The Unphotographable: Alpine Transcendence with Mary Shelley
By Maria Popova
Sometimes, a painting in words is worth a thousand pictures. I think about this more and more, in our compulsively visual culture, which increasingly reduces what we think and feel and see — who and what we are — to what can be photographed. I think of Susan Sontag, who called it “aesthetic consumerism” half a century before Instagram. In a small act of resistance, I offer The Unphotographable — a lovely image in words drawn from centuries of literature: passages transcendent and transportive, depicting landscapes and experiences radiant with beauty and feeling beyond what a visual image could convey.
Four weeks before her seventeenth birthday, Mary Godwin eloped with Percy Bysshe Shelley, twenty-four and estranged from the wife to whom he was still married. Just before sunrise on July 28, 1814, they departed her father’s home in a carriage and headed for the Continent, penniless and with only the vague contour of a plan. Through privation and persecution, through storms and sprained ankles and hostile villagers, they kept slaking their Romantic souls on nature’s beauty as they made their way across France, Switzerland, Germany, and The Netherlands, knowing not where they were going or what the future held. (The future held Frankenstein, into which Mary would incorporate many of the transcendent landscapes encountered on this formative journey.)
Along the way, they recorded what they saw with the wide-eyed wonder of novelty and young love in a joint journal, which Mary later edited, refined, and published anonymously as History of a Six Weeks’ Tour (public library | free ebook), modeled on the deeply personal literary travelogue her visionary mother had published, under her own name, a year before dying in birthing Mary.
In one particularly vivid passage, penned upon making the crossing from France to Switzerland, the Alps rise from the page in their full unphotographable majesty:
We passed through a narrow valley between two ranges of mountains, clothed with forests, at the bottom of which flowed a river, from whose narrow bed on either side the boundaries of the vale arose precipitously. The road lay about half way up the mountain, which formed one of the sides, and we saw the overhanging rocks above us and below, enormous pines, and the river, not to be perceived but from its reflection of the light of heaven, far beneath… [Then] we saw the Alps: range after range of black mountains are seen extending one before the other, and far behind all, towering above every feature of the scene, the snowy Alps. They were an hundred miles distant, but reach so high in the heavens, that they look like those accumulated clouds of dazzling white that arrange themselves on the horizon during summer. Their immensity staggers the imagination, and so far surpasses all conception, that it requires an effort of the understanding to believe that they indeed form a part of the earth.
Published July 30, 2022