Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Literal Kit Bag (08.22.11)

Julie and I spent three days in the Sawtooth Mountains last week, and while the trip wasn’t a Pilgrim’s Progress, it had moments where we were tempted toward allegory.

We got lost in a swamp when I insisted on getting off the beaten path. 

We climbed nearly to the top of a peak, but it was a peak whose vertical spires were disintegrating into loose rock and sand before our eyes, and we decided that arriving at the summit would be more a matter of luck than of skill, and getting back down would be purely a matter of luck.  We stopped a few hundred feet from the top, ate our lunch, and walked back down. 

We dove headfirst into lakes that still had the remains of last winter’s snow lining their banks.

The mosquitoes were thick and aggressive. They drove us into the tent while it was still light, causing us to wake up a four a.m. to a sky bright with stars. It was cold and the bugs weren’t moving, so we could wander around on the lakeside tundra, naked and shivering, and stare out into space. At 9000’, the air is clear and cold. The Milky Way was a drifting glowing cloud on a scale somewhat larger and colder than the human.

We avoided trails, but still ran into other people. We walked up on a group of ten with their guide, who had just told them that they were in a place where they wouldn’t see anybody else. Three college kids on a climbing expedition showed up just as we were pitching our tent the second evening, wondering if we’d seen the stove and food they’d stashed near our campsite the week before. We hadn’t.

On the last day we got back on a trail and ran into 73 people, one of whom was a young man sitting on a huge foam pad at the end of the trail. He was reading The World Without Us, a book of speculative nonfiction about what Earth would look like if humans suddenly disappeared.  He was an environmental studies major, and it was an assigned text.

I’ve already mentioned Pilgrim’s Progress.  I could have mentioned Mount Analogue, A Novel of Symbolically Authentic Non-Euclidean Adventures in Mountain Climbing.  It’s an unfinished work, because its author, the French Surrealist Rene Daumal, died in the middle of writing it.  But he did write this passage:

“You cannot always stay on the summits. You have to come down again… So what’s the point? Only this: what is above knows what is below, what is below does not know what is above. While climbing, take note of all the difficulties along your path. During the descent, you will no longer see them, but you will know that they are there if you have observed carefully. There is an art to finding your way in the lower regions by the memory of what you have seen when you were higher up.”

A passage like this makes you think it’s almost impossible to write about a journey or a mountain ascent and not let your writing slip toward the expression of grand but incoherent truths.  Any of the experiences of Julie’s and my trip could have inspired a meditation on life’s journey, and that meditation might have created the illusion of meaning. That’s not always a good thing on a camping trip.

I was repeating Frost’s “Road Less Traveled,” as justification for taking a new route just before we get lost in the swamp, and I suppose it’s not for nothing that most people who study literature retreat from the literal world to their study, their dissertation, or their tenured professorship.  A literary education is just too dangerous if you start exploring its literal applications.

It’s much safer to go the other way, from the literal to the literary. Metaphors are seldom lethal on the page.  It’s easier to read Kafka’s “The Hunger Artist” than to realize someone has stolen your food cache. It’s easier to reach the heavens by climbing Mount Analogue than it is by having your last best handhold break off in your hand as you slip toward a thousand foot fall. It’s easier to read Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” than it is to dive into water with ice floating in it. It’s easier to imagine the end of civilization than to wander around naked in cold starlight, which is what people did before there was civilization.

This sort of thing can become a game, and it’s a good game for writers, because metaphorical writing can get old and goofy long before the end of a book or poem.

It’s possible, if you work at it, to reduce the metaphorical content in your writing.  You wouldn’t think that reducing the amount of metaphor would increase the amount of truth in a sentence, but it does work that way.  Sometimes the amount of truth is increased so much that it’s possible to see the metaphors you’ve eliminated from your writing make up a habit of mind indistinguishable from compulsive lying. Make of that what you will, but you should make something of it if you’re going to be a writer who increases the amount of truth in the world.

So after three days Julie and I came out of the mountains, were shocked by the amount of people and noise in the world, had a compensatory margarita in a lakeside bar, went home, cleaned up, went out to a compensatory dinner, came back home again and slept for ten hours on a compensatory real mattress.  Did not check email. Did not even turn on a computer.  Did not find out that the stock market was falling. Did not know that Libya was having a revolution. Did not know that American politics had gotten three days more ridiculous and the world economy three days more in debt. 

What sort of meaning is safe to make on a camping trip?

A decade and a half ago Julie and I came out of the Sawtooths after a solid week. The first thing I did was to turn on the car radio for the news. Julie made fun of me and said, “I’m sure that the world hasn’t ended in one week.”  Then the news came on and we found out Jerry Garcia had died.

“The world has ended,” I said.

“No it hasn’t,” said Julie.

“It has for Jerry Garcia,” I said.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Julie August 23, 2011 at 5:15 pm

John, I have Rene Daumal’s quote on the bulletin board by my computer and on my website. It always reminds me that I have to scale something to know what is above . . .. Nice piece you’ve written here. Sounds like an amazing sojourn in the Sawtooths. We’re heading that way shortly.

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