The Glass Mountain
1. I was trying to climb the glass mountain.
This Donald Barthelme short short story is written in the style of a how-to-guide. Through steps 1-100, somebody is described as climbing a skyscraper on the corner of Thirteenth Street and Eighth Avenue in New York.
The story is a postmodern-adaption of a pre-modern fairytale by the same name. The original fairytale tells the tale of a young boy who attempts to scale a mountain made of glass. Around the mountain are the broken bodies of fallen knights that have been crushed by the fall, but, against the odds, the young boy’s climb is successful (albeit with the help of a mutilated-then-dead lynx, a mutilated-then-dead eagle, and a couple of magic apples). The original ends with the boy living happily-ever-after in a palace with a princess at the top of the mountain.
The original fairytale has an unoriginal goal. Reach the top. Obtain the enchanted enchantress. That much is clear.
Barthelme’s version offers an alternative perspective. It is unsettling, verges of the dystopic, and flits between the elegance of the original and the strangeness of modern day pursuits.
The modern day workplace exists in a freelancing and de-unionised economic world order, and yet the symbolic ideal of a ‘career’ has managed to survive, perhaps because it remains true, at least for now, that the type of job you do is the type of job you will continue to do.
Over the course of our finite existence, the time we spend working will amount to approximately 80,000 hours, and so it’s important to think about what we’re doing, and whether us climbing the career ladder is actually worth it.
The rat-race is the name we give to the process of giving your life to those 80,000 plus hours. The rat-race is a cultural force that makes those that compete in the races defend the races even though they secretly hate them. An outsider to the rat-race, or somebody who cannot relate to the idea of spending your life on the pursuit of a career, stands in uncomfortable contrast to competitive racers, and competitive racers do not like being reminded that there are other things to do other than race.
If a competitive racer was to be hostile to an outsider, they would reveal insecurities about themselves, so instead a competitive racer uses ‘supportive peer-pressure’ on an outsider by telling them that working harder is always a virtue; with nobody taking the time to ask what it is we’re meant to be working towards. This remains true even today, even in the era of mental health awareness. Why do we take time-off work? To work on our mental health. The clue is in the verb choice. No matter what we tell ourselves, the real reason we take time-off is so that we can recharge and be more productive in the long-run.
The downside of a racer having to use this supportive peer-pressure is that, once someone succumbs and starts out on the careerist climb, they then become the competition. Donald Barthelme describes how your fellow man will watch as you ascend, and will bitterly pass around a brown bottle and catcall up at you. Sure, them doing this might make you fall, but an even more dangerous prospect might be that all those bars and jabs drive you on…
Hunter D Thompson once said that “it is not necessary to accept the choices handed down to you by life as you know it. There is more to it than that— no one HAS to do something he doesn’t want to do for the rest of his life. But then again, if that’s what you wind up doing, by all means convince yourself that you HAD to do it. You’ll have lots of company.”
Nobody is being forced to scale the workplace hierarchies of NY office-buildings. Nevertheless, many of us are trapped in a carrot-stick way of thinking, so we’ll force ourselves to scale it.
In its most childish form, this carrot-stick matrix in our minds means that when someone else advances from 200 meters to 400 meters up the glass mountain, we confer onto them that exact amount of extra satisfaction. The pleasurable feelings they experience are doubled. But upon making the climb ourselves many of us come to realise, (hopefully sooner rather than later), that it just doesn’t work that way – we generally don’t feel twice as good by jumping from fourth-in-command to second-in-command in the boardroom.
Here comes the uneasy realisation: that accomplishment and contentedness don’t actually correlate. And even if they did, what happens when we get to the top of the mountain? At this point, the grown-up story we tell ourselves is that the mountain never truly finishes because the peak is so high up there in the clouds that it’s beyond anyone’s reach. It is, everybody seems to say, about the journey, not the destination. There’s always more to be done. If you think about it though, this is just flipping that same superficial idea on its head. Replacing the destination with the journey doesn’t change anything much – you’re still chasing carrots or hitting yourself with sticks. The currency is still achievement, you’re just using a different measuring system. The problem of finding meaning through a career remains a fundamental one.
Once people start climbing the career ladder, they don’t seem to be able to stop. Why is this?
Because we actually do like our job. A good test to see if we like what we do is to ask ourselves if we’d do it for free. Maybe we do, do it for free.
Because we’re too tired for introspective thinking. We have no time to stop and think about questions like what is my life? and when these type of questions do hit, it’s only when we’re in the shower, as every other moment we’re either working or being passively entertained so that we have the energy to return to our desks. The idea of valuing time spent doing not very much is an alien idea. That privilege is reserved for kids. Kids are bored. “Entertain yourself,” we tell them. And then they grow up to.
Because we fear abstract thinking. With each meter climbed up the glass mountain the risk increases, because if we really did see our own situation the way someone else saw it, then we might have no choice but to change the way we live, in which case all our work, (work which, remember, is all the while accounting for an increasing portion of our by now terrifyingly finite existence), would have counted for nothing much. The perils of a moment of peace get ever greater. Maybe you even start to avoid peace. Holidays start to be planned down to the last millisecond of organised fun.
The goal in the original is unoriginal. Reach the top. Get the girl. Barthelme’s adaptation asks some simple but neglected questions. Reach the top? What top? Why? Are princesses even that pretty? Are princesses plausible?
100. Nor were eagles plausible, not at all, not for a moment.