Thursday, August 02, 2007

Mind over Mountain 1

Of Mountains and of Man

By their very size mountains of necessity loom large in the human psyche. In the summer, those who live in hot climes like to travel into their bosom to escape the heat of the plains and, of course, to flee from the noise and frustration of the cities. In winter many people like to travel thither to enjoy such pursuits as skiing, tobogganing or snowboarding. Even when the traveller has no such end in view merely to be in the mountains is exhilarating.

Mountains are important in all cultures and traditionally they have been the dwelling places or homes of the gods. In Biblical times we have the account of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. Then, for those of us au fait with Greek mythology Mount Olympus is the most famous classical dwelling place of the Greek pantheon. What literature could be complete without references to those great rock and stone monuments which mountains are?

When I was in my teenage years and also late into my twenties I used love climbing the lower mountains like The Sugar Loaf (many times), Djouce Mountain (many times) and a lot of others in the Dublin and Wicklow mountains whose names I forget. Our good friend Noel Young used to lead many of us up these rocky fortresses. Looking down from the top of a mountain cannot be beaten for exhilaration really. Some years back, after a struggle I might add as I’m somewhat overweight, I managed to get to the top of Errigal in the Derryveagh Mountains in Donegal. (It is not surprising that word "aireagal" in Gaelic means oratory, or place of prayer!!) What a beautiful sight was to be beheld from that summit. You cannot beat a 360 degree vista of the landscape and seascape of the West of Ireland. That was the last one I climbed – four years ago.

Some mountaineer was once asked why he climbed mountains and his reply was simply “because they are there!” A good reply. I’ve recently been toying with the concept of mountains and psychology or mountains and spirituality, if you like. (I believe that these last two terms overlap greatly, but it’s for a later post to try to discern the similarities and differences between them.) A famous poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins comes to my mind very readily. Before I quote some lines therefrom, let me state that I believe that all outward phenomena mirror to a great extent the inner phenomena of the mind or soul. I will content myself with the concept of “phenomenon” here in both outer and inner worlds and avoid the use of the rather technical and somewhat sublime and very abstract terms “noumen” or “noumenal” when referring to the inner world of our psyche. Using these latter terms would unduly complicate these thoughts for me and bring both I and any possible reader into too technical of waters. In short, what I want to say is that we have as it were “an inner landscape” which we have to travel as well as an outer one. Obviously here we are using metaphors in abundance. Anyone who tries to write will find that as he or she persists in their practice of their craft that they must begin to use metaphors and even to forge new ones to describe more abstract thoughts, and indeed to describe deep feelings. The metaphor of the smithy or blacksmith is a good one to describe this task of the writer.

We have to use the concrete images that are before us to describe things – hence this basic metaphorical thrust of all language. Anyway, back to those lines I’ve promised you. My last post dealt with depression, or rather my own experience of it. This post is dealing with minds and mountains. Here, Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ, used the metaphors of mountain and cliff to describe how treacherous the mind may be to its owner. Hopkins indubitably was a depressive himself and wrote many poems from a deep, lonely dejected and melancholic state. I’ll let the poet speak for himself:

Oh, the mind, mind has mountains,
Cliffs of fall, frightful sheer,
No man fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne'er hung there.

These lines are from the sonnet 41, “No worst, there is none." The depressed person could feel, like Hopkins, there they are “hanging there” over those “cliffs of fall, frightful sheer.” Hopkins cautions us not to “hold cheap” or undervalue or even dismiss the mental state of others. Salutary words indeed.

Previous to this entry I have already posted an imaginary journey of a medieval monk up Cruach Phádraig in Mayo. Obviously that was written a short while after climbing a mountain. This post seeks to talk about how mountains mould man’s own inner landscape as it were, our very own unique “inscape” as it were. (By "inscape" Hopkins means the unified complex of characteristics that give each thing or person its uniqueness and that differentiate it from other things.) I have also been searching my shelves for references to mountains and came up with some lovely books through which I have been thumbing. Two gems are Joe Simpson’s Touching The Void (Jonathan Cape, 1988) and Dark Shadows Falling (Jonathan Cape, 1997). Then I could not help but be brought back to one of my favourite authors of all time S.T Coleridge and to Richard Holmes’ two-volume biography of the great Romantic poet and philosopher. (Early Visions (1989) and Darker Reflections (1998). Within these pages we read of the Coleridge’s fascination with mountains. One that he would have climbed many times is Skiddaw which is located near the town of Keswick and is one of the largest mountains in the Lake District, reaching a height of 931 metres. It is one of the oldest formations in the Lake District and offers a number of ascents for even inexperienced climbers, and is one of the most famous climbs in the Lake District.

I’ll go into more detail about some of these books in a later post.

The picture above is one I took from the cliffs at Howth Head Dublin, March, 2007

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