Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. November 2003

5.10. Mountain and Cultural Aesthetic
Herausgeber | Editors | Éditeurs: Charles I. Armstrong (University of Bergen, Norway) / Juri Mosidze (Tbilissi)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

Report: Mountain and Cultural Aesthetic

Charles I. Armstrong (University of Bergen, Norway)


This section featured presentations which all explored how mountain spaces have been articulated by cultural discourses - with a special emphasis on literary ones. A variety of topographical discourses were linked with mountains - including those of First Nation mythology, picturesque tour guides, Romantic sublimity, polar exploration, painterly aesthetics and posthumous commemoration.

There are many historical and cross-cultural similarities in how mountains have been topographically expressed, especially with regard to features such as inaccessibility, elevation and spiritual value. Yet the prototypical encounter with the mountain is evidently also very much a singular experience: something that is unique and one-off. Thus all the presentations formulated thoroughly embedded descriptions of mountain experiences, whether this was articulated in terms of cultural narratives or historical contextualisation. For instance, an Austro-Hungarian polar expedition of the 1870s was interpreted as a complex modification of mountain discourse by specific geographical and imperialist features. Similarly, Henrik Ibsen's play Brand was shown to build on a specifically western Norwegian landscape of mountains. Written texts may be bound by conventions and general codes, but mountains and other landscape features have nevertheless left very overdetermined marks in those texts.

One of the most repeated aspects of mountain discourse has to do with transcendence. Both the experience of myth and that of romantic solitude aspire to a sense of numinous or sacred. A recurring theme in this section was how these intimations of transcendence frequently are threatened by instrumental exigencies, commodification, or ideological co-optation. The temple of nature is all too easily converted into a theme park - as has been shown by the respective fates of the sacred Australian mountain called Uluru and the English Lake District. Such mountain sites may lose much of their cultural value by being exposed to large-scale processes of commercialisation. Cultural assimilation becomes a form of cultural minimisation, as the richness of mountain experience is depleted and hollowed out.

Still, it is not clear how fully one can distinguish between the supposedly original experiences of revelation or belonging, on the one hand, and the mechanisms of appropriation, on the other. It was thus shown how Romantic and Neo-Romantic poetry can be interpreted against the grain, revealing just how mediated and constructed the seemingly "natural" experience of mountains can be. The history of mountain discourses then becomes a series of answers to human questions and demands, rather than the disclosure of any innate essences. Certainly this is true of a modern tradition that includes such figures as Petrarch, Rousseau, Byron and Yeats.

Thus the status, and implicitly also the future, of mountain discourses was left hovering at the end of this very varied section. It seems clear that the mind can move mountains. But can mountains continue to move the mind, enabling it to realise more unified experiences of community and belonging? This question deserves continued probing.

© Charles I. Armstrong (University of Bergen, Norway)

5.10. Mountain and Cultural Aesthetic

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For quotation purposes:
Charles I. Armstrong (University of Bergen, Norway): Report: Mountain and Cultural Aesthetic. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 15/2003. WWW:

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