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conjectures

It is Disturbing to Find

by Elaine Ayers

What is an elegy? The term invokes one of the oldest literary forms. The elegos of ancient Greece was a mournful poem, a song that gave dignity to loss through the dutiful beauty of form and attention. In a basic way, history is forever haunted by an “elegiac” mood. The historian writes of people and things that have passed, so the sweet sorrow of loss (death, decay, dissolution) wafts through all historical work — even as any given historical achievement can be understood to wrest some small thing from oblivion. These affective registers must be closely monitored: historical nostalgia is often implicated in the ideologies of political reaction. But sanitizing the soul-sorrow of archives is hardly the answer. In the piece that follows, Elaine Ayers achieves an uncanny elegy: like a magician, she eyes her audience; “look, no hands!” she says; and, then, simply by letting her sources speak, she coaxes a tragic little poem out of the black hat she has set before us.
— D. Graham Burnett, Series Editor

Born in rural England in 1782, Joseph Arnold followed a relatively traditional path for bright young men seeking to escape meager surroundings: training as a surgeon, joining the Royal Navy during the height of the Napoleonic Wars, and sailing across various oceans and seas while treating officers’ various afflictions. After years of setting bones and dressing gunshot wounds (and, eventually, escorting an all-female convict ship across the Pacific Ocean to Sydney), Arnold had proven his endurance as a traveler, physician, and collector. Despite losing most of his South American and Australian collections in a devastating ship fire while docked in the Java Sea, the newly minted explorer secured a coveted spot as Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles’ hired naturalist in the British colony of Sumatra. Leaving for the large island in 1818, the young man was tasked with collecting, dissecting, and describing plants and animals in the fecund rainforests at the far reaches of the empire. Decidedly solitary and largely unliked, Arnold did not survive the expedition, dying in Sumatra few months later, still shy of his thirty-seventh birthday — though he did make a tremendous botanical discovery before he passed: the “corpse flower”, a great stinking bouquet of vegetable carrion that wreaked havoc among the taxonomists of the period. Unmarried, mostly friendless, and without a publication to his name, Arnold himself became a corpse on the 26th of July of 1818. His collections, mostly burned to ashes, have faded into relative obscurity, his intentions lost at sea.

Writing aboard a military ship in 1812, Arnold composed a strange science-fiction manuscript — The Visit to the Moon: A Philosophical Romance. Scrawled in his characteristically neat, slanting handwriting, the naturalist’s personal and medical journals bled into this fictional narrative. His nightmares invaded his work; his work invaded his nightmares. Encountering reused phrases, overlapping chronologies, and discoveries both real and fictionalized, I began to question the historical utility of my archival methodology, and the practical use of making strict distinctions between the genres. Taken by a tropical fever contracted on the same Sumatran expedition that led to his first glimpse of the “corpse flower” (that would eventually become his namesake — Rafflesia arnoldii), Arnold seemed unable to keep his multiple lives separate; to keep his anxieties, both deeply traumatic and thoroughly commonplace, from infecting his scientific practice. Maybe, confronting such materials, our desire to separate out these lives becomes the problem.

In what follows, I let Arnold’s writing speak for itself, removing all classificatory trappings. Using the naturalist’s own unaltered words from his private journals (1810–1815), letters, and his unpublished lunar manuscript, the overlooked collector’s oeuvre is reformed and reevaluated, while my own role as a historian is, in a way, reversed: rather than sifting the bits apart, I sift them together. Woven from the diverse documents that, whatever their separate genre conventions, converge as a single story of profound loneliness, struggles for credibility, and scientific longing, Joseph Arnold’s life takes shape below as a true “philosophical romance” — a delicate veil of fact and fiction.

* * *

I am indeed a solitary animal.

The most impenetrated parts of the Earth had been visited by me. The wonders of all countries were known to me. To me were unfolded the prodigies of the volcanic pile; and the depths of the sea were not entirely withheld from my view. All these things I had seen with the eye of a philosopher, and had examined them with minutest inspection. Where no courage could proceed, and where no beast or brethren could advance, there my feet conveyed me: thither my ardent curiosity forced me on.

My greatest delight is to wander among the thick forests…to climb over rocks, and examine the numerous romantic grottoes—

Like the miser still greedy of gain though possessed of thousands, I wished to dig still deeper in the sciences; and dissatisfied with the patent knowledge of men, I proceeded to examine further into the origins of thing and had become a considerable adept in what, can in these Enlightened ages, might be called occult philosophy.

The ship is a world to itself.

For all I discover is strange to me as if I had become an inhabitant of the moon.

Went on shore and walked about the country alone, into some remarkable caves & over large tracts of rock.

When you least expect it, you find yourself on the brink of the hot water, and have at your feet one of the most tremendous scenes the world can produce. This water seems to be about two miles in circumference, and is much higher on its south side, where are several shales of vegetable mould…It would be difficult to give such a description of this tremendous scene as would make the reader to form an accurate idea of its terrific grandeur.

The more I considered the subject, the more were my senses bewildered.

A severe headache for these several days, I believe from indigestion.

* * *

About a fortnight ago I had a curious dream, which I have often thought of since. It’s remarkable, as I scarcely ever recollect my dreams, and have not that credulity which some persons are weak enough to have respect such phantasies.

I had closed my eyes in search of repose, when, to my great surprise, I experienced a kind of dizziness. I thought however that it was nothing more than the effect of approaching sleep; for which reason I did not arouse myself, or even open my eyes.

A small part of the sea twisting round violently and the fog also was whirling round; I immediately saw it was a water spout.

I appeared to be gently lifted up from the ground, and to be wafted along in the air by the gentle breeze. It was a sensation which I had often felt before when between sleeping and waking; and I believe most persons have experienced it. I used to account for it by supposing that it was the beginning of a dream.

I continued wondering at this circumstance; and was still rather astonished when I evidently was raised a few feet from the ground—in the most gentle manner; and again as gentle descended. This motion was repeated several times. My senses were bewildered. I repeatedly aroused myself, supposing that I dreamed. But soon satisfied myself that I was not dreaming. I called philosophy to my aid; and, as if in a moment, passed through my brain the wonders which are related in books. Nothing satisfactory, however, met my reflection, which could account for my situation.

I seem almost to have quitted the world.

I really had discovered a place, hitherto unknown, which possessed a virtue unthought of, unique, and such as one should never entered into the mind of man.

Whether I shall return Heaven knows. I am going on a voyage of discovery in a most dangerous climate, and among a very ferocious people.

The place itself was desolate. No tree, nor even shrub, punctuated it. The rocks had scarcely earth enough to support a little moss and lichen, which covered some parts of them; and solitude seemed there to have taken up her abode.

The thermometer is from 70 to 75°.

It is disturbing to find what trivial circumstances make me uncomfortable.

It would be needless to state the phantasies which entered my brain concerning this tardy course of the sun and other circumstances, as wonderful, which had lately occurred to me.

In this place forlorn I placed myself. To me—dismal was the prospect of futurity. An unknown country enclosed me… I had often been in desolate, in almost desert situations without a guide. And death has appeared to be the only termination of the prospect. But never before did this so plainly appear as now. The face of the country differed entirely from that of any other that I had ever seen or heard of.

Thus I am completely adrift, what can I do?

* * *

About a fortnight ago I had a curious dream.

I thought I was walking from Edinburgh by the common road; and when I arrived near the houses which are almost opposite the Botanic Garden…I observed three men throwing each other about as if wishing to throw each other out into the ditch.

They were dressed in black clothes, and had a large robe made like a great coat of black velvet, which was loose and continually flying about as they ran after each other. They appeared to be middle aged, and their beard was close shorn; but apparently I think as to blacken their faces. As first I thought them to be Jewish Rabbis and I recollected it was Friday evening and commencement of their Sabbath, but more than once it came into my mind that they were members of the Inquisition.

After witnessing so horrible a sight I was lost in amazement. The horrid process of the monster’s rapacity did not cease to irritate my mind.

But when I came towards them, I saw an abundance of skeletons scattered about, some of them standing upright, other lying about in various orientations; the bones of some of them were clean but the flesh was withered, hacked as if with knives, and black, with many places as if covered with white mould.

My imagination was continually haunted by the cracking of the bones of the victim, and by his pitiful yells.

I proceeded to walk on with difficulty, sliding over these mangled carcases [sic], and unknowing which way to turn, when I observed following me one of the men clothed in black; which alarmed me much. He walked deliberately towards me, and when within a few paces, took from under his robe a stiletto, which he pointed to my heart without saying a word.

I consented & seemed pleased at the circumstance, told him that I was very fond of fresh meat.

It was then that I deliberately considered the end of my peregrination. What had I to expect more on that lunar hemisphere which is never opposed to the earth, than I had seen on that which I had traversed, except that the nights would be more dark, and my situation, if possible, more solitary than it had been?—That curiosity has great influence on the mind of man. He is never satisfied with his acquirements. This passion alone induces him to expose himself to unnecessary dangers, supports him under the most distress, and has been his chief support in his next astonishing enterprises. This passion alone impelled me on my way, unconscious of what I might expect.

War.—War.—War.—

It was then like a thunderbolt striking through my brain, that I believed my reason had left me—that I was a maniac—that this sensation, which caused such wonder was only a phantasy—was only that uncommon idea which rendered me insane.

I have seen the grin and obsequiousness of the sycophant prevail, the ignorant & idle man possessed of power.

* * *

It is disturbing to find what trivial circumstances make me uncomfortable, at present I am scarcely an hour free from anxiety and ennui.

My fertile imagination pictured to me the most astounding discoveries and the most unheard of prodigies. I appeared to be entering upon the most extreme part of the universe, more unknown to the inhabitants of earth than the body of the sun himself, or even the reach of the terrestrial Human Eye; and from conjecture alone they could suppose that it resembled the hemisphere which they had explored with such telescopic ardour.

I rejoice to tell you I happened to meet with what I consider as the greatest prodigy of the vegetable world.

If I had devised the most convenient vessels for the purpose of drinking out of I could not have found any more elegant in their forms than these that Nature herself has presented to me. In form they resembled a tea-saucer, and each could contain almost half a pint. I found them in collections of five or six.

I had seen similar productions on the Earth in miniature; for the largest of the terrestrial kind did not exceed an inch in diameter; but, like them, they also had a single branching stalk growing from their centres. Naturalists will well recollect the form of these vessels, by my informing them that the fucus—

To tell you the truth, had I been alone, and had there been no witnesses, I should I think have been fearful of mentioning the dimensions of the flower, so much does it exceed every flower I have ever seen or heard of.

A flower, very large, beautiful, wonderful!

But what is curiosity? Is not fame its incentive? Or is it a solitary passion existing only in the hearts of individuals? Is it provided by the desire of imparting its discoveries to others and thus making them participate in his joys?

Went on shore and walked about the country alone.

—Here my enterprising disposition received a deadly check. To me this passion must necessarily be solitary; all hopes of fame being at an end, and all probability of publication of any history buried in the horrible situation of being cut off from the world of his nativity. What could I do? Was it for me to be down and take my repose, to eat and drink what chance might present to me, and to give myself up to despair and sloth?

Yesterday I had a slight shivering fit followed by general pain, particularly of my head, loins, and legs, accompanied to day with great languor, & loss of appetite.

In my present solitary situation, scarcely does it appear reasonable to think that any thing that philosophy could suggest would be any gratification to me. So true it is, however, that the mind, although bent down with most extreme distress, is yet ever willing to snatch at even the most timid means of consolation.

I believe it was about four days since the sun had set.

!!!

For a long time I pondered with myself of the astonishing discovery that was opened to me.

The evil that I have committed has not been frequent, but such as it is I look back upon it with anxiety and fear.

My fears painted to me the most hideous and implaceable monsters, hardly resembling human nature.

What is going to happen to me I know not, nor can I account for it.

* * *

I am indeed a solitary animal, & seem to live here without being perceived by any one.


SOURCES

  • Joseph Arnold’s journals dating from 1810 – 1815, bound in four volumes, have been transcribed and made available as downloadable PDFs by the Mitchell Library Special Collections, State Library of New South Wales. C720, items 01 – 04.
  • Papers Relating to Joseph Arnold, 1810 – 1931. Mitchell Library Special Collections, State Library of New South Wales, Aa72.
  • Joseph Arnold, Letters to his Brother, 1810. Mitchell Library Special Collections, State Library of New South Wales, A1849.
  • Joseph Arnold, The Visit to the Moon: A Philosophical Romance. Mitchell Library Special Collections, State Library of New South Wales, A1848.
  • Dawson Turner, Memoir of Joseph Arnold, M.D., in Samuel Wilton Rix, Thye Fauconberge Memorial (Ipswich, 1849), 68-79.
  • For the best record of Arnold in Southeast Asia, see: Sophia Raffles, Memoir of the Life and Public Services of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles (London: John Murray, 1830).
  • For extracts of Arnold’s final letters and the first published report of his corpse flower, Rafflesia arnoldii, see: Robert Brown, “XV. An Account of a New Genus of Plants, Named Rafflesia”, Transactions of the Linnean Society, vol. 13 (1821), 201-234.


Elaine Ayers is a historian of science at Princeton University. She works on plants, art, decolonization, and objecthood in the tropics.


This essay is the eighth offering from our Conjectures series, a venue meant to serve as a laboratory for experiments with historical form and method. The reader is asked to keep a live eye on these texts, which thread between past and present, between the imagination and the archive, between dreams and data. The Series Editor is D. Graham Burnett.

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