The High and the Sublime

No, not what some people appear to see when they are on recreational pharmaceuticals. I’m thinking about a concept that was proposed in English by the art critic, politician, and historian Edmund Burke in the mid 1700s and how it influenced the development of “mountains as tourist attractions” later that century.

As mentioned earlier this week, most people did not seek out places like the Alps or Carpathian Mountains in order to “enjoy” them. Mountains were places to encounter the divine, or to get away from other people for spiritual reasons. They were obsticals, rugged and unfriendly terrain that held lots of dangers, both natural and man-made. Those people who lived in the mountains tended to be insular, clannish, poor, aggressive, and to speak strange dialects. Or they were miners, who were often considered a little uncanny by other people, and who tended to be very independent. Hills were good, but the high mountains did not attract people coming on vacation. Having seen the Alps from the north, in southern Bavaria, they look like fangs, snow-covered even in mid-June, jutting up to block access to anywhere, dangerous. “Eiger” means ogre, and an “Alptraum” or an Alp dream is a nightmare.

Enter the Industrial Revolution, the Romantic Movement, and Burke. In 1757, Edmund Burke (Yes, that Burke) wrote A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful. The sublime was something so overwhelming and close to the infinite (or the Infinite) that terror and awe threatened to overpower the human mind and senses. The Romantic Movement, focused as it was on emotion and the power of feelings, as well as on Nature, grabbed the concept. It influenced poetry, the paintings of people like C. D. Friedrich (German) and W. Turner (English). Storms at sea and storms in the mountains became common ways to show the sublime. The eruptions of Mt. Vesuvius in the late 1700s also influenced the idea. Followers of the Romantic movement began going to  places such as the Alps in search of the sublime for themselves. This coincided with the rise of leisure as something people outside the upper classes and nobility had, and later of trains, which made travel faster and much less expensive.

In the US, artists like Thomas Moran, Thomas Cole, and Albert Bierstadt painted scenes of the sublime: the Rocky Mountains, parts of the Appalachians, storms over the Grand Canyon . . . Places awe-inspiring and terrifying. Anyone who’s been caught in a storm in the mountains, or on the High Plains for that matter, knows that feeling of overwhelming awe at the magnitude and beauty in the danger. The sublime includes an element of danger. A lovely meadow is not sublime. A storm lashing the Eiger with snow and ice is sublime. (Listening to thunder echo off of rain-blackened mountains in the eastern Alps in Austria as you try to become one with the moss on the rocks is another example, especially when rocks clink and clatter down the scree-field on the other side of the narrow little valley that feeds into the larger river around the bend in the mountain slope.)

First came the Romantics, then people suffering from TB. Mystics and people on religious pilgrimage had always gone up into the mountains, but now it became a secular, or even neo-animist pastime. People went to the mountains to go to the mountains, to experience the sublime, to “dry out their lungs,” to go somewhere different. And they complained about the lack of accommodations, so along came lodges and inns, then eventually resorts. And sanitoria, places for people with lung disease to rest and breathe the clean and drier air.

Today we take “going to the mountains” a bit for granted. It used to be a big thing when I was growing up, for people to take long weekends and go to New Mexico. We didn’t go to the desert, unless it was to visit Carlsbad Caverns. We went to Angel Fire, or Santa Fe, or Taos, or Eagle’s Nest, or Red River. Up in the mountains, to ski, hike, fish, or just hang out in lumpy terrain. The mountains had been tamed. Still, if you get caught on a ridge when the afternoon storms billow and begin to mutter . . .


20 thoughts on “The High and the Sublime

  1. *Looks over at pack, complete with light poncho* Yes, been caught up like that. Always go out prepared, making it easier to enjoy majesty instead of endure misery.

    I’ve also been caught on the flats with building thunderstorms, working around 40′ towers, where the supervisor thought we had 5-110 minutes more (hah). When the hair on your neck stands, followed by a visceral hiss-crackle, it’s time to go flat. Awesome power is on display.

    This also makes me chuckle at people who innocently or ignorantly pout about HOW CROWDED and not-special their special spot or view became. Find another place or stop talking about it, to avoid a million or more interlopers.

    • Always go out prepared, making it easier to enjoy majesty instead of endure misery.

      The Samwise approach to life. ^.^

  2. One Fourth of July I took a mini vacation through Grand Teton and Yellowstone Parks. At the fireworks in Jackson WY, I met a couple from New Orleans. They were totally freaked out by the “Mountian” roads they had been on so far, and wondered what the roads were like in Yellowstone. I put on my “Native Guide” hat. Although tempted (in the best tradition of my pioneer ancestors) to shade the truth a bit and say no, there were no mountain roads in the park. However, fearing karma, I told the truth and suggested that they would enjoy the trip more if they took the tour bus.

    • Good deed there. Coming from the lowest part of the Delta, wow. Bus tour would let them enjoy more.

    • Bah. If it isn’t a single lane gravel road, with a rock wall one side, and a sheer drop on the other, it’s not a mountain road.
      They are sublime.
      Especially if you powerslide the switchbacks.

      • Oregon 140 east of Lakeview has a two-laned paved version of that, between that basin and the plateau further east. The twisties are tight enough that 25 MPH was quite sufficient going downhill, thank you. 🙂

        I’ve taken the round trip twice, and the Subaru Forester was a lot more pleasant than the Chevy Silverado…

        When I lived in California, I’d take Old Priest’s Grade on Cal 120(?) to get to Yosemite. Fun except for the time I got behind a fully loaded Diesel Rabbit. Snore.

      • You Norteamericanos know nothing. The Yungas Road (El Camino de la Muerte) through the Andes in Bolivia is a truly sublime mountain road. 69 km single lane dirt, with no guard rails. Zero visibility if the clouds roll in, (which they do, often) and zero traction in the rainy season.

    • Bah. If it isn’t a single lane gravel road, with a rock wall one side, and a sheer drop on the other, it’s not a mountain road.

      Agreed, but these flatlanders had driven up the Snake River Canyon and were scared “spit-less” about the prospect of more “mountain road” driving.

  3. It’s very annoying to go into the mountains to avoid Humans and then they follow you there not to hunt you but because mountains are “sublime”.


    Harry Ogre


  4. The ease of getting ‘to’ the mountains has taken a lot of the joy out of it. And yes, Mother Nature in all her glory is amazing and scary to see. Ask any cowboy that has worked the range.

    • I vouch for that statement.
      (Watching a cloudburst rolling in, with the sure knowledge that you on your horse are the tallest thing for miles… It’s certainly memorable. Even before the light goes dim, the cold rain starts stinging, and you realize that instant death possesses some redeeming qualities.)

  5. Wasn’t it Doc Holliday whose Doctor told him to move to Arizona to help him with his TB?

    • Yes. Arizona and parts of Colorado (Colorado Springs) were popular places for “lungers” to go. Arizona especially, because of the lower elevation, until people from Back East began planting all the trees and shrubs from home. *Sigh* Move west to get away from allergens, then plant lots of them.

  6. I wonder how much of the esthetic movements happened because society became prosperous and secure enough that people could appreciate nature instead of fearing it?

    • That, and it was a way of rebelling against the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment, in a tasteful and genteel way. First you had to develop the idea that Nature was something to be appreciated in the original, rather than overcome and made useful. (Something Marx never did. For him Nature was a resource, not an object of admiration and even veneration.)

      • And now we have idiots (deserving a five-paragraph Entish name) who are hell-bent on undoing all of Man’s work and returning the garden to the wild.

        GKC wrote of mankind as a drunk who, having fallen off a horse on the left, now leans so far the other way that he falls off on the right. My experience is that the drunk either blames the horse or thinks he forgot and leaned the same way both times.

  7. I think it was to get high on hypoxia. Sure, it’s a silly comment, but you DON’T want me to get sillier. You wouldn’t like that…

  8. Entering Sequoia National Park from the south entrance. The road twists and switchbacks up the side of the watershed under Moro Rock (granite and basalt plug). I remember zipping up it in the summers in our Celica. Later on we would drive our pickup to take the kids up to play in the snow. On the way home, I would usually ride 2nd gear down the road to save the brakes.
    One year we were backpacking in the back side of Sequoia National Park and were making our way up to Black Rock Pass when a pair of jets came sliding over the pass and down into the Kern River gorge. Close enough to see the pilot’s helmets. Totally awesome.

  9. Not quite -that- insane, but two helmet-cam views of the Pike’s Peak hill climb, both record setters. You can see the digital speedometer in the middle of the instrument cluster. The driver is a veteran of the course.

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