Mountains of the Moon

Macmillan Collector’s Library edition

Last week I posted about the children’s classic, Wind in the Willows. What struck me about this delightful book were the characters and their adventures. Today, I’d like to explore the implications of one particular phrase used in the book, “Mountains of the Moon.”

The phrase appears in the first sentence of Chapter 9: “Restlessly the Rat wandered off once more, climbed the slope that rose gently from the north bank of the river, and lay looking out towards the great ring of Downs that barred his vision further–his simple horizon, his Mountains of the Moon, his limit behind which lay nothing he had cared to see or to know.”

In this instance, “mountains of the moon” refers to the limits to a person’s curiosity. There’s only so much room in your brain. We like to learn new things, but there are some things we’d rather skip. They’re boring, they’re irrelevant, they’re noisy distractions, they’re too far away.

What intrigues me is how these limits can be challenged. For some people I suspect the limits never change. For others, there might be interesting exceptions. For example, I like most forms of music, but don’t particularly care for country music. However, I like Willy Nelson, I like Johnny Cash, I like Patsy Cline. When I met my wife and she also liked Patsy Cline, we started walking after midnight together.

The opposite can also happen. We’ve all probably had this experience. There’s a piece of music, a painting or film that you just don’t care for. You don’t get it. It’s meaningless and annoying. And then you meet a special person. Maybe the person is a teacher or mentor, a friend or lover. The important thing is you value the way this person sees the world. One day, to your shock and dismay, you learn that the one piece of music that you so detest is one of your friend’s favourite pieces of music. Now it may be that the two of you agree to disagree. Or it may happen that you begin to revise your strongly held opinion. Your resistance to the music begins to fade. Your friend’s enthusiasm persuades you to give it a chance. And once you do that, you begin to like the music just a little at first, then more and more. You realize you’ve had a transformative experience.

Art requires an audience. However there is never just one listener who forms a single impression. A whole galaxy of listeners form many different impressions and their conversations around what they’ve seen and heard are vital to the art experience. The mountains of the moon shift depending on who we’re with and the conversations that arise.