Wednesday, August 03, 2005

It's Happened Again

More cross-pollination. I'm meandering along in Alain de Botton's The Art of Travel, dreaming of traveling to exotic places while I roller on a second coat of paint in the basement bedroom. Yesterday I read a chapter in the book called "Curiosity" in which the author goes to Madrid and muses on Alexander von Humboldt. I have heard of Humboldt before and wondered if he was the person after whom Humbodlt State University in Northern California was named. I went there my freshman year of college. Beautiful school situated with the Pacific on its front doorstep and a redwood forest for a backyard. I suppose if I had done the uncool thing and attended orientation I would have learned that Humbodlt State in Humboldt County and the Humboldt Current were all indeed named after Alexander von Humboldt. But I was too cool, or rather, pretending to be too cool, to attend orientation and so I was left to wonder about it from time to time. Humbodlt was an amazing mind. He traveled in South America for five years, going places Europeans had never gone before, discovering and mapping and looking at everything. His curiosity was insatiable and the volumes of books he published are still used by scientists today. It was easy to be curious in Humboldt's time (set sail for South America in 1799 at the age of 29) because there was still plenty to discover even for travelers of lesser mind. Modern travelers of the tourist variety with their guidebooks in hand ( I am guilty) are told exactly what to think about the church or painting or other object of interest in front of them. Curiosity is not encouraged, and even if it was, what about the Iglesia de San Francisco el Grande is there to be curious about? The problem, according to de Botton, is that we tend to approach a building like the Iglesia without any personal involvement. As a result we go along with the guidebook and look no further. But what if we didn't? What if, while standing in the church, we let our curiosity out? What if we ask,

'Why have people felt the need to build churches?' or even 'Why do we worship God?' From such a naive starting point, a chain of curiosity would chance to grow, involving questions such as 'Why are churches different in different places?', 'What have been the main styles of churches?' and 'Who were the main architects, and why did they achieve success?' Only through such a slow evolution of curiosity could a traveller stand a chance of greeting the news that the church's vast neoclassical facade was by Sabatini with anything other than boredom or despair.
Interesting things to think about. A little later in the day I opened the July 22nd issue of the TLS (yes I am still behind). Imagine my delight and surprise when the very first article is about Alexander von Humboldt! His book Kosmos is being republished as is an atlas of all his maps. I got to learn even more about Humboldt. He was a prolific writer and was quite famous in his day. The personal narrative portion of Humboldt's 30 volume Voyage to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent inspired Charles Darwin to write Voyage of the Beagle. The stars have aligned and given me a sign. I think I will need to avail myself of Humboldt's Personal Narrative. If that goes well then there is also Humboldt's Cosmos to consider.