Western Sensibilities – a bulging backpack of myth and recollection.

On Schama’s Landscape and Memory

A ‘monumental work’? Debatable. It is popularist, written in reasonably fluent prose that has that edge of a best seller about it. Schama waxes lyrical but reinforces it with dates, quotes, and references. However, the value of the book is not so much in its scholarliness (he actually makes a snide-ish comment on dusty intellectuals at one point), but in its ability to convince us of his basic tenet, that no matter how removed the landscape (ie a human derivation of the original State of Nature) is from its original Arcadian roots, it still contains aspects of the primeval, and all else that has been picked up on the way to its modern manifestation.

Even Australia bears Arcadian marks. Not that Schama mentions Australia (other than in a fleeting reference), but his theories really apply to any land that has been ‘scaped’ by humans. Traditional Aboriginal dreamtime stories, methods of hunting and collecting, various methods of land management, artwork, and so on, could be approached in the same way; certainly considering the conflict with white settlers, and also the white’s appropriations of various aspects of their cultures. The name of a river, a town, etc., bears the symbolic inheritance of the land. But then we have to ask ourselves how Schama’s book would view pre-invasion Aborigines.

The problem with Schama’s approach is that despite his ironical addresses to the whims of Westernism in its ‘search’ for perserverance of identity, its adaptation of symbols as signs of its fertility and power, or even in different ways, its reason and general good sense, he seems, at times, to go along for the ride. This is a work, after all, about Western Culture! ‘Conquered’ indigenous peoples are part of the Western myth, part of its attachment to idealizations of its roots, (according to which period of History – abundance or famine, peace or war, religious monogamy or plurality – they are in).

I suppose that some of what Schama levels at Sir Walter Raleigh, who, with his men, went searching for El Dorado up the Orinoco River – ‘Even the discovery that death is indeed also in Arcady, when one of their company is eaten by a lagarto, fails to affect their transformation from hapless orphans of the stream to sanguine-rich, dauntless voyagers’ – could be levelled at him. Sure, the tone is right, but something niggles at me that he’s not as uncomfortable with this as he should be. Does he allow for other readings? Not really, paternalistically (like his kids on being shown primeval American forest wanting to go elsewhere – Disneyland?), the father, son of another Father, leads us into his vision splendid.

I’m sitting in a flat in Perth, unprotected by even a small slice of Arcadia 2 (that is, the orderly Virgil-inspired version of the primeval), a neatly rolled lawn and manicured garden, from the decadence of the city. But even if I owned a lawn I’d still hear the sounds of the traffic and ‘The piercing of this green cordon sanitaire, had serious implications for the separation of the wild and cultivated arcadias.’ I might escape to King’s Park, our inner city chunk of Arcadia – ‘the ‘Renaissance humanists evidently enjoyed games with the teasingly indistinct boundary between the sacred and the profane’. Or to the hills to climb a small curved peak, as much as I’m able or the scarp will allow, and like Petrarch, look for something inside myself. I might like the Rousseau-intoxicated Shelley search out something more sublime. I might merely wander into the forest primeval and search out Arcadia 1, the rough wilderness, where satyrs copulate with nymphs and animals, respectively. My European heritage probably dictates this, at least until the Republic dilutes it a little.

But even so, the symbols will remain. Schama would insist on this. They are here because the Swan river (‘rivers, the circulatory system of empire, symbolized continuity and wholeness’) runs as a kind of dwarf Thames which runs a little like the fecund Nile, or one of the sacred rivers of Eden, from which many have suggested the Nile runs anyway. I don’t think it can claim direct lineage to the Tiber, ‘the quintessential imperial river’, but then ‘Virgil has the river itself welcome Aeneas to the place where he founds the new Troy – Rome – and (like the Thames and the Seine) it was revered as the very bloodstream of the state.’ Schama shows ‘It seemed both logical and pleasing to popes like Julius II, who certainly had pretensions to establish a new spiritual empire in Rome, that the Nile should be brought together with the Tiber as emblems of imperial succession.’ References to Pinturicchio’s ‘series of paintings commemorating the life and death of Osiris’, Egyptian obelisks on Christian sites, compliment this.

And then down at Fremantle Harbour, there are those dolphins (a monument to bring good fortune to sailors) which remind me of Bernini’s fountain of the Four Rivers, and so on and so on. Whatever, as a twentieth-century boy, I’ll be taking a stock of myths (or memories) with me, wherever I venture. These need not be the archetypical Jungian varieties, but maybe remodelled motiffs of . . . But no, I’ll stay in and read a book. Not an oak of a book, like Simon Schama’s Landscape And Memory, but rather a pine of a book, Italian Renaissance Gardens. When I first read Italian Renaissance Gardens it was near the hardwoods of Dryandra Forest, on a farm nuzzling into the forest primeval, with a true ‘Greenwood’ spirit: i.e., collecting firewood without the intervention of the authorities was not a problem. The publishers’ insignia catches my eye: two dolphins – Thames and Hudson – mighty rivers carrying implanted memories.

Schama is at his best in forests. His presentation of Forests as the source of a nation’s power is intriguing. They represent economic power in the timber, game, and other raw materials they provide. It is the timber that makes ships, the ships that make empire, and then preserve it. It is interesting to note that forest management in France and England (curiously Spain and Portugal are rarely mentioned, and one assumes the Dutch traded for wood from the great Baltic forests) was largely a result not of environmental concern but rather the need to protect military raw materials. It took 2000 oaks to make a great man-of-war. Ironically, iron and coal were to be the short-term saviours of the forest. In times when Imperial control was weak, the forests experienced wanton plunder.

Here we have totalitarianism working as a kind of environmental safeguard, if for all the wrong reasons. But the forests are also places of retreat and opposition to the established centres of power. For the Germans they represented the power that overcame the Romans, Arminius destroying a Roman Army by using their darkness and shelter as a place of ambush and retreat. It was only when Germanicus broke the aura surrounding the barbaric realm of the druidic primeval forest by getting amongst the trees that he exacted some revenge. One is reminded of the Australian fear of forests as places of dope plantations and buried corpses. The preserves of Kings and the aristocracy – used as hunting parks in which the noble could prove his strength and courage and rights of Imperial inheritance – forests symbolized power throughout history.

The association of power with size is no great news. But mountains were more than this. Schama weaves wonderful stories and anecdotes around the art and perception of the Mountain in his portrait of new and old myths. He is at his best when discussing Romanticism and notions of the sublime. With ‘Born from the oxymoron of agreeable horror, Romanticism was nursed on calamity’ one can’t help thinking Schama, for all his irony, admires the self-advertising verve of the sublime! Mont Blanc figures highly, as do the Alps in general. The vignette on Horace Walpole and Thomas Gray discovering the wondrous threats of the Alps is a joy to read. And when Schama says, ‘Would Shelley have taken the ride? His last letter to Thomas Love Peacock from Chamonix, which spoke of ‘extatic wonder not unallied to madness’ at the sight of Mont Blanc, is not a song of rapture’, you get the feeling that he’s actually with the artist rather than using him.

Reading Henry Kendall’s ‘To A Mountain’ in the light of Schama theories you can’t help recognize the familiars. Most critics accept that Kendall was one of the first European Australian poets to attempt to give the landscape a voice of its own, but still the same old references and codes occur. It is only later that these codes become subtext. And this only comes with a re-inventing of the old inherited myths, (in a poem such as Judith Wright’s ‘The Solitary Mountain’).

This volume has ‘BBC’ written all over it. Irony is the retreat of scoundrels, though not fools. And Schama is certainly no man’s fool. But he might be a few women’s (other than in one chapter, and then as a kind of guilty addition to the text, there is little discussion of women) and maybe a few indigenes’ around the world. Yet Schama is a brilliant popular writer, who is generally agreeable, even if he suffers from ‘the Kiefer Syndrome – . . . whether it is possible to take myth seriously on its own terms, and to respect its coherence and complexity, without becoming morally blinded by its poetic power.’ This is a book to be recommended to those with an interest in the history of power, art, and symbolism, in Western culture. The iconography of a Sidney Nolan desert painting, or Arthur Boyd’s ‘Shoalhaven’, or Miriam Stannage’s dead fish on bathroom scales on a lump of Australian ground would fit comfortably into the overall picture.