Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Ruskin in the Alps

Quoted below, part of a letter-to-the-editor published during the summer in the Times Literary Supplement. It was sent by Sara Atwood of Chandler, Arizona.

Sir, - In his review of Peter H. Hansen's The Summits of Modern Man (July 26), Adam Thorpe writes, apropos of the accident that killed four members of Whymper's climbing party during their descent of the Matterhorn on July 14, 1865, that Edward "Whymper made the disaster the 'manly' (Ruskin's approving term) climax of his Scrambles Amongst the Alps of 1871 . . .". This reference to Ruskin's view of Alpine ascents is somewhat misleading. In the essay "Of Kings' Treasuries", published in Sesame and Lilies in 1865, Ruskin had accused the English public of despising nature, citing the growing disregard for "the deep and sacred sensations of natural scenery", and using competitive mountaineering as an example. "The Alps themselves", he declared, "which your own poets used to love so reverently, you look upon  as soaped poles in a bear-garden, which you set yourselves to climb and slide down again with 'shrieks of delight'."  In a Preface to the second edition of the book, published in the same year (and shortly after Whymper's disastrous descent), Ruskin does indeed write that danger such as that experienced by the Alpine tourist "and the acquirement of habits of quick and calm action in its presence, are necessary elements, at some period in life, in the formation of manly character". Yet he goes on to say that despite the recent tragedy, he feels no need to cancel his original remarks and devotes the remainder of the Preface to regretting the love of fame and excitement that drives the gentlemen of the Alpine Club. "For indeed all true lovers of natural beauty hold it in reverence so deep, that they would as soon think of climbing the pillars of the choir of Beauvais for a gymnastic exercise, as of making a playground of Alpine snow. . . . Love of excitement is so far from being love of beauty, that it ends always in a joy in its exact reverse: joy in destruction . . ."

Less than a century after Ruskin wrote, his vision of a destroyed Matterhorn providing mass entertainment  became reality in California.