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The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science

Peter Lamborn Wilson

After starting to read The Age of Wonder I suddenly flashed on the fact that I’d already recently read something by Richard Holms with great pleasure, namely his translations of Theophile Gautier’s My Fantoms (including the wonderful memoir of Gerard de Nerval). I realized then that I was not in the hands of an Historian of Science, praise be!, but a literary biographer and man-of-letters—“one of us!” as the Freaks say in Tod Browning’s movie. And indeed there is almost no trace in this book of the Hist. Sci. syndrome I call Epimetheanism.

Epimetheus (“Hindsight”) as you may recall was the brother of Prometheus (“Foresight”). Now science itself may claim Prometheus as its patron deity (fire from the gods, etc.) but science historians—almost without exception—write under the sign of Epimetheus. Looking back on the story of (some kinds of) human knowledge, they separate out of the flow certain strands that appear to lead (in some Social Darwinian way) directly to the present state or paradigm of scientific understanding. This state by definition must be the Best and Highest possible, that of our very own contemporary Enlightenment Rationalism and Technolatry. Everything that failed to lead to “US” in this sense is declared sheer rubbish and need not be taken seriously as history, much less as science, or indeed even as human experience.

Holmes however plays no part in this parade of progress toward the Sole Real Truimphalist Future, this arriere-pensee that mars and distorts most History of Science writing to this very day. He is, however, slightly and perhaps unconsciously influenced by the climate, by the zeitgeist of Hist. Sci., to some extent. For instance he’s very weak on Hermetic and alchemical influences on the Romantic Scientists, although he at least alludes to a few. I have a feeling he is not too well-read in the history of alchemy (“chymistry”); does he for example know that the name Philalethes, used as a pseudonym by his hero the great chemist Sir Humphrey Davy, had also been used by two famous alchemists, Richard Starkey, the American magus who initiated Robert Boyle, and Thomas Vaughn, the English Rosicrucian and twin brother to Henry the “Silurist” Poet? Or does Holmes believe that Davy himself was ignorant of his lineage?

Similarly I think Holmes pays too scant attention to German Naturphilosophie as a link between German and British Romanticism. Of course Davy and other Natural Philosophers had rejected the “errors of alchemy” and “medieval superstition”—but who inspired them to this radical stance in the first place if not the Hermeticists themselves, heretics such as Giordano Bruno and Paracelsus? This was true of Goethe (the biomorphologist) and Novalis (the mining engineer)—so why should it not be true of the British savants as well? (And Davy was a Celt anyway, a Cornishman.)

Not to complain, however. Holmes may fail to mention Erasmus Darwin’s overt Hermeticism, but at least he appreciates Darwin’s poetry, and anyone who likes Erasmus Darwin’s poetry must (I believe) be on the side of the Angels. And he is. His excellent literary nose allows him to make a great contribution (his “donation” as Pound would say), consisting of a compulsively readable deep description of why and how Romantic Science was Romantic.

Thus he begins with a quintessential Pre-Romantic moment = naturalist (later Sir) Joseph Banks’ voyage to Tahiti with Captain Cook (1769), a discovery of the primitive as paradise with repercussions all the way to Gauguin. And another benchmark moment: astronomer William Herschel’s discovery (1781) of a previously unknown planet, Uranus, which also became a kind of pre-echo of Romanticism or symbol of its weltanschaung—an emblem of the new paradigm for a whole era. Both of these events later play major roles in the thought of Charles Fourier, the French Utopian Socialist, for example, in his wildly Romantic social theory, and his utterly mad cosmology, inspiring him to predict myriads more new worlds and earthly paradises in the near future.

Holmes’ treatment of ballooning as Romantic Science, par excellence, is a sheer delight—even though he again fails to mention its Hermetic roots—in Roger Bacon, for example, or the Freemasonry of the Montgolfier Brothers themselves. They were professional makers of marbled paper, a hermetic craft first described in Europe by Hermetic scientists Athanasius Kircher and they believed (like Joseph Priestly) in Phlogiston Theory, a neo-hermetic concept of fire that later proved to be “wrong.”

The most stimulating parts of Age of Wonder deal with Sir Humphrey Davy, a lovable genius, close friend of Coleridge, discoverer of “laughing gas” (and in this a pioneer of psychedelic studies), a pretty good poet, and the most profound theorist of Holmes’ cast of characters. His philosophy of vitalism, I think, ought still to be taken seriously as science, not just as beautiful thought. Despite the cockadoodledoo’s of Vulgar Materialism, the issue of élan vital still refuses to go away and die.

The one outstanding brilliant chapter in the book however is without doubt the bravura treatment of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and her sources. It’s far from exhaustive, of course; he neglects both Hermeticism and Gothic Romance as possible influences. But the chapter is a gas to read, in the old psychedelic parlance, which so reminds me of Davy and Coleridge laughing and dancing together intoxicated on nitrous oxide.

It would require a “NY Review of Books”-length review of The Age of Wonder to do justice to all its wonders—but then you might be tempted not to go on and read the book yourself, which would be a pity. It’s not the NEW history of science we’ve been waiting for, but never mind. It is an elegantly written (and perfectly copy-edited!) rarity, an excursion into Romanticism itself, and a pleasure to read.

I’ve now gone on to acquire Holmes’ Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer (1985), in which this excursiveness was carried to an aesthetic extreme: the biographer as fan and stalker, following literally in his subjects’ very footsteps, in a kind of psycho-geographic drift through an imagined past. A bit like Sebald’s work in its obsession, dense and hyper-literary—and also a bit disquieting: this sums up Holmes’ style. I plan to push on, to his big biogs of Shelly and Coleridge, for more of this “deep gossip.”

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23 March 2010

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