The Indifferent ‘Pain Of The World’

In All the Pretty Horses (Vintage International, New York, 1993, pp. 256-257), Cormac McCarthy writes:

He imagined the pain of the world to be like some formless parasitic being seeking out the warmth of human souls wherein to incubate and he thought he knew what made one liable to its visitations. What he had not known was that it was mindless and so had no way to know the limits of those souls and what he feared was that there might be no limits.

The ‘pain of the world’–its irreducible melancholia and absurdity, its indifference to our fortunes and loves and fears–can indeed feel like a malevolent being, a beast of a kind, one that may, if provoked, swat us about with a terrible malignity.  Here, in these impressions, we find archaic traces of an older imagination of ours; the formless fears of the child’s world have congealed into a seemingly solid mass, serving now as foundations for our anxious adult being. It is unsurprising that we have found ways to pay obeisance to this beast through prayer and fervent wishing and day dreaming and fantasy and incantations and magic and potions; we hope to pass unnoticed through its gauntlet, afraid to set astir the slumbering beast and provoke its attentions and wrath. As John Grady Cole, McCarthy’s character, notes, we fear two things especially about this beast: we suspect ourselves to be particularly vulnerable to its depredations, a particularly attractive prey for this predator; we fear we sport a bull’s eye on our backs, a scarlet letter that marks us out as an offender to be dealt with harshly; we fear there may be no limits to its appetites; we sense that lightning might strike not once, not twice, but without no constraint whatsoever; perhaps we ain’t seen nothin’ yet, and much more misfortune awaits us around the corner on life’s roads.

In our darkest moments we attribute a malevolent intelligence to this beast, but we know the worst eventuality of all would be a mindless beast, one whose ignorance of us and our capacity to tolerate pain could cause us to plumb unimaginable depths, to experience pain whose qualities defy description. (The fears of these sorts of mental chasms are expressed quite beautifully in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ mournful poem ‘No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief.’) McCarthy also seems to suggest the possibility of a presumption of ‘too much’ knowledge on Cole’s part–a la Oedipus, a possible arrogant claim to know the ways and means and methods and mind of the beast; but as McCarthy goes on to note, there is no mind here to be known, no rationale to be assessed, no strategy or tactic to be evaluated; there is merely being and man, caught up in its becoming. It is this irrelevance of man and his capacities and attributes to the working of this beast which is Cole’s deepest fear; it is ours too, the root and ground of the absurdist existentialist vision.


Learning To Live With The Fear Of Heights

I’m terrified of heights; vertigo, nausea, fear, and anxiety instantly make an appearance as I near an airy ledge of any kind. Cliffs in the wilderness, building balconies, these all induce these effects in me. My fear of heights bothers me; I like hiking, I like mountain views, and the best ones are always up among the regions where my fears are at their most insistent, clamoring for attention, demanding control of my body and brain. I gaze at photos of mountaineers on ridges and summits and ice walls, and I’m thrilled and nauseated alike. I want to be up there, but I know what I will feel: terror. During my boarding school years, in the tenth grade, I took up rock climbing in an effort to try to either master, or co-exist with, this fear. Those motivations were quite conscious; I hoped to move on past the worst aspects of those sensations so I could enjoy the mountains. My rock climbing was elementary but I did achieve a moment of acute insight once while abseiling down a training cliff: my feet slipped momentarily, I swung back hard into the rock face, and panicked. Around me, mists swirled, and below me lurked a seemingly bottomless chasm. As I called for help, my instructor yelled at me to push away from the cliff and continue moving down. I was not going to be rescued. A few seconds later, I came to an overhang, pushed out, and smoothly swung down to the floor to come to rest; I was exhilarated. I had encountered trouble in a scary place, and somehow, I had moved on–despite my fears. I had seen a glimmer of a better place; perhaps by controlled exposure to heights, I could learn to live with my fears well enough to be able to travel to places I wanted to see.

Over the years, this insight faded; I left my boarding school in the hills, returned to the plains, graduated from school and college, migrated; I’d gone back to my old ways. I continued to hike in the mountains, but I never took up any kind of climbing again. I remained scared of the heights.

Sometime last year, I began resolving to push myself back to the heights, to train, formally and informally, to get back to trying to ‘master’ those old fears of mine. I took a climbing course in New Hampshire, and an ice climbing course in the Catskills; neither of those classes involved exposure to great heights, but I hoped to start learning those skills and techniques which would let me make a foray to places where I would encounter them. I also hoped to start pushing myself to, er, ‘expose’ myself to, exposure.

This past week’s hike to Mt. Yamnuska–while ostensibly an elementary recreational jaunt, one that thousands of local teenagers pull off every year–thus constituted an integral part of this strategy; the tiny cabled ‘via ferrata‘ section on its approach had filled me with much trepidation when I had first read about it, and so it made eminent sense to attempt it. Online guides said it was not for the ‘faint of heart’; I thought I recognized myself, the very faint of heart. The evening before the hike, I was suddenly struck with fear and doubt; What if I slipped? What if I fell? What if I looked down?

On the day of the hike, the cabled section finally made its appearance; one hiking partner went first, and I followed next. Because the cable is strung tight, it affords a comfortably secure grip as the ledge is traversed; there was one tricky section where the slack in the cable sent me alarmingly into open air. I hung on, slid my hands across, as I hung on tight and moved on. There was some genuine fear in there for a second, but it subsided. A second later, I was done. The summit was a short scramble away. (Interestingly enough, because you have to concentrate on your grip and the placement of your feet, there is little time to think about the exposure behind and below; a very useful lesson.)

I feel faintly ridiculous as I write these words; all I had done was walk across a short section of a cliff ledge, all the while hanging on to a cable. But these sorts of things add up, I suppose, and I can only hope they continue to. I don’t think I’ll ever ‘master’ my fear of heights, but perhaps I’ll learn to live with them in a way that will allow me access to those regions up among the clouds that do so much to lift my spirits.

Back To Conferencing, Thanks To The Mountains

Last year, indeed, almost exactly a year ago, I wrote a post titled My First Academic Conference. In it, after describing my reluctance to attend academic conferences, I closed with the following lines:

Now, I don’t go to conferences any more; the travel sounds interesting, but the talks, the questions and answer sessions, the social schmoozing, the dinners, (and the conference fees!) don’t sound enticing. I prefer smaller-scale, more personally pitched interactions with my fellow academics.  But perhaps a suitable conference venue–with mountains close by–will overcome this reticence.

Well, that ‘reticence’ was ‘overcome’ and unsurprisingly, mountains had something to do with it. Last week, I attended the University of Calgary Philosophy Graduate Student Conference to deliver a talk–as one of four plenary speakers. Calgary is, of course, wonderfully proximal to Banff National Park and the Bow Valley; hiking opportunities would be ample; so I gratefully accepted the invitation. My wonderful host was Justin Caouette, a doctoral candidate in the department who had organized the conference, and amazingly enough, offered to put me up and arrange a couple of hikes too. His hospitality and friendship made this trip memorable; he is a professional ethicist engaged in a constant struggle to abide by the theoretical principles he espouses; I can extend no higher praise to a practicing philosopher.

On arriving in Calgary on the 2nd, we drove up to Banff for coffee and some pleasant strolls around the stunning local lakes.  The next two days were taken up by the conference; I attended all the talks and participated in most question and answer sessions; I’m glad to say that these went well and were not hijacked by the kind of querulous interactions that are the bane of academic philosophical discussions. My talk closed out the conference; the time allotted to my session was generous and allowed for a very engaged interaction with the audience. (More on the content of my talk in a separate post.)

Once done with the conference, Caouette and I headed off to hike Mt. Yamnuska in the Bow Valley. The hike is an elementary one in terms of distance and elevation gain, but the scrambles above the treeline make it an exciting one, as does a short cabled ‘via ferrata‘ section leading up to the final summit ridge. Descending by a looped route requires scrambling down long scree slopes, an experience which was utterly novel. The views from the summit were stunning; the good ones always require a little work. (I will write more, in a separate post, about the personal challenge that the cabled section presented to a terrified-of-heights person like me.)

On the following day, Caouette and I had planned to hike Mt. Rundle, but locals in Banff informed us that avalanche conditions made that too dangerous. We settled for a pleasant hike from Lake Louise up to Lake Mirror and Lake Agnes. The lakes were still frozen; they were stunningly beautiful. The forested paths leading up to them were blanketed in snow, and hikers were rare. We were able to enjoy the stillness of that snowy walk in relative solitude.

Finally, on Sunday, we went for a little indoor climbing–my first crack at this endeavor. I chose a wall equipped with an auto-belay and tried a few routes; the 5.7s were elementary but the 5.9s defeated me. I consider myself a reasonably strong and fit person but was amazed at how quickly my arms grew tired; some failures resulted just because I could not hold on or pull up any more. (Much more on this experience too anon.)

I’m back home now, and have already notched up a full day’s teaching. But I’m only partially here; one part is still dreaming about the mountains.

The Pleasures Of Providing Directions To The Lost

A short while ago, as I alighted at the New York City’s Herald Square subway station, I was approached by a Chinese gentleman seeking directions to Penn Station; he needed to catch a New Jersey Transit train to, well, New Jersey. I was already ‘late’ for my weekly Tuesday stint at the library, but I stopped and gave him explicit and detailed directions. He listened eagerly and attentively and then sallied forth; I slapped him on the back as he left, calling out ‘good luck’ as I did so. As I strode off to the library–where I am now writing this post–I had a smile on my face. The beneficiary of my directions had been bewildered and disoriented; now, hopefully, he wasn’t any more.

Once, some twenty years or so ago, while walking up Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, I had spotted an elderly Sikh gentleman clutching at the hands of passersby, imploring them for something; I crossed the street, and heard him asking for directions in extremely broken English. I sidled up to him and spoke in Punjabi, “Sir, what are you looking for?” (Rather, I called him ‘padshah,’ a colloquial term that literally means ’emperor’ but doubles as a respectful term of address.) His expression changed dramatically from confusion to the broadest of smiles; he grasped my hand and squeezed it with some feeling. A minute or so later, I was heading off again, to the same library as I was headed to today, once again smiling from ear to ear.

There is something deeply satisfying about providing directions to the lost, to the bemused, to those cast adrift in strange environs. I have not yet descended into the realm of the symbolic or the metaphoric, and I don’t need to; getting lost, even if only temporarily, is a disconcerting experience. The fear of being so informs every step of mine in the great outdoors; it has prevented me, until this past summer, from ever going hiking solo. I can empathize effortlessly with the lost, with those temporarily ‘unsure of their position.’ I have ‘been there,’ I have ‘done that’; and I didn’t like it. (This act has special resonance for me in New York City, my first port of call in the US some thirty years ago; back then I was often too scared to ask for directions, intimidated by the city’s reputation and by the supposed dangers of being mistaken for a tourist.)

For that hopefully brief period of time when we are not sure which way to turn, we are overcome by a panoply of emotions, novel and archaic: frustration, irritation, impatience, anxiety, these all surge to the fore; we worry about missed appointments; we curse our inability to magically walk on the straight path home; men fret about whether their masculinity faces its most rigorous challenge yet; the GPS rises in our esteem as the greatest blessing of this technological age. To apply a healing balm to these myriad afflictions is Good Work; we should not shirk it.  And I don’t.

Shlomo Breznitz On ‘The Mystery Of Courage’

In First Words: A Childhood in Fascist Italy Rosetta Loy cites Shlomo Breznitz‘s Memory Fields:

The fascination of hiding doesn’t amount to much compared to the mystery of courage, especially courage on behalf of others. It is when fear tells you to run and your mind tells you to stay, when your body tells you to save yourself and your soul to save others, that courage goes to battle with fear, its eternal companion.

Breznitz wrote these words in response to the memory of a Catholic mother superior in Bratislava who, after hiding him in her orphanage’s infirmary, not only denied his presence to the armed German soldiers who came looking for him, but also did not allow them to enter her abode, all the while yelling at them to cease and desist, despite being confronted by several large, aggressive, snarling bloodhounds. The mind boggles.

There are a couple of familiar notes struck here, both worth revisiting.

First, bravery is not the absence of fear, but the ability to act as required in the presence of fear. As I wrote once elsewhere:

True courage or bravery is the ability to overcome…entirely rational fear and to overcome it in order to achieve the objective at hand. A little reading of memoirs penned by mountaineers, military heroes, and adventurers of all stripes might convince those who imagine that a brave person is some sort of automaton who blithely and idiotically subjects himself to danger. We respect these men and women because while they feel the fear that all of us do, they are able to get over and on with it.

Second, there is the intoxicating power of righteous anger, which can overcome fear, perhaps even induce a kind of hypnotic trance, and allow actions to be taken that would otherwise be inconceivable. Once, as a pre-teen, I got into a shouting match with a couple of grown men who had refused to let my mother use her reserved sleeper berth in a train; they were bigger than me and could easily have knocked me out cold with a couple of punches, but I was infuriated beyond measure, and let myself be overcome by the anger that overcame me. Much to my surprise, the two men backed down from their earlier confrontational stance; perhaps I had shamed them with my display of outrage, something that reached out and touched an inner sensibility that would have otherwise lain dormant.

Most interestingly, Breznitz alludes to the ‘mystery of courage.’ Sometimes courage beckons seductively, inviting us to enter its precincts, to see what may lie in store for us; perhaps we have imagined such a journey lay beyond our capacities and have declined all such entreaties in the past; but then, on some crucial occasion, our curiosity is overcome. We cannot hold off the urge any more, we cannot put off any longer the desire to see what would happen if we were to don the mantle of the brave and sally forth. We are willing to entertain the uncertainty of the outcome, to put behind us the certainty of timidity and reticence–especially if we know we are to act ‘on behalf of others,’ to gain moral laurels as a possible reward. And so we act. Courageously.

Colorado Notes – III: Solo Hiking As Novelty

I’ve always struggled to understand the solo hiker. Walking alone in the wilderness suggested a journey suffused with equal parts boredom and fear: no one to point to a sight seen along the way, no one to seek refuge with in case of danger. (These considerations apply to travel in general in my case: I’ve traveled alone, but have always preferred to do so in company.) But those who walk along wilderness trails with no one to keep them company have clearly overcome these challenges that seemed insuperable to me; they’ve clearly figured out something I haven’t. They’d figured out how to find solitude, not loneliness, on the trail. On my recent Colorado trip, once my original plans for hiking the Collegiate West section of the Colorado Trail had been derailed, I had resolved to hike from Cottonwood Pass  to Tincup Pass Road, supposedly the most beautiful section of the trail segment, as a partial consolation. I tried to arrange company for the hike–a sixteen mile day-hike which would require a very early start to avoid any of the Rockies’ usual afternoon thunderstorms–but those plans fell through. I would have to hike this segment alone if I wanted to do it.

Let’s face it: I’m a pretty anxious, easily panicked person; I am terrified of being lost; momentary losses of orientation easily trigger ominous internal losses of self-control. I’m not your ideal solo hiker. But I was desperate to hike this section–one that had little camping cover and which would require scurrying down and away from its exposed ridgelines in case thunder and lightning threatened. The mind of the anxious is not easily tamed though, and I effortlessly conjured up one desperate situation after another: what if I sprained an ankle and was unable to walk? Eh? What then? I arranged for a ride, even as it seemed to me that the rendezvous I was arranging at night for a pick-up seemed a little tentative and might easily, on failing, cause me considerable inconvenience and perhaps even place me in some danger.

As you can tell, I was one reluctant adventurer. But I was a disappointed one, still smarting over the derailment of my original plans to hike the Collegiate West. So I gulped and resolved to wake early and set off alone. It was the most minor of decisions in one sense: all I was planning to do was wake up early and go for a longish walk–in the mountains. But knowing what I knew about myself, it wasn’t.

I set off at six in the morning, shivering just a little from the cold wind that raked Cottonwood Pass. The sun greeted my presence on the trail quickly, warming me up, and firming my resolve further. At Sanford Saddle on the Continental Divide, a black bear, sprinting downhill, induced some momentary apprehension but that emotion quickly gave way to gratitude for being lucky enough to witness such a spectacular sight. A little later, I met a thru-hiker who turned out to be great company; we hiked together for the rest of the segment, bidding each other farewell as he continued on from Tincup Pass Road. I wasn’t hiking solo anymore but the challenge had been met: I had set off solo. The hike was as beautiful as promised; I would have been a fool to have missed out on it.

More importantly, of course, I had partially mastered an old fear. And I had done it in the oldest ‘proving ground’ of all: the wilderness.

Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Mountains Of The Mind

A few years ago, while visiting my brother in India, I browsed through his collection of mountaineering books (some of them purchased by me in the US and sent over to him.) In Robert MacFarlane‘s Mountains of the Mind: Adventures in Reaching the Summit, I found the following epigraph:

O the mind, mind has mountains  – Gerard Manley Hopkins c. 1880

It wasn’t the first time I had read Hopkins’ immortal line. And my first reaction to it, and its embedding in the poem in which it features made me question MacFarlane’s deployment of it as an epigraph to his book, and indeed, in its title.

MacFarlane’s book is, as an excellent critical review on Amazon notes, “a series of essays following the development and transitional phases of Western European conceptions of the “mountains” and exploring the mountains.” Man is fascinated by the mountains; bewitched and bewildered, we seek to climb them, hoping to find on their slopes and summits nothing less than our true selves, brought forth and revealed by adversity. Or perhaps mountains will grant us access to the key to this world’s mysteries; visions will be induced in our journeys that will pull back the curtains and reveal what lies beneath the surface and appearance of reality. Mountains have many roles to play in our projects of self-imagination and construction–in MacFarlane’s narrowly conceived Anglocentric sphere. (This last critical point is the primary focus of the review linked above.)

But what is Hopkins’ line doing, serving as an epigraph to such a book? Hopkins’ poem is about melancholia; indeed, it might be one of the most powerful and moving explorations of the mind’s travails. Here is how I read his line: our mind is capable of entertaining thoughts and feelings which contain within them chasms of despair, points at which we stare into a dark abyss, an unfathomable one, with invisible depths. These are our own private hells, glimpses of which we catch when we walk up to the edge and look. The effect on the reader–especially one who has been to the mountains–is dramatic; you are reminded of the frightening heights from which you can gaze down on seemingly endless icy and windswept slopes, the lower reaches of which are shrouded with their own mysterious darkness; and you are reminded too, of the darkest thoughts you have entertained in your most melancholic moments.

In MacFarlane’s book, the fear that mountains evoke in us is a prominent feature of man’s fascination with mountains (this suggests too, the interplay between terror and beauty that Rilke wrote about in the Duino Elegies.) But melancholia does not feature in MacFarlane’s analysis. MacFarlane seems to quote the line as saying that our fascination with mountains stems from the fact that our mind itself contains mountains, that some part of our primeval sense responds to them. This is not what Hopkins was writing about. He uses mountains as an image to convey the depths visible from their heights, as a symbol of how far we may fall in our melancholia. Fear is present for Hopkins but in a wholly different manner; we dread the depths to which we may sink in our ruminations. That is not the kind of fear MacFarlane addresses; it is related only peripherally.