Yet the use of science metaphor is not the dominant measure of Humboldt’s innovative position. Humboldt’s journey towards modernity is marked by a worldview that continually questioned, disrupted, and reinvented narrative to describe the complex realities of the Americas.



[1] Despite the title, only the first two years of the expedition became part of the travel narrative published during Humboldt’s lifetime as Relation historique du Voyage aux Régions équinoxiales du Nouveau Continent, fait en 1799, 1800, 1801, 1802, 1803, et 1804 par Al. de Humboldt et A. Bonpland (1814-1831).

[2] Alexander von Humboldt. Reise auf dem Río Magdalena, durch die Anden und Mexico. Ed. Margot Faak. 2 vols. Berlin: Akademie, 1986-90.

[3]Herbert Wilhelmy, “Humboldts südamerikanische Reise und ihre Bedeutung für die Geographie,” Die Dioskuren: Probleme in Leben und Werk der Brüder Humboldt, ed., Hanno Beck. Mannheim: Humboldt-Gesellschaft, 1986, explains the details of this scientific debate and concludes that “Humboldt ging als Neptunist nach Südamerika und kehrte als Plutonist zurück” (193).

[4]Margot Faak, Reise auf dem Río Magdalena, notes that Humboldt has mistakenly written Pope instead of John Milton as the author of Paradise Lost (2: 341).

[5] René Descartes. Discours de la méthod, 1637. “Même, pour ombrager un peu toutes ces choses, et pouvoir dire plus librement ce que j'en jugeais, sans être obligé de suivre ni de réfuter les opinions qui sont reçues entre les doctes, je me résolus de laisser tout ce monde ici à leurs disputes, et de parler seulement de ce qui arriverait dans un nouveau, si Dieu créait maintenant quelque part, dans les espaces imaginaires, assez de matière pour le composer, et qu'il agitât diversement et sans ordre les diverses parties de cette matière, en sorte qu'il en composât un chaos aussi confus que les poètes en puisse feindre, et que par après il ne fit autre chose que prêter son concours ordinaire à la nature, et 1a laisser agir suivant les lois qu'il a établies” (Cinquieme Partie).

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