Review: The Concept of Mind

Review: The Concept of Mind

The Concept of MindThe Concept of Mind by Gilbert Ryle

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Men are not machines, not even ghost-ridden machines. They are men—a tautology which is sometimes worth remembering.

The problem of mind is one of those philosophical quandaries that give me a headache and prompt an onset of existential angst when I try to think about them. How does consciousness arise from matter? How can a network of nerves create a perspective? And how can this consciousness, in turn, influence the body it inhabits? When we look at a brain, or anywhere else in the ‘physical’ world, we cannot detect consciousness; only nerves firing and blood rushing. Where is it? The only evidence for consciousness is my own awareness. So how do I know anybody else is conscious? Could it be just me?

If you think about the problem in this way, I doubt you’ll make any progress either, because it’s insoluble. This is where Gilbert Ryle enters the picture. According to Ryle, the philosophy of mind was put on a shaky foundations by Descartes and his followers. When Descartes divided the world into mind and matter, the first private and the other public, he created several awkward problems: How do we know other people have minds? How do the realms of matter and mind interact? How can the mind be sure of the existence of the material world? And so on. This book is an attempt to break away from the assumptions that led to these questions.

Ryle’s philosophy is often compared with that of the later Wittgenstein, and justly so. The main thrusts of their argument are remarkably similar. According to what I’ve read, this may have been due simply to the influence of Wittgenstein on Ryle—though there appears to be some doubt. Regardless, it’s appropriate to compare them, as I think, taken together, their ideas help to shed light on one another.

Both Wittgenstein and Ryle are extraordinary writers. Wittgenstein is certainly the better of the two, though this is not due to any defect on Ryle’s part but to the indomitable force of Wittgenstein’s style. Wittgenstein is aphoristic, sometimes oblique, employing numerous allegories and similes to make his point. Ryle is sharp, direct, and epigrammatic. Wittgenstein is in the same tradition as Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, while Ryle is the direct descendent of Jane Austen. But both of them are witty, quotable, and brilliant. They’ve managed to create excellent works of philosophy without using any jargon and avoiding all obscurity. Why can’t philosophy always be written so well?

There is no contradiction, or even paradox, in describing someone as bad at practising what he is good at preaching. There have been thoughtful and original literary critics who have formulated admirable canons of prose style in execrable prose. There have been others who have employed brilliant English in the expression of the silliest theories of what constitute good writing.

Ryle also has the quality—unusual among philosophers—of being apparently quite extroverted. His eyes are turned not toward himself, but his surroundings. He speaks with confidence and insight about the way people normally behave and talk, and in general prefers this everyday understanding of things to the tortured theories of his inverted colleagues.

Teachers and examiners, magistrates and critics, historians and novelists, confessors and non-commissioned officers, employers, employees and partners, parents, lovers, friends and enemies all know well enough how to settle their daily questions about the qualities of character and intellect of the individuals with whom they have to do.

This book, his most famous, is written not as a monograph or an analysis, but as a manifesto. Ryle piles epigram upon epigram until you’re gasping for just one qualification, just one admission that he might be mistaken. He even seems to get carried away by the force of his own pen, leading to some needlessly long and repetitive sections. What’s more, his style has the defect of all epigrammatists: he’s utterly convincing in short gasps, but leaves his reader grasping for something more substantial.

Ryle is often called an ordinary language philosophy, and the label suits him. Like Wittgenstein, he thinks that philosophical puzzles come about by the abuse of words; philosophers fail to correctly analyze the logical category of words, and thus use them inappropriately, leading to false-paradoxes. The Rylean philosopher’s task is to undo this damage. Ryle likens his own project to that of a cartographer in a village. The residents of the village are perfectly able to find their way around and can even give directions. But they might not be able to create an abstract representation of the village’s layout. This is the philosopher’s job: to create a map of the logical layout of language. This will prevent other foreigners from getting lost.

Ryle begins by pointing out some obvious problems with the Cartesian picture—a picture he famously dubs the ‘Ghost in the Machine’. First, we have no idea how these two metaphysically distinct realms interact. How does mind influence matter and vice versa? Nobody knows. Thus by attempting to explain the nature of human cognition, the Cartesians cordon it off from the familiar world and banish it to a shadow world, leaving unexplained how the shadow is cast.

Second, the Cartesian picture renders all acts of communication into a kind of impossible guessing game. You would constantly be having to fathom the significance of a word or gesture by making conjectures as to what’s happening in a murky realm behind an impassible curtain (another person’s mind). Conjectures of this kind would be fundamentally dissimilar to other conjectures because there would be in principle no way to check them. In the Cartesian picture, people’s minds are absolutely cut off from all outside observation.

It’s like this: Imagine if their was a mechanical wheel whose rotation was supposed to represent something happening on the surface of a planet 3 billion light years away. There would be no way to check what the wheel’s rotation meant, since the planet is beyond observation. The Cartesian picture turns all human behavior into a similar situation, where we are trying to guess at something we can never observe using signs that are related to their object in an unknown way.

Ryle is hardly original in pointing out these two problems, which are just the mind/body problem and the problem of other minds, although he does manage to emphasize these embarrassing conundrums with special force. His more original critique is what has been dubbed “Ryle’s Regress.” This is made against what Ryle calls the “intellectualist legend,” which is the notion that all intelligent behaviors are the products of thoughts.

For example, if you produced a grammatically correct English sentence, it means (according to the “legend”) that you have properly applied the correct criteria for English grammar. However, in this scheme, this must mean that you applied the proper criteria to the criteria, i.e. you applied the meta-criteria that allowed you to choose the rules for English grammar and not the rules for Spanish grammar. But what meta-meta-criteria allowed you to pick the correct meta-criteria for the criteria for the English sentence? (I.e., what anterior rule allowed you to pick the rule that allowed you to choose the rule for determining whether English or Spanish rules should be used instead of the rule for choosing whether salt or sugar should be added to a recipe?—sorry, that’s a mouthful.) The point is that we are led down an infinite regress if we require thought to proceed action. This is one of the classic arguments against cognitive theories of the mind.

(I believe Hubert Dreyfus used this same argument in his criticisms of artificial intelligence and cognitive psychology. Considering the strides that A.I. has made since then, I’m sure there must be some way around this regress, though I don’t know what. Hopefully somebody can explain it to me.)

These are his most forceful reasons for rejecting the Ghost in the Machine. From reading the other reviews here, I gather that many people are fairly convinced by these arguments. Nonetheless, some have accused Ryle of failing to replace the Cartesian picture with anything else. This isn’t a fair criticism. Ryle does his best to rectify the mistaken picture with his own view, though you may not find this view very satisfying.

After doing his best to discredit the Cartesian picture, the rest of the book is devoted to demonstrating Ryle’s view that none of the ways we ordinarily use language necessitate or even imply that “the mind is its own place”. This is where he most nearly approaches Wittgenstein, for his main contentions are the following: First, it is only when language is misused by philosophers (and laypeople) that we get the impression that the mind is a metaphysically distinct thing. Second, our intellectual and emotional lives are in fact not cut off and separate from the world; rather, public behavior is at the very core of our being.

Here’s just one example. According to the Cartesian view, a person “really knows” how to divide if, when he’s given a problem—let’s say, 144 divided by 24—his mind goes through the necessary steps. Let’s say a professor gives a student this problem, and the student correctly responds “six.” The professor conjectures that the student’s mind has gone through the appropriate operation. But what if the professor asks him the exact same question five minutes later, and the student responded “eight”? And what if he did it again, and the student responded “three”? The following dialogue ensues:

PROFESSOR: Ah, you’re just saying random numbers. You really don’t know how to divide.

STUDENT: But my mind performed the correct operation when you asked me the first time. I forgot how to do it after that.

PROFESSOR: How do you know your mind performed the correct operation the first time?

STUDENT: Introspection.

PROFESSOR: But if you can’t remember how to do it now, how can you be sure that you did know previously?

STUDENT: Introspection, again.

PROFESSOR: I don’t believe you. I don’t think you ever knew.

The point of the dialogue is this. According to the Cartesian view, introspection provides not merely the best, but the only true window into the mind. You’re the only person who can know your own mind, and everyone else knows it via conjecture. Thus the student, and only the student, would really know if his mind performed the proper operation, and thus he alone would really know if he could divide. Yet this is not the case. We say somebody “knows how to divide” if they can consistently answer questions of division correctly.

Thus, Ryle argues, to “know how to divide” is a disposition. And a disposition cannot be analyzed into episodes. In other words, “knowing how to divide” is not a collection of discrete times when a mind went through the proper operations. Similarly, if I say “the glass is fragile,” I don’t mean that it has broken or even that it will necessarily break, just that it would break easily. Fragility, like knowing long division, is a disposition.

According to Ryle, when philosophers misconstrued what it meant to know how to divide (and other things), they committed a “category mistake.” They miscategorized the phrase; they mistook a disposition for an episode. More generally, the Cartesians mix up “knowing how” and “knowing that.” They confuse dispositions, capacities, and propensities for rules, facts, and criteria. This leads them into all sorts of muddles.

Here’s a classic example. Since Berkley, philosophers have been perplexed by the mind’s capacity to form abstract ideas. The word “red” encompasses many different particular shades, and is thus abstract. Is our idea of red some sort of vague blend of all particular reds? Or is it a collections of different, distinct shades we bundle together? Ryle contends that this question makes the following mistake: Recognizing the color red is knowing how. It’s a skill we learn, just like recognizing melodies, foreign accents, and specific flavors. It is a capacity we develop; it isn’t the forming of a mental object, an “idea,” that sits somewhere in a mental space.

Ryle applies this method to problem after problem, which seem to dissolve in the acid of his gaze. It’s an incredible performance, and a great antidote for a lot of the conundrums philosophers like to tie themselves up in. Nevertheless, you can’t shake the feeling that for all his directness, Ryle dances around the main question: how does awareness arise from the brain?

Well, I’m not positive about this, but I believe it was never Ryle’s intention to explain this, since he considers this question outside the proper field of philosophy. It’s a scientific, not a philosophical question. His goal was, rather, to show that the mind/body problem was not an insoluble mystery or evidence of metaphysical duality, and that the mind is not fundamentally private and untouchable. Humans are social creatures, and it is only with great effort that we keep some things to ourselves.

I certainly can’t keep this review to myself. This was the best work of philosophy I’ve read since finishing Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations in 2014, and I hope you get a chance to read it too. Is it conclusive? No. Is it irrefutable? I doubt it. But it’s witty, it’s eloquent, it’s original, and it’s devoid of any nonsense. This is as good as philosophy gets.

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Review: The Essential Plotinus

Review: The Essential Plotinus

The Essential PlotinusThe Essential Plotinus by Plotinus

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked up this book after reading Glenn’s fine review, and I’m glad I did. This is an excellent volume; and although I haven’t read the complete Enneads, so I can’t say for sure, I suspect that the editor and translator, Elmer O’Brien, did an expert job in selecting the very best sections from that long tome. In just 170 pages, one finds a complete philosophical system and worldview. I’ve read few books that pack so much into so few words.

It is often remarked that Plotinus was more of a mystic than a real philosopher. But of course, those two aren’t mutually exclusive categories. I’ve heard both Wittgenstein’s and Heidegger’s works compared to mystical poetry, and indeed the clear demarcation between philosophy and religion is a relatively recent phenomenon. So don’t let the mysticism put you off. This is a serious and significant work of philosophy.

At both the literal and metaphorical center of Plotinus’s system is his concept of The One. The One is the source of all reality, the source of existence itself: “It is by The One that all beings are beings.” It transcends all forms of knowledge; it cannot be described in any words: “This principle is certainly none of the things of which it is the source. It is such that nothing can be predicated of it, not being, not substance, not life, because it is superior to all these things.” The One, which is the same as The Good, is the goal of Plotinus’s system: to seek, through contemplation, an experience of the wellspring of all existence. “By directing your glance towards it, by reaching it, by resting in it, you will achieve a deep and immediate awareness of it and will at the same time seize its greatness in all things that come from it and exist through it.”

Now this all sounds quite abstract and incomprehensible, but I think Plotinus’s point is rather simple. Nothing can exist without having some sort of unity; and the more unity something has, the more stable is its existence. For example, a choir only exists if all of the people composing it are organized in some way. When they disband, the unity is broken, and the choir ceases to exist. A human body exists because all of the diverse parts which compose it cooperate and coordinate their activities. Once this organization ceases, the unity of the parts is broken, and the body ceases to function and ultimately passes away. The more simple something is, the less contingency is has. To pick an inappropriately modern example, a molecule exists because the atoms which compose it are in a particular configuration; once this configuration is broken, the molecule is gone. What persists are the fundamental particles, quarks and electrons, which are (we think) absolutely simple, and therefore persist through all the shifting configurations of matter and energy that cause everything we experience through our senses.

The One is what Plotinus calls the “first hypostasis.” The One is the principle of all existence, because, without some sort of unity, nothing could exist. But by itself, The One doesn’t exist. In fact, to give it any predicate, even the predicate of “existence,” is to attribute some contingent quality to it. So just as Heidegger is fond of reminding us that Being is not a being—that is, the cause of existence cannot itself be something that exists—so does Plotinus warn us that we can know absolutely nothing about The One. It is formless, devoid of all qualities, transcendent of all thought, beyond even our categories of “real” and “unreal.”

But of course, the universe exists, and therefore cannot be identical with The One. This leads Plotinus to his “second hypostasis,” which is The Intelligence. Now, from what I understand, The Intelligence is the realm wherein dwell all the ideals and forms that comprise true reality. Plotinus, borrowing heavily from Plato and Aristotle, considers matter to be pure potentiality. What turns the potentiality into an actuality is a form or an ideal—such as Humanity or Fire in the abstract; and these can only be apprehended through the mind, or intelligence. These ideals are eternal and immaterial; hence it is these ideals that exist in the highest degree, being contingent only on The One, completely independent of matter.

But The Intelligence is static, comprising all things at once, timeless and perfect; yet the reality we know is ever-changing. This leads Plotinus to the “third hypostasis,” which is The Soul. Plotinus thinks not only that people have souls, but that The Soul is responsible for all movement and order in the universe. Just as a human is animated by an indwelling soul, so are the planets and animals and everything around us moved by The Soul, which mediates between the inactive realm of matter and the perfect world of The Intelligence. For Plotinus, each individual soul is just a part of The Soul; and like Plato, he believes in metempsychosis, or the transmigration of souls.

This elaborate metaphysical doctrine is the backdrop of Plotinus’s spiritual practices. Plotinus shares with many other Western mystics a scorn for the body. The senses are the source of nothing but illusion and suffering, and drag the soul down into petty considerations and vain pursuits. The first step is to appreciate the beauty in sensible objects, for beauty is not raw sensation, but consists of an order or organization in our sensations. The next step is to move beyond the senses altogether, engaging in dialectic to examine the pure ideals through thought alone. But unlike Plato, for whom philosophy was largely a social enterprise, the last step in Plotinus’s system is an introspective voyage to The One, a state of perfect blissful peace, a contemplation of the source of all reality, that transcendent origin which has no qualities and which cannot be grasped in words or thought.

It’s hard to know what to make of all this, especially for one such as myself, a secular rationalist. Of course, Plotinus is worth reading from a purely historical perspective, for his deep influence on St. Augustine, and thence on Christianity itself. And if you are religious or spiritual in any way, be it Christian or Hindu or Buddhist or simply fond of meditation, I’m sure that you can find something of value in Plotinus. From a modern perspective, as philosophy pure and simple, Plotinus’s system isn’t very compelling; for Plotinus does not make strict arguments, but rather grounds his thought in introspective experiences. Yet if you are like me, or like Bertrand Russell—a man who could hardly be more secular or averse to nonsense—you will nonetheless find something beautiful in Plotinus, even if it is perhaps just an elaborate dream, a philosophical fancy, an extended description of one brilliant man’s lonely meditations.

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Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra

Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra

Tales of the AlhambraTales of the Alhambra by Washington Irving

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

To the traveler imbued with a feeling for the historical and poetical, so inseparably intertwined in the annals of romantic Spain, the Alhambra is as much an object of devotion as is the Caaba to all true Moslems.

The name “Washington Irving” has haunted me since I was a boy. I went to a school named after him. We visited his beautiful house, Sunnyside, on a field trip. The house where I grew up is just 500 feet from Irving’s grave in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery—quite a modest grave. My high school football team were the Headless Horsemen.

So imagine how it felt, after moving across an ocean, to see the name “Washington Irving” hanging above a door in the Alhambra: “Washington Irving wrote in this room his Tales of the Alhambra.” It was as if some circuit had been closed, some cycle had been completed. I’d spent the previous week racing through the book in preparation for my visit. And now, here I was, face to face with the same literary giant who hung over my childhood, who had also managed to cast his spell over this magnificent palace.

That’s my tale; what of the book?

The Tales of the Alhambra is something of a hodgepodge. It begins as a travelogue and ends as a collection of fables. In 1829, Irving travelled from Seville to Granada, apparently out of simple curiosity. Once he arrived, he fell under the enchanting influence of the Alhambra, and ended up residing there for several months. At the time, the Alhambra was in a sorry state. Several centuries of vandalism and neglect had reduced it to a ruin, and dozens of poor squatters were its only residents.
Probably its derelict condition added to the romantic wonder with which Irving beheld it. The book is written in a high-flown, almost mystical tone, with fact and fantasy blended into a vibrant fabric. His own observations and experiences are interspersed with historical sketches and old legends, which he purports to have learned from the residents. The final impression is of supernatural beauty. If you’ve seen the Alhambra, this is forgivable; it’s hard to exaggerate its splendor.

As Warwick points out, Irving is most fascinated with the Moors of Spain. The fact that a people with enough culture and power to create the Alhambra could totally vanish beguiles him. Who were they? How did they live? His vigorous imagination fills in the continent-sized gaps in his knowledge, allowing his fancy to run rampant. It’s obvious that he considers the lost civilization of the Moors to be a kind of forgotten paradise; he has nothing but praise for the nobility and sophistication of Spain’s erstwhile inhabitants.

While he stayed there, he grasped at whatever trace of this civilization remained, in architecture, history, and in the people. Irving does his best to convince himself and the reader that the monumental dignity of the Moors of Spain can be seen still in the Spanish peasants of Andalusia. He praises these people almost as highly as their predecessors, saying “with all their faults, and they are many, the Spaniards, even at the present day, are, on many point, the most high-minded and proud-spirited people of Europe.”

The book is enjoyable in short doses but gets tiresome in big chunks. Irving’s tone, though compelling, is monotonous. You can only tolerate breathless wonder for so long without craving something else. His stories, too, are quite repetitive. Hidden treasures, enchanted warriors, princesses in castles, forbidden love between Christians and Muslims—these make an appearance in nearly every tale.

Still, this book is well worth reading, not only because Irving is a skillful and charming writer, but also because it’s a window into the cultural history of the Alhambra, how it has been interpreted and understood by Western writers. For me, of course, this book has a personal significance that extends beyond the boundaries of its pages. Irving’s stories may not have been real, but his name is real enough, which for me has taken on the semblance of a ghost.

As for you, I hope you too get a chance to read this book, and to visit the Alhambra: “A Moslem pile in the midst of a Christian land; an Oriental palace amidst the Gothic edifices of the West; an elegant memento of a brave, intelligent, and graceful people, who conquered, ruled, flourished, and passed away.”


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Review: Democracy in America

Review: Democracy in America

Democracy in America Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I struggle to penetrate God’s point of view, from which vantage point I try to observe and judge human affairs.

A few months ago, bored at work and with no other obligations to tie me to New York, I decided that I would look into employment in Europe; and now, several months and an irksome visa process later, I am on the verge of setting off to Madrid. Unsurprisingly, I’m very excited to go; but of course leaving one’s home is always bittersweet. This is partly why I picked up Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, as a sort of literary good-bye kiss to this odd, uncouth, chaotic, and fantastic place which has, up until now, molded my character, sustained my body, and contained my thoughts.

This turned out to be an excellent choice, for this book is without a doubt the best book ever written on the United States. I am able to say this, even though I haven’t even read a fraction of the books written on this country, because I simply can’t imagine how anyone could have done it better. As it is, I can hardly believe that Tocqueville could understand so much in the short span of his life; and when I recall that he wrote this book after only 9 months in America, while he was still in his thirties, I am doubly astounded. This seems scarcely human.

Part of the reason for his seemingly miraculous ability is that, with Tocqueville, you find two things conjoined which are normally encountered separately: extremely keen powers of observation, and a forceful analytic mind. With most travel writers, you encounter only the former; and with most political philosophers, only the latter. The product of this combination is a nearly perfect marriage of facts and reasoning, of survey and criticism, the ideas always hovering just above the reality, transforming the apparently senseless fabric of society into a sensible and intelligible whole. Almost everything he sees, he understands; and not only does he understand what he sees, but so often hits upon the why.

Although this book covers an enormous amount of ground—religion, slavery, culture, government, the role of women, just to name a few topics—there is one central question that runs through every subject: What does the appearance of democracy mean for the future of humanity? Tocqueville sees this question as the most pressing and significant one of his time; for, as he perceived, what was happening then in America was destined to inspire Europe and perhaps the whole world to adopt this new form of government, which would forever change the face of society. In short, Tocqueville is seeking to understand America so that he could understand the future; and the plan of the book follows these two goals successively. The first volume, published in 1835, is a thorough analysis of the United States; and the second volume, published in 1840, is a comparison of democracy and aristocracy, an attempt to pinpoint how a switch to a democratic government causes far-reaching changes in the whole culture.

Tocqueville is famously ambivalent about American democracy. He often sounds greatly impressed at what he finds, noting how hardworking and self-reliant are most Americans; and yet so often, particularly in the second volume, Tocqueville sounds gloomy and pessimistic about what the future holds. Much of his analysis is centered on the idea of social equality. He often reminds the reader—and by the way, Tocqueville wrote this for a French audience—that Americans, rich or poor, famous or obscure, will treat everyone as an equal. The entire idea of castes or classes has, in Tocqueville’s opinion, been abolished; and this has had many effects. Most obviously, it gives free reign to American ambition, for anyone can potentially climb from the bottom to the top; thus results the ceaseless activity and endless financial scheming of Americans. And even those who are quite well-off are not spared from this fever of ambition, for the lack of inherited wealth and stable fortunes means that the rich must continually exert effort to maintain their fortunes. (Whether this is true anymore is another story.)

Thus we find a kind of money-obsession, where everyone must constantly keep their minds in their wallets. In America, money is not only real currency, but cultural currency as well, a marker of success; and in this context, the creature comforts of life, which after all only money can buy, are elevated to great importance. Rich food, warm beds, spacious houses—these are praised above the simpler pleasures in life, such as agreeable conversation or pleasant walks on sunny days, as the former require money while the latter are free and available to anyone. The central irony of a classless society is that it forces everyone to focus constantly on their status, as it is always in jeopardy. You can imagine how shocking this must have been for Tocqueville, the son of an aristocratic family. There simply was no class of Americans who had the leisure of retiring from the cares of the world and contemplating the “higher” but less practical things in life. All thought was consumed in activity.

This results in a society of the ordinary individual. In America, there are few “great men” (as Tocqueville would say) but a great many good ones. Americans are self-reliant, but not daring; they are often decent, but never saintly. They will sometimes risk their lives in pursuit of a fortune, but never their fortunes for the sake their lives. An American might temporarily accept hardship if there is a financial reward on the other end; but how many Americans would forsake their fortunes, their comforts, their houses and property, for the sake of an idea, a principle, a dream? Thus a kind of narrow ambition pervades the society, where everyone is hoping to better their lot, but almost nobody is hoping to do something beyond acquiring money and things. One can easily imagine the young Tocqueville, his mind filled with Machiavelli and Montesquieu, meeting American after American with no time or inclination for something as intangible as knowledge.

In the midst of his large-scale cultural analysis, Tocqueville sometimes pauses for a time, putting off the role of philosopher to take up the role of prophet. Tocqueville does get many of his predictions wrong. For example, he did not at all foresee the Civil War—and in fact he thought Americans would never willingly risk their property fighting each other—and instead he thought that there would be a gigantic race war between blacks and whites in the south. But Tocqueville was otherwise quite right about race relations in the slave-owning states. He predicts that slavery could not possibly last, and that it would soon be abolished; and he notes that abolishing slavery will probably be the easiest task in improving the relationship between blacks and whites. For although slavery can be destroyed through legal action, the effects of slavery, the deep-rooted racial prejudice and hatred, cannot so easily be wiped clean. In support of this view, Tocqueville notes how badly treated are free blacks in the northern states, where slavery is banned. Without a place in society, they are shunned and fall into poverty. The persistence of the color line in America is a testament to Tocqueville’s genius and our failure to prove him wrong.

But perhaps the most arresting prediction Tocqueville makes is about the future rivalry of the United States with Russia. Here are his words:

Americans struggle against obstacles placed there by nature; Russians are in conflict with men. The former fight the wilderness and barbarity; the latter, civilization with all its weaponry: thus, American victories are achieved with the plowshare, Russia’s with the soldier’s sword.

To achieve their aim, the former rely upon self-interest and allow free scope to the unguided strength and common sense of individuals.

The latter focus the whole power of society upon a single man.

The former deploy freedom as their main mode of action; the latter, slavish obedience.

The point of departure is different, their paths are diverse but each of them seems destined by some secret providential design to hold in their hands the fate of half the world at some date in the future.

While discussing such an obviously brilliant man as was Tocqueville, whose ideas have become foundational in the study of American society, it seems almost petty to praise his prose style. But I would be doing an injustice to any readers of this review if I failed to mention that Tocqueville is an extraordinary writer. I was consistently captivated by his ability to sum up his thoughts into crisp aphorisms and to compress his analyses into perfectly composed paragraphs. I can only imagine how much better it is in the original French. Here is only a brief example:

Commerce is a natural opponent of all violent passions. It likes moderation, delights in compromise, carefully avoid angry outbursts. It is patient, flexible, subtle, and has recourse to extreme measures only when absolute necessity obliges it to do so. Commerce makes men independent of each other, gives them quite another idea of their personal value, persuades them to manage their own affairs, and teaches them to be successful. Hence it inclines them to liberty but draws them away from revolutions.

In the brief space of a book review—even a long one—I cannot hope to do justice to such a wide-ranging, carefully argued, and incisive book as this. So I hope that I have managed to persuade you to at least add this work to your to-read list, long as it may be already. For my part, I can’t imagine a better book to have read as I prepare myself to visit a new continent, about the same age as was Tocqueville when he visited these shores, for my own travels in a strange place. And although, lowly American that I am, I cannot hope to achieve even a fraction of what Tocqueville has, perhaps his voice echoing in my ears will be enough to encourage me to look, to listen, and to understand.

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The Monastery of El Escorial

The Monastery of El Escorial

“This is it, this must be it,” I said to my girlfriend, as we powerwalked to the bus station of line 664.

“Are you sure?” she said.


“I thought we were supposed to take 661.”

“Nope, this one is good, too.”

She said nothing, but walked up to the bus schedule.

“The next bus isn’t coming for another half hour.”


“You sure this is right?” she said.

“It’s on the website!”

We sat and waited. Cars and buses went by on the road in front of us; I quickly got absorbed in my book, Bertrand Russell’s The Analysis of Mind. Russell was arguing that mind and matter weren’t two separate things, but only different aspects of the same thing. The writing was brilliant, the argument well-made, but I didn’t buy it. Russell’s view required a metaphysics that made sense-data the fundamental stuff of the universe, an idea with no appeal to me.

“I’m bored,” she said. “And hungry.”

“Mmhmm,” I said, without looking up from my book.

“Where are we even going again?”

“To the Valle de los Caídos.”

“And what’s that?”

“It means, ‘The Valley of the Fallen.’”

“And why are we going there?”

“There’s a huge, huge monument that Franco—you know, the dictator Franco—built after the Spanish Civil War. I heard about it from a book. It sounds interesting.”

“Not really.”

More time passed; the scheduled hour of departure, 2:30, came and went.

“It’s not coming,” she said. “I know it’s not.”

“Just give it five minutes. Maybe it’s late.”

Five minutes passed; then ten.

“Give up,” she said.

By now I had gotten hungry, too, so I agreed, and we went to eat some rather awful take-out Chinese food. We had to wolf down the food, though, because we were trying to eat it before the next scheduled bus would arrive at 3:00.

We nearly ran all the way back to the bus station, our stomachs now full of cheap, rubbery noodles, and sat down again. Three o’clock came and went, and the bus failed to materialize.

“Let’s go,” my girlfriend said. “This won’t work.”

With a sigh, I got up, and we began to walk away. We passed the Moncloa train station; but this time I noticed a little logo printed on the wall, a logo that looked like a bus.

“Maybe the buses are underground?” I said.

“Ugh!” my girlfriend said. “I suggested that an hour ago, and you didn’t even notice!”


“I said that as we walked by, and you just ignored me!”

“Oh, really?”

She grunted in dismay.

“Let’s just go,” she said.

We went inside and took the escalator downstairs. And there it was, a gigantic bus terminal, right below our feet the whole time.

“I told you!” she said. “I knew it!”

“Okay, okay.”

The door for buses 661 and 664 was right next to us, with a schedule on a screen above. The next bus wasn’t for another 40 minutes.

“Guess we gotta wait,” I said. “Wanna go sit outside?”

Another grunt of dismay.

We went back up the escalator, crossed the street, and into the Parque del Oeste, where we sat on a bench. I continued with Russell. Now he was trying to analyze mental categories using behavioralism, by trying to describe internal states by pointing to observable, physical actions. I didn’t like this approach either, though it was thoroughly absorbing to read. My girlfriend, meanwhile, sat next to me and groaned from time to time.

Finally, it was time to go, so we got up and headed back downstairs and onto the bus.

“This is a waste of time,” my girlfriend said as we sat down. “It’s already too late to see anything.”

I had to admit she was right. By the time we got there—the bus ride is about an hour—it would be about 5:30. But I’d already invested so much time in finding the damn place that I couldn’t turn back now.

The ride was pleasant. I spent some of it in Russell again, who was now criticizing—and I think rightly—our philosophical notions of “will” and “freedom” and “choice.” But reading on the bus made me feel a bit whoozy, so I put down my book and enjoyed the countryside passing by.

Finally the bus pulled into a station. I got off and looked around.

“Now what?” my girlfriend asked.

“I dunno. Maybe let’s ask somebody?”

We walked over to the information desk in the bus station.

¿Hay un autobus al Valle de los Caídos?” I asked.

No,” the woman said.

“No bus,” I said to my girlfriend. “Guess we gotta walk.”

“According to Google Maps, the walk is three hours,” she replied.

“What?!” I said, and looked at her phone. “This must be wrong. The instructions online said to come here!”

“Well, that’s what it says.”

“Let’s just start walking and see what happens.”

The path led us up a street through town. It was incredibly steep, maybe the steepest sidewalk I’d ever trekked up. The smooth walkway even turned into stairs at one point, so sharp was the incline.

We reached the top, tired and panting, and began to head down a long, twisting road, passing some houses and a church along the way, as well as several crosses which stuck out of the ground at intervals. We could see the view of the countryside beyond now—this town, whichever it was, sat on a hill—a rolling expanse of flat terrain with several little pinpricks of light from the scattered towns and villages, their street and building lights just turning on as day turned slowly into night. The sky was red by now; obviously we didn’t have a lot of daylight left.

“How close are we now?” I asked.

“Um, still three hours.”

“That can’t be right,”

“Let’s just turn back,” she said. “There’s no way we’ll make it.”

The road was curving now, taking us through a neighborhood of identical white houses. The whole place was eerily empty; there didn’t seem to be anybody around. No cars were on the road, no lights were on in the houses, no sounds of voices could be heard.

“You’re right,” I said finally, stopping in my tracks. “Let’s go back.”

We turned around, I defeated, she placated, slowly making our way back to the bus station. I felt disappointed, but not terribly so. This town, though I didn’t mean to come here, was quite pretty; and because I’d only been in the country for about a month by this time, I was happy to see a slice of life in Spain outside of Madrid.

Then I remembered something I’d seen as the bus pulled into the station. For a few seconds, I had a glance of an absolutely gigantic building, which looked like a castle or a royal palace.

I pulled out my phone and looked on the map to see where we were. It said: El Escorial. Then I looked up “Things to do in El Escorial,” and the first thing to pop up was that same big building I’d seen earlier. The description called it a monastery.

“Hey, let’s go here,” I said to my girlfriend, pointing to the picture.

“Where’s that?”

“In this town.”

“What is it?”

“I dunno.”

“Fine, I guess.”

The walk was only fifteen minutes; and soon we found ourselves standing before a huge structure, bigger even than the Toledo cathedral. It had a roughly square layout; beyond the outside wall was a stone courtyard, which wrapped around the whole thing. There were lots of children playing here—hanging on chains, running in circles, climbing on walls—their parents standing a dozen feet away, talking amongst themselves.

Within the outer walls I could see a huge dome, crowned with a spire, towering over the whole structure; and on every corner was a smaller but still impressive pointed spire. An ornate wooden door, surrounded by false columns in the building’s façade, lay in the center of one wall.

In another spot was a simpler door, regular-sized, surrounded by signs. We got closer to read them, and found that they displayed the visiting hours. The place closed at 6:00. It was 6:20, we’d just missed it.

There was nothing else to do. We had to get home in time to meet one of my girlfriend’s college friends, who would be staying with us for a few days. We had to go. So we walked to the bus station, and left. Not only had I failed to see the Valle de los Caídos, but I’d failed even to salvage the trip. I’d dragged my girlfriend around the whole day and got nowhere. For something that’s supposed to be relaxing and enjoyable, traveling can be a bloody pain.


Two months went by. The thought of revisiting the monastery lurked quietly in my brain for that whole time, resurfacing occasionally; and now we finally had a chance to do it.

Another trip down the escalators of Moncloa station, another bus ride, a short walk, and we were there.

It was just as splendid as I remembered, and just as big. The whole structure of El Escorial is so impressive that it seems to take up more space than the little town that surrounds it. And when viewed from the north, you can see part of the Sierre de Guadarrama looming beyond—the same mountain range where we would climb the next day, in Los Cotos—with the clouds hovering over the tops of the mountains, making the whole scene look grand and almost painfully picturesque.

But we were on a mission this time, so we walked inside, bought our tickets, got the audioguides, and began.

The first stop on our itinerary—and the tiny, detailed map that we were given at the front desk made clear just how big is the monastery—was a chamber dedicated to one painting: El Calvario by Dutch painter Rogier van der Weyden. (In English, the painting is simply called The Escorial Crucifixion.) The painting was kept in a darkened room, which had information about the painting’s genesis, restoration, and history printed on the walls (though I didn’t bother to read it).

Though I’m not expert in these matters, I thought the painting was a masterpiece. Jesus, his eyes closed in death, hangs limply from the cross. The Virgin and St. John stand on either side of him, Mary wiping a tear from her eyes, and St. John looking up with open palms. Both figures are clothed in gorgeously rendered white robes, so sharply painted they look more like marble statues than real fabric. Indeed, there is something statuesque about the whole painting; it does not so much convey movement and passion, but calm resignation, quiet tragedy, and somber stillness. But the expression on St. John’s face is, I think, the most impressive part: it is sad, careworn, but also stern and serious. Behind the crucifixion is a kind of paneled wall, blood-red in color, which provides a contrast with Jesus’ flesh and the white robes of Mary and St. John, as well as creating a kind of abstract space, devoid of landscape beyond. El Escorial is right to be proud of this painting.

I asked the guard if I could take a picture, and he said no. But then, he walked away, and shortly returned holding out two little pamphlets, which had a color photo of the painting printed on them. A guard willingly going out of his way like this is something which, I submit, would never happen in a New York City museum.

We moved on. After climbing some stairs and passing through several dark hallways, we found ourselves in the erstwhile royal apartments. Apparently, El Escorial was not only a monastery, but a Royal Residence as well. These rooms were filled with all sorts of ornate, antique furniture: chairs, bookshelves, beds covered in rich, velvety tapestries.

More interesting, for me, was a clock in the study, which had a little torch attached to the front of it so you could see the time at night—the original version of a backlit digital watch, you might say. The other interesting bit was a sort of wooden wheelchair that a king—I believe it was the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V—used because he had a bad case of gout, which caused severe swelling and arthritic pain in his feet and legs. It was a stark and rather pathetic reminder that even kings are not immune from sickness. And what use is power if you don’t have health?

There were portraits and paintings adorning every wall, none of which interested me especially; and in two of the rooms, there was a kind of sun watch, which consisted of a metal strip on the floor, marked at intervals, and a little hole in the ceiling above. I think you’d have to close all the windows to use it.

But the most beautiful objects in those apartments were the highly elaborate, wonderfully ornate wooden doorways that connected room to room. Without paint, the designer had inlaid scenes and decorations in the surface—floral designs and landscapes—by using light and dark pieces of wood. The sides of the doorway had fake Greek columns, and the whole thing was topped with a crowned arch. Every square inch of the doorways was meticulously detailed; every surface was covered in patterns and pictures. Just trying to fathom how much time it would take to put something like this together takes my breath away.

Even so, I can’t say I was terribly excited by these apartments; old furniture has a habit of failing to impress me. But it wasn’t long before we had left the apartments, entered another dark hallway, and were walking down a very forbidding set of stairs, deep into the basement of the building. As usual, I hadn’t done any research before arriving, so I had no idea what to expect. Yet nothing could have prepared me for how stunning was the room we were about to enter.

The Panteón de Reyes, or the Mausoleum of Kings. The room was so extravagantly beautiful that it was almost oppressive. It’s an octagonal space, perfectly symmetrical. In the center, at eye level, immediately opposite the doorway, is a gold crucifix, hanging between two dark marble columns topped with gold. In fact, gold seems to be everywhere in this room, the walls, the ceiling, the chandelier, the candle-holders (which look like angels leaping from the walls), the window-panes, the columns, and the coffins. Yes, there are coffins—coffins from the floor to the ceiling, on every wall, even above the door. They’re made of a dark, bluish stone, I think marble, and each has a gold plate on the front with a name inscribed. These are the names of monarchs. Here is buried almost every king and queen of Spain since Charles V (Charles I of Spain).

As I stood there, gaping up at the domed ceiling, staring wide-eyed at the coffins that contained the ashy, dusty, decomposed remains of inbred kings and queens, I had one of those moments where you can’t quite believe what’s happening is real. And it was only the last inch to the mile of astonishment I’d just traveled when the audioguide informed me that, above the doorway I’d just entered, were two coffins waiting for the present king and queen. Truly, I’m stunned they let people down here. It’s possibly the most impressive room I’ve ever been in.

We couldn’t spend all day there staring, though; there was much else to see. So we pulled ourselves away, traveled back up the stairs, and then down another flight to another tomb.

This was the Panteón de Infantes, or Masoleum of the Infantes. The Infantes were the sons and daughters of the monarchs who were never kings or queens themselves. There were six or seven different chambers; the tombs and coffins inside were mainly made of white marble. Only two particularly stuck in my memory. The first was a fine sculpture adorning the lid of a coffin. The remains inside were of the “natural” son (read illegitimate son) of one of the kings. He must have been well-loved, however, as the sculpture was excellent: it depicted the man laying down in death, his head resting on a pillow, with a serenely peaceful and noble expression on his mustached face. He is dressed neck to toe in fine armor, and is holding a real metal sword. At his feet rests a lion (which I know symbolizes something but I can’t remember what).

The other tomb which impressed me was hardly a tomb at all, but an ornate mass grave. It was the collective coffin for the numerous sons and daughters of the king who died before puberty. Most of them, I gather, died in infancy, as was common back then; probably a few died shortly after childbirth. The tomb was a regular polygon with twenty sides and two levels, which makes for forty slots—forty young bodies. It was another stark reminder that not even royalty are exempt from the tragedies of sickness and death which beset us all. And this richly decorated tomb, with the emblems of royalty painted on every side, was also, in a way, a monument to how much medical technology has advanced. For every parent now is better off than were those kings and queens, buried in tombs of marble and gold, who could afford the best doctors money could buy and power could persuade.

With these gloomy thoughts in my mind, I walked on, through a hallway with life-sized statues of armed soldiers carved into the walls, and into the gift shop, where I paused to buy the official guide of the place.

“It’s beautiful, this building,” I said (in Spanish) to the lady at the register, as I was paying.

“Yes, it’s like Don Quixote.”


“You know, it was built during the Golden Age of Spain. It’s a symbol of our history.”

“Ah, how cool!” I said.

She was right, of course. This monastery was built at the high point of Spanish power, as the Spanish crown was busy opposing the Protestant Reformation with their own Counter Reformation.

I said “thanks” and continued on, up some more stairs and into the art galleries.

I was stunned again. Every corner of this place seemed more beautiful than the last. A large hallway with an arched ceiling extended before us, each wall covered in artwork. Tastefully arranged throughout this hallway were paintings by Titian, Tintoretto, José de Ribera, Velazquez, Bosch, and El Greco—among others. It seems that Europe has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to great art; it’s just everywhere. Here you run into masterpieces by accident. And not only were these paintings wonderful, but the room itself was a work of art. The ceiling was decorated in bright colors, and in every corner, above the doorways, above the windows, was another painting.

Every one of these paintings had a religious theme. There were pictures of saints in the wilderness, contemplating crucifixes; of saints being martyred, a knife to their throat; of saints contemplating heaven, face upturned; of the Last Supper and the Crucifixion, and more.

I find this devotion to images to be an interesting feature of the Catholic religion. After all, one of the ten commandments is not to worship any graven images—though arguably pictures of Jesus and the saints are not “graven.” In Judaism, it is absolutely forbidden to portray Yahweh; and religious iconography is similarly proscribed in Islam, which is why Islamic architecture is decorated in elaborate ornamentation rather than paintings. And in Protestantism, too, religious images are debarred from being used in worship; the use of pictures and relics of saints in worship was one of the original bones of contention during the Reformation.

Though I’m not religious myself, these interdictions make some sense to me. In these religions, God is considered transcendent, unknowable, beyond every human category. Not only that, but in every Abrahamic religion, God is considered to be the sole source of all that is good and holy—the saints, as it were, shine with reflected light. And since a painting is a copy of something you can see, and since God transcends the visible world—as well as our conceptual world—it follows that religious iconography is, at best, two symbolic steps removed from God. And this is not to mention that to paint something is to transform it into something static. In other words, to paint is to capture in some way; and no good Christian believes that God can be captured.

In fact, the use of icons in Catholic history has been far from unchallenged. Putting aside the whole Protestant Reformation, I must mention iconoclasm, a movement which swept through the Byzantine Empire during the eighth and early ninth centuries. At the time, icons—religious images of saints or the Virgin Mary—were widespread. It was believed, then as now, that saints could intercede on your behalf, beg God to show mercy; and by focusing on the image of a saint, one could increase the intensity and efficacy of one’s prayers. But perhaps under the influence of spreading Islam, some began to feel that this worship of icons was too close to idolatry, and fought this practice. Some Emperors were iconoclasts, others iconophiles; and although many painting and images were destroyed, the icons emerged triumphant—that is, until Martin Luther.

My point is that it isn’t just me who finds this intense love of religious images a bit strange. And I’m also not alone in thinking that the incredible proliferation of saints in Catholicism—saints for everything you can imagine, from toothaches to fireworks, and I’m not exaggerating—is more reminiscent of paganism, with its long roster of Gods and demigods and nymphs and heroes, than of a strictly monotheistic religion. But I think my perplexity just indicates that there is something in the Catholic faith, a certain attitude, that remains alien to me. Regardless, one can hardly fault an attitude which has given rise to some of the most incredible works of art and architecture the world has ever seen.

Lucky for me, some of these masterpieces were gathered in this very hall for me to see. We spent some time drinking our fill, listening to our audioguides, until we moved on. Now we were in a long hallway, which surrounded a central courtyard that we couldn’t enter. On the outside wall was painted a huge fresco, or rather frescos, which consisted of different scenes from Jesus’ life and deeds. I walked along, only glancing at these frescoes—after a while, I have to admit, I get a bit tired of the same religious themes in all these paintings—and went into what I believe was the oldest part of the building, an old chapel.

It was a bare room, the only decoration being a few paintings on the walls. In the front was an altar with a terrific painting by Titian: The Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence. According to tradition, St. Lawrence was killed by being roast alive on a gridiron; and while he was being killed, he supposedly called out to his torturers “I’m well done! Turn me over!” (This is part of the reason why he’s the patron saint of comedians.) Well, this painting was considerably less cheerful. The scene is, rather, almost hellish, taking place at nighttime, with the impressive, muscular form of the saint reaching towards heaven with an outstretched hand as he’s burnt alive.

According to legend, the very floor-plan of the El Escorial monastery was based on the interlocking bars of a gridiron, in honor of St. Lawrence. And this is another part of the Catholic faith that confuses me: why are the instruments of death—the very instruments used to torture the saints and the Son of God—so celebrated in their artwork? It strikes me as rather morbid.

Next we were led by the audioguide’s itinerary up an impressive flight of stone stairs, to look at the still more impressive ceiling. The light was so dim, however, that I couldn’t appreciate it. All I could tell was that it was a picture of heaven, with the Holy Ghost in the center (as usual, symbolized by a dove), surrounded by clouds and sunshine and angels and saints. There’s a picture of it in my guidebook, but the small size doesn’t do it justice, unfortunately.

I descended the stairs, reentered the hallway of the long fresco—I believe it’s called the main cloister—and then, after various twists and turns, I found myself, once again, gaping. We had entered the basilica.

As a space, it felt basically like standing in a cathedral. The stone ceiling towered high overhead; and I could see that this ceiling, too, was painted, though again the space was too dark for me to see it clearly. In little niches in the pillars were hung paintings, and I think at least one of these was by El Greco.

The main altar was elegant, and (as far as magnificent altars go) restrained. Fake columns divided the altar into perhaps a dozen spaces, in which are either paintings or sculptures. In the very center, below Jesus and the Virgin Mary, was another painting of St. Lawrence being burned, though this one was far less moving than Titian’s. On either side of the altar, in the walls flanking it, are golden sculptures of royalty, knelt in prayer. These sculptures are extremely impressive, each figure wearing finely detailed armor or ornate dress, each one draped in a cape or a robe—and the capes of the kings are painted with the royal insignia. But what I liked most was just staring up at the huge dome, which seemed impossibly suspended in the air, light streaming in through the circular windows.

After spending some time wandering around the gigantic space, exploring its nooks and crannies, we left; we were led into a courtyard where our audioguides say goodbye to us. But I remembered that we had mistakenly skipped one room on our tour, and so set off, girlfriend in tow, to find the Sala de las Batallas.

This room was easily found. It’s a rectangular room, with an arched ceiling, perhaps about fifty feet long. What’s impressive are the scenes of battle which cover every wall of the room, charging cavalry, marching infantry, men fighting with pikes and guns and swords; cities being besieged, ships being sunk, and finally triumphs being celebrated. This whole room was a piece of propaganda, a monument to the military triumphs of Golden Age Spain. The paintings were, however, done in a curious way, without proper perspective or proportion; perhaps this was to fit more soldiers into the frame?

But now we really were done (though I later realized we’d forgotten to visit the Royal Library). And not only were we done, but we were tired and exhausted. Trying to absorb so much information and so much beauty at once leaves you with what I call the “museum-goers headache,” the slight pressure in one’s head accompanied by the glazed expression of the eyes that follows extended art-viewing. Thankfully, the chill air of the mountains shocked us out of this rather quickly; and soon we were leaving the monastery for town.

In the main squares, where all the best restaurants seemed to be, were life-sized plaster sculptures of animals and people. It was a nativity scene, with the three kings, villagers, donkeys, horses, pigs, chickens, and even an elephant and a giraffe—not quite to scale, but surprisingly big. But apart from their size and number, there wasn’t anything impressive about these sculptures; in fact, they looked like they had been painted and put together by children, with disproportionate limbs and bright red ovals for their mouths. I’m not trying to put them down, you understand; it was just a funny contrast after the monastery.

In fact, these frumpy sculptures were a perfect end to the day, a comical and yet powerful reminder that the very same culture which had given rise to the monastery lives on, lives still today. We were surrounded by the descendants of the people who had, so long ago, constructed the beautiful building we had just left, still living in the shade of the Guadarrama mountains, still making monuments—though nowadays, the monuments are a bit more humble.




Climbing in Cotos

Climbing in Cotos

“I think that was the train,” I said to my girlfriend, as the train accelerated away from the station and into the distance.


“Maybe we should have ran for it.”

“Oh well,” she said. “I bet there’ll be another one soon.”


“Do you see anything on the board?”

“Uh,” I said, squinting my eyes. “Nope.”

The two of us were standing on a platform in the Chamartin train station in Madrid, trying to get to Cercedilla. A friend of ours, a local, had told us that we could see mountains there. But unfortunately for us—and all too typically—we hadn’t checked any sort of schedule before attempting the journey.

“I guess we just gotta wait,” I said, and pulled out my Kindle to read.

We sat on a bench and I began distractedly reading, glancing up at the sign board every few minutes. Ten minutes passed; then twenty. Finally, the name “Cercedilla” appeared on the glowing sign board: the next train wouldn’t arrive here in the next hour.

“We really should have ran for it,” I said, and began to sulk.

“Wanna wait?” my girlfriend asked.

“Not really.”

“So what else should we do?”

I pulled out my phone to check my email; another friend from Madrid had sent us a couple of recommendations for stuff to do in the city. One was for a retrospective expedition on the works of Kandinsky—but I wasn’t in the mood for modern art. The other was for a free event at the Museo del Ferrocarril (Railroad Museum), which sounded interesting—at least, interesting enough to help me stop sulking about missing the train. So we got on another train, this one towards town.

Although this post is about the mountains, I must say that Museo del Ferrocarril was quite pleasant. The exhibition consisted of a dozen or so trains, most of them antique, sitting in a big warehouse which, I think, used to be a railway station. There were steam engines, with their impressive boilers and muscular gears; old luxury trans-continental dinning cars, with finely decorated furniture for the erstwhile aristocracy; quaint aluminum trains, looking like tuna cans, from the ‘50s and ‘60s; and much more.

But especially memorable was the chance to look into the engines of these old behemoths, thanks to several trains which had their sides cut away, giving us a schematic view of their innards.

Whenever I look at complex machinery—and I suspect I’m not alone in this—I get a kind of sickening sense of overwhelming complexity. I realize, with a twist in my stomach, that I have only the faintest and vaguest idea of how these things work; and despite being the beneficiary of thousands of years of technological progress, I am completely unable to sew a button back on a jacket, not to mention build an engine that runs on pressurized steam.

This is one of the ways in which I feel most disconnected from the modern world. Take this very computer. How does it work? I haven’t a clue; and yet I use it every day. And this problem isn’t confined to Luddites such as myself: even the most skilled engineer couldn’t learn how every piece of technology works; there’s just too much of it.

And not only can no person learn everything, I’m willing to bet that no single person even knows how to build just one typical product of the modern world—an automobile, let’s say. I mean everything: the materials, the engine, the insides—the whole she-bang. How do you take raw aluminum and iron ore from the earth and refine it into workable metal? How to you make rubber tires from rubber trees? How do you construct and install power steering, gears that won’t jam, dependable brakes? How do you skillfully arrange all the levers, switches, and buttons so the driver doesn’t have to take his eyes off the road? Each of these tasks is a world unto itself, and could be divided into a dozen subtasks.

My point—admittedly a banal one—is that technology is extremely complicated. And in times like this, when the comforting veneer of a machine is peeled away, revealing the jungle of gears, pipes, wires, circuitry, cylinders, valves, tubes, pistons, pumps, rods, crankshafts, coils, spring—when all this, normally tucked safely out of sight, thrusts itself into my awareness, I feel that all of my effort to learn about the world, all of my travels and reading and thinking, are absolutely futile, since I can’t understand how a train from the 1800s works, much less the whole world.

But my girlfriend, unaware of the quiet existential crisis surging inside me, had a lovely time climbing in and out of trains, sitting in the old seats of a trans-Iberian express, and pressing buttons on an antique control panel. Really, it is a lovely museum—just don’t look into the engines.


The next day; round-two.

This time we looked up the schedule beforehand, and had gotten to the station with half-an-hour to spare. Nothing could stop us now.

But there was a problem. Although trains that were scheduled to depart an hour from now—after our train—were on the information board, our particular train wasn’t. Where was it? What track did we need to go to? We sat down, once again, on the platform and waited, once more, for the board to tell us where and when the train would arrive. Time ticked away; the sun kept shining; people shuffled back and forth; a train arrived, opened its doors, and then departed. Still nothing.

“Maybe we should ask someone?” I suggested.


We went up the escalator and into the station building above. It looked like an airport terminal, but smaller. After some aimless walking around, we found the information desk, where two Spanish men were lounging and chatting. They didn’t stop or look up as we approached.

Perdona,” I said, interrupting them.


¿Cuando es la próximo tren a Cercedilla?”

Diez minutos.”

“¿Y donde?”

“No lo sé.”

Well, good. The train was coming in ten minutes, just like we thought. But even the guy at the information booth didn’t know the crucial question: where? I began to panic.

“It’ll be here in ten minutes!” I said to my girlfriend.

“Calm down.”

“We can’t miss it again!”

“Just relax.”

“This is awful!”

More aimless wandering. Then, looking up, I noticed a monitor with all the information for incoming and outcoming trains. At least this one had the train to Cercedilla on it; but it still didn’t display what track.

“We’re screwed,” I said. “Nobody knows where this train is coming. We’ll never get there.”

My girlfriend merely grunted—she’s used to this sort of thing—and we both stood there, somewhat pathetically looking up towards the screen, with the same expectant, reverent, apprehensive expression that some people wear when they look up at the altar. Just one number, one little digital twitch on the screen, and we would be delivered.

And we were. With three minutes to spare, we were informed that the train would be arriving on track 10. So we rushed through the station, down the escalator, and onto the train to Cercedilla.

The ride was roughly an hour. This was one of my first times seeing the countryside around Madrid, and I savored the experience. Most striking, for me, was how dry is the environment. The soil is tan and sandy; the trees are short and shrubby; and rolling brown fields stretch out towards the horizon, with a sierra beyond. A few towns dot the landscape, and here and there the fields are divided into plots. To a New Yorker accustomed to towering trees and even taller skyscrapers, the easy visibility across so many miles is startling.

Stop after stop swept by, until eventually we reached our destination: Cercedilla. But I didn’t have much time to look around, for soon I felt my girlfriend tugging on my arm.

“What’s that?” she said, pointing to small train nearby.


“The sign says Los Cotos,” she said. “I think those are the trains to the mountains.”

“But I thought that was the train to the mountains,” I said, pointing to the train we just exited.

“I’m pretty sure this is right,” she said.

Three minutes later, we were sitting on a quaint old train, much smaller than the one that took us here, with plush red seats which faced each other. In fact, I felt vaguely like I was sitting in a booth in an old-fashioned diner.

“Cute train!” my girlfriend said, as the thing creaked into motion.

Immediately, we were heading steeply uphill; and we remained slanted this way the whole trip, as the train crept up the mountainside. We went by the backyards of houses, passing pools and patios, and kept climbing until we left all signs of the town behind. We were in a pine forest now, a uniform sea of green thorns and pine cones and grey bark.

I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was in a movie; the trip was so dreamy and picturesque. As the train wound its way up, making wide, concentric circles—each successive circle decreasing in radius—we were given a more expansive view of the mountains nearby, their sides covered in the same uniform sea of pine trees that surrounded us. The air started to have that fresh, wintry, pine smell I normally associate with New Brunswick, except here the air was thinner, less rich. Maybe this is all in my head, but for somebody who has lived at sea level his whole life, even the air in Madrid, at an altitude of 2,100 feet (670 meters), seems a bit deficient in oxygen. Here this feeling was especially noticeable.

Even the train seemed a bit exhausted as it slowly crept its way up, passing a town (which I gather is very inconvenient to live in, at least regarding public transportation), through a tunnel, and then another sea of pine.

By the time we arrived, I was fairly intoxicated with the sight. Have you had this feeling? For me, after I spend some time looking at something extremely beautiful—a sunset, a cathedral, a mountain—I eventually get sort of high, a bit lightheaded, as if I’m slightly drunk. Well, I felt this way when we arrived, dizzy and grinning like a fool.

Neither of us had any idea what to expect when we got out. There was an old, derelict station building, and a road leading away from the station and up a hill. But whatever curiosity I had for my surroundings evaporated when I walked out of the train and into the cold.

“Man!” I said to my girlfriend. “It’s freezing here!”

“You didn’t bring a jacket or something?”


“You only brought your t-shirt?”


“What were you thinking?!”

“But it was warm in Madrid!”

She just sighed—as I said, she’s used to this sort of thing. Poor woman. Meanwhile, desperate not to spend too much time here, I said to the conductor:

“¿Cuando es el próximo tren?

Quarto menos vente.”

I looked at my phone; it was 3:15: Twenty-five minutes to go.

“I guess we might as well look around,” I said to my girlfriend, and we headed up the road.

We were soon greeted with a sign; it said: Sierra de Guadarrama, Parque Nacional. We had wandered into a national park. Before us was a parking lot, several buildings—a restaurant, some bathrooms, an information center—and beyond a stunning view of the mountains. The bulbous and almost monstrous form of a cloud, grayish-white, was sitting on top of one of these peaks, seeming to be trying to devour it. It was stunning.

But I had goosebumps by now, and although I vainly tried warming myself by rubbing my arms and bouncing on my toes, I was too distracted to appreciate much of anything.

“We really have to go,” I said to my girlfriend. “Sorry.”

“Are you kidding? We got up early and spent two hours in the train, on a Sunday, and we’ve gotta go back?”

“I can’t stay here. I’m so cold.”


And so, thanks to a small but stupid choice (as I left my apartment, I actually considered whether it would be cold enough on the mountain to merit bringing a jacket, but decided against it), we made the long trip down the mountain, back to Cercedilla, and then back to Madrid. We had been defeated a second time.


Two months later; our third attempt.

We’d figured out the public transportation; I’d bought sneakers, a winter jacket, a scarf, and a hat from Primark (the new big one on Gran Vía). In short, we were ready for our third attempt to scale the mountain.

Once again, we took the train from Chamartin; once more, we went through the countryside to Cercedilla; again I was treated to the beautiful sights of the nearby mountains and pine forest as the train wound its way up, climbing to Los Cotos. And I breathed a sigh of relief in the cold air when, looking out towards the mountain, I saw another cloud gnawing on the same mountain. We were back; and this time I wasn’t shivering.

But before we began to hike, we decided to eat in the café near the station. We both ordered tortillas—a word which, if you don’t know, means something different here. Essentially, a Spanish tortilla is an omelet with potatoes. They’re quite tasty. But we both found it so absurd, and so typically Spanish, when our generous slices of tortilla were served on top of generous portions of bread. Potatoes on bread, carbs on carbs. I really have no idea how the Spanish stay so thin.

This done, we began. We followed a dirt path up into the forest, towards what I gathered was the top of the mountain. But almost immediately I felt winded, as if somebody had hit me in the stomach.

“I can’t breathe,” I said, loosening my scarf around my neck. “The air here—it’s so thin!”

“Really? I feel fine,” my girlfriend said.

“What?” I said between gasps. “How?”

“Just relax.”

I was heaving by now; every breath I took, although it filled my lungs, left me unsatisfied, needing more. Just walking at a gentle pace left me as winded as if I’d been sprinting. It’s quite an odd feeling, breathing air at a high altitude; it was like was drowning on dry land.

But I’m a stubborn person, and occasionally my stubbornness is a virtue—like when I’m trying to force my weak, flabby body up a mountain. So we pressed on. The path zigzagged its way up, from left to right, from right to left, gently leading us up and up.

We were on Peñalara, the tallest mountain of the Guadarrama range. The mountain rises about 3,600 feet (1,100 m) from its surroundings, and at its peak is 8,000 feet (2,500 m) above sea-level. Coincidentally, according to Wikipedia, 8,000 feet is also the altitude at which people begin to be susceptible to acute mountain sickness (AMS). But I knew exactly none of this at the time.

It wasn’t long before I noticed the trees getting smaller and stumpier. We were nearing the tree-line. By now the restaurant below looked like a toy house, and I was getting used to the air; soon I was comfortable enough to start walking at a good pace. (I know, by the way, that experienced trekkers, or even amateur ones, will likely laugh at my breathing difficulties; but I’m a writer, not a climber.)

Every foot we advanced made the view that much more stunning. I’d never seen anything like it. The mountainous horizon seemed to roll, like an undulating sea; and the head of every mountain was buried in a cloud, which sat like fluffy top-hats over a crowd of heads.

Soon the trees had all but disappeared; the only vegetation left was dry tufts of grass, forcing its way up through the rocky soil, and a few shrubs here and there. The rocks had interesting patches of neon-green on them, which I took to be lichen. Now we were ourselves just a few hundred feet away from a cloud. We took a break on a big rock to eat some snacks, and noticed a strange little round hut in the distance with a blue door. What was it?

We pressed on. I was tired now, too tired for conversation, too tired even for my usual complaining. But as my mind wandered, I found myself thinking of a documentary I’d once seen about Nietzsche. In one part, an actor portrayed the thinker, a mustachioed man in a dark jacket wandering around a snowy mountain, obviously deep in thought, as the voice-over recited lines from Nietzsche’s works. This, in turn, reminded me of my copy of Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, which has a picture of Caspar David Friedrich’s famous painting, Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog on it, an iconic painting of the Romantic period. A brilliant idea struck me.

“Hey hold on,” I said to my girlfriend. “I want to take a picture.”


“Take my phone. I’m gonna go stand on that rock over there.”

So I clambered over a pile of jagged rocks off the path, and carefully positioned myself to recreate, as best I could, Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog, one leg raised, one hand on my hip, looking out towards the mountains. I felt somehow both extremely cool and unbelievably lame as I did this. But it came out pretty good.


We kept going. There wasn’t much distance now between the clouds and us. By this time I was under the influence of that same intoxicated feeling. The view was so grand it was almost painful to look at. I didn’t feel tired any more, not cold, not winded. It was as if I was being pulled up, propelled by a force I couldn’t see or understand. All of my senses felt supernaturally acute; the sun seemed nearer, the air clearer, the light more vivid. There was hardly any sound except my own breathing, the crunching of rocky soil beneath my feet, and the breeze going by my ears. I felt incredibly alive; my whole body was a tingling, twitching mass of sensation. The feeling was so intense that I couldn’t believe I’d ever been alive before this; everything leading up to this mountain was some sort of sleepy dream, not life. Or maybe this was the dream?

Finally we were there. The view disappeared behind a veil of gray clouds; we were standing in the sky. I could see my breath now; some patches of snow were laying here and there on the bare ground. A couple of hikers passed us, going the other direction, obviously much better prepared than we were, with poles and those futuristic-looking synthetic jackets. Meanwhile, I was wearing a cheap coat and a hat with a little fluffy bun on the top. But it didn’t matter; we made it.

We walked around a bit, though there wasn’t much to see. In fact, there wasn’t anything to see; we were completely surrounded by fog, which was so thick that the sun was dim enough to look at directly. We walked perhaps three hundred feet before deciding to turn around.

But as we began to head back, a strange feeling started to take hold of me. I looked in the direction which, I was sure, we had come from; but it looked completely unfamiliar. Suddenly I felt lost; I began to feel dizzy. What was going on? Why didn’t I recognize the path? Was I suffering altitude sickness or something? Was I disoriented? Was it safe for me to try to navigate back?

My thoughts jumped to a scene from Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, when Bryson himself was climbing a mountain. Being the nervous man that he is, he’d read up about altitude sickness beforehand, learning about how the lack of oxygen had made some climbers hallucinate and act erratically, sometimes making stupid decisions that got themselves killed. So when Bryson got up in a mountain himself, he began doubting his own mental state, suspecting that he may have come unwound without noticing.

Then I thought of a story I’d heard while studying archeology in Kenya. Many years before I arrived, a man, a graduate student who was on his own searching for fossils, suffered heat stroke and eventually died because of it. The desert sun just got to him. He took off his clothes—a terrible thing to do in a desert—and ran in a random direction until the combination of sun and dehydration killed him.

Was something like this happening to me? It’s an interesting paradox, when you think about it, trying to determine your own sanity. If I was losing my judgment, how could I judge whether I had lost my judgment? If my hold on reality was compromised, how could I tell?

Terrible scenarios began to pop in and out of my consciousness, wherein we get ourselves totally, hopelessly lost and are eventually eaten by a bear—if there are bears around here—or simply starve or freeze in the vast national park. Nobody knew we were here; nobody would notice if we got lost. Oh God! What was I thinking?

“Want a carrot?” my girlfriend asked. She’d brought a plastic bag full of carrots in her backpack, and was holding out an orange stick for me to take.

“Oh, thanks.”

I took a bite of the carrot; and the crunch, crunch, crunching in my skull snapped me out of it. I took a deep breath; I was completely fine. The path began to be recognizable, and in just five minutes we were stumbling and slipping down the mountain.

As soon as we left the cloud, and the sunny sky and the view beyond reappeared, I noticed something. Below us, an eagle was drifting silently in the breeze, getting gently nudged around by the flowing air. An eagle, below us! It was incredible. Nothing, not even the cloud and the view, had so brought home how high up we were.

But we couldn’t stay; we had a train to catch. So, exhausted and hungry, we both made our way past the rocks with the bright lichen, past the dry grass and the stumpy shrubs, until we were again surrounded by tall pines. It took us three tries, but we had conquered the mountain.