- Schama and the New Histories of Landscape
Mythology is the ghost of concrete meaning.— Owen Barfield, Poetic Diction
Lithuanian Bison protected so they could be annihilated for “sport” by Goring as an incarnation of Tacitus’s transformed “wild man” of Germania, royalist Robin Hoods masquerading as mythological Green Men, the maniacal, neo-Roman hydraulics of Renaissance fountain builders, and whole drawing-rooms of mad Englishmen climbing Mt. Blanc with a pack train of gourmet food — these are just a few of the fascinating eccentricities of Simon Schama’s latest book, Landscape and Memory. But beyond its appetizing details, this book is an intriguing example of the increasingly problematic process of writing history in postmodern times.
Schama’s project is a controversial one. Besides examining the complex interpenetrations of nature and culture, he considers the difficulty of placing an environmental ethic within a postmodern “autobiography of history.” He also considers the tension between the individual and the communal, and between myth and history in light of “New Historicist” perspectives. Schama begins by following his lodestone of Henry Thoreau’s notion (and Magritte’s before him) that both “the wild man” and “wilderness” are more a matter of what we carry “inside” us than an exterior reality. He argues that the cultural appropriation of landscape may not be an entirely bad thing. In fact, he argues that this should be “a cause not for guilt and sorrow but celebration” (9). After praising their ability to make “inanimate topography into historical agents,” and “restoring to the land and climate the kind of creative unpredictability conventionally reserved for human actors” (13), Schama dismisses environmental historians like Stephen Pyne, William Cronon, and Donald Worster for their similarly “dismal tale: of land taken, exploited, exhausted; of traditional cultures said to have lived in a relation of sacred reverence with the soil displaced by the reckless individualist, the capitalist aggressor” (13). Schama also steers clear of environmental critics like Max Oelschlaeger, whose call for new myths Schama paraphrases as the need to “repair the damage done by our recklessly mechanical abuse of nature and to restore the balance between man and the rest of the organisms with which he shares the planet” (13). Instead, Schama describes his own book as: “a way of looking; of rediscovering what we already have, but which somehow eludes our recognition and our appreciation” (14).
This new book will be accompanied by five filmed BBC television programs that will air in America. Unlike Professor Schama’s previous works — including Patriots and Liberators: Revolution in the Netherlands 1780–1813, Two Rothschilds and the Land of Israel, The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age, Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, and Dead Certainties (Unwarranted Speculations) — this one seeks an audience beyond historians. Ironically, though, it is this book for non-specialists which calls the nature of history most radically into question.
Instead of being yet another explanation of what has been lost, Schama wants his book to be an exploration of “what we may yet find” (14). Certainly he is right that old myths — and the behaviors they generate and are generated by — are still with us. But while Schama’s “range” (historically and geographically) is vast, his internal summaries and conclusions about what we “may yet find” are curiously slight and vague. Notice, for example, his way of letting Krhushchev’s response to his uneasy inheritance of the European forest drift into mystery when he says: “But although for a century or more, the rulers of Russian empires, from Tsar Nicholas I to General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev, liked to show off their royal hunt, there was, at the same time, something about the heart of the forest that remained irreducibly alien; impenetrable, resistant” (53). Khrushchev, here, is a stand-in for all the heads of state who regularly exploit a “mythological bath” in nature on their way to becoming “super-natural.”
Schama makes it clear that this paradoxical relationship between nature and culture is a venerable one when he describes “Rome’s mixed feelings about the forest” (83). He explains it this way...