Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Linnaeus 1907: Oscar Levertin and the Re-Invention of Carl Linnaeus as Ecological Subject

Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Linnaeus 1907: Oscar Levertin and the Re-Invention of Carl Linnaeus as Ecological Subject

Article excerpt

De som annu vaga kalla [Linne] den torre systematikern hava icke funnit mastaren dar han skall sokas: i hans harliga resor, hans tal, brev och vissa avhandlingar. I resorna ser han liver hela naturen i dess tre riken, stenarnas, vaxternas och djurens; och han behandlade dem som levande varelser....

--Strindberg, En bla bok 335 (1)

THE BICENTENNIAL CELEBRATION of Carl Linnaeus's birth in May 1907 was an unprecedented event in Sweden. (2) The great eighteenth-century naturalist was celebrated with parades, processions, publications, speeches, and various forms of commemoration throughout Sweden but most particularly with a great Linnefest in Uppsala. In these celebrations, Linnaeus was quite naturally praised for his contributions to science, but even more significantly, they also began to draw attention to his exploration and documentation of the Swedish nation and praised him for his sensitive and observant literary representations of indigenous Swedish nature. The great irony of the commemoration was that the Carl Linnaeus celebrated in 1907--the man lauded for changing how Swedes saw nature and themselves--bore, in many respects, scarce resemblance to the one laid to rest 129 years before.

From the final years of his life until the renaissance of interest in his work at the turn of the twentieth century, Linnaeus's image underwent a significant transformation in his native Sweden, but this transformation says far more about changes in Swedish culture than about Linnaeus himself. The 1907 festivities coincided with a rapidly changing conception of the human relationship to nature in European culture generally and in Sweden in particular.

Linnaeus was without question a public figure of considerable notoriety and popularity both at home and abroad during his lifetime, but enthusiasm in Sweden for Linnaeus and his work dropped off sharply in his final years and especially over the course of the century after his death. The reasons for the initial decline in Linnaeus's general popularity after such a meteoric career are complex but arguably come down to a combination of changes in prevailing scientific paradigms, a shift in Sweden's own political climate, key failures in some of Linnaeus's own scientific work, and the rise of romanticism. While his international reputation focused mainly on his work with the systemization and naming of nature, in Sweden Linnaeus was also associated with attempts to use natural knowledge to bolster the nation's struggling economy. Lisbeth Koerner has insightfully argued that Linnaeus's own sense of nationalism combined with his cameral and mercantilist economic philosophy to influence significantly his scientific theories and experiments. (3) The failure of many of Linnaeus's projects motivated by conservative nationalist ideologies--such as cultivating pearls in Norrland, raising silkworms in Skane, growing tea plants in Uppsala, and planting rice in Finland--all contributed, along with fundamental changes within the development of science more broadly, to the decline of Linnaeus's popularity in many quarters toward the end of his life.

After his death, the memory of Linnaeus's economic, political, and scientific failures combined with a more general cultural backlash against the Enlightenment's faith in logic and order to tarnish further Linnaeus's reputation. The imposition of a systematic organization onto the natural world and the disembodied, objective transparency of vision suggested by seminal works like Systema Naturo (2st ed. 1735) were still important to scientific discourse but seemed out of step with popular audiences more interested in the romantic fixation on subjectivity, experience, and emotion. Only when events like the failure to force tropical crops to grow in Sweden had been forgotten, could Linnaeus be remembered not as the detached, enlightened, rationalist bending natural forces to his will but as an embodied observer willing to engage nature on its own terms. …

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