Monday, May 10, 2010

Humboldt, The Generalist

I don’t suppose folks in the Dark Ages ever knew someone had turned off the light nor was Renaissance Man listed as such in the Yellow Pages of his day.

We don’t see the times we live in anymore than fish see the ocean. We swim in a sea of information taking on water faster than we can gulp it down. The age of the generalist has returned.

If my doctor tells me I have Tsutsugamushi Fever I run home, Google it, and suddenly know more about it than the specialist….or so it seems. Of course facts beg for interpretation and they are certainly not art. There is still the muse that sings beyond the genius of the sea.

The time of the specialist is already in the rearview mirror. Like it or not the voice of the elite is falling on deaf ears as we turn away from literary or film criticism. Anyone can get a crowd on the cyber soapbox. Our internal landscape is gutted with Twitters, texts, bloggers, junk mail etc... I know, I’m one of them. Ah. the price we pay for democracy.

Wikipedia is the model for the demotic. It has replaced the library of Alexandria. Go to it at your own risk but it is arguably as good as the old encyclopedias and certainly more current.

Ironic that in the midst of all this we still have the low-information voters who have masked their ignorance with repetitive noise.

All the above is to introduce a name which has been practically erased from history books but deserves to be exhumed. He was, at one time, the most famous man in the world next to Napoleon. He corresponded extensively with Jefferson and was his guest in the White House. He conferred with Simon Bolivar and was a friend of Goethe and Schiller. Darwin was a disciple and carried his book on the Beagle expedition. Emerson, Thoreau, Poe and Whitman regarded him as a mentor. Even the painter, Frederick Church. drew inspiration from him. His name was Alexander Humboldt.

Humboldt was born in Germany in 1769. Though rooted in the 19th century he speaks to the 21st. As a brilliant linguist, cartographer, geologist, anthropologist, botanist, meteorologist, humanist and author of many books he was the supreme generalist.

He explored and re-mapped the interior of South America and wrote extensively on the flora and fauna. He spoke out against slavery and subjugation of the indigenous people. His was a lone voice challenging the colonialist designs of European powers.

Perhaps the first ecologist, his writings inspired John Muir. His vision was of man and Nature as inter-related and he warned of climate change as a consequence of de-forestation two centuries ahead of his time.

In the first half of the 19th century Humboldt was regarded as the leading intellectual of his age and most famous scientist. Why has he not remained a household word? Because he inhabited a world of aesthetic holism before the split; before science and literature divorced along with environment and social justice. He was both master and jack of all trades who united philosophy, physics and the written word.

Humboldt may well be a new model for our times; a walking Wikipedia. He was a bridge between humans and the natural world, not a mere compiler of facts but a man with a universal vision bringing together our head and our heart to see us through these murky waters.

For anyone interested in reading more about Humboldt I recommend Laura Dassow Wells' new book, The Passage to Cosmos.

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