Cold Mountain

July 24, 2012

No one knows this
mountain I inhabit

deep in white clouds
forever empty, silent.

Cold Mountain (Han Shan)

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10 Responses to “Cold Mountain”

  1. extrasimile Says:

    No, Tom, I don’t think you’re being too serious. There is nothing I’d like better than a good discussion about Cold Mountain. I’m quite familiar with Arduity, by the way, John Armstrong’s site on difficult poetry. In fact, I’m so familiar with it, I even have a little piece there on Wallace Stevens’ The Rock, one of the deeper poems the 20th century has produced. (Full disclosure: it wasn’t written specifically for Arduity and, while it is about The Rock, it skids and slides all over the place. John was kind enough to suggest it might fit in with what he was doing. It doesn’t quite, but I’m quite pleased to have it there.) While I’m on the topic, let’s mention John’s blog, Bebrowed. He’s doing some wonderful stuff.
    ‘Serious’ does not preclude humor. I don’t think you will disagree with this. It can puncture precious nonsense, it can calm frazzled nerves, calm a tense argument. (Once in a ‘debate’ I had an interlocutor say: I’m applying Occam’s Razor. You do know what that is? Yes, says I. Not only am I familiar with Occam’s razor. Pause. I use his aftershave as well.) Satire, irony—we couldn’t get along without them. How often in Shakespeare is the fool the touchstone of what is real.
    So when I make an offhand comment about someone else’s idea about centers and circles, what am I doing? I think the worse charge I can convict myself of is glibness. Perhaps it was just a way of deflecting an attack on Anna Mark’s innocent idea. A sphere with a center everywhere and a circumference nowhere. I’ve heard it before, you’ve heard it before. Cold Mountain would not be impressed. Glibness is a sin when it is used to build a barrier around the self. It can lead to a smug, self-satisfied person. It is bad—or at least can be so. Mea culpa.
    I’ve read the first few sections of the chapter Yves Bonnefoy devotes to The Tempest—enough to get a sense of the violation I commit by setting a line from it in what is after all a rather decadent poem. Shakespeare is notoriously elusive concerning religion. He was in a dangerous position regarding Catholicism and I have not sufficiently considered magic in Shakespeare or anyplace else to comment further. I don’t think, however, that meditative, spiritual practices necessarily offer safe haven. This is, as you say, not the forum to go into this in detail, but let me say that they can be parochial, self-validating, and they can build a ‘no-self self’ that’s just as fragile as the modern, ‘western’ self. When you find the Buddha, kill him.
    I looked briefly at the new website. It looks good. I’ll keep an eye on it.

  2. Tom D'Evelyn Says:

    Yes, I feel awkward writing this but these matters are dear to my heart and the issues are not easily put into the kind of language sponsored by the medium we are using! But if you think I’m taking things too seriously, see the blog “arduity” — specifically devoted to difficult poetry. I’m working on a new blog at thomasdevelyn.com that will be just about the problem we are dealing with: how does the poet make language about things that can’t be talked about.

    Not sure what “cosmos” would mean to whoever this poet(s) was.
    The “he” of Cold Mt is of course problematic in two senses: 1. we don’t know who “he” was and to the best of our knowledge “he” is a tradition of monks living in the mountains. 2. The problem of identity — of any he — is an issue in this tradition. For that tradition, personal identity is not the sacred cow the way it is in the West today.

    But that’s no excuse, because we can all read Wittgenstein! As Fergus Kerr says in Theology after Wittgenstein, “. . . I discover myself, not in some pre-linguistic inner space of self-presence, but in the network of multifarious social and historical relationships in which I am willy-nilly involved.”

    The “original” of Cold Mt is a consciousness, a state of mind, that is informed not by some “being” but by a set of practices, which we call meditative, of “social and historical” significance.

    Which is not to say that those practices are not themselves embedded in an experience of self-transcending, which is the core of the meditative practice. So it’s not like we can know nothing about this “self” of these remarkable poems.

  3. extrasimile Says:

    Yes, I think he would. But when he turned…would the cosmos turn with him?

  4. Tom D'Evelyn Says:

    I am the central mountain? Really? I suppose he means that metaphorically, in his own system. Cold Mountain would turn a cold backside to such sentiment, don’t you think?

  5. extrasimile Says:

    Tom, John, Thomas, Anna: I think I will have some more to say on this picture one of these days. But just to comment on the technique: Thomas you are quite right. It is almost all white space. I took a painting knife and simply scraped a little black oil pastel on to the paper. It was quite easy to do. The clouds I painted with my fingers.
    Anna: I had the opportunity to hear Joseph Campbell speak when I was much younger. He stood in the center of a large proscenium stage, no microphone, no podium, no slides, no charts or graphs and no notes. He just talked in a loud, well-projected voice for an hour, hour and a half, as if we were all good friends. Perhaps we are.

  6. Anna Mark Says:

    Charcoal? Let me know the medium here. I’m enjoying both the image and the poem.

    I’ve also read a quote recently, “You are the central mountain, and the central mountain is everywhere.” It is Joseph Campbell extending the idea that God is an intelligible sphere — a sphere known to the mind, not to the senses — whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere. This sentiment seems to unite rather than isolate humanity…don’t we all know that mountain that Cold Mountain?

  7. Thomas Davis Says:

    What makes this is its emptiness on the paper. It has a feeling of freedom and accident that has grown into cold, still, and isolated mountains.

  8. John Stevens Says:

    Yes, this is beautiful – and it looks impossibly cold, still and isolated – exactly right.

  9. Tom D'Evelyn Says:

    Love your visualization of this communication of the incommunicable absolute!


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