Encountering “the sublime” in Switzerland

This morning we left Switzerland after what I think we’d all describe as an incredible two days. The sun shone brightly (for the first time in days) as we landed in Geneva on Tuesday, a positive omen for our short time in this country. Little did we know, this amazingly unseasonal weather would grant us access to incredible vistas that will prove to be some of the most memorable from this trip. Tuesday evening we embarked on a scenic hike along Lake Geneva to Villa Diodati. This home, Lord Byron’s escape from England after a terrible divorce, represents one deeply creative and productive summer for Byron, Percy Shelley, and Mary Shelley. It was this location which inspired Mary to write Frankenstein. The home rests atop a hill overlooking Lake Geneva and the mountains. What we maybe didn’t expect, aside from the unbelievably expensive cars whizzing past us on the dangerously narrow winding streets, was a breathtaking sunset over the lake. We take a certain amount of selfish pride in being the first Frankenstein J-term to see a sunset at Villa Diodati, a setting which is already a symbol of creative inspiration.

We didn’t know this would be the first of two days in which we’d embark on “Frankenstein firsts.” On Wednesday, we arrived in Chamonix, France to visit Mont Blanc, the setting of Victor Frankenstein’s icy confrontation with the Creature. Due to the fabulous weather, we had the opportunity to ride cable cars down the mountain to the glacier beneath. We are now also the first J-term group to travel inside of a glacier!! The icy interior was hollowed out and Dr. Weldon read a portion of Shelley’s novel to us as we stood beneath the layers of ancient ice.

The incredible vistas that Switzerland and France have shown us are examples of the Romantic notion of the “sublime:” terrific landscapes that are exhilarating, inspiring, natural, and perhaps a bit dangerous. For many of us, the contemporary danger we see in these landscapes comes from a serious fear that they will cease to exist. The astonishing views of Villa Diodati have become a privilege of the billionaire elites who can afford the neighborhood’s pricey real estate. Yesterday, we discussed the realities of “billionaire bunkers” designed to shield those who can afford it from the ever increasing effects of global warming. While inside the glacier listening to Dr. Weldon’s reading of Frankenstein, a steady drip of water continued to land on my head. I was suddenly overwhelmed by the feeling that I was standing at the base of an hourglass. Time is running out for sublime environments such as this. Signs have been placed on the mountainside to indicate the height of the glacier over the last 30 years; as we climbed the many flights up the mountainside, it was impossible not to be unsettled by the level at which the glacier has receded. As a group of us climbed these steps, Leah read to us from her newly purchased “Extinction Rebellion” handbook (look up this fascinating UK-based climate campaign!). Climate anxieties continue to emerge at every location on this trip. Whether it be the visible melting of the Mer De Glace or the abundance of “Extinction Rebellion” stickers throughout the streets of London, we continue to apply the Romantic lens to understand our current moment in relation to the natural environment that 19th century writers such as Mary and Percy Shelley loved so much.

The sunset over Villa Diodati.
Some of the group inside the glacier.
Walking down to the glacier entrance.