The Mountain

The tales of Empedocles and Lao Tzu both involve mountains, in which the thinkers vanish. In Ernst Bloch’s writings, the mountain often occupies the position of the encounter with the inconstructable question, fathomless wonder in the face of existence – a moment of interruption that, as yet, cannot be interpreted in the direction of any symbolic order. Yet the promise of that possibility remains latent in the encounter. The mountain confronts us with our own radical freedom. This is perhaps also the case in the stories of Empedocles and Lao Tzu. “Here, in this direction, lies the ineffable, that, which the boy left behind when he emerged again from the mountain, “don’t forget the best!” the old man had said to him, but no one could yet discover this inconspicuous, deeply hidden, tremendous something in concepts” (Bloch, The Spirit of Utopia). Here is another story about the mountain, from Bloch’s Traces:

The Mountain

One summer’s day, in the year 1738, reports a local almanac, a hunter by the name of Michael Hulzögger went into the forest on the Untersberg. He did not come back; nor was he seen anywhere else. It finally seemed as though he had gone off the trail or fallen down a rock face. After several weeks his brother had a mass said for him, on the Gmain, where there was a pilgrimage church near the mountain. But during the mass the hunter entered the church to thank God for his miraculous return. Of what he had experienced and what he had seen in the mountain he spoke no word, but remained quiet and solemn, and explained that people would hardly learn more from him than what Lazarus Gitschner had already written about it; nor would the grandchildren and great-grandchildren learn much more. This Lazarus Gitschner, however, had seen no more than a tunnel under the mountain, the Kaiser Friedrich who used to appear on the Welserberg, a book of prophecies, and whatever else was already part of the legend. Nothing more could be got out of the hunter; indeed, in a great change from his earlier personality, he soon grew entirely mute. Archbishop Firmian of Salzburg had also heard of the hunter’s mysterious disappearance and return, and sent for him. But Hulzögger again remained silent before the prince of the Church. To every question he replied that he could and would say nothing, only confession was permitted. After confession, the bishop laid down his robes and remained silent until his death. It came soon for both; it is supposed to have been peaceful.

The three mountain stories all have to do with an encounter with absolute being – nature, the tao or the hidden core of the self, the darkness of the lived moment. The stories connect individual existence to totality, and they have different things to say about the nature of the relation between the two. Much of our explorations deal with the question how to understand this relation between “hen kai pan”, and with the attempt to make this question significant in the first place. The vanishing mediator provides a tool by which to start thinking about this relation. But is the vanishing real or apparent, and what gets mediated to what in which way? One obvious difference between these stories and another influential vanishing mediator, the death of Christ on the cross, is that Christ sacrifices himself. Neither Empedocles, nor Lao Tzu, nor Michael Hulzögger sacrifice themselves in order to mediate beween the world of humans and the world of the divine. There is another example of sacrifice, and it invovles a mountain, as does the crucification – or at least, a funeral pyre: Brunnhilde’s immolation scene in Götterdämmerung. What is the place of the sacrifice in the relation between humans and the divine; how do “our” stories relate to the sacrifices of Jesus and Brunnhilde, which, perhaps, can be said to cancel out the divine order altogether (in the case of Brunnhilde, but it has also been argued for the death of Christ, for example by Zizek)?

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