Climbing to tell the story

Today, Biblonia travelled to the Bernese Alps in Schilthorn, Switzerland for a little bit of skiing and taking in the views. The mountains have their own stories to tell, which they sometimes lend to intrepid travellers. The three peaks, from right to left: Jungfrau, Mönch, Eiger.

Climbing comes easy to those used to climbing.

To climb is one thing, to tell the story is quite another. In history, many people climbed mountains, but the evidence of those who climbed for pleasure is scarce.

For a long time, Petrarch was seen as one of the few who climbed for pleasure, and the first one to have done it since antiquity. Though scholars have pointed out that many before him may have done just as well, Petrarch’s account of his climb of Mount Ventoux in Provence in 1336 remains compelling and history-making. No other report comes close to his, either before or until the onset of the Renaissance.

Petrarch had a medieval mind (on the cusp of modernity, nonetheless), subjecting subjective experience to moral and theological processing, which often resolved itself in allegory and symbol. The climb of Mont Ventoux may have been an allegory of his life, beset by regret and repentance, or an actual experience.

To tell the story of a personal experience does not come easy. It is not an irrrepresible personal reflex, even though our age has raised life-story-sharing to unprecedented heights. To tell the story of a personal experience is a kind of narrative that comes very late on the stage – and at great cost to literary and cultural history.

Petrarch’s narrative deserves several more lines. He picks up the story from the summit of Mount Ventoux:

I rejoiced in my progress, mourned my weaknesses, and commiserated the universal instability of human conduct. I had well-nigh forgotten where I was and our object in coming; but at last I dismissed my anxieties, which were better suited to other surroundings, and resolved to look about me and see what we had come to see. The sinking sun and the lengthening shadows of the mountain were already warning us that the time was near at hand when we must go. As if suddenly wakened from sleep, I turned about and gazed toward the west. I was unable to discern the summits of the Pyrenees, which form the barrier between France and Spain; not because of any intervening obstacle that I know of but owing simply to the insufficiency of our mortal vision. But I could see with the utmost clearness, off to the right, the mountains of the region about Lyons, and to the left the bay of Marseilles and the waters that lash the shores of Aigues Mortes, altho’ all these places were so distant that it would require a journey of several days to reach them. Under our very eyes flowed the Rhone. (Letters to friends, IV, 1, translated by James Harvey Robinson)

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