I was less than half way through Francis Sanzaro’s The Boulder-a philosophy for bouldering when it struck me. I just haven’t got a clue what this guy is on about? It appeared that the author was attempting to define the physical act of bouldering within a socio-cultural and quasi spiritual framework but to be honest, it was really passing over my head. Mind you, I’m no intellectual but I know a man who is. Enter Harold Drasdo; someone for whom the mantle of climbing intellectual fits perfectly. Here is someone whom could recite Homer’s The Odyssey-backwards-in 14th century Icelandic. Furthermore, he co edited The Mountain Spirit. An anthology of mountain related essays from Steiner to Beckett. If anyone could decipher Sanzaro’s work he could. Sadly, after receiving the book back from him the other day with a message that he didn’t like it, understand it and furthermore, had no intention of writing anything so unworthy of a critique, I was back to square one.
For the record, Francis Sanzaro is described as ‘a climber and a philosopher who believes that a sustained engagement with the fundamental concepts of bouldering is necessary for the sport and essential for the boulderer to master the craft’... Ahh..right so! I can appreciate that the actual physical act of climbing is open to a variety of interpretations that include scientific, cultural and spiritual elements. The thing is, I don’t accept that bouldering whatever the standard is imbued with otherworldly elements. The British Victorian and Edwardian early bouldering pioneers took on early problems in the same spirit as they engaged in a variety of activities. Because it was fun and because it was good practice. The lone hillwalker who strays from the path because he is attracted by an interesting little wall or boulder,does so to spice up the day. He/She might only be taking on a 20’ V Diff crack. It has no significance other than as an interesting diversion.
At the opposite end of the scale, I actually don’t believe someone like Dave Macleod tackles a top end bouldering problem as anything more than a sporting challenge. At a personal level, to succeed is to bring about a sense of achievement and satisfaction. Perhaps underlying a successful demolition of a long standing problem are more base motives; laying down the gauntlet to perceived rivals; impressing commercial sponsors; receiving the adulation of admiring fans etc. I don’t think Dave would see his activities through Rose coloured, star shaped hippy dippy sunglasses somehow.
If I just randomly open the book and find a passage to give you an idea of the the author’s style how about..’ Following Freuds' concept of how we come to naturalise external authority into conscious morality, one could take the naturalisation of a sequence a process of internalisation-though it takes time, the sequence that at first feels awkward and alien is eventually internalised etc’ Or how about.....’Opening a boulder problem is an intervention; it is the anthropomorphism of textured surfaces; it is the personification of pure space with the minimal amount of features’.
And so on and so on. My late Father had a saying..Bullshit baffles brains’. If you haven’t seen Peter Sellers last film ‘Being There’ then I can tell you that apart from it being a brilliant film it also is a perfect example of the BBB theory. In the film Chance the Gardener becomes Chancy Gardener, a simple soul whose everyday horticultural sayings are taken as profound economic metaphors. I’m not accusing Francis Sanzaro of being a climbing Chancy Gardener, rather the reverse. Someone who takes a simple activity and wraps it in profound meaning, complex language and obtuse metaphor .
After saying that, perhaps my failing to understand this book is down cultural factors or perhaps its academic tone suggests the author seeks to engage with a small but enlightened readership? After all, Mr Sanzaro is a university lecturer teaching philosophy and religion in Maine which suggests the average UKC reader will be equally nonplussed! If it’s any consolation for the author and publisher it is the fact that reviews are highly subjective so hopefully, there will be reviewers out there who actually understand what the author is trying to put across. Perhaps it may be praised as a classic of the genre? For myself, well...it was like being on a mountain when the clouds come down. You occasionally see something you recognize before it disappears into the murk.
The Boulder: A philosophy for bouldering is available from Stone Country Press
John Appleby: 2013