Thursday, February 23, 2017

Resisting the temptation of distance

The sacred mountains class became an extended infomercial for museums today. From the Met to the Rubin, Roerich Museum to Brooklyn Museum, I kept find myself telling students to go look at artworks on display around us. I even commended an exhibition I didn't find particularly inspiring when I saw it, the Met's new show "The Mysterious Landscapes of Hercules Segers," where I saw the print above. I put the image up as students discussed their first papers, in which I'd asked them to reflect on a claim taken (out of context) from Lama Anagarika Govinda, "To see the greatness of a mountain, one must be at a distance from it" - provocative in a course condemned to distance!

The papers were creative and resourceful, really impressive. While several protested that the toil of the trek or the vastness of a summig view are irreplaceable, many students found ways to agree with the assertion, considering temporal and emotional as well as physical distance. Isn't the greatness apprehended after the encounter? Does it perhaps prove itself only in the effect it has on someone's life? Some went so far as to say that it's better not to be in the presence of a mountain, let alone slogging up its tiring paths, seeing only what's right in front of you; to appreciate it as a mountain it's better to be coolly absorbing the reports and images of others' mountain experiences. Segers' landscapes are fascinating in part because he never left his flat Dutch home, faithfully reproduced at the center of his craggy capriccio.

Our reading for today was chapters 4 and 5 of Veronica della Dora's entirely wonderful Mountain: Nature and Culture, "Mountains and Vision" and "Mountains and Time." The latter helps historicize our sense of mountains as ancient ruins, formed over geological deep time, rather than as, say, the rubble produced by the Flood, temporary until "every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low" (Isa. 40:4). The former occupied most of our discussion, though, as it offers instruction in "premodern topographic ways of seeing."

We had an amazing discussion of her two representations of the temptation of Christ (above), painted 500 years apart. In the former, by Duccio, organized like an icon, sizes and relations aren't "realistic" but true; Christ is bigger than the mountain to which Satan takes him, and bigger than the cities seen from it. Everything is seen from his vantage point, including the viewer. In the latter, by a William Raphael Smith, all the figures - including Christ's - are dwarfed by a broad landscape; more, the vantage is that of the viewer surveying all, including Christ.

Talk about temptation!

And then it was time for Chinese landscape. della Dora includes a reproduction of Guo Xi's "Early Spring," but the book is small and the picture even smaller, so I brought my poster of Wang Meng's "East Morning Thatched Cottage View" and we spread it out on the table between us. (Images of both, above.) It wasn't ideal, but it worked. Students quickly found themselves drawn into details, discovering tiny figures in various places, paths, streams and peaks appearing and disappearing. Without any relevant experience nobody'd remarked what della Dora said. Now, when I read it aloud, everyone got it: Chinese landscape painting offers a different way of seeing. While Western perspectival painting (and later mechanized photography) requires a fixed viewer gazing down from an elevated vantage point, Chinese landscape painting emphasizes the necessity of moving through the landscape, of wandering through the mountains. (134) Not "wandering through the painted mountains."

As we wandered Wang Meng's mountains in our classroom the question of distance collapsed under its own airless weight. Bernbaum's triangulations seemed empty, while Dogen came back with the force of the obvious: There are mountains hidden in marshes, mountains hidden in the sky; there are mountains hidden in mountains. There is a study of mountains hidden in hiddenness.

To end I read the whole passage by Govinda from which I'd poached the essay prompt. (It's easy to find online, and I'm a little disappointed only one student did, though several found the same clipping on websites of "great quotes.")

To see the greatness of a mountain, one must be at a distance from it; to understand its form, one must move around it; to experience its moods, one must see it at sunrise and sunset, at noon and at midnight, in sun and in rain, in snow and in storm, in summer and winter, and in spring and autumn. He who can see the mountain in this manner comes near to the life of the mountain, which is as intense as that of a human being. Mountains grow and decay, they breathe and pulsate with life, They attract and collect invisible energies from their surroundings: the energies of the air, of the water, of electricity and magnetism; they create winds, clouds, thunder-storms, rains, waterfalls, and rivers. They fill their surroundings with life and give shelter and food to innumerable living things. Such is the greatness of a mountain.
Lama Anagarika Govinda, “Foreword: Sacred Mountains,” in W. Y. Evans-Wentz,
Cuchama and Sacred Mountains (Athens: Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 1981), xxx

We're in a good place to continue our wandering. We've named the problems - and the temptations - of distance. We've also tasted the ways in which, even in the absence of mountains, we can yet acknowledge and even sense their life.

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