Final Word

Hanging from a cliff above the gaping ‘abyss’


There’s hardly a day that the drama unfolding on our campuses, in our courts and in parliament does not create a new ‘cliffhanger’,  leaving us hanging on by our fingertips and fearing the gaping ‘abyss’ below.

The ‘abyss’ has been with us for many thousands of years, thanks to ancient literature, while in recent years American popular culture has been adding new terms like ‘fiscal cliff’ and ‘cliffhanger’ to our stock of mountain metaphors.

While writing On Top of Table Mountain, out now, I was intrigued by the towering presence of mountains in our formulations of fearfulness and of faith.


Let’s start at the bottom. Or rather, even lower than the bottom: the abyss. The bottomless pit. The one into which the future of the country could be plunged if the reckless headlong dash of politicians, activists and associated wildlife isn’t stopped.

The abyss, according to the ancient works of wisdom, is what leads to the underworld, to hell. In the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible, (Genesis 1:2) the word abyssos represents the unfinished creation and in the New Testament it also indicates the place of punishment. ‘Abyss’ travelled via Latin and Old French to English where by the 16th century it expressed the idea of a bottomless gulf.

An ‘abyss’ has indeed become the symbol of annihilation. Even of evil.  Something to guard against.

But in the fight against the powers of darkness, here’s a timely warning from German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.”

Let us then for a moment avert the gaze from imminent perils and look up to the mountains.


Alas. More hazard, in the form of ‘cliffhangers’, which seem to have become part of our lives.

According to Oxford English Dictionary the word ‘cliffhanger’ had its origin in the 1930s. It was used in trade publications and fan magazines to refer to the suspenseful episode ends of the popular serial films of the time.

In serials like The Perils of Pauline, heroine Pauline would find herself desperately dangling off a proverbial cliff at the end of each instalment and viewers had to wait for the next one to find out what happened to her.

Which pretty much sums up the daily unfolding of the news in South Africa these days.

Fiscal cliff

The term ‘fiscal cliff’ also has its origin in America and refers to various fiscal issues, but mainly, as the Oxford English Dictionary defines it, “a situation in which a particular set of financial factors cause or threaten sudden and severe economic decline”.

A Dallas Morning News editorial in 1975, when New York City was on the verge of bankruptcy, first used the term when it speculated about what would happen if New York would go over the ‘fiscal cliff’.

‘Fiscal cliff’ gained popular traction in the beginning of 2012 when Ben Bernanke, chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve, warned that “a massive fiscal cliff of large spending cuts and tax increases” would take place on 1 January 2013.

The ‘fiscal cliff’ was avoided at the very last minute during late-night and early-morning sessions of Congress on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. At 2 am on 1 January 2013 the Senate passed a bill to avert the crisis and at 11 am that same morning the House approved it.


Mountains out of molehills

With sheer cliffs and deep abysses looming in our own country’s political and economic future, it can hardly be said that the anxious public is ‘making mountains out of molehills’.

This expression with its striking imagery is one of the most popular everyday sayings – in spite of its learned origins a couple of hundred years ago. ‘Making mountains out of molehills’ goes back to the English translation of a commentary on the New Testament by the great Dutch Renaissance humanist and theologian Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536).

In his Paraphrase (The first tome or volume of the Paraphrase of Erasmus vpon the newe testamente;1548) Erasmus used the old Latin proverb ‘making an elephant of a fly’ (elephantem ex musca facere).

When Nicholas Udall translated the passage into English, he added  “ … and a mountain of a molehill”: “The Sophistes of Grece coulde through their copiousness make an Elephant of a flye, and a mountaine of a mollehill.”

Would that our own mountains of trouble could do the opposite and shrink back to molehills!

Final word

In true ecclesiastical mode an appropriate response to our current woes would probably be to lift our eyes to the mountains. In supplication.

Also read: A “biography” of Table Mountain

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by Joan Kruger

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Final Word

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