Comments on “At the Mountains of Meaningness”

Vastness, Sacred Architecture, & Resonance

floodmouse 2015-04-04

I read your post, “At the Mountains of Meaningness,” last Friday. Over the last week, the themes expressed in your post have seemed to resonate with my own experience, causing me to see patterns where otherwise I might have ignored them.

First, I happened to be reading about new excavations done at Stonehenge, revealing additional buildings and stone circles spread out around this ceremonial complex. The exact meaning and purpose of Stonehenge may be lost in the mists of time, but it is undeniable that even today, many people find the site inspiring. People still gather there to watch the sky, and claim to have religious experiences. What struck me this time, when looking at the photographs, is the VASTNESS of the huge stone pillars, in the middle of an absolutely flat plain that stretches in all directions. People living miles from any mountain have erected a symbolic mountain substitute - a vast stone architecture that dwarfs the people standing next to it, and draws the eyes upward toward the sky.

Immediately when I noticed this, my mind was drawn back to an insight brought home to me in high school - that the medieval cathedrals were thought to mimic nature, with the huge stone columns stand-ins for trees, and the arched vault a mirror of the heavens. In Stonehenge, you can stand and see the real sky; in a cathedral, you can only see an imitation of the sky, but your mind might still be drawn to the idea of “sky.”

A day or two after seeing your post, I started reading “The Salterton Trilogy” by Robertson Davies, a Canadian novelist I greatly admire. On page 9 of my copy, I found the following sentences:

“The Catholic cathedral points a vehement and ornate Gothic finger toward Heaven; the Anglican cathedral has a dome which, with offhand Anglican suavity, does the same thing. St. Michael’s cries, ‘Look aloft and pray!’; St. Nicholas’ says, ‘If I may trouble you, it might be as well to lift your eyes in this direction.’ The manner is different; the import is the same.”

(I won’t trouble with a proper footnote, since this quotation will be easily found in the first few pages of any copy of “Tempest-Tost,” which is the first volume of “The Salterton Trilogy.”)

A mountain is superior to a cathedral; it is more sublime; in nature, it is easier to experience oneness with a greater whole than in any man-made artifice, no matter how grand. The experience is “purer,” or less subjective; like the two cathedrals in Salterton, each expressing the maker’s mood or intention, any human architecture of belief - whether expressed in word or stone - is just an interpretation of something bigger; like a photograph of a mountain, taken from a particular angle and in a certain light, not the real mountain itself.

In the “The Salterton Trilogy,” Davies goes on to say, a few lines later:

“More than is usual in Canada, Salterton’s physical appearance reveals its spirit. As well as its two cathedrals it has a handsome Court House (with a deceptive appearance of a dome but not, perhaps, a true dome) and one of His Majesty’s largest and most forbidding prisons (with an unmistakable dome). And it is the seat of Waverly University. To say that the architecture of Waverley revealed its spirit would be a gross libel . . . the university had the misfortune to do most of its building during that long Victorian period when architects strove like Titans to reverse all laws of seemliness and probability . . . .”

Davies might be saying, in effect: The farther one gets from Nature (the true mountain and the sky), the more imperfect are the social institutions reflected in these clumsy copies. “Dome’ takes the place of ‘mountain,” but even the seat of justice does not have a true dome; the seat of learning has no dome at all.

Running on a mountain path, as described in your post, sounds like an excellent way to renew your connection with “the great other.” Not all of us have that experience; many people, like myself, live miles from anything that could be called a mountain.

It so happens that I hurt my knee a couple of years ago, and I’ve been away from yoga. Just last week – a few days before reading your post – I happened to dust off an old VHS tape: “Yoga for Meditation,” with Rodney Yee. My knee is still stiff, and it won’t let me get into most meditation poses; “Yoga for Meditation” is an instructional video for absolute beginners, so I decided to try it again.

I ran the segment of the tape called “Mountain,” which starts as a standing meditation. Almost the first words on the tape are these: “Feel the grandeur of the mountain . . . .” I’d heard those words at least a dozen times before, when I was first beginning to learn yoga, but they took on a new significance after reading “The Mountains of Meaningness.”

I want to thank you for your timely and well-drawn post. It pulled together threads from my recent experience, and reminded me to look outside the shoebox of my own self-contructed thought architecture – out into the mountains, and the mist, and the sky.

Mostly that’s what I wanted to say, but I have a few more (less reverent) thoughts to share. These are in the way of being “silly serendipity.”

I mentioned that I was revisiting my old exercise library – particularly, my instructional yoga videos. Unfortunately, these videos are all on VHS tape. One of the tapes jammed in my VCR, and my “back-up” VCR, that I’ve been keeping on a shelf, turned out not to function – possibly because my cats have been using it as a springboard to launch themselves at the windowsill.

In consequence of the malfunctioning VCRs, I was led to buy a new TV stand for my exercise room; this one has doors, so the cats can’t jump on the VCR or DVD player. I bought one of those kits that you put together yourself. I put it together the day before yesterday (almost a week after reading your post). As I hammered the first couple of nails, I experienced that same lack of consciousness of the boundaries between self and other that you cite from Heidegger’s example; there was my hand, the hammer, and the nail, and it was all one single experience.

As soon as I became consciously aware of my state of unconscious awareness, the unconscious awareness vanished; and I almost hit my thumb with the hammer. I was unable to fully recapture the experience, and as a consequence, several of my nails were driven in crooked.

I’m not a member of the Christian faith, but I was partially educated as a Christian, so I’m aware of the metaphor of “Jesus as carpenter.” If Jesus was a truly enlightened being, like the Buddha, I would have to assume that most of his nails were driven in straight.

A more famous metaphor is “Jesus as fisher of men” – the disciples being fishermen in the sea of Galilee, going out in actual boats, with nets, and hauling in actual fish for the dinner table. Christian evangelists see themselves as “fishers of men” – which brings me to the Seventh Day Adventists who knocked on my door yesterday. They were very friendly and polite, and wanted to draw my attention to some Bible verses showing that Jesus abolishes Death.

If you are familiar with the Christian faith at all, you are probably familiar with the phrase: “I am the Resurrection and the Life.” This quotation is attributed to Jesus, and it suggests that human beings who have faith in Jesus will be resurrected after Death – in Heaven, rather than on Earth.

Just as a mountain is superior to a dome, and the sky (or “heaven”) is superior to the vault of a cathedral, it occurred to me that any Resurrection or Rebirth promised by human beings would have to be inferior to the real thing – much as Zombies would measure up to souls supposedly elevated to Heaven. I did not discuss these ideas with the Seventh Day Adventists, who would have been confused and offended. I brought it up here only because I enjoyed your previous post (on another site), “Can we hunt p-zombies with fMRI?” and I couldn’t resist bringing it up again. My goal is to offend neither Seventh Day Adventists nor Buddhists, but only to have fun and learn the meanings of things; please don’t take it amiss if I’ve strayed a little off-topic at the end of my reply.

Best wishes!

and the Deptford Trilogy

David Chapman 2015-04-05

Thank you! Many interesting connections there.

Things you said triggered various thoughts and connections and memories also.

One, off hand, is that although I have not read the Salterton Trilogy, I did read the same author’s Deptford Trilogy as a teenager, and it left a deep impression on me.

I have to admit that I can’t remember anything about the books at all, so I should probably go back and read them again sometime… or maybe the Salterton ones!

The Deptford Trilogy

floodmouse 2015-04-12

I haven’t read “The Deptford Trilogy” for a while. I remember it as being about charlatan magicians, fool saints, and sacred monsters (all in the context of ordinary 20th century life); the boundaries between fake and real. I think the main characters all end up in an Alpine chalet (if memory isn’t playing tricks on me), but that is the only connection with mountains. :)


Jack Walker 2017-02-23


As Heidegger has been an influence in Meaningness and Time, I wonder whether you’re familiar with the work of Peter Sloterdijk?

His trilogy ‘spheres’ (bubbles, globes, foams) is very interesting, at least it is to me. According to him it is ‘corrective’ of Heidegger’s Being and Time, and is essentially ‘Being and Space’, shifting the frame from asking who we are, to where we are.

I think of the three volumes - which are very dense and at times closer to an abstract poem than rigorous thinking - ‘Foams’ is most relevant to your meaningness project. Foams is where he goes meta-systemic and describes a model for understanding pluralities of nested, non-physical spaces. He offers a sort of topology for understanding the forces which create and maintain the structural integrity of ‘human foams’ in spite of their arbitrariness (as Foucault points out). He seems to sympathise with the insights of post-structuralists but places emphasis on the capacity for foams to create human uplift which is part of our immunology against nihilism; they allow us to coexist with our shared horror and frivolity.

I haven’t read the full thing yet, so I can’t offer any ground breaking insights. But perhaps it’s something you might enjoy, if nothing else. Here’s a little excerpt which sounds explicitly meta-systemic:

"In spherological terms, "societies" are foams. This formulation is meant to block access as early as possible to the fantasy that the social field is an organic totality integrated into a universally shared, universally inclusive hyper-sphere. This is precisely what the auto-plastic propaganda of empires and kingdom-of-God fictions promoted since time immemorial. In reality, "societies" are only comprehensible as restless and asymmetrical associations of pluralities of space and processes whose cells can neither be truly united nor truly separate. When I speak of "society", the term refers not to a monospheric container that encloses a countable population of individual and families under an essentially political name or constitutive phantasm, nor (as for some system theorists) to a non-spatial communication process that "progressively differentiates" itself into subsystems.

His ‘You Must Change Your Life’ is also pretty interesting. It challenges the standard formulation of religion and introduces a notion of ‘anthropotechnics’, which he claims humans have used throughout thousands of years to create a shared and personal immunology, which creates human uplift. Sloterdijk has a grasp on what he calls ‘reguvinative ritual’: an acceptance that in order for collective world building to occur, we need some degree of frivolity and method so that we can move into different ways of understanding life and meaning without recourse to infantilisation.

Anyway, have a good day sir. Keep writing please, it’s always interesting.


David Chapman 2017-02-23

Thanks—many people have recommended You Must Change Your Life to me, and it’s on my should-read list. I had not heard about the spheres trilogy before. It does sound interesting!

Concepts and Perceptions

Gabriel Schroeder 2021-07-23

Hi, David.

Great post, however I feel a little lost at the “concepts and perceptions” part. Could you give me some light on this? Did you implied that we cannot perceive reality directly without concepts, or that we tend to focus on more or less aspects of things when we are perceptualizing due to our concepts about them?
Sorry if I am terribly mistaken, this is a really new view on the topic to me.

Direct perception

David Chapman 2021-07-23

Yes, this is a central question: how do concepts and perception relate to each other? It’s been much debated in the philosophy of perception, cognitive science, and so forth. There’s no answer widely considered satisfactory. This essay suggests that the distinction between the two is nebulous and variable, but not non-existent.

Sacredness and Poverty

Aditya Verma 2021-10-29

Hello David,

In a large urban city in India, poverty can be seen everywhere. Being a person tending towards humanistic beliefs, and being someone who is financially comfortable, I find the experience of poverty ridden with anxiety. I realized that I’d label it instantly and make myself unable to see anything else. However, after interaction with the people on the streets, I experienced them differently. I realized the sacredness immanent in the activity despite the poverty. It seems that I had recognized nebulosity.

However, I find it quite hard to access that state when I am walking on the street, which I try to do more of especially for this reason. Do you think this is a reasonable aspect of humanity to apply the practices you have discussed to? If yes, how can I become more consistent with it? If no, what would you recommend instead?

Thanks for your time.

Burning the small dead

Sam Reed 2022-12-09

This campfire, by Gary Snyder, could be burning in the mountains of meaningness:

Burning the small dead
broke from beneath
thick spreading
whitebark pine.

<pre> a hundred summers </pre>

snowmelt rock and air

hiss in a twisted bough.

<pre> sierra granite; mt. Ritter — black rock twice as old. </pre>

Deneb, Altair

windy fire

Don't know what happened there

Sam Reed 2022-12-09

The font and spacing look icky–sorry about that. Not how it looked when I was typing it. I’d put a link in, but I don’t see it anywhere online laid out the way he wanted it. Oh well.

Also, I know you’re a STEM guy, but you may just have to put up with artsy types like yours truly commenting on your posts with poems now and then.

Screwed-up formatting

David Chapman 2022-12-12

Sorry about that!

This is approximately impossible to fix, unfortunately, for Technical Reasons.

I appreciated the poem; thank you!

It's on Google Books

Sam Reed 2022-12-12

For anyone interested in the original, more spacious layout. Page 13 of his book The Back Country. Good for a hit of vastness.