By way of (I think) Black Metal Theory, Notes from the Vomitorium, The Whim, coming to my attention around the time I heard of Dayal Patterson’s Black Metal: Evolution of the Cult, and acquired also earlier this year, the strange and oddly poetic work of Lieutenant Nab Saheb of Kashmir, with a preface by Denys X. Abaris, O.S.L, Bergmetal: Oro-emblems of the Musical Beyond, sits near Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia in an unnamed field of philosophy, theory, fiction, fantasy. It’s a little book, not even 100 pages, with small illustrations of mountaineers plunging to their doom high on a storm-wrapped mountain, covers of black metal albums, more pictures of mountains, chapter titles swinging between black metal and Werner Herzog films (that’d be Scream of Stone). I’m not sure I understand what I’m reading, but I like it; it appeals to me in a non-verbal way, drawing the aesthetic and philosophy of black metal towards the corporeal experience of climbing and mountains – also a philosophy. It’s a book that sits well near Michel Serres, who also loves mountains, and who understands bodies and thoughts in a way that for the moment seems lost or dismissed.
Michel Serres is probably my favourite philosopher. Of the crop of post-68ers, Deleuze, Foucault, Derrida, all the names that are almost compulsory to be able to at least nod knowingly about if one wants to seem relevant in the contemporary dance milieu (to speak nothing of elsewhere) he goes strangely unmentioned. Possibly it’s changed in the last few years, but it was for me only by hanging out with some philosophers in Auckland and Melbourne who were dead keen on Serres that I know of him at all, as I am pretty certain I’ve not come across him otherwise, or not in a way that I can pin down as notable.
It’s because he wrote on dance, specifically ballet, that think so highly of him. Or perhaps it’s because when I first encountered him he wrote so beautifully, so poetically, so unlike every other philosopher, sometimes incomprehensibly (though never in the way that say, Derrida or Lacan did). I photocopied all the books of his I could find in the University library: The Parasite, Rome: The Book of Foundations, Hermes: Literature, Science, Philosophy, of course Genesis … his brilliant essay Gnomon: The Beginnings of Geometry in Greece in A History of Scientific Thought: Elements of a HIstory of Science (along with every other essay in there, especially Catherine Goldstein’s Stories of the Circle), photocopied because otherwise impossibly expensive. Even by the affordable prices of Germany, I can seldom afford what translations exist of his work: Variations on the Body caused me to wince and look the other way when I handed over the cash, and it’s tiny, a mere 162 pages. Beautifully bound and presented though, which honestly makes up for a lot for me when it comes to buying academic-ish texts; it’s really a book to hold and enjoy the tactile pleasure of the embossed cover and heavy paper.
This translation then, by Randolph Burks (member of the Unemployed Philosophers’ Guild: The Lens Grinders) I have in two versions: latterly this printed one, an actual book; formerly a pdf which I think I snagged on the most excellent blog devoted to Serres. Same translation, different work. The French version is lavishly illustrated, something of a habit for Serres (Angels: A Modern Myth, for example). The English translation in book form is entirely bereft of illustrations, a compromise to getting it printed at all, which likely indicates the relative popularity of Serres compared to other French philosophers. The illustrations and photographs are not careless decoration, so the printed translation actually is substantially a lesser work, despite the work of Burks, who I think – based on the other translations I’ve read – makes me feel like I’m reading Serres without a go-between.
Serres does have his problems: there’s a distinct heterosexual male perspective in both his choice of words and choice of metaphors, similes, examples, which if nothing else shows his age (83, born in 1930), and Variations on the Body, with long sections devoted to romanticising mountaineering as an understanding of the philosophy of the body seems prone to this more than others. Ah, but it’s beautiful, it’s really not frequent for philosophy to make me smile with joy, but Serres, he does it all too often. He sometimes writes in a way which reminds me quite a bit of Chuang Tzu’s The Inner Chapters. So I’m enjoying this book immensely and think I will take seriously my desire to go on a Serres bender.
Here comes a deluge of serious reading. Well, another serious than the sci-fi I’ve been on of late (though with a new one from Charles Stross, and Iain Banks’ – sadly sans-M – last one in the next weeks, I’m well-stocked for that flavour of serious), or perhaps gratuitously indulgent, after all, what could be more appealing that bloody massive upheavals of granite which can be either climbed or geologised, or in the case of Mike Searle’s Colliding Continents, both at the same time?
This turned up in my feed from Oxford University Press’ blog, and I decided to dispense with the actual reading of their post for the important act of ordering the book. Which arrived on Saturday, and which, obviously, I’ve devoured a third of already.
This is one of those very nice, medium-large hardcovers with barely a page empty of maps, illustrations, diagrams, or more importantly utterly gorgeous photographs of mountains. It’s light on the technical side of geology, meaning someone with no prior knowledge of the subject would nonetheless not feel bewildered, yet equally there’s a lot of terms even I, who used to slip into the Geology department and temporarily purloin monographs of the Karakoram had to pause to visualise what was actually meant. Lucky there’s 30 pages of appendices covering all of this, and I think reading those first is probably a good idea.
Quite a bit of my interest in that region where Tibet becomes Central Asia becomes Indian subcontinent comes from geology. Also it comes from Deleuze and Guattari and reading of Steppe nomads, then looking at maps and trying to pin into that vast blankness between the Black Sea and the east coast of China names like Gobi, Taklamakan, Kashgar, Karakoram. Vast and blank indeed. So I set out to rectify my ignorance, becoming years – probably a lifetime as I’ve never been bored by this – of reading and reading and yes, still planning to go there.
A book like this is mainly a small moment of satisfying this love of mountains and this part of the world, and it does both superbly. Searle is one of those sensible geologists who realise early on it’s the obvious career choice for someone who thinks suffering their way up glaciers and cliffs is most excellent fun, and whose love of both subjects only adds to his abilities in each.
The only thing that’s missing for me is a map or maps of his annual-ish field trips. There are plenty of geological maps accompanying each chapter but either my map-reading skills have descended to bathic levels, I’m missing something fundamental, or there’s a lack of correlation between those maps and the paths of the journeys he undertook. Perhaps unnecessary, but for me this would be an essential inclusion.
So, 464 pages of mountains! The cover pretty much sums it up; it’s all just a lover’s ode to the most beautiful upthrusting of granite in the world.
Cosmin, who was one of the mob of Guangzhou climbers that descended on Jiulong every weekend while I was in G-town emailed me with his winter playtime stories, the best being the first ascent of Banji North – North Face, Transylvania Avenue in Sichuan with Bob Keaty. It makes me want to get back there and do some climbing…
Reading the Green Guide at Orange yesterday, the last name I expected to see getting airtime on SBS this week was Joseph Rock. I wrote about him at the start of the year when I stumbled across one of the most strange and poignant endeavours I’ve read that got committed to a blog.
Sydney multi-blogger and photographer In the footsteps of Joseph Rock has been slowly building up a photo-documentary of his own journey through Sichuan province which began as an attempt to follow Joseph Rock’s travels through the mountainous Tibetan borderlands in 1929. From the first retracings of Rock’s steps came other journeys in the 1990s and accompanying photographs. It’s the photographs that make this blog uniquely strange and bring Rock’s expeditions and his obsessions to life.
Over the past months In the footsteps of Joseph Rock has amassed a huge collection of his own photographs from his travels, some that as close as possible are the contemporary equivalents of Joseph Rock’s. In some cases the modern photos have been taken from exactly the same vantage point and besides the difference in quality and colour are identical. Other times, the photos serve to show the change, decay or destruction. Even more poignant are portraits where time seems to have stopped, the monks, villagers, farmers almost unchanged in eighty years.
Read In the footsteps of Joseph Rock and watch The Adventurous Travels of Joseph Rock, Saturday on SBS.
AS IT HAPPENED – THE ADVENTUROUS TRAVELS OF JOSEPH FRANCIS ROCK
A fascinating portrait of Austrian explorer Joseph Rock and his adventures in the south-west of China from 1922 to 1949, with extraordinary footage. Joseph Francis Rock (1884-1962) arrived in China in 1922 and spent the best part of 30 years collecting plants, hunting birds, taking photographs, shooting films and exploring the mountainous regions of the south-west of China for various prestigious American institutions including the Department of Agriculture, the National Geographic society and Harvard University. When Rock first arrived in China, he made his headquarters in a small Naxi village near Lijiang in south-west China. There Rock discovered the Naxi priests, the Dongbas, and their religious pictographic script. Rock was fascinated and over the years he compiled a dictionary of the pictographic script. When the Second World War broke out, Rock refused to leave China, spending most of the war in Lijiang writing. Eventually Rock left Lijiang in 1944. On 5 December 1962, a month before the dictionary was published, Rock died of a heart attack in Honolulu surrounded by his beloved Naxi pictograms. (In English, Mandarin, Naxi and German, English subtitles)