Mary Shelley, The Last Man, pp. 7–8
Yet the excitement of mind was dear to me, and that the imagination, painter of earthquake and tempest, or, worse, the stormy ruin-fraught passions of man, softened my real sorrows and endless regrets, by clothing these fictitious ones in that ideality, which takes the mortal sting from pain.
The human imagination, as Shelley alludes, commonly finds in nature affects as powerful and cathartic as the most visceral emotions. Mountains are, of course, large, and in their bridge-like ability to make the celestial heavens yield, they personify in physical form the epic challenge of life itself, which like a mountain grows to maturity, reaching some unanticipated peak, only to finally decline, becoming a small speck in a much grander story.
Walking trails, roads, and tunnels crisscross mountain ranges, stagnant volcanoes explode with sudden thunderous ferocity, and glaciers increasingly feel their age, splintering, beginning the slow, momentous melt characteristic of our anthropogenic age, each year revealing the precise ending to yet another human story temporarily held captive in frigid snow and ice. From the barren outlook of an imposing mountain peak to the lush farming climes of the village valley, mountains have inspired a great diversity of writers. I recount three of my most memorable literary encounters with mountains and their significance to my own adventures in the Austrian Alps.
1. Being there in Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974)
My first mountainous encounter was in the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. At the time, I rode a motorcycle, which I wasn’t very skilled at maintaining, and I hadn’t formally studied philosophy or even climbed a ‘real’ mountain yet. Yet the mountain as a landscape of changing fortune stuck, as did the interest in the philosophy of knowledge, being, and experience explored throughout Zen. Perhaps it was Pirsig’s awareness of life’s habit of getting caught up in a ‘lateral drift’ or the emphasis he placed on travelling rather than arriving that resonated so fully with my own meandering sense of things. Complemented by the mysterious sparseness of high places that I could only imagine, the book left a lasting impression. Despite this, the practical wisdom needed for keeping my own motorcycle on the road went by the wayside, and in the years following “Frankie” and I parted ways. She was, in turn, replaced by a series of different bicycles.
For Pirsig, motorcycling was akin to being in the picture as opposed to viewing it passively through the frame of a car window.
You see things vacationing on a motorcycle in a way that is completely different from any other. In a car you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it you don’t realize that through the car window everything you see is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by boringly in a frame. On a cycle, the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming. The concrete whizzing by five inches below your foot is the real thing, the same stuff you walk on, it’s right there, so blurred you can’t focus on it, yet you put your foot down and touch it anytime, and the whole thing, the whole experience, is never removed from immediate consciousness.Pirsig, 1974, p. 4
It’s true that motorcycling puts one in closer contact with the elements than does driving a car, but then again so does riding a bicycle or a horse. Just as writers often lamented the dramatic transition between horse-powered vehicles and automobiles at the turn of the 20th century and their loss of contact with animals and their natural rhythms, Pirsig’s observations draw attention to how our experience of time and movement, and of the landscape itself, is related to how our attention is framed, mediating our interactions and sense of being in a certain place.
Nevertheless, tilting rides on a 150cc motorbike across windswept ridges and through misty forests, however romantic it might appear in films, wasn’t suited to my small frame and jittery nerves. As it turned out, neither was living in caravan perched above a rainforest gully subject to all variations of mould or living on a hilly ridge battered by forceful northerly winds strong enough to shatter poorly sited glass windows. When the winds came, my hut, a converted goat house, shook, and like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, I would imaginatively click my heels hoping that the roof and I wouldn’t be suddenly blown away.
My experience of living in rudimentary accommodation in hilly environments ill-suited to the dynamic Australian environment has conditioned my consciousness of the ways human structures profoundly shape the experience of place and of what permanently dwells there. It might be no surprise then that Pirsig’s book returned to me during some recent hikes where the sheer height of the mountains provided a spatial overview that gave the impression of somehow no longer quite being in the picture, as much metaphorically as literally in terms of the philosophical themes explored in Zen.
Zell am See from the Imbachhorn, 2470m, Austria
Just as car travel exemplified how modern life has tended more towards the virtual than the actual, the mountain summit exemplified the ineffable definition of Quality that underpinned Pirsig’s philosophical search in Zen. In my interpretation, Quality represented the meeting point of all perspectives for Pirsig, all sides of a mountain one could say. It was akin to the merging of subjective experience (one’s aspect) with objectivity, creating something like a pre-intellectual bird’s eye view.
This preintellectual reality is what Phaedrus felt he had properly identified as Quality. Since all intellectually identifiable things must emerge from this preintellectual reality, Quality is parent, the source of all subjects and objects.
Pirsig, 1974, p. 253
There is much more that could be said about the philosophical positions explored in Zen, especially their relationship to the sub-branch of contemporary philosophy known as phenomenology, which has been most concerned with putting the body back into the picture and our philosophising. Yet more than the philosophical arguments advanced in the novel, what stuck with me were the scenes set in the mountains. The narrator of Zen warns his son, Chris, after much philosophising about the nature of knowledge, that it might be too dangerous to climb to the summit, which upsets Chris who with youthful enthusiasm has eagerly awaited the final ascent, even though he is eventually persuaded to begin the descent instead. At this point in the novel, Pirsig writes:
These damned heights get eerie after a while. I want to go down, way down; far, far down. To the ocean. That sounds right. Where the waves roll in slowly and there’s always a roar and you can’t fall anywhere. You’re already there. Now we enter the trees again, and the sight of the mountaintop is obscured by their branches and I’m glad.Pirsig, 1974, p. 252
I remember being relieved by the narrator’s decision not climb to the summit, which if it had happened, would have been, for the author, like taking the path back to a former state of insanity, which had been preceded by long stints of solitude high up in the mountains (of the mind). It’s interesting, then, that years later my first thought after reaching the saddle before the true summit of the Birkkarspitze in the Karwindelgebirge in Austria, after an arduous climb through mountainous rubble, was that I wanted to descend as quickly as possible. A landscape without plants, very few animals or signs of life, was not a place I wanted to linger.
Returning to the above quote from Zen, I am still not sure though where ‘the there’ referred to in the passage is. Even on the top of a mountain, there is usually more than one place to stand in order to have a view from ‘the top’. And even on the beach at sea level, there is the prospect of drowning or unwittingly being dragged out to sea in a rip. Falling and sinking are also, one could say, parallel experiences. And just as endless solitude can cause mental disturbance, so too can ceaseless noise. The meaningful difference, if there is one, might be that on the quiet mountaintops every step is a solid test of one’s judgement in the slow movement towards that point which is ‘there’, and after a few days, this can weigh on the limbs like a sentence – it’s then Schritt für Schritt as the mountain people say. If ‘the there’ is the shoreline when caught out at sea, adversarial movement (and not stillness, as in the mountains) is what makes getting there a mental and physical quest; ‘the there’ not necessarily being an ideally fixed spot, but a general moving direction.
As I would learn, descents are also most often harder than ascents. Skiing down a rubbly mountain in summer isn’t possible, flying off with a parachute isn’t practical for a hiker either, and where there are no trees to swing from being gifted with the agile arms and legs of a monkey isn’t of much use, unless, of course, you are a rock climber. On the face of it, only the goat’s stubborn agility belongs to these austere, rugged heights largely bereft of visual comforts. A slow, knee pounding test of age and will is therefore what invariably lies at the end of a mountainous climb once the summit ‘having been there’ has been surmounted.
One thing that struck me about the Austrian Alps was that despite their forceful, wild appearance, even on angular ridges of about a 65 degrees angle, fence posts, for the most part, stood upright demarcating space in a rather consistently regular and well-maintained fashion. Memorials to those killed in the mountains were also unnervingly common. This is barely conceivable in such a big country like Australia. Whilst not found above the tree line, eucalypts with their bark stripped limbs have a habit of making everything appear always slightly messy and those people intent on constantly cleaning up somewhat out of place. If you get lost in the Australian bush, there is also a real chance that you might never actually be found, as the Australian cult classic Picnic at Hanging Rock immortalised in the nation’s psyche.
Fear is of its nature an ambivalent psychological force: It has made me hurry when I should have taken my time, hesitate when decisiveness would have been better, turn back at just the right time after losing my way, take an easier route when the harder one would have been more spectacular, and foreshorten a hike because I no longer trusted my own skill or judgement. Aside from overly curious cows, rock falls, storms, and snow, being in nature, whether on a mountainside or a wave, stimulates reflection on one’s fallibility and vulnerability at the hands of poor judgement. Much more than reaching the top of a mountain, testing my limits by just being there, wherever that is, is what keeps me wanting to go back for more.
2. Perspective in Casper David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818)
It’s no surprise that the painting Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818) by Casper David Friedrich is the second most memorable artistic encounter I’ve had with a mountain. It wasn’t Friedrich Nietzsche who brought it to my attention, but rather an environmental studies class where nature and culture were tilted out of balance by colonisation and its bewildering legacy on the Australian landscape and its native Aboriginal people. Friedrich’s painting has a timeless quality to it, but in the antipodes, it’s difficult for me not to read into this image a typical nineteenth-century representation of European arrogance towards the natural world.
Friedrich’s wanderer (a hiker perhaps) stands on a rocky outlook, his back towards the viewer such that the viewer takes his position as if they too are standing on that high rocky peak. As the viewer cannot see the expression on the figure’s face, the portrait lends itself to a wide range of interpretations. The viewer is free, in other words, to bring to the portrait their own view of the landscape and their relationship to it. In the context of colonisation, this is particularly troublesome given that under British domination the Australian landscape was beaten to fit the imagination and experience of British and European occupiers. Where Aboriginal landowners had a complex socio-cosmological system for managing the land, Europeans perceived it in mostly instrumental terms, the very notion of possession the most brutal of all.
Despite my awareness of how cultural frameworks can create moments of misrecognition, just as European settlers transposed what they knew of European landforms onto the Australian landscape, I implicitly transcribed my knowledge of the Australian landscape onto what I saw of land management practices in the Austrian Alps.
As I walked past signs reminding hikers that cows are necessary for maintaining the land, I couldn’t help but doubt their veracity given that in Australia’s high country cows have caused environmental havoc, long pitching environmentalists against farmers. Weren’t cows just as bad here? Look at the way their hooves trample the ground! Um… look at how they are polluting these mountains streams, disturbing the riverbanks, and just look at how fewer plants there are on this hill compared to the hill over there without any cows on it! My prejudice boldly found itself out of place in these climes. Had these cows just been here so long that the land and the people who lived off of it would be largely unrecognisable without them? Was the cow a symbol of culture, just like Mozart? And would these civilised cows appreciate Mozart just as much? Where the cow had been the helpmate of the coloniser, the usurper of space in Australia, here it was synonymous with the hearth and homeland.
The critical ambivalence in Friedrich’s painting springs from the subjectivity that embodies the figure’s perception and the viewer’s perspective of the figure’s perception, which is at the centre-point of the portrait. The hills in the far background also meet around the figure as if his future path is shaped by his own will. It is, therefore, a natural next step to make the association between having an elevated perspective of the world with personal freedom, as Nietzsche did. The contrast between the dark rocks in the foreground and the light, misty horizon emphasises this element of the portrait. Yet in a colonised and colonising landscape like Australia, the association of personal freedom, following the inspiration of the natural world, sits uneasily with knowledge of Aboriginal dispossession.
When standing on a high rocky outlook in the Australian bush, I feel a sense of ambivalent freedom. I am always subject to second-thoughts: Is there something sacred here that I do not know about? Is it right that I have climbed this hill or was it once, is it still, forbidden? Was that hill in the distance once the site of a massacre, a place where still no memorial stands?
Another striking element of Austrian culture when viewed from a non-European perspective is the visible emphasis placed on the idea of homeland, Heimat, so prominently displayed, if not also felt, in the mountainous villages of the Austrian Alps through which I walked. Previously, the concept of a homeland wasn’t part of my cultural vocabulary. My sense was rather that the Australian landscape tolerated the waves of migrants who had chosen to settle on it since the arrival of Europeans and whatever homeland there was existed in how the people negotiated the cultural spaces between them. In other words, I associated the idea of homeland with a pre-modern perspective. More than anything else, it was a political concept used to include some at the exclusion of others, to ground an identity and establish its legitimacy, which is just as problematic in the Australian context as elsewhere.
If homeland simply means ‘the place you are from or the place you have made your home,’ it might well be a rather uncomplicated notion. But can a homeland be more than one place? Or in the context of knowing the history of a place, does being ‘at home’ entail having an awareness of the boundaries that have been drawn to make one feel ‘at home’? Once one starts thinking along these lines, the concept hits the troubled waters of nationalism. Is the concept of a homeland flexible enough to accommodate diversity or will some always have more rights than others when the concept is evoked in connection with claims to belonging? Recent political developments in Austria as well as elsewhere in both former Eastern and Western Europe seem to suggest that the concept may well have not fully freed itself from the tragedies of the past even if colloquially that’s not the intended association.
Thinking back to Friedrich’s painting, I don’t feel ambivalent about my relationship to the landscape when I stand on an alpine mountain peak in the Austrian Alps. On the mountain, perhaps like Friedrich’s wanderer, I am simply there with a perspective of where there is, taking in the beautiful power of the natural world, and just as Friedrich’s wanderer might have been, perhaps a little proud of myself for climbing so high. And perhaps, therefore, I know I am not at home; I am not yet conscious of what second thoughts I could or should be having.
3. Mountain crossings in Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1818)
Yet we were not wrong in seeking a scene like this, whereon to close the drama. Nature, true to the last, consoled us in the very heart of misery… Thus on lovely earth, many a dark ravine contains a brawling stream, shadowed by romantic rocks, threaded by mossy paths—but all, except this, wanted the mighty back-ground, the towering Alps, whose snowy capes, or bared ridges, lifted us from our dull mortal abode, to the palaces of Nature’s own.Shelley, 1818, p. 556
From the highest craggy alpine peak to the sun-spoilt waters of Italy, Shelley’s words sing as a poem of experience: emotional, specific, and ceaseless, with nature forever a mirror of human joy and suffering. The harsh alpine peaks and cold slumberous winters of northern Europe are thrown into relief by the warmth and light of southern Europe, with its shimmering waters and exalted monuments of spoilt humanism. Yet Shelley’s narrator laments his posse’s descent from the Alps, as the last remaining humans on Earth in The Last Man, even as the warmer climes of the Mediterranean beckon them onwards.
I cannot explain the reluctance we felt at leaving this land of mountains; perhaps it was, that we regarded the Alps as boundaries between our former and future states of existence, and so clung fondly to what of old we had loved. Perhaps, we had now so few impulses urging to a choice between two modes of action, we were pleased to preserve the existence of one, and preferred the prospect of what we were to do, to the recollection of what had been done.Shelley, 1818, pp. 560–561
For Shelley’s trio, the mountains are an ambivalent threshold, a physical boundary between the past and future, where looking backwards affords as much relief as looking forwards. It was with a similar feeling of reluctance that I embarked on my first tour of the Alps, unprepared and amazed in equal measure. I walked along a mountain ridge in the lower Austrian Alps after having scrambled up the mountainside, powered upwards and onwards by some locally made apple strudel from a mountain hut perched above a steep, rocky embankment. The air was fresh, the sun strong, and Shelley’s mountains, not the exact ones, of course, were in full summer splendour. Snow and ice had given way to cold rocky streams decked with every imaginable flower, and where beer flowed to the uplifting buzz of the brass in the village below, the mountains hummed to the sounds of health and happiness.
Towering above the church’s spire, in the valley below, in every direction one looked, the Alps appeared as a perfectly painted backdrop, setting the stage for a human tale played many times over. The church bells rang, striking an insignificant hour, and the villagers gathered their hearts and hands for a wedding. The mother and father of the groom led them in a celebratory dance, the bride clasping her bouquet as though her last breaths of freedom were about to be extinguished. The groom, meanwhile, charmed the guests with a victorous song, and the band continued to play, consigning the newly wedded couple to their respective fates.
In the context of Shelley’s narrative, the descent from the mountains leads, in fact, to more sorrow as the remaining members of the trio die, modelled, it is thought, on the death of Mary Shelley’s beloved, Percy Bysshe Shelley, in a sailing accident in Italy. As is typical of the Romantic genre, The Last Man is narrated as a story within a story, so despite the desolate loneliness of a mostly de-peopled planet, the human voice and the potential for hope return as the reader reads of the last man on Earth, who with Homer and Shakespeare in tow, travels the world, searching:
I form no expectation of alteration for the better; but the monotonous present is intolerable to me. Neither hope nor joy are my pilots—restless despair and fierce desire for change lead me on.Shelley, 1818, p. 615
In contrast to Shelley’s Frankenstein, in which the monster of man’s image and making longs for his and his creator’s destruction due to the loveless world his monstrous form evokes, the last man — Verney — searches for the recovery of humankind. If Pirsig’s project in Zen was to find a pathway between what he termed classical and romantic ways of knowing, Shelley’s poetic evocations of nature are a testament to the power of literariness to make some sense of the senseless, of love and loss, and the end of life itself.
I descended the mountains after my first alpine hike filled with excitement, propelled forward in a downward dive through the steep ravine carved out by the region’s largest waterfall. I had momentarily rediscovered myself; the challenge afforded by the scenery’s novelty providing the perfect medicinal blend. It’s disputable which emotion is the most powerful, destructive, or even transformative: anger, grief, joy, or love? To this list, I would add the desire for freedom. Some skill, natural talent, and a good deal of luck condition one’s freedom in the mountains, just as in life. And just like the mountains, life is full of peaks and troughs, without which it wouldn’t be what it is. That first hike in the Alps was both a trough and a peak, a boundary reluctantly crossed, which I often look back to with ambivalent, sometimes teary, fondness.
Click on the links below for an online version of the texts mentioned in this article.
Pirsig, R.M. (1974). Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
Shelley, M. (1818). The Last Man.