"Wanderer above a Sea of Fog" is something of a mascot in my current English class. We were asked to think on it, and make some questions, and I did. Have been.
This post will be...hm. As self-indulgent as a musing, at any rate. My thoughts around the painting. I will be referring to the man as Herr Wanderer, to differentiate.
The first thing that came to my mind in English class was, "That looks familiar." After thinking a moment, I remembered that I my brother had seen this when he was in this English class--in fact, he wrote a blog post on it.* I haven't reread that post, though I plan to after I post this one.
And I thought: We're plunging into the unknown.
This is the last year where teachers will say, "Oh, you're Chris's sister?" This is the last year I will see many of my acquaintances, and the last year I will ever see some of my friends. Neither of those will be intentional, but...friendship is proximity. That can manifest as proximate--or complementary--interests as easily as physical proximity, but physical proximity plays a part. Sometimes drifting apart just means moving houses.
To a greater extent, I am moving. I am taking the first steps outside my ivory tower. I am school smart; I play the harp; I have good music theory. Those are all skills that can be fun at parties--though the first is usually only fun if brought up sideways--but I have yet to test them in a practical arena. I have been called on to help--with a safety net of (an) adult(s) and my peers at my back. I have tutored--for pocket money. I have never needed something to work out for me. I'm on the ground for the moment, and I can climb back in if I need to, but if I fall, I hit the ground.
I wrote this down as one of my questions, though before thinking of the stuff in either of those latter paragraphs: "What comes next?"
Next, I wrote, "Was the clothing normal for the age it was painted?" Once I was thinking on clothing, I linked to Loki, because I saw The Ring Cycle semi-recently--within the last year--and their Loki, in addition to wearing something superficially similar, also had the same sort of air I felt from the piece. The man clearly stands apart, but looks confident in rough terrain. Once I got a close-up--in the middle of writing this paragraph--I re-thought that interpretation, because of the hair. The tilt of the head and the hair being mussed as it is makes him seem a bit less comfortable, a bit more tired/resigned, but every other angle in his body speaks of firmness to me. And, though this didn't occur to me until I looked at the close-up again, the tilt of the head could also be a reaction to some form of trick gone wrong. Once I've made the link with Loki, I almost have to bring up his house with four doors (so he can see enemies approaching from any side): the painting has the same sort of feel to it, with one man who can see all around. Yet it's worth remembering that sight didn't help Loki, he was still caught. This man's high vantage point helps him as much; for all the possible planning, he's caught in the fog. The wanderer also doesn't look like the type to have a Sigyn, but then, Loki generally doesn't either.
Once I've hit on Norse mythology and have a character called "The Wanderer", I almost must think of Odin. (One of Odin's epithets/forms is the Wanderer.) Given that I've already associated Herr Wanderer with Loki, what associating him with Odin brings to mind is the idea I've read that Odin and Loki were, originally, the same being. This idea makes some sense, given that Loki is the clever one and Odin is the ruler. The idea also occurred to me in the Ring, when Odin is stalling for time while Loki revels in keeping everyone else in the dark while flat-out telling them exactly what they need to know. It didn't work to take them as separate personalities or anything like that; it just seemed like their actions fit together--Odin's "Hold on, I'm sure Loki will come up with a grand plan in a moment," with Loki's delight in pretending to be flippantly speaking of nothing of importance, while he--still flippantly--speaks of a plan. I can just imagine Odin's lines being delivered with suppressed laughter, and Loki's are stalling in their own way, if for another purpose.
The next main question I thought up was, "Is the similarity to The Fool intentional?" There are differences from what I have usually seen--the colors are duller; we cannot see the man's face; he doesn't appear to be about to step off the cliff (unintentionally); the Herr Wanderer has no animal companion--but the basic idea is similar. A man, who appears to (have) be(en) wandering stands on a cliff edge. The painting could be The Fool with a touch of ennui, or a few more bad experiences.
The class came together to discuss at this point. Our teacher brought up how he used "question", and that contained the word, "quest", where we were going. The next few ideas that came up revolved around that basic idea, though given the painting, it's hard to do otherwise: "Why is he wandering?" "Does he have a destination?" "What is he seeking?" which naturally brought, "if anything." "Is he starting or finishing his journey?"--the teacher brought up that one hopes he's finishing, since he's on the cliff edge, to which I thought, Well then, he's probably about to finish one way or another. He could turn around; if he got up he can probably get down, but... Anyway. "What's his purpose for climbing?" "Is he running from something?" "What is he looking at?"
Now that those are out there: The first three are nearly the same, though with different opinions and degrees of certainty about whether he is traveling point A to B, or wandering. "Does he have a point in mind to reach, and if so, what marks it?" There's something about living an unexamined life in there, and also about how you don't need to know where you're going to be doing what you want to do.
Starting or finishing the journey is something of a more complex question than the teacher's words or my knee-jerk thought implied. As I already hinted at, this may be the point where the man turns around. That could signify the end, doubling back as in the classical Hero's Journey, but there are other reason to do it. I can imagine going to my bridge and watching the fog roll one last time before leaving home. I would watch, leaning on a rail, or weight on one hip, breathing and existing in that last moment of home...and then I turn and I start off. On the subject of the implied possibility of suicide, I don't think that makes sense outside a joke. He looks remarkably accepting of life as it is, if not happy about it. My teacher described the German art period this was a part of as being about the dark things, and...yes. This is a man who sees dark. He may be scared--he may not be--but he is at peace with its existence. I cannot imagine him being careless enough to step off accidentally, nor do I see him deciding to jump. Mulling it over as an option, yes, perhaps even as we look at him. But not jumping. Not at this point in the journey.
"What's his purpose for climbing?" feels like the right question to ask to me. It neatly summarizes what is there. Is he, as another suggested, running from something? Is he running to something? Is he seeking something, looking for it? Is he observing, looking at it? Was the purpose observation or discovery? Has the purpose remained static, or did it shift? That is true wandering, to me: one's purpose shifts from moment to moment. A traveler hopes the wind will be at his back and plans that it won't be; a wanderer merely turns so it is.
My teacher was on talking, and I don't know if he would even remember this, but it was a question he spoke that hit me: "How high do you want to go?"
How big a star do you want to be? How quiet a life do you want to lead? How much do you want to help? Forget what you can do for a moment; nearly everything is something you can learn or work around, if you're willing to make the right sacrifice. How high do you want to go?
And, tightly related: How badly do you want it?
I thought of a song to go with the line, as I am wont to do. There's a song in The Protomen called "The Fall". The true lyrics and a scene description are here. What I wrote in my notebook was, "Climb, climb to the top of the world, and know that when you fall, you fall from a height most men never reach." I've never seen The Protomen, and really wasn't even thinking about the scene described when I thought of the song. It was just...in the moment, it was the fear. But even in the middle of the fear, I thought of the triumphant music to the inspiring, cynical lyrics. I will fall. I will get up every time but the last.
These are not reasons to stop climbing. These are reasons to make the fall breathtaking.
* He calls it "Wanderer before a Sea of Mists". To be fair, my teacher called it "Wanderer over a Sea of Fog" and "Wanderer in the Sea of Fog" during the course of the class period. I'm just going off what gets the most hits on Google.