I am reading The Note-Books of Samuel Butler at the moment. Butler was an English novelist, painter, early convert and then opponent of Darwinism, sheep farmer and aphorist, and his Note-Books have been one of those rare reading experienes in which I find things I’ve been thinking about already beautifully and perfectly expressed. Sometimes, a book arrives in your life at exactly the right moment, when your mental and/or emotional path seems to completely overlap with the author’s. Butler’s has been just such a book for me. Often, the correspondances are startling, as in this passage, which I read yesterday, after posting On Climbing La Lance: “Everything that is worth attending to fatigues as well as delights, much as the climbing of a mountain does so. Chapters and short pieces give rests during which the attention gathers renewed strength and attacks with fresh ardour a new stretch of the ascent.”
That’s exactly how I feel about climbing mountains, and about surmounting supposedly insurmountable obstacles. It’s also a brilliant explanation for why aphorisms are short (see my first law of aphorisms). And it reminds me of a somewhat overwrought aphorism about aphorisms and mountains by Nietzsche, who was an avid mountain climber:
Whoever writes in blood and aphorisms does not want to be read but to be learned by heart. In the mountains the shortest way is from peak to peak: but for that one must have long legs. Aphorisms should be peaks—and those who are addressed tall and lofty.
Which leads me to another paradox about climbing mountains: during the descent, there is far more opportunity to look up than during the ascent. We didn’t quite make it all the way to the top of La Lance. That would have taken another two hours or so of strenuous walking. Our goal was the old farmhouse in the pasture, and when we reached it we sat down in the grass to enjoy the view. Naturally enough, heading back down the mountain was a stroll in the park compared to climbing up it in the first place. On the way down, I passed various landmarks I first noticed on the way up, like that fossil ammonite. But I also revisited spots where I had stopped to rest, places where I plopped my sweaty, exhausted self down on a rock during the climb and thought: ‘I’m never gonna make this. I’ll just wait here til the rest come back down.’
These little moments of weakness, crises of confidence are all part of the climb. But walking past those spots again during the descent, I was in a much better position (and state of mind) to notice my surroundings. More often than not, the places where I sat with my head in my hands contemplating my aching feet offered astoundingly scenic views, panoramas I didn’t notice at the time because I was looking (and feeling) down. It put me in mind of another mountain-related aphorism, again by a Dutchman, Multatuli, psuedonym of Eduard Douwes Dekker:
A standpoint reached as the result of an ascent has a different meaning from that same standpoint reached as a result of a fall.
Like Butler’s remark, it’s worth keeping in mind when climbing mountains, surmounting (or failing to surmount) insurmountable obstacles, and suffering the fatigue and delight that comes from attending to whatever is worth attending to.