Text: The magnum opus of the great European and explorer Alexander von Humboldt has the title COSMOS / It describes the world from the depths of Earth up to the stars / "An unsatisfied longing for something beyond the present -- a striving toward regions yet unknown and unopened" / Hans Magnus Enzensberger, who is editing and republishing the "Cosmos", reports - -

Text: Alexander von Humboldt's Cosmos / Hans Magnus Enzensberger about the longing for knowledge


Alexander Kluge: There is this bourgeois, Alexander von Humboldt, a baron, born 1769.

Hans Magnus Enzensberger: Yes.

Kluge: Could you describe this man for us?

Enzensberger: He didn't care much about his title as baron, he didn't use it.

Kluge: He is not old nobility anyway, right? His father, grandfather …

Enzensberger: No, it was probably beknighted aristocracy, or service gentry, I think. Not without means, you could say that he had a somewhat privileged childhood, he had private tutors.

Kluge: The money comes from his mother's side, a Huguenot family.

Enzensberger: He had private tutors, good ones. He once said that if he had fallen into the hands of the public school system, he would have perished physically and mentally.

Text: Humboldt / Napoleon

Kluge: He is born in September, and in August the same year, 1769, Napoleon I, Napoleon Bonaparte is born, so they are contemporaries.

Enzensberger: Yes, they even met once, and interestingly enough Napoleon was envious. Napoleon envied Humboldt for his international fame … Alexander von Humboldt was world famous, even during his lifetime, and Napoleon didn't like that.

Text: Hans Magnus Enzensberger, writer and editor

Kluge: But they were both conquerors of the world in a certain way, and if Napoleon had emigrated to America, after Waterloo – he almost got there on an American ship – he could have become an explorer, too.

Enzensberger: Yes.

Kluge: Would he have had the attention span for it?

Enzensberger: I don't know, he was too invested in power, and that wasn't Humboldt's thing. Humboldt wanted to see the world and to get there, he didn't shy away from anything. He started as a young man, his first job was, I think, as a mining assessor, and he went to the mines in Harz and Thuringia and immediately started to study and improve the working conditions there. He couldn't bear the thought that the mine gases …

Text: Gas mask for mine gases / lamp for miners

Kluge: So a kind of gas mask for mine gases …

Enzensberger: Yes, but you know, I can't even begin to list everything he did, that would take 10 hours …

Kluge: But the students get up at 6am, have to go into the mines and in the afternoon they have class till 10pm. A strict schedule!

Enzensberger: Yes, that was the training. By the way, Novalis was a mining assessor too. Back then, there weren’t what you would call intellectuals now. They had the chance to do something practical as well, things weren't as strictly separated as they are now, where you have these odd careers that end in an academic seminar …

Kluge: So in civil service you learn how to be an entrepreneur. You have to imagine that: as an accountant you get to breed silkworms, you oversee plantations, forests, the construction of manufactories, but also mines …

Enzensberger: Okay, so the bureaucrats didn't like it, he was too eager, he stirred up things, he was too invested in the working conditions of the miners … in a way, he's always doing too much. For these sleepy people he was a troublemaker. Up to the end, at an advanced age, he was at the court of the King of Prussia. The Prussian King had a soft spot for him, probably because he was bored by his own people, but Humboldt was abhorred by the whole camarilla. He would say: "They'd like nothing more than to see me rotting in the ground already." He would say: "I would have been exiled as a revolutionary and heretic, if it had been up to them." The whole relationship between the Germans and Humboldt is kind of strange.

Kluge: He also couldn't quite stop making aggressive comments …

Enzensberger: … and he could be vicious, because he had this look. But it's basically the same thing today: If you think about the fact that Humboldt's main works are basically unknown in this country. If you go to a bookstore, you won't find his Cosmos, you won't find the important stuff. There's a Humboldt University, the Humboldt-Forum, the Humboldt Foundation, Humboldt, Humboldt, but no one actually knows him. That's an odd situation and in a way, it's like there is a kind of resistance that exists up to this day. I think it is unbelievable and one of the reasons why I'm so determined to put Humboldt, Alexander von Humboldt, on the agenda, is because he's needed, and he's a role model.

Kluge: You mentioned the key word: "Cosmos"...

Enzensberger: Yes.

Kluge: What is that, a book or a book collection, or what?

Enzensberger: A man decides to describe the entire world, nothing less than that. He calls it a foolhardy project himself, a scientific and at the same time poetic description of the world from the depths of the earth – geology –, on to flora, anthropology, ethnology, archeology, all the way to meteorology and astronomy. He's interested in space and that's why he calls it – and he admits himself that it is not a modest title – that's why he gives this huge book the title "Cosmos".

Text: Cosmos, A Sketch of the Physical Description of the Universe by Alexander von Humboldt. First Volume.


Kluge: "An unsatisfied longing for something beyond the present -- a striving toward regions yet unknown and unopened". That's the direction he's pointing in.

Enzensberger: Yes. There's a duality to it. On the one hand, he is a real scientist, that means he's got an analytic look, he carries his instruments around everywhere, he works with utmost precision, with a trained analytic look. But on the other hand, he's got this euphoria, this gift of admiration, of awe, and that is why his work has such a poetic dimension. There is an excess. He's not a guy who wants to narrow everything down to a test tube, that's not him; and this thing with the Tropics, that was like intoxication for him, an extreme excitement … and of course he also had an advantage … it was unknown territory, the world hadn't been explored yet, there were many, the so-called white spots which were enormous.

Kluge: Bougainville explores the South Pacific and Australia and brings home the Bougainvillea, a kind of flower, but it's basically very scattered.

Enzensberger: Yes, and during his long expedition in Latin America he says: "Here you can be everywhere first". Of course that's also an incredible situation, there were barely any guides or known routes … they just didn't exist! And when he climbs these six mountains in the Andes, without special equipment or clothing …

Text: Hans Magnus Enzensberger, writer and editor

Kluge: These mountains are over six thousand meters high, almost the height of the Himalayas …

Enzensberger: Yes, without any physiological knowledge.

Kluge: Does he go up there in a suit?

Enzensberger: … He has to try, he goes up there in his frock to a height of 6,000 meters. He experiments, first the smaller mountains, like Pichincha, Cotopaxi, Antisana … six mountain tops he has climbed and learned, with the increasing height, how to deal with the side-effects: dizziness, fainting, shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting, sleet, earthquakes … it was an extremely dangerous endeavor. The guy was unstoppable.

Kluge: If I try to imagine: he goes to the very end, but in his frock, with his hands wrapped in something like mittens …

Enzensberger: Yes.

Kluge: ... but basically completely improvised, so compared to Messner …

Enzensberger: That's completely different.

Kluge: ... without equipment! In civilian clothes.

Enzensberger: Yes, strange. You could say that he's just driven by this absolute obsession.

Kluge: He's got a theory about calderas.

Enzensberger: He's got a theory about volcanism, he was a volcanist. He is interested in the emergence of the Andes, which involves plate tectonics, and so he has to turn over every stone on the way.

Kluge: Around 1800 there were two basic theories when he was at the university: the volcanists and the ...

Text: Volcanists vs. Neptunists

Enzensberger: … neptunists.

Kluge: … neptunists. And his teacher at the mining academy in Freiberg is ...

Enzensberger: … a neptunist, yes … just like Goethe, and there was a big argument about this …

Kluge: The neptunists say that at first, everything is basalt and flows, everything flows, that means the stones develop in the ocean and then they travel to the land. You see that in the Alps, that it's the ground of an ocean.

Enzensberger: That's true, but they neglect the fact that underneath the earth crust are magmatic conditions; and it is really strange, the way he approaches the issue with the mountains. One reason why he has to get up there is to settle this theory and opposed to Goethe and opposed to his own teacher he realizes how the mountain range of the Andes has formed and that's one of the things that he can prove because of that. He can prove it.

Kluge: There are two different temperaments of thought: the neptunists basically think that everything develops slowly, over eons … just like Darwin interprets evolution; and the volcanists are the ones with the theory of cataclysm.

Enzensberger: Of course there are also ideological implications …

Kluge: …revolution would be volcanist …

Enzensberger: …because it was the time of the French Revolution and there is a correspondent school of thought: one wants continuity and the other counts on the discontinuity of the world …

Kluge: ... on revolutionizing.

Enzensberger: ... not just the history of the Earth, but human history is discontinuous, too. And that's why it was so charged, why the argument was so passionate.

Kluge: That's Humboldt for you: discontinuous, revolutionary!

Enzensberger: Yes, and of course the whole thing is also political. I have thought about it for a long time. It's really strange how he managed to hold onto his convictions: on the one hand – he was politically socialized by France – and he was definitely a Republican; and at the same time he had this position in Germany, in Prussia and still managed … He wanted to change things, he didn't want to end up in an attic like Forster or Büchner, rather he wanted to make an impact, he wanted to help, as if he'd been assigned to it … And to do that, he needed this position and he managed to maintain this leverage without betraying himself. He had such an impact, not just in the mines, but also in diplomacy, he was a diplomat too, after all; then all these publications, he did science policy, he was one of the first …

Kluge: A lot of cooperation, the first chancellor of the order "Pour la merité", that means a lot of official …

Enzensberger: Yes, and networking. He's said to have written 50,000 letters. The internet wasn't invented yet, so he had to write letters. If he didn't know something, he asked someone else and he was also a great benefactor, even if he never made a big deal out of it. When he got older, he counted more and more on the next generation, like Werner von Siemens, Justus Liebig, the French, Arago and all these people. He knew them and often provided them with money, today we would call it "external funding", he did fundraising to secure research positions for these people. And basically as an independent man, because he didn't really want a title. They offered him the position of museum director, ambassador in Paris, Minister of Cultural Affairs ..

Kluge: He’d rather not.

Enzensberger: He’d rather not. He didn't want to give up his independence, and he put all his money in his scientific work: he had these huge travel reports …

Kluge: In that sense he was, at the beginning of his travels, as his mother's heir …

Enzensberger: …he was rich!

Kluge: … you could say that he was a millionaire …

Enzensberger: Yes.

Kluge: … and he spent everything on research, publications etc. And the amount he left his butler – his sole heir – at the end of his life, after 90 years, was very small.

Enzensberger: Another strange thing: you can speculate about his private life, but there are barely any traces of his private life: It is as if the entirety of his energy was completely absorbed by the huge projects he took on; and I think in the end – he was famous, people came to see him, he was asked to take care of this or that – but maybe in the end he was kind of lonely after all. Maybe that's the price he had to pay for his obsession.

Kluge: But he did have a passionate heart: people say that he loved Ms. Herz very much, maybe not physically, but as a correspondent.

Text: Henriette Herz

Enzensberger: He was as a great … his demeanor, he was …

Kluge: A gentleman ...

Enzensberger: …very popular with the ladies …

Kluge: Yes?

Enzensberger: Yes, they adored the man. He was handsome, very elegant …

Kluge: But there wasn't a strict differentiation of gender; his old friend von Haeften, related to the family that also plays an important role for July 20th,, he really ….

Enzensberger: …adored him. That was a wild story.

Kluge: But he was married, and when he died young, Humboldt was even willing to take in his wife.

Enzensberger: Yes.

Kluge: Basically like a heroic epic: loyalty for loyalty.

Enzensberger: Yes, and it's strange, but back then there was …. on the one hand there were taboos, there were a lot of things in regard to sex that people didn't talk about; but on the other hand the roles were not quite fixed yet, because there were friendships – very intimate friendships between women, between men … that weren't at all an issue. The boxes that people later … nowadays you have to define yourself, by coming out etc. It wasn't like that back then. It's very interesting to see how people dealt with emotions. It was basically also a kind of volcanism.

Kluge. It was an expedition back then, especially for the young people, they were claiming the planet for themselves, it was quasi a first ascent of the planet Earth, that's typical for Humboldt, but the notion of the subject is explored as well.

Enzensberger: The psyche is being explored, experimentally, in a way. There is hypnosis, mesmerism, all these strange things. But in the end, Humboldt was … I think mostly … I mean, okay, he always had assistants with him in the jungle. Like Bonpland, whom he traveled with. And those two certainly also had an emotional connection, since they were completely dependent on each other, every day was very dangerous, after all.

Text: Johann Georg Forster (1754– 1794)

Kluge: Yes. Earlier, you mentioned the name Forster. Starting from Mainz in 1790, Humboldt undertakes his first long trip, his first long geographic expedition with this man. Could you describe him, please? At six years, ten years, he's already traveling with Cook.

Enzensberger: Yes.

Kluge: ... and explores Australia.

Enzensberger: A terrible father story, of course, but he has also written the best book about this expedition.

Kluge: And he loves the French Revolution.

Enzensberger: Yes, and launches into the thing; and that's a difference between him and Humboldt, the two of them knew each other, of course, together they …

Kluge: …they are both in Paris.

Enzensberger: Both in Paris, yes. I think it's mutual admiration.

Text: Hans Magnus Enzensberger, writer and editor

Kluge: And they are both explorers, both are geographers, both are globally orientated, not interested in France or another specific country. And now they are in Paris, one is basically the delegate of the citizenry of Mainz, so directly political, "central-committee-able", so to speak, and the other one more distant, observing …

Enzensberger: …with great social connections of course …

Kluge: ... but he says: "The view of the Parisians, their national assembly, their yet unfinished temple of freedom, for which I hauled sand myself … "

Enzensberger: Yes!

Kluge: …"remains as a vision in my heart ."

Enzensberger: Wonderful. And the concretion: not just from the newspapers, no, he hauls sand. There is this practical orientation of his that always runs riot: he shovels along with the others.

Kluge: And so he is the creator of a not yet corrupted French Revolution that does not need a guillotine.

Text: Humboldt's all-round interests

Enzensberger: Humboldt is interested in the issue of slavery, he is interested in the flora …. What does that have to do with physics? In Mexico he studies the monuments of indigenous cultures …

Kluge: …all the way back to the Incas …

Enzensberger: the Incas …

Kluge: …to the scriptures ...

Enzensberger: He's one of the first to deliver a detailed description of these inscriptions, these glyphs or reliefs …. He has copies made … He always has artists with him, he always hires artists who have to draw what he sees, he always finds the best ones. You can still see what kind of people he drew on and hired, the people who produced these amazing pictures that illustrate his works.

Kluge: And this collector brings, while he is still traveling, a collection of stones to Europe, a collection of mothballed plants, a collection of scriptures, documents and then paintings; and the "Cosmos" you are publishing now carries the subtitle "Physical Description of the Universe".

Enzensberger: Yes. "A Sketch of the Physical Description of the Universe".

Kluge. Physical means "I was there"?

Enzensberger: Basically yes, it means it's material, it's not a made-up world.

Kluge: An earth investigator.

Enzensberger: An earth and skies investigator, because he was also very fascinated by astronomy.

Kluge: And he doesn't call it geography, but geognosy.

Enzensberger: Geognosy, yes. The word "gnosis" is in there. Not just the doctrine, but also the discovery, and it is related to this attention thing, he must have been monstrously … he kind of was a monster, after all … I mean, I'm dying in my admiration, he's a great role model, but it's also somewhat intimidating, because it's hard to imagine someone with such a universal competence nowadays. I mean, he's at a point – it's probably the last time something like that was possible, because today no man, no matter how good his scientific education, could accomplish such things.

Kluge: That's the scary thing about structures of education, that they appear scary in their accomplished form, as grown-ups, while as a child, he's still sickly, prone to mistakes … he uses a theory for ten days, then replaces it with another …

Enzensberger: He became increasingly healthy: the more exertion, the healthier he became. He got old, too. It's strange, but this sickly child, this feeblish child became healthy with the aid of his obsessions.

Text: Humboldt (1804)

Kluge: A distracted student with learning disabilities, sickly …

Enzensberger: Like Darwin, by the way, Darwin was like that, too.

"Bright, in the middle, on his camp-chair, sat the celebrated geognost

in his laboratory, in the jungle, in oil, on the banks of the Orinoco.

The terra incognita melted like snow under his gazes.

He cast his net of curves and coordinates over the last glaciers,

the bleakest mountains. He measured the magnetic variation,

the sun's altitude, the salt content, and the blue of the sky."

Text: Excerpt from: H.M. Enzensberger / Mausoleum / Thirty-seven ballads from the history of progress

Enzensberger: ... "Incredulous,

the natives watched him. What wonderful people they are,

who traverse the world to seek plants and compare their hay

with other hay!

Why do you let yourselves be devoured by mosquitoes,

merely to get the lay of land that doesn't even belong to you?

They are foreigners, heretics and fools. But as unwaveringly as the cleric

waves his censer, the voyager wields his Leyden jar.

Born in the blaze of Messier's Comet, he galvanized frogs,

put electrodes on himself and reported Conjectures on [

Irritated Nervous and Muscular Fibers. Later, he chased after

electric storms on the Amazon and northern lights in Siberia: pirogues

carried him there, sleighs and steamers, hammocks and coaches.

He depicted entire lands as a mine. A vulcanist and vulcanologist,

he had a genuine mania for burning craters, which he passionately

climbed, surveyed, and examined. Isolated and anxious,

he recalled the youths he had liked. Most of them were gentle

and penniless. He helped them, however, and held his tongue."

Text: The type of the horizon wanderer

Kluge: It is strange, sitting in the Tropics like this.

Enzensberger: Yes, sure. "Here you are everywhere first". That is not only true in the geographical sense, but he also covered all these fields, opened up new fields, occupied new fields that turned out to be extremely seminal. I mean, a man who, in 1829/1830, came up with the idea for the Panama Canal, which wasn't built until 60 years later; a man who thinks about the possibilities of weather forecast – then there were only weather proverbs, the centenarian calendar, that was it. There was no science.

Text: The 3rd dimension of Earth exploration / The vertical climate

Kluge: And a geographer who interrupts a two-dimensional cartography of the world that pictures everything as flat, as if it were cold only in the Arctic and warm in the Tropics …

Enzensberger: The 3rd dimension

Kluge: ... and invents the 3rd dimension because he's studying the mountains.

Enzensberger: That's why he needs to get up there, he has to climb the Chimborazo …

Kluge: He gets from the Tropics to the Arctic …

Enzensberger: Yes.

Kluge: ... in one day.

Enzensberger: At one point he comes from the semitropics, the moderate climate, to the cold polar region ...

Kluge: Vertical geography.

Enzensberger: Vertical geography, a new idea.

Kluge: It's basically always generosity, the expansion of the thought. Why did he go to the Thames and explore the bottom of the Thames?

Enzensberger: He had to know. There was this Brunel, …

Text: Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Enzensberger: … a very important English engineer, shipwright, bridge-builder and tunnel-builder …back then they tried to dig the first tunnel underneath the Thames; and of course Humboldt had to go there right away when he was in London, and climbed into the tunnel with this somewhat crazy engineer, even if that wasn't exactly harmless. Water was already coming through. The project failed, but Humboldt didn't want to hear about it, he wanted to see it.

Text: The era 1789-1815 / glamour and misery of the bourgeoisie

Kluge: The glamorous era, between 1789 and 1815 or so, up to Napoleon's capitulation, that is a century of its own, if you will.

Enzensberger: A very short one, ...

Kluge: …but fast ...

Enzensberger: ... a powerful century, yes.

Kluge: Napoleon's soldiers march faster, his engineers build twice as fast.

Hans Magnus Enzensberger, writer and editor

Enzensberger: Wherever you look: the law, Savigny, the Code Napoléon, the music, wherever you look. It's crazy how fast it has grown. International law, all this stuff, it's too much to list, everything that happened back then, the reformers, the Prussian reformers.

Kluge: Everything overlaps. Because of Napoleon's Italian campaign, the brothers Humboldt can't embark on their trip to Italy, so he goes to South America …

Enzensberger: …to South America.

Kluge: … Otherwise he might have traveled to Egypt.

Enzensberger: Yes, he has to go see the Spanish King to get permission …

Kluge: He was lucky, too …

Enzensberger: He was very lucky. He was born under a lucky star, that's something that has to be said, because he could have just drowned at 28, very easily. If you read the travel diaries: it was all very dangerous, it was very scary …

Kluge: And most of the young geniuses of the bourgeois era die at age 36.

Enzensberger: Yes, that's true.

Text: "The bourgeois character" / Excess of Modernity


Kluge: Somehow that's related to the fact that the bourgeois type apparently does not have good visual judgment and tends to turn into a means what he isn't himself.


Enzensberger: Yes, of course. Maybe that is connected to this quick victory.

Kluge: Reckless … in a way, a predator is preserved in every human …

Enzensberger: Yes, all that exploitation … that exists as well, but all in all that's a characteristic of modernity. Modernity is not restrained, it also is not subject to moral categories.

Kluge: So basically there are three variations of the bourgeois character, a typology: One is the homo faber, who basically enslaves the world, part of this group are the able engineers, of course …

Enzensberger: Yes, of course.

Kluge: ... who are reckless producers, so to speak; and the second is the fearful one, who safeguards himself.

Enzensberger: The fearful one that seeks safety, yes.


Kluge: And the third one is homo kompensator, the one who has poise, who is able to keep his balance between the currents, between vanity and generosity. To live between the … to live on the horizon and report home.

Enzensberger: That's another reason why an intellectual monster like Humboldt is so likeable. The reason is … he didn't know envy, he didn't have any resentments, he was generous, he did not know avarice, for him all these things were …

Kluge: He had an ego, but could live without it.

Enzensberger: ... and not because he had the urge to be a good person, but it was in his nature, he simply was like that.

Kluge: Yes.

Enzensberger: And that's really great, of course.

Text: An intellectual ruminant

Kluge: His trip to another world, to South Africa, it only lasts five years, from 1799 till 1804. And then, like an intellectual ruminant, he works on these books in French for 20 years. He writes everything down.

Enzensberger: Back then Paris was the capital of the 19th century. Compared to Berlin it was very different. By the way, he was also very talented at foreign languages: he knew eight or nine languages, I think, and when he traveled somewhere, he learned the language there, just like that …

Kluge: And via French his work could easily be exported to America, it was translated immediately.

Enzensberger: Yes, that is another strange thing – Germans usually don't know that Humboldt is basically internationally the best-known German. He's more famous than Goethe. I read once that apparently there are a thousand geographical objects that are named after Humboldt. You know the "Humboldt current" …

Kluge: ...Cities, too.

Enzensberger: ... there are cities named after Humboldt, there are mountains, in America there's a "Humboldt Range" and a "Humboldt-Basin". It is very strange that he is so well represented on the world map. No one else like him comes to mind.

Text: Gymnotus Electricus (Electric eel)

Kluge: Now he's studying electric fishes, electric eels, and he finds out that you can't touch them …

Enzensberger: Yes.

Kluge: … He's got a machine …

Enzensberger: An electrifier, yes.

Kluge: ... and he wants to study the muscle fibers and the behavior of electric fishes. And he finds out that the natives lead horses into the water, and the electric eels attack the horses, exhaust their electric power and then you can get a hold of them …

Enzensberger: …and catch them …

Kluge: … kill and eat them. But he doesn't want to eat them, he wants to measure, study them.

Enzensberger: … study, yes, he wants to study them.

Kluge: That's a typical procedure.

Enzensberger: Yes, sure. Although he did get an electric shock on his first try, so the risks …

Kluge: For a little person that could have been deadly.

Enzensberger: Yes, and Mr. von Humboldt was certainly not risk-averse.

Kluge: But he's curious …

Enzensberger: Yes, he wants to know.

Kluge: … and he's like Dr. Spalanzani that way, so he is basically prepared to kill these animals, to find out how electricity and the organism of an animal relate to each other.

Enzensberger: Yes. What is acceptable for the sake of science? That's another question.

Kluge: We don't have an answer yet.

Enzensberger: … He also puts his assistants' lives in considerable danger during these tours in the mountains …

Kluge: He would have signed the declaration of Human Rights in Paris …

Enzensberger: He is against slavery ...

Kluge: …but in regard to animals he's not so certain.

Enzensberger: But if I want to find out something, it doesn't come for free. I, but also my subject have to … I have to take the risk that something might happen, that damage might be done.


Kluge: Now his curiosity takes him to the Peruvian West Coast. There is a current that is called "Humboldt current" now, a cold water current that comes from the Arctic and leads down to the equator.

Enzensberger: Yes.

Kluge: And because it is cold, it keeps the Pacific rains from reaching the coast.

Enzensberger: Deserts form, the Atacama desert in Chile, there are droughts and then that thing with El Nino … very dangerous.

Kluge: The effects of the "Humboldt current"

Enzensberger: Yes, and that's not meteorology anymore, but climatology, because he was also very fascinated by climatic phenomena, what we call Earth's climate machine now …

Kluge: And what happens in his head, as an engineer and mining assessor, is similar to his idea to dig the Panama Canal that he is so attached to.

Enzensberger: Yes, he tells the American President in Washington about it.

Kluge. Because this way, the "Humboldt current" could be redirected later, to create fertile, greenhouse-like deserts in the West.

Enzensberger: But you know, all these calculations, if you think about the fact that we still can't really calculate the movements of the climate even with the most powerful computers ...

In Humboldt's case, a particular kind of intuition was necessary, without the differential equations, the sea of differential equations that people work with today. Climate experts work with those methods. They create computer simulations. All that didn't exist back then. So he basically had to guess. He had to trust his intuition and therefore this current … What does that mean?

Kluge: There are always three factors. It has to appeal to his curiosity and surprise him; and the second factor was: it has to be useful somehow in a broader context.

Enzensberger: Sure, there's also something to be won. Something can be won. During his trip to Siberia he tells the tsar in St. Petersburg: "Your majesty, somewhere behind the Ural Mountains are diamonds to be found." I don't know if he only says it in order to get more support for his expedition, basically as bait, or if he's really curious, and then they travel by horse carriage through the pathless mud.

Kluge: Then he says: There it is … .

Text: Hans Magnus Enzensberger, writer and editor

Enzensberger: … Then they get to a mountain range and he says: "You have to search here." And of course it was quite the scandal in St. Petersburg that this weird foreigner – no one understands what's actually going on in his head – that this guy actually finds it.

Kluge: He could look at a mountain, and for him that meant: you can see ideas.

Enzensberger: Yes.

Text: Nature is the visible mind / The mind is invisible nature

Kluge: And he looks at the mountains, so to speak, like an orbiting satellite does nowadays, and he's able to say: there are emeralds, there are diamonds.

Enzensberger: Yes, a kind of x-ray vision.

Kluge: But also from experience, because he knows what a certain kind of stone formation looks like, because he knows the history of the Earth, geognosy. And the third factor is a certain kind of visual judgment and the ability to theorize. He's not interested in anything that doesn't connect mind and nature, the singular events ...

Enzensberger: No, no. He consults a specialist when he needs information,

Kluge: … but wants general ideas…

Enzensberger: …but he's interested in the connections. He's interested in the dynamic, the complexity of the whole thing. In his eyes (and that's the reason for the whole astronomy thing), that's not enough, you also have to know how the cosmos develops, he wants to understand the origin of the planets. Questions that were not really in the air yet back then. Someone had to ask the question first …

Kluge: Unrelated to the fact that there is nothing to find there, that none of his three … that he can't go there himself.

Enzensberger: No, he doesn't have any satellites, he doesn't have any space probes at his disposal, but he has this vision and he knows the laws of physics and he asks himself: How can the mass of stars create planets, how is that possible?

Kluge: But it's always about the simultaneous connection of mind and affect, that's what he calls cosmic …

Enzensberger: Yes.

Kluge: ... and that's what he's interested in. That is the third aspect, and all these things together would make an ideal bourgeois character, as much as bourgeois characters can be ideal.

Enzensberger. Well, sure. He is representative and at the same time the great exception.

"The agonizing nights

were devoted to writing. Random remarks on Basalt.

On Quinquina Forests. A Memoir on Ocean Currents.

On the Native Populations of America and the Monuments they left behind.

Lectures on … Contributions to … Aphorisms from … and Views concerning … "

Text: Excerpt from: H.M. Enzensberger / Mausoleum /Thirty-seven ballads from the history of progress

Enzensberger: "Provisional Note on a Life-saving bottle. On the lower borders

of perpetual snow. On the Temperature occurring on the Ocean Surface

in various Parts of the torrid Zone. On Electrical Fish.

This man is a perfect walking academy. He mounted

the highest layers of air, and, in an iron bell,

with a lunatic Briton named Brunel, he dived to the bottom of the Thames.

I always admired him: now I worship him. For he alone

offers a notion of the feelings aroused in the soul

when arriving in the Tropics. Later, however, after breakfast,

Darwin was rather disappointed: I found him to be very cheerful,

but he talked to much. In point of fact, the basis of his greatness

is not quite clear. He slept only three or four hours, he was vain,

enthusiastic, innocuous, infinitely busy. An excellent dancer,

from the minuet to the animalito.

Blue tails, gold buttons, the waistcoat

yellow, striped trousers, a white cravat, a black, worn-out hat:

his wardrobe had stopped in the days of the Directoire.

Why had he endured it all: insects, lianas, downpours,

and the sullen gazes of the Indians? It wasn't the tin, the jute,

the rubber, the copper. A healthy man he, an unwitting carrier

of the disease, a selfless harbinger of plundering, a courier

who didn't realize he had come to announce the annihilation

of what he lovingly painted until ninety, in his Views of Nature."

Text: Cartography

Enzensberger: By the way, Humboldt was also the founder of the Geographical Society. The field of geography was not very advanced at the time. He always drew maps, wherever he was, he needed maps, orientation … and those maps were – for instance, here is one of his maps, and the map describes how people dress. In the red parts of the world they cover in furs, here are the people who wear clothes made from wool, blue are the ones who wear cotton, and thus, some strange combinations appear, for instance fur clothes for Patagonians, Sioux and Inuit. He developed a map …

Kluge: And the green spots: those are the ones who are almost naked …

Enzensberger: Yes, there are the entirely naked ones, those who walk around in the nude. Nudity, as portrayed here: an Australian, a Latin-American Native and a Papuan.

Kluge: In a way, it's basically a form of conquering the world.

Text: Alexander von Humboldt's Cosmos / Hans Magnus Enzensberger about the longing for knowledge

Enzensberger: Yes, sure.

Kluge: It's a way of conquering the world, when Napoleon imagines that by taking Egypt we get the entire 4,000 years that look down at us from the pyramids, we've basically conquered them in hindsight.

Enzensberger: In power mode ...

Kluge: In power mode ...

Enzensberger: …and this is the knowledge mode, and later in the same century the slogan "Knowledge is power" comes up. Very interesting.