I asked a group of Geography students this week about climbing mountains. Most of them said that they did it for the view from the top, that they wouldn’t bother doing it in the fog, and that if there was a choice between an easy path and a hard path they would take the easy path. I was surprised. I climb a mountain for the activity of climbing the mountain. To “engage with” the mountain. If the mountain is foggy, that’s fine, we’ll enjoy the mountain in fog. If there’s a challenging path probably it will give me more, so I’m happy to check that one out. The Road Less Travelled. A mountain in the fog is still a mountain. I was thinking later about what they’d said, and about our motivations for other things. Using their logic I guess they’d assume I was writing this blog so people could read it. Well I don’t think that’s so, either. As far as I know probably nobody but me reads this. I write it to engage with the material, not for the outcome of it being there to be read. Why do I put it online then? Writing something that might be read by somebody else, even if that’s not terribly likely, makes you write differently, just as being forced into rules writing a poem in a particular style forces you to write differently. There is some kind of inspirational constraint at work. So it being there to be read does make a difference, but it’s not the point. The fact that there may be a view from the top does make a difference, but it’s not the point.
I remember Richard Feynman talking about sending off a letter, and he referred to sending it off “into the void”. That’s a bit what this is like, sending stuff out into the void.
So I’m sitting here on the shore, or on the mountain top, in the fog, looking out into the void. Ideas float in, and if you don’t catch them they’re gone again. If you do catch them they change shape as soon as they come out of the fog and into your hand. You can’t catch them. So you sit in the fog feeling them slip through your fingers. The students didn’t ask (they weren’t that kind of group), but if they had done, that would be a fair answer to “So, why do you climb mountains?” Perhaps I climb them to feel them slip away through my fingers.
Of course it’s not true. But that is one of the constraints of writing online.