I love this portrait from 1736 of Albrecht von Haller (1708-1777), by the artist Johann Rudolf Huber (in the Burgerbibliothek in Berne). Haller's Die Alpen, a long poem of 50 rhyming stanzas, is one of the earliest poetic treatments of mountains. In it he contrasts the rural peace and innocent virtue of the inhabitants of the Alps with the vices and corruption of civilization. He clearly sounded Rousseauian themes avant la lettre. Haller was also an exceptionally important anatomist, physiologist, and naturalist. I read Die Alpen back in graduate school, never imagining I would ever think about it again.
Yet my present work on the sublime, in connection with Bodmer (another figure we read in grad school that I also never imagined I would consider anew), has led me to think about Haller and his poem of "mountain appreciation." The sublime, as I have written in an earlier post, was all about mountains. Well, not all about, but more than any other grand natural phenomenon -- the ocean, the starry skies above, erupting volcanoes -- mountains came to represent the sublime in nature.
I think that has something to do with the fact that people started interacting with mountains increasingly, beginning in the 17th century. The earliest 17th-century accounts of encounters with the Alps spoke of being both appalled and enthralled. John Dennis wrote in 1688, pondering the origins of the Alps, of his "delightful Horrour" and "terrible Joy." Marjory Hope Nicolson, who has written the most erudite account of the sublime in external nature, is the author of Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory.
Bodmer, in discussing the sublime (das Erhabene) as such -- in contrast to the sublime style, about which he more generally speaks of (das Hohe, or the high style) -- is loath to attribute it to nature. He does write of the often terrible and frightening effects of nature -- thunderstorms, landslides, volcanic eruptions -- but he does not consider these effects sublime. Even the dumbest person can be astonished (shocked, frightened, etc.) by these. And, when it comes to great works of nature and of art, well, God did not put us in the world in order to sit around and be astonished all the time. The experience of the sublime is of a different sort, the meeting of great minds with the ultimate truths of existence. Thus, in Bodmer little interest in the Alps, with which he was surrounded his entire life.