Monday, September 18, 2023

A Dizzying Trance Sublime and Strange

"The everlasting universe of things
Flows through the mind, and rolls its rapid waves,
Now dark—now glittering—now reflecting gloom—
Now lending splendour, where from secret springs
The source of human thought its tribute brings
Of waters,—with a sound but half its own,
Such as a feeble brook will oft assume
In the wild woods, among the mountains lone,
Where waterfalls around it leap for ever,
Where woods and winds contend, and a vast river
Over its rocks ceaselessly bursts and raves.
Thou art pervaded with that ceaseless motion
Thou art the path of that unresting sound—
Dizzy Ravine! And when I gaze on thee
I seem as in a trance sublime and strange
To muse on my own separate fantast,
My own, my human mind, which passively
Now renders and receives fast influencings,
Holding an unremitting interchange
With the clear universe of things around;"

- Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792 - 1822)
Mont Blanc: Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni

The word "dizzy," when used as a verb, means "to make giddy"; and giddy, in turn, is "an adjective that describes a feeling of dizziness or lightheadedness. It can also refer to a feeling of excitement or euphoria that causes a person to feel unsteady or unstable. Giddy can be used to describe physical sensations, emotional states, or even situations that are overwhelming or disorienting [ref]." It is with these nuanced interpretations that the words "dizzy" and "giddy" often popped into my mind during our trip to Iceland, which is filled with dizzying landscapes that evoke giddy awe. As some of my earlier images from our recent trip have already hinted, Iceland is replete with dissonant scales of time and space. Distant mountains are just as likely to appear as illusory nearby foothills, as nearby crags are to easily fool you into believing they are remotely distant. (Neither of which may even be true, as Borges might have once said in some other world.) Iceland's landscapes tend to induce trance-like states of "giddy anxiety" - unabashed awe, really - unless, and until, visitors somehow find a way to calibrate Iceland's a priori incommensurate scales of time and distance. 

The image above conveys a bit of this mysterious tension. Look at the picture but first use a finger to block out the small cluster of white buildings in the lower right. The remaining part of the image appears to be a "landscape" like any other, with a trace of a distant (but otherwise “normal”) mountain range. Now, remove your finger and let your eyes absorb the complete scene. Assuming your reaction is in any way like mine, you will experience a sense of "dizzying vertigo" as your brain's visual cortex tries desperately to make sense of the dissonant scales of size and distance; and leaves you grappling with the absurdity of the mountains having instantly grown tenfold in height! I lost count of the number of times I felt this way looking at Iceland's landscapes through my camera's viewfinder.

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