Crossing the Alps

I don’t believe in God and I’ve never crossed the Alps, but yesterday I was paid $75 to write a five-page doctoral essay on Book VI of Wordsworth’s Prelude, so I guess maybe I have to re-think those statements.


[Vue de la vallee de Chamouni depuis l’Avanchet] by Jalabert, 1777, (Much love, Mt. Holyoke!)

Granted: yes, reading about crossing the Alps is different than actually crossing the Alps—however, what if you crossed the Alps when you were lost and you didn’t realize it until after? What does that then even mean? Does a thing happen if you don’t acknowledge it happening at the moment it is happening? That is a rhetorical question, but Wordsworth’s gonna weigh in anyway: yes, he says. Yes, that is the only way it can really happen. Awareness kills experience. Documentation of that awareness is worse. The realness ends with the fist pump, is already historic by the high five. Don’t get William started on the iPhone.

So, if you overthink something in the moment you are doing it, you’re not really experiencing it, sure, OK, I’m with you, WW—but are you experiencing it LESS than someone who reads an account of it, is mindful, present, whose experience is untainted by the soulless eye of actualization? Even Wordsworth cannot deny the inability to answer this question—but, again, still, a hearty YAY reverberates somewhere between my mind and the beginning of the 19th century, the Lake District of the Imagination. Yes: I am capitalizing imagination—from here on out, folks.

And so the frustration of a shitty situation usurps the mind’s focus, and all else is lost, just as looking upon a famed mountain peak—Mont Blanc, par exemple—usurps and destroys whatever imagination of it you had before. Now, I am not in school at present, so I can’t really beg the group’s opinion on the subject—but it seems that Wordsworth is arguing that the fact he gets hella grumpy—”the light of sense / Goes out”—after getting lost and accidentally crossing the Alps without realizing it, he is able to all of a sudden see the goddamn “invisible world,” where Greatness makes its fucking house, where lies our DESTINY and our being’s heart. With INFINITUDE, and ONLY there.

Let me tell you: it goes on, and it gets real good. I can’t say folks these days would get a kick out of it—not sure I myself would have gotten into the patient mindset to let the verse bloom in my heart if I wasn’t getting paid to do so. I mean, fuck: this graduate student in a DOCTORAL ENGLISH program didn’t even think reading and thinking about these couple hundred lines of Book VI of the Prelude was worth his or her time, so what hope is there for your everyday citizen who hasn’t read Gone Girl yet? I’m not trying to convince you or anybody else to read Wordsworth—I don’t like telling people what to do—so let’s return to Mont Blanc, 1790 along with the story of myself reading and writing about Wordsworth’s 1804 remembering and writing of the scene.

Where were we? Yes: grumpy William Wordsworth stumbling upon truth because he got grumpy, emption recollected in tranquility.

H. Bleuler, Vue du Mont Blanc, c. 1820-30

H. Bleuler, Vue du Mont Blanc, c. 1820-30 (Thanks Mt. Holyoke!)

Now, I get grumpy—maybe more than other people (I’m not asking anyone to weigh in here, William or otherwise)—and I might even say it gives me access to deeper feelings and a greater awareness and appreciation of the world around me—but I would not say that out loud. That’s fucking nonsense. But perhaps—just maybe—joy, communion, all that Romantic stuff you may or may not have encountered in school, books, etc., is most pronounced and identifiable when it emerges from a state of heightened emotion.

So maybe I’ve crossed the Alps, and maybe God made that happen, if you define God as a coincidence so captivating that it cannot be called as such. Jung called it synchronicity. I’m not really compelled to call it anything. Maybe ecriture, but that doesn’t really make any sense. It’s more than capital-n Nature. Or is it?

My first point is that my communion with Wordsworth is extra meaningful to me because it originated in grumpiness. I have a shitty job that pays me to write other people’s papers. While the “Crossing the Alps” paper was a welcome respite from business and nursing papers, it’s still nothing to get excited about. I still had to wake up and write someone else’s paper, while I have a lot to do otherwise, that I would prefer to do. I have expectations about what I want to accomplish for myself, and they don’t involve Wordsworth. And thus the grumpiness clears the path for spiritual communion with text, and that’s what happened—my OH MY GOD moment—everything that frustrated me was revealed as the other side of utter joy, and that joy reveals itself as features of the same face, blossoms upon a tree, characters of the great Apocalypse, the types and symbols of Eternity, of first and last, and midst, and without end.

I got carried away there, and was pilfering the Prelude, in its moments when “Crossing the Alps” gets especially mystical, after the rocks start talking to him, he perceives the winds blowing so that they cancel each other out, when “the unfettered clouds, and region of the Heavens, / Tumult and peace, the darkness and light— / were all like workings of one mind.” Emotion recollected in tranquility.

I cannot share with you this essay I wrote, and I doubt you’d want to read it anyhow. If you knew the significance of beginning a line of blank verse with a trochee instead of an iamb you’d probably want a PhD to be doing the explicating anyhow. There will be another PhD in the world soon to handle the job. S/he is one essay closer to that goal, though I don’t know how resolutely closer, as I will not know the professor’s reaction to the paper. I am really curious, though. I did not use the word “grumpy,” so you know. It ain’t really scholarly word choice. Or “WC?” as they say in the biz, not referring to the eurocentrically universal symbol for bathroom.

Sometimes I wonder if professors submit their prompts to my employers to pay to see what an essay would look like written by someone who is not in the class, to get a vaguely objective benchmark of what their students’ work should be above. Sometimes I think graduates of my job—the alumni of this shitty position—post interesting assignments to relieve the drudgery, remind us of the potential communion with the sublime that can come from literary analysis, reading, processing, and producing words. But that’s why we’re all here, right? Language can give us meaning when employed just so, when it sparks the imagination to create thoughts never held by the human mind, when consciousness gets a shove by the simple act of getting lost, getting frustrated, and then realizing you were doing exactly what you needed to be doing all along.


Mont Blanc depuis Valmorel. Thanks, Matthieu Riegler!

Wordsworth, and the Cambridge buddy he was travel(l)ing with (this is like the bromance version of the siblingfest that is “Tintern Abbey”), were not ready to appreciate the experience because “Whate’er in this wide circuit we beheld, / Or heard, was fitted to our unripe state / Of intellect and heart.” And so the seasoned consciousness of Wordsworth bites deep into the experience 14 years later, aged 34, after the memory has ripened with his own soul.

Now, it may seem ridiculous to compare Wordsworth’s memory of a 14-year-old excursion into Italy from France to my fond recollection of writing some PhD student’s paper yesterday, but I only begin with that to go further across the Alps, so to speak.


Turns out P.B. Shelley wrote about Mont Blanc as well! This is a literal transition. As always: Mt. Holyoke, you got my back.

In April A—’s dad was in town, and we took him to the Goodwill clothing-by-the-pound—”The Bins”—for whatever reason, maybe to take advantage of brief access to a car (did we want a rug? A dresser?), maybe because it is a destination all its own, and he found the Ken Burns Lewis & Clark documentary on double VHS, and presented it to me, and asked if I had seen it, if I would like it, which no I had not and yes—yes, I did want it. We watched in the next few weeks, and it was so good, and I fixated on tracing the route, perhaps from Portland to St. Louis and back, as a modern day reverse corps of re-discovery. I had been reading Jonathan Raban, if that means anything to you. All of the parts could be rearranged, but it would be the same land, the same sites, but it would be representatives of the West Coast going to investigate the America that has been firmly settled. Why lay East of those great mountains, where great men are storied to have found a great nation? We would have a truck, we could take K—’s, we would drink whiskey like the Corps of Discovery, chat up locals, offer tokens of peace, ask directions, humbly state that we did not plan to take all that was theirs, but that they would see more like us, soon coming across this land. They’re alright. We as a people do not litter.

I wrote this story in my mind, daily, for months. I saw myself, and my friends, and our dog, together, looking over a bluff, a flattened hand pressed perpendicular to a brow, and that sky—Oh that everlasting American prairie sky. “The eagle soars high in the element” (Wordsworth, 536). There doth the reaper bind the yellow sheaf. The story tells itself. The book writes itself. The road just keeps on going.

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