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Romantic Geography: In Search of the Sublime
Landscape
Casey D. Allena
a Department of Geography and Environmental Sciences, University of Colorado Denver,
Denver, CO.
Published online: 14 Apr 2015.
To cite this article: Casey D. Allen (2015) Romantic Geography: In Search of the Sublime Landscape, The AAG Review of
Books, 3:2, 60-62, DOI: 10.1080/2325548X.2015.1015912
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/2325548X.2015.1015912
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The AAG Review OF BOOKS
The AAG Review of Books 3(2) 2015, pp. 60–62. doi: 10.1080/2325548X.2015.1015912.
©2015 by Association of American Geographers. Published by Taylor & Francis, LLC.
Romantic Geography: In Search
of the Sublime Landscape
Yi-Fu Tuan. Madison: University
of Wisconsin Press, 2014. ix and
205 pp., notes, and index. $24.95
cloth (ISBN 978-0299296803);
$16.95 electronic (ISBN 978-0-
299-29683-4).
Reviewed by Casey D. Allen,
Department of Geography and
Environmental Sciences, Univer-
sity of Colorado Denver, Denver,
CO.
Home. Just the word conjures strong
emotions. Whether they had a home or
not, the word is laden with meaning for each individual.
Romantic, however, is not necessarily a word often associ-
ated with home, at least not when taken as the custom-
ary definition that denotes physical attraction and excite-
ment. Perhaps romantic in the nostalgic sense of the word
many might agree could describe home. But in the affec-
tionate sense? Usually not. Changing this perception, un-
derstanding home as a traditionally romantic place, how-
ever, rests at the heart of Romantic Geography. Yi-Fu Tuan
is not worried, it seems, about the potential implications
of his version of romantic being ensconced in academic
discourse related to the Romantic Movement or period
or Romanticism in general, although he takes many of
his examples from those themes. Instead of dwelling on
them, though, he focuses on romantic being equated with
home. Similarly, when it comes to searching for his “sub-
lime landscape,” he seems not so much concerned with
the sublime being portrayed as with landscape apprecia-
tion or formal Romanticism (although again, examples
using the movement are numerous throughout the book).
Rather, he views the sublime as the individual—some-
times intertwined with the romantic, sometimes standing
on its own.
Those familiar with Tuan’s compen-
dium of work will see similarities with
previous endeavors: the Classical story
here, the long-winded anecdote there.
In this sense, the reading is mostly
accessible. The book becomes mired
down in too many of these stories,
however. They are certainly interest-
ing and informative, but do little to
help the reader understand what ex-
actly Tuan means by romantic and sub-
lime. Even so, having spent more than
a half-century exploring the world’s
great expositions and essays search-
ing for meaning, Tuan embodies the
consummate philosopher-scholar for
tackling such a topic as searching for
the romantic and sublime. Whether
discussing The Word in Genesis, Dante’s Paradiso, Gothic
architecture, Joseph Conrad, or indigenous tribes around
the world, it matters not. Tuan’s insights into these texts
and topics is that of a master. He outlines the valiant
efforts of each intrepid explorer and voyager to exam-
ine their understanding of home, their individual place
on earth and in the environment, offering reminiscent
breezes of his early forays into humanistic geography that
steer the reader into enticing yet often wayward seas.
Compiled as a geographic symphony of sorts, including
an “Overture,” “Interlude,” and “Coda,” Tuan promises in
the first pages that there is a need for romantic geography
and the sublime, but spends most of his time wandering
around ancient cities, regaling us with classical stories,
and exploring concepts we already know from his previ-
ous works instead of getting to the point. Yet even if the
anecdotes are long and drawn out and the reader might
get lost a little along the journey, Tuan still writes acces-
sible prose.
For example, most current and past buzzwords (sustain-
ability, environmentalism, ecology, livelihoods, etc.), he
suggests, represent an attempt to make the earth a stable
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SPRING 2015 61
and living home. And that concept of home—often seen
as a distinctly nonromantic endeavor—apparently repre-
sents the binding force throughout this book. Then, after
establishing that romantic-equals-home by exploring the
“polarized values” of dark–light, chaos–form, low–high,
body–space, and brain–brawn, he guides us on an expe-
dition through earth’s grand natural environments. The
overture’s tempo picks up in this quest for the sublime
over the next hundred pages or so, with each subsection
using several classical and quasi-contemporary exam-
ples—from Copernicus and Captain Cook to Christian-
ity and aboriginal tribes. This is meant, I suppose, to help
the reader realize that each locale means a different type
of home depending on the individual, regardless if that
home includes mythical monsters like those Odysseus en-
countered, or tyrannical, real-life ones, such as the Nazi
regime and its propaganda in the 1930s.
The last two grand environments of his overture, deserts
and ice, attempt to pull the reader in for a closer look at
two extreme climes to assess how they function not just
as home, but as sources for “spiritual elevation” (p. 108).
These seemingly disparate, empty-feeling environments,
Tuan argues, still evoke romanticism throughout genera-
tions, as brave (crazy?) explorers set off to discover and re-
port back on these once far-flung locales, although he pro-
vides very little in the way of contemporary explorations,
drawing the chronological line at Nansen, Byrd, and
Lawrence (of Arabia). Yet, as the 100-page overture con-
cludes, Tuan reminds the reader that, as with the other
environments, it is in the struggle of such environments
that home might reside. Indeed, he says, what makes such
life-threatening settings home is the chance of death.
Although he admittedly draws somewhat heavily on his
previous work—for example, his chapter “Desert and Ice:
Ambivalent Aesthetics” in Kemal and Gaskell’s (1993)
Landscape, Natural Beauty, and the Arts—he never gives
up on his goal of home as romantic, leading the reader
into a short “Interlude” that represents the very Tua-
nian vision of geography, the pinnacle of achievement
for geography as a discipline in his eyes: the importance
of knowing oneself and one’s place (as in location, not
necessarily station, although Tuan does make reference
to the latter definition as being important to individual-
ity and home as well). If, as he proposes, home can be
physically attractive, drawing us ever closer, then where
is that place? For Tuan, a cosmopolite himself, it is “The
City” (Chapter 3). Here he weaves his way through the
dark alleys of Neolithic and ancient Chinese cities to the
illuminated (literally, even during the night) modern-day
cities that, compared to historic cities, now awake even in
the winter. At first glance, the city seems like a whimsi-
cal journey, transporting us to historic London through
nineteenth-century eyes, and then propelling us forward
to modern Manhattan, a city that never sleeps. But to
what end? Why illustrate (from the Latin for light, Tua n
would remind us) Dickens’s bleary London, Haussmann’s
redesign of Paris, and Sherlock Holmes’s excursions to
opium dens? Tuan uses these sometimes interesting, yet
somewhat drawn-out examples to demonstrate how every
facet of these stories survive, even thrive still today: They
each focus on home. These stories are romantic, Tuan
suggests, because the “Quest is at the heart of romance”
(p. 167), and as human beings, we are attracted to them.
They compel us to want to explore and journey, regardless
of which one of the “three distinctive human types” (p.
147) we are: aesthete, hero, or saint.
Throughout the book, story after story, we are reminded
that Tuan is certainly well read and, arguably, that he un-
derstands individuality more than any other geographer
writing today. Perhaps that is why he attempts to classify
human beings: to demonstrate that although collectivity
remains important to humans, it is in the individuality
that the being survives. Yet he misses a great opportunity,
especially for the current generation of geographers fa-
miliar with late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century
literature, by skipping over more contemporary examples
that could have been used to energize his argument (once
you find it), rather than remaining bogged down with the
same stories from previously published work. Of course
the classics are important, but why not interweave them
with examples from recent literature? Surely characters
and series such as Harry Potter, Jason Bourne, Star Wars,
and The Hunger Games, to name a few, fit Tuan’s “quest”
for home and individual—while also providing strong
examples of his hero, saint, and aesthete—just as easily
as Dickens’s tales, Sherlock Holmes’s exploits, and Odys-
seus’s adventures.
Apparently, with all human types, regardless of literary
periods and genres and no matter if they are exploring
deep forests, conquering mountain peaks, avoiding giant
whirlpools, or facing death itself, the individual is always
present, irrespective of whether they are at their home
or searching for it. Perhaps that is Tuan’s main message:
Whether you get lost along the way from unclear direc-
tions, stay the course to home, or find it (or yourself) along
the way, enjoying the journey—no matter how long, te-
dious, scary, harrowing, joyful, or enlightening it might
be—remains key. For home, Tuan suggests in this book,
is where we can be our true, sublime individual selves the
most, where we can, in a sense, achieve the “romantic
Downloaded by [Auraria Library] at 13:32 28 April 2015
62 THE AAG REVIEW OF BOOKS
sublime” (p. 171). After all, as he noted in a previous ar-
ticle a few decades ago, life is a field trip. Without the
quest, without the sublime (the individual) being inspired
by romantic (the home), Tuan notes in the closing line,
“no really good scientific work can be done” (p. 177).
Such an ending line is certainly provocative, and al-
though this reader might agree with such a statement, it
is still quite a claim given that Tuan provides the reader
with little to support it other than classical stories and
rehashing of previous endeavors. His vision of exactly
what romantic geography and the sublime landscape are
never fully comes to fruition. Thoroughly dissecting the
book, the themes of home (the romantic) and individual
(the sublime) are continually related to various scenarios,
but not really explained. Indeed, deciphering these two
concepts’ cruxes (for they are different in Tuan’s eyes,
although each informs and interacts with the other)
requires the reader to perform a laborious and in-depth
reading, deliberately sifting through the tiniest nuances
example by example, story by story, and snippet by snip-
pet, filtering out all the unnecessary debris, to finally find
Tuan’s points. Home can be romantic. The individual can
be sublime. There is a need for romantic geography and
the sublime landscape. But Tuan’s latest endeavor sac-
rifices perhaps compelling evidence for old stories, and
never reaches its full potential. A refreshing of references
and more direct explanations of concepts would go a long
way to help Tuan’s latest endeavor achieve the notoriety
it should deserve.
Reference
Kemal, S., and I. Gaskell, eds. 1993. Landscape, natural
beauty, and the arts. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Uni-
versity Press.
Downloaded by [Auraria Library] at 13:32 28 April 2015
... I was hopeful when I saw his Romantic Geography book (2013), thinking it would be different. Unfortunately, in that review (Allen 2015), I had to take him to task, because the book quickly became bogged down in the mire of recycled prose, continued resurrection of old themes, and old worn-out analogies and stories. ...
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In this book a distinguished group of scholars probes the complex structure of aesthetic responses to nature. Each of the chapters refines and expands the terms of discussion, and together they enrich the debate with insights from art history, literary criticism, geography and philosophy. To explore the interrelation between our conceptions of nature, beauty, and art, the contributors consider the social construction of nature, the determination of our appreciation by artistic media, and the duality of nature's determining in gardening. Showing that natural beauty is impregnated with concepts derived from the arts and from particular accounts of nature, the volume occasions questions of the distinction and relation between art and nature generally, and culminates in a set of philosophical studies of the role of scientific understanding, engagement, and emotion in the aesthetic appreciation of nature. -from Publisher