Book Reviews / Comptes rendus de livres - Simon Schama, Landscape and Memory

Book Reviews / Comptes rendus de livres

Simon Schama, Landscape and Memory

Brian S. Osbourne
Queen's University
Schama, Simon. Landscape and Memory, Toronto: Random House of Canada, 1995. xi + 652 pp., 250 black and white, 45 colour illus., cloth $44.96, ISBN 0-394-22214-8.

1 Landscape and Memory is one of a cluster of recent volumes that have related the social memory to the construction of symbolic place and time.1 Schama's primary objective is to discover the myths, memories, and obsessions that underlie the Western world's interaction with Nature. It is an "excavation below our conventional sight-level to recover the veins of myth and memory that lie beneath the surface" (p. 14). But it does more than expose the deep roots of our thinking about the physical world. Aesthetically, it is the influence of deep-seated cultural experience and preferences that "invests a retinal impression with the quality we experience as beauty" (p. 12). And more ominously, inherited traditions and remembered myths have often transformed geology, hydrology, botany, and zoology from scientific abstractions into symbolically charged places as part of "the cult of patriotic landscape" (p. 63).

2 Perhaps this is why this volume is being reviewed in a journal that some would think is concerned primarily with science, technology, and the material paraphernalia of history. It is because, as Schama puts it, "...landscape is the work of the mind. Its scenery is built up as much from strata of memory as from layers of rock" (p. 7). Landscape, therefore, is as much a human construct as are our tools and the material things they produce, and Schama goes on to argue that,

Landscapes are culture before they are nature; constructs of the imagination projected onto wood and water and rock...once a certain idea of landscape, a myth, a vision, establishes itself in an actual place, it has a peculiar way of muddling categories, of making metaphors more real than their referents; of becoming, in fact, part of the scenery [p. 61].

Landscape is always a "kulturlandschaft;" Nature transformed into human use, if only through the categories of a distant gaze across time and space.

3 It follows from this that if Landscape and Memory is a book about places, it is also about people and their socially constructed ideas of places. They are the necessary catalysts for turning Nature into Landscape. Schama takes pains throughout his scholarly study to identify the artistic and literary provocateurs who become the principal architects of societies' inscapes. Their presence is perhaps best seen in their rendering of "wildernesses." Be it Albert Bierstadt, Carleton Watkins, or Ansel Adams for the American West — or, even though they are never mentioned, A. Y. Jackson, Lawren Harris, or A. J. Casson for the Canadian North! — their rendering of peopleless places implies a human agency: "...the very act of identifying (not to mention photographing) the place presupposes our presence, and along with us all the heavy cultural backpacks that we lug with us on the trail" (p. 7).

4 And one heavy component of that load is made up of myths which, Schama points out in a critique of them, are "seductive things" (pp. 133-4; 207-13). Concerned that they be appreciated for their power and influence, he quotes Saul Liebeiman's assessment: "Nonsense (when all is said and done) is still nonsense. But the study of nonsense is science" (p. 132). Art historians and psychologists have demonstrated how myth and magic have become encoded in symbolic worlds and often determine human attitudes and even behaviours. Schama explores his thesis through humankind's interaction with woods, water, and rock.

5 Deep within the core of the Western psyche lies an archaic memory of the forest as at once mysterious place and refuge, challenging environment and resource. Schama demonstrates this with several detailed case-studies: an evocative analysis of the role of the Lithuanian forests at "the hidden heart of national identity" (p. 56); a genealogy of how "[r]eligion and patriotism, antiquity and the future — all came together in the Teutonic romance of the woods" (p. 107), a mythic memory of the forest and German militant nationalism; an analysis of Christianity's forest-tradition with allusions to a wooden stable, Joseph the carpenter, the crown of thorns, and the wooden Cross all contributing to the iconography of the "timber history of Christ" (p. 219). These are representative of Schama's use of myth, imagination, and fact to establish his connections across time and cultures.

6 He does the same with humankind's long history of interacting with water. The need to control it as an essential prerequisite for life, to regulate its vagaries of supply and destructive forces, and to use it as a medium of movement have all resulted in a rich "grammar of hydro-mythology" (p. 277). Schama deconstructs the "sacred hydraulics" of the Nile, Tigris-Euphrates, and Jordan that became embedded in our concepts of life, purity, and civilization. He also outlines how the skills developed to produce Bernini's ornamental hydraulics of pools and fountains were later directed to the more prosaic, though more important, chores of canals and public water supply. And rivers were as important as forests in the geography underlying national myths. The Danube has long been a device for uniting a polyglot Austrian-Hungarian empire: Smetna's Vltava served as a metaphor for the continuity of Czech history; the Thames has helped define Englishness; the Rhine is another building block of Germany identity; and the Hudson, Ohio, Mississippi, and Missouri have all been integrated into an American historiography of national expansion.

7 Schama's third elemental challenge is Rock and its manifestation in the mountains that have again posed the dualities of fear and wonder, revulsion and beauty. His opening essay here addresses the monumental gigantism of "mountain carving," arguing that "[t]o make over a mountain into the form of a human head is, perhaps, the ultimate colonization of nature by culture, the alteration of landscape to manscape" (p. 396).

8 In the United States it culminated in the very rugged-masculine profiles of Mount Rushmore that prompted Rose Arnold Powell's campaign to balance it with an equivalent monument to "feminine heroism." Schama contextualizes this national experience in the millennia of human contact with mountains from Tao masters such as Zhang Ling to the emotive complexities of the Romantics. Indeed, he considers the possibility of constructing a "simple dialect in the cultural history of the mountain: occidental and oriental, imperial and mystical, Dinocratic and shamanic" (p. 410).

9 Mine must be one of the last reviews of Landscape and Memory. Over the last eighteen months it — plus the companion BBC television series — has received much attention. Some have carped over sins of omission and commission: the misspelling of German terms; the incorrect dating of grandsons of kings; the failure to refer to a preferred example of landscape association. I could make much of that one! After all, who better than a Canadian appreciates the resonance of Nature in national identity.2 Our world of boreal forests, frozen water, and rocky north has been "Seton-ized," "Group of Seven-ed," and "Fry-ed" and "Atwood-ed" into our very being.3

10 In the final analysis, however, Schama has produced a magisterial work whose ambitious sweep and eclectic scholarship make it at once a fine read and excellent scholarly resource. The footnotes and illustrations alone justify purchasing it.

1 Raphael Samuels, Theatres of Memory (London: Verso, 1994); W. J. T. Mitchell, ed., Landscape and Power (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994); John Gillis, ed., Commemorations: The Politics of National Identity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994); Martin Warnke, Political Landscape: The Art History of Nature (Chicago: Reaktion, 1995).
2 See Brian Osborne, "The Iconography of Nationhood in Canadian Art," in Denis Cosgrove and Stephen Daniels, eds., The Iconography of Landscape (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988); Paul Simpson-Housley and Glenn Norcliffe, eds., A Few Acres of Snow: Literary and Artistic Images of Canada (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1992).
3 In fact, some cultural provocateurs have been reacting against it and Charles Pachter and John Boyle have challenged our preoccupation with such environmental stereotypes and argued for more social and populist metaphors. See Brian S. Osborne, "Grounding National Mythologies: The Case of Canada," in Serge Courville and Normand Séguin, eds., Espace et culture (Sainte-Foy, Quebec: Presses de l'Université Laval, 1995).