When Dorothea’s father suggests that if Ladislaw ‘has a thirst for travelling; perhaps he may turn out a Bruce or a Mungo Park’, Casaubon responds devastatingly and ungenerously with:
No, he has no bent towards exploration, or the enlargement of our geognosis: that would be a special purpose which I could recognize with some approbation, though without felicitating him on a career which so often ends in premature and violent death. But so far is he from having any desire for a more accurate knowledge of the earth’s surface, that he said he should prefer not to know the sources of the Nile, and that there should be some unknown regions preserved as hunting-grounds for the poetic imagination.
Eliot’s text might be said to enrich the possibility of ‘romance’ – including the poetic – even as it critiques it. In the context of a novel testing out social usefulness, to be associated with a desire not to know is potentially worrying and the phrase ‘hunting grounds’ carries an unsettling affiliation with the worst leisure pursuits of the English landed gentry. Despite these negative connotations, however, the phrase ‘unknown regions’ has always maintained a powerful resonance for me along with the appealing idea of preservation.
The articulation of a space cleared of ownership, territorial aggrandisement, and the all-consuming desire for mastery of knowledge, now seems particularly attractive. It is prescient of what we have come to think of in nature conservation as the importance of ‘reserves’ – those hugely important fragments of environments which must now always ...
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