An Exegesis - an explanation & critical interpretation of The Mountain by Raymond J. Steiner


Protagonist: Jacob (‘Jake’) Forscher: (Jacob: He who wrestles with the angel).

Forscher: From the German ‘forschen’, to search.

Antagonist: The “Mountain” (Overlook Mountain: Catskill Range)

Conflict: Jacob Forscher’s lifelong struggle is to paint the definitive rendition of Overlook Mountain. This is an uneven contest with the hero having no chance of success. Thus, there is no resolution and Jacob Forscher’s story is a tragedy.

Setting: Woodstock, New York and environs

Timeline: Early 1900’s through late 1970’s

Plot Synopsis: The Mountain traces the evolution of ‘Jake’ Forscher’s development as an artist from boyhood to full maturity.

Plot Outline: Jacob “Jake” Forscher, the son of a butcher, is born in 1894 in Brooklyn, New York. At the age of 16, he travels upstate to permanently live with his aunt and uncle in West Hurley, a small town adjacent to the picturesque village of Woodstock nestled at the foot of Guardian Mountain in the Catskills. Destined to become one of America’s foremost arts colonies, Woodstock serves not only as the backdrop against which Jake’s development as an artist unfolds, but also as a microcosm reflecting the course of American art during the 19th-century. The story opens with Jake’s visit to the 1913 International Exhibition of Modern Art— commonly known as “The Armory Show”)—in New York City, and ends in Woodstock ten years after the Woodstock Music Festival of 1969.

Argument: Jake Forscher, like any character, is formed by the circumstances of his life and “he does what he does because he is what he is”. What he is, is the second son of a shopkeeper who owns and maintains a butcher shop in what was once called the “Ridgewood Section” of Brooklyn, New York. The Forscher family consists of the father, Friedrich, his wife Hannelore (‘Hanny’), elder son Friedrich Jr. (‘Freddie’), and Jacob (‘Jake’). The Forscher sons attend St. Barbara’s Parochial School in deference to their mother’s faith.

From early on, Jake displays a knack for reproducing what he sees in pencil, the nascent talent noticed, but not encouraged by either his family or by the Dominican nuns at St. Barbara’s. Friedrich Forscher, a tradesman who himself is the son of a tradesman, is grooming his eldest son Freddie to take over his butcher shop upon his retirement. For his younger son Jake, knowing that there will be no place for him in their modest family business, Friedrich Forscher can only foresee his son’s future in learning another trade — certainly not in wasting his time on making pictures. He decides to take Jake out of school when he reaches the age of 16 and, in the hopes that Jake will learn his uncle’s trade, sends him to live upstate with his sister (Birgit) and his brother-in-law (Hans Wolff) who works in the booming bluestone industry.

Jake is by no means averse to the move. Having spent his summers with the Wolffs since he was a boy, he is pleased with the prospect of living with his aunt and uncle in West Hurley. The town, a burgeoning new village, has recently been displaced from its former location a short distance away by the construction of the Ashokan Reservoir (a major water supply for New York City). Jake not only enjoys the easy-going Wolffs but, finds himself entirely at home in the rustic setting of the surrounding woods in the Catskill Mountain foothills. As Jake matures under his aunt and uncle’s care, it becomes obvious that the bluestone industry is on the decline so he makes his way as a handyman, eventually becoming a skilled carpenter. Essentially, his skill with a pencil is transferred to his skill with tools. At the same time, he continues to hone his drawing skills, spending most of his free time making sketches in and around the Catskill Mountains.

On one of his earlier trips upstate on a Hudson River Dayliner, Jake, at the age of 14, undergoes a defining moment in his life. He literally “goes around the bend” when, for the first time, he sees the eastern silhouette of the Catskill Mountain Range from Crum’s Elbow (Chapter 5), a left-hand curve in the Hudson River just north of Poughkeepsie. For Jake, the experience is an epiphany, an event that would both haunt and inspire him, coloring all subsequent events — his work, his war experiences, his painting, his relationships, for the rest of his life. The Indians had called the eastern face of the Catskills the “Wall of Manitou’ — ‘God’s Wall’ — and, for Jake, it would become his personal symbol of what the nuns at St. Barbara’s had tried to explain was ‘God’. To live in the shadow of those mountains would become his commitment and statement of faith. To understand the effect they have on him, his lifelong quest.

If his vision on the Hudson laid the foundation for his spiritual self, his life experiences and his wounding during World War I forever augments and intensifies that life-altering experience. His wound, “in the area of his groin”, is never fully articulated and it is up to the reader to decide upon its implication. In later life, Jake admits to “not being able to have children” (Chapter 53), but does not elaborate. Has he been sexually/psychologically “unmanned”? We do learn during his sexual encounter with Irina at the Maverick Festival (Chapter 10) that he comes away from the experience confused but essentially untouched. In fact, most of the people he comes in contact with, along with their opinions and beliefs, leave him largely unaffected. His only concern is to learn how he might ‘capture’ Overlook Mountain in paint. He is a listener, but only takes to heart those things that he knows can help him in his quest. Even in his relationship with Sarah, Jake is isolated (Sarah tells Myra in Chapter 62 that there is a “closed spot … that I cannot touch”); however, Sarah is the one empathic companion in whom he senses a kindred soul. Eternally the loner, however, Jake lives in his own head and has strong opinions only about his own actions.

Working in an around Woodstock, already well on its way toward becoming a full-fledged art colony, and hiring out to artists who needed studios built or refurbished from old out-buildings, exposes Jake to an ever expanding world of art and artists. Though never formally trained, Jake moves from simple pencil sketch to painting, picking up hints and know-how from the artists he works for, as well as from those whom he befriends and, though he continues to make his living as a carpenter, art soon becomes his avocation. It does not take him long to see that artists, when they speak of art, only speak about process (how to make it and its consequent evolution through trends and “isms”) and product (what should be made and how it should be marketed). Birge Harrison, however, has already alerted him to the purpose, what he calls the “why”, of art (Chapter 8), something that resonates with Jake because of his ‘epiphany’ at Crum Elbow. The answer to his own personal ‘why’, however, will continue to elude Jake throughout the book.

Unlettered, Jake is a man of few words, and distrusts them in others. He relies on his strong sense of observation and only accepts from others what they do and from the world what it gives; he is convinced only by what he considers to be ‘real’. In this sense, Jake is not unlike his father who, according to his Uncle Hans, “only knows meat” (Chapter 5). It is significant that Sarah’s initial impact on him is in the knowledge that the cup she places in his hands (Chapter 7) is one made by her hands. It is this physical object, which he keeps in his studio as a memento and confirmation of her existence. Sarah would later confirm his distrust in words when she reveals to him (Chapter 55) that his means of communication is through the use of color and form, i.e. through painting, a non-verbal language, which like music, is mysteriously able to bypass the intellect and penetrate man’s heart/soul/inner self. The inadequacy of words will be further confirmed by David Lehrer (‘Lehrer: from the German ‘lehren’, to teach; ‘lehrer’ = teacher) in Chapter 65 when he explains to Jake Socrates’ dialectic method of demonstrating man’s inability to strictly define an abstraction through the use of words. Unfortunately, Jake has no desire to simply paint the objective ‘reality’ of Overlook Mountain — he tells Joe Bundy (Chapter 40) that anyone with a camera “can get a likeness of Overlook” — but is after what the mountain has come to represent for him which, of course, is an abstraction and thus beyond utterance. David Lehrer later reinforces Jake’s instinctive distrust of ‘talk’ when he expounds on the emptiness of words (Chapter 60) and speaks of dialectic dialogue. All of which points to the warning that eloquence, whether priestly or philosophical, can never speak the language of God, since He has no human prophet. That all things are God’s prophets, Jake instinctively comes to realize as he begins capturing their ‘messages’ in his sketchbook during his explorations of Overlook.

Sarah, Cyrus Winters (Sarah’s father), Cap’n Bob, the Fieldings, the Iskowitzes, David Lehrer, and others, will all offer practical, philosophical and theoretical explanations for the “why” of art, but none will — or can — offer Jake a definitive answer since there is none to be had. The origins of mankind’s creative urge lies in the prehistoric past (as Cyrus Winters explains in Chapter 41) and not even David Lehrer’s eloquent expositions on its progress through history can enlighten Jake as to his own personal “why” (In Chapter 59, Jake complains to Sarah that David “never tells me what he thinks of my work.”) The truth is that, even if Cyrus or David or anyone could explain the origin and import of that initial urge to creativity, none could explain why it is in Jake since this is everyman’s burden to discover as it relates to his own life. No one can explain Jake’s “why” since it is the human condition not to know — the “mountain” is simply too big for the human mind to comprehend.

Meanwhile, the overshadowing presence of Overlook Mountain would focus Jake’s attention and serve as the major “face” of the Wall of Manitou. Overlook’s massive presence would epitomize for Jake the mystery of why Divinity implanted the urge of creativity within his breast. To know it, to understand it, to entirely comprehend its meaning would become his purpose in life, his “priestly” calling (another hint at Jake’s sexual celibacy), his “religion”, if you will, and he feels compelled to give witness to the experience he had undergone as he rounded Crum’s Elbow on the Hudson. If living in Overlook’s shadow became his “church”, then rendering it in pencil and paint would become his only means of expressing that faith. Capturing the defining representation of Overlook that would reveal its essence to others would become the reigning passion of his life. Because Jake believes that his impetus for creating his paintings, his “art”, comes from outside himself, he is forever uneasy signing or selling his paintings since he knows that they are not strictly products from his own hands or mind. They are gifts ‘from above’ and are not his to either sign or sell (Chapter 7, and throughout). If Overlook is a symbol of the Divinity for Jake, it is however a double-edged sword — ‘overlook’, of course, has two meanings: the first is positive, i.e. ‘to look down upon from above’; ‘to watch over’, while the second meaning is less auspicious in that it means ‘to look past’; ‘to ignore’; ‘to miss’. It is for the reader to decide which meaning is most appropriate in light of Jake’s experience as well as for the sense of the story.

For all his passion, Jake has not the means to attain his goal or to fully grasp his predicament of being constrained by the human condition. Unschooled, academically untrained as an artist, he picks up his knowledge willy-nilly and learns from observation. Books such as the Meditations by Marcus Aurelius (which come into his hands accidentally) teach him only to persevere, to live honorably, and to do his best, but books in general and art books in particular are not much help in his quest for “the” answer. As a painter with a definitive and unobtainable purpose, failure inexorably follows failure. Unlike his namesake, the Biblical angel-wrestler, Jake has no mystical ladder revealed to him which might be used to lift himself from ignorance, but must, like Sisyphus, continue to roll the stone up the hill no matter how many times it rolls back and no matter that he can never reach the top. What he learns from fellow artists can in no way help him. They know technique, the ways of the art world, but they have little concept or sympathy for his dilemma. He not only stands outside their artistic circles; he stands far apart from the ordinary artist whose focus is solely on process and product. David Lehrer recognizes this and, in Chapter 67, makes it clear that he is aware of Jake’s unique position in the art world, by musing aloud, “So, my friend where does that leave you?” Jake has been “called” to his task and he is an artist by necessity; the artists he finds around him are so by choice. They have a method and an attainable goal; Jake has neither. He has only the moral imperative to continue on his fated quest of attaining the unattainable, of dreaming the impossible dream, that of creating the definitive painting of Overlook. Jake perseveres in his quest because he suspects that some artists have broken through the veil (e.g. Chardin and van Gogh, Chapter 42), confident that he might do so also. What he is not aware of is that, as both of these artists exemplify, such breakthroughs are only momentary, ‘inspired’ moments, and never repeatable nor permanent. In point of fact, if we are to believe some of the comments of those who see Jake’s paintings, he may himself have made such momentary breakthroughs. But this can never be enough for Jake. Though he does not know it (because the artists he is surrounded by are not ‘serious’, merely painting for “fame”, “success”, “money”) every serious painter knows this limitation; were a painter to believe that the “perfect” picture is possible then, once achieved, there would be no reason to continue the quest (artists, we are informed in Chapter 72, “never retire”).

Though the setting for his life is placed in the 20th-century, the character of Jake is hewn from pre-Judeo-Christian, Greco-Roman material. He responds more to the words of Plato and Marcus Aurelius than to those of the nuns at St. Barbara’s. Jake, like the ancient Greek and Roman, finds God and “right living” in Nature and not in Scripture. He cannot find God in St. Barbara’s Church, the mountainous “cunningly constructed pile of stone” that is the “highest building in Brooklyn” (Chapter 21), but in Overlook Mountain, a natural rather than a man-made object. Most significantly, like his stone-age ancestors, Jake ‘speaks’ through pictures (Chapter 55) and thus follows a “commandment” that pre-dates the Judeo Christian prohibition against the making of images. (In Chapter 64, we learn that Jake’s brother Freddie specifically told his daughter Kirstin that Jake is “living in sin”, i.e. outside the Judeo-Christian sacrament of matrimony and, by extension, its dogma.) Jake’s actions and development are therefore meant to be seen against this backdrop.

For all its intensity, Jake’s passion is doomed from the outset — and he suspects in his heart that his antagonist, “The Mountain”, is too large for him to conquer. He cannot define Overlook; it must define him. Like Ahab’s white whale, the mountain must defeat the hero and bring him down. Jake’s story merely exemplifies this truth: No living person can ever “know” the face of God. (Jake, ironically, specifically asks for this direct contact in Chapter 22 when he speaks of being struck by lightning — “touched by the finger of God”, he says —while he is up on Overlook. Such direct contact with God would mean, of course, his death — the only time, presumably, we can have that opportunity.) Jake Forscher’s story then, has all the elements of a tragedy: a conflict he cannot overcome and, though he mightily strives against them, the lapses peculiar to the human condition that bring about his ultimate failure. One such “lapse”(a ‘fatal flaw’, if you will) in Jake’s mind is his eventual succumbing to the selling of his art wondering, in the final chapter of the book, if he “did wrong”. A man such as Jake might well feel that his “giving in” had contributed to his ultimate failure.

All is not lost, however, since it is also the human condition to dream, and ‘hope springs eternal’ in man’s heart. In the end, Jake sees that the story is an “old one” and that Woodstock’s ability to overcome all calamities and incursions to perennially return as a haven for the creative spirit is indicative of the fact that, as it prevails (and by extension, the world), so also will art and the artist. If we accept the premise of the book, Jake’s final observation (Chapter 73) that change is both apparent and inevitable renders the background history of American art, albeit colorful and interesting in its own right, ultimately incidental. Technique may change, but “art” does not. If the beginnings of the history of art lie in the misty past, its future lies in the misty future. However, Jake’s legacy has already been passed on to his niece, Kirstin. If it will not be in his or hers, then perhaps it will be in the lifetime of some future member of Jake’s progeny that will live in a world where the mountain is conquered and God’s face will be seen and recognized by all mankind. When that day comes all communication will be unnecessary and the last painting will have been painted, the last musical note will have been sounded, the last book will have been written, and the last sermon have been uttered.

Raymond J. Steiner
High Woods, NY ©January 2006