Thursday, December 15, 2016

Cathedral mounts

Veronica della Dora's Mountain: Nature and Culture (Reaktion, 2016) is a gem. While perhaps too Europe-focused for my class, it's a wonderful account of changing western understandings of mountains. I'd known that the Alps had been seen as chaotic and ugly before their reclamation as sublime in the 18th century, but it hadn't occurred to me that it was only with the advent of geology - and the opening up of "geological time" - that they came to be seen as historical, changing, eroding, ruins. In fact I hadn't realized that I appreciate mountains as ruins in much this way! della Dora includes images and quotations from all manner of fascinating engagements, some of which strike me as things I must have read before, even as I know I haven't. Here's one:

[Mountains] are the great cathedrals of the earth, with their gates of rock, pavements of cloud, choirs of stream and stone, altars of snow, and vaults of purple traversed by the continual stars. They seem to have been built for the human race, as at once their schools and cathedrals; full of treasures of illuminated manuscript for the scholar, kindly in simple lessons to the worker, quiet in pale cloisters for the thinker, glorious in holiness for the worshipper ... 

That's John Ruskin in 1856. Who knew that his Modern Painters devoted a whole book (book V) to mountains? della Dora writes:

For Ruskin, mountains were the highest and most tangible expression of divine love: first, mountains served to purify the air; second, they sustained the flowing of rivers; third, and most significantly for Ruskin, they had been created to delight humans, to awaken their poetic and religious consciousness. ... As for geologists, for the art critic mountains were magnificent and insistently material objects, but they were also frail and perishable. Like a building, they deteriorated over time. Their histories were ones of endurance and destruction, of eternal decay. ... However, the difference between human architecture and the divine architecture of mountains was that while with the former 'the designer did not calculate upon ruin', with the latter, ruin was part of God's purpose 'and the builder of the temple forever stands beside His work, appointing the stone that is to fall, and the pillar that is to be abased, and guiding all the seeming wildness of chance and change into ordained splendors and unforeseen harmonies'. 

I feel a little found out by these ideas, found out because - although I couldn't have articulated them in this way - they correspond in some deep way to the way I respond to mountains. Ruskin's view has the startling truth of phenomenology, even as it is clearly culturally and historically specific: not the way all people apprehend mountains, but the way some of us do. Including me. How did those ideas get inside me?


Mountain, 197-98, quoting Modern Painters IV. 349-50, 142; illustrations from Ruskin, 195
You can read the Ruskin passages in full here: 359 (the culmination of a great ode to the superior beauty of mountains), 144-45 (where the final harmonies are, however, foreseen); her pics are at 183, 187, but this one below, at 306, celebrating an image of Ruskin's pash J. M. W. Turner of Mount Pilatus, conveys the divine artistry view rather nicely, too:

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