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No. 2027:
The Terrible Mountains

by Rob Zaretsky

Today, historian Rob Zaretsky tells us the hills were not always alive with the sound of singing.. The University of Houston presents this series, about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

James Boswell traveled to the Alps in 1765. He wrote to a friend in Scotland that "here in a beautiful wild valley surrounded by immense mountains ... I am supremely happy." Of course he was -- as most of us no doubt would be. Like Julie Andrews, we feel like running and singing in such landscapes.

But Boswell's ancestors ran from, not towards mountains. Up to the mid-eighteenth century, travelers cowered in the shadows of the Alps. The seventeenth century English theologian Thomas Burnet explained such reactions in his book, The Sacred Theory of the Earth. These "high and hideous" places, Burnet declared, were the "rubbish of the Earth ... wild, vast and indigested heaps of stone and earth." Residue of the Great Flood, these jagged peaks were humankind's badge of shame. This "mundane egg," in Burnet's phrase, fell with us, cracked and became the omelet of our sins and flaws.

Boswell's ancestors were terrified by mountainscapes. Yet while Boswell and his contemporaries were equally terrified, they were glad for it. It was terrific to be terrified. Why? Because terror was a sure sign of the sublime: the confrontation with an ob-ject or idea too great for the mind to digest fully. 

And so, mountains were no longer massive landfills made from the rotten fruit of insolence and hubris. Instead, they had been transformed into the most desirable sort of real estate -- the mountains were now skylines of transcendence. Here, in the theater of nature, virtue is vertigo. 

mountain panorama

The Romantics sold us this vision with poems and paintings as their travel brochures. They, in turn, had been trained by Rousseau, who, in his Confessions declared, "I need rushing streams, rocks, pine trees, dark woods, mountains, rugged tracks to scramble up and down, precipices on either side to fill me with fear." 

Rousseau's precipices still exist, but they are now littered with the refuse of countless expeditions. The great mountains are becoming the "rubbish of the earth", but from man's, not god's work! Hundreds of climbers, often inexperienced, pay expert guides vast sums of money to help them taste the sublime at the summit of Everest and her sister peaks. 

As these expeditions suggest, fear has a greater market than ever before. They also prod an elite of climbers to seek ever more difficult ways to ascend. They climb without oxygen, without sherpas, without companions; they scorn the easier lines of ascent; they occasionally die. The irony, as Jon Krakauer has suggested, is that once on top, the climber's fatigue is so great that terror and sublimity are afterthoughts. Or, perhaps, they are shifted to those of us who prefer the view from the valley. 

I'm Rob Zaretsky, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

J. Kakauer, Into Thin Air. (New York: Anchor, 1999)

S. B. Ortner, Life and Death on Mt. Everest. (Princeton: Princeton Univer-sity Press, 1999)

M. H. Nicolson, Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory. (Ithaca: Cornell Univer-sity Press, 1959)

Photos by John Lienhard

Robert Zaretsky is professor of French history in the University of Houston Honors College, and the Department of Modern and Classical Languages. (He is the author of Nîmes at War: Religion, Politics and Public Opinion in the Department of the Gard, 1938-1944. (Penn State 1995), Cock and Bull Stories: Folco de Baroncelli and the Invention of the Camargue. (Nebraska 2004), co-editor of France at War: Vichy and the Historians. (Berg 2001), translator of Tzevtan Todorov's Voices From the Gulag. (Penn State 2000) and Frail Happiness: An Essay on Rousseau. (Penn State 2001).

"rubbish of the Earth ... wild, vast and indigested heaps of stone and earth."