Mountains of the mind

Adam Thorpe in the Times Literary Supplement:

Thorpe---cover_358819hOn August 8, 1786, two men reached the highest point in Europe, which to them was the top of the world: both hailed from Chamonix, a clockless rusticity of roofs in the valley below. Michel-Gabriel Paccard was its up-to-date doctor; Jacques Balmat a peasant farmer and chamois hunter with a sideline in crystals. For decades the mountain in question, some three miles high, had been celebrated for its glaciers, not its snow-capped altitude; Chamonix had very few visitors before the 1770s. Only hunters ever dared to go high in these colossal mountains, the peaks sensibly given up to dragons and ghosts – the mind’s old poetry of health and safety.

William Windham, a young Englishman on his grand tour, had led a mock caravan to Savoy’s glaciers in 1741 and published a pamphlet with a fellow traveller, Pierre Martel, in which the name “Mont Blanc” appears as the supposed highest point. Thus the mountain was first “discovered” – one of the plethora of assumptions that Peter Hansen gleefully dismantles in this learned and complex analysis of “multiple modernities” as seen through the prism of mountaineering.

Two essential elements of modernity are the foundation myth and the assertion of the solitary will: both illustrated by Petrarch’s ascent of Mont Ventoux in 1336. Interrupting his admiration of the view by opening St Augustine’s Confessions at random, Petrarch fell on a stern admonition: “And men go to admire the high mountains . . . and pass themselves by”. He hurried back down in silence, convinced of the vaster landscape of contemplation. Five hundred years later, Jacob Burckhardt identified this moment in Provence as the arrival of the inward-looking “modern man”, the beginning of the modern age.

More here. [Thanks to Ahmad Saidullah.]