Speaking to Mountains: Shelley's "Mont Blanc"
The Personal Weblog of Edward W. Farrell   
Speaking to Mountains: Shelley's "Mont Blanc" Saturday, October 7, 2023
One of the things I'm hard pressed to find a home for in our secular world is my persistent feeling that the world speaks. Speaks? What does this mean? I'm not sure, though I'm convinced that it does. When I say that something "speaks to me" as a reaction to encountering some landscape, mountain, tree, gully, rock or bug, it's most often met with a tolerant but exasperated roll of the eyeballs. As for those few who nod in agreement with me, I suspect it's a provisional agreement, on the assumption that I'm speaking fancifully. But I'm not, I'm speaking literally. There's a conversation going on, but of what sort? Body language? Telepathy? "Vibes?"

Here's the problem: the give and take of conversations occur between people who are individuals with subjective inner thoughts and lives. If I say that a mountain "speaks to me," must the mountain then be a person like me, who thinks and speaks? Of course this seems ridiculous, since our concept of "mountain" contains no possibility of such an idea. But, as the work of Malinowski and other anthropologists have clearly demonstrated, most of humanity throughout history and many even now see the world as something in which everything speaks and everything has a personality. We in the post-Enlightenment West reject this view as hopelessly naive in favor a scientific view (which, let's face it, is only very superficially understood by 99% of the people who endorse it). So, when a modern westerner like myself suggests that a mountain speaks to them, the only possible conclusion is that they're full of shit: dishonest, hopelessly naive and deluded, or insane.

Paradoxically, language works against those of us who talk to mountains, or at least listen to what they may be saying. As a general rule, language has not evolved nor been designed to express subjective experiences. Rather, it reduces such experiences to the lowest common denominator that can be communicated between people universally. While this makes objective communication possible, it leaves a lot out. For instance, although every individual tree is different from the next in innumerable ways, the word "tree" invokes human-selected commonalities of form and behavior that ensure that everyone thinks of a tree in the same way, without regard to the differences between individual trees. Our language-oriented thinking regards such differences as insignificant. But really, this is only to say that they are insignificant to our concept of trees.

Thankfully there is another way in which language is used that helps the people to whom mountains speak: that's the language of literary art, especially poetry. In this language, communication is of a special sort. It doesn't strive for objective communication, at least not in the manner of ordinary language. Although it may look like it expresses a subjective experience, at its very best it rather creates a subjective experience in the reader or listener. And this created experience can be as intense and pregnant with meaning as our multidimensional experience of events in the real world.

It's no accident that the great Romantics of the 18th and 19th centuries often used the language of art to rebel against the rationalism of the Enlightenment and the sad prospect of the mechanization of human thinking and worldview. Shelly is probably my favorite example of this. He loved the growing science of his day and took great interest in its progress. Nevertheless, he was deeply suspicious that its popularization in culture would lead to discarding important truths that are only revealed in subjective experience and appear paradoxical and even irrational within the strictures of rational thought. He explored this and other things in his great poem "Mont Blanc," in which--you guessed it--he speaks with the mountain and even pleads with it to continue to use its voice to slap men back to their senses.

by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1817)

Some say that gleams of a remoter world
Visit the soul in sleep,--that death is slumber,
And that its shapes the busy thoughts outnumber
Of those who wake and live.--I look on high;
Has some unknown omnipotence unfurled
The veil of life and death? or do I lie
In dream, and does the mightier world of sleep
Spread far around and inaccessibly
Its circles?  For the very spirit fails,
Driven like a homeless cloud from steep to steep
That vanishes among the viewless gales!
Far, far above, piercing the infinite sky,
Mont Blanc appears, --still, snowy, and serene--
Its subject mountains their unearthly forms
Pile around it, ice and rock; broad vales between
Of frozen floods, unfathomable deeps,
Blue as the overhanging heaven, that spread
And wind among the accumulated steeps;
A desert peopled by the storms alone,
Save when the eagle brings some hunter's bone,
And the wolf tracks her there--how hideously
Its shapes are heaped around! rude, bare, and high,
Ghastly, and scarred, and riven--Is this the scene
Where the old Earthquake-daemon taught her young
Ruin? Were these their toys? or did a sea
Of fire envelop once this silent snow?
None can reply--all seems eternal now.
The wilderness has a mysterious tongue
Which teaches awful doubt, or faith so mild,
So solemn, so serene, that man may be,
But for such faith, with nature reconciled;
Thou hast a voice, great Mountain, to repeal
Large codes of fraud and woe; not understood
By all, but which the wise, and great, and good
Interpret, or make felt, or deeply feel.

All site contents copyright 2023 Edward W. Farrell This page last updated on 2023-10-07