Monday, May 21, 2007

Unlock the Stone

Taking inspiration from Jeffrey Cohen's recent hint of a rocks/humanism relationship, encouragement from Sean McCarthy's thumb-upping of the idea at Craig Taylor's opening (which featured some boulder-like shapes), a lingering sense of wonder from a spring break descent into Mammoth Cave, and the energy of raw experience from yesterday evening's bouldering session at Rat Rock-- see how inextricably intertwingled everything is -- I figured it was high time to fall into the phenomenolgy of bouldering and speculate about its hermeneutic structure and more generally about the place of rocks in our (i.e. mine and what I will claim is also yours) experience of being.

First of all it seems that stone, in its fixity, solidity, heaviness, impenetrability, antiquity, offers a material, concretized experience of something like foundational reality. Our daily experience of the world is perpetually disturbed by the appearance and disappearance of foundations (note the no-doubt-related existence of two mediocre metal bands, Sweden's The Abyss and Germany's Abgrund). "I am standing on the earth" which is whirling through space. "It is 7:30" but why is it 7:30 now? "That is a beautiful sunset" caused by a star whose explosion will engulf the planet. "Space extends indefinitely in all directions" but if I travel in one direction I will end up where I started. "I am asleep." By contrast, stone, the experience of which is always built upon the negative, impossible imagination of its "dark" innumerable centers, offers an aesthetic/conceptual experience that proposes "where is the universe?" as an answerable question. In stone, space and matter seem to be most intimately and perfectly linked. Stone is the place where it is. And as such it presents a tangible account of the self, which is its own place.

Walking through Mammoth Cave I kept pondering the paradox that what people really enjoyed and were looking for in a cave was expansiveness, space, architecture. The bigger and more complex the cave the better. But what makes the big cave beautiful is that it is a cave, that it not only exists within but is actually constituted by the contours of its existing within this impenetrable, extensive substance. So what makes the Allegory of the Cave really work is that the cave is already an allegory, a figuration of the enclosure of existence, our always being contained within something we cannot see. The cave renders this enclosure actual, visible, not because we see the solid substantial depth that encloses us in the cave, but because in the cave every space is wholly the absence of the substance that encloses it, every surface is an unfathmomable depth. Therefore, when we walked out of the cave into the open air I cracked the joke, "Now this is a cave!" and was very happy to see the kid in front of me throw me a surprised and knowing look.

So where do these ideas leave (or take) bouldering, which is performed on a kind of negative cave? One possiblity, supported by boulderers's deep unexplainable preference for real rock, is that bouldering, as a loving, interpretive relationship with deep, foundational surface, is about reversing the pattern of enclosure that conditions our experience of being. So, for example, if we are cosmologically haunted by the problem of univeral boundary and foundation (what is the universe in? what is it resting on?), bouldering enacts an alternative vision in which the boundary is contained, accessible and therefore a space of play. Instead of being contained within something else, the universe of the boulderer is an unbounded without. Similarly, the hermeneutic work of bouldering is about translating the deepest, i.e. the most minimal, features of the rock into the most intricate and specifc athletic moves, externalizing them, but at the same time pulling them off, in the same way that every masterful interpretation seems like a quiet disclosure of what is already there, with effortless stillness, about becoming the impossibility of stone climbing itself.


Eileen Joy said...

Nicola, wonderful post, and yes, I love the idea of bouldering--shared, intense play among the rocks/mountains--as a "living metaphor" for BABEL's work toward a "new humanism." Indeed, one of our BABEL-ers, Jeffrey Skoblow, is a boulderer and also a scholar of caves [seriously]--check out his picture at the BABEL website, under List-Serv Members. Cheers, Eileen

Karl Steel said...

Oh, this is lovely. That's all.

Nicola Masciandaro said...

For a moment there I was excited to have discovered another medievalist rock-climber, a real rarity I think. Is it accidental that JS the boulderer is not a medievalist? Is Petrarch's Ascent of Mount Ventoux really foundational for modernity as mountaineering?

You all may enjoy the early history of bouldering, which includes some characters like Alastair Crowley, as told by John Gill at