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Mountains of Sublimity, Mountains of Fatigue: Towards a History of Speechlessness in the Alps

  • Philipp Felsch (a1)

The discovery of the Alps in the second half of the eighteenth century spawned an aesthetics of sublimity that enabled overwhelmed beholders of mountains to overcome their confusion symbolically by transforming initial speechlessness into pictures and words. When travelers ceased to be content with beholding mountains, however, and began climbing them, the sublime shudder turned into something else. In the snowy heights, all attempts to master symbolically the challenging landscape was thwarted by vertigo, somnolence, and fatigue. After 1850, physiologists intervened, using the Alpine terrain as a laboratory landscape that was ideally suited to examine one of the most threatening concerns of fin de siècle industrial societies: fatigue. This essay examines how the picturesque voyage turned into an experimental physiology of fatigue, and how the “wordless subjectivity” of romantic travelers turned into the “wordless objectivity” of life scientists.

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Paul Bert . 1878. La pression barométrique. Recherches de physiologie expérimentale. Paris: Masson.

Marie-Noelle Bourguet , eds. 2002. Instruments, Travel and Science: Itineraries of Precision from the Seventeenth to the Twentieth Century. London: Routledge.

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Richard Gillespie . 1987. “Industrial Fatigue and the Discipline of Physiology.” In Physiology in the American Context, 1850–1940, edited by Gerald L. Geison , 237262. Bethesda, MD: American Physiological Society.

Malcolm Nicolson . 1987. “Alexander von Humboldt, Humboldtian Science and the Origins of the Study of Vegetation.” History of Science 25:167194.

David Robbins . 1987. “Sport, Hegemony and the Middle Class: The Victorian Mountaineers.” Theory, Culture & Society 4:579601.

Jennifer Tucker . 1996. “Voyages of Discovery on Oceans of Air: Scientific Observation and the Image of Science in an Age of Balloonacy’.” Osiris 11:144176.

John B. West 1998. High Life: A History of High-Altitude Physiology and Medicine. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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Science in Context
  • ISSN: 0269-8897
  • EISSN: 1474-0664
  • URL: /core/journals/science-in-context
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