Curiosity and Resignation

The fascination of curiosity – a passion so strong it urges the explorer-scientist to push boundaries, physical and imaginary, while suffering the deprivations of exhaustion, starvation, homesickness, seasickness and disease.

See these quotes by Jean Painlevé, Alexander von Humboldt and Charles Darwin; they are all enraptured by the marvellous flora and fauna they encounter, by novelty and wonder – so much so that physical pain doesn’t seem to matter any more.

JEAN PAINLEVÉ, HYPNOTISED BY UNDERWATER FAUNA

Wading around in water up to your ankles or navel, day and night, in all kinds of weather, even in areas where one is sure to find nothing, digging about everywhere for algae or octopus, getting hypnotised by a sinister pond where everything seems to promise marvels although nothing lives there. This is the ecstasy of any addict, including any hunting-dog bounding across a field, criss-crossing it with euphoric expectation, even though each hidden crevice it stumbles over reveals, at most, a rotten potato.

Jean Painlevé, ‘Les Pieds dans l’eau’, in Voilà, 4 May 1935.

ALEXANDER VON HUMBOLDT, TORMENTED BY JUNGLE WILDLIFE

We have finally arrived in the most divine and marvellous country. Extraordinary plants, electric eels, tigers, armadillos, monkeys, parrots and a number, a great number of unspoilt Indians, half-savage, a very beautiful and interesting human race… So far we have been strolling around like mad men. Bonpland says he will lose his mind if the marvels do not cease soon… I feel that I will be happy here and that these impressions will still exhilarate me in the future. […] But the lack of food, the mosquitoes, the ants, the acarians (a small mite that perforates the skin and ploughs it like a field); the desire to refresh oneself with a bath and the impossibility of taking a swim, given the ferocity of the caimans; the sting of the rays and the bite of the little fish: it takes young age and much resignation to suffer all this.

Alexander von Humboldt in a letter sent to his brother after his arrival in Cumaná, Venezuela, in 1799.

DARWIN, SEASICK ON THE H.M.S. BEAGLE

In the Bay of Biscay there was a long & continued swell & the misery I endured from sea-sickness is far far beyond what I ever guessed at. […] Nobody but a person fond of Nat: history, can imagine the pleasure of strolling under Cocoa nuts in a thicket of Bananas & Coffee plants, & an endless number of wild flowers.— And this Island [St Jago] that has given me so much instruction & delight…

Charles Darwin in a letter to his father, 8 & 26 February and 1 March 1832.

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