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  • The Summits of Modern Man: Mountaineering after the Enlightenment by Peter H. Hansen
  • Paul Gilchrist
The Summits of Modern Man: Mountaineering after the Enlightenment
By Peter H. Hansen. Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University Press, 2013.

The Summits of Modern Man explores “a particular strand of modernity in which modern man stands alone on the summit, autonomous from other men and dominant over nature” (2). The question of “who was first?” has dogged histories of climbing and has been a perennial concern of journalists and propagandists, keen to forward the unique qualities of their chosen man to meet the demands of the present. And yet, the concern with temporal priority, Hansen elaborates in this ambitious and intellectually wide-ranging book, is at the heart of a Western mythology surrounding the autonomous individual; a mythology born through and with man’s relationship to mountains and the ascent to the “summit position.”

Through ten chapters, Hansen traces the complex co-construction of time and subject, through a history which keeps in view the (claims to) temporal priority of climbers who reached the summit alongside partners who made this possible and who are also entangled in their histories. Informed by the work of Bengali historian Dipesh Chakrabarty, whose Provincializing Europe1 (2000) sought to retheorise a Western notion of linear time by keeping hold of historical knots, Hansen turns to a range of peaks—Mont Blanc, Mont Aiguille, the Matterhorn, Mount Everest—as vantage points from which to view constellations of modernities which weave self, state and mountain together. By keeping plural histories at play, Hansen has plotted a path from theory to source material to produce a complex account of man’s fascination with mountains.

The focus on Mont Blanc, Western Europe’s highest peak, may initially appear to be of limited value for those seeking for Hansen to extend his consideration of Mount Everest, Hillary and Tenzing, in ways that more fully relate to colonial and postcolonial histories, but what emerges over the course of the book is a fundamental re-questioning of the relationship between modernity and mountaineering achieved through a study into the shifting reputations of three key protagonists associated with climbing Mont Blanc: the Savoyard crystal hunter and mountain guide Jacques Balmat, the Chamonix physician Michel-Gabriel Paccard and the Genevan aristocrat, physicist and traveller, Horace-Bénédict de Saussure. The narrative is one of the making of the mountaineer; how at moments they are deemed as lacking, incomplete or absent, whilst at others they have been central to the figuring of a modern political subject, whether this is read through Genevan Republican politics or the Bergfilme of the Weimar Republic that so delighted Goebbels in their intertwining of strong men with strong ambition.

Chapter One focuses on “who was first,” though Hansen challenges the prioritisation of individual sovereignty in post-Enlightenment interest in this question by outlining the complexities of “being first,” and the entanglements with and co-presence of others. Chapter Two considers the “Discovery of the Glacières,” and how processes of state formation fed scientific interest in the Alps. Johann Jakob Scheuchzer’s natural histories are positioned here as a Swiss response to the taste for the exotic remote pioneered by English colonialists. Chapter Three examines the first ascent of Mont Blanc, achieved by Paccard and Balmat in 1786. Hansen outlines how a process of political enfranchisement in Savoy extended the possibilities for personhood and opened space for the mountain climber to think of themselves in a sovereign position. “Who Was First?” is the focus for Chapter Four, and a range of correspondence and material artefacts are analysed to reveal how the reputations of Balmat, Paccard and de Saussure were transformed over time, as different values and meanings attributed to the climb come to the fore. Hansen writes, “The ascent did not embody one representation of enlightenment, modernity, masculinity, or individuality, but entangled competing and mutually constitutive contemporary visions of each” (117).

Chapter Five discusses the place of Mont Blanc in the French and Genevan Revolutions and the multiple sacralisations of the mountain as climbers, travellers, priests, monarchs and romantic poets inscribed and contested its cultural symbolism. Chapter Six unpicks further...

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