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  • Reizende Aussichten:Aesthetic and Scientific Observation in Albrecht von Haller's Die Alpen
  • Tove Holmes (bio)

Albrecht von Haller (1708–77) defined the field of modern physiology, made significant contributions to botany as well as to the experimental scientific method more generally, and was also widely known in his time as a man of letters for his 1729/32 poem Die Alpen. The 49 stanzas of alexandrine verse were translated into several European languages and broadly captured the popular imagination of the time.1 Also likely because of its ubiquitous readership, the poem became immortalized already during Haller's life as Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's negative example of the splintering, stultifying effects of the over-abundance of description in his 1766 Laokoon: oder über die Grenzen der Malerei und Poesie. Haller himself called the condition under which he composed the work a "poetische Krankheit," and this early poetic effort seems to have been eclipsed by his prodigious natural scientific output, an astounding 52,000 published titles, as he only produced a few more literary works after this early phase of productivity and none nearly as widely read as Die Alpen (Müller-Sievers 348). Haller's relentless work ethic led him to relegate literary writing to "Reisen, schlaflose Nächte, Krankheiten" so as not to impede his empirical studies (Haller, Gedichte 393). It has even been suggested that his scientific empiricism stamped out his poetic imagination (Shteir 184). Attempts to rehabilitate Haller [End Page 753] as a poet after Lessing's scathing critique have focused on his use of classical forms, such as the pastoral or Georgic, or his relocation of the bucolic landscape to the high Alpine terrain, thus contributing to the shifting conception of the Alps in eighteenth-century Europe from a frightening to an awe-inspiring experience, even a tourist destination. It was Haller's poem that first made the Alps a literary topos. Regarding the charge of its inferior aesthetic value and lack of poetic illusion, it has been suggested that what description loses in terms of representational illusion, it makes up for in increased semiotic value, or that the poem has a primarily didactic function and thus Lessing's condemnation on aesthetic grounds is irrelevant. In the following considerations I will read Haller's poem against both the aesthetic discussions it inspired and its early-Enlightenment natural-scientific backdrop to suggest that they can be productively understood together. I will argue that even if it looks like empiricism may have quelled aesthetic vision for Haller from a biographical standpoint, scientific observation facilitates it from a poetological one.

I. Framing Poetic Vision as Experience and Experiment

Interactions across the "two cultures," or between literary and scientific discourses in their modern sense, often follow a similar pattern: science provides inspiration and stimulation to the literary imagination, while literature incorporates a level of self-reflection into the representation of scientific processes not otherwise possible in modern scientific research. Literary narrative can furthermore offer insights into the nonlinear processes and arduous paths that lead to the verifiable, repeatable conclusions that comprise the purview and telos of science today. In this way, as Barbara Naumann suggests, "literature carries out research on modern science in a specific medium: its own artistically skillful form of representation" (512). In premodern science, we see this relationship articulated differently, with much greater proximity among the discourses.2 In the eighteenth century, literature maintained cognitive value in scientific inquiry, and literary language was assumed to carry scientific precision (Foucault 66, 300). From the time before the regime of the two cultures emerged toward the end of the eighteenth century, Haller's poem positions itself on the [End Page 754] cusp between old and new paradigms by creating a scene of scientific investigation through literary means.3 Using the particular capacity ascribed to art and literature in the eighteenth century of facilitating enargeia, or vividness of sensuous intuition, Haller's poem investigates the physical senses it was thought to bring close and engage, vision in particular. Historians of science have identified the emergence, in this time, of observation as an "epistemological category in its own right," as a site of knowledge creation and the schooling of the...


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