Friday, June 12, 2020

"Gladys" (3)

Continued: a tale by Charles Gos from the belle époque of alpinism

In the crowded drawing room, Mr. W. E. R. F. introduced me to Oliver, Earl of Fairness, and his wife. Making short work of the usual banalities, we soon found that we had common interests and that we would get on very well together. I slyly congratulated the Countess on her history lesson about the Matterhorn yesterday. Surprised and amused, she said she hadn't noticed me there, which didn't surprise me.

Red Matterhorn, a painting by Albert Gos (1852-1942)
Then, quite naturally, we went on from the Matterhorn in art to the Matterhorn itself. Having climbed the mountain four times over its four ridges, they planned to climb it again next summer with the aim of descending the vertiginous Z'mutt ridge and repeating the feat performed by Miss Bristow, Mummery's sister-in-law, and her guide, Joseph Pollinger.

Here the Earl, begging us to excuse him, left us to ourselves. We went out onto the veranda. Already on the best of terms, thanks to our mutual passion for the mountains, we reeled off the names of guides, friends, places and the peaks we’d all climbed. It turned out that I had been a day ahead of them at the Weisshorn hut; that their guides were good friends of mine; that we’d probably seen each other in the restaurant on the Riffelalp; and that they had met the novelist Edmondo de Amicis - a Valtournanche enthusiast - and Guido Rey, at the Hotel du Giomein at Breuil, on the day when I passed through with my brothers, coming down empty-handed from the Dent d'Hérens. These details amused her, but she was astonished when I casually asked her some perceptive questions about their memorable ascent of the Aiguille Verte via the Charpoua. She finally caught on that the Petit Dru, where we were that day, had served as the perfect lookout point. On returning to the Montanvert, we’d found out who these astonishing climbers were.

From these memories, we turned to a discussion of how mountains influence art. She had a very extensive knowledge as well as some original ideas about works of art, music and literature inspired by the alpine landscape. In his La Montagne, Jules Michelet had summed these matters up in a grand synthesis, we agreed – without even going to the mountains, he’d understood their character and incomparable grandeur. Only a genius could resolve such a contradiction in terms.

Emile Javelle’s Memories of a Mountaineer had delighted her. We touched on Ruskin's aesthetics and his admirable spiritual testament written "beneath the cloudless peace of the snows of Chamonix". And so we came to the headstrong Byron. The parallels she deftly drew between the musical score of Schumann's version of Byron's Manfred and the poem impressed me immensely. But, for her, mountains would continue to elude human speculation until the end of time. Mysterious, inaccessible and numinous, they would never cease to occupy the sacred terrain assigned to them by mythology.*

Byron's Manfred at the Jungfrau
“Do you remember?" she asked, as if reframing her thoughts into a poetic cast. And slowly she quoted Manfred's lyrical apostrophe in front of the Jungfrau’s cliffs: “And you, ye Mountains, why are ye beautiful?” She fell silent then, as if choking back a sudden pulse of emotion, and stood motionless and grave, her gaze distant, seeming to gaze out on some distant vision of snow ridges that rose up in the depths of her fancy, somewhere infinitely far away….

* Footnote: Her way of thinking here recalls the title that Chateaubriand set out for the fourth part of his third volume on The Genius of Christianity: "Harmonies of the Christian Religion with Scenes of Nature and the Passions of the Human Heart", although taking into account here only the mystico-religious aspects. It’s possible that Gladys was a mystic or a theosophist, but I personally don't think so. Her turn of thought suggested a distinctly pantheistic bent. We only once discussed the idea of God. "If God exists," she said, "then where? In us, perhaps, latently, or unconsciously, or is he the genius of classical times? But it's not up to Him to come down to us, it's up to us to go up to Him. Isn't it so human of us that we have to imagine God when we sit down to pray? Christians pray, but as a pantheist, I meditate. After all, what difference does it make? I don't see any difference. We all need to free ourselves from weakness and gird up our strength, and we all aspire to the same goal: you have your faith; I, my ideal of perfection and beauty. One is like the other, judging by their morals and inner discipline: they’re both a form of auto-suggestion.”(I have taken care to quote this profession of faith in full, without which it would be impossible to fully round out Gladys’s character.)

(To be continued)


This is an excerpt from Project Hyakumeizan's centennial translation of the second story in La Croix du Cervin (1919), a collection of alpine fiction by Charles Gos (1885-1949). Translation (c) Project Hyakumeizan.

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