Summits As Virtuous Constraint

This past summer, on July 8th, as noted in a post here, I climbed Long’s Peak in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park. A minute or so after I stepped on to the summit, grabbed a quick sip of water, and removed my helmet, I shook my guide Rob Smith‘s hand, and thanked him profusely. I was close to being ecstatic. I had risen at midnight, picked up Rob at one am, and started hiking by 2AM. On the approach to the base of the North Face–from where we would pick up the Cables Route–I had been half-asleep, somehow willing myself to keep up with Rob as he motored along. As dawn  broke, and as the imposing massif of Long’s rose up above, I was feeling the effects of having gained some 3000 feet of elevation on an empty stomach and little sleep. The climbing and scrambling sections of the North Face were mercifully easier than that long, rock-and-boulder strewn approach march, and of course, they required more attention to technical detail, which induced its own alertness. Along with these physical sensations was a sense of foreboding and anticipation; I was keeping an eye on the weather for I did not want to be disappointed again. I had made plans to climb Long’s in the summer of 2017 and had been thwarted then–before we could even set foot on the trail. Then, the forecast had made Rob and I change our  plans the night before. Since then, my mind, overcome with disappointment, had immediately begun a downward spiral in the course of which I had kept track of all the summits I had been denied by bad weather conditions: Stok Kangri in 2011, Cotopaxi in 2018, Mt. Washington in 2016 and 2017. I had begun to believe I was jinxed in the mountains, that these twists of fortune only happened to those who were insufficiently prepared, who did not belong in the mountains. Doubt had crept into my mind that when my guides had suggested turning back on each of those routes, they had done so because they did not trust me to ascend successfully.

So when I stepped on the summit, a spell broke. Suddenly, I was reassured that I belonged here. I had been told that ‘Long’s Peak will be still here when you come back next summer’ but I hadn’t taken it to heart. Now, I did.  I had not ‘conquered’ anything, except, of course, for my own doubts and insecurities. And in this state of mind, it had become clear to me too, all over again, that a summit was not a thing to be conquered. Rather, as I saw it in the clear light of that Colorado morning, a summit was a virtuous constraint, one that clarified and organized my life, driving me onwards. The mountains were not a domain in which I went to find success for myself, to find targets to pick off, to rack up ‘kills’ and ‘hits’ and notches on my belt. They were instead, where I could go to accept failure, to reconcile myself to its inevitable presence, in some shape or form, in my life; they would teach me acceptance and forbearance and some measure of stoicism in the face of forces much, much greater than myself. My summit failures had kept on bringing me back to the mountains; they had induced me to train harder, to keep hoping. Yes, I had despaired too, but not entirely. After all, wasn’t I here, in the mountains, all over again?

 

‘Silence’ And Shūsaku Endō’s Christianity

Shūsaku Endō‘s Silence is a remarkable religious novel, one whose close reading and discussion in a philosophy classroom pays rich dividends. This week marks the concluding sessions of my Philosophical Issues in Literature class’ discussion of Endō’s novel; I can enthusiastically recommend it–in whole or in part–for use in classes on epistemology and philosophy of religion. This is because the novel–ostensibly a historical work set in seventeenth century Japan as the systematic persecution of Christians commenced following a brief flourishing of the faith–is at heart about the nature of faith, its relationship to knowledge and belief, the nature of ‘commitment’ to religious ideals and beliefs, the possibility of voluntarism about belief, the relationship between belief and action, the relationship between organized and ‘personal’ religion, between moral sentiments and religious strictures, between geographically and nationally specific cultures and supposedly universal belief systems, and so on.

Endō’s novel also proves the truth of the wisdom contained in the claim that the doubts of the religious and the agnostic or atheist are more interesting than the certainty of the believer. In this regard, observant Christians will find the book just as provocative as atheists or agnostics might. As Charles Peirce had noted, doubt is that irritation which leads to inquiry. And that is certainly one thing that Endō’s novel does; it prompts inquiry and investigation. It creates more doubt in turn, and prompts that most useful activity of all: self-examination. (My classroom discussions with my students about the philosophical issues the novel raises and examines have often been quite rich even as I suspect that, as usual, some students are simply not keeping up with the reading and are thus unwilling and unable to participate or contribute.)

Silence is the story of Sebastião Rodrigues, a missionary who travels to Japan to ‘rescue’ a Christianity sought to be driven out from Japan, and finds himself the latest target of the campaign to do so. Rodrigues takes inspiration from Christ through his trials and travails at the hands of his Japanese tormentors–even as the events around him shake his faith like never before. The determination of his inquisitors to make him an apostate makes Rodrigues sense he will become, rather than Christ, Judas instead; he will not be the defender and promulgator of his faith, but its betrayer instead. As his greatest trial approaches, Rodrigues comes to understand that the man he had imagined the Judas to his Christ is closer to him than he had imagined, that his dislike for him, his failure to feel sympathy or empathy for him, is his greatest failing as a Christian.The novel’s provocative claim–under one interpretation–is that he becomes a better Christian by becoming Judas. And that is because in doing so, he is better able to understand someone, Christ, and something, Christian faith, that he had imagined himself, arrogantly, to understand all too well before his trials began.

Rodrigues worries that God is silent; his most powerful realization is that God speaks through man, and man alone.

Jed Perl On The Supposed Necessity Of Doubt For Art

In the course of a ‘The Emperor Has No Clothes’ style review of a retrospective of Jeff Koons‘ work–staged at the Whitney Museum last year–Jed Perl writes:

Dada—whatever its deficiencies, and the fact is that it produced relatively little enduring art—was part of a tradition of doubt about the possibilities of art that is woven deep into the history of art. You can trace this tradition back to the accounts in Pliny and other historians of the struggles of ancient painters to disentangle the relationship between the natural world and the pictorial world. The tradition runs through Michelangelo’s Neoplatonic worries about the conflict between the material and spiritual powers of art. And it reaches a first tragic climax in Chardin’s statements about the uselessness of artistic training as a preparation for the real challenges of art and his haunting confession that painting was an island whose shores he doubted he even knew.

There is not a shred of doubt in Jeff Koons. And where there is no doubt there is no art. [links added]

I’m willing to grant Perls that there is ‘a tradition of doubt about the possibilities of art that is woven deep into the history of art’–he is the art critic and historian, not me. And it certainly is the case that much magnificent art has issued from artistic doubt–understood here as that species of psychic unease which spurs creators on to exploration of the world and their place in it through their art. But I do not think it follows that ‘where there is no doubt there is no art.’

Art can issue from certitude. The firm conviction that an artistic statement–of a particular kind, couched in a particular form–needs to be made can be sufficient motivation to bring an artwork into being. Most prominently, the rich history and tradition of religious art is often underwritten by a kind of deep and abiding faith, one not infected by doubt about the existence and attributes of the objects of its desire and longing. It is this faith, this fixity of belief, that often gives this species of art its distinctive emotional and intellectual appeal. (Other examples, drawn from other genres, can, I think, be readily supplied.)

Perhaps Perls’ confusion lies in thinking that only doubt may spur us on to meaningful, directed, and purposive action–there must be an irritant that impels us to move away from it, to find relief in  investigation and action.  (In the case of art, through expression in visual, verbal, and musical media.) But knowledge may provide a clarity that is similarly compelling, for after all, the counterpart of inquiry sparked by doubt–and art is a kind of inquiry–is paralysis, a zone of stagnation and fear. Firmly fixed belief may provide a speedier passage through this domain.

All of which is to say that it is unlikely that something quite as contentiously defined and demarcated as art–and thus interesting!–will find its groundings expressed by means of a formula as reductive as the one that Perl attempts to provide.