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
October 23, 2018
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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—
—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?
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.
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.
Elaine Ayers is a PhD candidate in Princeton University's Program in the History of Science. She works on natural history, aesthetics, and gender in the Victorian tropics.