Monday, December 30, 2013

The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes (2008)

The Age of Wonder sat on my to-read pile for over a year. I go in and out of periods of enjoying non-fiction, and it wasn't until this December that a Christmas reading of Treasure Island got me interested in the18th century again, and I thought that it was time to dust off this tale of Enlightenment science. It's a setting that's a bit earlier than my usual period of interest. Traditionally I've been fascinated by the Victorian period, partly because I love their dress sense, and I've always been turned off by anything involving powdered wigs and ridiculous-looking breeches and high socks. But I remembered reading through the first chapter previously and being struck by the tale of the first Europeans visiting Tahiti, so I cracked into the book for real this month.


The Age of Wonder is a biography of various people whom the author believes contributed to what he calls 'Romantic science.' This he characterises as science that still has a poetic or romantic nature to it linked to the Romantic movement in various art forms that was happening at this time. During the 1700s, science was young and unformed enough that scientists wrote up their achievements in a sort of poetry-infused manner. Quite simply, science and art were not as divergent as they are now, and it was not unusual for people to specialise in both. Our modern understanding of how the world functioned was still very new and capable of being overturned quite frequently. Scientists were like explorers (often they quite literally were) in their fields, forming the bedrock of our understanding of geology, astronomy and chemistry. The scientific process was mature enough that they were getting decent results, but not so hardened that it had robbed the wonder from science. These people largely begun as amateurs who rose to prominence because of their abilities. The scientists are mostly linked by their relationship to one Joseph Banks, a man famous for accompanying Captain Cook on one of his early voyages, and for later making Kew Gardens into one of the scientific wonders of England.

Banks' trip to Tahiti starts things off, and it immediately lodges itself among the great colonial-period travelogues. Banks is a great character, interested in just about everything and bursting to learn all that he can about the world. He is ostensibly a naturalist, but he comes to focus on the anthroplogical side of things as he gets more involved in the lives of the locals on Tahiti. But to talk about this section, I'm going to have to go into a bit of detail about what's sometimes called a Dances With Wolves story.

Dances With Wolves/Avatar style-stories, in which a white man enters an alien society, becomes accepted, appreciates their way of life, and becomes better at it than they are, are extremely common in fiction. They're hackneyed and usually extremely un-PC, but I must admit that I've got a tremendous weakness for the,. Lots of my favourite movies and books trade in this trope. It's usually a tale of adventure and self-realisation, and when done correctly, can be amazing. But once you get thinking about it, there's lots of things that are objectionable about it.

There are numerous aspects of this story that are morally troubling. Firstly, the native society usually exists only to provide a setting for the catharsis of the main white character, with the natives usually being two-dimensional characters. Their characters tend not to have arcs; they don't learn anything or have any wants or desires. Their inner lives generally go unexplored. What's important is that the white character learns something from them. While this is sometimes thought to empower the minority people (the natives) by portraying them in a positive light, in fact it reinforces the idea that, unlike whites, they're not real people who learn and develop. They're plot devices, and the aspects of their culture that we whites find 'cool' or interesting are being exploited without their voices actually being heard.

Secondly, the white characters almost always ends up being better at whatever they do than the natives are themselves. If they are a proud warrior society (such as in The Last Samurai) for example, then the hero will become a better warrior than anybody else, despite the fact that the natives may have been practising their particular fighting skills since birth. Bleagh.

Thirdly, the natives will typically have some sort of problem that they can't overcome until the white hero joins them. Often, as in Avatar, the problem involves encroachment by the white people whom the main character represents. This is a massive subconscious way of dealing with white guilt. In fact, it's almost a wish fulfillment based on white guilt: white man shows that he understands and respects the native society and gets to live with them, without any of the irritating lack of privilege or power that usually goes along with actually being a minority, and then actually helps them to reverse the problems that we ourselves have caused them. Because, don't you know, they couldn't possibly have sorted things out themselves. Once again, what may have been intended to be empowering is actually extremely patronising. Gee, aren't white people great?

This story, or at least aspects of it, has played out in real-life from time to time. The Last Samurai is based extremely loosely on the life of Willian Adams, an Englishman who was shipwrecked in Japan in the 1600s, became integrated into Japanese society (which at the time was arguably more sophisticated in certain respects than English society), eventually becoming a respected member of the court and an honorary samurai. During the first world war, T. E. Lawrence lived among the Arabs and the bedouin tribes of the Arabian peninsula, learned their language, became respected among them, whipped them into shape militarily and led them to victory against the oppressive Ottoman Empire (because it in the interest of the British war effort, of course).

The story of Banks in Tahiti fits into this mould nicely. According to Banks, and corroborated by others on the expedition, the naturalist was the only crewmember who bothered to learn the local language properly and who was trusted and liked by the people of Tahiti.

The island is described as being 'a paradise' in the book when the Europeans first arrive. The people are beautiful, wearing little and working little. Food is easy to come by and the weather is ideal. And crucially, sex is an open and frequent part of life on the island. Venereal disease is unknown. The locals amuse themselves (and the sailors) with amorous encounters free from the complications that plague such relations back in England. No wonder the crew of the Endeavour thought they'd arrived in paradise.

And it is this paradise that Banks romps through during this amazing first chapter. He acts as a translator between the English and the Tahitian court, and later hints at his intimate relations with the Queen and her ladies-in-waiting. He's the main man who understands their culture, and every transaction between the two peoples happens through him. He has adventures among the wildlife and people of this beautiful country, eventually shedding the habits and constrictions of his English heritage for a way of living that's free and pure. Al in all, he has quite the craic. Tahiti serves as a background for his transformation and self-realisation. It's classic Dances With Wolves stuff.

The author hints sadly at the effects of the passage of time. It seems that Banks never really got over his experiences in Tahiti, and returned to England a different man. In the years to come, sailors would speak to him of how Tahiti had been changed by the Europeans, how it had become wracked by disease and strife. But Banks ever held onto his belief that the world was a place full of wonders waiting to be discovered, and for that reason he continued to support explorers and scientists. This threat unites the rest of the book.

Besides the story of Banks, my favourite parts of the book concern William Herschel and his sister Caroline. William is today famous for being an astronomer, but he also wrote great classical music. Look him up on Youtube. He typified Holmes' ideal of the Romantic scientist, given that he saw links between music, astronomy and mathematics. He found beauty in all. He discovered many comets, gave us our first inklings of how big the universe really was, and discovered Uranus to boot. At this time, though much of the sky had been mapped, astronomers sort of treated the stars as though they were just lights moving on a concave surface. I mean, they knew this wasn't the case, but they had no idea how far away the extra-solar stars were, or how big they were either. Herschel proposed that there were other galaxies, or even other universes. He certainly wasn't afraid to risk his reputation and put forward the occasional barmy theory. And the more he learned, the more he was able to say that he had searched the universe and found no trace of God in it. Herschel was part of the early atheist movement, and he was pretty outspoken about it. Wonderfully, he didn't come to this conclusion through any silly theological arguments, but because of a lack of evidence, which to me is the only reason to reject magical thinking.

The story of his sister Caroline's life provides an interesting look into the lot of a woman in the 18th century. Because of unattractive smallpox scarring incurred during her teenage years, Caroline was considered to be 'on the shelf' quite early in her life, and she became quiet, sensitive and lonely. She stuck to her brother all her life, unable (and not expected) to life an independent life because she had no husband. Instead, she became William's assistant, and a skilled astronomer herself. She discovered her first comet several years after William had already become famous, and the long road to her being accepted as an astronomer, and not just a female assistant, is one of the best stories in this book.

Though these two chapters were my favourites, The Age of Wonder is brimming with great stories. The joy that Holmes finds in the history of science is infectious, and the book is infused with positive feeling. The 18th century world he paints is full of amazing new things to discover. But a quick look at Holmes' bibliography confirms what I suspected: his background is in the arts rather than science. I figured this, as - whisper it - there isn't actually a whole lot of actual science in the book. It's more about the lives of the scientists than the ins and outs of what they discovered. Holmes is far more likely to drop in a bit of Romantic poetry from Keats or Shelley than to explain a concept from chemistry or zoology in any detail. And that's fine; his point is to show how the sciences and the arts were less divided back in the day. The Age of Wonder is one of the most compelling non-fiction books I've read this year. Recommended.


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