The hill of wild horses and the nature of risk

Sometimes things fall into place in a way that suggests an omniscient narrator is writing the script, and you are merely a pawn in the plot. On a hill named Pen Gwyllt Meirch — the hill of wild horses (or stallions) — you stop beside a string of them as they graze, just as this pair — who have been nuzzling at each other’s necks as you approach, embark on a silent dance, with only the wind as accompaniment. After their exuberant pas de deux, they return to the group, as the others look on.

You have to find a way toward the ridge, but the path has petered out, and the ridge is an ever-receding goal. This is common enough, in life as well as hill-walking. Here, the soft contours are deceptive, and each rise conceals the next, offering a continuous retreat from view, a problem you give little thought to nowadays. 

As a child, walking in these hills, you often felt as though the longed-for ridge would never arrive, and you would nurture a deepening sense that however many times the hillside flattened out to reveal yet another ascent — even as you scurried over gorse and heather — there would always be another rise ahead, and you would never reach the top.

You might say this was an elementary lesson in philosophy. False horizons are always going to mislead you; there will always be another peak and another plateau, just as, in any kind of excavation —downwards, into the heart of the matter, whatever the matter might be — another layer always seems to accrue in the process of discovery, even as you dig. The problems of descent are no less fraught than those of ascent.

But on this mid-May day of uninterrupted sunshine, after months of overcast and wet weather — which nonetheless leaves our reservoirs depleted, because the spring downpours have not compensated for the lack of rain over the past twelve months — there is a spring to your step.  You are climbing towards the ridge, and those horses have you thinking of something the French philosopher Anne Dufourmantelle wrote, in her essay, Power of Gentleness: Meditations on the Risk of Living. 

‘What the animal disarms in advance, even in its cruelty (outside the range of human barbarity), is our duplicity. The human subject is divided, exilic. If the animal’s gentleness affects us this way, it is undoubtedly because it comes to us from a being that coincides with itself almost entirely.’

And what does it mean, to coincide with oneself almost entirely?

Anne Dufourmantelle might herself provide the answer. She dedicated much of her working life to an examination of risk, of the importance of taking risks, and the need to accept that exposure to any number of possible threats is a part of everyday life, from which we cannot be protected by the false and pernicious security manias of the powers that be. She wrote, regarding risk, that ‘being completely alive is a task, it’s not at all a given thing. It’s not just about being present to the world, it’s being present to yourself, reaching an intensity that is in itself a way of being reborn.’ Her best known work, In Praise of Risk, extols the virtues of risk-taking in words that leave little doubt as to her intention:

‘“To risk one’s life” is among the most beautiful expressions in our language. Does it necessarily mean to confront death — and to survive? Or rather, is there, in life itself, a secret mechanism, a music that is uniquely capable of displacing existence onto the front line we called desire.’

Dufourmantelle drowned in 2017 in the Mediterranean after attempting to save two children, unknown to her, at a beach on the French Riviera, but she did not survive. She swam after them when they got into difficulty in strong winds at Pampelonne beach, near St Tropez, but was herself carried away by the strong current. The children were later rescued by lifeguards and were unharmed, but attempts to resuscitate her were unsuccessful.

Of all the risks we might take, she believed that risking belief was perhaps the most crucial:

‘To risk believing is to surrender to the incredible . . . to surrender oneself not to reason but to the part of the night that lives in us . . . and obliges us to look towards the top.’

Looking towards the top and believing in the summit, even though it is invisible and receding, always on the retreat, is much like staring down into a fathomless pit in which the accretion of nothingness appears impenetrable: is this what you needed to learn as a child? And did you learn your lesson? 

2 Comments on “The hill of wild horses and the nature of risk

  1. Living quite near you I too keep thinking I’m almost at the summit, but am not. This email is a beautiful description of how I can embrace the reality and turn it into something deepening within, that will eventually change all I see in life. I am looking forward to reading Anne Dufourmantelle’s book.


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