BOOKS SEPTEMBER 29, 2009
Landscape and Memory
by Simon Schama
(Knopf, 652 pp., $40)
We rush across the gleaming surface of the ocean, moving rapidly but smoothly above the untroubled beauty of the dark waters. Jagged cliffs and wild surf, rugged hills and lush grass pass beneath us. Music plays. Finally we reach our destination, where the action begins. It may be a prison from which a psychopathic bomber prepares to break out, or a clearing where poor Scottish farmers will discover the hanged bodies of their chiefs, or a village where women will be impregnated by aliens. Whatever the details of the action that follows, the sequence of images--from any one of the fashionable movie openings of the last two years or so--teaches the same lesson: nature is the realm of purity and beauty, and man imports violence to this separate world from his own corrupt and frightening habitat, the city.
As soon as we recover from the state of easy receptivity that movies induce, we realize that we have bought a bill of goods with our $4 matinee ticket. We haven't experienced nature but an image of it, colored, framed and varnished to match our very human myths and assumptions. The lovely Scottish hills that William Wallace (or rather Mel Gibson) roams in Braveheart are not the natural habitat of purity and virtue. For a start, they're probably Irish; and they have been photographed from angles and in a light that makes them conform to an Anglo-American myth of mountain beauty. If we hadn't already seen too many Sierra Club calendars, we couldn't decode the animated calendar that the movie sets before us. What looked like life was art. The unbounded beauty of nature that lifted our hearts was a slick packaging job. Nature, at least in the movies, never escapes culture.
In his new book, Simon Schama mounts a formidable scholarly expedition into the bright heart of the Construct Called Nature. He carries the reader in space from Egypt to Yosemite, in subject matter from ancient stone cult images to Anselm Kiefer's all-too-modern scorched books, in time from the second millennium BC to the present. He examines an enormous range of individuals, telling their stories easily and vividly, from the sculptor and architect Gianlorenzo Bernini and the Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher, who between them created baroque Rome's most compelling urban spectacle, the fountain of the four rivers in the Piazza Navona, to Gutzon Borglum and Rose Arnold Powell, who clashed over whether a monumental head of Susan B. Anthony should appear beside the male heroic heads that Borglum carved and blasted out of the rock faces of Mount Rushmore. Schama resets all his protagonists into the social habitats in which they flourished, re-creating a grand ecology of creative eccentricity whose niches include the hunting lodges of ancient Lithuanian forests, the palaces of the late-eighteenth-century Barbary Coast, Neapolitan gardens and French sacred mountains.
Schama's energy as a researcher never flags, even when he has to quarry material from impenetrably obscure texts, such as the now-forgotten Renaissance Latin work which first celebrated for a European public, in marmoreal Latin, the appearance and the habits of the Lithuanian bison. His commentary illuminates dozens of dark places in intellectual history as well as a museum's worth of images, from paintings and photographs to the prospects created by landscape architects. Reading Schama's book, in fact, resembles a pleasant experience of cultural drowning. The entire history of the Western tradition seems to pass before the reader's eyes.
Schama long ago established himself as one of the most learned, original and provocative historians in the English-speaking world. His career began with a dazzling social and political history of Holland in the age of the French Revolution. In The Embarrassment of Riches, he offered a massive, provocative interdisciplinary analysis of the culture of the Dutch elite in the Republic's seventeenth-century Golden Age. Schama trawled a wealth of verbal and visual materials from sermons, emblem books, household inventories and popular prints; he used them to trace the fault lines in the mentality of the Calvinist burghers who wanted to combine a lavish life-style with strict self-discipline.
Then Schama began to make trouble. In a minor book called Dead Certainties (Unwarranted Speculations) he committed a major act of transgression, trying to blur the borders between history and fiction, scholarship and imagination. He succeeded in tweaking the sensitive noses of any number of the guardians of orthodox historical professionalism. Loud did they wail and gnash their teeth at this talented young historian's refusal to equip his work with footnotes that would enable readers to distinguish between his inferences from the sources and his own inventions. Citizens, his most recent large-scale effort, a narrative history of the French Revolution that became a best-seller, made its author a celebrity, but it inflamed tempers among historians still sympathetic to the Revolution as effectively as Dead Certainties had among scholars to whom all revolutions are anathema.
All this work reached print before its author reached his fiftieth year. All of it reveals qualities of mind and craft that reappear in Landscape and Memory: immense learning, an apparently infinite store of anecdotes that point to larger historical morals, and a phosphorescent prose style, marked by the continual turning of unforgettable phrases. On almost every page the reader comes across a trademark oxymoron. "Pissing putti," "delicious horror" and "a vast, baroque tower of coiled, curled fry, an entire corps de ballet of fish suspended in batter; agonized in oil": these and dozens of other phrases still bright from their first coining will stick fast in readers' memories (and may well annoy the invincibly decorous).
For all Schama's delight in making the sober-minded squirm, however, the style of this consummately stylish book matters less in the end than its substance. Schama weaves together with Ovidian artfulness a complex set of stories, epic and even mythic in character. He varies social analysis with historical narrative, and intersperses both with personal reminiscence of travel. Readers will find themselves forced to leap from past to present, Europe to Asia, elegant galleries to wild mountaintops--and forced also to see the connections among these apparently disparate places and subjects, which Schama establishes with the speed and the stamina of a telephone operator running an old-fashioned switchboard in a '40s movie.
This book is, among other things, cultural history on the bravura scale of the creators of the discipline--scholars such as Jacob Burckhardt who moved with ease from antiquity to modernity and considered it their duty to read buildings and gardens as meticulously as poems and treatises. The only way to evaluate such historical tapestries is to unpick them, to roll the diverse threads back onto their original spools. Doing so will set Schama's scholarly achievement into its own larger context, the several radically diverse ways of studying human interaction with nature that he brings together.
We may begin, as the title invites us to, with landscape, for Schama's work amounts, in large part, to a synthetic cultural history of the land, a history that weaves a series of stories, some newer than others, into a compelling new whole. One theme that Schama traces across many centuries and countries has fascinated intellectual historians and literary scholars for some generations: the creation of a visual and verbal language that seemed to evoke the pleasures and the terrors of the natural world. As late as the seventeenth century, even the most daring and iconoclastic intellectuals lacked a vocabulary with which they could evoke the charms of mountains. When Thomas Hobbes, one of the most original and resourceful writers of English prose, tries to describe mountains in verse, he sounds like the legendary Scottish poet William MacGonagall praising the Bridge over the River Tay:
Behind a ruin'd mountain does appear
Swelling into two parts, which turgent are
As when we bend our bodies to the ground,
The buttocks amply sticking out are found.
Mountains usually inspired fear and disgust. They were "Nature's Pudents," "Like Warts and Wens," blisters and pustules which appeared (according to one influential seventeenth-century theory) when the Flood gouged and tore the originally perfect sphere of the world. Like sin itself, they attested the loss of innocence in history. As early as the sixteenth century, however, some painters and clerics began to domesticate the high places of the world. Brueghel and de Momper showed how to represent on canvas the wild, avian points of view and multiple, minutely varied micro-ecologies that mountains offered those brave enough to scale them. Catholic orders turned mountains into places of pilgrimage, uniquely vivid stages on which to reenact the life of St. Francis or the Stations of the Cross. Schama devotes a memorable vignette to what may be the very last of these, a place called Holy Land, constructed in the aggressive days of 1950s Catholicism on a hill in Waterbury, Connecticut, but now crumbling and bisected by route I-84:
This was, both of necessity and choice, a lowtech sacred mountain. Unlike the corporately funded, industrially constructed, electronically switched on theme parks of the 1980s, Holy Land USA, was actually built by Greco and his friends, from the primitive carpentry to the concrete scalehouses, to the repainting of discarded church sculptures and architectural details, rescued from the ecclesiastical junkyard. It was chicken-wire evangelism in earnest.
In the Enlightenment and after, mountains came into their literary and artistic own. Philosophers, painters and poets discovered that mountain terrors were attended by delight; and climbers brought the summits of Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn within reach, for women as well as men. Mountain poetry and mountain painting became the object of subtle and serious debates. But even as climbers' journals reached print, climbers' clubs spread enlightenment and empirical data proliferated, the assumptions that artists brought up the slopes continued to determine what they made of what they saw. Viollet-le-Duc knew that all mountains fell into rhomboid or trapezoidal forms, the geometric shapes from which one could read the history of glacial action that had made them. Ruskin insisted just as forcefully that mountains are really delicate and graceful in form, not jaggedly polyhedral but gently curved: "all touched and troubled like waves by a summer breeze; rippled far more delicately than seas or lakes are rippled." Each vision found expression in memorable prose and images, and each helped to shape a vision of the wild landscape as a place of special purity and peace.
The brothers and male cousins of an English friend of mine, rock-climbers and proconsuls all, saw mountains as the realm of Nature and tried to keep them pure of the corruptions of civilization. Though all of them had read classics at public school and university, they politely murmured, "No Greek above the snow line," when friends offensively insisted on quoting Pindar as they hung from ropes and inched their way up chimneys. As Schama shows, however, their purism rested on a misunderstanding. Greek comes to the mountaintop whether one wants it to or not: culture precedes and shapes the nature that we delude ourselves into thinking we can experience directly. No wonder, then, that at the end of his book Schama directly confronts Thoreau at Walden--and shows that he, too, shaped the New England forest, in his imagination, into the ancient bridges and noble halls of medieval Europe. Thus Schama neatly completes a circuit begun at the start of his book, where he analyzes, in detail, the rhetoric with which John Muir framed American nature as "a democratic terrestrial paradise."
The details of Schama's investigation of these texts and images--such as his meticulous analysis of American painters' efforts to represent the New World forest in forms that continually dissolve into Old World castles, crucifixes and cathedrals--are often sharply original. So is his insistence that visual artists often precede verbal ones in constructing the tools for describing wood and hills and water. But his general argument that cultural traditions inevitably shape human engagement with nature is not new. Pioneering intellectual historians such as A.O. Lovejoy and Marjorie Nicholson argued two generations ago and more that human representations of the natural world emerged from existing intellectual traditions and forms of sensibility, not simply from the experience of sea and mountain. More recently, the geographer Clarence Glacken devoted a large and occasionally profound book to the history of theories of natural order from antiquity to recent times. Schama enriches his story with a new range of visual and historical data; but it makes the most conventional thread in his tapestry.
More innovative, especially in the details of its telling, is Schama's second story line: how architects and planners have brought Nature and Culture together. He musters a host of examples to prove that city and country, human settlement and natural order, always penetrate one another. No scene seems more characteristically urban than the Piazza Navona in Rome, that elliptical symphony of orange, yellow and gray faiades which since the seventeenth century has formed the stage for a continuing urban drama, its cast made up of peddlers and gypsies, tourists and pickpockets, cardinals and women of fashion. At its center stands a monumental work of sculpture and engineering: Bernini's fountain. A great rock, seemingly torn by an Egyptian obelisk that rises above it, is surrounded by four statues representing the great rivers of the world. Schama carefully re-creates the local debates between artists and patrons that led to the construction of the fountain; he vividly evokes the practical results, the sheer relief afforded by the Piazza's running water and summer flooding for a city that sweltered unbearably, as it still does, in summer heat and dust; and he interprets the fountain's evolution and explicates its final form with clarity and grace.
At the same time he ranges across the millennia to trace the ancient connections between rivers and fertility, water and culture, established in Egyptian religion and appropriated by Roman priests and artists, that inspired both Bernini and his learned adviser Kirchner. A whole series of connections, subtly elicited, resolve an apparent paradox: why the pagan hieroglyph on an Egyptian obelisk seemed the most suitable way to celebrate papal munificence in monumental form. Ancient myth and modern hydraulic science, mystery and practice, interact harmoniously here and in many other schemes. Schama goes on to reveal any number of the ways in which architects have succeeded, over the centuries, in weaving streams and waterfalls, fountains and reflecting pools, into the most elaborate schemes of building. Like John Ackerman, David Coffin and many other scholars who, in the last two generations, have called dramatic attention to the central role of suburban villas and urban gardens in forming European city life, Schama makes clear that urban experience can never be reduced to the rushing impressions of tall faiades and busy streets that urban theorists such as Georg Simmel have seen as its essence. One of the central distinctions of modern social science, the distinction between the kaleidoscopic whirl of the modern city and the quiet calm of the country outside, is powerfully challenged by Schama's account.
A third fundamental thread that reappears throughout the fabric of the book, and often serves to hold it together, is the tale of human interaction with culture. Among the cliches for which Schama has little patience is the notion that landscapes are natural. Over and over again he shows how human actions, from setting fires to carving mountains to establishing detailed codes of forestry regulation, have shaped apparently untouched environments in culturally determined ways. In emphasizing this point, as Schama himself makes clear, this quintessentially European historian reveals the enlargement of interests that he owes to his new American home.
Environmental history has fascinated American intellectuals for a long time. Early scholars, such as Francis Parkman, the dramatist of American expansion, about whom Schama wrote in Dead Certainties, and Robert Albion, the crusty Princeton historian of navies who showed how demand for timber changed English and continental forests, knew what ancient trees looked and smelled like and how merchants and loggers shaped the woods to their practical ends. Historical geographers such as Carl Ortwin Sauer rebelled against environmentally determinist theories of European origin, insisting that prehistoric humans had already possessed technologies that could reshape forests and landscapes. More recent historians of the American West have dramatized the impact of human action on river and wilderness, the creation of new arable land and the relentless mushrooming of tract houses and condos in what had been desert--as well as the reduction of clean, fish-bearing streams into still, polluted lakes.
Schama insists that environmental historians fall prey, as a group, to the trendy temptations of political correctness. By his account, they treat every human incursion in the wilderness as the rape of an unwilling, virgin beauty and implausibly insist that Native Americans always treated their habitat with awed respect, unlike the exploitative whites who drove them from their homes. Schama, too, exults in the richness of American nature. He lovingly evokes "the urgent life of the forest floor, primordially squishy-soft, packed with fungus and seething with the vast traffic of countless beetles, earwigs and ants commuting this way and that" that fascinated his children, who were too small to take in the "fragrant, feathery and massive" sequoias of Montgomery Woods as anything but threatening monsters. But he also insists on the man-made character and context of the natural shrine, the disturbing presence of plastic vegetarian nudists, their bodies "gallantly scarred and bruised in the service of a thousand good causes," and the even more disturbing presence of the ancient and modern loggers who had changed the area so radically.
Characteristically, Schama is being a little wicked here. In this case, though, he does an injustice to a rich body of inventive scholarship. The older environmental historians celebrated the transforming power of human effort. The best of the newer ones remain perfectly aware that all human populations change their environments, and they attend to the details of this process instead of denouncing one moment in it. Richard White's The Organic Machine, a new history of the Columbia River, shows great sensitivity to the way each group of human users in turn has drawn on its stocks of solar and hydraulic energy.
Schama certainly doesn't rival White as an analyst of the actual point at which humans and nature intersect. The skilled application of muscle, the contact of skin with rock and wood, the smell of sweat and burning and the noise of work are dimensions of the human experience of nature which are not evoked here in as much living detail as the play of paint on canvas or of words on paper. True, Schama's synthesis of environmental history with cultural history has a range and richness that his predecessors have not attained. Geographers such as Glacken and Sauer and even a brilliant historian such as White don't read texts and images with his sensitivity and depth. But the variety of ingredients, rather than their individual novelty, gives Schama's cuisine its individual flavor. His book imposes respect for its breadth, for the density and the complexity of its readings of episodes and works of art, for its subversion of some common and insufficiently examined beliefs about nature and humanity, for its critical scrutiny of images and countryside but not always for the originality of its account of how humanity has created the nature that suits it.
In its other aspect, however, Landscape and Memory offers not only a fine work of historical craft, but also something more like an ambitious work of literary art: a highly original study of the ways in which history not only shapes, but becomes inextricably embedded in, land and trees and water, and they in it. Finally the book's most memorable subject is memory, collective and individual.
Schama begins his second inquiry, not accidentally, in Eastern Europe, in a world of Polish, Lithuanian and German forests hedged about at every point by myth. These forests have been seen, for centuries, as central to the identity of nations. At the nineteenth-century nadir of Poland's fortunes, intellectuals such as Adam Mickiewicz described the rich bogs and bison-haunted forests around Wilno and Kovno as the rustic crucible of Polish identity, the groves where the ancient kings of Lithuania had worn the great ancestral fur hat and hunted freely. In the twentieth century zenith of Nazi Germany's success, Himmler and others treated the same forests as an extension of East Prussia--and as an integral part of the dark, eerie woods in which the first Germans, two millennia before, had slaughtered the Roman army of Varus. The fantastic hunting lodges of Nazi bosses staked a claim to historical and cultural continuity, to a German tradition in which hard country stood against soft city, iron against gold, wild German courage against sophisticated, urban discipline.
Schama shows, with quiet clarity, that these powerful visions of central Europe's woods were hardly rooted in historical scholarship, even if the SS made an unsuccessful attempt to kidnap something Italian that was more valuable than Mussolini, a precious manuscript of Tacitus's ancient book on Germany, in order to give them some scholarly foundation. In fact, the wild pure woods of German and Lithuanian tradition fed and protected inhabitants for whom the legends of Poles and Germans had no place. For centuries, the trees of Lithuania were felled, floated downs streams and rivers to railheads, and sold by Jewish lumber merchants--the Soltans and the Kalezkis--to the British navy, which turned them into the masts and decks of ships of the line. Not only the merchants who brought the wood to market at Danzig and Riga, Schama shows, but the workmen who first cut the trees down with long two-handled saws and rolled them into the rivers for transport were Jews. These "lumberjacks mit tzitzis" (that is, lumberjacks wearing on their garments the fringes required by Scripture of Jewish men) who guzzled vodka and played harsh practical jokes on greenhorns, wore the dark trousers, white shirts, beards and hats of practicing Jews in the depths of the wolf-infested woods.
Merely by reestablishing the presence in deep woodland clearings of these figures from a fading postcard of the Lower East Side, Schama dismantles a vast hateful structure of interlocking cultural legends. In the mental world of Central Europe, Jews stood as firmly for culture as Lithuanian bison and German foresters did for nature. Jews were urban, sophisticated, corrupt; but nature was wild, primitive, pure. So argued a thousand pamphlets and dozens of anti-Semitic agitators, and so, on his bad days, argued Mickiewicz, too. In fact, though, in the brutal, muscular fact of trees felled, work done, sweat lost and wolves chased away, the forests belonged as firmly to Jews as the shtetl. When Jewish partisans found a last refuge there in the darkest of all times, making the Lithuanian woods the stage for a bitter final battle against Christian guerrillas and Nazi persecutors alike, they were not entering a new world. They were reclaiming what had once been Jewish territory.
The forest primeval, seen for centuries as the pure germ plasm in which the Volk took shape, emerges from Schama's analysis as a cauldron, if not a melting pot. The primal woods of the Polish nation were contested ground, on which many races fought for space, resources, life. The physical signs of these struggles, the traces of whole peoples, have been expunged from the physical as well as the mythical landscape. The traveler, Schama finds, can hardly identify even the graves of Poles slaughtered by Stalin, much less the burnt bodies of the Jews slaughtered by Hitler, in the green, rolling riverine land where the Vistula flows and Treblinka stood. Only the historian's tireless work of memory can restore them, can repopulate the lonely forests, fertile fields and fairytale cottages, with their dead.
It is a powerful new aim of Schama's book, then, to dispel myths: to insist on our propensity to mistake traditions and images for the true story of human interaction with forest and mountain. But a second, paradoxically related one, is to insist that humans always do engage in such interactions--and that myths inevitably shape the land: that illusions and fantasies inevitably drive the explorers and exploiters who create what later visitors see as nature. Thus the same visions of the Lithuanian and German forest which misrepresented them as Aryan paradises also defined the development of the techniques for timber and animal management that their foresters applied.
And Schama reveals himself as implicated in myths and struggles closely similar to those that engaged the protagonists of his stories: indeed, it seems that a particularly rich set of myths and images of landscape, racial and national, familial and personal, powered his journey into forests and along rivers. Among the ironically narrated episodes and meticulously annotated texts and artifacts appear, again and again, moments of a very different kind, in which Schama himself appears, driving with an informant through the Polish countryside, taking his children to see the redwoods in California, or nostalgically recalling the disused bomb shelters that he explored as a child and the Hampstead heath that he wandered as a young man. The style of these passages differs from the style of the rest. Exploratory in tone, personal in content, rich in the local textures of condom-strewn English commons and luxurious meals in London hotels, they provide the pivots on which the main episodes of the text turn. They make clear that Schama's work emerges more from personal experience and compulsion than from the "literature" of the various disciplines he draws on.
Schama himself identifies, in some of the most moving passages of the book, two earlier inquirers whom he treats as exemplary: Aby Warburg and Anselm Kiefer, both of them, like him, personally involved in emotionally searing ways with the objects of their enquiries. Warburg, the brilliant, tortured eldest son of the Hamburg banking family, dedicated himself with obsessive energy to collecting and interpreting the complex, twisted afterlives of classical myths and forms in the post-classical world. Like other young intellectuals in the wake of Nietzsche, Warburg knew that the classical heritage included dark threatening caverns as well as bright colonnaded temples. Ancient forms, as he showed in his great study of Botticelli, could express wild movement as well as noble stillness, erotic complexity as well as anerotic simplicity. The ancients were responsible not only for philosophy, the brave human effort to master the world by reason, but also for astrology, the resigned, all-too-human acknowledgement that natural forces, cast in mythic form, control human destinies.
Human creativity--so Warburg insisted in his early work--amounted to a struggle, a continual, often doomed effort to define a free space for rationality. Warburg not only devised this theory, he also exemplified it: he followed the fighting in World War I with passionate, uncomfortably patriotic attention, desperately clipping newspapers in what now seems an almost pitiable effort to gain intellectual control over the flood of news and propaganda. At the same time, he was traveling Germany's cities, reading the unpublished letters in which the astrologers of the sixteenth century had offered their advice to other intellectuals and to rulers--and celebrating the earthy wit with which Martin Luther had rejected their counsels of existential despair.
Confined for five years to a Swiss clinic after the war, Warburg gradually collected himself. He won his release with a magnificent lecture on New Mexico Indian serpent rituals, which he had witnessed as a young man. Here he showed, with a sympathy for the devil that his earlier work sometimes lacked, how myth itself created the space in which reason could develop. The "archive of memory," which consisted of images and metaphors of immemorial use of forgotten origin, preserved the primitive within the modern, the mythical within the rational: "[i]nstead of stressing the separation between primitivism and the modern condition, he implied its connection." Unlike J.G. Frazer, the vastly erudite analyst of ancient myth who analyzed every ancient myth of grove and stream at length in The Golden Bough and collected the sources in a still more enormous library, "densely inscribed and reinscribed in Frazer's controlled little Scottish hand," Warburg came to see that myths represented something more than "`mistakes' that primitives make about their world": they permeated modern as well as traditional culture.
For Warburg, the photograph of a woman golfer, following through with her nine iron on a barbered modern golf course, echoed the ancient image of an orgiastic nymph, a forest maenad. The Bacchae live, even at the country club. Warburg's search for the mythical in the modern consistently underpins Schama's effort to argue "that Western culture, even while it has been busy destroying forests, has been full, not drained, of ...myths," that the bright modern, urban Europe of clean subways, nice cafes and liberal opinions known to tourists and politicans is a thin crust that barely conceals a darker, older, legendhaunted landscape. This Warburg is Schama's model: not only the tireless explorer of the classical tradition, but the clear-eyed student of the eternal vitality, the unavoidable creative and destructive power, of myth.
Schama celebrates Warburg's final, magnificent effort to embody his theories. This took the form not of expository prose but of an atlas of images, which he called Mnemosyne. It was "in effect a gigantic vertical stamp album: screens of photographs, organized by motif, and assembling (along with reproductions of paintings, prints and drawings) travel posters, advertisements, and news photographs that struck him as bearing, wittingly or not, the memory of ancient lore." Landscape and Memory also has something of the character of a vast, idiosyncratic album or atlas. In one respect, however, Schama departs radically from Warburg. He suggests that artists not only transmit the life and the power of symbols, but also investigate them. For Schama, a visual analysis of symbolic forms may be not only more compelling to viewers, but more intellectually profound, more provocative and subtle, than a verbal one.
The contemporary German artist Anselm Kiefer ranks, in Schama's view, with the older German scholar Warburg as a profound student of how myths are enacted in the lived space of action and reflection. And unlike Warburg, Kiefer makes the memories of the land the central topic of his brushed inquiries into the German psyche and its woodland origins. No pages of Schama's book are more memorable than those in which he follows Kiefer into the Odenwald, a remaining fragment of Germany's ancient Hercynian wood, now much damaged by pollution, where the artist settled in 1971.
Schama argues, sharply, that Kiefer's early career, with its provocative re-enactments of fascist gestures and images, marked a consistent effort at protest. Kiefer rejected both West German efforts to treat 1945 as a Zero Hour, a complete break with the past, and the narcissism of the post-war avant-garde which insisted "that the only interesting subject left for art was art." His profound efforts to explore the German past gave rise to works as diverse as photographs of himself in Nazi regalia, large-scale paintings and the haunting ink drawings of his Hermanns-Schlacht book in Boston--a coherent series of images, dark and mysterious, in which Kiefer explored the meanings of the defeat of the Roman Varus, "the Custer of Teutoburger Wald," by the Cheruscan Arminius in AD 9. One ambitious work, the Varus of 1976, explores both the German forest and the German tradition. Close, bare trees, ranked with almost comic neatness by the parade-ground traditions of German forestry, join upper branches in what resembles a military arch of swords. They clearly refer to the deep, peaceful forests of earlier artists such as Albrecht Altdorfer and Caspar David Friedrich, who devised scenes in which minutely detailed trees played all the principal parts, dwarfing human inhabitants and pushing them to the margins.
But Kiefer's forest is permeated by the ghosts of human inhabitants, resounds with the noises of ancient slaughter. The gouts of blood on the snow, the wounds of the battered trees, and the names of the Roman Varus and his enemy Hermann, scrawled in the snow, all show that this is a place of execution, not of contemplation. Above, in smaller script, appear the names of German poets and thinkers, Holderlin and Rilke, Schleiermacher and Fichte--and von Schlieffen. A nation of Dichter und Denker? Or Richter und Henker? Is the course of German history a constricted path from a bloody forest birth to a tangled end? Or does the haunting light that penetrated between close-set trees at the path's end suggest the possibility of hope?
The painter's juxtaposition of these names and symbols, his vivid, visual exploration of the ancient connection between the German forest and the national destiny, seems to Schama hauntingly profound: not a wallowing in myths that require exorcism, but a surgical exposure of them. These myths will need to be laid bare as long as the land itself endures. And Schama himself clearly has more than a touch of Kiefer in him, in his desire to shock, his willfully provocative gestures, his firm belief that color and light may provide deeper analysis and richer information than all the statistical tables that one could assemble.
Finally, Schama seems to stand somewhere between his two protagonists, between the historian and the artist. His work falls between the distanced analysis of the scholar and the passionate juxtapositions of the painter. His erudition, his insistence on getting right the tiny detail of argument or shading that reveals a myth taking concrete and influential form, his insistence on cold clarity: all this links him to Warburg, the fanatically precise explorer and maker of archives. But his wit, his passion and his compulsive desire to shock, his will to re-enact as well as to reconstruct, put him on the side of Kiefer, the erudite artist and maker of terrifying images.
Landscape and Memory has not only the range of a great nineteenth-century work of history, but also the disorienting power of a major work of art from our own disoriented fin de siecle. And, as a form of art, this combination of visual and verbal images, narrative and criticism, as hard to describe as it is easy to appreciate, seems a far more successful experiment than the labored, supposedly novelistic segments of Dead Certainties. Schama's ability to combine the personal with the philological, the scholarly with the artistic, makes his book fall outside normal categories and transcend the necessary limitations and occasional weaknesses of its parts. Unclassifiable, inimitable, sometimes irritating and often fascinating, Landscape and Memory will inform and haunt, chasten and enrage, its readers. It is that rarest of commodities in our cultural marketplace, a work of genuine originality.
Anthony Grafton teaches the cultural history of early modern Europe at Princeton University. His books include Defenders of the Text (Harvard University Press) and Joseph Scaliger (Oxford University Press).