It’s the reductionist approach to life: if you keep it small, you’ll keep it under control. If you don’t make any noise, the bogeyman won’t find you. But it’s all an illusion, because they die too, those people who roll up their spirits into tiny little balls so as to be safe. Safe?! From what? Life is always on the edge of death; narrow streets lead to the same place as wide avenues, and a little candle burns itself out just like a flaming torch does. I choose my own way to burn.
In the centre of Bond was a hurricane-room, the kind of citadel found in old-fashioned houses in the tropics. These rooms are small, strongly built cells in the heart of the house, in the middle of the ground floor and sometimes dug down into its foundations. To this cell the owner and his family retire if the storm threatens to destroy the house, and they stay there until the danger is past. Bond went to his hurricane room only when the situation was beyond his control and no other possible action could be taken.
In bullfighting there is an interesting parallel to the pause as a place of refuge and renewal. It is believed that in the midst of a fight, a bull can find his own particular area of safety in the arena. There he can reclaim his strength and power. This place and inner state are called his querencia. As long as the bull remains enraged and reactive, the matador is in charge. Yet when he finds his querencia, he gathers his strength and loses his fear. From the matador’s perspective, at this point the bull is truly dangerous, for he has tapped into his power.
―Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha
If you are close to a precipice, go away a bit; if you are far from it, come close a bit! Enjoy the safety, enjoy the view! Without safety, it is dangerous; without view, it is dull! Life is an art of adjusting the distances!
They say a good love is one that sits you down, gives you a drink of water, and pats you on top of the head. But I say a good love is one that casts you into the wind, sets you ablaze, makes you burn through the skies and ignite the night like a phoenix; the kind that cuts you loose like a wildfire and you can’t stop running simply because you keep on burning everything that you touch! I say that’s a good love; one that burns and flies, and you run with it!
There’s always a siren, singing you to shipwreck. Some of us may be more susceptible than others are, but there’s always a siren. It may be with us all our lives, or it may be many years or decades before we find it or it finds us. But when it does find us, if we’re lucky we’re Odysseus tied up to the ship’s mast, hearing the song with perfect clarity, but ferried to safety by a crew whose ears have been plugged with beeswax. If we’re not at all lucky, we’re another sort of sailor stepping off the deck to drown in the sea.
“Oh, here we are at the bridge. I’m going to shut my eyes tight. I’m always afraid going over bridges. I can’t help imagining that perhaps, just as we get to the middle, they’ll crumple up like a jackknife and nip us. So I shut my eyes. But I always have to open them for all when I think we’re getting near the middle. Because, you see, if the bridge did crumple up I’d want to see it crumple. What a jolly rumble it makes! I always like the rumble part of it. Isn’t it splendid there are so many things to like in this world?”
Faerie is a perilous land, and in it are pitfalls for the unwary and dungeons for the overbold…The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords. In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of a traveller who would report them. And while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gates should be shut and the keys be lost.
Humanity crosses increasing distances searching for new territory to explore. Is the distance between and within us threatening our survival?
Italo Calvino published Cosmicomics, a book of fantastic short stories in 1965. Each story was inspired by an accepted scientific theory. The first and most well known story is entitled “The Distance of the Moon”. It springs from the theory put forth by George H. Darwin, the son of Charles Darwin– yes, the one who wrote The Origin of the Species– that the moon was once closer to the Earth and is continually receding. Science has confirmed that the Moon is in fact drifting away from us at a rate of 3.8 cm per year. This doesn’t actually have much to do with Calvino’s tale, a story of masterful and colorful magic realism that betrays sinister undertones.
You can read “The Distance of the Moon” here. This English translation, made by William Weaver, won the National Book Award for Translation in 1969.
Public Domain Image via Pixabay
What at first reads as an absurdist tale of people climbing up to the Moon from Earth to harvest Moon milk evolves quickly into a story that delves into the dangers of exploration and the interplay between masculinity and femininity. You could easily see it as a very perceptive allegory for a love affair, but there is more here than a warning of the dangers of sexual exploration. “The Distance of the Moon” speaks of how the human race is constantly pulled between a desire to explore what is other or unknown and the desire to settle down with that which is familiar. Either option can involve exploitation.
We are at first proud to meet Qfwfq’s deaf cousin, who is such an excellent jumper and so adept at harvesting the delicious, but actually quite disgusting, Moon milk (a particularly successful metaphor for the fruit of duplicitous sexuality). Without understanding him, we admire his skills and savor his success, but there seems to be something a bit inappropriate in the way he touches the Moon, something lascivious in his desire to be alone up there. His deafness, as it turns out, is an allegory for insensitivity, which keeps him from caring or bonding with anything, including the territory which he is exploring. He is a true psychopath, unable to make relationships. All he can manage are conquests.
This cousin troubles me. I see in him a kinship with an element of humanity that has explored the Earth for centuries and now turns its attention toward the stars, seeing only profit and a means to fill appetites. Not all explorers have such dark motivation, but there is an unchecked masculinity– I say masculinity rather than maleness, because I think we all contain elements of it, regardless of gender– that will never lend itself to nurturing life. Life viewed through these eyes is seen as disposable, lacking in value.
Earthrise on the Moon via Pixabay
Qfwfq has been up on the Moon as well, but he isn’t very proficient in the skills required. He frequently misfires, getting Moon milk in his eyes. It seems our friend is prone to that blindness we call “love” or, perhaps more precisely, infatuation. Unlike his cousin, he does form attachments, as we can see in his fixation on Mrs. Vhd Vhd, who could not really care less about him. There isn’t much attractive about Qfwfq. He’s randy, awkward and indecisive. When he is heroic, it’s for all the wrong reasons. But he is capable of some attachment and affection, which is more than anyone else shows in this tale.
We are given the background story of Xlthlx, a playful teenager who enjoys catching the small animals and plants floating towards the Moon. One day, she gets caught in the Moon’s pull and floats off with them. She saves herself by eating the small animals and plants until she gets heavy enough to fall out of the Moon’s attraction, although she is marked for life. This is a creative image for teen pregnancy, which compounded by social stigma, ends this young woman’s “moon” experiences and exploration.
After waffling around on the moon for a few trips, Qfwfq makes the decision to stay on the boat and put the moves on the Captain’s wife, an attractive woman who plays sweet and piercing songs on the harp, songs that no one wants to hear. Is it that her songs make the men feel guilty for all that time spent up on the Moon? He can tell by the way she’s looking at his cousin that she’s ripe for the picking, and he’s been fancying her for some time. He’s completely ready to settle for her, at least for the moment. She chooses the very same moment to exercise her freedom and go explore the surface of the Moon with his cousin. The cousin is either unaware of or uncomfortable with her pursuit and disappears into the darkest regions of the Moon alone.
Terraced Wall Crater on the Lunar Limb, NASA
Vhd Vhd is ecstatic to see his wife off to the Moon. Her infidelity and exploration free him to indulge in his own vices. He is bored with stability, tired of the respectability that has probably contributed to his station as Captain. But he also seems bored with adventure. Surely he has been up on the Moon exploring for himself, but now he lies back on the boat to feed more earthbound appetites.
Despite all this activity, it seems that the status quo will prevail, until the final actor makes her move. The Moon picks that very moment to change her orbit, drifting far from Earth and forcing everyone else to make the decision between the Earth and herself. Xlthlx and the Captain have already put distance between themselves and the Moon. Surprisingly, the deaf cousin races back to Earth as well. Perhaps he fears what will happen if the Moon becomes too familiar. Mrs. Vhd Vhd, unfamiliar with the leap back to Earth, is unable to make the transition and floats helplessly near the Moon. Qfwfq jumps out of the boat to save her, but his efforts do not bring her back to Earth, but drop them both on the Moon’s surface. At last, he has everything he wanted– unlimited time with his lover. And yet, all he can think of is home. It is no surprise that, at the next full moon, when their friends return with a long bamboo pole, he shimmies back down to Earth.
But what of Mrs. Vhd Vhd, alone on the Moon? She has no attachment to Qfwfq, nor to Earth. She has become one with the moonscape, indifferent, distant and free of masculine influence. All of his designs and efforts have only served to push her farther away.
Earth, Moon and Lunar Module, NASA
This fable points at a crisis modern humanity is facing. Our longing for freedom and our longing for home have collided, and, unless we can learn to curb our exploitive nature, we may lose both.
When Natalija Gros retired from competitive rock climbing in 2012, she was recognized as one of the finest climbers in the world. The Slovenian athlete made it to the World Cup podium an astonishing 23 times during her career, also carrying off a silver in 2004 at the European Championships and a gold in 2008 in Paris at The European Bouldering and Combined Championship. She won the coveted Serre Chevalier Master in both 2004 and 2009.
Rock climbing isn’t a glamorous sport. Hands, elbows, shoulders and knees get scraped, wounded and calloused. Even with hooks and ropes, climbers regularly find themselves jerked into the air, swinging painfully against rocks. This doesn’t even hold a candle to what can happen without equipment. This short film by Jure Breceljnik called Le Tango Vertical, or The Vertical Tango, shows a completely different side than most climbing videos: artsy, sensual and alluring.
After a swim, Gros comes out of the ocean in her bikini and proceeds to climb, completely unaided, a rock formation along the beach. Granted, it isn’t the Alps nor Yosemite, but it isn’t safe either.
There are two main forms of rock climbing: aid climbing and free climbing. Aid climbing involves the use of ropes and pegs in the rock to pull the climber up the face of a cliff. Free climbing may also include the use of ropes and pegs, but only to protect the climber in case of a slip or fall. Free climbers prize the sense of achievement and artistry that come from developing a close relationship to the vertical surface. This allows them to compose a route that traverses that surface, called a line. This route is unique, suited to their own body and skill set.
Climbing, like life, is never without risk, never completely safe. Ropes can break, pegs can become dislodged. Gros has chosen to forego such gear completely, feeling that she can handle this formation without them. And she can. What amazing physical strength and confidence! Watch her stomach muscles to see how much squeeze she maintains while holding on, thinking, and moving. She possesses unbelievable core and arm strength. I don’t know about you, but I’d be jelly up there.
Still from Le Tango Vertical
Le Tango Vertical is an apt title. Like a tango dancer, Gros moves in a practiced, sensual way, sometimes slowly and smoothly, sometimes aggressively and decisively, feeling her way across the stone shelves. She must know them intimately in order to gauge that they will hold her weight. She must also know the limits of her own body to avoid overextending herself.
This isn’t the only film of Natalija Gros. She is the subject of Breceljnik’s documentary Chalk and Chocolateand was also featured in his documentary New Dimension, which delves into urban bouldering in Argentina. Amazing work from both artists.
Sadly, Jure Breceljnik died two months ago in 2015. If you would like to know more about this talented man, a graduate of the Film and TV School of the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague, please read this tribute from his friend and colleague Borut Peterlin.