Heights of giddiness and despair

Mountains of the Mind
July 11, 2003

John Keay scales the peaks in search in the Sublime.

Three hundred years ago mountains were not much regarded. Adjudged to be one of creation's follies, they attracted the sort of press today reserved for landfill sites and 1960s tower blocks. Edmund Burt, an English officer sent to the Grampians to confiscate Jacobite estates in 1716, found the hills tolerable only when enveloped in cloud. Without it, they jarred on the eye, "and the clearer the day, the more rude and offensive they are".

Burt could not decide what he hated most: "their stupendous bulk, frightful irregularity, or horrid gloom". Their colouring, too, was "disagreeable, and most of all when the heath(er) is in bloom".

Mountains, as Robert Macfarlane puts it in this delightful book, "upset the natural spirit level of the mind". Like other wilderness areas they harboured monsters, outlaws and hideous dangers. Decent folk kept well away. Fifty years later this prejudice was crumbling. Evidently, mountains had a respectable, interesting pedigree. Geologists such as James Hutton deduced that the earth's surface had evolved on an unimaginable timescale, so inducing what MacFarlane calls "another vertigo - the giddiness inspired by deep time". Science gave mountains a history, and to study it the curious were lured upwards even as their imaginations plunged to the remotest past.

By 1773, James Boswell looked on the Highlands with less horror than Burt, but devoid of the romanticism that was about to engulf them. "There," he exclaimed, "is a mountain like a cone." "No sir," countered Dr Johnson, it might be so described in a book, and the top was indeed pointed, "but the one side of it is larger than the other." At best, it was "a considerable protuberance".

Johnson was more interested in the effect such protuberances produced on those who ventured over them. The doctrine of the "Sublime", propounded by Edmund Burke in 1757, accorded to anything wild and fearsome the capacity to excite. Johnson tested this and found that a steep drop with the promise of a fatal landing did, indeed, produce a pleasurable "agitation of the mind". The rehabilitation of the mountains was under way. Early Romantics in the Lakes and later Romantics in the Alps popularised this perception by festooning the heights with icicles of metaphor and airy intimations of solitude, liberty and inspiration. Alpinists brandished their alpenstocks and climbers began to climb. "Under the influence of the Sublime," says MacFarlane, "the pursuit of fear had begun."

This book is not a history of mountaineering but "a history of the imagination", an account of how mountains have been perceived and of how suppositions about height, frigidity, glaciation and extreme danger have combined to seduce men into dying for them. George Mallory is Macfarlane's chosen hero and his affair with Everest furnishes a powerful last chapter.

Mountains of the Mind makes no attempt to present a local perspective.

Wherever the mountains, the mind is always western and usually anglophone.

Macfarlane, an English don, acknowledges such limitations. Though himself a climber, he never overstates his case. He wonders how minds seduced by the imagined appeal of the mountains can be so oblivious to the agony of distraught parents, grieving widows and orphaned children. He does not recommend consoling them with an essay on the Sublime.

Vignettes from his own climbing career illuminate his thesis and, amid writing of glacial clarity, they stand out as exemplars of unstrained mountain prose. This exceptional book is destined for iconic status among those excited by "considerable protuberances".

John Keay is author of The Explorers of the Western Himalayas , The Great Arc and other books.

Mountains of the Mind

Author - Robert Macfarlane
ISBN - 1 86207 561 1
Publisher - Granta Books
Price - £20.00
Pages - 306

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