A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Landscape And Memory

The past is never dead. It's not even past.
I was transfixed by the TV series A History of Britain and Simon Schama's Power of Art, but this is the first time I've read any of Schama's books. Landscape and Memory —which was also made into a TV series — has been on my bucket reading list for some time. I was not disappointed, though I struggled with some of the detailed digressions which form the book's main narrative. But this is to quibble. It's a bold and compelling work, magnificent even — immense in its knowledge, broad in its scholarship, crackling with humour, enthusiasm, sophistication and irreverence. His prose is poetic and inventive — Schama is no dull academic or art historian. He revels in the quirky, colourful details of history, delighting in revealing the foibles and vanities of humanity, and laying bare, both mercilessly and affectionately, our well-intentioned, ill-intentioned and haphazard human endeavours.

The book explores the intimate relationship human beings have with the landscape: how we mould the landscape and how the landscape moulds us; how we inescapably view the landscape through the prisms of culture, history, myth and imagination. This can be a bad thing, but it is by no means always a bad thing. Nature and culture, the primitive and the pastoral, the wild and the civilised, the rural and the urban, rough scrub and cultivated garden, Schama argues, exist together and always have done — ever since hunter-gathering nomads became the first settlers.

Literary and artistic heroes emerge from these pages — Ruskin, Turner and Thoreau for example — though none can evade the barbs of Schama's ironic wit. He is particularly good at skewering vainglorious characters in history — such as Gutzon Borglum, the Ku Klux Klan card-carrying sculptor responsible for the presidents' heads on Mount Rushmore — and exposing their eccentricities, egocentricities and territorial greeds. A forest is never a forest in Schama's eyes — but the scene of murder and mayhem, economic exploitation, colonial expansion. A river is never a river and a mountain never a mountain — but symbols of nationalism, of religious or political conviction, or manifestations of psychological states. For much of humankind, trees, streams and rocks are not simply trees, streams and rocks, but come loaded with all kinds of cultural, political, mythic and religious  associations. Rousseau's child of nature remains an impossibly romantic ideal; and Thoreau's wilderness is always subtly tamed and humanised (Thoreau would not have wanted it any other way).

In one sense, at least, I have tried to keep faith with Thoreau's aversion to running after the esoteric, and with his conviction that the whole world can be revealed in our backyard if only we give it our proper attention. But the backyard I have walked through — sauntered through, Thoreau might exclaim — is the garden of the Western landscape imagination: the little fertile space in which our culture has envisioned its woods, waters, and rocks, and where the wildest of myths have insinuated themselves into the lie of our land. For that matter, there are places even within the boundaries of a modern metropolitan sprawl where the boundaries between past and present, wild and domestic, collapse altogether. Below the hilltop clearing where my house stands are drystone walls, the remains of a vanished world of sheep-farming and dairying, made destitute a century ago. The walls now trail across a densely packed forest floor, hidden from view by a second growth canopy of tulip trees, white ash, and chestnut-leaf oak. From the midst of this suburban wilderness, in the hours before dawn, barely a fairway away from the inevitably manicured country club, coyotes howl at the moon, setting off a frantic shrieking from the flocks of wild turkey hidden in the covers. This is Thoreau's kind of suburb.

SIMON SCHAMA Landscape and Memory          


George said...

I'm not familiar with this book, but it sounds quite interesting. Will check it out.

The Solitary Walker said...

It's quite a challenge in parts, George — but I found it a rewarding read. Schama is a controversial figure among historians, and some think he oversimplifies and conjectures too much. But I learned many things, and did relish his urbane and witty style. At certain points I found it all a bit too much, particularly if I was reading when tired late at night; but usually, the next day, I quickly got back on track. For me, most definitely worth the perseverance, but he's not for everyone. My edition had 600 large format pages of densely packed print, though it was broken up with quite a few illustrations (he's as much into art as history).

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this recommendation. 'Citizens' on the French Revolution and 'Rembrandt's Eyes' are for me magnificent books by Scharma.

By the way, I've just seen a photo of a marmite easter egg ....


The Solitary Walker said...

Will definitely read more books by Schama, Andy — thanks for recommending these two (we went to the National Gallery's magnificent Rembrandt exhibition when last in London).

Marmite Easter egg? Heaven and nirvana in the one package!

dritanje said...

This is a brilliant review you've written. Mostly what I was thinking as I read it was I'm really glad for all your writing and sharing it with us, whether it's about books or walking or thoughts about life in general or other people's thoughts that have struck you or mean a lot to you.
I've been away from all blogs for a while and this is so refreshing. Thanks solitary walker!

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks for all your recent comments, Morelle (Dritanje)! I appreciate them.