Sunday, December 11, 2011

Ten Things I’ve Learned This Quarter

1. People are paying attention.
[They are not necessarily the people I would want to pay attention and they are seeing what I say and do much differently that how I would wish. But they are there, and they are listening intently.]

2. It turns out that if you say nasty, inconsiderate things, sooner or later it will get you in trouble with people who actually-kind-of have the power to ruin your life.

3. I’m not sure what I’m doing with this blog anymore.
[With my attempt to wean myself off of facebook (which has failed) there has been a corresponding transfer of general commentary. I’m not sure how I feel about this. I’m sure I’m posting much less polished writing, but I’m also posting far more frequently.
Here’s the thing, social networking operates on a very basic human urge. When I see or hear or think something interesting, I want to tell it to someone. I need validation that it is actually funny or sad or fascinating or whatever it is that I’m thinking. As I am alone for most of the time this need is suppressed and is coming out in embarrassingly frequent facebook status updates.
Of course if I say, had friends, this would not be an issue. But for now this ridiculous substitute will have to suffice.]

4. My class can be really great.
[here are some of my favorite moments, to avoid being sued or expelled I have removed all names. For humorous effect, I have left them without context. So if any of these seem, in any way, disturbing or inappropriate, please assume a context that removes those connotations.
(Whether I get over this one or the bedbugs first is still up in the air)

We’re going to spend a lot more time with this malicious demon - Professor

Dysentery? I thought they only got that in war - Student

Seminar: we may not have read that part of the Phaedo…
Professor: so then let’s go on to Aristotle-
Seminar: [laughter]

Cause you are not in a kennel, you are… wherever you study - Professor

That solves everything - Student

This is Hume’s problem, Descartes doesn’t have this problem, he has other problems, Plato doesn’t have this problem, actually neither of them have problems, they’ve been dead a long time. - Professor

Absolutism can be prohibitively expensive - Professor

Professor: [Student 1] came in this morning, and was it painful?
Student 1: very.
Professor: it’s long, takes about two and a half hours.
Student 2: does it!?!

Just call be Louis - Professor

Professor: why is there a duckbilled platypus?
Student: because it’s great

And like all small, tight-knit groups of people there is a lot of fights and bickering - Student

When your mind is at its most chaotic, when you have three papers due at the same time, 500 pages to read for history, your cat has cancer, you got a parking ticket for your bicycle... what else can go wrong for a student at Seattle University... you lost your Liebnitz text running from the police at Occupy Seattle, oh and you’re drinking again too - Professor

Student 1: I’m inclined to think that the understanding is a substance
Student 2: I think it's gooey

McDowell is like Satan, he has contrived the whole thing.
- Professor

The passing of excrement was revolutionized by Chinese rhubarb, among other things like antimony. If Hooke ever ate Casu Marzu, he had many many ways of getting it out of his body. And Louis XIV had a tapeworm. That's just all you ever need to know in life.
- Student

There are many more but these are perhaps the most judicious]

5. I am actually capable of writing a essay at three in the morning. It won’t be pretty but it will get a passing grade.
[I am apparently also capable of researching and writing a ten page paper in 24 hours. I would not advise either of these things but it’s nice to know what you are capable of.]

6. Things I’ve learned from Hulu ads:
Verizon phones cause property damage and are built on stolen technology
Everyone wants pictures of your baby
Cellphone companies can control the weather
Buying car insurance is analogous to any number of mildly humorous situations
War is so much fun!
Having insurance makes bad things ok
Your child’s future happiness will be determined by which formula you feed her
Five hour energy hired a middle school drama student to make their ads
You should never be without a glowing rectangle to distract you
Someone is willing to pay for random environmental advice
Everyone aspires to be a white, upper-middle-class family of four
Hipsters drive Fiats
Cool people drink Mike’s Hard Lemonade, even cooler people drink Bud Light

7. Cormac McCarthy is an amazing man (technically a cheat, I knew this one already)
[a demonstration -

Black: That’s what sent you off the platform, it wasn’t anything personal?
White: Oh it’s personal, that’s what an education does, it makes the world personal
- Sunset Limited (film version now on youtube in 15 minute segments!)

I think by the time you're grown you're as happy as you're goin to be. You'll have good times and bad times, but in the end you'll be about as happy as you was before. Or as unhappy. I've knowed people that just never did get the hang of it.
- No Country For Old Men

See, isn’t he the greatest living writer?]

8. Arthurian Romance: shit makes so much more sense when you’ve read it.
[it was the core of chivalric literature, which was the popular reading material for almost 500 years. The modern novel owes everything to it. The tabletop adventure role-playing game, and by extension the online role-playing game, owes it even more. Smart people reference it almost as much as Shakespeare. It makes A Knight’s Tale, the film with Heath Ledger, really, really funny.]

9. Life is confusing and I don’t know what to do
[The college life is not working. I am finding it unbearably stressful and lonely. I have waited more than a year now for it to improve naturally. It does not look like I am going to adjust to the rigors of academic life. Nor does it look like I am going to develop a close group of friends. There is simply no reason for these things to happen that has not been met in the past year.
I do not need to talk with my professors. I don’t need to take a break or change my major. All of the standard solutions are ineffective. If there was an immediately apparent course of action I would have found it.
This is not end-of-the-quarter stress speaking, my finals are over. This is just me honestly attempting to evaluate whether I want to put myself through another two quarters (or two years) of life at SU.
Conversely, education is my only way forward. I know what I want to do with my life but I don’t know of any other way to get there than to finish my degree and then get several more. I am failing at college pretty spectacularly but I know of no other way to get to the only future I can actually imagine enjoying.]

10. This one is going to be another cheat because I knew it before, but this quarter has really driven it home: It is impossible to know how things will turn out.
[the startlingly unexpected occurs on a regular basis, in the words of the author of A Fish Out Of Water, “something may happen and you never know what”]

Thursday, December 8, 2011

A Definition of Hypocrisy

inspired by

“Never be satisfied with anything less than your true potential”
[the list of possible true potentials can be found on page 14 of the student handbook]

“Live each day like it could be your last”
[the wisdom of this one actually depends entirely on the extent of your imagination]

"Don't be afraid to rock the boat"
[note: all that's really changed is that we've built a boat impervious to ideology, get close enough to it with anything else and you'll see how nasty we are when we're seasick.]

"Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don't matter and those who matter don't mind."
[be aware, if they actually mind enough they begin to matter in rather unpleasant ways]

"Our diversity makes us strong, every perspective is valuable"
[see officer, I was just trying to get them to understand that their mantra of "diversity" is just a different idea of how people should conform, I was never actually going to...]

“You can tell me anything”
[that’s really weird. Seriously, like, ew. I meant we could commiserate about not meeting our families’ expectations or something]

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Convulsions of a Forgetful Pianist

In high school I took a rather odd course called Theory of Knowledge; it was one part deconstructionist philosophy, one part introductory logic and rhetoric, and one part college application prep. We mostly read about ways of knowing, did critical thinking drills, and learned how to write reasoned arguments. It was the best class I had ever taken.
On of the first subjects we attacked, and I use that word with every connotation of its meaning - by the time we moved on from a subject I invariably felt that I knew less about it than when we started, was memory. One class we watched a short film about a great pianist whose name I have unfortunately forgotten. In an accident of some kind, the specifics of which I also cannot recall, he had lost his long-term memory. As soon as he looked away from someone and then looked back it was as if he had never met them. That is unless he had an emotional attachment to the person before the accident - he acted very loving toward his wife. The mind apparently stores emotional connections differently than linear memory.
Another thing he had not lost was his musical skills. He could not practice an instrument or compose music, as he could not concentrate on anything for more than, at the very longest, a couple minutes minutes. But he could sight-read beautifully. His wife would set him in front of a piano and as long as she kept the pages of the sheet music turning he would keep playing - he was truly a gifted musician. She did this rarely though, because of what would happen when he would stop. When the song would end or she would stop turning the pages he would go into convulsions. His doctors said that what was happening was that his brain desperately needed continuity (he would keep journals, pages and pages of mostly identical paragraphs describing how he felt like he had just woken up and was confused as to what was going on) and that in the task of sight-reading he had found it, and the forcible shock from that security back into a memory-examining state, for which there was no memory to examine, was a violent transition. What happens when you sight-read, and I played the cello for eight years so I can say this with some idea of what I am talking about, is that you are completely absorbed by the task, you don’t think about the past or the future or anything but the note you are playing at that moment and perhaps the note you will play next.
I recount this story not because of any psychological insight I can offer into that poor man’s condition, but because his sight-reading offers an possibly insightful way of looking at my own behavior. Non-being does not really frighten me - I cannot conceive of not existing; it is infinity that I live in fear of. Descartes claimed that the existence of the idea of infinity in our minds cannot be attributed to anything other than an innate idea planted by God. I disagree. Consciousness is, as far as any individual can tell, infinite. I know on some level that I could cease to exist, but I cannot really imagine it, and so I perceive myself as an infinite being. And this is my dread: all of existence stretched out before and behind me, all of it a dim blur. Most of the time this fearfulness is on the periphery, little flashes of it may emerge from time to time but for the most part I am able to suppress it. But sometimes when I am absorbed in a project, usually a literary one, I let down my guard. I throw myself into the intellectual game of composition, argumentation, crafting words into landscapes and sculptures and songs. And I forget where I am. In those moments I could be anywhere on earth - there is only my mind and my tongue and the words I am writing. But then it ends and all the horror of the infinite comes rushing down upon me. Everything that cannot be changed and everything I may become and everything I may pass by forever. Like that forgetful pianist I find temporary shelter in the act of creation but when it is done I am more aware of the horror than I was before. Yet still I begin to write. I sit down with the intension of losing myself knowing, on some level, that I will have to end. It is the behavior of any drug addict, any alcoholic, any escapist.
Tolkien wrote about escapism. He said that the man in prison should not be faulted for trying to escape or, if this is impossible, trying to think of things besides bars and locks. On some level it is foolish to escape into a fantasy you know will end in pain, but only if you do so without thought to that pain. The pain must be understood and accepted - it must be an accepted consequence.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Envisioning Life

I’ve been thinking, of late, of some other ways to envision my life.

Life as Nightmare
I am increasingly, of late, gripped by the suspicion that my life is a dream. Each time it seems to be nearing some normality it shifts in increasingly bizarre and unpleasant ways. It no longer seems as comprehensible as reality is supposed to be. I can no longer see the form of truth behind it. At any moment I expect to wake up, sometimes it is a happy prospect, sometimes fearful.

Life as Demonic Assault
I have had the feeling, of late, of a presence following me. When I am alone I see it at the corners of my vision and around the edges of things. When I am still it whispers into my ear all of my most hated memories, of which I suspect this day will become one. Surely there must be some malicious strength wrecking all of my intensions, for as soon as I grasp strongly some goodness, misfortune and despair come crashing down around me, the greater the goodness the worse the wreckage. The demon wants nothing more than for me to be afraid and alone and totally hopeless, and it knows well how to twist these thoughts within me.

Life as Equilibrium
Cormac McCarthy wrote in No Country For Old Men that “by the time you're grown you're as happy as you're [going] to be. You'll have good times and bad times, but in the end you'll be about as happy as you was before. Or as unhappy. I've [known] people that just never did get the hang of it.”
I am not really any more or less happy than I was two years ago and I see little reason for that to change. Except for one thing, and I don’t really know what to make of it. There are possibilities on the horizon in ways I had not thought I would ever see. Perhaps a time is coming that will bring my adolescence into balance, so that my life is not an equilibrium of constant mediocrity but blackest despair and wild joy in equal parts.

This shit is like a car accident, you just keep replaying it over and over in your head like there is something you will see that you missed all the other times.
I was not drunk. And I was not on a motorcycle. But I’m not sure I could have fucked things up any more supremely if I was.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Determinism Explained

I believe in absolute determinism.
I have my justifications - the world is composed of cause and effect and free will is an illusion created by our decision-making experience. I could lay out the entire proof but no one who believes in free will would be convinced. They never are, and there is a large sum of gratitude waiting for the first person who can tell me why. The best I’ve been able to come up with is that it has something to do with the mechanistic conception of the human mind I picked up in my high school Psychology class.
But the proof is not why I believe it. The proof is rarely why anyone believes anything. We believe things because of what they mean not rationally, but emotionally.
So here is my emotional justification for determinism.
I think those who believe in free will should be able to understand it. If it is still incomprehensible why someone would believe that there is not a special human faculty apart from causation capable of making a “free” choice, please let me know.

Years ago, before I knew why, I felt determinism to be true. Yet what I felt was not the truth of the idea, but the power. For in determinism all things are decided. All history is written - my life, all lives. And it is useless to speak of responsibility or guilt or right or wrong. There is what happened and why it happened and it could not have happened any other way.
This mantra I repeat daily because determinism was my way out of the all-consuming guilt from which I could not free myself. Luther found grace by faith, but I never understood forgiveness. Calvin found predestination, which is close but still requires a trustworthy god.
Guilt from what you may ask, I am not a murder or a rapist. But I read and I believe that he who hates his brother has murdered him in his heart. I have not done these things, but I am as bad as those that have.
But only if there is free will. If there is not, I am just the product of my causes; if those causes have made me violent or lustful I am not lesser for it. I could not have been any different. I am not imperfect if perfection was never an option.
Determinism was my escape from the despair every (ex)Protestant fights against, the despair of knowing there is nothing you can do to justify yourself.
Under the gentle tyranny of determinism I no longer have to care about the world or what goes on in it. These things had to happen and there is no use in tearing myself apart over them.
This is no idle hyperbole. I believe in determinism so that I do not tear myself apart over the imperfection of the world.

This is why I believe, ardently and completely, in determinism.
So each night when I face my failure and my weakness and am consumed by self-hatred I can calm myself and remind myself that however things went, it is the only way they could have gone and under those circumstances there was nothing I could have done differently.
Then instead of throwing myself off of an overpass or falling on my knife I can go to bed and hope that tomorrow things will be determined differently. So far they haven’t but you never know.

Friday, November 25, 2011

On Contradictions

Here’s the thing, people contradict themselves on a grossly regular basis; which, on a deterministic level, is really weird. I think it means that stated intensions have nothing to do with actual intensions or actual actions. Here’s a few examples.
I don’t like dogs. Or social networking. Or modern ideas about gender relations. Or stupid memes. But a brief scroll through my browser history would reveal that I am either very confused or a liar.
But despite the fact that I spent a couple hours Monday night reading about Tibetan Mastiffs I really do not care for dogs. I wouldn’t let this distaste get in the way of obtaining a couple of them if I was going to live in a small A-frame cabin in the Alaskan wilderness, but this is a highly specialized circumstance.
And then there’s the Batman Begins moment, sometimes what people actually do matters more than what they think they mean on the inside.
I think the conclusion here is that sometimes things happen, other forces, other causes, intervene and produce an effect different from what you would hope. But sometimes you have just been fooling yourself.
Here’s another example, sometimes people say that they like you, and that they are your friend. I don’t know what they mean by this. What is a friend if not someone who, if you have fallen into a pit, will fix and lower a rope? This seems like basic human courtesy to me, like maybe the bare minimum of what it might be to treat someone like a fellow person. Yet as far as I can tell some people use the word friend to mean something more to the effect of, let the man who has cut the rope fall. It is not like the sentiment doesn’t make sense on some level, it’s just not friendship.
So here’s the thing, do I take it that the people who have treated their friend in this way genuinely do not care if he lives or dies, or do I assume that, just as I have many times, they are contradicting themselves? That other circumstances have intervened and they simply did not express whatever it was that they truly felt? On the other hand, might these events reveal deeper feeling that their words so carefully hid?
There is, of course, no way to know. I can only judge my own intensions, and even those rather badly. I’m not going to assume the best of people just because I can. But I also need to be able to deal with these people, whose stated feelings I can no longer trust in any way.
It is a dilemma for which time may be the only solution.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

On Social Justice

To those who feel underprivileged,
I understand your plight. You want to be able to do what you want to do without worrying about conditions that are beyond your control. It is a reasonable enough thing. You have every right to pursue it. But I’d like to offer a word of warning.
I am a middle-class, white, male raised protestant in a healthy two parent household with a stay-at-home mother. I attended public school but took advanced classes, academics always came easy to me because my parents cultivated an environment of introspection, creativity, and literacy. My parents are also helping me pay for college. I have never had trouble finding employment.
I am the essence of middle-class privilege. And I have spent the last five years largely alone and miserable. It does not matter that I can choose whatever career I want - the system of privileged you bemoan has not made me happy or content.
You look at your life and you see very real boundaries, and you think that if you could somehow get past these you would be content with your place in the world. Maybe you would. Maybe you are a woman who wants to be a high powered executive and you struggle with never being taken seriously. Maybe you are an immigrant and you want to hold high office but you know that if nothing else the difficulty English-speakers have pronouncing your name will bare you from it. Maybe you are gay and you know that even within the liberal urban culture that claims to be accepting you have been pigeonholed as a curiosity. Whatever manner in which you feel underprivileged, you believe that if you could become privileged, or if the system of privilege could be dismantled, your life would be appreciably better. Again, maybe it would.
I don’t know you, I don’t know your life. But as someone who does not feel underprivileged, I can tell you that it doesn’t make your life wonderful. It is nice being the ethnic majority and the gender that traditionally wields power, but I cannot think of a time in my life that this has made any appreciable difference to me.
One day things may be different and whatever you are that causes you to feel underprivileged will privilege you. But you still won’t be able to do whatever you want or be whoever you want. You still will not be able to control your life. You will still have to accept your place in the order of things.
So fight your fight, battle the forces of injustice and tyranny. But first think very carefully about what you want, because if it is happiness there is no guarantee you will find it in victory.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Where I'm At

disclaimer: I don't really believe in secrets. I like being able to trust people. I have a hard time seeing the negative consequences of being uncomfortably truthful. 

It is pretty clear at this point that I am unable to handle the ordinary pressures of college. going to classes, writing essays by due dates, being around attractive people, etc. 
But I don't really see any other good options and I've tried all the normal solutions - talking to professors, counseling, going home more often, being academically responsible, etc.
Somehow I always end up feeling trapped and alone and mildly suicidal. 

It feels like I have to prove that I am capable of this with everything I do. Like I can't get past the slightest block.
Feeling incapable of writing an essay? - better drop out or, better yet, kill yourself.
Can't complete a reading? - same, if you can't manage the basics of the academic life you shouldn't be here.

So the options are as follows
1. stay in college
pros - I'm already here
cons - it brings me to where I am now

2. drop out
pros - it's an escape from where I'm at now
cons - there's nothing to do but get a menial job

3. kill myself
pros - I don't have to deal with anything any more
cons - much, much, much more difficult than doing nothing

Any input would be great.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

On Gods v.2

This is what happens when, over the course of a few weeks, I am assigned Descartes and Milton and then get into a long discussion about redemption and multiple arguments about free-will. You get to decide whether my idea-digestive-tract produces analogous results to my food-digestive-tract.

The following is an examination of the Judeo-Christian understanding of God. How Islamic monotheism or Hindu polytheism and it’s offshoots would relate I do not know, as I am not anything approaching thoroughly read in those traditions.
The basis of the total trust in and devotion to God demanded by Judeo-Christian religion is the nature of God as omnipotent, omniscient, eternally unchanging and loving.
It thus follows that whatever happens, God is totally in control and will always do what is best, no matter how insane things seem to us at the time. And things seem extremely insane. The world is in no way an ok place, the only way God can be good and the world be the way be evil is that the evil is part of a process toward a higher good. Any lessening in our ability to trust God must then result in a breakdown in our faith in this process, and therefore any notion of God as good.
Unfortunately there is a contradiction at the very core of this definition of God. No being can be both loving and unchanging, and without both total trust is irrational.
Without being infinitely loving God’s motives cannot be trusted.
Without being eternally unchanging God’s control cannot be trusted.
The bible frequently speaks of God being affected by the actions of men, being grieved, made angry, pleased etc. If he is eternally all-powerful and all-knowing this makes no sense what-so-ever. All of these emotions require some element of surprise, of the unexpected. For such a god there could be no unexpected, and therefore no emotional response. Love however, demands these responses; love demands affection. If one cannot be affected one cannot love. And if one is able to be affected one cannot be unchanging. Thus if God is loving, we are able to change him, and therefore, because change opens the possibility for error by calling his omnipotence and omniscience into question, he cannot be fully trusted.
Likewise, if we hold that he is eternally unchanging, he cannot love us and therefore cannot be trusted because his intensions will always be suspect.
Of course the radical determinism I find logically necessary in the causal (rational and mechanistic) understanding of the universe makes resistance to God on these ground futile. In a Miltonic sense, no matter how much we rebel we can never get away from God’s will. This of course takes the latter of the two options for the nature of God - whatever love the eternal God has for men he is outside of the time-space continuum and cannot be affected by us (If the opposite were to be assumed, and God was inside the time-space continuum, we would be faced with the impossible task of proving his physical existence), therefore his love is fundamentally different from ours and not able to be understood.
This incomprehensible love, as well as any more general appeal to the mystery of divinity (i.e. God is beyond all your logic), has the similar effect of negating rational trust. I cannot (and it is irrational to) trust something I do not understand.
Fortunately, the existence of this sort of person-God is not necessary. The various proofs of God I have come into contact with, Thomistic (relating to ultimate origins), Ontological (relating to the inherent necessities of perfection), or Cartesian (establishing the existence of perfection and infinity and positing that there must be a being to possess these things because they are not present in our world) are not all that convincing and regardless, prove the existence of only the most shadowy, Aristotelian prime-mover type deity.
In conclusion - the two options for the theistic structure of the universe are:
1. Deistic Agnosticism - there must be something that started the universe, we can call it God if you like; other that that, God is unknowable.
2. We are trapped in a nightmare scenario akin to that of Satan in Paradise Lost, unable to justify a trust in God and utterly incapable of escaping his will. Doomed to hell, internal and external, until God deigns to destroy us.
The second option does have a certain philosophically masochistic appeal to it but for the sake of my sanity I’m leaning toward the first.

Monday, November 14, 2011

In You Is Lebanon

The earth has a long memory but
Awash and shifting,
Men and rivers,
The history it tells is like skin.
The deeper wounds remain
And the old colors do not fade,
But the middling things -
They are gone with the rain.
The swelling and the burn,
All returns to the place of its birth and
Yet there were cedars in Lebanon
And mastodons on the scabland.
Of these things there is a remnant or none
And little mark of their life
But fossils like scar tissue and
Histories of what once was verdant.
Thus within you is the memory of all contained,
For you and in you
The cedars will grow forever.

Monday, November 7, 2011

In Heaven Falls Night

I am ice.
Have you touched something so cold you
Found painful the tearing away?
Nothing is on fire.

I saw once, blue flames and
Have tried to set light to the ruins we
Found in the glacier, but there was
Nothing left that would burn, and the djinn chased us into the forest.

I have washed my face in melt water,
Have you felt such frigid streams?
Found is the dirge and found is the hymn,
Nothing else to sing.

I am ice?
Have you seen within me the collapsing matrix and
Found the melting core?
Nothing is a fire.

In heaven falls night,
And though the stars and moon speak of a coming dawn,
It is not brighter for the hope.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Why I Write

Despite my general skepticism of online psychological personality tests, I recently took one after seeing a reference to it on Facebook. The results were anything but surprising. Shock of all shocks: I am an individualist who defines myself in terms of how I am different from everyone else. That this is a category is a little disturbing but that’s beside the point. Because I like to think about myself (being self-absorbed is another characteristic trait) I read most of what the site had to say about my categorization. In reference to how people like me tend to fixate on our own thought patterns, particularly negative ones, the following advice was given: people with this type of personality are heavily dependent on their feelings; they think that if they can understand their feelings, if they can gain some sort of radical self-revelation, they will be able to overcome their circumstances. This is not the case, the most that they will gain is an understanding of why they are feeling those feelings right then, the knowledge or expression of what they are feeling will not actually help the situation.
The authority of the website I visited is irrelevant - it could have been written by the Argentinean Nazi Party, the International Union of Jungian Transvestites, or the Bank of America. The point is not that I have gained some deep psychological insight. I find the notion that self-expression may not be helpful disturbing not because I read it on the internet but because I have been suspecting the same thing for a few weeks now.
When I am feeling something particularly intensely I write it down. How intensely I am feeling said sentiment relates to the medium in which it is written (the hierarchy is something like: typed – pencil and paper – ink and paper [repetitive] – sharpie or pen on skin – knife in skin). What I am trying to do is get the thought out of my head; but when I really reflect on the progression of my writing over the last few years, why I am trying to get the thought out of my head has changed drastically. Two years ago, when I was working at Washington Graphics, I wrote my first short story. The words came to me as I was manning the rear end of a screen-print UV drier and I scribbled down the first few pages during my three-o-clock break. Over the next week or so I would actually carry my notebook with me around the production floor and whenever I was doing something with natural breaks I would write during the dead time (of which, as any screen-printer will tell you, there is often quite a bit). Several times on my return commute I had to pull over and write a few particularly pressing sentences before I even got home. For the first time, it felt like in years (the last two years of high school sucked rather magnificently), I genuinely felt that what I was doing was important and valuable and I didn’t want to miss a word. I didn’t want to loose the flow of prose that came so easily after reading most of Cormac McCarthy’s work over the span of a few months.
Although I tend to put it in similar terms, what I experience now is far different. When a thought is torturing me I don’t want it immortalized. I’m not worried about forgetting it before I can write it down. I want it out of my head. I think that somehow if I put the right words to my pain and misery it will go away. Or at least I’ll be able to stand back, get some perspective, and deal with it; and this is generally what happened even up until this year. Last winter particularly I was able to bind my feeling into poems to the point where they lost their burning immediacy (this was the I Hold Four Hydras series). In the last of that cycle I gained some measure of resolution and things generally did improve.
I’m not sure what has changed but writing no longer has this effect on me. In the last few months, the more I have written about my feelings the worse they have become. Instead of binding the ideas into prose or verse so that I can more easily deal with them, the writing has only caused me to fixate – to focus on my feeling so exclusively that everything else becomes dream-like. My writing has caused me to enter into foul fantasy-laden moods where I am unable to communicate, empathize, or care about anything except the object of my fixation and my own expressions of it.
So the question I must now ask myself is whether the entire ordeal is worthwhile. I feel that it is important for my ambitions as a writer for me to express myself in literary form. Writing is like any discipline - if I stop I tend to loose my edge and when I come back I find the practice awkward and imitative. But if I am honest with myself I have serious doubts about my originality, proficiency and potential as a creative writer. I do not seriously believe that my poetry or short-fiction, let alone the fantasy epics or alternate histories, will attract popular or critical attention. I write therefore, for myself: to entertain, amuse, or console, at the very least to give myself something to do. But if my writing no longer functions to these purposes, I wonder whether I can justify it. I wonder whether I can really claim that it is worthwhile to write bad love poems when the concentration caused by the writing of those poems is only exacerbating my distress.
I don’t really have a conclusion to this except to explain one idea of where I might go as a writer. What I need in my writing is to have something to occupy my mind, to keep me so wrapped up in an obtuse and irrelevant topic that the real and pressing concerns of my life become less real and pressing. I can write a dozen poems trying to deal with the threat of being alone all my life but when they are done and posted I won’t feel any less terrified. Conversely, if I spend that time writing about Tolkien or mountain climbing or dialogues between long-dead philosophers I may forget all about the fact that I have no real, tangible friends outside of my classes and be able to fall into bed exhausted, thinking about nothing but the implications of Ungoliant’s threatening of Melkor or the ethics of roped travel or just giggling at my own stupidity.

- On an unrelated note -

How this works: I write things, and then I edit them, and then I post them, and then you read them. And I know that you exist – blogspot has a statistics function, I’ve had more page views over the last few weeks than at any point since I was in Europe. This pleases me; I don’t post my writing in case my computer crashes, I post it so that other people can read it, so that I won’t be working in a vacuum. Yet I find it disturbing how little response my writing elicits. Is my work really so ineffective that it causes no reaction at all? Does it really leave you feeling blank and unaffected? Because that is what one comment in the last dozen posts says to me (and regarding that one comment: thanks, it really made my day). As I said before, I don’t think my writing is all that good, I don’t think I’m enriching the literary landscape by posting my miserable little pieces. I’m doing this in the hopes that people will respond in constructive ways, that people will tell me what works and what doesn’t, what they found interesting and what didn’t make any sense at all. It’s all pretty selfish but then it is a blog – that’s sort of the point.
The gist of what I’m saying is that I feel like I’m speaking into thin air, and I don’t like it; I talk to myself enough as it is, I don’t need a special way of doing it such that I can hope, but never know, that someone is listening.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

And All And Ending, For My Executioner

This was written in response to an execution scene in Everything is Illuminated; which is the best film I have seen in a long time.
There’s nothing like thinking pointedly about death to make you want to feel alive.

From this angle the gun’s barrel is long and tapers to its lacunal mouth where in a moment a fire will be lit and a blast will sound that my ears will never hear and whatever it is that I am will cease to be.
This moment, as my executioner waits for the command to end me, is empty and overflowing.
My childhood first. Might they, my mother and my father, have seen this in my days? Could this evening have entered into their most fearful speculations? I remember sunshine and everything tall; but defined by its repetition, this vision is soon to be darkened. I think of these things now and I will never think of them again. I whispering, hallow them before my predestined bullet finds its resting place.
And then my youth. Again my parents but now there are other faces to be recalled. My friends and their consolation. The hope they spoke of, the wide yawning roads across the land. And the shadow that descended over my face, the feverish nights of pantomime and tearing. Life so of the moment that future and past were as dreams, the perfect negative to my present mind. There my fear was always of infinity, but here - here is the most finite of all possible times. Here I desire the very thing that once drove me to the source of my present longing. The finite and the infinite and the being and the non-being. However I steel myself these minutes have no care.
By now I see the turning - the reiteration of the traditions of the executed. I know what I am to think: doors I left unlocked, lights I left on, machines I left running as they dragged me away to this pale moonset. So many worries and concerns from which I will now be set free; in these quickly declining minutes I see what it is to live without a future. I think of what was and try to forget what is and know beyond doubt what will be.
What might have been - is this even open to me? There is no might-have-been, every one of my steps brought me here, there were no crossroads and no junctions, only the road made straight before me.
But what I would have wished, this is the last diversion as I see his hand tighten around the stock and his eye narrow against the sights. I would have wished to write about the books that I loved and to see the lands described within them. I would have wished to be one of the mighty, a place set for me at the table of my lord. I would have wished to be wished for, to be the name on some girl’s lips as she ran to me, and on her child’s lips as I held him. I would have wished to see in myself what I have seen in my father and to see in her what I have seen in my mother, to stand betwixt generations and know both past and future by their smell and feel.
These things I would have wished for but no longer, here all is ending in the air and darkness and my wishes have no currency. Here is the end of every song I have not sung and every word I have not written. Here all potential ends.
Here. And all. And ending –

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Calvin and Hobbes

So I was reading Hume and this sort of came to me.

Hobbes: you know, life really is nasty. and brutish. and short.
Calvin: and people are totally depraved.
Hobbes: actually, maybe just you. We need strong authoritarian government either way though.
Calvin: mostly just to stop everyone from dancing.
Hobbes: but what about making tuna-fish sandwiches?
Calvin: I don’t have a problem with that, but remember, there’s only a limited amount of atonement, so don’t use the whole jar.

That’s right, Hobbes uses atonement on his sandwiches instead of mayo.
I am an idiot.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Proof and Implications of the Life of Fire

- a non-reflexive examination of what it means to be alive -

Non-reflexive here meaning that I have consciously resisted back-editing based on conclusions reached later in the essay.

A definition of life as we may hope to encounter it independent of our own ancestry has three conditions: life must be a set of chemical reactions capable of
1. Self-propagation
2. Birth and death such that it can be said to have substance and life in the substance
3. Movement (caused by the life in the substance) independent of gravitational and geologic forces.
Fire, that is the combustion of organic matter instigated by human activity and electrical storms, can be considered life, but one that is only partially separate from our life. Fire lacks DNA, and therefore a carbon based body and any of the characteristics of the life of our ancestors. In fact, fire lacks a material body of any kind, which accounts for its relative fragility. Fire cannot endure and passes in and out of existence far more easily than we. Yet fire satisfies the definition of life laid out previously as long as a pure chemical reaction, independent of any enduring form, can be said to have substance.
Does fire then have life and substance, soul and body in the Aristotelian sense? That fire has life - soul - is obvious, it moves independently of gravitational and geologic forces, but its substance can only be detected if the life is removed: when what remains is found to have the peculiar, vacuous, expired quality of the body of a once-living thing.
If then, in creating fire we create life, our offspring take two forms - organic and fiery. To the organic we pass both body and soul, but the fiery only soul - its substance, though present, is immaterial.
If offspring derive their soul, their life, their movement against gravitational and geologic forces, from their parents (as must be the case, for where else could they get it?) are fires not of our making likewise ensouled? These fires are lit by lightening - could the storm too be alive? This cannot be the case - storms do not propagate themselves, they are created by the unequal distribution of the sun’s energy on the earth’s curved surface, and are therefore gravitational and geological in movement. The sun’s movement, though superficially similar to fire, is purely gravitational. Additionally, storms give no evidence of substance, either in life or in death. Therefore, despite its similarities to the domestic fire, the wild fire cannot be alive, for there is no where for it to get its life.
But this is impossible, though they begin in different manners, the wild fire and the domestic fire are chemically identical, the only difference between them is that the former cannot be considered truly independent of geological and gravitational forces for its movement.
Is life then wholly dependent upon its genesis and not its qualities? Could the first and second conditions be removed entirely?
Here it should be noted that geological movement is actually derived from and can be included in gravitational movement (the heat of the earth is a result of the great internal pressures, which are caused by gravity - the exploding volcano is thus, ironically, a gravitational movement).
Reducing the conditions of life to merely movement independent of gravity would not seem to alter the set of “living” things, but this is true only on a macro level. The movement of charged particles is in defiance of gravitational forces, but substances whose movement are dependent upon such forces (molecules, atoms, and smaller particles) cannot be called life because they are not born and cannot die - the forces that give them movement cannot leave them. The only exception might be nuclear fission, but as this is instigated by another living thing it is not problematic.
Thus the third condition could be amended to movement independent of gravity and other forces predicted by the laws of physics. The claim could be made that should the laws of physics be fully understood, no movement could be seen to be outside of them; and therefore there could be no life in the sense that it is meant here, which is entirely possible but not useful for this line of enquiry at this time.
Therefore the problem remains: life must be defined by both its origin and its qualities, yet domestic fire - a living thing - differs from wild fire - a non-living thing - only in its origin.
[see note at conclusion]
The possibility that wild fire is alive must be further examined. Because wild fire shares all of its qualities with domestic fire, it seems reasonable that it too is alive and another explanation must be found for how it could come to be ensouled without a living thing having produced it.
There must have been a point, assuming an expanding universe, at which there was no life. Therefore, given that we are alive, there must be a means by which the non-living becomes the living; and, unless there are multiple means, that same means must be found within a lightening strike.
We have thus far assumed that any life given to the fire came from an external source, (human efforts or lightening) but it would seem possible that the life of the wild fire comes not from the lightening but from the living thing that is struck. In this case the lightening would cause whatever it is that it strikes - say, a tree - to give birth to another form of life, just as we do when we strike a match. But this is impossible, for a dead man cannot strike a match but a dead tree stuck by lightening still brings forth fire. So unless a dead thing can cause life, a non-living thing is still the cause of the life of the wild fire.
We should then return to the issue of the non-living begetting life. It must have happened, if not in every wild fire then in the genesis of our ancestors, yet where could this contra-physical movement have come from?
Only five-hundred years ago a thinker face with this dilemma would have leapt upon the answer of God - big g God, the Judeo-Christian deity. But this disguises the issue, the claim behind the appeal to a higher power is the impossibility of the phenomenon under consideration. It appears then that unless this entire enquiry has been for naught and there is no contra-physical movement, a miracle is required - an instance in which a soul springs into being.
There is another option, if the third condition is removed but the first and second retained, there can be “life” in a radically deterministic (solely and utterly determined by physical laws) universe. In which case there is no sharp distinction between the living and the non-living, “life” is simply a human term for anything that propagates in a cycle of life and death.
We see now that life has no significance without the third condition, the term “life” creates no real distinction without it. The man may well be the popping ember, be the rock tumbling off the mountain; physical movement is physical movement, against which there can be no movement with out a miraculous occurrence.
Returning one last time to the fire, if there was a miracle that took non-living matter and brought forth our ancestors, then we may see the same miracle in the birth of every wild fire. This would be to admit the possibility of the impossible and to hint at movements we have no mechanism to detect or understand. Which would be a rather heinous mother-of-all-paradoxes unless we admit, like Socrates, that we may know nothing at all and that therefore there could be levels of the possible far above anything we currently understand.
Which is still to posit an unexplainable sort of biological singularity instead of admitting that our movement cannot be contra-physical.
In simpler terms, we - the living - might assume what we know to be impossible in order to placate our arrogance. The arrogance being the claim that the existence of the living is more significant, more extraordinary, and more meaningful than the existence of the non-living.
Or more reduced - pride versus objectivity.
Given the stakes (I don’t know how to be a person in a truly objective world), I’m honestly not sure.

The solution to the life of fire, by the way, is not all that complex -
The wild fire has the first two conditions but not the third, its movement is due solely to physical forces despite that that same movement can be caused by contra-physical forces in domestic fire. So in effect, if the third condition is amended the other two can be dropped. And if then the third condition is shown to be impossible to meet, if there are no contra-physical forces, if to be living does not mean as much as was previously assumed, the entire definition of life breaks down.
If there cannot be contra-physical movement, tracking the continuity of the life in the substance becomes meaningless. Robbed of their metaphysical distinction, life and death cannot be states of being with any significance and the distinction between man, ember and stone becomes purely semantic.

Friday, October 21, 2011

A Preliminary Defense of The Silmarillion

"But Ulmo was alone, he abode not in Valinor nor ever came thither unless there were need of a great council; he dwelt from the beginning of Arda in the Outer Ocean, and still he dwells there. Thence he governs the flowing of all waters, and the ebbing, the courses of all rivers and the replenishment of springs, the distilling of all dews and rain in every land beneath the sky. In the deep places he gives thought to music great and terrible; and the echo of that music runs through all the veins of the world in sorrow and in joy; for if joyful is the fountain that rises in the sun, its springs are in the wells of sorrow unfathomed at the foundations of the earth." (34)
- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion, now officially my favorite work of literature, ever.

I just love how every negative criticism of The Silmarillion that is at all discerning, i.e. not "the writing sucks and the story is lame," describes why I love it:
"too serious, lacking the light-hearted moments that were found in The Lord of the Rings and especially The Hobbit. TIME lamented that there was "no single, unifying quest and, above all, no band of brothers for the reader to identify with". Other criticisms included difficult to read archaic language and many difficult and hard-to-remember names." [copied from Wikipedia]

My advice for the adventurous few who may attempt Tolkien's greatest work:
1. Skip the Ainulindale and the Valequenta until after you've read the Quenta Silmarillion and the Akallabeth.
2. Stick a post-it in the genealogies in the back of the book and reference them until you are familiar with the Elven families (especially the House of Finwe), forgetting who is who is the fastest way to loose track of what is going on. Later on in the book doing the same for the map may also be helpful, but don't worry about locations in the earlier chapters. Obtaining a middle-earth atlas may be helpful, as the printings of Tolkien's original maps are often quite poor.
3. Consider reading The Children of Hurin first, it is an expansion of chapters 20 and 21 and will familiarize you with many of the major figures while giving a much more unified plot line. It is also fantastically depressing, Tolkien really had a flare of Greek tragedy.
4. Experience reading ancient and medieval literature is invaluable. The Silmarillion is not a novel, do not expect compelling dialogue, well developed characters in the modern sense, or a continuous plot. Pore over it like a three thousand year old epic and you will find depths in it that match Ovid, Virgil, Sturluson, and Dante.
5. Tolkien penned the first versions of the original stories, Beren and Luthien, the Children of Hurin, and the Fall of Gondolin, in the trenches on the western front of WWI. Don't expect anything light or frivolous, but know that "amid weeping there is joy and under the shadow of death light that endures." (190) It may be escapist fantasy, but it is not an escape into anything less terrifying or beautiful than the world from which one may wish to flee.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Hydra Cycle

Another attempt at macro-composition. All have been posted at one time or another, most have been revised, some heavily.
Because maybe if I spend enough time thinking about this it will go away (at least if I post it I won’t be able to work on it for a few days).

The Hazards of Fish II

They are binding my hands,
Thick cords of leather;
And my feet.
Around the binding is another rope, thrice-wound and strong,
Between my hands and feet extended and
Lashed to the harness of an ass.
They yell curtly and the animals trot each forward,
Each their end to me.
Dragged through the dirt as the lines goes taut, one before the other
And then I am suspended
And my spine is separating
And the cord is cutting my wrists to the bone
And my stomach tears
And my intestines are in the dirt
And the ass does not stop, pale coils dragging behind.
Passing them, my murderers, I see their faces:
Mine each one,
And the ass too I see is myself, pulling with all the strength of my body,
And there are no bindings, I grip the rope my fingers clenched;
For no man may be torn to pieces such that he himself is not party.

I Hold Four Hydras (I)

I the crippled satyr
Have left cloven hoof prints in the garden and
Found the child entombed;
Her fetal bones soft in the bejeweled casket.

I fail and call;
Have the oak in her mourning
Found refuge from deathly Saturn,
Her limbs barred before the gale?

I move not and
Have never a fear,
Found though she is
Her door is shut.

I sleep in the sun on my bed in my room and I
Have a dream that high though the peak rose I reached its summit and
Found dead men;
Her face in the moonlight, too far from the shore.

I hold four hydras,
Here in my hands,
And they bite and they tear and I cannot let them go.

I Hold Four Hydras (IV)

I hate,
Have I never,
Found is the word;
Hers is a cruel gaze to see my eyes but not their fear.

I, the whole of hell within;
Have you, Catullus,
Found such a bullet in your ventricle for
Her to parse?

I write on air flowing into the four winds,
Have you, Catullus,
Found such waves filled with the promises of the Lethe,
Her image failing even as it is composed?

I fear all things unpromised
Have fictions unturned;
Found I never
Her name?

I hold four hydras,
Mythic beasts that never bred upon the earth,
And their poison runs within me.

I Hold Four Hydras (III)

I know I cannot swim and still I dream of diving deep into subterranean waters where the world is lit by flowering polyps, those who
Have never seen the ocean floor nor felt its membranous sands might still have
Found any of its treasures for white and deadened they drift to
Her like vapor in the currents of the farther waves.

I know I cannot swim and
Have never seen the ocean floor nor
Found any of its treasures for
Her like vapor in the current.

I know I
Have never
Found any of
Her like.

I hold four hydras,
And one slips from my grasp,
Three hydras to demarc the tide.

Ave Maria

Behold the lady of the garden,
Her white and downturned face a thousand years sacred.
Behold her dim entangled radiance,
The hood and the robe,
And the blossoms at her feet.
Behold her,
Her and not the hydras nearly slain.

I held them, here in my hands
And they died twixt my fingers.
Died as maws grew afresh from the ragged things,
Gangrene and necrotic from birth.

Look not upon them, those parasites of the flesh.
See instead the lady,
Who could not answer even would I ask.
Behold instead her ancient sanctity,
Her adoration cold and silent.

I held them, and their venom was dear to me;
Have you seen her,
In the garden, upon the mountain,
On the road to God knows what city?
Found is the soul and found is the shrine;
Her beheld, lit in the evening.

I Hold Four Hydras (II)

I am aridity, I am the cracked and the dry.
Have you no moisture?
Found you no well?
Hers is the water and the life and the glory.

I scratch the seared earth until I
Have ten bloody fingertips;
Found are the wet sands
Her power, the moon, hid before dawn.

I, amid red sands fine,
Have, feet worn grey and splayed,
Found, upon the blasted heath,
Her; and know no road to the city or the temple.

I ache and sting and
Found no dwelling place beyond my crystalline spheres;
Her sight etched there ‘til all goes to dirt.

I hold four hydras,
Dead and limp,
Reeking of all necrotic things.

Staring at the Sun

There are a dozen earths before you
But only one treadmilling under your feet,
And who’s to say you are not the one still body
Around which all else turns?
All things turning but you unmoved.
And I’m staring at the sun
Seeing the clouds set afire and the sky scorched pale
And soon I’ll be blind;
Seeing this before all disappears.
You a great emberous glow eternally in my eye.


I and the hydra everlasting:
Is it my conceit to think us bound together?
Yoked by great violence - two species so contrary,
Consuming each other ‘til like frost and furnace,
United only in dream or Mosaic vision,
Each is the sign of the other’s death?

Is this our nature or some image less grand?
No myth or other world,
Some man but nearly blind and lost in a house of mirrors who,
Seeing a multitude, tries to tell his own reflection?
Which my conceit and which my pretension,
Which the true worlds wedded.

Perhaps no simile, no gesturing lie, can do;
Only the barest of words for my many-headed beast.
I desire, and she does not.
And I am afraid, her kindness of all the sharpest cruelty.

Lent (v.2)

Sometimes in winter it is cold
And to feel the wind, its chill purity,
I walk bare-skinned.
My sense knows the cold’s lethality and I shiver and clutch myself
But such air is not but what I make it
And if I honestly wish it away, it will be so.

Sometimes in a mirror I, glancing, catch my sight
And it is foreign, some other’s wilted face.
Like waking from a tossing sleep,
Struggling to parse the dream from what before.
In this time I see an awful cartesian scripture
Written on the walls of all tenuousness.
Always I could awaken and find
This, the extant world, gone.
Myself a child again,
Free to the morning light.

An old and dreaded hope, this.
But my rest too shallow to harbor such revelations,
Bliss and terror, time passing slowly in the late night.

I see you and I
Wonder at your neurotic pitted elegance.
If I am to be alone all my life then I am dead already and
Fall to sheol as I write.

In my dream you were sleeping and I took you into my arms
And whispered into your ear that I love you,
Your mind and your body and your soul, but
Then I walked to the ocean and laid
You in a cave for the rising tide to carry away … because sometimes in winter

Special thanks to Helen Palmer, John Darnielle, Seattle University Housing And Residence Life, Dr. Andrew Tadie, the concept of patience, the irreconcilable unity of envy and disdain, Rachel Carson, our lady of the Admin Garden, St. Matthew, Chiori Miyagawa, Mark Moffett, I-90, Dr. Sean McDowell, and my own little Falkland Islands.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Theory of Alpinism (draft 1)

Mountaineering has never been an academic activity. There are no rules in the formal sense, as those that exist in organized sports. There are no widely accepted standards and no widely accepted organizations to create such standards. It is a profoundly individualistic enterprise. In mountaineering, as in few other endeavors, the very best make little effort to dictate philosophy to those below them. Regardless of this, a succession of styles have governed mountaineering, from the early days in the 19th century of noble princes hiring guides to escort them to Alpine summits to the expeditionary siege tactics that brought mountaineering to the great ranges (the Himalayas, Andes, and Alaska ranges) to the resurrection of the “Alpine style” by Herman Buhl, Reinhold Messner and their peers to the splintering of mountaineering in the second half of the 20th century into rock climbing and ice climbing (and their many derivatives), with the term mountaineering being increasingly reserved for long accents requiring multiple days of relatively non-technical climbing. Underlying this change, the transition from summit-focused climbing to route-focused climbing, was a progression in many aspects of culture from a belief in an objective goal to the conviction that the process may be as important, if not more important, than whatever the final objective might be.
Being that mountaineering is, as previously stated, nonacademic, these changes have been wrought by action, not expository theory. The Alpine Style was devised by young European climbers disgruntled with the autocracy of organized expeditions and popularized by poor aspiring mountaineers who were only too happy to hear that large sums of money were not a prerequisite for great deeds of alpinism. The more recent splintering is the result of the same forces, with the popularization of mountaineering, largely by the literature that funds many of its high and middle ranking climbers, there were simply not enough easily accessible crags to go around, and thus the popularity of the climbing gym - all the technical difficulty (and adrenaline rush) of a major peak without any of the objective danger associated with being thousands of feet off the ground. Which is not to say that these various styles, these theories of climbing, have not been articulated in print. Occasional articles in climbing magazines like the Alpine Journal, Vertical, or The Alpinist have carried on a continuous, if a bit sporadic and indirect, debate. And while very few purely theoretical books are written on the subject, the thoughts of many of the greatest climbers have been recorded amidst their memoirs and expedition reports. The few purely theoretical mountaineering books are invariably filled with technique, limited in way of philosophy to a few words on ethics and leave-no-trace policy in their introductions.
Up until this point I have used such terms as “mountaineering”, “climbing” and “alpinism” indiscriminately, and an attempt to rectify that situation will be one of the primary goals of this work. What I am ultimately attempting to articulate is a Theory of Alpinism, an intellectually rigorous, philosophically sound, academically respectable, historically grounded theory of why and how mountaineers mountaineer. This immediate effort will inevitably fall short, but is a first, conscious attempt upon which my further work may be built, and so I will attempt to be as thorough and intensional as possible.
As stated previously, we must start with a definition of terms. Mountaineering is the act of mountain climbing, the act of scaling mountain ranges, the understanding that these ranges are not impassible walls halting all transportation. The beginning of mountaineering should then be considered, appropriately enough, to be in the Alps during the last 500 years before the birth of Christ when first the Gallic Celts, and then famously Hannibal Barca the Carthaginian crossed the Alps. Notable advances in mountaineering for the next 1500 years are scarce, despite more than adequate technology and human energy, and it was not until well into the age of exploration that Mont Blanc was first climbed in 1786 by two Chamonix natives, Jacques Balmat and Michel Paccard. This effectively kicked off what is often termed the “Golden Age” of mountaineering, when the Alps were full of unclimbed peaks and the techniques and technology were in their infancy. As the number of unclimbed peaks inevitably shrunk and the number of aspiring mountaineering grew the activity began to spread, most famously to the central Asian ranges, the Himalayas and Karakoram. Mountaineering then entered what has been called its “Silver Age”, when the last great faces in the Alps were climbed and the first major accents in the great ranges took place. During this era rock climbing, and its attendant technology, was developed and the basic tools of modern mountaineering were perfected.
These two eras (the Golden and Silver Ages - and were I to be writing a history of mountaineering instead of a philosophical treatise I would take issue with those terms) are what I will term Modern Mountaineering, mountaineering during the Modern era, not to be confused with contemporary mountaineering - a term ever-shifting in meaning. Before this was Pre-Modern Mountaineering - the first crossings of the Alps, the development of skis and snowshoes in Scandinavia, and the handful of accents in the medieval era. And after it has come Post-Modern Mountaineering, which encompasses the last two of the styles outlined earlier as well as great advances in mountaineering technology, most notably the invention of the ice tool by Yvon Chouinard and the use of synthetic materials to replace the wool clothes and canvas tents used earlier.
“Mountaineering” is then a generic term for the entire phenomenon, while climbing, trekking skiing, hiking, scrambling, jumaring, etc, are mechanical descriptions of how one mountaineers. Alpinism is a more difficult idea to capture. Alpinism is the spirit of mountaineering, the underlying philosophy or mode of thinking. Despite its geographic origin it can be used as broadly as the familiar term “alpine”, to describe anything from a style of skiing to a bio-zone found world-wide.
For how strongly it has gripped the minds and bodies of generations of mountaineers, Alpinism is remarkably difficult to articulate. George Mallory, before departing on his fatal trip to the then unclimbed Mt. Everest, famously remarked when pestered as to why he wanted so badly to climb the mountain (this was not his first expedition to the peak) “because it’s there.” This is the beginning of the first of the three essential questions a Theory of Alpinism must answer - why do people climb mountains? Or rather, why do people risk so much, endure such hardship and danger for such a objectively meaningless achievement as having stood or traveled over a particular patch of snow, ice or stone? The key to the answer is not in the quips of the famous, Mallory’s it exists therefore I climb or even Joe Simpson’s less philosophically problematic “it’s fun.” One may be prompted to climb a mountain purely because it stands in one’s gaze and one’s only motivation may be the simple enjoyment of a good mind-and-body-consuming challenge but this is unchanging and mountaineering is not. Mont Blanc stood for many thousands of years before anyone endeavored to climb it. The historical answer to the question will prove to be the most convincing.
Men seek glory, they always have and always will, we desire recognition and distinction beyond what normal life offers, and mountaineering has far more in common with previous glory-seeking (difficult, dangerous, male-dominated) than many mountaineering would likely be comfortable admitting. The similarities between his own desire to climb and the desires of the Greeks of Homer’s Iliad was pointed out by Gregory Crouch in the conclusion to his book Enduring Patagonia and early mountaineering did bear resemblance to the other aristocratic pastimes, hunting and exploration. In short, we climb because we think it is glorious; because we have seen others achieve glory doing it. The tradition passes down, more often then not from father to son, each growing up with it, learning to find value it by the example set by their elders. Mountaineering is thus objectively valueless, it is given subjective value only through proximity with others who value it. This explains why, although they lived in the shadow of the highest peaks on earth for millennia, the Sherpa people were not climbers until European expeditions began to hire them as porters, taking advantage of their natural immunity to many forms of altitude sickness. It also explains why so few westerners, American or European, find mountaineering to be remotely compelling. To the average person it is as nonsensical as chasing down a wild boar or besieging Troy, one has to become accustomed to it, inoculated against its insanity, to accept it as worthwhile.
Having gained some understanding of the essential motivation we must now endeavor to understand what mountaineering has become. For the Western European gentry who climbed in the 19th century it was just another pastime alongside fox-hunting and yacht racing, but this cannot explain the obsession with which mountaineers have pursued it since then. We will consider three models for Post-Modern Mountaineering, a sport, an addiction, or a faith.
For many mountaineers, particularly rock and ice climbers, hikers, and scramblers, mountaineering is merely athletic. It straddles a line between exercise for the sake of exercise (jogging) and competitive sport (a local Soccer league). Athletic mountaineers see what they are doing as a sport, something fun to do on the weekends that keeps them healthy. By this definition of a sport, many young athletes appear to take their sport much more seriously it deserves - they treat it with a intensity that “something fun to do on the weekends” does not deserve. But however fanatic the athlete is, their sport remains a sport as long as they consider it a secondary concern. A sport is a part of someone’s life, when that sport becomes their life it becomes either a career or something more insidious, an addiction.
Here is where mountaineering differentiates itself from most competitive sports, the average high-school or college athlete knows that they will not have a career in their sport, however much they love it, it will always be nothing more than something they did when they were young. The college athlete does not major in athletics, the very best will go on to professional sports but the vast majority know that they must make other plans. It is precisely the unwillingness to settle down and move on that characterizes the addiction form of mountaineering. It is not that there are not careers in mountaineering, it is that far more people are pursuing them than can possibly be accommodated. And even these careers are secondary, few climbers set out to be a sponsored athlete (in effect, a model) or a guide or a writer, these are just ways to support a climbing habit without taking a completely unrelated job. And for many the unrelated job is an acceptable state of affairs, there is a whole sub-culture of mid-level climbers who work manual labor and save every penny for expeditions to the great ranges. What these men are doing cannot be considered a sport, their behavior is far more similar to that of the drug addict. What they do often causes them great physical injury and always a great deal of suffering. They go into debt to finance their climbing and many of constantly looking for a way to quit - their last big trip, or something to replace their addiction - kayaking, dog-sledding, sport climbing, handgun shooting are all alternatives well known mountaineers have tried.
For some mountaineers though, the addiction model also falls short. These men love what they are doing in a way no drug addict or alcoholic does. People shoot up or smoke or get drunk to deal with pain, often acute personal problems. The destruction wrought by the addiction is accidental to the high, not intrinsic (abscesses, decaying teeth, etc are results of how the drug is administered, not the physiological processes that cause of the high). Mountaineering however, creates pain intensionally. Without the pain, without the difficulties involved, it would not have value. Some climbers have found their lives destroyed by their mountaineering habit, but just as many have been saved by it. The salvation offered by mountaineering points to the third model - a faith. Following Paul Tillich’s description of faith as a state of being occupied by an ultimate concern, mountaineering can be seen in a religious light. The specifics of the faith are likely different for each climber, one may say the climb the ultimate concern (the god), while another the summit, and another the wilderness itself. The mountaineer partakes in this god by entering a sacred space, the mountains, and performing holy sacraments, climbing. The mountaineer reaches the summit, or whatever their objective is, only by the grace of their god and escapes with their life, grateful to have been to such a lofty temple. The question then, following the model through, is whether or not the faith is idolatrous - whether or not the ultimate concern is truly ultimate.
One of the defining characteristics of a true faith is the acceptability of death, the Christian does not question the meaningfulness of the death of another Christian for their faith (this is martyrdom, and it is found in many religions). A non-Christian might find this death meaningless, as recent scholarship regarding Christian martyrdom demonstrates, just as a non-nationalist would find death for one’s country to be meaningless, but one would be hard-pressed to find a mountaineer, even the most ardent and committed, who felt a peak or a route was worth dying for. Many mountaineers seem to consider their faith worthy of their lifelong commitment, but not their total commitment. They are willing to risk death, but not to actually die (the words, almost exactly, of Gregory Crouch). And this is a contradiction, one cannot claim that an immensely dangerous task is worth attempting, and then as soon as someone dies attempting it that their death was in vain. Which is precisely what mountaineers, and the general public, do with great regularity. Ed Viesturs is practically a national hero, while Allison Hargreaves was condemned as irresponsible. I will claim however, that this is not as much a problem with my Theory of Alpinism as it is with the practice of post-modern alpinists - delusional men of little faith who risk death for the adrenaline rush without any comprehension of what they are doing.(This model - mountaineering as faith - uses Tillich’s philosophy as outlined by The Dynamics of Faith, but falls far short of its subtlety and genius. An elaboration of this model deserves a much more intensive treatment.)
This discussion of mountaineering as faith has brought us inadvertently to the third great question of Alpinism - a mountaineer’s proper ethical conduct, probably the most complex and difficult question to answer. Instead of attempting to create a comprehensive theory of mountaineering ethics I’ll simply outline a few questions and areas for future development. Frequent sources of recent controversy include: the use of bottled oxygen, the use of pitons and bolts that alter the face of the mountain, the use of oxygen by guides, the guide-client relationship and the limits of professional responsibility in the face of disaster, the relationship between clients and paid porters, and the duties of teammates to each other, both in the cases of definite injury and the unknown. Less controversial, but equally ethically problematic are the responsibility of climbers to gauge their own skill level and choose objectives accordingly, the rope-team and how it alters the duties of teammates, and the balance between safety and ambition, especially as it relates to extreme lightweight alpine style climbing.
Returning briefly to the second question, sport, addiction or faith, there need not be a definite answer. As stated in the introduction, mountaineering is the most individualistic enterprise imaginable, and thus can be many things to many people. So for some it is a sport, for others that sport has become an addiction, defining their life, and for still others the mountains are not a playground or a fix but a place of worship - the highest cathedrals on earth.

This essay is very much a work in progress and I am posting it only to create the illusion that I am accomplishing something. A blog of this nature is difficult to maintain when most of my writing has switched to larger, ultimately - hopefully - novel length projects. I have a sneaking suspicion that the entire second half of this is bullshit and it is likely full of typos, but like I said, I need to post something if only to maintain (initiate?) momentum.
Also - if any reader is aware of other works of mountaineering-philosophy I would be very interested in hearing about them. As I alluded, I have found the absence of strong academic work on this subject somewhat strange.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Summer Reading

Into Thin Air (6/5)
The Naked Mountain (7/8)
K2: Life and Death (4/5)
The Aleph (8/9)
Eiger Dreams (5/6)
Mother Night (7/9)
Touching the Void (7/8)
The Lacuna (8/8)
Thin Air (6/7)
Desert Solitaire (6/5)
The Gnostic Gospels (5/7)
Annapurna (5/6)
The Courage to Be (7/10)
Enduring Patagonia (6/7)
The Beckoning Silence (7/8)
The Sunset Limited (9/10)
Northern Lights (6/8)
The Dynamics of Faith (7/9)

Ratings explained (style/thought)
1 - unendurable
2 - bad
3 - unpleasant
4 - boring
5 - interesting
6 - entertaining
7 - good
8 - excellent
9 - genius
10 - perfection

Books that might score lower were not finished, and thus cannot be honestly and accurately rated

Into Thin Air - Jon Krakauer
A frank and casual account of the Everest disaster of 1996, told from the first person as a member of one of the guided expeditions. If not for the explanatory anecdotes on mountaineering in general and the history of Everest in particular that seem to be standard fair in popular climbing books, the story would make an excellent Shakespearian tragedy. As it is, Krakauer wisely refuses to take the story beyond the evidence and leaves the conclusions to the reader; which is fine if said reader is familiar with and appreciative of mountaineering, if not the conclusion most people seem to have drawn is “what idiots, why do people do this shit? Here’s a list of ways it can be made safe.” There is no way to make mountaineering safe, climbing mountains is about pushing boundaries, it’s never going to be something everyone can do, it’s never going to be free from peril. Without the element of danger it would just be hiking. It is not that nothing can be done to prevent further deaths, it is that nothing should be done. Climbing, especially in the Himalayas, should be seen like becoming a policeman or joining the military – you are going out to meet something that might very well kill you. This is an accepted risk, when climbers die, whether from exposure, altitude sickness, avalanche or some other mishap, no one should be surprised, no one should look for solutions, no one should question the whole endeavor.
To quote myself -
“All life is a risk, of death and much else. And death the risk of life; they are not opposites – life and death. Death implies life and life implies death, without each other each is meaningless…”

The Naked Mountain - Reinhold Messner
Reinhold Messner is, was (he is now retired at age 66), the greatest mountaineer I have ever heard of. His story is so much deeper than that of most of the climbers I’ve read about. He climbs with such passion, such wholeness of spirit; this was one of the greatest men of his generation.
The difference between Messner and Viesturs is the essence of the difference between the American and the German ways of thought.

K2: Life and Death on the World’s Deadliest Mountain - Ed Viesturs w/ David Roberts
Ed Viesturs is one of the greatest living climbers. Emphasis not the word ‘greatest’ but on the word ‘living,’ he has quite simply outlived most of his superiors. As a former RMI guide, he represents a very specific take-no-chances American approach to mountaineering. Personally I more admire his humanity than his climbing ethic. Contrary to what one might expect, most of the world’s best climbers, more often then not European or Americans indoctrinated in the French Chamonix scene, are egotistical and ultra-competitive. Men who stoop to help another climber only with the most intense disgust and have nothing but disdain for their inferiors. Viesturs is different, he repeatedly set aside his own summit ambitions to do what he felt was right, and professes a lack of understanding of climbers who behave differently. He is not willing to give his life for a mountain, and so, in my view, he cannot be a truly great mountaineer, but he is a great human being regardless.

The Aleph and Other Stories - Jorge Luis Borges
These stories have a very peculiar tinge: calm, metaphysical, and deep beyond all that I can see. I get the distinct impression that my reading is only glossing their surface. Borges is not as heartbreaking and beautiful as Vonnegut nor as vividly unique as McCarthy, but there is a sense of the eternal in his stories that I can only compare to Tolkien. He appears to write not from gut-wrenching need but from quiet inspiration, the kind one is more used to finding in pre-modern literature, before everyone started writing about themselves. Borges has a mastery, a self-assurance that I have encountered in few other writers.
Notable stories are the somewhat Lovecraftian The Immortals, The House of Asterion, and my personal favorite, Deutsches Requiem.
The paragraphs above were written referring only to The Aleph, the other stories are composed of the prose from two collections, The Maker and Museum. Both of which are far more personal, succinct, and in some cases lighthearted than The Aleph; in effect, directly contradicting my previous analysis. He does write about himself, not like Vonnegut or Alexie write about themselves but in a more purposeful way. He does not he does not hide himself like McCarthy or the epic poets of Greece and Rome but neither he limited by his own experience. In other words, Borges can write about himself, but he can also write about other things.

Eiger Dreams - Jon Krakauer
Krakauer writes about his climbing in the Alps and the Alaska ranges and other people’s climbing in the Himalayas, Karakoram and Arizona. It is not difficult to understand why he gave up climbing to be a full-time writer, he seems to spend most of his own climbs absolutely terrified, just trying to think a good enough reason to leave. Either he just wasn’t cut out for it or everyone else is scared too and just lies about it, given his skill level, he put up new routes on some of the most intense peaks in Alaska and Patagonia, I’m leaning toward the latter.
In his article on the 1986 K2 disaster(s), in which something like one out of every five people who attempted the peak was killed, he voices a subtle criticism of Messner and the alpine style of climbing. Although he does not blame Messner for the man’s followers he does express some doubts about how feasible the style is for anyone less skilled. Siege style climbing is definitely safer in some ways than Alpine style, but I believe its purity outweighs its risks. Literally going to a summit is a meaningless accomplishment. Given enough money a person could pay to be carried to the peak of just about any mountain in the world, but this would not mean that he or she had climbed that mountain. Likewise, if all of the technical work, route-finding, camp construction and stocking, rope fixing, etcetera, is being done by paid guides and the climber is being virtually escorted up the mountain – this is not climbing any more than being carried on the back of another climber. Because is essence, that’s what it is; standard guided climbs, of the type that are common on Rainier, Denali and Everest, effectively carry their clients, or rather everything but the client’s body that is necessary for the climb, up the mountain. This is no longer alpinism, this is tourism.
Obviously I am not the only one who feels this way and is somewhat below the skill level of Reinhold Messner, Jerzy Kukuczka, Peter Habeler or Hermann Buhl; and this leads to problems. In the lesser ranges, the Cascades, the Sierra Nevada, the Alps, one becomes accustomed to a sort of self-sufficiency and the idea of a guided expedition to the Himalayas or Karakoram becomes distasteful. Yet the demands of these peaks are so much greater than that of the lesser ranges that unless one is among the greatest alpinists in the world, siege tactics is the only feasible option. This is not to say that Krakauer truly disparages the alpine style. As he points out, the year of 1986 was especially bad for little discernible reason, skilled climbers were killed in freak accidents at the base of the mountain and after a South Korean expedition had fixed ropes people continued to die descending.
As a whole I found this collection more depressing than any of the mountaineering books I have read to date. There is a constant sense of defeat or of meaningless victory. Krakauer fails on the Eiger and Denali, gets his climb in Chamonix called “banal” by a local, and finally succeeds on Devil’s Thumb only to make a point of how empty his triumph was, how after this climb that was supposed to change his life he returned to his menial job in Boulder. His story of Denali did, however, provide me with a new favorite quotation -
“It's sort of like having fun, only different”

Mother Night - Kurt Vonnegut
Technically this is a re-read, but as my first reading was in a heavy Vonnegut phase two winters ago and I remembered next to nothing from any of the books I read, it was akin to a first reading.
Mother Night is a novel almost on par with Slaughterhouse 5, Cat’s Cradle, and Galapagos. I say almost because, although it has all the elements of Vonnegut’s genius – nonlinear plot arranged for effect, very sympathetic protagonists, and unmatched insight into the human condition, it suffers from a major flaw. It is not a characterization issue, a plot hole, or a thematic concern, but rather a flaw in Vonnegut’s basic understanding of the second world war. The Nazis were not insane, they did not have missing teeth in their gears (however fascinating that metaphor is, it explains the way we all, not just Nazis, choose what to belief, claiming that one has never purposefully filed down a tooth is shear arrogance), they cannot be dismissed so easily. Vonnegut has a thing for pitiful characters, the Nazis were not, by and large, pitiful. They were fearfully competent, they knew exactly what they wanted and they pursued as few others have. They were modern and medieval and full of vengeful justice, their only mistake was to target the wrong people. If not for Hitler’s anti-semitism and general neurosis they might still be around and respected. All this to say that Vonnegut, generally a master of difficult conclusions, appears to have taken an easy way out. And that bothers me, because Mother Night truly is a phenomenal novel.

Touching the Void - Joe Simpson
This is one of the most gut wrenching stories I have read. The film is also excellent, one of the few to really capture the spirit of climbing. I also appreciate its flat refusal cast blame.
Here is the gist: Joe Simpson and Simon Yates are two British climbers with lots of experience in the Alps, they hear from another excellent British climber, Alan Rouse, who was soon to die on K2, about the west face of Siula Grande, the last unclimbed face of its kind in the Andes. Simpson and Yates set off for South America to climb it. After much travail they make it to the summit but on the decent Joe falls and breaks his leg. With no remaining food or water and very little equipment left Yates begins to lower Simpson down the face, belaying him unanchored from a seat dug in the snow. Wanting to reach the glacier at the bottom of the face as quickly as possible they continue to lower into the night, not knowing that a 100+ ft ice cliff lies in their path. Simpson is lowered off the cliff but is unable to communicate this to Yates, who must only deduce the situation from the fact that Simpson is unable to get his weight off the rope. On the verge of being pulled down the mountain, Yates cuts the rope and Simpson falls into a crevasse as the base of the cliff. Wracked by feat and guilt, Yates descends the remainder of the face and returns to their base camp, on the way seeing the crevasse and assuming, reasonably enough, that Simpson is dead. Yates and another traveler they had recruited to watch their camp hang around for three days, resting and regaining their strength for the hike out. In the middle of the night before they are to leave camp Simpson crawls out of the moraine. Without food or water and with a badly broken leg he had survived the fall into the crevasse, realized he would be unable to climb out, lowered himself further in, found another way out, and crawled across miles of glacier and boulder-fields, all the while knowing that by the time he reached the camp Yates would likely have departed.
And there lies the debate, upon returning to England Yates faced intense criticism for his actions, while Simpson now has a career as a motivational speaker. Both continued to climb and have written several books.
There are two ways of looking at it, and it has to do with how you see climbing teams. Some claim that Yates’ cutting of the rope was an unpardonable sin. The rope is the lifeline between climbers, to sever that, even to save one’s own life, is a violation of trust and the entire mountaineering ethic. When I clip into a rope I don’t do so thinking, ‘well, if he falls I’ll just unclip really quickly,’ this would violate the entire theory of roped climbing. What Yates did is unheard of, I’ve never heard another story like it, climbers regularly fall to their deaths while climbing solo or in unroped teams but if you rope up the assumption is that you are committing your life to the team. The question then is, did the situation on Siula Grande involve extenuating circumstances? Simpson writes that the moment he was injured and Yates saw it, they were no longer a team, and he fully expected to be given some bullshit about going for help and to be left in a snow cave. The psychological dynamic here is very interesting, Simpson never asked for help, he wanted to, he tried to think of some way he could convince Yates to help him, but the whole climb the two seemed to have been suffering from a strange antagonism. Yates had repeatedly lead the hardest pitches and had shown contempt for Simpson’s weakness, both physical and psychological - several times Simpson froze up when crossing dangerous terrain. Despite all this, despite never having been asked, the whole lowering, snow-seat-belay, idea has been Yates’, and by the time he lowered Simpson over a cliff their partnership seemed to have been mended. Then he cut the rope. He was about to be pulled of the mountain, he had no way of communicating with Simpson, of knowing the size of the cliff, for all he knew, if he fell both of them would die. But he had put himself on that rope, he had committed himself to their team. He had been under no obligation to do so, there is no precedent for what Simpson and Yates attempted, much larger and better equipped teams have failed to get an injured climber of a mountain. In retrospect, the issue is very clear, hanging on the rope, unable to climb up, Simpson would have died from exposure within hours even if Yates had been able to hold him, if Yates had fallen his momentum would have carried him past the crevasse, resulting in a deadly impact, but possibly giving Simpson an anchor by which to extricate himself. Any way one examines it, the only way for both of them to survive was for Yates to cut the rope, but he had no way of knowing this, in his mind he was sending Simpson to his death - he admits this readily. The effect then, is that in a moment of self-preservation Yates accidently saved not only himself but Simpson as well. Perhaps this is a case of the honorable action being very different from the intelligent action, or, like certain Japanese climbers have claimed, there is no morality on the mountain. Self-preservation is one’s only duty. But I will stick with my previous analysis, given his knowledge and how he had voluntarily committed to a rope team, Yates’ action was a violation of the mountaineering ethic; a very understandable violation, and one that unexpectedly turned out well, but a violation regardless. His defenders ask incredulously, ‘what, should he have allowed himself to be pulled off the mountain?’ - yes, he didn’t have to rope himself to an injured, incapacitated climber, but he did, and having done that it was his duty to honor that commitment. Ultimately he was unwilling to die for that honor.
Note: I am not pleased with this conclusion, I want to believe, as Simpson does, as I did before writing this, that Yates’ action were correct. I want the catharsis of knowing that right was done and things turned out for the best. But this is the conclusion I reached and I will not put what feels right over what I rationally know.

The Lacuna - Barbara Kingsolver
Another re-read. Every bit as good as Poisonwood Bible, but much more subtle. As the title implies, it deals with gaps - the most important part of a story is the part you don’t know. There is a feeling of great nostalgia that goes along with reading a book the covered the entirety of a man’s life; you feel like you know him, like he is your friend. And now that he’s gone you miss him. You miss the boy diving in the caves of Isla Pixol and pining after Trotsky’s secretary, having his journals inspected by Senora Rivera, you feel as if his childhood is somehow connected to your own. I don’t know whether the sparkling brightness of childhood is in Kingsolver’s writing or my mind, whether it is on the page on imposed by my mind. Harrison Shepherd’s life as a young man was far from happy, he was often desperate and always lonely. But by then end it all seems to come together.

Thin Air - Greg Child
A mountaineering book without all that was beginning to annoy me about mountaineering books - their journalistic fascination with defeat and tragedy and their poorly written determination to pad their author’s stories with those of all that came before. With Messner’s The Naked Mountain it was necessary to understand a member of his own expedition, with Viestur’s Life and Death, one wondered what he was doing writing about these events at all. Child’s book consists of three expeditions to peaks one does not ordinarily read about: Shivling, Lopsang Spire (and Broad Peak), and Gasherbrum IV, all (except Broad Peak) under 8000 meters and more technical than the standard routes on any of the top fourteen. Child’s writing is effective, without the peculiarities of Messner but with far more polish and expertise than many climber’s memoirs.

Desert Solitaire
Edward Abbey, writing in the 1960s, was one of the men who defined the environmental movement. He lamented not only the bulldozing of the wilderness - clear-cutting, dam building, urban sprawl - but the binding of what little remained into industrial tourist money-making facilities (otherwise known as national parks). Abbey was an excellent writer, an original thinker and a true man of the wilds, but I must question some of his choices. The exploitation of the south-west was inevitable, surrounded on all sides by civilization, by major cities and large populations, the national parks and their stay-on-the-trail, protect man from the environment and the environment from man mentality are the only way to protect those regions while admitting the laws of supply and demand. If Abbey truly believed what he claimed and wanted a life in the wilds he should have gone else-where, Alaska or northern Canada remain largely wilderness, and will stay as such for the foreseeable future due to the natural difficulties of life in the subarctic zones. It is simply too easy to bring water and air-conditioning into the desert, (as opposed to heating the permafrost).
It is sad what has happened to that part of the country, the flooding of Glen Canyon with water of of Arches and others with tourists and their automobiles. I can only console myself with the knowledge that this too shall pass, the Glen Canyon Dam shall someday burst and the river will right itself again, when war comes to the borderlands the tourists will flee not to return and the canyons will be left to the hermits and cacti.
Toward the end of the book he makes a point about the distinction between culture and civilization not unlike that made by Oswald Spengler. Except that Spengler’s distinction is between society and civilization and actually makes sense. Civilization, the civilizing of man from a wild, primal state, is the result of highly developed and stratified culture or society. All the myriad and terrible things that Abbey assigns to “culture” would be much better left to civilization. It is mostly semantics in my case, I like Abbey’s point, I just don’t like the terms he puts to it. Spengler’s argument of course, is much more complex, nuanced, historically validated, and difficult to understand; I doubt Abbey had read The Decline of the West, for all his high-minded self-righteousness he has that particular arrogance I associate with men who lived prior to the 90s - men who think that there is nothing better than to be young, while, male and American. In other words, I seriously doubt Edward Abbey was well versed in German historiographic theory.

The Gnostic Gospels - Elaine Pagels
Gnosticism: most of what I liked about Christianity without most of what I didn’t. This merits further investigation.
Gnosticism was a fascinating phenomenon, ideas that I would associate with pseudo-New Agey liberal Christianity coming from Jews in the second century. God as mother, Wisdom ruling over all, even the creator demiurge God of Israel, Genesis reversed so that the serpent frees man. His Dark Materials is nothing but gnosticism combined with multi-verse theory.
Unfortunately it also has elements of classic Greek philosophical arrogance - only the enlightened few may achieve gnosis and for everyone else there is only the pale, shallow baptism of the body. But it was a movement characterized by diversity, by personal responsibility for ideology and anti-dogmatism, so generalizations of this kind are difficult. They had no canon, so one can only way what some people thought, never what all people thought.
Regarding Pagel’s book specifically, her discussion is well-written and engaging but she covers the movement’s actual beliefs only tangentially, she is much more interested by their conflicts with the orthodox church. The classic historian’s approach: they are valuable not in and of themselves, but because of how they interacted with everything around them. As I tend to take a more literary approach the book left me wanting more.

Annapurna - Maurice Herzog
The best selling mountaineering book ever published recounting one of the great expeditions in history - a group of men, French climbers and Nepalese Sherpas, who reconnoitered and climbed the first 8000 meter peak. Working with fifties era, pre-bottled-oxygen, equipment and grossly inaccurate maps they explored the region, investigated several possible routes and finally climbed the peak. Two members of the expedition, Maurice Herzog and Louis Lachenal, reached the summit but returned only with the assistance of their teammates. Both men lost all of their toes and Herzog lost most of his fingers to frostbite, by the time they reached France Herzog’s gangrenous hands had maggots as fat at pencils in them and it was only due to the efforts of their expedition doctor that he survived at all.
Herzog’s story is very different from modern mountaineering literature. The expedition style of the fifties involved a designated leader whom the other members swore to obey under all conditions, even to the point of signing away their rights to publish their own accounts of their experiences. The only modern practices that remotely approach this are the client-guide contracts used on guided climbs, but in those cases their has been an exchange of money and the guide has accepted some degree of responsibility for the well-being of the client. The other members of the French expedition, aside from the doctor and photographer, were volunteers, men just as skilled and experienced as Herzog. This almost militaristic style of climbing has all but disappeared for reasons made very clear by most expedition logs, such endeavors are almost necessarily filled with in-fighting, inter-personal drama and other, to quote Ed Viesturs, “dirty laundry” of which the custom of not airing has long worn out. And so it is a strange disharmony to read in Herzog’s novel, and he did not shy away from calling it that, about how well they all got along, how much respect Herzog had for his teammates, how they were united by their mutual striving toward a common goal, but to know that he is purposefully hiding anything and everything he did not want the public to know, particularly anything that might shed bad light on his leadership.
More recently, other books have been published based on Lachenal and Rebuffat’s journals, and though I have not read them I understand that they challenge Herzog’s rather idilic claims, as well as shedding some light on his pompous attitude.
Annapurna is a book to be taken with more than a few grains of salt, but it is a classic of the mountaineering literature regardless. For no matter how flawed the account, the achievement was truly great.

The Courage To Be
About half-way through, I decided this was the best philosophy book I have ever read. I could recount every moment of genius and try to describe why it so perfectly explains what I went through in high school but I won’t. Instead I will paraphrase what I feel is one of his best arguments. In reply to the meaninglessness of the modern world, the existential despair we all feel for which Tillich frequently refers to Sartre’s No Exit, he posits the following. Since consciously created meanings cannot hold up for long we are unable to purposefully imbue our lives with meaning, thus we face a state of emptiness for which there appears to be no answer. Because of the depth of the despair of meaninglessness, no invented meaning can offer escape. But there is a way out - despair is an act of life, and therefore is positive even in its utter negativity. Thus the meaninglessness of the world can be taken into oneself and dealt with. It is almost as if Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” can be replaced with “I despair, therefore I am.”

Enduring Patagonia - Gregory Crouch
Gregory Crouch’s writing is vivid, grandiose and personal. He rarely strays from the story at hand and this story is nearly always his own. Although he frequently lapses into flowery imagery and pretentious allusions he has moments of genius. On the surface, his climbing philosophy is unoriginal. Crouch’s Alpinism is no different from Viesturs’ “summiting is optional, coming home is mandatory” philosophy, adapted for Patagonia; that is, emphasizing lightness over heavy assault. The askewing of siege tactics (coincidently, nearly always by dirt poor climbing bums would couldn’t afford an expedition even if they stooped to so banal an enterprise) has been articulated many, many times before. Reflecting on the book as a whole, I find myself confused as to what kind of person Gregory Crouch really is. A Westpoint graduate who went through ranger school and served as an army officer for several years, including seeing combat in Panama and Desert Storm, before quitting during the post-Gulf War downsizing. A trash-talking jokester who admits to using humor to manage the fear of extreme mountaineering. These do not mesh in my mind with the stylistic flourishes and brushes with mysticism that crop up in his writing. The last chapter of Enduring Patagonia is a fascinating theological take on the theory of mountain climbing - how can this brash, crass man be so articulate and well-read?

The Beckoning Silence - Joe Simpson
If Touching the Void can be considered the description of a young climber, The Beckoning Silence is the equivalent for the aging climber. The stories are vivid, the writing is serious, and the underlying philosophical and psychological dilemmas are very real and very significant. How do we justify a pastime that kills so many of the best of us? Are climbers always responsible for the accidents that befall them, if for no other reason than their choice to climb? Somewhat disappointingly, Simpson does not answer these questions. But neither does he put forward a false or shallow solution. These are issues that plague post-modern mountaineering and will likely continue to do so for some time.

The Sunset Limited - Cormac McCarthy (re-read)
I do not usually have much of any desire to be an actor. I don’t like performance. I don’t like pretending to be things I am not. But I want to play the role of White from this play. Even though I’m not middle aged, professorial, or suicidal.

Northern Lights - Philip Pullman (re-read)
I wish I could have understood this book when I first read it years ago. Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is the most thematically deep, philosophically and theologically relevant, creatively ingenious juvenile fiction I have ever read. Every thirteen-year-old should read this.

The Dynamics of Faith - Paul Tillich
Faith is the state of being grasped by an ultimate concern, the truth of faith cannot conflict with scientific, historical or philosophical truth as long as each remains what they are - faith, science, history, or philosophy. What Tillich is describing is a faith that is not a way of knowing, not an emotion, not a will to believe. It is a faith I can understand and respect.
Why are all the best thinkers German?