- The Conquest of the Russian Arctic by Paul Josephson, and: The Summits of Modern Man: Mountaineering after the Enlightenment by Peter Hansen
These two books handle the relationship between modernity and forbidding landscapes in very different, but usefully interlocking, ways. Josephson’s The Conquest of the Arctic examines a massive sweep of the globe—all of Arctic Eurasia, though the most intense focus is on the Kola Peninsula in northern European Russia—over the relatively short lifespan of Soviet Russia. Hansen employs a much tighter focus on the European Alps, and in particular Mont Blanc, over the longer sweep of modernity, dated from the Enlightenment or perhaps even, as Jacob Burkhardt famously claimed, Petrarch’s first ascent of Mt. Ventoux in 1336. The books fit together in another way. While the Soviets pushed ever farther outward toward the polar latitudes, the mountain climbers Hansen surveys were concerned only with going higher—another route, in some ways even more difficult, of finding extreme cold. Taken together, then, these two works offer an extensive look into the highs and lows, and the widths and the depths of modernity’s time and landscapes.
The two historians’ assumptions, though, are quite different, belying the very tricky nature of modernity itself. Hansen’s book is an extended meditation on what modernity might actually be, how difficult it has been to define clearly, and specifically how mountaineering might be both a consequence and a constituent factor in its construction. He is especially concerned with, as he puts it, “a particular strand of modernity in which modern man stands alone on the summit, autonomous from other men and dominant over nature” (p. 2). The contradictions in such a conception of modernity are immediately apparent when looked at through mountaineering, a pursuit that has always depended [End Page 171] upon cooperative human effort. The belay, an essential piece of mountaineering which literally links one climber to one another, is a clear example of the interconnections underlying the conquest of mountains. These very conquests, too, have been endlessly contested and usually unsatisfying even to the conquerors themselves. Still, the image of the lone man on the top of the mountain, surveying the earth below, maintains its hold on the modern imagination.
Much of Hansen’s story revolves around the mythologized and repeatedly contested “first” ascent of Mont Blanc by a local guide, Jacques Balmat, and Genevan physician, Michel-Gabriel Paccard. Their conquest of the summit in 1786 was almost immediately followed by that of the famous naturalist Horace Bénédict de Saussure, who also used Balmat’s services. While Balmat initially signed an affidavit attesting that Paccard reached the top first, the two soon quarreled, and neither man long enjoyed the happiness that might have been expected to accrue from such a feat. Balmat came down from the mountain to find his daughter dead. Later, while searching for gold in the Alps, he fell into a ravine to his death. Paccard’s fate was a prolonged obscurity and associated depression. The duo, along with de Saussure, though, lived rich metaphorical afterlives. Revolutionary France embraced Paccard and Balmat as representative of an ideal partnership between peasant and philosopher, while later Romantics imagined Balmat as a heroic, lone climber. Paccard was then written out of the story in the Third Republic as suspiciously Jacobin, and then further denigrated in the 1930s as having lacked a “will to power” (p. 244), before being rediscovered as a model bourgeois self-made man. He now stands together with de Saussure and Balmat, as stone monuments at the base of the mountain.
The point of these stories, which occupy the long middle of the book, is to pick out the fantasies, frustrations, and contradictions involved in deciding what “first” ascents are or mean. That they are thought to be important does seem to be characteristic of a modern way of thinking. One of the first women...