“The sensual Humboldt is yet to be discovered”

In his biography, historian Andreas W. Daum puts Alexander von Humboldt’s life in the context of a revolutionary age marked by major upheaval. In our interview, the Humboldt Research Award winner explains the contradictions of Humboldt as a political animal and identifies some of the gaps still left to explore in the life of the widely travelled scientist.

  • Interview: Thomas Winkler
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Andreas Daum is Professor of History at the State University of New York in Buffalo. He is the author of ‘Alexander von Humboldt’ which was published on 14th February 2019 (Verlag C.H. Beck, Munich, 128 pages, €9.95)

You say that, in writing your book, you were trying to set Alexander von Humboldt within the context of his era. Would you say that this hasn’t always been the case?
Yes, there has been a consistent tendency to elevate Humboldt above the era he lived in and to make him larger than life. And it’s nothing new – they were already doing it at the time of his death in 1859. But the more universal the monument that is Humboldt becomes, the more blurred is our perception of the real person. Humboldt must be seen as the product of his time, which was marked by tremendous change: the French Revolution and the liberation of slaves in Haiti, the redrawing of the political map of Europe, the social upheavals, the rise of the bourgeoisie. Understanding Humboldt as someone who faced difficult intellectual challenges in these troubled times serves to clarify the man’s limitations. On the other hand, he also becomes more complex and fragile, which makes him even more fascinating and interesting. But then he is no longer the intellectual superhero he is often depicted as today. This latter aspect can easily conceal how much of Humboldt there is still to discover.

“The more universal the monument that is Humboldt becomes, the more blurred is our perception of the real person.”
Andreas W. Daum, Historian

Haven’t we run out of things to write about the man?
Absolutely not. First of all, it is amazing how few biographies there are that don’t restrict themselves to Humboldt the intellectual. The emotional, the sensual Humboldt is still to be discovered. That was an additional motivation for me to write the book. Secondly, there is the science history aspect: this will further clarify how Humboldt’s personality became an integral part of his research and how much of a contribution he made to the development of global networking and knowledge transfer. And thirdly, Humboldt’s best-known trips are, of course, to South America and to a lesser extent Asia. But there are also many less spectacular regions from which Humboldt learned a great deal: the countries bordering Prussia, Austria, the by no means unimportant visit to Switzerland and the trip to Spain – all of these need to be looked at again. So as you can see, there are many areas of his life which we can continue to work on.

His alleged homosexuality does not seem to have been researched very well, either.
That is true. The question of his sexuality has always been neglected or even been regarded as illegitimate in research over the centuries. I believe it is important, because people are not machines, and investigating the personal and private side to Humboldt’s science is both necessary and important. In his private correspondence in the 1790s, he showed himself to be relatively outspoken in matters pertaining to the sensual, expressing a need for physical closeness to men. The question as to whether he was able to live out his homosexuality is, however, much more difficult to answer, because Humboldt cast a veil of privacy over it. But further research into Humboldt’s private life could still produce surprising findings.

“Humboldt became a sort of Sisyphus, who kept trying to reach the peak from where he would have an overview.”
Andreas W. Daum, Professor of History at the State University of New York in Buffalo

In your book, Humboldt comes across as someone who can cope well with all circumstances, who moves easily in many different cultures, times, sciences, political situations and social contexts. Was Humboldt a brilliant opportunist?
Well, he was certainly a master of the fine art of prevarication. On the one hand, this was a prerequisite for the life he led as a freelance, if not free-floating, intellectual. On the other hand, it was the unavoidable consequence of this life. He moved in very different contexts. He had to deal with Franconian villagers and with the Creole upper class in the Spanish colonial empire, he had to hold his own against the reformers in the Spanish colonial empire and the royalists at the Prussian court, he met left-wing émigré writers and French liberals in Paris. It is a striking fact that, when he joined such social and political circles, he apparently became an insider, but privately he remained an outsider. This inner distance enabled him to look after his own interests: he did not want to be appropriated by any such group, because he wanted to preserve access to as many intellectual sources as possible.

If Humboldt were alive today, would he be a potential Nobel Prize winner doing laboratory research at one of the top American universities? Or would he be the presenter of a science show on TV?
The scientific landscape changed dramatically during Humboldt’s lifetime, and even then – just as today – it was no longer possible to have a complete overview of all the knowledge in the world. Humboldt sensed this but became a sort of Sisyphus, who kept trying to reach the peak from where he would have just such an overview. Perhaps today, he would write about this attempt that was doomed to failure.

“He suffered from this explosion of knowledge that his pen wasn't able to keep up with.”
Andreas W. Daum, Humboldt Research Award winner

Not only Humboldt sensed the march of progress; his contemporaries also complained that life was becoming more and more confusing and the world was turning faster. What advice would Humboldt have for people feeling stressed by the pace of change today?
I don’t think that Humboldt could be found in the self-help section of bookshops today. Although he liked to deliver monologues, he never sought to lecture people on how to live their lives. But it is true that he suffered from the accelerating pace of change, because it also resulted in an explosion of knowledge that his pen wasn’t able to keep up with. So he searched for alternatives, forming networks, communicating with colleagues, using division of labour wherever possible, pinning his hopes on the next generation and learning from his juniors. These are modern strategies that can also be used by people who are stressed by modernisation and globalisation today. But there was one thing Humboldt had a big problem with – knowing when to take a break. Humboldt was an obsessive worker, and slowing down was never an option for him.

“He was not a revolutionary, nor was he some sort of Don Quixote willing to tilt at imperial windmills.”
Andreas W. Daum, Historian

Humboldt’s attitude to colonialism is also ambiguous: on the one hand, he vehemently condemned slavery, but on the other, he ignored the protests of his indigenous guides to excavate the tombs of the natives in South America and even sent bones back to Europe. Today, we would call that theft.
Humboldt was very much aware that slavery was not an isolated phenomenon but rather integral to the colonial system of exploitation. However, he was not a revolutionary, nor was he some sort of Don Quixote willing to tilt at imperial windmills, not least because that would have gone against his personal interests. In any case, sloganeering and rhetorical bluster were not his thing. But what might appear to us today to be contradictory in the light of the current debate about our colonial heritage was quite acceptable to a person living 200 years ago. We don’t have to like it, and we can even go so far as to condemn it, but it should be apparent that Humboldt was far more liberal in his attitude and sensitive in his approach than other explorers of his time.

People often speculate what Humboldt would be like if he were among us today. But perhaps the more interesting question is what people who are living today can learn from good old Humboldt …
Quite clearly the capacity to go where our curiosity leads us and not to be constrained by career considerations, disciplinary boundaries or political expectations. Humboldt has given us many answers, but perhaps the most important thing we can learn from him is that we have to ask questions in order to determine our own destiny.