Friday, May 24, 2013

The Compleat Naturalist. A Life of Linnaeus by Wilfrid Blunt.


The life of Carl Linnaeus is a story rich in potential for a writer. Here is a man who made a unique and important contribution to biology with his development of a binomial nomenclature for classifying plants and animals. He was both an explorer and a brilliant scientist. It should not be difficult for a moderately skilled biographer to craft an interesting, if not captivating, account of his life. Wilfrid Blunt reveals how it is possible to mishandle a promising topic.

The irony is that Blunt damages his project by working too hard to craft it. He employs a style of language that is archaic, highly embellished and pretentious. Blunt writes “To this humble sanctuary men of science came from all over Europe to pay homage to the greatest naturalist of his day”(Blunt, p. 219). It would be simpler to say “Colleagues traveled far to visit Linnaeus in his home.” Blunt’s writing is scattershot with French and Italian affectations that contribute nothing to the topic. He phrases awkwardly to show his learning. Instead of saying “Possibly Rudbeck’s wife tried to seduce Linnaeus,” Blunt writes “Possibly this hussy played Potiphar’s wife to him”(Blunt, p. 39). Blunt was seventy in 1971, when the book was published. The manner is archaic even for a man of his age, belonging more to the Victorian Era than the 20th Century, in which the author grew to maturity.

The comical prose of the author is almost matched by that of Linnaeus. While this scientist was a skilled compiler and cataloguer of plants, he was not a compelling writer. For example:

“The actual petals of a flower contribute nothing to generation, serving only as the bridal bed which the great Creator has so gloriously prepared, adorned with such precious bed-curtains, and perfumed with so many sweet scents in order that the bridegroom and bride may therein celebrate their nuptials with greater solemnity” (Blunt, p. 34).

Our botanist can be excused since this style was not uncommon for his time (not good writing, not scientific description, but not an uncommon style). Unfortunately, since Blunt writes so poorly himself, he does not recognize bad writing when he sees it in others. So he fills pages with indented paragraphs of Linnaeus’s miserable poetry. It gets worse when Linnaeus visits Lappland on his first field study. His diary sounds as pretentious and flowery as that of a drunk wine enthusiast on his first trip to Napa Valley. As if the prose of both Blunt and Linnaeus were not enough on their own to torture a reader, the author feeds a compulsion to decorate his book with the excruciating poetry of Emily Carrington and the abject, gilt flattery of 18th Century admirers.

Enough about the writing. What about the information? The book offers a straightforward chronology with little interpretation, which is fine. The basic information on the botanist’s life is covered. Although Blunt clearly likes his subject, he is not deceived concerning Linnaeus’s flaws. When the scientist shows his arrogance, fails to credit Georg Ehret for his contribution to the Genera Plantarum, or lies to his benefactors about the extent of his travels, Blunt does not hide from the responsibility of a thoughtful biographer to dispassionately reveal the truth.

Unfortunately, Blunt is not a scientist or even a strong critical thinker. His accounts of Linnaeus’s flaws are based on the observations of others, which he dutifully cites. The author was an art teacher, painter and curator of the Watts Gallery. With such credentials, there is a lot he misses. In the section of the book where Linnaeus first sees a Jew, Blunt neglects to discuss this zoologist’s subsequent classification of Jews as a separate “race.” While Race Classification represents the beginning of an ugly chapter in Western pseudoscience, it is not a surprise that Blunt would fail to note the significance. I’m not sure he was aware of Linnaeus’s role in this embarrassing history.

Since this biographer lacks a science background, he does not attempt to elucidate the specifics of binomial nomenclature. Neither does Blunt follow the evolution of Linnaeus’ method which led to this classification system or other observations. The most he does in the realm of science is to include, in his appendix, a discussion of Linnaeus’ system written by a colleague.

The Compleat Naturalist is more a romantic meditation on nature and the life of a man who immersed himself in its study, than it is a scientific book. I cannot help but think that a biography of Linnaeus, written by a science writer, would communicate an understanding of which this painter is incapable. So we have the topic of a scientist, written by a non-scientist. A creation based on writing, produced by a painter. For all I know, Blunt may be a fine artist with a brush, but he’s a finger-painter with words.

Blunt, Wilfrid. The Compleat Naturalist. A Life of Linnaeus. New York: The Viking Press, 1971.