Journey to Mount Tamalpais: Lebanese-American Poet, Painter, and Philosopher Etel Adnan on Time, Self, Impermanence, and Transcendence
By Maria Popova
“Place and a mind may interpenetrate till the nature of both is altered,” the trailblazing Scottish mountaineer and poet Nan Shepherd wrote as she drew on her intimate enchantment with the Highlands in her masterpiece The Living Mountain. Having grown up at the foot of Mount Vitosha and spent swaths of my childhood in the Rila mountains of Bulgaria, I too have known the mind-sculpting power of mountains and felt the embers of that knowingness reignited by Journey to Mount Tamalpais (public library).
Written shortly after I was born, this uncommonly beautiful book-length essay by the Lebanese-American poet, painter, and philosopher Etel Adnan (February 24, 1925–November 14, 2021), illustrated with 34 of her black-and-white sketches of the mountain, explores the themes that would animate Adnan through her nineties: time, self, impermanence, the nature of the universe, the spiritual dimensions of art, our belonging to and with the rest of the vast interwoven miracle we call nature.
Born in Beirut and trained in Paris — where she would return to spend much of her later life with her partner of more than forty years, the Syrian-born artist and publisher Simone Fattal — Adnan lived and taught in Northern California for more than a quarter century. There, she fell in love with Mount Tamalpais — the first vertebrae of the mountainous backbone of the Americas that stretches all the way to Tierra del Fuego. In its towering presence, she found herself “left with the sort of wonder that the sense of eternity always carries with it,” with a “feeling of latent prophesy.” The mountain became her abiding muse, which she celebrated and serenaded in a flood of paintings and poetic reverberations. Under Adnan’s gaze — generous, penetrating, benedictory — the mountain becomes both metaphor and not-metaphor, both object of reverent curiosity and sovereign subject unbeholden to human interpretation. Hers is a way of looking that embodies Ursula K. Le Guin’s distinction between objectifying and subjectifying the universe. Adnan writes:
Like a chorus, the warm breeze had come all the way from Athens and Baghdad, to the Bay, by the Pacific Route, its longest journey. It is the energy of these winds that I used, when I came to these shores, obsessed, followed by my home-made furies, errynies, and such potent creatures. And I fell in love with the immense blue eyes of the Pacific: I saw is red algae, its blood-colored cliffs, its pulsating breath. The ocean led me to the mountain.
Once I was asked in front of a television camera: “Who is the most important person you ever met?” and I remember answering: “A mountain.” I thus discovered that Tamalpais was at the very center of my being.
Half a century after philosopher Martin Buber considered the tree as a lesson in the difficult art of seeing essence rather than objectifying, Adnan considers the mountain’s essence:
This living with a mountain and with people moving with all their senses open, like many radars, is a journey… melancholy at times: you perceive noise and dirt, poverty, and the loneliness of those who are blind to so may things… but miraculous most of the way. Somehow what I perceived most is Tamalpais. I am “making” the mountain as people make a painting.
It is an animal risen from the sea. A sea-creature landed, earth-bound, earth-oriented, maddened by its solidity.
The world around has the darkness of battle-ships, leafless trees are spearbearers, armor bearers, swords and pikes, the mountain looks at us with tears coming down its slopes.
O impermanence! What a lovely word and a sad feeling. What a fight with termination, with lives that fall into death like cliffs.
O Sundays which are like vessels in a storm, with nothing before and nothing after!
Out of the actuality of the mountain, Adnan draws an inner reality, rising too like a summit of self-transcendence:
I am at the window and Tamalpais looks back at me. I am in pain and it is not. But we are equals tonight.
I am amazed, but, more so, I am fulfilled. I am transported outside my ordinary self and into the world as it could be when no one watches.
But more than anything, Adnan finds in the mountain a vital counterpoint to the hubrises of the self. A supreme equalizer of being, it stands as an antipode to our habitual anthropocentrism and self-involvement, humbling us — in the proper sense of humility, with its Latin root in humus, “of the earth” — into recognizing that we are each just one creature among many, a tiny constellation of stardust whose ephemeral existence is no more significant than any other. Adnan writes:
The Pacific often sings a soft funeral march. It was most appropriate that they found a man hanging by a tree near the top of Tamalpais. It was not horrible. It was just one of the many events that happen up there following the death of birds or the growth of plants.
Again and again, she returns to this transcendent dance of the ephemeral and the eternal, played out in the life of the mountain as in the life of art:
A bird ran into the glass door of my deck and died. I rushed with paper and a pencil to make a drawing and realized I couldn’t draw death. The record player was playing a Koranic prayer recorded in Tunisia. The lamenting voice of the Prophet became a funeral song for the silenced animal. I came in and saw my Ray Bradbury book opened on these lines:
Robins will wear their feathery fire
whistling their whims on a low fence-wire
and not one will know of the war, not one
will care at last when it is done…
Through the long night of the species we go on, somehow blindly, and we give a name to our need for a breakthrough: we call it the Angel, or call it Art, or call it the Mountain.
The singular power of the mountain both beckons us into absolute presence and catapults us into an awareness of time far beyond our ephemerality — a state of being predicated on a wholehearted embrace of our mortality. A century and a half after Kierkegaard asserted that a human being is “a synthesis of the temporal and the eternal,” Adnan writes:
When you realize you are mortal you also realize the tremendousness of the future. You fall in love with a Time you will never perceive.
Between the sun and the moon, the restless desire to live and the restless desire to die, the mountain holds the balance.
From the daily rhythms and simple seasonality of the mountain, Adnan wrests insights of great subtlety, poignancy, and prescience:
It had snowed. Tamalpais was white as it rarely is. White is the color of the terror in this century: the great white mushroom, the white and radiating clouds, the White on White painting by Malevich, and that whiteness, most fearful, in the eyes of men.
Recounting a hike up a steep trail with a few other members of the Perception Workshop — a collective of artists gathering “in peaceful parties with the seriousness of children at play” — Adnan reflects on what brought them together and took them to Tamalpais, seeking to discover the mountain and themselves:
We had with us no rite of passage. We had gone through no initiation, as we went into childhood and into adolescence with no warning. This is why we come to the mountain. We have no other elevation.
We slept under trees but in fact within the mountain’s vast sadness and we awoke very new.
The night freed us from our obsession with reason. It told us that we were a bundle of electric wires plugged into everything that came along. It was enough to be alive and around. The same was true of everything else.
Artists, she observes, have a deeper and more immediate grasp of this underlying interconnectedness of life. (Half a century earlier, Virginia Woolf had furnished the finest articulation of this awareness in her exquisite account of the epiphany in which she finally understood what it really means to be an artist: “Behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern… the whole world is a work of art… there is no Shakespeare… no Beethoven… no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.”) Adnan writes:
Painters have a knowledge which goes beyond words. They are where musicians are. When someone blows the saxophone the sky is made of copper. When you make a watercolor you know how it feels to be the sea lying early in the day in the proximity of light.
Painters have always experienced the oneness of things. They are aware that there is interference and intervention between the world and ourselves.
I write what I see, paint what I am.
In a testament to the great Victorian art critic John Ruskin’s insistence that painting trains the mind’s eye to see more clearly and live with a deeper sense of presence, Adnan seeks to understand the intense and abiding draw of the mountain as a subject matter for her painting:
I know by experience, by now, that no subject matter, after a while, remains just a subject matter, but becomes a matter of life and death, our sanity resolved by visual means. Sanity is our power of perception kept focused. And it is an open-ended endeavor.
A visual expression belongs to an order of understanding which bypasses word-language. We have in us autonomous languages for autonomous perceptions. We should not waste time in trying ordinary understanding. We should not worry, either. There is no rest in any kind of perception. The fluidity of the mind is of the same family as the fluidity of being. Sometimes they coincide sharply. We call that a revelation. When it involves a privileged “object,” like a particular mountain, we call it an illumination.
She ends by considering the mountain’s supreme gift to her and her fellow artists — a gift of awareness, risen from the deepest stratum of being:
In this unending universe Tamalpais is a miraculous thing, the miracle of matter itself: something we can single out, the pyramid of our own identity. We are, because it is stable and it is ever changing. Our identity is the series of the mountain’s becomings, our peace is its stubborn existence.
Complement the slim, sublimely beautiful Journey to Mount Tamalpais with Nan Shepherd on the mountain as a lens on our relationship with nature and Simone Weil on the mountain as a metaphor for the purest and most fertile form of thought, then revisit Adnan — writing three decades after she left the mountain, though it never left her — on memory, the self, and the universe.
Published February 6, 2019