Now, August 1997
does not have to be a mountaineer in order to be a Norwegian philosopher,
but it probably helps. The most famous person to combine the two
vocations is octogenarian Arne Næss, an early adherent of
logical positivism who later in life turned to ecological thinking
and is known internationally as the founder of "deep ecology".
Næss has two standard responses to journalists asking him
why he climbs: either he would say, in his Buddhist sage fashion:
"Because it's there," -- or, if the journalist is male,
"Why did you give it up yourself?" The number of other
Norwegian philosophers who have a weakness for the experience of
dangling helplessly in ropes from dizzying heights is such that
there is bound to be a connection between the balancing art of mountaineering
and national philosophies. Nowhere is that connection more evident
than in the life of Peter Wessel Zapffe, arguably the most original
Norwegian philosopher of this century. Almost forgotten outside
the inner circles of aficionados, Zapffe's works are about to be
republished along with a volume of posthumous writings, edited by
philosophy student Jørgen Haave. It is about time.
Zapffe, the son of a pharmacist, was born in Tromsø in 1899,
and died in 1990. He wrote in many genres, including literary essays,
drama and poetry -- indeed, as a law student, he not only endeavoured
to climb one of the neoclassical columns outside the University
of Oslo, but he also submitted a long, rhyming poem as an exam paper,
doubtless to his tutor's bottomless despair.
Be this as
it may, Zapffe's major work was a massive treatise on human tragedy,
Om det tragiske, published during the Second World War. This
masterpiece was written at the same time as Sartre was working out
the doctrine later to be world-famous as Existentialism. Sartre
wrote in a world language, while Zapffe's Dano-Norwegian was never
translated. Had it been published in German, English or French,
the book might have been a classic today.
argument and world-view was, roughly, this: Like all living species,
humans are endowed with a certain number of physiological and social
needs; the need for food, rest, security and so on. These needs
are quite easily satisfied. However, we humans have an additional
need, lacking in all other species, for an overarching meaning of
life. This need, according to Zapffe, can never be satisfied unless
we deceive ourselves. We can thus either delude ourselves into belief
in a false meaning of life, or we can remain honest and realise
that life is meaningless. Unlike Sartre's existentialism, which
was ultimately an optimistic doctrine, Zapffe's existential view
was bleak. His great survey of tragedy in literature, politics and
the arts indicated that all human endeavour was ultimately futile.
He was a worthy heir to the great German pessimist Schopenhauer,
and his view on the human destiny was simply that we ought to stop
tried to "out-Zapffe Zapffe", most eloquently another
Norwegian mountaineer and philosopher, Herman Tønnessen,
the author of "Happiness is for the pigs". Tønnessen
argued, against Zapffe's view that life is meaningless, that life
is not even meaningless.
a complex man with a great, if dark, sense of humour. One of his
most admired books was a collection of essays on the outdoor life,
Barske glæder ("Rough Pleasures"), and he
even published a collection of stories and jokes from his home region.
His passion for mountaineering was tantamount to a passion for teasing
the God whose existence he denied. Upon hearing of the tragic death
of a fellow philosopher, who had been rammed in the chest by a freak
boulder during climbing, he reputedly wrote, after expressing his
regrets: "I am given to understand that the boulder changed
its direction and came after him. That's God!"