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March 04, 2009

Richard Holmes's The Age of Wonder gives us good life stories from a great age of science and exploration but, says Richard D. North, he does very little to support the Big Ideas he claims for his book: The Age of Wonder - Richard Holmes

Posted by Richard D. North

The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science
by Richard Holmes
Pp. 554. London: Harper Press, 2008
Hardback, £25

The explorers, scientists and inventors of the late 18th and early 19th centuries were a fabulous lot and their life stories make exciting reading. Richard Holmes serves them well. But he does so only at the level of plain biographer. A better title for this book would have been: The Boys' Wonder Book of Scientists and Explorers and Their Cultural Circle (1760-1830).

John Banks boldly collects plants and gets laid in the South Pacific and then goes home to be the great scientific organiser and sponsor of his age. William Herschel and his sister distractedly produce music in Bath whilst designing and making the telescopes with which they find new heavenly bodies. William helps form a picture of a space which is deeper and older than had been thought.

Balloonists take to the skies but no-one is quite clear whether their devices are fairground rides, military vehicles or instrument platforms. Mungo Park heads off up the Niger and finds out the hard way that the natives are the key to staying alive in "unknown" continents. His luck runs out. Humphry Davy writes bad poetry whilst exciting audiences for his chemistry and physics at the Royal Institution.

Meanwhile, people like Coleridge, Southey, Keats and the Shelley's are taking a keen interest. In particular, large ideas about the nature of life are being discussed. Especially: is there a "life-force", and is it transcendental or biological? Mary Shelley famously produces Frankenstein, a book about a creature put together by candlelight and animated by something which seems vaguely like one of Humphry Davy's electrical jump-starters.

All of this is good stuff but it doesn't do much to deliver the bold intellectual promise Richard Holmes teases us with in his title and sub-title or a few scrappy pages of prologue in which he sets out his stall.

I don't know which is more irritating. Maybe it's the overly-casual statement of a large thesis. Or is it not bothering to stand it up in the following pages? Maybe itís that the thesis is tripe? Or is it that the thesis has some merit as something to interrogate, but our author can't be bothered with such hard work?

He tells us straight away that we are examining a period "wonder". We are told we are going to meet "Romantic science". More widely, we gather, the "Romantic" culture is going to have a special response to the new discoveries.

Actually what we get are investigators doing hard science and increasing knowledge as people always had. These investigators are mostly very optimistic about their contribution to human progress, about which they have pretty conventional ideals. They and their ideas get written about in various ways by poets and philosophers, as always happened and again with a good deal of conventional enthusiasm. I can't see that there was anything very special or new about these processes. The scientific endeavour became a little more organised (both institutionally and experimentally), and even that was part of a long trend. That's about it.

What's this about "Romantic science"?
Mr Holmes seems to be right that there is a bit of a modern trend toward saying that there was an 18th Century thing which is worth calling "Romantic science". He rests a lot of his case on this idea, and states it as obvious - but gives us hardly any evidence about it. Was it really anything like "the movement" he asserts it to be? What would such a movement be? It would help if several investigators said they were or felt themselves to be "Romantic", and described what that was.

Instead we are left with an impression that in our own time one or two writers have looked back at the period and given the investigators that label. Mr Holmes goes so far as to give us a few footnoted references to this kind of writing. We mostly have to take his word for it.

The "Romantics" and "Romantic science"
Mr Holmes' project doesn't give us much to chew on with his other main argument. For several years we've heard that artists and writers of the late 18th Century looked at science and especially industry with alternating horror and admiration. It's a commonplace that science and "the arts" weren't as divided then as they are supposed to be now. James Hamilton's 1996 short book Turner and the Scientists did a far better job on the then confluence of artistic and scientific interest than does Mr Holmes, and reminded us that Ruskin hated the progress celebrated in Turner's painting. There's no surprise in those themes.

After all, since the mid-18th Century people had famously been considering the "sublime" and it was understood that unalloyed prettiness could not be beautiful. The volcano and the Alp came into Picturesque fashion about the same time as the furnace and the smokestack and with about the same dilemmas as to their nastiness and ugliness. Stephen Daniels' 1994 Fields of Vision tells that story brilliantly.

Even on this territory, well known to be fertile, Mr Holmes is perfunctory. To be a success, he'd have to pin down a distinctly scientific terror - or delight - striking a distinctly plangent cultural chord. Wherever he remembers a poet writing about astronomy, or Africa, or flight, we get a snippet slotted in amongst the pages of science. But, for example, a mildly ambiguous bit of Keats' On First Looking into Chapman's Homer hardly cuts it. As to whether or how this poetry is particularly "Romantic" about "Romantic science" we don't get taken much further.

It is part of Mr Holmes's general tricksiness that his subtitle subtly excuses him from precision. When he says the Romantics "discovered" the beauty and terror of science does he mean us to think he is talking about their being pioneers in seeing both beauty and terror in science? Or does he merely mean that he is going to discuss the effect the beauty and terror science had on them as they came across this stuff for the first time? He does neither, anyway.

Unpicking this "Romantic" business
Mr Holmes gives us a few clues as to what it is to be "Romantic". We can guess from his title page that it has to do with "wonder" and that fear is mixed up with loveliness. He says there is a "transition from Enlightenment to Romantic science" and that we can see this in the paintings of Joseph Wright of Derby. Wright's stuff is fabulous but I can't see that the paintings:

ask whether Romantic science contained terror as well as wonder: if discovery and invention brought new dread as well as new hope into the world.
I don't see the foreboding in them (you'd see more ambiguity and potential for allegory in Turner).

The difference between Enlightenment and Romantic science was, Mr Holmes says, "a new imaginative intensity and excitement", "an ideal of intense, even reckless, personal commitment to discovery", an exploratory process which is "lonely and perilous", even "Faustian". Oh, and it was populist instead of elitist. But the scientists and explorers we meet with Mr Holmes are not exceptionally hell-bent. They don't seem particularly German.

We know from this book and much more from Mr Holmes's Coleridge biographies that the poet philosopher was a big admirer of the German - and romantic visionary - Friedrich Schelling. But this taste is not particularly English and was as much mocked as admired by Coleridge's contemporaries. (It is by the way a pity that Mr Holmes's biographies - Coleridge: Early Visions and Coleridge: Darker Reflections - are quite light on the great manís political philosophy.)

There's another famous issue. It is often said that close observation of nature was a Romantic feature, and Mr Holmes seems to accept it as such. However, one of his more interesting moves (at page 249, and way too late in the book) is to quote the French chemist Lavoisier as sharing the philosopher's Condillac's disdain for the habit of allowing imagination to scupper investigation. Mr Holmes blandly says that that the Anglophile Lavoisier:

praised Bacon's philosophy of discovery, and set out the aims and ideals of experimental science as a great Romantic adventure of the mind.
A direct quote to support this seemingly rare contemporary if ambiguous take on the book's core thesis might have been good here. We can wonder how these ideas fit Mr Holmes's. The Elizabethan Bacon and the Enlightenment Condillac, as well as the supposedly Romantic Lavoisier, are the antithesis of Romantic according to Mr Holmes' own use of the word. The essence of "Romanticism" in Mr Holmes's book, is to be keen on the subjective rather than the objective. But Davy and the rest seem to love their objectivity.

One might also say that the Romantic was especially self-reflexive (or self-absorbed, according to taste). But Humphry Davy's response to getting stoned on nitrous oxide is "prosaic", says Mr Holmes: Davy, the "calm man of science" doesn't get all Timothy Leary about it. True, when high he senses himself to be at one with nature, but he also says that thatís the way poets see the world, not physiologists. (Teenagers, too, of course, stoned or not.)

Indeed, the Picturesque was about the emotional, almost kinetic, effect of a scene on the observer. But Mr Holmes is not especially interesting on, say, what John Banks thought and felt about the disinhibition which happened to him on Tahiti. Actually, beyond quite ordinary excitement, there is strikingly little Romantic self-examination amongst Mr Holmes's investigators.

The Romantics and progress
Mr Holmes isn't interesting on whether the Romantics were essentially or even ambiguously positive or negative about the wonders of science. In a telling footnote (on page 94) he says that the "Frankenstein nightmare" in which "scientific progress is really a disguised form of destruction" is crucially Romantic. But he shows us that Mary Shelley's creature was monsterised much more by commercial vulgarisers than by her. The creature is confused. Shocked by some of his own behaviour, he wants to take himself away from civilisation and become a Noble Savage. That's an impulse which could have occurred to any cosmopolitan man throughout most of history. And Mr Holmes gives us no other evidence of science spawning dread.

Conclusion
This is a lively (and sometimes very sloppily written) account of some great Britons (and some French). It would take terrific diligence to make their stories dull. The book is too long and cutting out its bogus intellectuality would have been a nice way of saving space.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and Scrap the BBC!: Ten Years to Set Broadcasters Free.


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I have found the history of British science to be one of the best ways to study the intellectual history of the 19th century. This book, which focuses upon the period between Captain Cook's first voyage in 1768 and Darwin's Beagle journey in 1831,takes the story of British science back a bit earlier, and explains some of the important precursor developments to the later dazzling Victorian period. If that was all it did, that would be plenty for the author has written a fine scientific history. But the book is far richer than even this accomplishment for it seeks to establish ties between science and the British Romantics, surprisingly demonstrating that not only did Romantic poets and painters not run away from science, some of them embraced and even engaged in it. Along the way, the profession of scientific researcher emerged as well as some of our basic ideas about scientific progress.

Posted by: Eesti at April 10, 2012 07:40 AM
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