Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Multiple exposure

Returning to "Sacred Mountains" class after the Snow Day there was a lot of material waiting to be discussed and digested. We hadn't debriefed after my colleague's class visit and the particularities of sound as a medium. They'd read the main theoretical chapters of Edwin Bernbaum's Sacred Mountains of the World. And I'd asked students to go to the Roerich Museum. And they should be at work on an essay reflecting on the paradox, if it is one, of studying mountains without a mountain to help us. I can't describe all the directions our swooping diving climbing discussion took, but here are two moments.

One came from rereading John Muir's dismissal of words' capacity to replicate the experience of mountains, which I hadn't before noticed flows right into an appreciation of "exposure" modeled on photography! (See above.) The "human soul" is more sensitive than any "earthly chemicals," yes, but Nature, far from playing hard to get, "willingly ... poses herself on photographers' plates." We'll get to the gendering at work here, but for now I let Muir's words undermine the overstated dismissal of the power of reproduction and transmission. It set the stage for a useful discussion of how Roerich's paintings (like "Himalayas," 1933, below), and even the way they are displayed at the Museum, work.
A related 19th century visual technology came into play as we discussed Bernbaum's view that sacred mountains offer a depth experience of a universal reality because they are experienced "stereoscopically," both as natural and supernatural at the same time. Students had no idea what a stereoscope was, of course, so I brought in a card I found in an antiques barn upstate a dozen years ago. (It's St. George's church on Stuyvesant Park after a fire in 1865!) I think seeing it helped students get what Bernbaum was trying to say, perhaps because the image of a stereoscope I pulled up looked like today's VR goggles.

Excited discussion followed about the ways one might use images, sounds, words to characterize experiences of mystery and sacredness... It wasn't the moment to call in question Bernbaum's easy assumption that the double vision assures a symphony of spiritual depth rather than just the dispiriting noise of cognitive dissonance; there'll be time for that. That may indeed be our superstition about mountains.
Sacred Summits: John Muir’s Greatest Climbs, ed. Graham White
(Edinburgh: Canongate, 1999), 83; Edwin Bernbaum, Sacred Mountains
of the World (San Fransisco: Sierra Club Books, 1992), 152 [Yosemite photo], 213

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