There’s a bit in Donna Tartt’s cult novel The Secret History that’s always bothered me. A group of friends are on their way to an inn in the countryside. The landscape is “veiled and mysterious, silent in the night and fog. This was remote, untraveled land… high and perilous and primitive.”
One character volunteers that if she were to buy a house, she would buy one there. She has always, she says, liked the mountains better than the seashore. Another character chimes in to say he’s never had “the slightest bit of interest in the sea,” preferring “broken, wild terrain.” “The oddest tongues come from such places, and the strangest mythologies, and the oldest cities, and the most barbarous religions,” he says. Mountains, we are given to understand, are the sophisticated choice. Beaches are basic—for people on whom subtlety is lost.
Tartt isn’t alone in using this dichotomy as a way of revealing something deeper about one’s personality. Look at Game of Thrones—the mountain people are tough and noble and plain-speaking. They are disciplined and wear frightening fur coats. The sea people are louche and decadent sinners, and they always have their tops off.
These stereotypes have been bugging me for years now, in the same way that the introvert-extrovert debate gets me down. Whoever is doing Team Mountain’s PR has succeeded in circulating the idea that there is something inherently admirable about putting yourself in uncomfortable positions on purpose, that this willingness speaks to great wells of inner strength. Beach people, then, must be shallow in contrast.
As a definite beach person, I object. Not only do I object, I am going to come out and say why this stereotype is wrong.
In the popular imagination, mountains are cool and beaches are brash. In the mountains, you drink whiskey at a measured pace, and then you go to sleep in your narrow bed. At the beach, you drink something called “Mermaid Sunrise,” and then you vomit.
Mountains are for people who need nothing but their own company and a boring novel about old men. They’re sad, but only beach people care about happiness. Mountain people have transcended such base emotions. The world is not about being happy or sad, moron. The world is about greatness and ordinariness, about savage grandeur and the high strange wail of a violin. Beach people move in packs and go to Euro Disney by choice. Mountains are Apollo and beaches are Dionysus. Mountains are hard and austere and beaches are easy, and only the weak prefer what is easy.
I could go on, and I would like very much like to. Unfortunately for me, one recent scientific study backs up these associations—or at least seems to on the surface.
Last year in October, The Journal of Research in Personality published a study exploring the links between personality type and preference for one terrain over another. The results were just what you’d expect. People who think of themselves as introverts tend to prefer mountains; people who think of themselves as extroverts prefer flat territory, including the beach.
The study prompted a number of crowing articles, of course, in which introverts were implicitly congratulated for preferring the solitary delights of the mountains and extroverts were criticized for choosing the easy option. This is so typical. But the results of the study, I believe, have got everything to do with Team Mountain’s PR tricking self-identified introverts into preferring hilly terrain, and nothing to do with the facts on the ground.
Yes, mountains are hard. Yes, you usually have to climb them and that is grueling. But you know what is right next to the beach? The sea. You know what is scarier and tougher and cooler than the sea? Nothing. You don’t get the beach without getting the sea; they are a package deal.
On the beach, you can drink as many umbrella cocktails as you like—but you are still on the edge of a heaving, unknowable force that changes all the time, the movements of which are dictated by the moon.
Lay your prejudices aside and think about it for two seconds. Would you rather be stuck alone in the middle of the mountains, without a tent, or stuck alone in the middle of the sea, without a raft? See what I’m talking about? Mountains seem scary upfront: they loom, climbing them is really hard, there is snow, echoing silence, Picnic at Hanging Rock, etc. But the sea only reveals itself as the boss of us when it is too late and you are already sucked out by the undertow. It is possible to own a mountain. No one owns the sea.
I think it’s time to reassess how we think about both places. The sea is interesting, and weird, and full of bewildering secrets. The mountains, by contrast, tell you what they are straight away.
Mountains are still cool, this is true. People who think of themselves as introverts will go for the mountains every time, because they have bought into the hype. But if they really want to spend some terrifying time alone with themselves and get beneath the surface of things, they should head for the water. If they are after extremity, the sea is where it’s at.
In the age of the introvert, extroverts are attacked on a more or less continuous basis for being dumb idiots who only love shouting and doing shots. But in fact, we are the ones who can handle the weirdness and unpredictability of the ocean. The sea is forever, and it doesn’t care about us at all. There is nothing wilder, or cooler, than being okay with that.