135: Simon Schama’s Landscape and Memory

In Landscape and Memory, Simon Schama argues that “even the landscapes that we suppose to be most free of our culture may turn out, on closer inspection, to be its product,” and that this mutually constitutive relationship between nature and culture is “a cause not for guilt and sorrow but celebration.”  Accordingly, while Landscape and Memory digs deep into the histories of a wide variety of landscapes, Schama’s is an “archaeological” method rather than a critical one.  His goal is not to expose capitalist exploitation in the landscape but to dig deep “below our conventional sight-level to recover the veins of myth and memory that lie beneath the surface.”  By situating landscape myths in their historical-cultural moments, Schama shows how socially-constructed meaning and memory become embedded in a landscape.

Schama applies his archaeological approach to a variety of landscapes: the primordial Bialowiez forest in Poland, which the Germans wanted to raze and replace with “a great, living laboratory of purely Teutonic species: eagles, elk, and wolves” (and bison) during WWII, because it was the symbolic and heart of Poland;   Gianlorenzo Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers in Rome as an embodiment and co=optation of the ancient obsession with circulation and flow; Mount Rushmore and sculptor Gutzon Borglum’s obsession with dominating nature by carving human heads into stone; and “both kinds of arcadia, the idyllic as well as the wild,” as escapist “landscapes of the urban imagination,” responding to cities by providing pandemonium when cities are too ordered and bucolic countryside when cities are too chaotic.

Throughout, Schama relies on a narrative form to weave many disparate threads into each chapter’s coherent whole.  This book is neither a call to action nor a complete history of particular places nor even a landscape study; it’s more of a literary exploration into the layers of myth and memory that make up a landscape, arranged by a subjective narrator into layers of his own choosing.  While it’s a lovely read, it does make me wonder whether Schama thinks the physical landscape needs to be there at all.

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