Kaleidoscopic Cook: shifting legacies explored in Barry Lopez’ Horizon

The transcendence of an individual into the broader mythology of a culture has a tendency to spark conflict over the narrative of that person’s life, which may continue for generations, even centuries in the case of Captain James Cook. This paper presents the intersectionality of demographic interests, such as class, race, gender, and geographic provenance, as well as generational gaps, as creating such vastly differing interpretations of the same individual’s life and legacy that they may be viewed metaphorically as one constantly-shifting kaleidoscope. The white New Zealander, John Cawte Beaglehole, for instance, and the Sri Lankan, Gananath Obeyesekere, both notable Cook scholars, came from different backgrounds (geographical, racial, and educational), and would therefore almost automatically carry dissimilar prejudices into their respective works. Moreover, from a generational perspective, if Cook’s late-twentieth century legacy can be considered to have been affected by the normative reappraisal of Native perspectives in the colonial narrative, then the early-twenty-first century’s preoccupation with the subjectification of Nature[1] will inevitably involve Cook, whose voyages can be looked back upon as a harbinger of mass resource exploitation, of the objectification of Nature.

In a lengthy, autobiographical capstone to a prolific career as one of the preeminent nature writers in the English language, an aging and gravely sick Barry Lopez attempts to make sense of the world he has experienced in his many travels. He recounts the devastation wrought by European Civilization, against both landscapes the world over and the native peoples inhabiting them.[2] In the process, he lays out his long-held belief in the suppression of creativity at the hands of the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution.[3] And yet, as he is laying out the “doom and gloom” of developing moonscapes in the twenty-first century on Earth, he also offers hope, advocates for purpose in life in this moment when “…it has become an attractive option to lose faith in the meaning of our lives. At a time when many see little more on the horizon but the suggestion of a dark future.”[4]

Lopez has indeed made a career of searching for perspectives beyond those of industrial society, to what he has called a Native Eye.[5] In 2019’s Horizon, he has interestingly chosen James Cook as a pivotal, historical figure, one who drifts in and out of the narrative as global, social and political trends are put into perspective. Some of Lopez’ chapters deal directly with Cook’s journeys, how Cook has been discussed by academics, how the author, himself, reads Cook’s personality, and in other chapters there is either no mention of the captain, or merely the suggestion that traveling in the path of the man was what brought him to a certain geographic location, such as Cape Foulweather, Oregon, where Cook first landed in North America, or Botany Bay, in Australia. Out of respect for Cook, the great bringer of longitude, there are even exact latitudes and longitudes in the titles of the chapters, such as:

Cape Foulweather

Coast of Oregon

Eastern Shore of the North Pacific Ocean

Western North America

44º47’00” N 124º02’38” W[6]

This article, then, will take a broad look at Lopez’ twenty-first century vision of Cook, how it allows for the kaleidoscopic shifting discussed above, and how the nuance of this shifting, what he will describe more or less as walking between worlds, the straddling of the European and the Native minds, the straddling of classes, could lead to a uniquely twenty-first century perspective of the captain, at a moment when reconciliation and decolonization, mixed with the need for cooperation, grow more and more pertinent due to veritable existential threats to humanity.[7] [8]

1. Colonially Deranged? A Liminal Seer?

Lopez consciously avoids both hagiography and intense criticism in Horizon, instead viewing Cook with constant nuance.[9] This section will briefly explore this nuance, explaining how it was formed, and how it allows for a novel perspective, but also how it nonetheless remains a subjective view, not unlike the subjective views of Beaglehole and Obeyesekere he is attempting to avoid. In this case, the subject is manipulated into what can perhaps be called a “liminal seer” by an author long working within those constraints in his own writing.

In Lopez’ eyes, Cook was an extraordinarily humanist man, generally good to others, and likely fell to what is termed “colonial derangement” in his third voyage. Lopez even goes so far in this description of derangement as to compare the captain to Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz.[10] In being viewed in such a manner, Cook may consequently be lifted back up to a position that, though he may still be criticized, allows him to also remain worth lauding. Where others, such as Beaglehole, read the “literal” in Cook,[11] the individual aspects and actions of the captain’s life, Lopez reads nuance, suggesting that Cook, though becoming that bringer of longitude to the unfathomably large Pacific, which essentially means bringer of colonialism and destruction to many peoples and their respective cultures, also was just as wary of another line, the line between “the known” and “the unknown,” the line that, not incidentally, Lopez himself has sought to straddle throughout his career.

Cook, I think, did not entirely trust the assumptions behind the Enlightenment principles that urged him to measure, to record, and to define the world. He did not completely concede the authority that lay behind gradations of social rank, perhaps even naval rank. He spent his life charting raw space, putting down grids and elevations, but he also understood what could not be charted, the importance of the line that separated the known from the unknown. He understood what occurred in the silence between two musical notes. He also knew, I believe, the indispensability of this.[12]

Horizon is so full of opaque and scientifically untenable, but yet mentally-stimulating, quips of this nature that choosing any particular passage is almost impossible. As noted, though, this passage explores the nuance of Cook’s perspective beyond the grave and literal captain, offering a new perspective, a dynamic one based on the twenty-first-century author’s own writing persona in search of meaning beyond industrial society. In this way, Lopez does not escape from regarding Cook through his own interpretative lens in the broader kaleidoscope that has become the captain’s legacy any better than does Beaglehole or Obeyesekere (whose Cook becomes a chess piece in local Hawaiian politics, a warring strength to be recruited and pitted against foes rather than serving as an apotheosized demigod),[13] or anyone else, but his perspective nonetheless remains unique and worth exploring.

2. Cook and MacDonald

This section will explore a comparison, revisited throughout Horizon, between James Cook and a half-Shoshone mestizo named Ranald MacDonald. The fact that one was a minority of little renown and the other was a celebrated, anglo-saxon explorer strongly draws the reader’s attention. Such a comparison also serves a particular function of reopening discussion of Cook’s legacy, allowing for the subjective nuance discussed in the section above to take the humanist form of an actual man, with the conflicting emotions that all men feel, as he metaphorically walks between Western and Native worlds at a pivotal moment of contact. This technique consequently allows for an acceptance of Native, or minority, points of view, as non-Europeans are no longer objects to be dominated by a force of the Enlightenment. Once those views are accepted, approaches such as Lopez’ “Native Eye,” and solidarity between disparate communities, may be considered in the process of early twenty-first century concerns with the subjectification of Nature.

To begin discussion of the comparison, Ranald MacDonald grew up frustrated by a lack of opportunity in North America due to racism, so he boarded a whaling vessel in 1848 and headed toward Japan, where he talked his way into the Japanese royal court and warned against American intrusion and bad intentions.[14] The captain and the mestizo having almost nothing in common, Lopez creates a somewhat provocative juxtaposition based on what he sees as humanity during pivotal moments of history, where individuals actively pioneered changes to the future.

If such a comparison seems a bit flimsy, almost too far-sighted, it begins to make more immediate sense with the author’s view of MacDonald and Cook both as underdogs. If McDonald was continuously frustrated by his lack of opportunities due to his mestizo blood, in both Canada and the American West, Cook was born into a heavily class-based society in England where opportunities were limited. Both men had glimpses of the inaccessible life of the privileged: Cook saw his father’s dealings as a tenant farmer and likely only had modest hope for a shifting of his own place in the world,[15] and MacDonald saw his own Scottish father’s success that he, himself, simply could not access.[16] Lopez discusses the fact that Cook and McDonald ended up with vastly different fortunes: MacDonald died an “affected” raconteur of little reputation on the Colville Indian Reservation in Washington state (though his renown apparently remains important in Japan),[17] whereas Cook died a hero and became an improbable legend of the British Empire.

Yet, Lopez constantly returns to these decisive moments in history where a new path is actively forged, a new perspective created. Cook had the fortune to arrive at a moment when Europe was coming into contact with, and would soon come to dominate, essentially the entire, undeveloped world of the Pacific. Lopez discusses Cook’s misgivings with such a process, which appear to come across as speculation, giving in to thought exercises such as the following on multiple occasions, fairly randomly, throughout Horizon:

If they were to sit down together on the Pacific lanai I imagine them meeting on together––Cook the more reserved, MacDonald the more loquacious; Cook the nattier dresser, MacDonald the one more at ease with the waitstaff; both of them sons of Scots fathers––I believe Cook would have been amused by, but appreciative of, MacDonald’s harmless bravado, and that MacDonald might have understood Cook’s dilemma as a famous person. I infer from their biographies that both died without having anyone really to talk to; one a sailor with all the trappings of conventional success, eventually honored with life-size statues of himself in half a dozen Pacific ports; the other a sailor without a medal, no letter of gratitude or commendation from anyone to show to Mrs. Custer, and all but forgotten––except in Japan, where he remains widely known and celebrated.[18]

Not being an academic, and proclaiming frustration with labels, Lopez has always claimed creative independence, particularly attempting to reach beyond the myopia and cultural arrogance he has long found in many scientific communities, but also shying away from the restrictions of genre, such as “nature writing,”[19] where his work tends to be organized in bookstores. Similarly, he has said that some of his early books should not be taken as nonfiction accounts, despite the first-person narration suggesting otherwise.[20] These examples are being highlighted because Lopez cannot be held to the same standards that academics hold themselves. As a “creative writer,” he allows himself the freedom to practice a wide variety of thought experiments (becoming, for instance, an early proponent of a field of study now accepted as Traditional Ecological Knowledge, or TEK, in Arctic Dreams), and to make such leaps as to attempt to reach into the mind of a man who has been dead for multiple centuries, leaving little record of whom he actually was as an individual, his political thoughts, his thoughts on colonialism’s confrontation with indigenous peoples, what his mapping of the Pacific would do to these cultures, etc.

As so many scholars have so thoroughly explored Captain James Cook’s writings under various circumstances, they have indeed pieced together an interesting portrait, but one that nonetheless portrays a man with a locked heart. Jean-Stéphane Massiani, for instance, with his work, Les journaux de voyage de James Cook dans le Pacifique, has done well to avoid speculation on Cook’s personal life almost entirely, putting the texts themselves, in their multiple forms, at the forefront of analysis and only discussing verifiable, biographical facts in order to frame a broad discussion of the journals.[21] This is responsible analysis, and brings much to our understanding of Cook’s manipulated journals. As Lopez suggests in the passage above, Cook likely died without having anyone really to talk to, and Lopez even goes so far in another passage as to state, “Lionized at home, feared at sea, a stranger to his wife and children, he [Cook] had become over the course of the three voyages a person hardly known to anyone.”[22] The point here is that, even if academic speculation on the man is responsibly restricted, such a sphinx-like character naturally lends himself toward kaleidoscopic identities, as biographer Joseph Ellis has noted with regard to the American politician, Thomas Jefferson, whose reputation has been similarly manipulated by multiple parties.[23] The less, therefore, is known about the personality of a man of such importance, the more people may adopt him for their own personal narratives. So, Lopez’ mental explorations here, coming from decades of study of both European explorers and Native peoples (Arctic Dreams, 1986; Giving Birth to Thunder, Sleeping with His Daughter, 1990; Of Wolves and Men, 1978; etc.), as well as traveling to many of the places that Cook did, including Antarctica, become important for their offering of a novel and well-researched counter-narrative, even if it indeed lacks in academic restraint.

Lopez’ mental explorations continue with MacDonald, who would go to Japan roughly three quarters of a century after Cook essentially mapped the Pacific, but this is at another decisive moment when Asia was falling to Europe and the US. When US Commodore Matthew Perry walked into the Japanese court, according to Lopez, to begin the forced opening of Japan, the arrogance was immediately felt, and the students of MacDonald were the ones to welcome the military leader, with advised precaution.[24] Though, this is where the mental explorations again make rather strong leaps, as one must wonder to what extent Lopez is blowing MacDonald’s role out of proportion, seeing as Japan had long closed out the West, and already knew that it was dangerous. The Japanese court would have recognized that Perry’s demeanor was neither deferential nor respectful to their culture and would have acted accordingly. In this case, the potential hole in logic is likely due to a desire to briefly contrast Perry, as a symbol of Western domination over the past few centuries, directly with MacDonald’s role as a humanist. MacDonald’s deference and respect for Japanese culture earned him an invitation to the court, and even reverence,[25] while Perry forced his way inside, and displayed arrogance in doing so.

Perry is the extension of Cook’s explorations, from the perspective of colonialism, and yet Cook somehow fits into a comparison with MacDonald rather than with Perry in Lopez’ mind. This is an interesting shift in perspective rarely associated with the captain, as Cook is almost always viewed as a figure of British authority, whether that view carries a positive or a negative connotation. If this view is subverted by a comparison with a man whose life’s work was fighting against the tyranny of authority, then the dominating view of Cook may shift away from power and authority and toward humanism. For instance, the question constantly arises in Lopez’ work of what we have lost through such dominance brought by colonialism, in our minds and in our culture, and, in Horizon particularly, how Cook must have processed his firsthand view of both Europe and the newly discovered worlds. At one point, Lopez has this to say:

 With the indigene’s acute awareness of the depth and intricacy of the local, the myriad relationships that, attended to, create the sustaining wholeness of his  immediate world, and with a visionary’s awareness of a fabric comprised of all these local universes, more options for humanity become apparent.

 The idea that a person could be both indigenously rooted and internationally aware beggars belief, but the emergence of individual traditional elders at international forums on the future, and the world-wise lucidity of their testimony, implies the existence of more such people.[26]

Yet again, Lopez allows himself the freedom to explore one of his favorite themes, the Native Eye, exploring the limits, or the known and the unknown, discussed earlier, and the power of the people who walk the line between the two. On this same page, Lopez fits both Cook and MacDonald into this picture, saying that Cook “lacked MacDonald’s intuition about menace” but that Cook perhaps navigated his own life better, understanding that humanity would benefit from his advances in cartography. For Lopez, both men walk this line of the known and the unknown, pioneers at pivotal moments, each approaching both the European and the native mind, each with both a bit of perspicacity and ignorance. And yet, Lopez leaves the door open for optimism with discussion of those of the type whom Cook came across, the indigenous, but who have recently become educated by the West as well, perhaps lighting the way of the future for a globalized society to reconnect with a lost perspective while moving forward into an industrial or even post-industrial future. In This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein mentions that it is often Native peoples on the front lines of the fight against climate change and environmental degradation, and who have had the most success against malevolent corporations.[27] Likewise, it is often young Native people such as Alice Qannik Glenn who are becoming influential in shifting perspectives in narratives in important cultural institutions such as The Anchorage Museum, whose directors have allowed her to hold recorded, roundtable discussions and are actually listening to suggestions.[28] Jared Diamond is another figure who has been influential in subjects varying from the decline of indigenous societies due to “Guns, Germs, and Steel,”[29] to the “Collapse”[30] of societies due most commonly to resource exhaustion, to his most recent work, The World Until Yesterday,[31] an exercise in integrating Native knowledge and habits into the twenty-first-century developed world. All three of these examples correspond with Lopez’ vision of cultural reconciliation, based on a humanist perspective. 

This is why Lopez’ capstone to his career, Horizon, is a meditation constantly returning to Cook, who represents both pre- and post-Enlightenment worlds to the twenty-first-century writer. As for technique, it must concurrently be stated that Lopez is a descendant, whether cognizant or not, of Emerson, in that his thoughts meander almost as a stream of consciousness, moving from subject to subject and returning to previous subjects without connection or warning, but with a powerful result similar to that of Emerson’s essays.[32] There is no chapter on Cook, then, but constant discussions wherein Cook reenters the picture as a prominent figure. Cape Foulweather in Oregon reminds the author of Cook, model ships in museums remind the author of Cook, as well as certain weather patterns, Antarctica, Australia, etc.

3. Kaleidoscope, as Shifting Reality

It is not odd, then, that the term “kaleidoscopic” serves as more than one metaphor here because, on the penultimate page, Lopez reflects on a man he once saw, who was scrutinizing a world that was shifting in front of him like a kaleidoscope (think climate change and environmental destruction):

I think of him on the road to Puerto del Hambre, mad though he might have been, as no different than most of us, doing what we all do when the scaffolding of the certainties we carry with us, and by which we navigate, collapses, when indisputable truth suddenly reassembles itself in front of us, like the images in a kaleidoscope. We go on professing confidently what we know, armed with a secular faith in all that is reasonable, even though we sense that mystery is the real condition in which we live, not certainty.[33]

Perhaps, the gravity of employing such a term as “kaleidoscopic” shifting, which is indeed quite intense if we think about such a shift in our entire realities, is due to the fact that Lopez regards the current moment as at least equally as important to the world as Japan’s opening and Cook’s Pacific mapping. The world is described throughout the work as scarred, with deforestation, with mass shootings, with hedge fund pirating, etc., and so viewing the world through the lens of Cook, the man whom Lopez views as pivotal, as understanding both the indigenous and the Western worlds, remains a pertinent exercise. In Lopez’ 1986 work, Arctic Dreams, the author discusses the potential that medieval cathedrals were European man’s last great leap before science blanketed the spiritual view of the world, throwing it off balance, so that an entire viewpoint was lost.[34]  Epistemological perspective, ontological perspective, was therefore changed forever under this view. Lopez has always wanted to reconnect with this paradise lost, from his early works on Native Americans and wolves, to his explorations of the Arctic, and beyond, and his capstone, looking back at his travels in his forties and fifties, with Cook always fresh in his mind as a hero along the way, with Lopez meditating for hours in the rain on how Cook must have felt drifting in the stormy waters off the coast of Oregon,[35] and wherever else that the two men both set foot, always sees Cook as a symbol. And yet, though Cook remains a symbol for so many other people as well, whether of colonial oppression or as a bringer of light to the British Empire under the Enlightenment, Lopez’ perspective, of a man walking the line between the known and the unknown in the vast Pacific, though perhaps a bit presumptuous at times in the sense that Cook is made to fit Lopez’ ideals, is ultimately unique. It is also important in the sense that, though Lopez is a septuagenarian, many of his views are powerfully of the twenty-first century, and his ideas may indeed resonate throughout the twenty-first century, as they directly approach the shift likely required for success in the current moment. Unlike the writings of most prominent thinkers, who constantly argue partisan politics, technology, technocracy, class warfare, etc., to solve global problems, Lopez broadly views epistemological reconciliation as the answer. Moreover, Lopez’ humanist view of Cook could potentially become more widespread as a search for new ways of being inevitably moves forward in the twenty-first century, as interconnectedness allows for new ideas to bubble forth from the unlikeliest places, such as indigenous communities; perhaps even the Pacific communities with whom Cook shared bowls of Kava.

Following the passage discussing the man straining in the face of a kaleidoscopic shift in his reality, Cook, MacDonald, and Charles Darwin are all drawn in comparison, as men actively creating their own kaleidoscopic shifts. The author notes that the pioneering of these men is well-known, and that that of some others is not known, but that surely an alarm is sounding in the air at this moment. He ends his last work by questioning the reader, whether they will wait for travelers to return to give them answers to the solutions they seek during the sounding of this alarm, or whether they should turn their heads to better hear the Cantus arriving from beyond, to listen, to act, as did those men.[36]

To read Lopez as naive could be tempting, but it would likely be a mistake. Lopez understands as well as anyone that Cook could be a harsh and cold man, who committed atrocities.[37] He also examines the nuance of the intense situations Cook found himself in, and the aplomb with which he mostly maneuvered until the end. It is no matter of chance that Lopez, sick and likely dying, decided to end his career with meditations on Cook, a man who quite literally changed the world in so many ways, straddling the old and new forms of Western consciousness. His suggestion to turn our heads and listen could, and perhaps should, be read as an imploring to reconcile the technological, industrial, and post-industrial world which we inhabit with the epistemological experiences of the peoples whom Cook came across in his travels. Either way, Lopez has no doubt added a prescient image of Captain James Cook to the ever-shifting kaleidoscope that makes up the man’s legacy.

Notes de pied de page

  1. ^ Lawrence Buell, The Future of Environmental Criticism: Environmental Crisis and Literary Imagination, Oxford, Blackwell Publishing, 2005.
  2. ^ Barry Lopez, Horizon, London, The Bodley Head, 2019, p. 56-58, 65-66.
  3. ^ ibid., p. 64, 67-68.
  4. ^ ibid, p. 26.
  5. ^ Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape (1986), New York, Vintage Books, 2001, p. 96-97.
  6. ^ B. Lopez, op. cit., Horizon, p.49.
  7. ^ Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, New York, Henry Holt, 2014.
  8. ^ Alice Qannik Glenn, "Coffee and Quaq," "Episode 6: Decolonization," "https://www.coffeeandquaq.com/podcast," viewed on 16/2/2020.
  9. ^ B. Lopez, op. cit., p. 56-64.
  10. ^ ibid, 57.
  11. ^ J. C. Beaglehole, The Life of Captain James Cook (1974), Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2001, p. 271-272.
  12. ^ B. Lopez, op. cit., Horizon, 64.
  13. ^ Gananath Obeyesekere, The Apotheosis of Captain Cook: European Mythmaking in the Pacific, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1992, p. 74-91, 101
  14. ^ B. Lopez, op. cit., 100-101.
  15. ^ ibid., p. 96.
  16. ^ ibid., p. 98.
  17. ^ ibid., p. 99.
  18. ^ ibid.
  19. ^ William E. Tydeman, Conversations with Barry Lopez, Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 2013.
  20. ^ Mike Newell, No Bottom: In Conversation with Barry Lopez, Ohio, XOXOX Press, 2008, p. 20.
  21. ^ Jean-Stéphane Massiani, Les journaux de voyage de James Cook dans le Pacifique : Du parcours au discours, Aix-en-Provence, Presses Universitaires de Provence, 2015.
  22. ^ B. Lopez, op. cit., Horizon, p. 63.
  23. ^ Joseph J. Ellis, The American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, New York, Random House, 1996, p. 8-9.
  24. ^ B. Lopez, op. cit., Horizon, p. 101.
  25. ^ ibid., p. 64.
  26. ^ ibid., p. 106.
  27. ^ Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything, New York, Simon & Schuster, 2014, p. 367-418, 464-66.
  28. ^ Alice Qannik Glenn, , "Coffee and Quaq," "Episode 9: Museums and Media," https://www.coffeeandquaq.com/podcast, last accessed on  February 16, 2020.
  29. ^ Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, New York, W. W. Norton, 1997.
  30. ^ Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, New York, Penguin, 2005.
  31. ^ Jared Diamond, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Socieities? New York, Viking, 2012.
  32. ^ Lawrence Buell, Literary Transcendentalism: Style and Vision in the American Renaissance (1973), Second Printing, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1974, p. 157.
  33. ^ ibid., p. 511.
  34. ^ B. Lopez, Arctic Dreams, op. cit., p. 248-250.
  35. ^ B. Lopez, op. cit., Horizon, p. 26-28.
  36. ^ ibid., p. 512.
  37. ^ ibid., p. 57-58.  

Référence électronique

Ben FERGUSON, « Kaleidoscopic Cook: shifting legacies explored in Barry Lopez’ Horizon », Astrolabe - ISSN 2102-538X [En ligne], Captain Cook after 250 years: Re-exploring The Voyages of James Cook (Avril 2020), mis en ligne le 25/04/2020, URL : https://crlv.org/articles/kaleidoscopic-cook-shifting-legacies-explored-in-barry-lopez-horizon