Wednesday, July 8, 2009

How Goethe Dealt with Heights

Among the first sights Goethe describes on his arrival in Strassburg in April 1770 is the cathedral. Indeed, it was, he claims in Poetry in Truth (pt. 2, book 9), his "dearest desire" to see it, a "colossus," almost too large to register in the small square in which it stood, but which nevertheless made a "unique" impression on him. The cathedral also offers him a novel way of overcoming his paralyzing fear of heights:

All alone, I climbed up to the highest part of the cathedral tower and sat in its so-called neck, under the crown, as it is named, for a good quarter of an hour until I dared to go back out in the open air and stand on a platform that is hardly a yard square and has hardly any handhold. From there one sees the infinite landscape before one's eyes, while the ornaments and other things round about hide the church and everything upon and above which one is standing.

It is exactly as if one were aloft in a Montgolfier balloon [pictured above in the 1784 painting by Antonio Carnicero]. I exposed myself to similar fears and torments often enough so that I became quite indifferent to the impression they made, and since then these preliminary exercises have been a great advantage to me on mountain trips and in geological studies, on large construction sites where I completed with the carpenters in running over ledges and exposed beams, even in Rome, where one must engage in just such exploits to get a closer look at some significant art works.

I thought of this passage when reading last week about the new glass viewing platform on the Willis Tower (formerly Sears Towers) in Chicago. According to the news report, the platform is suspended 1,353 feet in the air and just four feet from the Tower's 103d floor Skydeck. The transparent walls, floor, and ceiling give viewers the impression of "floating over the city." The "Ledge," as it is called, is open to the public, "for those brave enough to look straight down," to a "heart-stopping vista of the street and Chicago River below."

Well, count me out. According to the news stories, my reaction is typical of adults. Thus, I like the spectral image at the top of the post. Children, however, are said to take right to this spectacular height.

Credits: Robert R. Heitner (Poetry and Truth); Museo del Prado; Artefaqs Corporation (Willis Tower)

1 comment:

Paul said...

I wonder if one can still climb up into the Cathedral tower as Goethe did. I suppose it has been sealed off for safety's sake.