Can Reason Discover a Hopeful Side to the
Kind of Evil We Call Tragedy?
[It was around 1954 that the events in this vignette by Arnold Lunn took place. On one level it could be viewed as a morality tale, but I think that with a little ingenuity we could draw out rather more interesting themes. Money, sex, envy, despair, fate, tragedy, irony, and the sharply different attitudes taken by men and women to sexual impropriety all do their bit to spice up Lunn’s tale. But in our proper character as philosophers I think we should focus on the nature of tragedy and sharply distinguish it from evil, even though tragedy is a kind of evil. Death is a tragedy which will happen to everyone. Disability in old age is a tragedy which will happen to most, although with luck we will not experience it as acutely as Lunn’s friend Stephan. The other elements in the story are the sort of thing we love to read about in newspapers. It seem to me that the tragic side of life springs mainly from the disproportion between our hopes and desires and our appalling vulnerability to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. (Fortunately, the fragility of our body is usually hidden from us by the efficiency of its extremely sophisticated systems for avoiding pain and injury, and it is these systems that allow us to feel reasonably secure despite being surrounded by dangers on every side.) However, given our flawed moral nature and our limited physical vitality, one could ask, ‘Is a powerful and indifferent world of matter—now benign and now merciless—really a blessing in disguise, both for despairing Stephan and hopeful Arnold’? I suppose the answer depends on your philosophy.]
In the story which follows I have altered the names but nothing else. It is an accurate transcript of events which the good burghers of Lindenalp interpreted as the judgement of God.
Long before I met Stephan I knew of him as a distinguished mountaineer with some outstanding pioneer ascents to his credit. He was a rich industrialist, and a genial host. Many a pleasant hour have I spent in the comfortable chalet which he built in the valley which he loved, and which was his home during his declining years. Stephan’s wife died when he was in his early fifties and he never remarried. During his last years his house was managed by an Austrian whom I will call Pyrrha because she reminded me of the Pyrrha to whom Horace wrote an ode. She was part housekeeper and part nurse to the ageing Stephan. Pyrrha had been born near the eastern frontiers of the old Austrian Empire and she had far more Slav than Teutonic blood in her veins.
The villagers detested Pyrrha. They were fond of Stephan and resented the manner in which Pyrrha seemed to shut him off from his old friends in the village. Pyrrha, so they felt, was a gold digger, and their dislike of her was intensified when she cast her spells on one of the finest guides in the village, whom we may call Hans, though that was not his name. Pyrrha herself was an ardent climber and particularly good on rocks. A young Austrian, Sigmund, who had obtained temporary employment in the village, was also dazzled by her charms.
Stephan was in his seventies when he died, and his last years were very, very sad. He had never denied himself anything money could buy, but hope was a commodity which he could not acquire by writing a cheque. He had no religion and no hope of a life beyond the grave.
One of the first things which I did whenever I visited Lindenalp was to ring up Stephan, and shortly before his death I telephoned to his chalet. Pyrrha answered the telephone, and asked me to hold the line. After a pause she returned.
“I’m very sorry but Herr Stephan does not want to see anybody.”
A few days later we met on a little path near his chalet. He was tottering along on Pyrrha’s arm. He did not stop, and gave me the barest nod of recognition as we passed. Never have I seen despair more plainly written on a human face. He died, and his ashes were scattered into the mountain river which he loved. And the village waited with curiosity for his will. It was as they feared. Pyrrha had inherited Stephan’s lovely mountain home and enough money to live in comfort.
Shortly after the will had been read I met Pyrrha in the village. She had just returned from a difficult climb. We talked mountain shop, and she asked me to tea and suggested that I should bring my wife.
“I won’t call on that woman,” said my wife. “She is making that nice wife of her favourite guide unhappy, and anyhow she’s not the kind of woman I would ever call on.”
Her Austrian friend, Sigmund, was in the chalet when I arrived. I made no excuses for my wife, and Pyrrha was too intelligent to comment on the fact that I was alone. She told me that she and Sigmund were planning a Himalayan expedition. It was clear that the village had not exaggerated the money which Stephan had left her. The talk wandered from the Himalaya to the Alps. Sigmund was an ambitious climber and had designs on some of the classic north walls, Matterhorn and Jorasses.
“But not the Eiger Nordwand,” said Pyrrha with a laugh. “It would be silly to risk one’s life on that murderous cliff when the world is just full of mountains which I hope to climb.”
How I envied them! They were young, and could look forward to year after year of mountain adventure, but I had climbed my last peak.
I was wrong on both counts. It was Pyrrha and Sigmund who had climbed their last peak but I had not. A few years after this tea party I climbed the Aiguille du Goûter in my sixty-eighth year. And it was not a “murderous cliff” like the Eiger Nordwand but on the ascent of an easy mountain that they died. Sigmund had slipped on an easy icy slope and dragged Pyrrha and Hans with him. The slope, which was not particularly steep, petered out gradually on to the horizontal, and they would have slid to rest and escaped with a few scars and scratches but for a shallow ice ridge which ran across the slope, a ridge which at the worst would have bruised them or perhaps broken a bone had not all three of them struck this ridge with their heads. They were fantastically unlucky, but were they really unlucky? The village thought otherwise. That so expert a party should all have been killed on so easy a slope seemed to the villagers clear proof of divine judgement.
On the day after the bodies had been brought down to the valley I met a friend of Pyrrha’s in the village who suggested that I might spare a few minutes to look in at the room in the chalet in which Pyrrha was awaiting burial. My wife and I entered the chamber of death, knelt together and said some prayers for poor Pyrrha. I found myself wondering whether Pyrrha had made an act of contrition during those last few seconds of her life as she slid down that icy slope to her death.
As we left the chalet my wife murmured, “Well, she made me call on her after all.”
Arnold Lunn (from And Yet So New, 1958)
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