Everest: The Sublime, Ultimate Object of Identity

everest people who died

Sunita Hazra, Goutam Ghosh, Paresh Nath and Subhas Paul shortly before their summit attempt at Mount Everest in May 2016, where the three men died. Their bodies were recovered a year later. Photo from Sunita Hazra, via the New York Times.

The New York Times recently published a story about efforts to recover the bodies of three Indian men who had died in an attempt to climb Mount Everest. Since the first recorded ascent in 1953, around 280 climbers have died, and as many as 200 bodies remain on the mountain. So why do people climb it? George Mallory, a British explorer who failed three times to climb the mountain and died on the third attempt in 1924, famously answered the New York Times reporter (of a much earier vintage) asking the same question ‘because it’s there.’ Mallory was defiant, almost offended that the mountain would impose itself so forcefully on his world – and it was very much his world.

Mallory was the quintessential Englishman of the early twentieth century – educated at prep school and then Cambridge, becoming a commissioned officer during the First World War. The son of an Anglican clergyman, and and Anglican clergyman’s daughter, God and England were in his blood. Mallory’s climbing inspiration came from a teacher, R. L. G. Irving. Irving described one of his early mountaineering adventures as summoning ‘the awful thrill which the close presence of steep mountains can inspire,’ referring to his urge to climb as ‘a sacred fire.’ This was a spiritual calling for Irving, and Mallory was no less fervent, it appears.

‘Because it’s there’ is a response laden with hubris, particularly coming from a man who would be annihilated by the mountain. The sublime has long had an attraction for men, inasmuch as it has an aesthetic value as it has a spiritual resonance. God’s great creation laid before you, a small, tiny speck. From there, the narrative forks, taking the thinking man to one of two places: either man is insignificant in the face of the Universe, or – as in the case of Mallory, I would argue – man is possessed of rationality that elevates him above all of this. And not just man: civilised man; Christian man; white man; English man. It is as if the sublime – the mountain – is either destined to dominate man because of its enormity, its power, its strength, or to be dominated by man because of his capacity for reason, for contemplation, for understanding. Everest, in the latter interpretation, is but a rock. I am Man, created by God, in His image. We become transcendent, and we conquer death in this existential analysis.

Everest was not merely the highest point in the world, but it was in the early Twentieth Century the highest point in the British Empire, which was even more important. The Empire needed to subject not only its peoples, but its territory too. No mountain should be so insubordinate as to deny its sovereign an ascent, a view across the dominion. No point should be above the crown. This is not a mere Anglophobic or political point – on the contrary: it is a humanist observation. We who aspire, we who seek to better ourselves and our peoples do do in the context of a world that offers us tools and resources with which to assert an identity. We define ourselves by and through the world we inhabit, both its people and itself. Our relation to Everest, to our lands, defines who we are.

Indians and Chinese people now have the dubious honour of being almost as proficient at dying on Mount Everest as the British and Americans. They will soon doubtless surpass their erstwhile colonial betters, emphasising their national ascendancy both metaphorically and physically. We collectively choose to express ourselves by our dominance, our power, our strength, by our capacity to tame the natural environment. In doing so, perhaps we are reducing ourselves to the level of the rocks and the trees, denying our rationality and insisting that our expression is most forcefully achieved thus – by force. We stand atop the mountain, not apart from it. This is our species hypocrisy: we claim to be more than mere ashes, flesh and bones. That narrative fork arrives, and we take the one that leads to insignificance, and oblivion.

J. M. W. Turner at Tate Britain

Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth, by J. M. W. Turner

Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth, by J. M. W. Turner

I had the pleasure recently of touring the J. M. W. Turner exhibition in the Tate Britain museum, with the explicit intention of viewing his work Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth. As it happened, the painting itself was on loan somewhere, but it was wonderful to see the rest of his work on display there. Turner’s exposition of the sublime has been castigated as purely commercial, though whatever the truth of that accusation, Turner’s skill and vision as a painter is undeniable. There is an additional aspect to that particular painting which I find mesmerising – there are three ‘clouds’ that swirl in the painting: the sea and its spray, the sky and its rain, and the third, most unexpected and yet equal – the black smoke of the steam engine. This is technology as natural force, encapsulated in the swirl of sea and sky. It is intertwined and natural, just as the violence in the sea and the sky are manufactured forces. Which is more terrifying? The sea, the sky, or the engine? Which contributes most to the sense of the sublime?

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