Saturday, August 04, 2007

Mind Over Mountain 5



Of Mountains and of Women

Lest these blog entries be in any way sexist, I should like to include something about women mountaineers. My library is roughly divided into Psychology, Philosophy, English Literature, Literary Criticism, Spirituality, Irish Literature, Celtic and Gaelic Studies, Classics, Russian Literature (mostly Tolstoy, Turgenev, Dostoyevski and, of course, Solzhenitsyn), Chinese literature, African literature, Italian Literature, Language and Grammar Books, General Science, Autobiography and Biography and Travel. While searching through my Biography section I had more than I had imagined on exploration and mountaineering. As I have said before in these pages I have long been fascinated by mountains. Not that I’m in any sense a mountaineer – rather a simple hill walker who tires too easily. My Uncle James, my father’s twin, was a mountaineer, tramper and cyclist and belonged to these clubs in the late forties through to the late seventies of the last century, first in Scotland and then in Wellington, New Zealand where he died in 1981. There are still photographs of him out on the snowy slopes of bonny Scotland somewhere in the attic. I must search out these pictures and scan them into the computer as I could possible past a few photos into this blog.

Anyway, lo and behold, I came upon a book called Tents in the Clouds (Seal Press, 2000) (Originally published, London, 1956). This book recounts the exploits and feats of the first intrepid women’s Himalayan Expedition which too place in the spring of 1955, three years before I was born. I am forever buying books which I intend to read at a later stage and this is one. Now five years later I find myself reading it to give a gender balance to my entries. Anyway the three mountaineers in question are Monica Jackson (born 1920), Elizabeth Stark and Evelyn Camrass. I cannot find dates for the other two on the www. The first two of these ladies co-wrote the book mentioned. In this compelling and spirited tale, Jackson, Stark, and Evelyn Camrass make the first ascent of an unknown peak over 22,000 feet. It's a marvellous, engaging adventure rendered in vivid detail, putting a new spin on the history of mountaineering, and providing a great background to compare and contrast the sport fifty years ago and today.

It is interesting also to note that it was as late as 1950 that Nepal first opened its doors to the outside world. That year a French team made the historic ascent of Annapurna I, the first summit ever reached over the magical height of 8000 metres. It was only five years later that the above mentioned team of women mounted their expedition into the precipitous Jugal Himal.

However, the style is definitely that of middle class Scottish ladies from the fifties. There is no swearing in these pages – it’s almost “stiff upper lip stuff”, but no less interesting for all that. The pronoun “one” is used instead of the more informal “you” which modern books prefer. Such reported speech as ‘“Look, there’s a simply splendid route through the icefall,” she said’ (p. 107) reminded me of the Enid Blyton books I read as a kid in the sixties. But that indeed was the style of writing in the fifties when everything and everyone were frightfully correct.

The following information is interesting: “In spite of certain popular assertions in the Indian press, we did not wear make-up or lipstick on our climbs, let alone at 22, 000 feet. This would have been highly dangerous. Even under a thick protective coating of glacier cream, which looked like the theatrical make-up for an unpleasant character part, we were burnt by the fierce ultra-violet rays of the sun at these heights, reinforced by their reflection from the snow. My lips, constantly parted in the struggle for breath, were severely burnt inside where the cream had got licked off. Drinking orange juice became an exquisite torture for me.” (pp. 108-109)

I also liked this description: “The mountains were at times no less terrible than I had imagined and we did move among them chastened and with circumspection. The first sight of an appalling crevasse, like a door of the underworld opening at Persephone’s feet would leave an indelible impression and be remembered afterwards with awe.” (p. 117)

And finally these words of humility: “We had not accomplished anything spectacular, but then we had never hoped to do so with such a small party. We had succeeded in doing what we had set out to do, which was to reach and explore the Jugal Himal, the last large unexplored area of the Nepal Himalaya. That we had managed to climb an unknown peak of over 21,000 feet was really beside the point – a kind of bonus… we had proved that ordinary women can be as capable of carrying out such a project as men.” (P. 249) Of the peace on the very heights of the mountains our two authors say: “it was the days of strenuous endeavour on the high ridges, glaciers and snowfields of the Jugal that will remain forever in our memories as not only the happiest, but also, strangely enough, the most serene and peaceful days of our lives. Up there, each moment was sufficient for itself, and the world pressed upon us not at all.” P. 250) This ending to this wonderful tale does not surprise me at all. It would seem that true mountaineers in their respect for the great awesome power and strength and mystery of the mountains come quickly to a meditative and almost Buddhist sense of their mystical power over little ant-like humankind.

Above I have pasted a picture I took of some lowly hills around Delphi, March 2007. Lowly hills yes, but our hills are surely our Himalayas. It's all a matter of perspective, is it not?

Mind Over Mountain 4



Of Mountains and of Morality

My second book by Joe Simpson is Dark Shadows Falling (Vintage 1998). If anything, Joe Simpson is a romantic at heart, obsessed with mountains in their dangerous splendour and their treacherous beauty. Climbing mountains for him is not merely a matter of some ego-trip but rather an encounter with both the depths of his own psyche and the rich, if dangerous, beauty of their rocky fastness. Only secondly is it anything to do with the ego per se.

The Tibetans, and indeed the Nepalese, look upon their Everest which is located on their borders as a sacred mountain that looms large with craggy splendour over their beautiful countries. Tibetans, like the Nepalese, are a very spiritual people – practically all Buddhists. We only have to call to mind that wonderful world figure of peace the Dalai Lama to remind us of this simple fact. I loved the small quotation on the frontispiece of the book. This quotation runs: “…what is Everest without the eye that sees it? It is the hearts of men that make it big or small.” It is from Tenzing Norgay (May 1914 – 9 May 1986), often referred to as Sherpa Tenzing, a Nepalese Sherpa mountaineer. He and Edmund Hillary were the first people to reach the summit of Mount Everest on 29 May 1953. This is a typically Buddhist sentiment. I have already referred to this fact before in these posts that the perceiver brings so much to the phenomena he or she perceives. Buddhism was always aware of this fact, and has long been practising meditation techniques to lessen and ultimately, if possible obliterate the ego which would see Everest as a prize to be won as it were.

All great climbers, and indeed Joe is among the greatest would agree with these humble sentiments. This book Dark Shadows Falling deals with the morality of modern day climbers who are more ego-centred thrill-seekers with little respect for themselves, others or indeed the sacred mountain which is, as it were, a physical symbol of their very own deeper selves if they had thought long enough about it. These last are my sentiments as I write from a meditator’s and a Buddhist’s point of view and are not necessarily those of the author of this little gem of a book.

In 1992, an Indian climber was left to die alone high on the South Col of Mount Everest by other climbers who watched his feebly waving hand from the security of their tent thirty yards away. Why did these onlookers not hold the dying man’s hand and comfort him? In short, Joe Simpson feels that the noble caring instincts that once characterised mountaineering has been lost and lost for good. Why? Well, Everest has become in our modern world that keeps on looking for further thrills a playground for the rich, where commercial operators now offer guided tours and these have the cheek to camp amidst the detritus and unburied corpses of previous less fortunate climbers. Worse still, they are seemingly immune to dying climbers on their way up the tallest and noblest mountain in the world. At the end of the Introduction, Joe puts the lonely death of one climber succinctly in these words: “They let him die alone for reasons best known to themselves. Perhaps they did not want to face his dying; maybe the finality of it was too intimidating for them to face.” (p. 14)

On page 23 Joe presents us with a beautifully poetic and moving prose passage on dying alone in the open: “I can only guess at how close I came to dying in Peru in 1985 when Simon Yates cut the rope and I plunged into the crevasse on Siula Grande. I have spoken to a number of doctors since, all of whom have suggested that, given the circumstances, I should have died. Although there was a lot of pain and anguish and hardship during the four days in which I struggled to survive, it was the dreadful loneliness that still deeply unsettles me. Much of what I did at that time was instinctive; or due to experience, but what kept me going for so long when all seemed lost was the desperate desire for company. I went beyond caring whether I lived or died so long as I did not have to die alone. I wanted a hand to hold, a voice to hear. I craved for some human contact that might alleviate the terrifying emptiness of those days spent slowly dying.”

This verbal record of Joe’s conscience, which essentially to my mind this wonderful little book is, serves as a clarion call to a morality or an ethical code for mountaineering, and is a priceless piece of writing in comparison with the Dutch mountaineer Ronald Naar’s unsympathethic, dispassionate and cruelly egotistical comments in his equally egotistically named book Only The Summit Counts. Admittedly I haven’t read Narrs, but I’m an unapologetic follower of Joe Simpson. He goes on, “Because I felt myself balanced on the edge of nothingness, I have already partly died, and I don’t look forward to the day when I have to do it again. Because of that, I think I have some sense of what the Indian climber on the South Col may have experienced. A little imagination and a degree of compassion is all any of us needs to understand his plight.” (p. 23)

On pages 46 and 47 Joe recounts how some Japanese mountaineers climbed past three dying Indian climbers and not once went to offer any aid (the mid 1990s I think). In Joe’s own words: “The Japanese did not speak to the Indians or examine them in any way. They carried on for another 50 metres before stopping for a brief rest and to change their oxygen bottles. They even took in a little food and liquid nourishment within the sight of the dying Indians.” (ibid., p 47) Read the following as a sad commentary on basic everyday ethics and morality: “By 2:30 p.m., after a further three and a half hours’ climbing, Hiroshi Hanada and Eisuki Shigekawa had fulfilled their dream – one that they were prepared to stop at nothing to achieve. Helping others had no part in that dream into which they had bought.” (ibid., p. 47) Undoubtedly, one has to agree with Joe and with the best legal advice that no one is ever obligated to go to the aid of another human being, but surely it is a basic value of our society to desire to do so. What has happened that the prizes of the ego outweigh the ethical values we as a society hold dear? On page 48, Joe quotes Shigekawa as saying: “Above 8000 metres is not a place where people can afford morality.” Sad comment on morality indeed!

One can only agree with Joe where he writes, “Frankly, I find it unimaginable that they possessed such a narrow-minded, almost insane obsession with the summit that they could find it in themselves to ignore a dying man.” (p. 50)

I loved these few lines a little later in this book as they appeal to the Buddhist in me: “After reaching the summit of Everest with Edmund Hillary in 1953, Sherpa Tensing said that as he climbed he craved forgiveness for every step he cut into her side. To the Sherpas the mountain is the abode of the gods, a place for reverence, not something to be conquered for the sake of personal glory and the embellishment of the ego.” (ibid., pp. 61-62) Unfortunately today, this holy mountain is littered with the detritus of years of climbing by Westerners mostly. As of the end of the 2006 climbing season, there have been 3,050 ascents to the summit, by 2,062 individuals, and 203 people have died on the mountain. The conditions on the mountain are so difficult that most of the corpses have been left where they fell; some of them are easily visible from the standard climbing routes. Apart from this, there is a horrible picture at the centre of the book of a terrible insult to nature which shows loads of rubbish abandoned at the South Coll – hundreds of empty oxygen cylinders, old tents, various poles, old sleeping bags as well as the body of a dead Sherpa which I could not make out etc.

Without a doubt death and high drama have always been synonymous with high altitude climbing. This, as I’ve delineated in a previous post by referring to Reinhold Messner, is all part of its very magnetism. Mortal man desires to push his mortality to the brink and desires to come back safe therefrom. Eleven climbers perished on Everest in the spring season of 1996 while 87 reached the summit. Cold statistics worth meditating upon because they show us the very nature of humankind. On page 197 Simpson muses: “Some climbers have risked their lives, others have died, selflessly attempting to rescue fellow mountaineers, regardless of faulkt and criticism. Others have sat by and zipped the door shut on a man’s final lonely end.” I think I know which of the two kinds I’d lake to count myself a member. Who can say as I’ve never been in that situation? I only hope and believe that I should belong to the former group. Joe Simpson asked the simply question – since when did means ever justify the ends in mountaineering? The same question can surely be asked of all human life worth its living!

Above I have placed a picture of a relatively small and safe mountain at Delphi on the borders of Connemara and Mayo which I took March 2007. It would pale into insignificance beside the giant Everest but its symbolism is surely the same!

Friday, August 03, 2007

Mind Over Mountain 3



Of Mountains and of Man 3

I have already mentioned two gems of books on mountaineering and they are Joe Simpson’s marvellous Touching The Void and Dark Shadows Falling both of which I have been thumbing through and reading snippets from these past few days as I explore my theme.

Joe Simpson was born in 1960 and is still a very young man. He is a mountaineer, but in more recent years has become a motivational speaker and an exceptionally good writer. In a recent interview I read somewhere on the www he said that he had ceased to be a mountaineer and had now become a writer. He drifted into writing quite simply because he had wanted to explain to the world what had actually happened when Simon Yates and he climbed Siula Grande in the Peruvian Alps in 1985. In an interview with Jon Doran for Climber magazine, Joe told him that he had written Touching The Void to get the story straight and to defend the actions of his great friend Simon Yates who had to cut the rope linking the two when Joe had fallen over a precipice. By 1995 the book had snowballed into a rampant success that had sold over 300,000 copies and been translated into more than 14 languages. Needless to say most of the purchasers or readers were not climbers – rather stay-at-home Joes or armchair climbers like the present writer.

It is interesting to note that Joe talks about “passion” and “obsession” when he talks about mountaineering and mountains. Undoubtedly it is these two qualities that he carries over into his marvellous writing. Honesty is Joe’s hallmark as it is of all good writers. At base if the writing in a book is honest then it is good writing. That’s my belief.

Like any survivor of any disaster say The Stardust here in Dublin in 1981, the horrific fire in the tube station at King’s Cross in London in 1987 etc, the telling and re-telling of the story is undoubtedly therapeutic for the victims. As I’ve already stated in these pages the telling of our stories is a very important way of giving meaning to our lives. Joe himself admits he fears re-reading his own book in case he may relive the most harrowing experience of his whole life, literally dangling over the edge of a crevasse, over a dark abyss of nothingness and extinction.

Here’s a little from Jon Doran’s interview in Climber which I think is interesting: "My memories of falling and the avalanche are absolutely vivid. The problem comes when you are trying to articulate them beyond just the emotions ... when I tried to write that piece in Ghosts, I just tried to be back in the avalanche ... I can remember the terror, I can actually remember the physical sensation of what it was like and I can remember hanging by that fucking rope on the Dru. The best way I can describe that feeling is by standing on top of a skyscraper and a mate goes woooo ... pushes you off, then grabs hold of you." "That," he continues. "Is why Peru really fucked me up: writing Touching The Void wasn't cathartic in any way, it just scared the shit out of me. I had to recall all these things. I used to wake up in a cold sweat every night ... John [Stephenson] used to say there were these nightmarish screams and howls coming from my room. To go through all the blocks you've put there in your mind to stop yourself remembering was actually quite painful, quite disturbing and maybe that's why I don't particularly want to read Touching The Void." See the following link for the full article: http://www.nozzer.demon.co.uk/simpson.html

Like all good books Touching The Void opens simply and beautifully with an experience any of us who has ever done the least amount of camping can associate with: “I was lying in my sleeping bag, staring at the light filtering through the red and green fabric of the dome tent. Simon was snoring loudly, occasionally twitching in his dream world. We could have been anywhere. There is a particular anonymity about being in tents.” (p. 15) What a marvellously clear and powerful opening this is - bringing us right into his wonderful book. Then his description of breaking his leg and falling is simple and startling: “I hit the slope at the base of the cliff before I saw it coming. I was facing into the slope and both knees locked as I struck it. I felt a shattering blow in my knee, felt bones splitting, and screamed. The impact catapulted me over backwards and down the slope of the East face. I slid, head-first, on my back. The rushing speed of it confused me. I thought of the drop below and felt nothing. Simon would be ripped off the mountain. He couldn’t hold this. I screamed again as I jerked to a sudden stop.” (p. 72) Simon manages to get to Joe and help him. They know they have to go on or they’ll die out there on the mountainside. Even with a broken leg Joe kept on. Joe was to fall a few more times after this, and then finally and almost fatally over the edge of the crevasse. The descriptions of these falls are frighteningly vivid. The reader’s heart is in his mouth. Then the simple stark description of Simon’s cutting the rope that connected them because he was in danger of being pulled off the mountain is brilliantly succinct: “I reached down again and this time I touched the blade to the rope. It needed no pressure. The taut rope exploded at the touch of the blade, and I flew backwards into the seat as the pulling strain vanished. I was shaking.” (p. 103) There are too many good descriptive passages to quote here, but this little piece is a beauty as he dangles over the crevasse: “I turned the torch off to save the batteries. The darkness seemed more oppressive than ever. Discovering what I had fallen into hadn’t cleared my mind. I was alone. The silent emptiness, and the dark, and the star-filled hole above, mocked my thoughts of escape. I could only think of Simon. He was the only chance of escape, but somehow I was convinced if he was not dead, then he would think that I was.” (p. 113)

To cut a long story short Joe miraculously climbed out or down the crevasse and literally crawled his way back (with broken leg) to camp where he was re-united with Simon and their friend Richard. In an epilogue written ten years later I can only marvel at Joe’s final words: “I can only add that however painful readers may think our experiences were, for me this book still falls short of articulating just how dreadful were some of those lonely days. I simply could not find the words to express the utter desolation of the experience.” (p. 206).

In another interview with Joe that I read yet again on the www and which I’m recalling from memory, he recounts that his drive to live during these terrible days that he recounts in his marvellous book was motivated by sheer loneliness and the desire to be hugged and at least die in human embrace. This thought strikes me deeply inside. A good friend of mine, Pat Fanning, goes to Zambia each summer holidays to work with children stricken by various diseases as well as the AIDS virus and he often describes emotionally how one little boy tugged at his sleeve to lift him up and cuddle him. He died in Pat’s arms. I will never question that deep desire within us for human intimacy. When Magnus Magnusson was presenting Joe with the 1989 NCR Award he said, and his words are worth pondering, “It is not just a book about mountaineering. Ultimately it is about the spirit of man and the lifeforce that drives us all.” Let these few words honour the awesome and terrible beauty that is our human spirit!

Above is a picture of Joe Simpson.

Mind Over Mountain 2



Of Mountains and of Man 2

Recently, while sitting in my dentist’s waiting room, I took to reading an article on the famous, or more correctly infamous, contemporary mountaineer Reinhold Messner (b. 1944) in the marvellous National Geographic. I had never heard of him before, but the accounts of his exploits highlighted here and there in the article drew me to read on to such an extent that I forgot that I was at the dentist and had to be called from my reveries in the high mountains when my turn came. My mountaineering, alas and alack, is very much of the virtual kind.

Messner is a colourful and fearless character. He has been an MEP (Green Party: Verdi) for his native South Tyrol (or Alto Adige in Italian) (1999-2004), that Alpine border between Italy and Austria. He is a native speaker of German. He never wore a suit and tie like his counterparts in the Parliament. He preferred black jeans, an open-necked black shirt and an orange and green Tibetan necklace. Reinhold had two younger brothers: Günther and Hansjörg. When Reinhold was age 13, he began climbing with his brother Günther, age 11. By the time Reinhold and Günther were in their early twenties they were among Europe's best climbers. He has conquered some fourteen Eight Thousanders, that is peaks which have a height of 8000 metres or more, Mount Everest three times and this last one twice without supplemental oxygen and once totally alone. What a feat – Herculean is the adjective that comes to mind.

Since the sixties he had become one of the most enthusiastic of supporters for a type of mountaineering called the “Alpine style”. This style consists of climbing with very light equipment and a minimum of external help. Messner considered the usual expedition style ("siege tactics") to be disrespectful towards nature and mountains. I have already mentioned how mountains exercise such an awesome impact on their climbers. No wonder because quite simply one can die of utter exposure on the very breast of their rocky beauty. Every mariner or sailor respects the utter and terrible beauty that is the sea. Every climber or mountaineer likewise respects the utter and terrible beauty of the mountains. I suppose it is consequently understandable that mountains (like the seas and rivers) were viewed by the ancients as sacred places and the homes of the gods.

Anyway, some of the things Messner had to say in that article struck home. I haven’t got a copy of it and cannot find one on the www so I’ll quote from my more than fallible memory. His first major Himalayan climb in 1970, Nanga Parbat, turned out to be a tragic success. Both he and his brother Günther Messner reached the summit, but Günther died two days later on the descent. Reinhold lost seven toes and three fingers, which had become badly frostbitten during the climb and required amputation.

He had much of interest to say in this article on taking risks and on man’s mortality. I will not be quoting him obviously, but the following thoughts I owe to Reinhold Messner. That’s what makes the whole mountaineering thing interesting and exhilaring for him – that very risk of almost tempting death. Let’s see what mortal man can do against the elements with all their might and all their awesome beauty. To live is to be mortal. To be mortal is to die, and more to know that you will die. And yet against all the odds we try to tame nature; we try to build great walls of defense against the might of the seas; we try to harness nature’s fearsome powers for our electricity; we try to scale ever higher peaks; we attempt to explore a miniscule part of space; then, we attempt to plumb the vast ocean depths; we attempt to build ever higher towers, some would say Babel-like! From the point of view of space we're a little anthill in the midst of infinity. In all this, we are pushed ever onward by our mortality. Likewise in the arts, I feel that it is our very own mortality that pushes us to create works of literature, great paintings, symphonies, sculptures and a host of other artistic things. In short, this whole desire to conquer and control our environment is at base a very human pursuit; the very desire to push our mortality to the brink, to see if we can create something a little more lasting than we. And yet our mortality teaches us that all will come to naught when we die. Our only consolation is that our offspring and the future generations will benefit from our sacrifices.

Above is a picture of a young Reinhold Messner.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Mind over Mountain 1



Of Mountains and of Man

By their very size mountains of necessity loom large in the human psyche. In the summer, those who live in hot climes like to travel into their bosom to escape the heat of the plains and, of course, to flee from the noise and frustration of the cities. In winter many people like to travel thither to enjoy such pursuits as skiing, tobogganing or snowboarding. Even when the traveller has no such end in view merely to be in the mountains is exhilarating.

Mountains are important in all cultures and traditionally they have been the dwelling places or homes of the gods. In Biblical times we have the account of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. Then, for those of us au fait with Greek mythology Mount Olympus is the most famous classical dwelling place of the Greek pantheon. What literature could be complete without references to those great rock and stone monuments which mountains are?

When I was in my teenage years and also late into my twenties I used love climbing the lower mountains like The Sugar Loaf (many times), Djouce Mountain (many times) and a lot of others in the Dublin and Wicklow mountains whose names I forget. Our good friend Noel Young used to lead many of us up these rocky fortresses. Looking down from the top of a mountain cannot be beaten for exhilaration really. Some years back, after a struggle I might add as I’m somewhat overweight, I managed to get to the top of Errigal in the Derryveagh Mountains in Donegal. (It is not surprising that word "aireagal" in Gaelic means oratory, or place of prayer!!) What a beautiful sight was to be beheld from that summit. You cannot beat a 360 degree vista of the landscape and seascape of the West of Ireland. That was the last one I climbed – four years ago.

Some mountaineer was once asked why he climbed mountains and his reply was simply “because they are there!” A good reply. I’ve recently been toying with the concept of mountains and psychology or mountains and spirituality, if you like. (I believe that these last two terms overlap greatly, but it’s for a later post to try to discern the similarities and differences between them.) A famous poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins comes to my mind very readily. Before I quote some lines therefrom, let me state that I believe that all outward phenomena mirror to a great extent the inner phenomena of the mind or soul. I will content myself with the concept of “phenomenon” here in both outer and inner worlds and avoid the use of the rather technical and somewhat sublime and very abstract terms “noumen” or “noumenal” when referring to the inner world of our psyche. Using these latter terms would unduly complicate these thoughts for me and bring both I and any possible reader into too technical of waters. In short, what I want to say is that we have as it were “an inner landscape” which we have to travel as well as an outer one. Obviously here we are using metaphors in abundance. Anyone who tries to write will find that as he or she persists in their practice of their craft that they must begin to use metaphors and even to forge new ones to describe more abstract thoughts, and indeed to describe deep feelings. The metaphor of the smithy or blacksmith is a good one to describe this task of the writer.

We have to use the concrete images that are before us to describe things – hence this basic metaphorical thrust of all language. Anyway, back to those lines I’ve promised you. My last post dealt with depression, or rather my own experience of it. This post is dealing with minds and mountains. Here, Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ, used the metaphors of mountain and cliff to describe how treacherous the mind may be to its owner. Hopkins indubitably was a depressive himself and wrote many poems from a deep, lonely dejected and melancholic state. I’ll let the poet speak for himself:

Oh, the mind, mind has mountains,
Cliffs of fall, frightful sheer,
No man fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne'er hung there.

These lines are from the sonnet 41, “No worst, there is none." The depressed person could feel, like Hopkins, there they are “hanging there” over those “cliffs of fall, frightful sheer.” Hopkins cautions us not to “hold cheap” or undervalue or even dismiss the mental state of others. Salutary words indeed.

Previous to this entry I have already posted an imaginary journey of a medieval monk up Cruach Phádraig in Mayo. Obviously that was written a short while after climbing a mountain. This post seeks to talk about how mountains mould man’s own inner landscape as it were, our very own unique “inscape” as it were. (By "inscape" Hopkins means the unified complex of characteristics that give each thing or person its uniqueness and that differentiate it from other things.) I have also been searching my shelves for references to mountains and came up with some lovely books through which I have been thumbing. Two gems are Joe Simpson’s Touching The Void (Jonathan Cape, 1988) and Dark Shadows Falling (Jonathan Cape, 1997). Then I could not help but be brought back to one of my favourite authors of all time S.T Coleridge and to Richard Holmes’ two-volume biography of the great Romantic poet and philosopher. (Early Visions (1989) and Darker Reflections (1998). Within these pages we read of the Coleridge’s fascination with mountains. One that he would have climbed many times is Skiddaw which is located near the town of Keswick and is one of the largest mountains in the Lake District, reaching a height of 931 metres. It is one of the oldest formations in the Lake District and offers a number of ascents for even inexperienced climbers, and is one of the most famous climbs in the Lake District.

I’ll go into more detail about some of these books in a later post.

The picture above is one I took from the cliffs at Howth Head Dublin, March, 2007

Monday, July 30, 2007

Depression and Books and More Books



Wrestling With Wolpert
(Understanding Depression)

As anyone who has read these pages will know its author suffers from endogenous or unipolar depression. It was diagnosed some 9 years ago this October. This diagnosis and the treatment of the disease necessitated a stay of seven weeks in hospital. However, I have been well since because I take my medication and involve myself in a legion of other pursuits to lower stress – attending counselling and psychotherapy courses, getting certificates in counselling skills, suicide studies and doing as many self-help courses as possible. As well as these pursuits I am an inveterate reader and literally read anything and everything – it’s hard to navigate your way around my house because of literally thousands of books. I also write – I have written a novel (which remains unpublished and probably always will) and a book of meditations which was published in 2002 and sells about 250 copies per year. I have another book on meditation and health written and am looking for a publisher for the same. I also write poetry in two languages and have had some success in little insignificant competitions around the country. Outside that I maintain and write three blogs – one in English, one in Irish and one in Italian. I also meditate, garden and walk. Another thing is that I love travelling and spend 2 to 3 weeks annually in Italy and at least a week in Paris. Then if I have time I spend some time in the Gaeltacht that is those western areas of Ireland where Irish is spoken. All of these activities involve relaxation. Without these activities I would not survive. They are my life line as it were. That’s the only reason I mention them here. Before 1998 when I had my one and only great breakdown I was overworking and I did not even realise it. Each summer I used do supervision of exams and then some TEFL that is teaching English as a foreign language to Italian students. Actually this last activity is where I got my love of Italy and Italian from.

Anyway, as anyone who suffers from depression will tell you it is notoriously difficult to diagnose. I reckon that I had it since I was 28 some 12 years before it was diagnosed. I had quite literally got tired of going to various doctors in the hope of getting a cure for my complaints which I shall outline briefly below. When I was released from hospital I read everything and anything I could get on depression, because quite literally this was and is definitely one defining characteristic of the depressed person as cancer or diabetes would be of persons suffered from those diseases. My favourite book on depression is that of Lewis Wolpert who is Professor of Biology as Applied to Medicine at University College London. Why so? Firstly he is a brilliant writer and communicator. Secondly he is an astute scientist. Thirdly and most significantly his description of his experience of depression tallied exactly with mine.

Now, as I said above depression is notoriously difficult to diagnose quite simply because it shares many common symptoms with other diseases. I was checked for cancer because I was suffering from abnormal night sweats. I was checked twice by two different neurologists to check if I had MS or ME. I’ll let Wolpert describe how his depression affected him and this is precisely how I was affected:

“It was the worst experience of my life. More terrible even than watching my wife die of cancer. I am ashamed to admit that my depression felt worse than her death but it is true. I was in a state that bears no resemblance to anything that I had experienced before. It was not just feeling very low, depressed in the commonly used sense of the word. I was seriously ill. I was totally self-involved, negative and thought about suicide most of the time. I could not think properly, let alone work, and wanted to remain curled up in bed all day. I could not ride my bicycle or go out on my own. I had panic attacks if left alone. And there were numerous physical symptoms – my whole skin would seem to be on fire and I developed uncontrollable twitches. Every new physical sign caused extreme anxiety. I was terrified, for example, that I would be unable to urinate. Sleep was impossible without sleeping pills: these only worked for a few hours, and when I woke up I felt worse. The future was hopeless. I was convinced that I would never work again or recover. There was the strong fear that I might go mad.” (p. vii of Malignant Sadness: The Anatomy of Depression, Faber and Faber, 1999)

Practically every sentence, if not every word of the above paragraph, applied to me as I suffered in 1998. To describe how I felt before I was hospitalised would be that if my brother had told me my mother was dead, I would have said, “thank you for telling me, but I feel terrible!” There was no way I could possible take any news at all on board because I was so “totally self-involved” and so “seriously ill” as Wolpert puts it. I, too, contemplated suicide – suicidal thoughts but I made no plans at all – I had not quite got that bad thankfully. However, suicide was appealing as a way out of this terrible mental torture. I almost jumped out of the seat in delight when I read Wolpert’s list of symptoms because these were the symptoms I had at least twice yearly for a week or so since I was 30 and which three doctors and two specialists failed to catch. It’s not a nice experience when you are actually quite ill to be told there’s nothing wrong with you – it’s almost an accusation that you are a malingerer. If anything I was a workaholic. I had all of Wolpert’s physical symptoms and I was delighted with myself as not alone had my consultant psychiatrist rightly diagnosed endogenous or unipolar depression, but now all my symptoms were not alone validated by a fellow sufferer, but by a Professor of Biology as well!

Now Wolpert is a scientist and atheist and is a person with strong intellectual and rational qualities – I loved these last two points about the book. My experience in the psychiatric hospital left me rudderless and faithless I must admit. I entered St Pat’s a suffering Christian and I came out a healing agnostic which I remain. (I will admit that I am open to all spiritualities, and even to the more spiritual dimensions of organised religions – I see them as healing in a specific concrete sense minus the heaven part as it were. I still love well-celebrated liturgies as moving human (not divine) experiences).

I have always loved metaphor. Take this brilliant metaphor used by Wolpert. Once again I’ll let the eminent scientist speak:

“If we had a soul – and as a hardline materialist I do not believe we do – a useful metaphor for depression could be “soul loss” due to extreme sadness. The body and mind emptied of the soul lose interest in almost everything except themselves. The idea of a wandering soul is widely accepted across numerous cultures as negative. The metaphor captures the way in which we experience our own existence. Our “soul” is our inner essence, something distinctly different from the hard material world in which we live. Lose it and we are depressed, cut off, alone.” (Ibid., p. 3)

Images are important for anyone struggling to come to grips with what is ailing them as they experience any disease whether of body or mind. In fact, modern studies show that invariably to suffer from one implies that we must suffer from the other also. Images I have heard other sufferers of depression use are: ‘cloud,’ ‘fog’, ‘glasshouse,’ ‘long dark tunnel’, ‘bottomless pit,’ ‘prison’ and ‘dungeon.’ I am sure there are many more. Notice how concrete these images are. I suppose in a way all images are, but you know what I mean – how precise they are. They immediately conjure up situations that are extremely painful. For me my depression was quite literally a fog – I could in my mind see an actual fog or mist through which I simply could not penetrate. In a sense for the unaided sufferer communications are definitely down and can only be restored with outside help.

Many stray stimuli have put all these thoughts again in my mind – reading bits and pieces from Wolpert’s latest book Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast: The Evolutionary Origins of Belief in tandem with Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion , both of which I shall review in these pages if I get the chance. Wolpert like Dawkins is a hardened atheist and materialist, and the former is Vice-President of The British Humanist Association. While I would not agree with the hardened atheistic and materialist stance of both these authors, I believe the write like angels. I’m using the verb “believe” here and the noun "angels" for pure devilment of course!!

Above I have pasted a picture of a rather ominous cloud which I took over San Gimignano in Tuscany July 2006