Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Mountains of character

On writers who choose to write about peaks as if they were people

"A mountain becomes great as a human personality does, by extending its influence over the thoughts, words, and actions of mankind." Such are the opening words of Ten Great Mountains (1940), a title that could not fail to attract the attention of a blogger dedicated to Japan's One Hundred Mountains.

One of ten
These ten great mountains were written up by Graham ("R L G") Irving (1877-1969). A teacher of French and mathematics at Winchester, the famous English public school, Irving took a select group of his pupils to the Alps every summer and led them, without guides, up difficult ridges and faces. It was on one of these ascents that George Mallory, the most brilliant of Irving's protégées, found the inspiration for his essay comparing a day well spent in the Alps to "some great symphony".

But we digress. In selecting his mountains, Irving had to answer the same question as a later Japanese author - on what criteria should they be chosen? In the end, it was "personality" that counted. As Irving explains, "Besides actual height there are many things that contribute to make a mountain great: its position, its form, its character, its history, everything that is embodied in the personality it has developed with the spirit of man." Finally, he settled on Snowdon, Ben Nevis, Mt Cook, the Matterhorn, Ushba, Mt Blanc, Mt Logan, Nanga Parbat, Kangchenjunga and Everest.

Is it right to attribute human characteristics to the natural landscape? The art critic and mountain aesthetician John Ruskin (1819-1900) thought not. To do so, he sneered, was to commit a "pathetic fallacy". But Ruskin was a repeat offender against his own stricture. In the same book that denounces the pathetic fallacy, he did not shrink from describing mountains as "lifted towards heaven in a stillness of perpetual mercy". Or glaciers as the last resting place of archangels.

For pathetic fallaciousness was rampant in those days. In a poem of 1897, Thomas Hardy sees the rugged character of Leslie Stephen projected onto the Schreckhorn's "spare and desolate figure". A pioneer alpinist, Stephen had made the Swiss mountain's first ascent a few decades earlier. As the editor of a London journal, he'd also been the first to recognise Hardy's literary talent; perhaps the novelist and poet felt he owed him one.

Imbued with the spirit of Leslie Stephen

Objections to the pathetic fallacy have never made much headway in Japan. After all, Shinto has always taught that mountains, trees and waterfalls have souls - or share in the universal 'kami' - just as people do. Be that as it may, few of the Meiji-era Japanese mountain writers felt any qualms about transposing the natural scene into human terms.

Here, for example, is the short story and travel writer Kōda Rohan (1867-1947) describing his first encounter with the Hodaka massif:

Beyond the broad declivity in front of us rose up a noble and lofty range, manly in aspect, inspiring both awe and joy. Caught unawares, I was moved almost to tears. A reckless urge to reach out for the mountain took hold of me. For a moment, it was hard to say whether I held the mountain in my gaze or the mountain held me in his.

Kogure Ritaro
Yet more anthropomorphic in his writing style was Kogure Ritarō, the archivist and pioneer alpinist. This is Kogure on Kinpu-san, a peak in his beloved Chichibu mountains:

This is a splendid mountain. It rises in solitary state above the rest of the range and it can hold up its head in the company of any mountain in all Japan. Just as we call somebody who achieves something from the ground up a man among men, so this mountain has strength of character that makes it a mountain among mountains, compare it where you will.

Not by accident, Kogure is one of the most-quoted authorities in Japan's most famous mountain book, the Nihon Hyakumeizan ("One Hundred Mountains of Japan"). That shouldn't come as a surprise, because, just like Kogure, the Hyakumeizan author aimed to humanise his subjects: "Mountains have character in greater or smaller measure, just as people do," wrote Fukada Kyūya in the afterword to his book: "And mountains, like people, must have character."

At times, it seems that Fukada's mountains soak up the character of the people living among them. Or is it the other way round? Here is the Hyakumeizan author explaining why Chōkai has always been accorded first place among the mountains of Tōhoku.

Taking somewhat after the region’s inhabitants, the mountains of the north-east come across as heavy and solid, if not downright lumpish. Chōkai, though, is untouched by this ponderousness. The mountain seems to soar. Viewed from Sakata, one would almost say that it cuts a dash. Only an isolated peak like Chōkai, no straggling ridge, could carry this off.

Except perhaps in Tōhoku, readers of Nihon Hyakumeizan liked the way that Fukada associated them with their mountains. Soon after the book came out in 1964, it won a major literary prize. "This is one of the most original works of criticism that I've seen in recent years," remarked one of the judges. "The objects of critical thought are, in this case, mountains. The author has chosen to write about mountains as if they were people."

In Japan, this was the moment when mountains of character went mainstream.