‘Time present and time past…’

‘What matters is to live everything. Live the questions for now’

TS Eliot, Burnt Norton, Four Quartets; Rainer Maria Rilke, 'Letters to a Young Poet'.


Posted by Kevin Flint on Jan 15, 2018

In clock-time this blog had been occasioned by an invitation from my good friend, Mike Blenkinsop, to join him for a weekend of climbing in the Lakes on Friday 3 November, last year. We had arranged to meet at 11am at a café on the M6 north of Lancaster. Our meeting brought with it many ever-intense and colourful lived-time-memories of what was once called ‘the Bogle Stroll’, involving hundreds of students walking from Lancaster to Manchester.  When we were both undergraduates in Manchester back in the 1970s this had always been a very well supported annual event!

In the ever-unfolding lived-time of meeting Mike that morning, strong pictures flooded into my mind of our earlier experiences climbing together, along with other close friends from Manchester days. They carried with them the spirit of adventure that had somehow brought us all together and created a strong bond.

Was this what Rainer Maria Rilke had in mind when he encouraged his readers to ‘live everything’ – the very matter of making our own lived-time?

The weather on the way north from Hope Valley had been uniformly grey; rain brought in by cold north-westerly gales indicated that we needed to find somewhere sheltered for our climbing. We elected to continue northwards to climb on Gouther Crag in Swindale.

It's described in the guide as a ‘quiet crag with a small selection of fine routes’. We had in mind ‘The Fang’ - here revealed in its summer colours. 

The economy of climbing presented in the guide details exactly where each route takes climbers along with their estimated grades of difficulty – in this case very severe [VS]. In modern terms, ordinarily, this might be regarded as a relatively easy climb. Indeed, reading more about the climb using Google reveals that a variety of other climbers have also recorded an estimate of the grade given their own experiences in generally warm and more favourable summer conditions. The votes cast by climbers would suggest that this climb is somewhere between mild to medium grade VS.

But, we were not working within such a homogeneous economy[i]– where conditional upon good weather and warm dry rock, all possibilities, as suggested by the grading and voting for grades are supposedly open to calculation in advance for the competent climber.

We were about to climb ‘The Fang’ in much less clement conditions. Hands and fingers with much reduced capacity for feeling the rock; numbed by icy winds, our hands had to be free of gloves to feel something of the available holds. Rock covered in winter moss, collects wet patches, of course; easily catching out the unwary with slippery holds for the hands and feet. Unlike in the summer months, there was no line of chalked-up holds marking the way – only dark and foreboding, mostly near vertical rock.  In the sombre grey tones of the day the rock often seemed almost reluctant to reveal its hidden holds, fissures and crevasses. Broken by the occasional cracks we used for protection, in practice it offered a surprising array of small ledges, which from time-to-time during our ascent offered us a little respite.

In the lived-time of our ascent, then, we each had to deal with an ever-at-hand heterogeneous economy - unconditionally, as this economy unfolded as our lived-time it continually alerted each of us to the impossible and incalculable dimensions of the climb. In making the ascent we had to take hold of this heterogeneous economy and bring it to hand; dealing with it and using it to guide us in the approach we had used to the climbing, just as we would the more obvious homogeneous economy climbers are used to climbing with in the summer months. The guide, then, had simply given us an idea of the line taken by the Fang.

Making our own lived-time in ascending ‘The Fang’ had involved us both in coming to terms with this interplay of two radically contrasting economies. As climbers, this very interplay is surely at the heart of the adventure of climbing/mountaineering. In mountaineering literature, it’s been identified in many different ways; including, ‘deep play’[ii]; ‘touching the void’, ‘this game of ghosts’, and storms of silence[iii]; learning to breathe[iv]; ‘into thin air’[v] ‘feeding the rat’[vi]; ‘the push’[vii];‘revelations’[viii], ‘where the wild winds are’[ix]; ‘mixed emotions’[x] and, not least, Jim Perrin’s ‘yes to dance’[xi] which might emerge from Ed Douglas' ‘the magician’s glass’[xii]. In its own way, it seems, the express idiom of literature concerned with life in the mountains, remains a celebration of the ever-impossible play of differences, of différance – differences in space and deferrals in time – painted with words, reflecting a multiplicity of emotional responses to such experiences [xiii]

In viewing the climbing in this way – as an interplay of homogeneous and heterogeneous economies -  doesn’t it open reflection on the ways we handle such an interplay in our everyday lives outside climbing?  It was in the very unfolding of lived-time that our various ways of handling the impossible dimensions of the heterogeneous economy at play in our ascent came to life. It was our making of this lived-time that cultivated such intense memories of the experience, which I’m sure will remain ever-undimmed by the passage of clock-time.  

In meeting with a group from the Midlands Association of Mountaineering [MAM] at their Low House, located just south of the centre of Coniston, for the first time, it seemed to me that the very same interplay of economies had been played out during our weekend visit.  

Is it not a mark of hospitality, of friendship, of generosity of spirit, that on first meeting others, people open and extend a new space for the unknown? Is not the space cultivated by such express hospitality one in which the heterogeneous economy of life plays out in the lived-time of meeting a new person? Certainly, in meeting with members of the MAM, who were staying at Low House for a working weekend, for me the hospitality extended was very much welcome. It opened a social space in which to handle the many unknowns involved in meeting others for the first time. Here was space for the play of différance that was at the heart of making lived-time in the mountains the day before.  

On the Saturday morning, a large group worked together in spreading gravel over the carpark to the rear of the house, while others were variously involved in ‘jobs’ identified for the inside of the house.  The whole day was variously spent working on small projects designed to improve the quality of the accommodation. In the evening, we all retired to the back garden where we lit a bonfire and enjoyed the spectacle of fireworks.

In the evening, too, the halo around the moon, which made the identification of its shape impossible, seemed to create its own symbol for the making time of life, involving not one but the two complementary economies we had experienced on our Friday climbing of ‘The Fang’.

On the Sunday Mike and I had started with a plan to walk up to Dow Crag above Coniston and to climb one of its famous and popular VS climbs – Eliminate A. On this occasion, the impossible at the heart of our lived heterogeneous economy played a strong hand. At the top of the first pitch we decided that the icy-cold wind, wet and mossy rock and the time taken in climbing just one pitch meant that it was unwise to continue.

After a short abseil retreat, we scrambled to the top of Dow following the gully climbers use in descent from the crag.

Then we walked over The Old Man of Coniston before finally returned down a steep track to our car, so avoiding a walk down the road.

In meeting with the others from MAM; who’d been walking on the fells for the day, to wish them well and to say thanks for a great weekend as a matter of habit, it would be easy to pass over the significance of saying ‘thanks’ in the light of this blog. Indeed, it is in the Old English singular ‘thanc’, which has now become largely redundant [xiv], I would argue, that there lies the unconditional, incalculable, impossible and enduring desire to gather all that concerns us. And, in making lived-time, I have suggested, therein in the express thanc lies the im-possibility of life lived to the full. It is thanc, then, as an enduring im-possibility which makes it possible to ‘live everything’, as Rilke suggested earlier.  

What should be kept in question, therefore, as we have begun to uncover from the hard-won experience of climbing summer rocks in winter conditions is the very matter of the impossible at play in our practices. Not something that eventually with the necessary will and resources that can be made possible. But, rather the impossible, which endures as such in all our practices.

Indeed, without this enduring ‘impossible’ there could be no possibilities…!

Thanks for reading this blog. I hope you’ve enjoyed the writing. Any thoughts, suggestions, ideas would be most welcome.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Kevin

Endnotes:

[i]. The focus upon homogeneous and heterogeneous economies, which is also connected briefly with hospitality comes from a reading of Jacques Derrida’s [1999] dialogue: ‘Hospitality, justice and responsibility: a dialogue with Jacques Derrida’ published in: Richard Kearney and Mark Dooley [Eds.] Questioning Ethics: Contemporary Debates in Philosophy, London and New York: Routledge

[ii] Paul Pritchard [1997] Deep Play: A Climber’s Odyssey from Llanberis to the Big Walls, London: Baton Wicks.

[iii]Joe Simpson [1998] Touching the Void, [1993] This Game of Ghosts [London: Vintage], [1997] Storms of Silence [London: Vintage]

[iv] Andy Cave [2005] Learning to Breathe, London: Hutchinson.

[v] Jon Krakauer [1997] Into Thin Air: A personal account of the Mount Everest Disaster, London: Pan Books.

[vi]Al Alverez [1988] Feeding the Rat: Profile of a Climber, London and New York: Bloomsbury.

[vii]Tommy Caldwell [2017] The Push: A climber’s journey of endurance, risk and going beyond limits, London and New York:  Penguin Books.

[viii] Jerry Moffatt with Niall Grimes [2009] Revelations, Sheffield: Vertebrate Publishing

[ix] Nick Hunt [2017] Where the wild winds are: Walking Europe’s winds from the Pennines to Provence, London and Boston: Nicholas Brealey Publishing

[x] Greg Child [1993] Mixed Emotions: Mountaineering writings of Greg Child, Washington: The Mountaineers

[xi]Jim Perrin [1990] Yes, To Dance: Essays from outside the stockade, Somerset: The Oxford Illustrated Press

[xii] Ed Douglas [2017] The Magician’s Glass – Character and fate: eight essays on climbing and mountain life, Sheffield: Vertebrate Publishing

[xiii] Two insightful introductions to Jacques Derrida’s philosophy include: Nicholas Royle [2003] Jacques Derrida, London and New York: Routledge; Mark Dooley and Liam Kavanagh [2007] The Philosophy of Derrida, Stocksfield: Acumen. 

[xiv] Martin Heidegger [2004] in his series of lectures presented under the general title, ‘What is called thinking’ opened for me further reflection on the Old English notion of ‘thanc’. In Heidegger’s understanding ‘the thanc, the heart’s core, is the gathering of all that concerns us’ [ibid: 144]. But, in the play of différance, such ‘gathering’ remains ever an impossibility. Moreover, although Heidegger did much in his life to challenge existing approaches to philosophy, with his seemingly endless return to the question of being, he could never quite throw off some of the tradition. In What is Called Thinking, Heidegger’s return to the Old English thanc is a case in point. Within the tradition of philosophy there has always remained a sense of mastery over the past – as Dooley and Kavanagh put it, ‘the attempt to capture everything without remainder’. But, in the play of différance such mastery remains ever-destined to fail. In his series of lectures Heidegger, for example, speaks of ‘memory’ without ever acknowledging its catastrophe.  In Derrida’s later writings he opens space for reflection on such ‘remainder’ and on the catastrophe of memory in his exploration of the interplay of both homogeneous and heterogeneous economies of practice which I have drawn upon in this blog.