Archives for posts with tag: Sublime

I have just seen the documentary film Mountain, a meditative consideration of the rocky and often snow-covered peaks that loom large and magnificent throughout our landscape.

Jennifer Peedom’s shots are extraordinary from the outset, almost dizzyingly so. The camera shifts vertiginously from one sequence to the next, the act of the image-capturing itself a marvel how was it even done?!). The text, narrated by Willem Dafoe, and co-written by Robert Macfarlane and Peedom, is understated, and as such aptly complements the sublime images it accompanies. There are many silences, which facilitate a pause, a breath-taking moment to consider the majesty and beauty of what is being revealed.

The film is a 76 minute wonderment. I now realise that I have never really used the word s‘awe’ and ‘sublime’ appropriately before.

Beyond the sheer physicality of the film, Mountain left me a number of things to reflect on.

Firstly, I was struck by something Dafoe said early on:

“The mountains we climb are mountains of our minds”

I guess that this analogy refers to the extraordinary psychological challenge that those who set out to scale the highest mountains face, and one that surely matches if not exceeds the physical demands.

But the words made me think too of the sometimes near impossible goals that we set ourselves in our – non-mountaineering – lives. These ‘climbs’ and ‘scalings to the summit’ are often invisible to others, and as a result too infrequently applauded or even acknowledged.

I have never climbed a mountain, nor really aspired to. Yet I am utterly compelled by the attempts and feats of others to do so. I have read pretty much every book, and seen every film and documentary on climbing Mount Everest, for example.

I tend to seek out ‘me’, and my story, or at least components of it, in pretty much all of the fiction/biography/poetry/cinema that I experience. Consciously or otherwise, I have an innate self-selection process that draws me to stories, whatever the medium, where I might find personal resonance.

And so it is with the sublime, and the almost impossible stories of scaling the heights, of getting to the top. I am somewhere in those stories, though my climbing is psychical. The truth is that I am way too fearful to attempt the most novice of physical climbs. But nonphysical challenges hold much less fear for me. I get the adrenaline, the euphoria that these physical risk takers experience – ‘the risk is the reward’. So too for me, but in an infinitely more limited physical microcosm.

Secondly, Mountain gives us more serious issues to consider. It encourages us to question why we feel the need to control our environment, to ‘conquer’ it, to make it ours. Getting to the top of Mount Everest does not actually equate with owning anything. In fact, seeing as we do the queues lining up the ascent, you begin to wonder what exactly humans are trying to achieve. My own theory is that we struggle to cope with the unknown, the unattainable, the inexplicable, particularly as so much more is known and explored that it was, say 100, 200 years ago. Uncertainty, a not knowing, has become an anathema to humanity. And thus, we distract ourselves from such uncertainty – which ultimately equates with our eventual nonexistence – by seeking to conquer. If everything is ultimately within our grasp, perhaps mortality might become so, too. A fallacy, undoubtedly, but the illusion somehow fosters a sense of safety.

Thirdly, Mountain encourages us to consider the beauty, and fragility of all our lives. Perhaps we have forgotten what it means and feels to be alive, to truly notice our lived experiences, and to be grateful for such awareness. There is a beautiful moment in the film when Dafoe refers to the risks that extreme climbers take on. We truly live when death becomes an almost reality – so close, we can almost feel it.

It is at that moment that we are most alive.



This work has been on the periphery of my consciousness for ever. Last night I heard (and saw, as it was accompanied by a video installation) the piece performed by the London Sinfonietta at the Purcell Room, Southbank.

Inevitably, one thinks of the premiere of this work over 70 years ago, at the Stalag VIIIA prisoner-of-war camp, Barrack 27, Germany, January 1941. Messiaen had been captured while working as a hospital orderly (his poor eyesight precluded joining the army) during the German invasion of France in 1940. Fortunately, a music loving German guard supplied Messiaen with pencils and music paper and facilitated the composer creating his work undisturbed.

There was a violinist, a cellist and a clarinettist among Messiaen’s fellow prisoners, and he initially composed a trio for them. He later added a further 7 movements and piano, and this now constitutes Quartet for the End of Time as we know it.

The premiere was probably one of the most unusual and unique of its kind, performed in a Barrack on a freezing January night, to fellow prisoners as well as prison guards.

Of the event, Messiaen said:

‘Never have I been listened to with such attention and with such understanding.’

The story of the premiere inevitably lingers in any listening. Yet, the music itself is so hauntingly beautiful that any performance can stand alone as a sublime experience in itself. Thus it was last night. I was seduced, enthralled, and utterly moved by the music.

Messiaen was deeply religious, a devout Roman Catholic. The title of the quartet reflects its connection to the Book of Revelation:

“In homage to the Angel of the Apocalypse, who lifts his hand toward heaven, saying, ‘There shall be time no longer.'”

The end of time, or as Messiaen later clarified, the end of all time, appears to have a double significance here ( Firstly, it had a specific musical meaning for Messiaen. He no longer wanted time as dictated by the 1, 2, 3 of a drumbeat, but rhythms that ‘expanded, contracted, stopped in their tracks’. Secondly, the end of time means the end of life and the world as we know it, presumably triggered by the experience of living during WWII, as well as Messiaen’s deeply rooted religious beliefs. The work is divided into 8 movements, the 7 days of creation followed by the final day of eternity and timelessness.

The work is not apocalyptic in the sense that we usually use this word descriptively. Rather, it is ethereal, emotional and emotive, it surprises rather than disturbs, although it entices you into a world that is almost distressingly beautiful.