The Mountain Spirit, edited by Michael Charles Tobias and Harold
Drasdo. The Overlook Press. $17.95.
I was skeptical when asked to review this unusual anthology of mountain essays, literary criticism, travel notes, reminiscences, climbing accounts, mountain poems and fiction, edited by Michael Tobias and Harold Drasdo. I had two reservations. First, I had once read in a review of one of Tobias’s works something to this effect: “Either Tobias knows a lot more than the rest of us, or he’s full of bull, and I suspect the former is true.” Second, when you review a book for the A.A.J., you don’t always receive a complimentary copy from the publisher. I had to fork out $17.95 (black and white photos), and I couldn’t help thinking, as I paid the dough, that just down from the bookstore was another shop where I could exchange the same sum for 22 bottles of Guiness Stout.
Being an author myself, however, and knowing well the sting of the critic’s pen, I knew I had a responsibility to examine the book carefully
and objectively. But besides the opinion of the critic mentioned above, I had one other prejudice as I opened the first pages. Regarding anthologies, I have two expectations: one, that the anthology contain in one volume a selection of works that I wouldn’t ordinarily see unless I were a scholar of the particular subject encompassed in the anthology. Anthologies function in this way as crash courses in the subject they cover. Two, a good anthology will, by presenting a variety of selections that otherwise might seem exclusive of each other, suggest a thread or continuity that adds new dimension to the individual works.
I was pleased to read in the introduction this was precisely the goal of Tobias and Drasdo in editing the selections. “By presenting a diversity of perspectives, some separated in time and place, we hope to reveal a unanimous passion stemming from the mountains.… This work is intended to display to those committed to serious mountaineering how universally and variously the mountain experience has been perceived.” I was also pleased to learn that, aside from a piece by the Japanese Zen master Dogen and another by the Nobel-Prize-Winning Samuel Beckett, all the selections were not only previously unpublished but written for the book.
I thought, “Maybe the 18 bucks are worth it.” A quick thumb through the book revealed a wide assortment: several pieces by Japanese and Chinese scholars both modern and ancient, mostly on the importance of mountains in Tao and Zen thought: a work by the African Amos Tutuola on the importance of hill spirits in a Nigerian tribe; an essay on the mystical art-form of bouldering by John Gill; nine poems; a critique of early 19th century landscape painting called “The Riesengebirge as a Transcendental Image in Friedrich’s Art.” The editors each contributed an essay: Drasdo wrote on the existential joys of climbing big walls, and Tobias wrote an essay titled, “A History of Imagination in Wilderness” that cites the role of wilderness, and particularly mountains, in art and literature.
Quite a potpourri, I told myself, but still, if the editors’ stated goal were to hold true, all these selections would have something in common: the mountain spirit. I opened to the first piece, “Modesty and the Conquest of Mountains,” by Arne Naess. In the fourth paragraph I read, “Mountains are big. Very big. But they are also great. Very great.… Another selection followed telling me the brain has two lobes, and the right one processes information “according to its general configuration.” This is the side used to experience wilderness, the article said.
I decided at that point I needed the experience of my liquor cabinet to finish the book, so after mixing a stiff one, I trenched in to finish my duty, and the book. Fortunately, I found a well written essay by Dave Roberts, “Alaska and Personal Style: Some Notes in Search of an Aesthetic,” and Evelio Echevarría contributed a fascinating description of ancient Inca mountaineers.
Finishing the book, I found two of the stories, in particular, had stayed with me. One described a 16th century Chinese named Hsu Hsia-Ko who for 29 years traveled to all major mountain ranges in eastern China, climbing. From the quotes of Hsu’s writing that appeared in this article, it seemed to me his main motivation in following what was in those days an unheard-of pursuit, was to have fun. I like Hsu. I also like T.S. Blakeney who recalled a pilgrimage to the most holy of holy mountains, Kailas, in Tibet.
Both Hsu and Blakeney were affected with what can be called a mountain spirit. I suppose the other selections also had this common thread, but I found many of them so heavy with academic jargon as to be, for me, difficult to decipher. Perhaps that is just because of my own limited intellect. I don’t know, maybe I’ve got brain damage.
I suppose the book was worth the price, especially the story about Hsu, and the other about Kailas. But still, I keep thinking of those 22 bottles of Guinness Stout.