Posted by: Rob Viens | May 9, 2012

A Mélange of Emotions

Mélange comes from the French word for “mixture”, and in the world of geology has come to stand for a non-uniform mixture of oceanic rocks scraped off a subducting plate and plastered onto the continent. I found Darwin’s thoughts very mélange-like today – sort of all plastered together.

Mélange (from

Franciscan melange

On May 9th, Darwin starts out with a fairly typical entry, writing:

“Went out collecting & took the direction of the Botanic Garden; I soon came to one of the salt water lakes or bays by which the surrounding country is often penetrated… “

This part seems normal enough and Darwin frequently mentions the coastal lagoons in the Rio area (see Coastal Lagoons and Steamed Mussels). However, he quickly takes an interesting philosophical turn and, for Darwin, sort of rambles (though in a strangely poetic way):

“…Many of the views were exceedingly beautiful; yet in tropical scenery, the entire newness, & therefore absence of all associations, which in my own case (& I believe in others) are unconsciously much more frequent than I ever thought, requires the mind to be wrought to a high pitch, & then assuredly no delight can be greater; otherwise your reason tells you it is beautiful but the feelings do not correspond. — I often ask myself why can I not calmly enjoy this; I might answer myself by also asking, what is there that can bring the delightful ideas of rural quiet & retirement, what that can call back the recollection of childhood & times past, where all that was unpleasant is forgotten; untill ideas, in their effects similar to them, are raised, in vain may we look amidst the glories of this almost new world for quiet contemplation.” (May 9)

I’ve stewed on this paragraph quite a bit and am not sure exactly what to make of it – though I find myself strangely intrigued by what he is saying. It seems to be a description of information overload – the feeling you get when everything around you is new and different.  The mind, which seems to have the ability to block out the mundane so that only the “new” or “unusual” stands out is overloaded by the fact that everything is new.

I’d welcome any thoughts others might have about the meaning of this passage.

Darwin then shifts gears – tomorrow is the day the Beagle is scheduled to leave for its trip up the coast to Bahai and he writes:

“The Captain called in the evening & says the Beagle sails tomorrow. — We also today heard the bad news that three of the party, who went up in the Cutter to Macucù for snipe shooting, are taken seriously ill with Fevers. — There is reason to fear that others were to day beginning to feel the bad effects of their excursion. — The first case occurred 4 days after the arrival of the party on board on the 2nd. — I very nearly succeeded in joining it; my good star presided over me when I failed.” (May 9)

Snipe (from Wikipedia Commons)

Snipe from Utah

Fever in the tropics – that is never good. As noted before (see Sick and Tired in Brazil), Darwin is very aware of the perils of tropical illness in the 1830’s.  It makes the last statement of this paragraph particularly powerful – this is not the first (nor the last) time Darwin’s “good star” has watched over him.

As this alludes to, the outcome does not look hopeful for the feverish crewmates, and for those that have been reading for a while – young Mr. Musters was among those with fever.  But since these men sailed on the Beagle the next day, Darwin did not know their fate until the ship returned.  So I’ll have to leave you wondering and come back to this story (as Darwin did) in a couple of weeks.

Lastly, Darwin (with a little humor) reminds us that he and three others are remaining at the house of Botafoga Bay:

 “Four of us belonging to the Beagle are now living here. — Earl, who is unwell & suffers agonies from the Rheumatism. — The serjeant of Marines, who is recovering from a long illness, & Miss Fuegia Basket, who daily increases in every direction except height.” (May 9)

Part of the definition of a mélange is that it is made up of very different, yet still coherent, parts (like cookie dough with chunks of chocolate, nuts, raisins, etc.).  Having written this blog today, I think what strikes me most about the mélange of thoughts is the wide range of emotions expressed in the short entry – from an almost bipolar description of nature, to a fear for his crew mates lives and the relief of not having been exposed to disease himself, to the tongue-in-cheek way he describes Fuegia Basket. I can relate – some nights (like today) I feel like that is what my writing sounds like 🙂 (RJV)


  1. Musings on Darwin’s melange. What strikes me most is his description of coming to understand how prevalent unconscious and critical our learned concepts of beauty and emotion are; he has come to learn which specific landscapes are meant to evoke quietude and contemplation, but those old world landscapes are so distant, both in physical space and in their ability to provide a reference point for what he now sees that he is left alone, with no established cultural web around him, to help him interpret all the perceptions and sensations of this new world.

    It reminds me of a passage in Annie Dillard’s “Pilgram at Tinker Creek” in which she comments on her child’s mind coming to awareness of itself. Here is Darwin, as an adult, having an experience that happens most often in childhood, the seeing of an entire world as new. He can comment on his confusion, as an adult with adult language – but he is missing the framework of culturally similar adults who can point to the forest and say “look at the (fill in the blank with bird, tree, sunset, meadow), isn’t it beautiful, and guide him in sorting the overload.

    Look, another rambling passage!

    • This is excellent Leslie – I was hoping that you would pipe in, as I know that this is your field (the mind is way out of my league :)). I really like this interpretation, and it makes me like Darwin’s comments even more.

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