Monday, January 14, 2008
In the Alps again last week, this time for a week of skiing. It is the first time I have skied in the Alps, and I feel rather over-awed by the beauty and majesty of the place in Winter, despite the tracery of chairlifts and pommels which depart in every direction. The skier does his or her best to domesticate the mountains. There are half a dozen or so large vehicles working through the night to flatten the miles and miles of pistes each morning - so that when the skiers awake, refreshed, they are greeted by smooth, soft carpets of softly pulverised snow. Every support is provided in terms of their security: trees wearing padded vests, chasms and cliffs roped off. All is directed to the thrill of the descent, the possibility of total inclusion, even for children who have barely learned to walk.
I love skiing: to descend from the top of a mountain to its base in only a few short minutes gives a feeling of god-like omnipotence. One does so in a sort of concentrated trance, eyes more or less permanently fixed twenty yards ahead, trying to detect the crease in the snow that risks to send one flying. You feel totally saturated by the environment. Your mind utterly concentrated on the task in hand. You cannot daydream about poetry. And then you reach the bottom. You find another lift to take: a different destination, you sit back and take in the view, admire the shadow of the chairlifts on the snow, which look like musical notes floating restlessly up and down their staves.
As I sit there, I ponder the idea of risk. The risks that I take in skiing without any insurance; the risk I negated by buying snow chains (against the advice of my friend who said they would not be necessary, his concept of risk different to mine); the risk our friends took at New Year when they encouraged their children to propel fireworks towards their Portugese neighbours house; the risk that youths at the supermarket take on New Year's Eve, stuffing bottles of Jim Bean's into their jackets. The risk that I sometimes take when writing poetry, and other times do not take.
Because there is risk, and then there is the risk you take in not taking risk.
There is risk inherent in the world. We deal with it all the time, without even knowing that we are dealing with it. We do not know fully the risks that we face. To keep your eyes fixed on the present, this is a way of minimising risk. The poet who is constantly looking backwards towards the classical world and the poet who is trying to gaze into the future, to be contemporary: both are taking risks. But the risk is not of the same genre. T.S. Eliot: a young avant garde risk taker and an old reactionary risk taker.
The risks that scientists take. The scientist who explains things by reference to daily occurences compared to the scientist who explains things with theories completely out of the norm. Writers of classical antiquity who insist that mythological floods cannot have occurred because the presence of a calibrated daily tide are well known and established. We so often think we know, when in fact we know so little. Even when we think we know better than myth, indeed myth can know better than we do. Rivers that flow under the sea: they do in fact occur. When I see avalanches in the snow, I think of them, knowing that the same slumping and chaos occurs at continental margins, deep under the sea. Great avalanches of which we know or suspect practically nothing. None the less, great risks.
Our lives could be snuffed out in a moment, by the arrival of a fair-sized meteorite, the rapid onset of an ice-age. Everything disappearing under this immense whiteness, like the whiteness of a page. As if an empty page could erase everything that had gone before: Bluey white, grey shadows and black rocks, a cold, scientifically organised chaos in which the eye picks out shapes which were not meant to be there: notes on a stave, the shadowed face of child on a pillow.