Mountains of the Mind

I’ve been reading Robert Macfarlane’s ‘Mountains of the Mind’ to go along with week 7 of the course. I loved this part:

'Great height gives you greater vision: the view from the summit empowers you. But in a way, too, it obliterates you. Your sense of self is enhanced because of its extended capacity for sight, but it also comes under attack – is threatened with insignificance by the grand vistas of time and space which become apparent from a mountain-top. The traveller-explorer Andrew Wilson felt this keenly in the Himalaya in 1875:

At night, amid these vast mountains, surrounded by icy peaks, shining starlike and innumerable as the “hosts of heaven, and looking up to the great orbs flaming in the unfathomable abysses of space, one realises the immensity of physical existence in an overpowering and almost painful manner. What am I? What are all these Tibetans compared with the long line of gigantic mountains? And what the mountains and the whole solar system as compared with any group of great fixed stars?

This is the human paradox of altitude: that it both exalts the individual mind and erases it. Those who travel to mountain tops are half in love with themselves, and half in love with oblivion’

Macfarlane also writes about one of my favourite paintings by Caspar David Friedrich

‘The adoration of the summit, which intensified over the eighteenth century, reached its peak in Europe in the early decades of the nineteenth. There is a painting from 1818 by the German Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich, usually called The Traveller above a Sea of Clouds, which is now, thanks chiefly to the greetings-card industry, familiar to almost everyone. Friedrich’s Traveller became, and has remained, the archetypical image of the mountain-climbing visionary, a figure ubiquitous in Romantic art. He now looks implausible to us, ridiculous even: the little rock hummocks protruding from the nimbus at his feet, his absurdly clichéd stature – one foot raised; a big-game hunter with his foot upon the cavernous ribcage of his dead beast. But as a crystallization of a concept – that standing atop a summit is to be admired, that it confers nobility on a person – Friedrich’s painting has carried enormous symbolic power down the years in terms of Western self-perception.’


It’s maybe surprising that Macfarlene only briefly mentions Nietzsche in this book. Mountains after all played a significant part in much of Nietzsche’s work, such as in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, where Zarathustra spends most of his time contemplating his existence in the mountains - ‘When Zarathustra was thirty years old he left his home and the lake of his home and went into the mountains. Here he enjoyed his spirit and his solitude, and for ten years did not tire of it’. Zarathustra later declared 'I climb upon the highest mountains, laughing at all tragedies - whether real or imaginary.’
Perhaps Nietzsche’s most famous poem was called ‘High Mountains: Aftersong’, which came at the end of Beyond Good and Evil, although poetry wasn’t necessarily his strong point.

Luckily, Nietzsche didn’t take Hegel’s advice, for Hegel wrote in the early 1800s ‘We saw these glaciers today, from a distance of half an hour’s walk, and their appearance presents no further interest. Not even poets, let alone philosophers, should write about mountains. The proper subject matter of philosophy is spiritual interests, not the sun, mountains, woods, landscapes, or constituents of the human body, like nerves, blood, muscles.’

For all Nietzsche’s obsessions with mountains, it is surprising that ‘he never climbed a major peak or set foot on a glacier’ JSTOR


I find Macfarlane’s critique of the climber in Friedrich’s painting differs from my own. I see a man who has accomplished a difficult feat, a personal challenge. His gaze over the mountains isn’t one that I assume is about mastery over earth, but could be perspective of the massive in comparison to the puny concerns of the climber and his accomplishment. Perhaps this is because that is how I see hiking. It is something of a personal challenge, and the feeling I get at the top is is almost cathedral like. I see myself and my concerns as so small and the planet as so large and powerful.


Thanks for sharing Hamish! I’m really enjoying all these famous descriptions of mountains throughout the centuries, especially the ones we are getting this week. You also provide another great example of how opinions of and attitudes toward mountains differ. Great references!

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