The longing for the sublime

The theme for Bergen International Festival 2018 is longing. In this essay, Anders Beyer shares a personal experience about longing. The piece illustrates that much of the art we appreciate wishes to show us the way to a state of mind and being where time stops, and you just are.
Klemsbu nearby Finse, Norway. Photo: Anders Beyer.

By Anders Beyer

Stepping onto the platform, we can sense that the white winter landscape will not embrace us gently this day. The wind is howling, the snow flurrying. A sign informs us that we are 1.222 metres above sea level, at Finse, the highest stop on the Bergen Railway. In this place, nature generously displays its majestic grandeur in all directions. In these surroundings, we can, and must, come to terms with our own smallness and perishability, for in such a monumental landscape, it is inevitable that man is considered little and insignificant.

Here, in these parts, up under the sky, the myriad of voices that usually surround us are far away. Here, the internet ceases to work. Here, far from the city and the beaten path, you may in one happy moment find yourself. On a good day, you can even hear the silence – the best music there is.

Walking in the mountains is physical exertion and can sometimes be exhausting, but going on a hike can also be a hunt for an intensified and meaningful unfolding of life. Caspar David Friedrich and J.C. Dahl, who currently have exhibitions in Bergen, are among the many artists who have wandered the mountains, and their paintings evoke the unfathomable in nature’s landscape. In the world of music, Carl Maria von Weber and Edvard Grieg’s acoustic canvases are great examples of how art works in harmony with nature. Without nature, which opens the music up to us, their art would be unthinkable.

Concentrated on being present

In Denmark, you do not walk in nature; you wander. You cannot wander in a city, no matter how big it is; you stroll. Nor, with all the technological possibilities that present themselves on your mobile, can you get completely lost in a city, and there is always someone to ask, or a train or a bus to jump onto. When you are outdoors, in the wildness and freedom of nature, your physical and mental muscles are massaged. You can be alone and can tune your mind to immediate experiences, and after a while, you can feel close to, and even at one with, the landscape. In such moments, you can almost feel as if you exist outside of time. This is an experience I admit that I seek both in life and in, or through, art.

It is a state of presence that I experience when I dive into underwater caves and caverns or am alone on the ocean in a little boat. It is also presence I feel when I am in the mountains. Then, I am entirely at the mercy of nature and am forced to shut out all unwanted thoughts to concentrate on being present in the here and now.

The drunken boat

These reflections on the feeling of freedom and of entering and exiting time press on my consciousnessas we arrive at Finse on this cold winter’s day. The thought of being at nature’s mercy would turn out to be foretelling.

The wind arrives in stealth, slowly gaining in strength until finally, it has grown to a powerful gale force. Midway in the ordinarily smooth-going ski trail that my companion and I had chosen, we become two struggling figures, hardly able to glimpse the next trail marker ahead. A fateful development, because in bad weather the trail markers are a lifeline to safety through the rugged mountain terrain.

After several hours of skiing through the howling wind and driving snow, we are exhausted and seek shelter by a little cabin that is locked and partly buried in snow. Long icicles hang from the roof, chiming in their own particular way, like percussion instruments which under different circumstances could have been instruments for playful hands. Clink-clank, clink-clank. The out of tune icicles’ metallic and monotonous sounds blend with the cacophony of sounds from nature. To the sensitive ear, this music of nature has the sound of a mighty composition, where the wind peeps and whistles and howls, wild and terrifying, but is also sorrowful and repetitious. Like the melodies of Schubert’s Organ Grinder, a lonesome man wandering from village to village on his musical winter’s journey. Winter’s chilling cold wraps around the traveller, a crystalline cloak from which he cannot escape.

The storm in the mountain rages deafeningly. The whiteness of the landscape becomes engulfing, and gradually the two foolhardy skiers’ ability to reason is weakened. The cabin’s small windbreak does not provide enough protection. One of my ski bindings freezes to ice, and I can not get my boot to click into it. I try skiing on one ski, but the lactic acid makes the active thigh muscle stiffen, and within moments I can hardly move. My companion and I decide to part ways, in the hope that he will make his way back down to Finse and get help.

In my isolation, it soon becomes impossible for me to determine what is up and what is down. I start to see images that are not there. The cabin topples over, turns helplessly on its head, and begins to slide down into the big white nothingness, like an intoxicated boat that has had too much to drink and is about to complete a journey that once had a clear destination, but that was long ago. A boat called “Hope” that is brought off course continues into emptiness, abandons all resistance and ends its journey in the coldness of uncertainty. The hull creaks terrifyingly in the deep, and the sounds conjure a sinking cathedral, where from its water organ cascading sounds of longing and goodbye flow.

Death’s landscape

Thus, the protagonist of Poe’s novel, Arthur Gordon Pym, must have had it. He sets off on a sea voyage to escape his family’s deep-rooted proletarian life. When the ship nears the Antarctic, it encounters a rain of ashes, lasting for days, growing thicker and thicker, until it is like a waterfall from the skies.

The romantic landscape is the landscape of longing and death. Schubert’s winter journey is part of a long tradition of tales of sea voyages and expeditions. Some of these voyages are not even about reaching a destination, but about the futility of time, the endless time, the maelstrom, like the place where the ship goes under. No wonder that in Poe’s short story A Descent into the Maelstrom, the scene is set to Norway. In the maelstrom Moskstraumen at Lofoten, high up in the north, one may to this day experience the fascinating and fearsome natural phenomenon. In such waters, you do not long for ship catastrophes and sudden death, but try with all your might to fight against it, to survive and arrive safely on land again.

In his paintings from the 1820’s, Caspar David Friedrich depicts ship catastrophes, and later Richard Wagner does it musically in The Flying Dutchman. The tradition continues until Rimbaud’s poem Le Bateau ivre, The Drunken Boat, where the demise of the drowned is, at the same time, redemption.

On the path to the sublime

These masterpieces of art history, which are about existing on the very edge of life, are like pinballs in my mind as I wait on the little porch outside the mountain cabin near Finse. Never in my life have I felt so alone, and never have I felt so alive. I begin to think rationally, and find an axe, but can not quite allow myself to break the door into the cabin. I chop wood and dance the samba for a few hours to keep warm. I have never danced so much in my life, and it wasn’t a pretty sight, but rather an absurd theatre performance with no audience.

It grows dark, and I am left only with the roaring sound of nature’s elements that rage around me. I become entirely concentrated and calm. Strangely, I feel unafraid, for the simple reason that now, this is only about my survival. In one way, I am like an animal. In another way, I am a human being who is experiencing something sublime, something limitless, something far more significant than myself – something I am ascending into.

‘I hear you’re having some trouble, can I help you?’ I bend towards the figure, and suddenly I am face to face with the Abominable Snowman! But within seconds I am free of my hallucination, and suddenly he is standing there, the Norwegian giant, two metres tall with a full, red beard, and I recognise the face of a friendly, real human being.

I cannot find the words to express my gratitude. In fact, I try to say as little as possible, but I know that at some point my language will reveal that I am not a native, and that I will rightfully be subject to a whole manner of jokes about Danish people venturing into the snowy Norwegian mountains.

I seek the far boundaries of existence, but I do not like losing control and need help to survive. That is what happened this time, and luckily my skiing companion had made his way back to Finse. A bone-chilling experience for us both, but oddly enough, we agreed it was one that we would not wish to be without.

Art can never deliver us to such extreme situations. But like such situations, art can also meet our longing for sublime experiences, in which our accumulated feeling of safety is swept from under us.

We seek repetition and predictability. But we also seek the opposite: danger, surprise, unpredictability. Without this conflicting relationship, life becomes something most of us do not want it to be: dull, and lacking in deeper meaning.

© Anders Beyer 2018

An edited version of this article was first published in the print edition of newspaper Bergens Tidende on 23 December 2018.

Translation: Britt Embry