The Alpine & The Sublime

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I am going to climb Everest next year. Why? Because of painting. 

Let me explain.

I have always liked being outside, but I mean, I was no avid trekker. I was an artist. I studied Fine Arts for seven years at university, and whilst undergoing my Masters I came across an artistic philosophy called the sublime. It is an idea, depicted in Romantic paintings of the 18th Century of wild, turbulent and remote landscapes. Often with a subject in the foreground, back to the viewer, contemplating the whole panorama.

These paintings represented a feeling, a ‘sublime’ state, in which the subject is captivated within the moment, transfixed by the enormity of the scene and the contrasting proportions of themselves as a tiny human. They feel a kind of ‘pleasurable terror’, where their insignificance in the grand scheme of things induces a fear of mortality, but they are removed from danger enough that this joyous release from worry about everyday banality is accessible. In other words, you can’t sweat the small stuff if you know in your body that one day you’ll die.


“Wanderer About a Sea of Fog” Caspar David Friedrich (1818)

“Wanderer About a Sea of Fog” Caspar David Friedrich (1818)

One of the key writers on the subject of the sublime was Edmund Burke who in 1757 published a dissertation of aesthetics called A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. He gave English romantics a manifesto of such, in which he outlined the qualities of the sublime, and gave romantic artists theoretical gravitas for their artistic expression. He wrote, “Indeed terror is…the ruling principle of the sublime.”

Mountains, sky, and clouds can all be understood with reason, that is, human consciousness. They can be measured, mapped and conceptualised. We get them. They are not the sublime, however, but the stage which sets a sublime experience. A sublime moment occurs when both the stage and the person meet – kinda like an installation artwork – they both have to be there for the experience to unfold. The sublime is held in a moment in time, it’s an experience which is hard to document, describe or articulate. It moves you deeply and profoundly.

Whilst I was researching the sublime, I was doing a lot of painting in the studio, training martial arts and dabbling in marathon running. The process of all three often had me slip into a ‘flow’ state. A seductive, creative moment in time where my ego seemed to dissolve. In the studio, I was both the maker of the artwork and simultaneously watched it being made. Sparring, I would dissolve into call and response movements, intuitive and reactionary without thought. When I ran, it made hours of training compress into mere minutes. I wondered if the sublime feeling was like this? A moment free from time, or more so, you become time. You are the world, and the world is you. I thought: “What if I go to the mountains in those paintings, will I have this feeling?”


“An Avalanche in the Alps” Phillip James De Loutherbourg (1803)

“An Avalanche in the Alps” Phillip James De Loutherbourg (1803)

So I decided to climb Everest.

It was ginormous, I was fanciful, but I knew nothing about mountains or mountaineering, and when looking at pictures of mountaineers (those people with ice axes attached to ropes climbing ridges in the clouds) I didn’t really know what they were doing. I am not a girl to do things by halves, however, and at the time it was the only mountain that I knew. So, Everest it was. And Everest it is.

Fastrack six years and in April 2019 I set off to Ama Dablam, a jewel of a peak in the Himalaya. Everest is set for April 2020. I have been on an incredible mountain journey so far, climbing in America, Argentina, and Tanzania. I even moved to Chamonix France for one year to cut my climbing teeth. During this time, I have learned so much, thought deeply about the sublime, and explored what I actually feel in the mountains. Honestly, it is still mostly terror.

I don’t use that word lightly. The seizing, gripping, body-freezing hands of terror, have held me a few times. Sometimes it’s been a real mental battle. I’ve had to give myself a good talking to just to get down off the side of a mountain. Maybe I am scared of heights. If so, I wonder why I am still possessed to climb Everest? It has now become a feeling that draws me from my stomach, an ache or urge, hard to articulate, a fire? I just know I have to get there. I believe the constant fear is because each mountain I climb I’m pushing myself a good step further past my comfort zone. Fear and excitement are separated by a knife edge, and sometimes I tell myself that I am excited to get through it. It puts a more positive spin on it I suppose.

But I was intrigued. I had to go back and research further: “Why the heck do I want to keep going back to the mountains? What am I doing loving this Type 2 Fun adventure?” (Type 2 Fun is miserable whilst happening and fun in retrospect. Think cycling across the country, ultramarathons, and more on point, alpine climbing. In comparison, Type 1 is just simple fun; dancing, water slides, mimosas.) I mean, don’t get me wrong, I am all for champagne and water parks, but I had to understand why Type 2 Fun moved me so deeply.

I discovered: “Fear of death threatens one’s self-preservation and draws the strongest reaction, which explains how the sublime is separate from beauty. Beauty charms the viewer, but the sublime moves the viewer because it both pleases and terrifies them, leaving a lasting impression that beauty cannot achieve.”

Whereas pain is connected to fear, pleasure is connected to awe; the combination of the two feelings make what Burke (back to our philosopher on the sublime) refers to as astonishment. He explains, “…astonishment is that state of the soul in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror…the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other.”

Since my studies in art, I feel like this whole mountaineering thing has become a research project. I am my own guinea pig. Apart from the skills and fitness that I am acquiring, I am seeing what behaviours are getting me in a ‘nuts and bolts’ manner to a mountain. I have figured out I need a community to support me, I have learned about motivation and planning expeditions. What courage is and what it feels like, and where fear physically manifests in my body. I mean, I’m still an artist, and sensitivity to feeling and experiencing the world is my jam.


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The good parts about this Type 2 Fun mountaineering project? I get ‘face melts’ (one of my good friends Harriet verbalized the feeling for me). There is a point I reach during a training walk, and often a hike in to the basecamp of a mountain, where my whole body melts as if I am slipping into a warm bath. There is something about being in nature that resets you, makes you remember your true self, melts away the trivialities and stress and just makes me a better person altogether. The day after a really big hike, I wake up and feel like my legs have had the dust shaken out of them. Light, fresh and clean, my body is back in tune.

Being a visual artist, I can see this search, this hunt, and the representation of this feeling of the sublime is still very relevant. It’s even portrayed in a contemporary context. Those ‘mountain babes’ on Instagram, back to the camera, arms thrown in the air. They are rejoicing the intertwined feelings of fear and freedom, experiencing release from the grip of anxiety and stress prevalent in current society. I used to think those girls were posers, adventure models who were doing it wrong. But I realise that many of us want to experience the sublime. To experience fear, your body alive and the world so very full and immediate. To be taken out of the everyday, and connect with something that is greater than ourselves, greater than time and place. Connect to what it really feels like as a human, a part of humanity: this collective experience.

References

  1. Burke, Edmund, and James T. Boulton. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. London: Routledge and Paul, 1958. Print. 

  1. Krebaum, Emily. Exploring the Sublime in Art. ESSAI: Vol. 14, Article 22, 2016. 

  1. Lyotard, Jean-Francois. Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime: Kant’s Critique of Judgment, 23-29. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1994. Print.

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