Science in Context

Research Article

Mountains of Sublimity, Mountains of Fatigue: Towards a History of Speechlessness in the Alps

Philipp Felscha1

a1 Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) Zurich


The discovery of the Alps in the second half of the eighteenth century spawned an aesthetics of sublimity that enabled overwhelmed beholders of mountains to overcome their confusion symbolically by transforming initial speechlessness into pictures and words. When travelers ceased to be content with beholding mountains, however, and began climbing them, the sublime shudder turned into something else. In the snowy heights, all attempts to master symbolically the challenging landscape was thwarted by vertigo, somnolence, and fatigue. After 1850, physiologists intervened, using the Alpine terrain as a laboratory landscape that was ideally suited to examine one of the most threatening concerns of fin de siècle industrial societies: fatigue. This essay examines how the picturesque voyage turned into an experimental physiology of fatigue, and how the “wordless subjectivity” of romantic travelers turned into the “wordless objectivity” of life scientists.