The Argument from Design

John Barrell

  • Landscape and Memory by Simon Schama
    HarperCollins, 624 pp, £25.00, April 1995, ISBN 0 00 215897 3

The five videotapes of Simon Schama’s BBC 2 series Landscape and Memory must have been sent to me in a wrapping all too suspiciously plain. They never arrived, nicked, we presume, by a postal worker with a thing for blue movies. I like to think he wasn’t too disappointed. There was a lot more drapery than he could have wished or expected: in each of the programmes I remembered to record myself, the entire studio had been wrapped in muslin or bunting, by a designer whose notions of landscape art were mainly derived from Christo’s. But the energy, the excitement, the passion of Schama’s performance were beyond anything that the average nine-to-five professional porn star can usually manage (or so I gather).

In the first programme, on forests, the drapery was hung in long narrow strips from ceiling to floor, like net curtains. It was projected all over with leaves, and organised into two files to represent, with appropriate ambiguity, a grove of tall trees or the nave of a Gothic cathedral. In the second film, on rivers, the drapery was loosely suspended between two rows of huge photographs of buildings, and was by turns the Nile and the Thames, until – tacked mysteriously to a colossal portrait of Wagner on one side and the Houses of Parliament on the other – it apparently became the Rhine. Next week the same drapes were arranged to represent the sea and the sails of square-rigged ships; and so on.

It was as much by this drapery as by Schama’s commentary that the first and main argument of the series was carried; and it was reinforced by other pieces of studio furniture equally un-mimetic, like the squat, square, stepped pyramid which stood in for an alp. The argument was, in Schama’s words, that ‘landscape is a state of mind before it can be a state of nature ... culture makes nature after its own image.’ There is thus no such thing as ‘real’ nature, untouched by the human imagination; there is no wilderness, not on this planet or even on the planets which might exist in a different universe from our own, for wilderness is as much a category of the imagination as the garden, and the imagination has already been everywhere, has already shaped the unknown into the form of knowledge we call the ‘unknown’. The difficulty with this argument, as a nail to hang a series on, is not that it’s controversial but that it’s impossible to controvert, so it was just as impossible to understand why Schama and his designer hammered at it with such vigour.

At the eastern end of the leafy muslin nave, a huge ring of (I presume unreal) sequoia bark, some ten feet high, at once chancel and pulpit, was pierced on its western side to reveal to the congregation of viewers a small wooden altar on which were placed a bonsai tree and a human skull. This was much more fun, and gave Schama the chance to use one of his most extraordinary talents, one which makes so much of his best writing so difficult to imitate or even to describe. I’m thinking of how he can be at once so playful and so passionate, without either quality seeming to diminish the other. In his pulpit he preached and played at preaching, both at the same time, and it was here that he disclosed his second argument, that if there was much to lament in the history of the relationship between humanity and nature, there was at least as much to celebrate; that if we have treated nature as an object of plunder, we have also treated it as an object of veneration; and that if we have lost much of our sense of the earth as sacred, it is still there to be recovered, if we look hard enough. Schama would show us where to look.

As the series developed, however, I was never quite sure where the passion came from, or where it was urging us. The argument I expected, that to recover this sense of the sacred could be the means of arresting the pillage of the earth, was never quite made; and what sometimes appeared to be the passion of the conservationist more often came across as the passion of the antiquarian, more delighted by the discoveries he makes than by what might be learned from them. Schama seemed to hope that the two passions would turn out to be the same, which they didn’t and couldn’t: the antiquarian could never truly regret what was lost, for without loss there could never be the pleasure of rediscovery. And the longer the series went on, the more it seemed to become simply a sequence of discrete narratives of discovery and recollection, wonderfully well told, but increasingly forgetful of why they were being told at all – apart from the pleasure of telling them.

The most surprising thing about the television series was how fully it managed to represent, in three or four hours, the pleasures, the problems and the arguments of a book which, if not long by Schama’s own standards, still covers some six hundred pages. This wasn’t, though, what I thought I’d end up saying, when I turned, in what I take it was the correct sequence, from the tapes to the book. For Landscape and Memory begins with a prologue, and a pair of long opening chapters, which are as good or better than anything Schama has ever written. The prologue is already, or ought to be, a classic of modern English prose: it first appeared in the New Republic. It is partly an elegiac vignette of the disasters of Polish history, partly the story of a visit Schama paid to north-eastern Poland in search of – he is not quite sure what, but it was somewhere there that his mother’s grandfather, a Jewish lumberjack in the great forest, had lived and worked. The two following chapters contrast the different ways in which the forest has been central to imaginings of national identity in Poland/Lithuania and Germany, and sketch out what might and perhaps should have developed into the main issue of the book: the dangers of exhuming or rehearsing the myths beneath the most violent fantasies of nationhood, and the arguably greater dangers of not doing so.

The book could have ended there, after 130 or so pages, and it would have been a small masterpiece. As it gets longer, however, the dangers inherent in its project, which give the opening so much of its power and poignancy, are forgotten – perhaps inevitably so, for few of the stories that follow engage so directly Schama’s own sense of who he is, of where he has come from. From now on, as in the television series, the passion with which the stories are told becomes the passion of the antiquarian; and myths of landscape become, much more blandly, occasions for celebration, and occasions for the display of Schama’s remarkable gift for narrative.

To say that the book goes downhill, after its magnificent opening chapters, would be to attribute to it a sense of direction it doesn’t have. The main trouble with Landscape and Memory is that Schama seems to have underestimated his own talents, and in doing so misunderstood the reasons for his phenomenal success. What made The Embarrassment of Riches such a wonderful book was not just his genius for storytelling but the tenacity with which story and argument each clung to the other. In Citizens rather more was staked on narrative, but on a narrative that was not, as in this book, a simple sequence or accumulation of discrete tales, but an elaborate intertwining of the countless strands that compose a complex historical action. This isn’t the place to discuss the arguments of that book, my opinion of which is much as you’d expect of an old lefty like me; but if Citizens was less carefully argued than The Embarrassment of Riches, it positively demanded your assent or disagreement, and you could recognise in each development of the story where the book was going and what you were being invited to believe.

Landscape and Memory loses itself and us in narrative; or rather in a maze of different narratives; a maze with no centre – no sundial and sunny bench – and no obvious way out. One of the organising distinctions in the section on rivers is the opposition between those that meander, distributing as widely as possible the fertility they promise, and those that seem to flow more or less directly to a purposed destination. ‘I had always liked that word, meandering,’ Schama writes in his prologue, ‘its snaking run of syllables flowing who knows where?’ – a remark which, whether intended to or not, prefigures all too exactly the experience of reading Landscape and Memory. We may not know where the wide meanders of a river are taking us, but we know they will take us somewhere; reading this book, I felt like one of those Australian explorers who believed that, by analogy with the geography of other continents, there must somewhere be a river flowing right across the country – only to find that each likely candidate dissipated itself in swamps or marshes and simply evaporated.

Every one of the book’s meandering narratives and moments of local colour is a pleasure to read, witty, often poignant, astonishingly learned, always extravagantly figurative. One of the very best things about Schama as a writer is that he would rather be accused of over-writing than of the pallid dullness of style in which the kind of history he emphatically refuses to write is written. But extremes meet; and as these narratives accumulate over nearly six hundred pages they manage to become tiresome without, individually, ceasing to be delightful. Here, for example, is a part of his account of Joel Barlow, confined in the lazar-house at Marseille, and about to contemplate the origin of rivers and the meaning of pagan nature-cults:

The cooks of the establishment kept a sturdy Provençal kitchen that made few concessions to the broiling August heat. Daubes showed up frequently, rendered down to a turbid beef tea in which sour little black olives rested unappealingly at the bottom of white earthenware bowls. But there were Spanish oranges and white cheeses and garnet-coloured wine poured from glazed terracotta jugs. And if the wine went undrunk it could usefully spoil into the vinegar which was swabbed on anything that might harbour infection ... The first impression that his wife, Ruth, or James Monroe the American minister to France, must have had of him when they broke the seal on his letters was of a strong marinade of poulet au vinaigre.

I think of myself as a glutton for not-quite-irrelevant detail, and I can take a lot of this, but nothing like as much as Schama presses on me. There’s no historian writing in English who can write narrative, or passages of local colour, as well as Schama; but Landscape and Memory manages to convert his best manner into his worst mannerism. My reaction to the end of the book was like Paine’s on finishing Burke’s Reflections: I had been led along a flowery path to the place called Point No Point, and at last discovered there was no point at all.

Why does this book never come to seem more than the sum of its parts, more than a collection of stories whose main purpose, like The Thousand and One Nights, is to defer its ending? It may be because, as I’ve suggested, Schama seems to have persuaded himself that narrative is what he’s best at, and that he should offer us only his best, and lots of it. But also I think it’s because the book’s very occasional discussions of what it is up to are far too dependent on an inadequately analysed notion of ‘social memory’. That phrase is quickly becoming the most over-used in cultural history, and the least useful, for the idea of a social unconscious it continually invokes is almost never theorised or explained. It certainly isn’t by Schama: social memory, he suggests, is ‘knowledge we already have’; but knowledge ‘which somehow eludes our recognition and our appreciation’.

Memory is figured by Schama in two main metaphors: it is a backpack stuffed with myths and recollections which, whether we know it or not, we carry with us in all our excursions into nature, and which ensures that nature always appears to us as landscape; so that (his example), when we climb Mont Ventoux, it is Petrarch’s path we trace. But memory is also a buried substratum, a knowledge we do not have or do not know we have, something which to be activated must be discovered, and can be discovered only by scratching away the top-soil of the present, or by having a historian do the scratching for us. Between them these metaphors homogenise a wide range of states and objects of knowing and unknowing: what we actively remember, what our behaviour and language show us to ‘remember’, even if we don’t know we do; what we show no sign of remembering, or of ever having known, until it is ‘recollected’ for us, until we are ‘reminded’ of it by a book like this. It’s not clear to me that the airily inclusive term ‘social memory’ is anything but a name for the questions it begs and the conflations it conceals.

The phrase has a fine and false democratic ring to it; it suggests that if we look beyond merely academic notions of what knowledge is, we will discover that we all have equal shares in the knowledge of who we are and where we have come from. But I’m a lot more doubtful than Schama that there is a ‘we’ who can function as the homogeneous subject of all the verbs implied in the notion of social memory. Who remembers? Who forgets? Who never knew? Those climbers on Mont Ventoux: what if they know Petrarch was there before them, and what if they don’t? Or what if they don’t know who Petrarch was? Does it make any difference? If social memory is a backpack we all lug everywhere, then apparently it doesn’t, for we all know everything whether we know we know it or not, and we all know ‘somehow’ that we are treading in Petrarch’s footsteps, whoever he was or she was. But if memory is a rich, buried subsoil we must work to expose, then apparently it makes a big difference, for our enjoyment of the climb, and even our understanding of ourselves, are impoverished by what we don’t know we know, still more by what we just don’t know. If the stories in Landscape and Memory never come together into a single story, it’s because they are being told to illustrate notions of memory whose difference is never acknowledged, and which run all the way from what can plausibly be described as a collectively recollected national myth – like the origin of the German nation in the Hercynian forest – to ‘memories’ that no one remembers, that have waited forgotten in the archive for the day of their resurrection.