The Solitudes of Von Humboldt

by zunguzungu

When critics attempt to account for the genesis of Gabriel García Márquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude (a sort of Genesis text in its own right), there are two ready-to-hand narratives they can employ: first, the young Gabriel faithfully transcribing his grandmother’s fabulist stories, thereby producing a “magic realist” literary modernism out of humble beginnings, and, second, the “Faulknerian revolution” story that Pascal Casanova has been putting forward. In interviews, García Márquez has contributed liberally to both narratives. But here’s another source text, from the second volume of Alexander Von Humboldt’s Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America, During the Year 1799-1804:

“We found at Calabozo, in the midst of the Llanos, an electrical machine with large plates, electrophori, batteries, electrometers; an apparatus nearly as complete as our first scientific men in Europe possess. All these articles had not been purchased in the United States; they were the work of a man who had never seen any instrument,who had no person to consult, and who was acquainted with the phenomena of electricity only by reading the treatise of De Lafond,and Franklin’s Memoirs. Senor Carlos del Pozo, the name of this enlightened and ingenious man, had begun to make cylindrical electrical machines, by employing large glass jars, after having cut off the necks. It was only within a few years he had been able to procure, by way of Philadelphia, two plates, to construct a plate machine, and to obtain more considerable effects. It is easy to judge what difficulties Senor Pozo had to encounter, since the first works upon electricity had fallen into his hands, and that he had the courage to resolve to procure himself, by his own industry, all that he had seen described in his books. Till now he had enjoyed only the astonishment and admiration produced by his experiments on persons destitute of all information, and who had never quitted the solitude of the Llanos; our abode at Calabozo gave him a satisfaction altogether new. It may be supposed that he set some value on the opinions of two travelers who could compare his apparatus with those constructed in Europe. I had brought with me electrometers mounted with straw, pith-balls, and gold-leaf; also a small Leyden jar which could be charged by friction according to the method of Ingenhousz,and which served for my physiological experiments. Senor del Pozo could not contain his joy on seeing for the first time instruments which he had not made, yet which appeared to be copied from his own. We also showed him the effect of the contact of heterogeneous metals on the nerves of frogs. The name of Galvani and Volta had not previously been heard in those vast solitudes.”

Maybe García Márquez’ Spanish-language commentators know all about this (and I, like Senor Pozo, am reinventing the wheel from the periphery) but I can’t seem to find any references to the passage. And the parallels between José Arcadio Buendía and the Senor Carlos del Pozo are striking, as is the use of “solitude” to describe their thwarted desires to be on the cutting edge of scientific discovery. In the novel itself, there’s even a hat-tip to Von Humboldt, when the groping monologues of the senile Melquíades repeatedly return to the name of that 19th century explorer and the words equinox, itself an Humboldtian trope. But only one.