"Is the acorn better than the oak which is its fullness and completion? Is the parent better than the child into whom he has cast his ripened being? Whence then is this worship of the past?"
Ralph Waldo Emerson, from the essay "Self-Reliance"
I have always had a great regard for the past history of climbing, indeed as a boy I absorbed with great enthusiasm the stories of the heroes of climbing, both European and American. A great body of literature was produced in the period that climbing emerged as a sport, encompassing works as diverse as those of Edward Whymper and Paul Pritchard. Among the authors I admired was naturally Pat Ament, who, with remarkable subtlety and insight, could transport the reader into states of mind and being that no previous writers had really explored. The aesthetic experience of simply being in a place and a time that seemed in harmony with the world was a fount of inspiration that he returned to again and again, seeking, it seemed, some resolution to deeper questions.
At times, I am not ashamed to say, I have modeled my own style on his prose, hoping that I might convey the emotions I have felt while experiencing the natural world through climbing. Ament's writing served as the example of how it could be done, the true path toward an understanding of the world. Or at least it did until this week.
Readers might remember my brief review of his new movie, "Disciples of Gill" which he premiered in Boulder last week. I commended the work on many levels and made a plea for others to support this project. The sole comment that could be construed as "negative" was a suggestion that perhaps the thirty minutes of uninterrupted talking-head style interviews could be reconfigured to include some younger voices, reflecting the long-term legacy of Gill to bouldering.
In an optimistic frame of mind, I forwarded my comments to Pat, hopeful that he would recognize my awareness of the great potential this project had. Well my expectations were rudely crushed as he sent back two messages which have genuinely made me rethink what I had ever seen in him. By the way, I have been writing this blog and responding to critics of it and me for years so I am not thin-skinned. I can deal with criticism, in other words.
Here are a few selected passages:
"There are very clear reasons why I didn't include all the modern voices. That will come in the third film and some in the second. I knew some would feel left out and feel they needed to have a voice in things, being so "masterful" as they are. This film had a different purpose, though, and whether you can believe it, no new or modern climber has any better knowledge of "things" than the old timers."
(I should add that no mention was made of a second or third film at the showing. Nor did I make any comparison between old and new.)
"One person told me the film was a spiritual experience to watch. But you're the first to "cut it down to size." And of course that was predictable that a few would say the film need a modern voice. And then when I told people I will be making improvements, I found it interesting how everyone suddenly became critics and threw out their penny's worth from the peanut gallery."
(He did mention it was a work in progress, seeming therefore to invite comment, not merely adulation)
"You didn't seem to get any of the subtleties of the interviews. Well, those are just of(sic) few thoughts, but that you weren't touched and moved the way so many others were probably doesn't surprise me. You come across as though you need to put me down and put me in my place, in order to give yourself that intellectual credibility or something."
(As anyone who reads this blog regularly knows, I have repeatedly held up examples of Pat's work as important and innovative climbing writing. As for intellectual credibility, that has never been the point of this blog.)
"People with real credibility told me they were in tears at times and deeply moved. They got it. Frankly your comments made it clear to me you didn't get it. You may have been so engrossed in the pure competitive, rock climbing element you missed the real purpose of it. Or so it feels."
(Not the first time I have been told I just didn't get it, probably won't be the last. But the pure competitive rock-climber in me never will, apparently)
"I think you may do as much damage to yourself as to me, as already people disagree with you, and I think people may get the feeling you have some self-aggrandizing motive."
(I may be doing damage to myself but self-aggrandizing? By writing about a movie? The third one, by the way, in the last two or three weeks.)
I emailed him, naturally, and without trying to sound too pathetic or craven, attempted to explain myself, urged him to revisit my comments and reconsider his own. To no avail. Only silence.
I don't post this as a stinging rebuttal. Perhaps it might serve instead as a warning to others. Be careful about your heroes and be careful about your understanding of the past and the people who were there. History is not just another word for reality.
(In another post I will be exploring more deeply exactly this issue of the 60s and 70s and how they have persisted in climbing. For example, Pat Ament has traded consistently on this theme of "The Golden Age" of climbing. I would like to find some voices that present an alternative and then consider what my "generation" can take from it. Mythology and legend have their purposes but sometimes the truth can be more useful and even more beautiful.)