Discoveries in ‘The Lost World’ « Z W »

2. Discoveries in the Novel's Perspective

2.2. Discovery and Appropriation

The specific conception of science unfolded here is entwined with a sense of material and mental appropriation. This manner of relating to the world is remarkably illustrated when Professor Summerlee is thus introduced:

Since landing from the boat he has obtained some consolation from the beauty and variety of the insect and bird life around him, for he is absolutely whole-hearted in his devotion to science. He spends his days flitting through the woods with his shot-gun and his butterfly-net, and his evenings in mounting the many specimens he has acquired. — LW 50

To discover the world then is not only to contemplate and analyse, but to extract (formerly living) parts of nature and to organise them according to a destined scheme.

This is continued in the role of maps and indices, which serve not only as a means of documentation and orientation (1), but symbolically dedicate individual portions of the plateau to the discoverers, ensuring their cultural “immortality” (LW 169) (2).

In both cases, the process of apprehension is central, but at the same time interlinked with appropriation and reshaping. This has special bearings on documentary representations: in documentation, a totality within the outside world has to be dissolved into such entities (‘parts’) as the respective system provides for. With a map, the perceived landscape is ‘taken in’ and divided into e.g. forests, chasms, waste-lands, etc. However, this issue is not reflected in the novel and emerges only from a critic’s distance.

Possessiveness also manifests itself very clearly in the explorers’ conduct towards the population of the plateau (3), which has not been named “Maple White Land” (LW 88, my italics) without a reason (4). The representation of non-white (ape-) men is predominated by the idea of distinct races with certain characteristics and a fixed social rank. Persons outside the explorers’ culture are generally treated as inferior or marginal (5). In accordance with the common stereotype, they are furnished with limited skill and means of expression (6).

The climax of this attitude is reflected in the hostilities between cave man and ape man (both being immigrants to the plateau). By backing up the cave men with technical weapons, the expedionists finally ensure their victory over their less ‘developed’ progenitors, apparently putting man in its proper place:

It was as Challenger had said, and the reign of man was assured forever in Maple White Land. The males were exterminated, Ape Town was destroyed, the females and young were driven away to live in bondage, and the long rivalry of untold centuries had reached its bloody end. — LW 145

This notion is shaped by a at once solid and narrow idea of civilisation, in this case including the hope that there is one definite way to improve the world. In this view, there are fixed standards to judge a way of life, corresponding closely to the cultural identity of the expedionist, which the entered land and its population has to be subjected to.

In modern times, this aspect of the novel has rightly ignited criticism as racist. When Malone dreams of reporting the news of human population back to the world (cf. LW 116), this might well have been received as tidings of new subjects to the crown.

Nevertheless, there are exceptions to this scheme: the apparently slow-witted but gentle Zambo, the expedition’s “one trusty link with the outside world” (LW 84), receives a more positive treatment. The truly human inhabitants are approved of in general (cf. LW 140f.).

Also Lord John Roxton’s – surely ambiguous – human rights campaign on Belgian territory (cf. LW 44) (7) and the ironical presentation of physiology (cf. LW 133f.) cast a different light on the matter. Malone’s reflections after the triumph of civilisation on the battlefield hint at negative elements of the enterprise:

It needed a robust faith in the end to justify such tragic means. As we advanced together through the woods we found the ape-men lying thick, transfixed with spears or arrows. Here and there a little group of shattered Indians marked where one of the anthropoids had turned to bay, and sold his life dearly. — LW 145

However, these instances cannot in general outweigh the novel’s effectively problematic stance on the issue.

The sense of subjection is also imposed on flora and fauna, as parts of nature, which, it seems, is not to be revered so much as tamed or ‘augmented’(8). When Malone finds rescue in a man-made dinosaur trap, superiority is evident in his thoughts, culminating in the assertion that: “Man was always the master.” (LW 119).

Civilisation, then, is the ultimate measurement, the ideal to be pursued, set against the Unknown. The reference is invariably the respective homeland culture. On this basis, the novel allows for a mixture of idealism, egocentricity and cupidity on behalf of the successful explorer (cf. LW 103ff.), neatly captured in the antagonism between “the flesh pots” and “the ink pots of civilisation” (LW 109) established by the professors.

When Malone bids good-bye to Maple White Land, it is not only the immaterial profits for him and mankind he takes back home, but also the promise of wealth
and, as if for a balance, a sorrow for the plateau, which he expects to be victimised by the “hunter and prospector” (LW 158).

With the appearance of “the last European pterodactyl” (LW 169) the expedition has found its logical end: the mystery has been disclosed, material gains are in reach, and the formerly ‘white space’ is now open to the selected bearers of knowledge.

Maps appear frequently (lw 89,102,110 et al.). Indices may form part of the expedition’s “archives”
(lw 126).
This ambition is repeatedly discussed in the novel (e.g. lw 21f, 58), but most pointedly in Malone’s (later revoked) dedication to his ‘girl friend’ (cf. lw 110, 169), gently mocking Victorian ideals of gender.
The novel allows for both the conflicting ideas of “peaceful penetration” (lw 89) and
“invadin[g] a new country” (lw 81).
White is a colour bearing various associations. It could as well allude to the splendour or purity of the unknown land. In any case, this does not undermine the racial way of thinking.
The non-white participants of the expedition are described as a separate group, generalisations are readily used
(strikingly in lw 52).
An English-speaking half-breed is exceptional (cf. lw 52), Zambo communicates himself only with efforts (cf. lw 84). The language of the natives appears strange and scarcely complex (cf. lw 124,136). The ape-men are generally rude (ibid.), while the Indians sustain a highly traditional culture (cf.140f.).
There are parallels to the author’s own political engagement, which likewise did not collide with British national pride (cf. D.Stashower, 2 2000, 319ff.)
When Challenger promises to show “how a great mind moulds all Nature to its use” (lw 142), it is implicitly agreed that it was entitled to do so.

Author's Logo · Author: Paul - Christoph Trüper, 2005  - 2008.
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