Mountains, Meaning, Mediation: Petrarch’s “Ascent to Mont Ventoux” and the Chinese shanshui 山水 Tradition

Presented by: Beth Harper

When: 10:45 – 11:45 am Section 2: Regions & Functions of Texts; Panel 3, 3B

Abstract: The trecento humanist Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374) is not particularly well-known for his views on the interconnectedness of the human and natural worlds, his philosophic vision more invested in advancing the excellence of the individual through knowledge of ancient texts than through communion with nature. And yet, in his Epistolae familiares, Petrarch’s recounting of his ascent of the highest mountain in Provence on April 26, 1336 has been interpreted as a turning point in European intellectual history for its “rediscovery of geophysical nature as an entity of proper value” (Classen, 2013). For Petrarch, the allure of mountains to the human mind (a precursor of the secular, pantheistic, animist elements of Romanticism) is a dangerous seduction. The mountain brings him away from God, inviting a curiosity in the material world, and thus on the self as a material object immersed in that world. Petrarch’s initial secular motivation for climbing and his later turn inwards to Augustinian conversion charts the battle between an anthropocentric humanism and a Christian humilitas.

In premodern China, poets like Xie Lingyun 謝靈運(385-433), the founder of Chinese landscape poetry, and the great Tang masters Li Bai 李白(701-762) and Wang Wei 王維 (701-761) reach new heights in chronicling the aesthetic and spiritual experience of wilderness, a tradition which David Hinton has called “the earliest and most extensive literary engagement with wilderness in human history” (Hinton, 2001).  Locating human consciousness in its primal relation to the cosmos, the theatrical drama of man and mountain staged by these poets plays out very differently to that of Petrarch’s Ascent. The contrast might seem initially to support the dichotomy of “western” humanism that values the person at the expense of the natural world, and “eastern” naturalism where the person disappears into a composite tissue of being, but this paper will focus on points of commensurability in these premodern encounters with mountains. It will suggest that the blend of existential contact and textual learning (whether Petrarch reading Augustine, or Xie Lingyun referencing the Zhuangzi, for example) produces a heightened understanding of what it is to lead a good life. Ultimately, Petrarch and the Chinese nature poets share passionate commitments to human love, to travel, to the recovery of ancient writings, to the political life, and to a legitimate quest for earthly renown, just as they are equally drawn away from these things by those mountain-moments which privilege the contemplative and panoramic, the aesthetic and meditative. I hope to show how two premodern worlds from opposite sides of Eurasia create new paradigms of understanding the relation between the self and the cosmos when faced with the same phenomenal encounter.