Massimo Lollini

For a more than human humanism

Archive for ‘June, 2019’

What are the origins of mountains? In particular, how were the Dolomites formed? Is the geological narrative the only way to explain the orogenesis of these mountains? A comprehensive, truly ecocritical approach to these questions does contemplate the most current scientific answers and a reconsideration of the legends and myths that over time have accompanied the narrative habitation of the mountainous territory and the invention of the places within it.

The following legend, The Mirror of Misurina, explains imaginatively and creatively the fantastic creation of Mount Sorapìs (the mountain that still stands before Mount Cristallo), and of the beautiful Lake Misurina, in the Italian Dolomites, northeast of Cortina d’Ampezzo, in the province of Belluno, Veneto, northern Italy.

The legend provides an anthropomorphic explanation of orogenesis. However, at the basis of the tale remains the myth of the perennial metamorphosis of matter. This aspect introduces in the legend a more than human dimension.

Richard Buxton, a scholar of the human etiology of landscape, writes “it is too simple to say that a geological narrative in terms of plate tectonics and vulcanology is just “true’, and that the tale of a doting giant and his capricious daughter is just ‘false'” (194). In other words, we have to admit that there are different ways of perceiving our relationship with the landscape’s past and its presence in our time.

As Karoly Kerényi writes in Essays on a Science of Mythology, “Mythology always tells of the origins or at least of what originally was” (Kérenyi 9). It is essential to consider mythology as “founding thought” with features that belongs to the world of orality. In this sense, it cannot represent a simple etiology like the one developed in the alphabetic world of modern writing and science. Mythology does indicate “causes,” only to the extent that “causes” are considered “beginnings” or “first principles”.

The reference to the Greek Presocratic thinkers can help us get closer to these concepts. For them, the beginnings consisted of primordial elements such as water, fire, and earth. These were not conceived as mere causes but as primary, boundless, and cosmic substance. In other words, for the earliest Greek philosophers, beginnings were “primary states” that cannot age or be surpassed. They produce everything and form the ground or foundation of the world, since everything rests on them. Everything individual or particular goes back to them out of which it was made, through a continuous metamorphic vital cycle. These primary states are ageless and inexhaustible as they live in timeless primordiality. “The past for them is imperishable because of its eternally repeated rebirths” (Kérenyi, 9).

This idea of ​​origins as an eternal metamorphic process takes us to the heart of the myths that can be glimpsed behind the legend of Misurina. For Kérenyi, the ultimate goal of the Eleusinian mysteries and associated myths such as Hecate, Demeter, and Persephone is the awareness of the drama of human life and the continuity of life even within death. We have discussed this central idea in each myth in two other posts of this blog, Simone Weil and a Myth of the Okanagan and the Pale Mountains.

The best way to get out of the sterile critique of mythological and legendary representations and the idea of ​​a trivial scientific determinism of the geographical space is to think that space is not an objective reality but a metaphor. In this sense, humans, not only geographers, may be explorers, not because they discover new lands but because they uncover changes, territorial innovations, and new meaning in the metaphorical landscape of the earth (De Matteis, 139, 149).

 

Joos de Momper the Younger, Anthropomorphic Landscape c.1600-1635

The Mirror of Misurina

Once upon a time there was a father and a child. The child was called Misurina and Sorapìs the father. Dad was a giant, and Misurina a tiny little wagtail, that could very well be in his waistcoat pocket, yet what do you ever want? that tiny little wagtail could at ease make fun of that dad as big as a mountain.

It is the fate that comes to the dads too good with little girls who do not deserve any goodness.
– But it’s so pretty – said Sorapìs when his wife reproached him for excessive indulgence that he had for his little daughter.
– But it’s so small.

But it is this, but that is, for one reason and another, father Sorapìs always allowed to be fooled without even noticing it. And Misurina grew fizzy like pepper, to the desperation of others.

At the castle of Father Sorapìs all fled her like the tertian fever, court men and chamber valets, company ladies and kitchen women, but the tertian fever jump on everybody even if you run away, don’t you? and Misurina did the same.

When less thought was given to her, she produced the worst tricks, and those poor guys, gesummaria, they always had some to tell the king.
– Sire, Misurina stole my wig.
– She hid my sword sheath.
– She blinded the horse with the salt.
– She cut off my steed’s tail.
– Oh, oh! – snorted Sorapìs trying in vain to look serious.
– This is serious, let’s see, we need to find a remedy, honorable isn’t it? But the little girl is so tiny! you had to excuse her.
– Sire, Misurina poured the ink into my coffee.
– She stole the buttered croutons.
– She has …
– My children, be patient – said Sorapìs – I know, I know, it’s not pleasant drink coffee with ink, or remain without croutons, but the poor creature is so lively!
– Sire – said the ladies – Misurina tramples on the train.
– She overturns our face powder.
– She steals our perfume.
– She …

My ladies – Sorapìs moaned – I know, I know, Misurina is a little brat, but she is so much a dear child! We will find a remedy, won’t we? We’ll fix this.

But the poor man did not fix anything. On the contrary, the little girl growing up became more and more unbearable. What desires she had! What demands she had! If someone had brought her the moon, she would have shrugged her shoulders and said, “Is this all? Beautiful stuff! For me we need something else! ” But these were roses. His biggest flaw was curiosity.

It was impossible to meet a girl so curious all over the world.
Se wanted to know everything, she wanted to see everything, she wanted to have her court and her kingdom on her fingertips.
She wanted, if possible, to read in the soul of the people.

– Peanuts! – the nurse told her one day.- For a young lady like you, adored by her father so much as one loves the sun, one needs to have  so much as the mirror I know everything (tuttosò).

– Eh! – exclaimed the child, reddened by emotion – And what is this mirror?
– A mirror where it suffices to mirror yourself or let someone mirror himself or herself to know everything about him and her.
– Oh! murmured Misurina. – Curious! And how can I have it?
– Ask your dad who knows everything. And Misurina went to her father hopping like a sparrow.

-Daddy, – she began to shout before reaching him. -You have to give me a present. –
– If I can, my little jewel.
– Yes you can. – Then let’s hear.
– First swear that you will give me this present.
– I can’t swear if I don’t know what the gift is.
Then,  Misurina began to cry and to despair and cooing to bring that poor father out of his mind, and he was consoling her and promising while sighing.

– All right, I swear to you, whatever the gift you want, I’ll do it for you.
And then Misurina clapping her hands expressed her desire.
– I want the mirror I know everything.
Sorapìs paled.
– You don’t know what you ask me, child.
– Yes, I know.
– But don’t you know that the mirror belongs to the fairy of Monte Cristallo?
– And what does it matter! You will buy it.
Sorapìs sighed.
– You’ll steal it.
– Listen, Misurina …
– You promised, dad, you swore it.
– And that demon of a child began to cry and to sigh and to roll on the ground. – And if you don’t bring me that mirror, I’ll die.

To die Misurina! Let’s imagine! The poor father put the crown on his head, dressed the ermine cloak, he took the scepter as a stick and set off. He walked and walked, he walked a little because the fairy lived two steps away from him, right in front of him, and as soon as he came to the castle, he knocked on the door.

-Come on, – said the fairy who sat in the throne room with her bridesmaids. – Who are you and what do you want?
– I’m Sorapìs and I want the mirror I know everything.
– Strawberry trees! – laughed the fairy. – Only? As if it were strawberries.
– Oh, fairy, fairy don’t laugh; if you don’t give it to me, my little girl dies.
– Your little girl? And what does she know about the mirror? What does she need it for? What’s the name of this girl?
-Misurina, – replied the king.
– Ah! ah! said the fairy. – I know her by reputation. Her cries reach me when she is acting up, and this is a whim well worthy of her. All right, I’ll give you the mirror, but with a pact.
-Let’s hear, – the king agreed.

– See how much sun beats from morning to night over my garden?”
I see,” replied Sorapis.
– It burns all my flowers and bores me. It would take me a mountain to throw me some shade; behold, as big as you are, you should be content with turning yourself into a beautiful mountain. At this agreement I would give you the I know everything mirror.- Eh, eh, eh! – said Sorapis scratching his ear and sweating coldly.
– Take it or leave it – said the fairy. – Well, what do you want to do with it? If there is no other way … give me the mirror – the poor king sighed.

The fairy drew from a casket that was close to her a large green mirror and handed it to him, but since she noticed that poor Sorapìs had become lifeless, she had pity on him, and said to him:
– Let’s do something; I understand that you don’t have too much desire to transform yourself into a mountain, and it is natural, but on the other hand you are afraid that your little girl will die if you do not keep the promise you made to her.
-Word of king must be maintained,- Sorapìs moaned.
– Yes, yes, but I would have given to her some spanks in your place; this is the way to cure whims. But as I said, let’s do something. You return to your castle and tell her the condition for which she can come into possession of the mirror; if she loves you she will renounce to possess it in order not to lose his father, and you will send me back the mirror, and if not … don’t blame me.
-All right,- answered the king, – thank you very much and goodbye. – He was sure to send her back the mirror.
And he left again.

Misurina was waiting for him sitting on the highest battlement of the castle and as soon as she saw him:
– Well – she shouted – did you bring it to me?
-Yes, I brought it to you,- the poor man gasped, dripping with sweat; and after taking the girl by the hand to talk to her better, he told her about the embassy of the Mount Cristallo fairy.
Misurina clapped her hands.- Is it just that? Daddy give me the mirror, and don’t think about it. To become one mountain must be a beautiful thing. First of all you will no longer die, then you will cover yourself with meadows and woods and I will enjoy it.

The poor man paled, but there was anything he could do, his sentence had been decreed. As soon as Misurina had grabbed the mirror, Sorapìs broadened, expanded, swelled, he seemed rising in the sun; he became petrified, and in an instant was transformed in the mountain that still stands in front to the Mount Cristallo.

Misurina suddenly found herself raised to that prodigious height, on the crest of a white and bare mountain, where gradually his father’s eyes died. She cried terribly and, taken by dizziness, with her green mirror fell down. Then, tears began to fall from Sorapìs’ almost lifeless eyes and tears and tears kept falling, until the eyes died out and the tears no longer rained. Those tears formed the lake under which Misurina and the mirror lie and in that lake the Mount Sorapìs is reflected and looks with his dead eyes for his dead child.

Misurina Lake, in the background the Sorapìs

Bibliography

Jung, C G, and Karl Kerényi. Essays on a Science of Mythology: The Myth of the Divine Child and the Mysteries of Eleusis. New York: Pantheon Books, 1973. Print.

Pina Ballario. “Lo specchio di Misurina” in Fiabe e leggende delle Dolomiti. Firenze: Giunti, 1973, pp. 17-30. Print. The English translation is mine.

Richard Buxton. Forms of Astonishment : Greek Myths of Metamorphosis. Oxford University Press, 2009. Print.

De Matteis, Giuseppe. Le metafore della terra. La geografia unama tra mito e scienza. Milano: Feltrinelli, 1985. Print

“Joos de Momper the Younger, Anthropomorphic Landscape c.1600-1635.jpg.” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. 19 Jun 2018, 16:18 UTC. 29 Jun 2019.

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What do you think when you get to the top of a high mountain like the Marmolada (3,343 meters; 10,968 ft)? There are so many answers to this question, maybe as many as there are individuals climbing the mountains. However, there is a very ancient reflective tradition on the view from above that is still interesting today. Pierre Hadot studied this ancient tradition and came to the conclusion that the view from above, for ancient philosophers such as Platonists, Epicureans and Stoics, is a kind of practice, of exercise of physics, to the extent that – with the help of physical knowledge – the individuals conceive themselves as part of the totality of the world or of the infinity of the worlds.

Scientific knowledge in ancient culture was quite often combined with ethical reflections. Something that has been lost in the evolution of modern science. The following is a profound reflection on the view from above from the Stoic philosopher Seneca (c. 4 BC – AD65) in his Naturales Questiones (Natural questions), which is a combination of ethics and philosophical physics.

The second part of the post introduces modern reflections on the view from above, dialoguing with Robert Macfarlane’s Mountains of the Mind: Adventures in Reaching the Summit (2003).

* * *

The soul reaches the full and perfect good of the human condition when, crushed every evil, turns upwards and penetrates the deepest breast of nature. Then, while the soul wanders among the stars, it rejoices in mocking the floors of the rich and the whole earth with his gold, and I mean not only the gold extracted and handed over to the mint to be coined, but also the gold that the earth keeps hidden for the avarice of posterity.

Only after contemplating the whole universe can the soul truly despise grandiose porches and coffered ceilings resplendent of ivory and thickets cut with care and waterways diverted to reach wealthy palaces. At that moment, the soul, looking from above down upon this narrow world –covered for the most part by the sea, with vast regions desolate even in the emerged lands and with areas either burned or frozen– says to itself, “Is it all here the pinpoint that many people fight over with iron and fire to conquer and divide?”

Oh, how ridiculous are the borders set by men! (0 quam ridiculi sunt mortalium termini)
Let our empire keep away the Dacians from the Ister (lower Danube) and confine the Thracians with the Haemus; let the Euphrates block the Parthians and the Danube mark the boundary between the territories of the Sarmatians and those of the Romans; let the Rhine place a limit for Germany, the Pyrenees raise their chain between the Gaul and Spain, a vast desolate and sandy desert lie between Egypt and the Ethiopians.

If the human intellect was given to ants, wouldn’t they divide a single area into many provinces? When you rise to those really great realities, every time you see armies marching with unfurled flags and the knights scouting in front or going to the flanks of the army –as if they were doing something grandiose– you will want to say: “a black swarm goes through the fields. This army is like a coming and going of ants that tire in a narrow space. What is the difference between them and us, if not the size of a tiny little body?”

That is an insignificant point on which you sail, on which you wage war, on which you create tiny kingdoms, tiny, even when the ocean meets it on both sides. At high altitudes, there are immense spaces, and the soul is allowed to possess them, but on the condition that it carries with it as little as possible of what comes from the body, it clears all impurities and raises free, light, and content with little.

When the soul has touched those heights, it finds nourishment, it grows, and, as free from chains, it returns to its origin. A proof of its divine nature comes from the fact that it is pleasantly attracted by the divine realities, in which it participates not as alien things but as things that belong to the soul itself. The soul calmly views the setting and rising of the stars and their orbits so different yet so harmonious; it observes the place where the stars begin to show the earth their own light, where their apogee and the highest point of their course are found, and how far they descend. As a curious spectator, the soul separates the individual details and investigates every natural and physical thing. And why should it not? The soul looking from above knows that all this, the entire universe, pertains to itself.

(Seneca, Naturales Questiones, I, 7-13; the translation is mine)

800px-SènecaQuestionibusNaturalibus

Rare manuscript of Seneca’s Questiones Naturales

* * *

Robert Macfarlane’s Mountains of the Mind: Adventures in Reaching the Summit (2003) explores the reasons why humans are attracted to mountain-tops and the views from above. Macfarlane does not consider the contribution of ancient philosophers and religions to this topic but privileges a historical and cultural reconstruction to trace the genealogy of a “secularized feeling towards height (…) according to which the individual discovered pleasure and excitement in height for its own sake” (149). From this point of view, human attraction to the mountains is a fairly recent phenomenon, even though ancient religions and philosophies greatly appreciated the altitudes and believed the upper world was the home of the gods.

Not by chance, prophets and seers received their divine counsels from the top of the mountains. In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, Mt Pisgah comes to mind: “The Lord ordered Moses to the top of this mountain and told him to look in all directions, thus revealing the Promised Land to the tribes of Israel” (Deuteronomy 3:27). Along these lines, one may recall that Moses ascended Sinai to receive the ten commandments. Moses departed to the mountain and stayed there for 40 days and nights to receive God’s commandments (Exodus 19, Exodus 24, Deuteronomy 4). These are just a couple of examples, and we should consider that the idea of mountainous altitudes as sites of the sacred is not exclusive to the Judaeo-Christian tradition but belongs to world religions.

The discovery of the pleasure and excitement in altitude for its own sake developed during a centuries-long process in Western civilization. Before the Eighteenth Century, humans were, in fact, scared of the mountains that were considered the sites of devils and monsters, very dangerous locations due to unpredictable meteorological phenomena. Except for mountain eremites, anachorites, and holy persons looking for the presence of God in altitudes, climbing the mountains was considered a crazy and dangerous idea. The starting point of the appreciation of altitude is considered the ascent of Mont Ventoux, in Vaucluse (in Provence; elevation 1912 meters), undertaken in 1336 by the Italian poet Francis Petrarch. He narrates his ascent in a famous letter written around 1350 (Letters on Familiar Matters, IV, 1). He claimed to be the first person since antiquity to have climbed a mountain for the view. But to reach the summit was not a straightforward process for him as it was for his brother Gherardo who was a monk. Petrarch feels weak and looks for easier paths. What was a vertical ascent for the religious person (Gherardo) became a zig-zag process for the poet.

When he reaches the summit, Petrarch reveals the ambiguity of the human spirit in front of the environment: on the one hand, the cupiditas videndi, the desire to view from a great height indulging in the visibility of the plain, an aesthetic pleasure, for its own sake; on the other hand, the search for the inward dimension, the inner immaterial reality. In other words, Petrarch turns from the physical to the metaphysical realm and reads a passage from Augustine’s Confessions on top of the mountain, praising the magnificent reality of the human soul. 
This letter remains within the framework of what Derek Pearsall considers the Middle Ages’ typical attitude toward natural phenomena that are presented in allegorical, kind of stereotyped form as a mode of expression for an interpretation of reality that transcends or even denies those phenomena in the name of God, the only true source of awe.

Religious ideas were still instrumental in developing a positive attitude towards mountains in early modernity. The doctrine of natural theology that developed at the end of the seventeen century and the beginning of the eighteenth is a prominent example in this regard. By emphasizing that any aspect of nature and whatever existed in the world was created as an image of God given to humans, theologians like Thomas Browne (1605-1682) transformed the observation and scrutiny of nature into a form of worship. For Browne, nature was a bible open to all, as he writes in his Religio Medici (Religion of a Doctor; 1645): “Thus there are two books from whence I collect my Divinity; besides that written one of God, another of his servant Nature, that universal and public Manuscript, that lies expans’d unto the eyes of all; those that never saw him in the one, have discovered him in the other” (32).

At this time, the mountains started to be conceived as a text in which it was possible to read the words of God. Macfarlane writes, “The natural theology movement was crucial in revoking the reputation of mountains as aesthetically displeasing” (208). Toward the end of the eighteenth century, these ideas became current, and the mountain-worship from religious became gradually secular. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Nouvelle Heloise (1761) is credited to be the manifesto of such a transformation. With him, the higher spheres of the earth became the site of a “supernatural beauty” that charms both the senses and the mind to the point that one forgets everything in the world, including oneself.

Since the eighteenth century, Macfarlane writes, ” climbing upwards came to represent -as it still does- the search for an entirely new way of being (…). The upper world was an environment which affected both the mind and the body in ways cities or the plains never did – in the mountains, you were a different you” (213). In other words, mountains started to reshape our understanding of ourselves and of our inner life in a way that was already evident in Seneca’s Naturales Questiones and Petrarch’s words in front of the view from above atop Mont Ventoux. Whereas Seneca and Petrarch privileged the inscape, starting from the eighteenth century on, there is much more appreciation of the landscape, the beauty of the mountains embodied in particular by the architectural gestures of the light as manifested in phenomena like the alpenglow, which is caused by the reflection of the sun on snowfields.

Mountaineers like John Auldjo (1805-1886) contributed substantially to developing modern mountain imagery and imagination. Auldjo, a Canadian-British traveler, geologist, writer, and artist, in his Narrative of an Ascent to the Summit of Mont Blanc: On 8 and 9 August 1827, describes his extreme suffering from the climbing and the sublime beauty of the mountain. In this regard, he writes,

My attention was now attracted by the sun rising, his rays
falling on Mont Blanc and the Dôme du Goûté, clothing them
in a variety of brilliant colours, quickly following one another,
from a light tint of crimson to rich purple, and then to bright
gold . These rapid alternations of reflected splendour, on a
surface so vast and sublimely picturesque, presented a scene of
dazzling brilliancy too much almost for the eye to encounter, and
such as no powers of language could adequately portray. (33)

The suffering of the ascent was compensated by the view from the summit of Mt Blanc. In the words of Auldjo’s account, one can perceive the distance from Seneca’s narrative of the view from above. Ancient philosophy’s moral and spiritual reflections are now replaced by a new emphasis on the aesthetic dimension in modern mountaineer literature. Auldjo’s book became very influential and triggered many other attempts to reach the summits. As Macfarlane writes, humans started to be attracted to the mountains by two intertwined ideas: “First, the abstract notion that reaching the summit of a mountain was a worthwhile end in itself; and second, the belief that the view from a great height (…) could be sufficiently beautiful to merit risking one’s life to see it” (166).

V0025171 The ascent of Mont Blanc by John Auldjo's party in 1827: mou

The ascent of Mont Blanc by John Auldjo’s party in 1827, lithograph

Nonetheless, another idea resurfaces in modern accounts of reaching the summits of mountains, an idea that was crucial in ancient literature: reaching the summit empowers humans and enriches them with the appreciation of sublime beauties but at the same time puts them in touch with something that is more-than-human and induces humility and recognition in front of what is not human-made.

Bibliography

Auldjo, John, Narrative of an Ascent to the Summit of Mont Blanc: On 8 and 9 August 1827. London: Thomas Davison, Whitefriars, 1828.
—. The ascent of Mont Blanc by John Auldjo’s party in 1827, lithograph. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
Browne Thomas. Religio Medici (Religion of a Doctor). Boston: Robert Brothers, 1878.
Seneca, Lucius A, and Thomas H. Corcoran. Seneca in Ten Volumes: 7: Naturales Questiones. 1. London: Heinemann, 1971. Print.Hadot, Pierre. N’oublie Pas De Vivre: Goethe Et La Tradition Des Exercices Spirituels. Paris: Albin Michel, 2011. Print.
Macfarlane, Robert. Mountains of the Mind: Adventures in Reaching the Summit. New York: Vintage Book, 2003.
Pearsall, Derek A, and Elizabeth Salter. Landscapes and Seasons of the Medieval World. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1973

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