This reflection on borders begins with the Monument to Victory in Bolzano, built by the Fascist regime in 1928 to remember Italian soldiers who fell in the First World War and to celebrate the victory over the Austro-Hungarian army. A reading from Hermann Hesse’s Wandering will follow.
The monument was controversial and opposed by the German-speaking majority in the province of South Tyrol that was annexed to Italy after WW1. Today the monument remains controversial despite being somehow accepted by the entire South Tyrolean community.
Since 2014, it hosts along a permanent exhibition (under the title “BZ ’18–’45: one monument, one city, two dictatorships”) focusing on the history of the monument, within the context of Fascism and the Nazi occupation during WW2.
In the museum inside the monument you will find inscriptions that concern above all the historical time and the idea of borders and boundaries like the following expression of Fascist nationalism that can be read in Latin on the facade monument itself: “Here at the border of the fatherland set down the banner. From this point we educate others with language, law and culture.”
The exhibition is particularly critical and self-reflexive about the role of this monument and the monuments in general in keeping traces of the past alive. What is the function of the monuments? Is it still needed? Are there alternative ways to remember the past?
These are some of the questions that the visit to this monument-museum poses.
At the beginning of the precious little book by the German born writer Hermann Hesse (1877-1962) entitled Wandering (1919-1920) there is a profound ethical reflection on borders. The author was able to remain true to the highest spiritual and cultural values amid the collapse of European civil society during WWI. While participating in the war as a volunteer in the imperial army –where he was assigned to the care of prisoners of war– he refused the general war enthusiasm of the time and in 1914 wrote an essay titled “O Friends, Not These Tones” (“O Freunde, nicht diese Töne”) published in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung to appeal to his fellow European intellectuals not to fall for nationalistic folly and hatred. As he write in his autobiographical notes for the Nobel Prize he received in 1946, “when the First World War broke out each year brought me more and more into conflict with German nationalism; ever since my first shy protests against mass suggestion and violence I have been exposed to continuous attacks and floods of abusive letters from Germany.”
Wandering (Wanderung) is one of Hermann Hesse’s most poetic works. It records thoughts and observations of someone who is traveling to rediscover the meaning of life and death and the importance of invisible spiritual values, such as the mystical sense of belonging and love for life and nature in all its forms.
In his autobiographical notes he lists his philosophical and spiritual influences,
“of the Western philosophers, I have been influenced most by Plato, Spinoza, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche as well as the historian Jacob Burckhardt. But they did not influence me as much as Indian and, later, Chinese philosophy.”
Another significant influence on Hesse, not listed in his autobiographical notes, has been St. Francis. Notably, Hesse wrote a biography of St Francis (1904) and derived from him and some of the sources listed above (Indian and Chinese philosophy) the idea of the divine presence first and foremost in nature, in trees (see post of March 21, 2019), streams, meadows, clouds, or birds. Hence the mystical and religious sense of life so widespread in Wandering, which is capable of establishing a dialogue, an intimate conversation with the small creatures of the earth and the particular attention to the most apparently insignificant details of animated and inanimate life in the style of conversation with the birds of St. Francis …
Giotto, Assisi, St.Francis talking to the birds
The juxtaposition of St. Francis to the Eastern Buddhist mysticism that we see in a certain way in Hermann Hesse recalls that between Milarepa and St. Francis which is established by Reinhold Messner in his Museum of the Mountain of Bolzano. Messner also insists on the importance of human dialogue with the mountain, nature in general in the formation of mystical human spirituality
Immediately after the end of World War I, Hesse embarked on a journey south. Throughout his life he has been a traveler and this trip to Ticino –where he resettled alone in the town Montagnola near lake Lugano and renting four small rooms in a castle-like building, the Casa Camuzzi– is one of the most important of his life in incorporating the reflections, experiences and premises of the great masterpieces that will follow.
He crossed the Alps hiking from North to South experiencing the moment in which German architecture, German countryside and language come to an end. He wanted to get away from a world that, although familiar, he did not accept anymore. He needed to rediscover his own world; he was looking for a new meaning in his life after the horror and agony of war. After millions of military and civilian casualties fallen in the war to defend national borders, how could one now think of borders? What was their value? Here is his answer:
How lovely it is to cross such a boundary. The wandering man becomes a primitive man in so many ways, in the same way that the nomad is more primitive than the farmer. But the longing to get on the other side of everything already settled, this makes me, and everybody like me, a road sign to the future. If there were many other people who loathed the borders between countries as I do, then there would be no more wars and blockades. Nothing on earth is more disgusting, more contemptible than borders. They’re like cannons, like generals: as long as peace, loving kindness and peace go on, nobody pays any attention to them — but as soon as war and insanity appear, they become urgent and sacred. While the war went on, how they were pain and prison to us wanderers. Devil take them! (5)
The hike and crossing of the borders of the Alps is counter posed to the farmhouse that he leaves behind to undertake his new journey.
Farmhouse, Hermann Hesse, Wandering
In drawing his farmhouse he reflects,
“Once again I love deeply everything at home, because I have to leave it. Tomorrow I will love other roofs, other cottages. I won’t leave my heart behind me, as they say in love letters. No, I am going to carry it with me over the mountains, because I need it, always. I am a nomad, not a farmer. I am an adorer of the unfaithful, the changing, the fantastic. I don’t care to secure my love to one bare place on this earth. I believe that what we love is only a symbol. Whenever our love becomes too attached to one thing, one faith, one virtue, then I become suspicious (6).”
Hesse’s ethical reading opens a series of important questions about the role of borders in our time.What is their function?Are they to be conceived in an absolute sense or in a relative and contextual sense?Do they remain essential for establishing individual and national identities?Has the time come to rethink the boundaries in a new, dynamic way more responsive to the needs not only of particular communities but also of the whole of humanity?
According to historian George Duby, the contemporary situation in the Mediterranean appears to be characterized by two trends that are the result of tendencies already established in previous centuries. On the one hand, there are the consequences of European colonialism that make the difference between the North and the South, between Europe and the rest of the Mediterranean world, more evident than ever. The imbalance persists and worsens in a worrying manner. The countries freed from colonialism live in growing poverty, partly linked to exuberant demography. Europe appears increasingly wary and closed to the Southern part of the Mediterranean world. The dramatic social and economic problems of our time, together with all the fundamentalist identities both cultural and religious, originate from this situation. On the other hand, our time appears to be characterized by the moment in which tourism takes a “pathological form” both from a social and cultural point of view (30). European tourism, argues Duby, is the bearer of a closed and contemptuous sub-culture that produces serious and negative effects on local cultures.
Mountain tourism is not an exception in the race for immoderate consumption of intangible assets such as the enjoyment of the isolated beauty of a landscape. The sedimentation of the anthropocene characteristic waste has violated every hill, every mountain, every cave. The mountain has been commodified, reduced to tourist attraction, with its luxury hotels, its chair lifts and its artificial lights that obscure the night light of the starry sky. Even on the highest peak of earth, on Mount Everest, waste is a serious threat to environmental sustainability. It is estimated that some 50 tonnes of mountaineering rubbish has accumulated beyond the Everest Base Camp (Sanjay Nepal).
The human signs have “civilized” the highest peaks and most remote parts of the earth. Consequently, the mountain no longer offers itself as a unified and sublime image. Contemporary artists tend to emphasize this new dimension of the mountain landscape and the breaking of its magic. Here are two photographs by Andreas Gursky that represent the extreme human possession of the winter mountain landscape. Born in Leipzig in 1955, he is famous for representing the places of vacation and entertainment favored by tourism. The long queues of ski tourists draw the back of the mountains with serpentine waves that use the mountain as a writing medium.
The people represented in their swarming look like a row of ants. In these photographs there is no shadow of a human personality, only a movement of nameless multitudes.
Andreas Gursky-Engadina, 1995
But there are artists who are still able to rediscover the wonder and charm of the mountains even and despite the consumerist wave of mass tourism. Georg Tappeiner, the photographer born in Merano in 1964 who lives in the Dolomites exposing himself to their magical beauty, has proved capable of catching the breath of their majestic sometimes disturbing presence on earth. In his photographs the Dolomites emerge with the force of an archaic epic poem as if they were the “heart stone of the world” that pulsates in the sky in the infinite movement of light and clouds.
The Marmolada (in the background, on the left), the Sella Group (in the center) and the Sass Ciampac (in the foreground), from the top | photo by Georg Tappeiner
The Dolominites have recently been included in the list of UNESCO World Heritage for the beauty of the landscape and the importance of their geological history. This fact has led to an increase in mass tourism in these mountains. The problem therefore arises of making this new tourism sustainable to avoid what Geneviève Clastres has recently called “the tourist paradox” that produces overcrowded destinations reduced to stage sets. This problem is common to all UNESCO World Heritage sites. For sure, tourism brings money, growth and hope, but at the same time can have negative consequences because visitors tend to “destroy the sites they admire wearing away the soil around the standing stones at Carnac, causing gully erosion in the Puyde-Dôme, damaging the cave paintings at Lascaux, trampling over Machu Picchu” (Clastres).
Clastres article based on the French situation closes with a pessimistic note because France does not have an independent tourism ministry since 1995 letting the commercial aspect of tourism to become very much dominant. The Nepal article on the unsustainable tourist treatment of Mt Everest also ends with a pessimistic note. He underlines that the Nepalese government earns US $3.3 million annually in Everest-related climbing royalty and is “not truly committed to making sure that its mountaineering peaks are not polluted.”
These examples make it clear that it is very difficult to find a balance between ecological and commercial needs in the absence of a precise orientation in this sense from public authorities. From this point of view, it appears remarkable that the Article 9 of Italian Constitution states that the Republic “protects the landscape and the historical and artistic heritage of the nation.” Regarding the Dolomites a first step in this direction has been taken through the process of candidacy and the consequent enrollment in the World Heritage List. The Italian State that was part of the Convention along with the regional, provincial and local administrations involved, committed to ensuring the protection, conservation, the presentation and transmission to the future generations of the Natural Heritage. In other words, they committed to develop sustainable tourism not only in the core and buffer areas of the Dolomites UNESCO, but also in the surrounding areas.
The Management Framework of the Dolomites Heritage UNESCO, document elaborated a series of indications on the sustainable tourism management of the site. Among the main objectives the document highlights that of the “promotion of a gradual transition
from mass tourism to forms of quality tourism and responsible hiking” (Province of Belluno, Autonomous Province of Bolzano – Alto Adige / Autonomous Province of Bozen – Südtirol, Province of Pordenone, Autonomous Province of Trento, Province of Udine, Friuli Venezia Giulia Autonomous Region 2008, cited in Elmi and Wagner, 13).
Interventions and state and local government awareness in favor of responsible tourism are very important, as well as the conscience and action of each individual citizen. Similarly, the work of artists who re-create and re-invent the mountain landscape is significant, as it goes beyond pure preservation to renew its vitality in a creative way. L’Echo (2003), the video installation by Su-Mei Tse, the artist born in Luxembourg city in 1973, gives us a sense of wonder in front of a mountain landscape that also appears distant and impenetrable but at the same time responsive.
The artist and her cello are near the edge of a vast mountain canyon. She is still and silent then plays, pauses and listens. The echo of the mountain reverberates establishing an intimacy between the artist and the landscape in the common musical breath. But the intimacy is only momentary and interrupted by a sublime silence.
Clastres, Geneviève. (2019, 07). “Overcrowded destinations reduced to stage sets; the tourist paradox.” Le Monde Diplomatique English ed.; Paris [Paris]01 July 2019.
Duby, Georges. Los Ideales Del Mediterráneo: Historia, Filosofía Y Literatura En La Cultura Europea. Barcelona: Icaria, 1997. Print.
Elmi, Marianna and Wagner Matthias. Turismo sostenibile nelle Dolomiti. Una strategia per il bene patrimonio mondiale Unesco. Bolzano: Accademia Europea, 2013.
This legend was published by Karl Felix Wolff in 1905, as part of the folkloric tradition of the Dolomites in an attempt to enhance the Ladin minority that elaborated most of the legends today associated with the Dolomites. In fact, it was first published in the magazine L’amik di Ladins/Der Ladinerfreund (The friend of the Ladins). The most recent studies have highlighted the merits but also the problems of the collection of Ladin myths published by him. Among the merits is undoubtedly that of having saved from oblivion an extraordinary heritage of myths and legends destined to disappear when they were no longer told. Criticism of his work emphasizes the fact that he is a self-taught ethnographer and that he intervened heavily to integrate the legendary material in a personal way where it seemed contradictory or incomplete.
The Pale Mountains explains in an imaginative way the birth of the characteristic pale color of the Dolomites and the existential importance of their flowers like the edelweiss (Star of the Alps) and the rhododendron (Alpenrose). Reading this legend you will learn how the son of the King of the Alps with the help of hundreds of dwarfs prepared for the daughter of the King of the Moon a world of white so that she would never have to languish for light, because every high mountain top in his country had become a flame of stone, flaring, resplendently to the clouds …
The time of the story is the immemorial one of the origins and myth. The mountains we are talking about were not yet recognized with the name “Dolomites”. As is well known, the name Dolomites was coined in 1792 by the Swiss naturalist H.-B. de Saussure in honor of the French geologist Déodat de Dolomieu (1750–1801), who had discovered a new type of sedimentary rock, dolómia, made up of crystals of a double carbonate of magnesium and calcium (dolomite).
The central motif of the legend is the moonlight that is associated with the lunar deity, from the moon princess to the salvans. This was an ancestral people in deep contact with nature, able to weave the moon rays that would cover the mountains of the kingdom to alleviate the queen’s nostalgia for the moonlight. To recall Simone Weil’s conception elaborated in another post, Simone Weil and a myth of the Okanagan, in this legend we find a metaphor of divine truth inscribed in the universe. The moon princess is a divine incarnation, a mediator who benefits humans.
As Ulrike Kindl writes, “the legend of the Pale Mountains has its roots in a remote imago mundi, when the order of space and time was still perceived according to powerful symbolic projections, at the center, in all probability, was the figure of a primordial divinity, a numinous power identified with the entire cosmos, a goddess of heaven and earth, imagined as Mater Magna, fertile womb and deadly cave, source of birth, protector of growth and reproduction, and finally guardian of dead souls, until a new cycle begins” (194-195).
Once upon a time there lived the son of a King. His father’s kingdom lay in the southern territory of the Alps, with its green pastures and shady forests, and steep mountains with black rocks. The inhabitants lived as hunters and shepherds, loved their country, and considered themselves happy. One, alone, was not content with his life and the world about him – the King’s son. He felt tormented by a desire which no one could grant him – he wanted to visit the Moon. He had already consulted all the wise men of the kingdom as to what he should do in order to reach the Moon, but nobody knew how to advise him. The Prince, therefore, was discontented and sad. In vain his companions endeavored to distract him and to turn his thoughts to other things – he talked and dreamed only about the Moon. At the time of Full Moon, he always became very sad. From evening until the morning he wandered restlessly around on the rocks and meadows, gazing all the time at the Moon. The most expert physicians came to the Court but no one was able to cure the strange malady of the Prince. And it continued to become worse.
One day, while hunting, the Prince left his companions and lost his way in the forests. When evening came and the sun had set he found himself in a lonely, high valley, all covered with Alproses, and surrounded on three sides by steep ridges and mighty towers of rock. No longer hoping to meet with his hunting companions again that day, the King’s son decided to spend the night there. So he lay down on a green lawn in the midst of Alprose bushes and looked thoughtfully, in the distance, at the red clouds and mountain-tops which were just fading away. As he felt very tired, however, he soon fell asleep and had a curious dream … he stood on a meadow all covered with strange flowers, and spoke to a wonderful girl whom he had never seen before. All around, as far as the Prince could see, it was white, but he himself held some red Alproses in his hand, and gave them to the beautiful stranger. She, smiling, accepted the flowers, asking him what this country was like, and after a while she told him that she was the daughter of the Moon King. On hearing these words the King’s son felt an indescribable joy, and awoke.
It was already past midnight; the Moon stood high, and its silver light shone into the deserted clefts and on the pointed rocks of the lonely high valley: the Prince looked up and his joy changed, becoming deep sorrow. The usual ardent longing took possession of him, and for a long time, he gave free play to his sad thoughts. Finally, a gentle breeze passed through the Alproses, and the King’s son thought of what should happen if he really should meet the Moon Princess. So he began to gather the beautiful Alproses and to make a bouquet, and he was occupied with it for a long time. All at once, he thought he heard someone speaking high up in the rocks. He listened, but a great silence ruled, except that in the distance a waterfall murmured.
The Prince gathered some more flowers, but for the second time, he heard words, and now very clearly. The sound came down from the highest rock tower, and the top of this tower was wrapped up in a thick white cloud. Up there mountain-demons have to dwell, so the King’s son thought, and he grasped the hilt of his sword. Without putting away the Alprose bouquet he slowly strode to the tower, went around the foot of the mountain walls, and began to climb up on the back wall which was not so steep. The speaking became more clear, but it was not yet possible to distinguish words. Soon the King’s son came into a cloud, the moonlight could no longer get through, and he only groped his way forward. Finally, he struck something hard, a door was opened, and the Prince stood before a brightly Illuminated little space where two very, very old men were sitting.
They rose, frightened; but he calmed them, excusing himself by saying that he was a hunter who had lost his way in the mountain wildness. On hearing these words both went to meet him, asking him to come in, and they became very friendly. They talked of one thing and another, and the Prince asked them if they were old men of the mountains. But the two old men replied that they were inhabitants of the Moon who had made a long journey all around the world and that they were on the point of returning to their own country. Hearing this, the King’s son became quite pale with excitement and he told them that for years and years he felt an ardent desire to make a journey to the Moon. The two old men laughed, saying that if he wished to join them they were quite content and that they were starting immediately.
The Prince was very happy, thanking the good old men with endless words. Meanwhile the cloud had drifted from the rock summit and began to sail towards the Moon with increasing speed. During the long journey the Prince told the two old men many things concerning his father’s kingdom, and they told him how things were on the Moon, and how one had to live there. Thus, they informed him that an inhabitant of the earth could not stay for a long time on the Moon because everything there was white-plains and mountains, plants and cities – all shining in silver sheen, and an inhabitant of the earth became blind, after a time, from this dazzling brightness. So also, said they, a Moon dweller could not remain for a long time on the earth because of the dark colors of the forests and rocks, which are saddening, and if such a one could not return soon, very soon, to the Moon he would surely die from too much pining for the white fields of his country.
With such conversation and considerations did the three Moon-travellers beguile their time. At last, the cloud on which they were, came down upon one of the mountains of the Moon and rested there. The first part of their journey was over, now they had to proceed on foot. The two old men explained to the Prince that they had to turn westwards, and they advised him to travel towards the east in order to reach the Capital as soon as possible. The Prince said goodbye and went down the mountain in an easterly direction. All the country around about was white, especially because of little white flowers which covered the surface of the Moon in endless numbers. But, in addition, the ground, which in some places was bare, appeared white, and even the flaming walls of rock had faint bright colors.
After a while the King’s son saw the houses and tower tops of the Capital. All these buildings, however, were made, from their foundations to their battlements, of white marble. With quick steps, the Prince hastened to meet this white splendor until he was stopped by a hedge that barred the way. This hedge was made, with great skill, of sparkling metal, and its slicks bore strange decorations. Beyond the hedge, a gardener was working. As soon as he noticed the stranger he advanced slowly, saluted, and inquired, in an astonished manner, as to the origin of the red flowers which the Prince was holding in his hands. These were the Alproses which he had gathered during the night. The Prince explained that he had come from the earth, and that the flowers grew there. Now, the gardener told him that in the castle, which stood in the background, lived the Moon King and his daughter. The Princess was very fond of rare and beautiful flowers, and she would surely reward the stranger in a royal manner if he would leave the red bouquet for her.
The Prince laughed and said that he would give his Alproses to the Princess with great pleasure, but that he would seek no reward for them as he himself was the son of a King. At this, the astonished gardener opened the gate and invited the stranger to enter the garden. Then he ran up to the castle. After a while here returned, breathless, begging the Prince to go with him to the castle. The King’s son followed his guide through many, many halls and corridors, looking amazedly at the walls of alabaster white, and at the bright arms which adorned them.
The Prince was received by the Moon King and his daughter in a large illuminated hall and was welcomed in a very friendly way. The Moon King was a very old man with a long silvery-white beard; but, on seeing the Princess, the Prince recognized that wonderful girl whom he had met in his night-dream. She accepted the Alproses gratefully, praising their glorious color, and asked the Prince if there were many such flowers in his country, what kind of people lived there, and how large was his father’s kingdom. It was only after a lengthy conversation that they parted, the Moon King telling the Prince that he was to consider himself as his guest.
The Prince remained then for a time at the royal castle, taking long walks through its surroundings, and became well acquainted with the Moon to which he had so often looked up with longing. After some weeks the Moon King asked his foreign guest, at lunch, how he liked the Moon. The Prince replied that the white, shining landscape of the Moon was the most beautiful he ever had seen, but its unaccustomed brightness was so affecting his eyes that he feared he would go blind if he did not return soon to his own country. The Princess interjected that she did not share the apprehension of the earth Prince and that with time he could accustom himself to the splendor of the landscape. A wise old courtier, however, ventured to contradict the Princess, saying that it really was not advisable for an inhabitant of the earth to remain too long on the Moon. After that, the Princess said no more.
At the time that the King’s son lost his way while hunting, his companions searched for him everywhere in the gloomy forests and among the pathless rocks, but though their quest lasted for many days they were unable to find him. They were obliged, then, to return to the royal castle and to inform the old King of what had happened, but he sent them away, warning them that they should not dare to appear before him again without his son. At the same time the whole kingdom was informed that anyone who could bring any tidings of the Prince might expect a great reward.
But it was all to no purpose. No one knew anything, and the Prince was not heard of again. Everyone believed that he had perished at night on the mountains, when suddenly, it was reported through the country that the Prince had come back, bringing with him the Moon King’s daughter as his wife. The simple people of the Alps were very glad, and they all went to the palace to try to see the Princess as they could not imagine what an inhabitant of the Moon should look like, but she differed only from the women of the earth in that a bright light seemed to emanate from her, and that in the meadows each tree shadow vanished as soon as she appeared. The people were astonished at the white flower which grows everywhere on the Moon, and which the Princess had brought with her. This flower spread with time over the whole Alps, and even today the bright stars salute one from the rock walls, they are called Edelweiss.
The Princess for her part was enchanted by the colored meadows and pastures of the Alps, never getting tired of admiring the variegated flowers and the green lawns. She also loved the blue mountain lakes, and, ever and always, she praised the variety of the earth’s surface, comparing it with the monotony of the Moon landscape, where everything was white. A proud satisfaction came over the Prince when he saw that the Moon daughter was so well and happy, and he delighted to show her everything, the valleys of the kingdom and their different curiosities, and all the beauties of the country. Both of them fell very glad and cheerful, and had no other thought but to remain like that.
Once, however, when the King’s son returned late one evening from hunting he saw his wife standing on the balcony and looking up at the Moon. He thought it was strange. He went up softly, surprising the dreamer, and asked her why she was looking up so thoughtfully at the Moon. She smiled and was silent, but on being asked again she confessed that she had been pining for the white Moon-fields. The meadows and valleys of the Alps are beautiful, she said, but the confusion of dark mountain tops which extend themselves threateningly towards the sky, like the black fists of gigantic demons, give the landscape a gloomy closeness, and this in time presses like deep sorrow upon the soul.
On hearing this complaint the Prince grew afraid, for it recalled to his mind what the two old men said to him when he went up to the Moon: they said that a Moon dweller would soon miss the white beauty of his country and die, languishing for light ….. At present, of course, there was no cause for a serious fear, and the Prince hoped to be able to release his wife from her dangerous homesickness by amusement and all kinds of diversion. He was mistaken, however, for her condition became worse little by little. Just like the Prince before his journey to the Moon, she now gazed at the Moon for hours and hours, becoming finally so pale and weak that there were grave fears for her life, and always she lamented about the black rocks which threatened down in such a ghostly way, just as if they would darken the valleys. And just as once no one was able to help the Prince, so now, also, nobody could bring deliverance. In the meantime, the suffering of the Princess was becoming worse, and the words of the two old Moon dwellers seemed to be terribly true. The Prince felt desolate, and those about him were helpless.
As soon as the Moon King heard that his daughter was in danger of death, he left the Moon and came down to the earth to visit his son-in-law who told him about her terrible home-sickness, which grew worse and worse and was now about to kill her. The Moon King said he could not let his daughter die, and, therefore, that he wished to bring her back to the Moon. At the same time he invited the Prince in a very friendly way to accompany them if he wished to do so, but said that in case the Prince should be obliged to stay on the earth he would be very sorry, without, however, being able to change his resolution to take the Princess back to her country.
Now people from all parts besieged the Prince, begging him to think of the kingdom he was appointed to rule, to remain among his native mountains and to renounce his wife. They praised the great future he had before him, advising him to undertake a campaign in the beautiful south, but the Prince would listen to no such speeches, and went with his father-in-law and his sick wife to the Moon. Here she recovered her health very soon, but long before she was perfectly healthy the Prince perceived with horror that he was seeing less from day to day and that he would be blind after a short time. The old Moon King now advised him to leave the Moon before it was too late. The Prince struggled against it, but seeing the danger growing more and more apparent he finally gave it up and returned, wretched, to the earth.
Now the Moon-home-sickness took hold of him more strongly than ever. At full Moon time he was never to be seen in the castle but was wandering restlessly around on the mountains. During the day she slept in caverns and under trees, and at night he climbed high peaks, looking steadfastly up at the Moon. With the new Moon, then, the Prince would return but so changed that scarcely anyone could recognize him. Eventually it wearied him to see people at all, and he no longer went down to the valleys, so completely wild did he become. Ceaselessly he traversed the large forests and rock deserts of his kingdom, climbing every mountain-top.
Nowhere could he find consolation and peace. Many weeks had passed since the King’s son had last seen or spoken to anyone. One evening, in a rubbled valley-end, he was surprised by a thunderstorm and obliged to flee into a cavern. There he met a strange little man, hardly three shoes tall but with a long beard and a serious face and a golden crown upon his head. The Prince spoke to the little man and soon realized that he had found a fellow-sufferer, for what the little man with the golden crown had to tell about his fate was very pitiful and sad.
The little man was the king of the”Salvans” (Salvan in the Ladin language, signifies cavern-inhabitant, wild man). From olden times they had inhabited a beautiful kingdom in the far east. This kingdom, having reached the height of its glory, and possessing as many inhabitants as a large forest has leaves, was subjected to an invasion of hostile foreign forces who devastated the country by fire and sword and killed so many Salvans in protracted battles that the survivors had to flee from their own country. Then the king, with the remainder of his people, marched from one neighboring kingdom to another begging for a mountain, or a marsh, or some other piece of ground so that his people could settle there. No sovereign would listen to him, however, and everywhere the Salvans were ejected with scorn. At last, they found shelter in a distant country, but they were obliged to work so hard that many of them died and others escaped in order that they might not witness any longer the misery of their brothers. Thus, it was with the king.
Having related this, the little man sighed and said that no creature could be more unhappy than a sovereign whose people had entirely perished and he unable to prevent it. The Prince then sympathized with the dwarf king on the hard fate which had befallen him but he said that his own destiny was no less cruel and he, too, related his distressful history. At first the dwarf king listened with a gloomy look but, little by little, his face began to brighten, and at last he smiled, quite pleased, and when the Prince, who did not notice this, had finished, the little man jumped up, clapped his hands and cried out joyously: Prince, be happy, we are now both saved. On hearing such an unexpected exclamation the Prince was almost afraid to look at the dwarf, for he thought that the little man had surely lost his reason and gone crazy.
But the dwarf king had not spoken without reason and he now began to explain his meaning quite clearly. He pointed out that the Princess was only obliged to return to her own country because a Moon child, accustomed to light could not bear the look of the black rocks for long. If the mountains of the Alp-kingdom were of the same clear color as those on the Moon, the Princess would never have been attacked by such a home-sickness. The little Salvans, he said, are a clever and skilled people and they would be willing to cover the innumerable dark mountain tops, from head to foot, with the whiteness of the Moon landscape if only the King of the Alp-kingdom would give them permission to live there forever without being molested. This would give help to both, to the Prince as well as to the dwarf-people.
The Prince listened to this promising speech half astonished, half unbelieving, and then he said he did not think it would be difficult to obtain permission for the Salvans to remain in his kingdom but that he did not understand how they could make a dark rock wall white. The dwarf-king smiled in a superior way and then he said the Prince could rest assured about that because the dwarfs had already done things that were more difficult. The Prince then hesitated no longer, inviting the little man to come with him to the court. The Salvans agreed and in addition, as the storm had ceased, they immediately left the cavern, walking on together. They had to wander for two days through desert solitudes before they reached the principal valley and the castle.
The old King was very pleased al the return of his son but he considered the request of himself and his companion a strange one. He did not bother about to look at the mountain-tops but he thought he could not agree to the immigration of strange people. It was only when the king of the Salvans had explained that they would never lay claim to the rich valleys, meadows, and fields, but be satisfied to remain in the forests and wild rocks, that the Alp King and his advisers gave their consent. The agreement was confirmed by documents and both parties swore to observe it faithfully.
The dwarf king departed immediately to look for his poor people and to bring them the good news. Some days later the exhausted little people were seen to cross the frontiers of the kingdom in long columns and turn towards the high mountains. After having selected their dwelling places under clefts and rock sand behind waterfalls, the dwarf king sent word to the Prince that the Salvans would begin next evening the work they had undertaken by contract. The Prince who could scarcely restrain his impatience was in addition, tormented by doubts, for it seemed incredible to him that the dwarfs would be able to accomplish the difficult work. He ascended one of the highest mountain-top to await the evening.
As soon as the moon had risen, seven Salvans appeared, forming a circle and beginning to make all sorts of contortions. Their little hands worked convulsively, like the waves of a torrent. Astonished, the Prince watched this performance; finally, he asked the little men what they intended to do. They answered that they were about to weave the moonlight, and, sure enough, after a while, in the middle of a circle, one saw a clew which radiated a soft but continuing brightness. The dwarfs worked busily, the clew was growing and became a large bundle. The Prince gazed steadily at the seven little men, while hour after hour passed. Then he looked in the distance and behold, on every mountain top a point of light was glowing: everywhere stood little dwarfs who had spun the lights.
In deep astonishment the Prince looked at this wonderful picture; the stars seemed to have fallen down on the dark sea of mountains tops. Already the valley had become all black, and the Moon shone only on the highest peaks, then it sank down beyond long wavy borders. The Salvans did not rest but immediately began another task; they pulled apart their bundle of light, drawing glittering threads down from the tops over the declivities, and they went around the mountains wrapping them, little by little, into a net of light. As soon as every edge and top had been spun over, the meshes were drawn closer together until finally, every dark plain vanished and the whole ground radiated a pale glimmer.
The next day no one, down in the valley, could believe their eyes, for the high mountains all around, once towering aloft so gloomily, were now all white, and their bright color formed a strange contrast with the maze of mountains which remained black beyond the frontier. In a single night, the dwarfs had covered all the mountain tops in the kingdom with the white color of the Moon-landscape. When the Prince arrived at the castle highly pleased, a messenger was brought before him with a sad message: the Moon King informed the Prince that the Princess had contracted an illness which endangered her life, and had expressed a desire to see her husband once again. The Prince made no answer, not even a single word, but when the messenger departed he was his companion.
As soon as he arrived at the Moon, he hastened towards the glittering palace. On reaching the hall the Prince was informed that the Princess was on the point of death. But he ran to her, crying that she must not die now, for all their sorrow was ended: the mountain tops of his kingdom were glittering like Moon-mountains; she must return with him once more lo the earth, as he had prepared for her a world of white where she would never again have to languish for light, because every high mountain top in his country had now become a flame of stone, flaring, resplendently to the clouds.
These cheerful, happy words revived the spirits of the Princess, and soon it was obvious that she had recovered again. After a short lime the Prince was able to bring his wife back to the earth, and how joyful was the astonishment of the young Princess who had lain so near to death, when she beheld the shining landscape: the smiling Alp-garden united in its white rocks, green meadows and variegated flowers, the Moon’s regions of light with the rich color-beauty of the earth. Never again did the Moon-daughter sigh for her own country, as it was now more beautiful on the white mountains than in the Moon.
The pale mountains are standing there today, and they are called the Dolomites. The kingdom as such has ceased to exist for a long time, but the Salvans still dwell in the wildness of the rocks and forests. But not only does an enchanting brightness still cling to those pale mountains -they are haunted by the deep home-sickness of that Moon-Princess, for anyone who has ever been there, is always called back to the marvel of the light-girded Dolomites by an infinite longing.
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.
– 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.
– 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
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.
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)
* * *
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).
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.
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 email@example.com://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
This post is my translation of an excerpt from the short article by Primo Levi entitled “Butterflies” in which he describes an exhibition on the butterflies he visited in a museum.
Why are butterflies beautiful? Certainly not for the pleasure of human beings, as Darwin’s opponents claimed: there were butterflies at least a hundred million years before the first human being. I think that our very concept of beauty, necessarily relative and cultural, took its configuration over the centuries from them, as from the stars, the mountains and the sea. We have proof of this when we consider what happens when we examine the head of a butterfly under the microscope: for most observers, admiration is replaced by horror or disgust. In the absence of cultural habit, this new object baffles us; the enormous eyes without pupils, the horn-like antennae, the monstrous mouth apparatus appear to us like a diabolical mask, a distorted parody of the human face.
In our civilization (but not in all) bright colors and symmetry are “beautiful” and so are butterflies. Now, the butterfly is a true factory of colors: it transforms the foods it absorbs and even its own excretion products into dazzling pigments. Not only this: it knows how to obtain its splendid metallic and iridescent effects with pure physical means, only by exploiting the interference effects that we observe in soap bubbles and in the oil slicks floating on the water.
But the fascination of butterflies does not only come from colors and symmetry: deeper motives contribute to it. We wouldn’t call them so beautiful if they didn’t fly, or if they flew straight and fast-moving like bees, or if they stung, or especially if they didn’t cross the perturbing mystery of the metamorphosis: the latter takes on the value of a partially deciphered message in our eyes, a symbol, and a mysterious sign. It is not strange that a poet like Gozzano (“the friend of the chrysalises”) studied and loved butterflies with passion: it is strange, nonetheless, that so few poets have loved them, since the passage from the caterpillar to the chrysalis, and from this to the butterfly, projects beside itself a long admonitory shadow.
As butterflies are beautiful by definition, they are our yardstick of beauty, so the caterpillars (“insects in default”, said Dante) are ugly by definition: clumsy, slow, stinging, voracious, hairy, obtuse, they are in turn symbolic, the symbol of what is coarse, incomplete, and represents a perfection not reached.
The two documentaries that accompany the exhibition with the portentous eye of the camera show us what very few human eyes could see: the caterpillar that suspends itself in the aerial temporary tomb of the cocoon, turns into an inert chrysalis, and then comes out to light in the perfect shape of the butterfly; the wings are still inept, weak, like crumpled tissue paper, but in a few moments they become stronger, stretched, and the newborn flies off. It is a second birth, but at the same time it is a death: the one who has flown away is a psyche, a soul, and the torn cocoon that remains on the ground is the mortal body. In the deep layers of our consciousness the butterfly with a restless flight is a soul, fairy, sometimes even a witch.
The strange name it bears in English (butterfly, the “the fly of butter”) evokes an ancient Nordic belief that the butterfly is the goblin who steals butter and milk, or makes them sour; and the Acherontia Atropos, the great domestic nocturnal moth with the sign of the skull on the corselet that Guido Gozzano meets in the villa of Signorina Felicita, is a damned soul, “which brings pain”. The wings that the popular iconography attributes to the fairies are not feathery wings of a bird, but transparent and ribbed wings of a butterfly.
The furtive visit of a butterfly, which Hermann Hesse describes on the last page of his diary, is an ambivalent announcement, and has the taste of a serene premonition of death. The old writer and thinker, in his Ticinese hermitage, sees “something dark, silent and phantom” rise in the air: it is a rare butterfly, an Antiopa with dark-violet wings, and lands on his hand. «Slowly, with the rhythm of quiet breathing, the beauty shut and opened the velvet wings, holding on to the back of my hand with six very thin legs; and after a brief moment it disappeared, without my detecting its withdrawal, in the great warm light».
Primo Levi, “Farfalle” in L’altrui mestiere. Torino: Einaudi, 1985. pp. 133-135. My translation, the original Italian follows.
Perché sono belle le farfalle? Non certo per il piacere dell’uomo, come pretendevano gli avversari di Darwin: esistevano farfalle almeno cento milioni di anni prima del primo uomo. Io penso che il nostro stesso concetto della bellezza, necessariamente relativo e culturale, si sia modellato nei secoli su di loro, come sulle stelle, sulle montagne e sul mare. Ne abbiamo una riprova se consideriamo quanta avviene quando esaminiamo al microscopio il capo di una farfalla: per la maggior parte degli osservatori, all’ammirazione subentra l’orrore o il ribrezzo . In assenza dell’abitudine culturale, quest’oggetto nuovo ci sconcerta; gli occhi enormi e senza pupille, le· antenne simili a corna, l’apparato boccale mostruoso ci appaiono come una maschera diabolica, una parodia distorta del viso umano.
Nella nostra civiltà (ma non in tutte) sono « belli» i colori vivaci e la simmetria e così sono belle le farfalle. Ora, la farfalla èuna vera fabbrica di colori: trasforma in pigmenti smaglianti i cibi che assorbe ed anche i suoi stessi prodotti di escrezione. Non solo: sa ottenere i suoi splendidi effetti metallici ed iridescenti con puri mezzi fisici, sfruttando soltanto gli effetti di interferenza che osserviamo nelle bolle di sapone e nei veli oleosi che galleggiano sull’acqua.
Ma la suggestione delle farfalle non nasce solo dai colori e dalla simmetria: vi concorrono motivi più profondi. Non le definiremmo altrettanto belle se non volassero, o se volassero diritte e alacri come le api, o se pungessero, o soprattutto se non attraversassero il mistero conturbante della metamorfosi: quest’ultima assume ai nostri occhi il valore di un messaggio mal decifrato, di un simbolo e di un segno. Non è strano che un poeta come Gozzano ( «l’amico delle crisalidi») studiasse e amasse con passione le farfalle: è strano, anzi, che così pochi poeti le abbiano amate, dal momento che il trapasso dal bruco alla crisalide, e da questa alla farfalla, proietta accanto a sé una lunga ombra ammonitoria.
Come le farfalle sono belle per definizione, sono il nostro metro della bellezza, così i bruchi («entomata in difetto», li diceva Dante) sono brutti per definizione: goffi, lenti, urticanti, voraci, pelosi, ottusi, sono a loro volta simbolici, il simbolo del rozzo, dell’incompiuto, della perfezione non raggiunta.
I due documentari che accompagnano la mostra ci fanno vedere, col portentoso occhio della cinepresa, quanto pochissimi occhi umani hanno potuto vedere: il bruco che si sospende nella tomba aerea e temporanea del bozzolo, si muta in crisalide inerte, ed esce poi alla luce nella forma perfetta della farfalla; le ali sono ancora inette, deboli, come carta velina stropicciata, ma in pochi istanti si rafforzano, si tendono , e la neonata prende il volo. È una seconda nascita , ma insieme èuna morte: chi si è involato è una psiche, un’anima, e il bozzolo squarciato che resta a terra èla spoglia mortale. Negli strati profondi della nostra coscienza la farfalla dal volo inquieto è animula, fata, talvolta anche strega.
Lo strano nome che essa porta in inglese (butterfly, la «mosca del burro») rievoca un’antica credenza nordica secondo cui la farfalla èlo spiritello che ruba il burro e il latte, o li fa inacidire; e l’Acherontia Atropos, la grande notturna nostrana con il segno del teschio sul corsaletto che Guido Gozzano incontra nella villa della signorina Felicita, èun’anima dannata, «che porta pena ». Le ali che l’iconografia popolare attribuisce alle fate non sono ali pennute di uccello, ma ali trasparenti e nervate di farfalla.
La visita furtiva di una farfalla, che Hermann Hesse descrive nell’ultima pagina del suo diario, èun’annunciazione ambivalente , ed ha il sapore di un sereno presagio di morte. Il vecchio scrittore e pensatore, nel suo romitaggio ticinese, vede levarsi in volo «qualcosa di scuro, silenzioso e fantomatico»: èuna farfalla rara, un‘Antiopa dalle ali bruno-violette, e gli si posa su una mano. «Lenta, al ritmo di un respiro tranquillo, la bella chiudeva e apriva le ali di velluto, tenendosi aggrappata al dorso della mia mano con sei zampette sottilissime; e dopo un breve istante sparì, senza che io ne avvertissi il distacco, nella gran luce calda».