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Laia Meier on Residence in Chile
6 December, 2022
On the perception of beauty in Maria Graham’s Residence in Chile
It is such accidents as these which the poetical Greeks delighted to adorn with the rich fabulous imagery which spreads a charm over all they deigned to sing of.
In Residence in Chile (1824) Graham reflects on beauty and the importance of its transmission for it to be perceived (and immortalized). By making connections to Greek mythology she asserts her own expertise and knowledge and furthermore adds to the canon what in her opinion is missing.
Maria Graham stands in the landscape of Pudaguel and compares it to the fountain of Arethusa in Syracuse: “How much more beautiful is the scenery round the banks of Pudaguel, than the dirty washing-place that marks the fountain of Arethusa in Syracuse!” Graham then notes that the difference in the perception of both places lies in the stories that we know of a place not necessarily of the place itself: Graham takes us back to the moment she visited the fountain of Arethusa for the first time, a place so dear to her imagination due to the stories told to her when she was a child that although at first she was disappointed of the scenery soon her
[…] imagination, longing from youth to see where ” Divine Alceus did by secret sluice steal under-ground to meet his Arethuse,” soon encrusted the rock with marble, and restored the palaces, and the statues, and the luxury of that fountain which once deserved the praise or the reproach of being the most luxurious spot of a luxurious city.
And in contrast:
Here Pudaguel sinks in lonely beauty unsung, and therefore unhonoured.
What Graham says is that mythologies around a place make them rise from only their material reality and imagination fueled by stories have the power to “encrust the rock with marble”, to bring ruins back in time – to make the beauty of a place eternal.
I’d like take this concept further: only what is talked about and shared, has value. Only what is sung of, is remembered and rendered immortal. Only then does it become part of a collective memory that shapes in return our society. Our references our imaginaries, how we see something and not something else. So, what Graham does in her travel journal can be seen as transformative and feminist: by announcing what stories are missing in the collective memory, she is part of, and by writing about them here, she is adding to the canon.
However, we must be aware of her own bias and imperial eyes: she is ignorant of local mythologies that might exist and only acknowledges European mythologies. Nevertheless, she is writing stories about places and therefore making them heard and remembered. She is adding her own references instead of just looking at the world through the eyes of the Writers before her and with that using her voice and her mental image to be transmitted.
The view from the pass of Pudaguel is most beautiful. Looking across the river, whose steep banks are adorned with large trees, the plain of Santiago stretches to the mountains, at whose foot the city with its spires of dazzling whiteness extends, and distinguishes this from the other fine views in Chile, in which the want of human habitation throws a melancholy over the face of nature.