Peaks of human success

Peaks of human success


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Chennai: 30/04/2013: The Hindu: oeb: Book Review Column: Title: The Summits of Modern Man. Mountaineering after the Enlightment. Author: Peter H. Hansen.

Chennai: 30/04/2013: The Hindu: oeb: Book Review Column: Title: The Summits of Modern Man. Mountaineering after the Enlightment. Author: Peter H. Hansen.

Facts, figures and theory combine into a tale of trekkers who sought solitude and success at the mountain-top

There is certainly much more to mountaineering than a mere act of scrambling up rocks, hills, and vales. It is an act of deliberation, a recognition of the strong will to succeed, to ascent and ascertain the self. Anyone who has scaled a peak would have felt the rush of adrenalin, the surge of excitement, that unmistakable outpouring of thrill and exhilaration as the strong wind gushes past and the land below heaves and flows with the undulation of the horizon and skies. In his monumental work on mountaineering Peter Hansen explores the intricacies of climbing and theorises on the act’s social and psychological significance. The book under review is a serious engagement with men and mountains from the vantage points of social history, eco-critical theorising and cultural geography.In the early 19 century Mont Blanc became a temple and the Alps were viewed as cathedrals of the earth. Alexander Dumas recounted the first ascent of Mont Blanc as the triumph of the sovereign individual. As a young man he himself was in a state of hurry. The son of a Creole general in the Napoleonic army, he ascended from the position as a clerk to become a playwright and successful author of bestsellers like The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers. In his Impressions of Swiss Travel, Dumas published his interview with Jacques Balmat, “the intrepid guide who amid a thousand dangers had been the first to attain the highest summit of Mont Blanc.” Dumas portrayed him as the King of Mont Blanc, and the image of the lone conqueror, proudly waving to his subjects below. In actuality this would befit the image of the author himself. Dumas appropriated Balmat’s story of the ascent to place himself in the summit position. It has been remarked that The Impressions of Swiss Travel, rejuvenated the genre of travel writing as “an epic of the self… an affirmation of subjectivity.” The ascent of the tall peaks signalled the ascent of modern man who represented the triumph of the will to achieve and to conquer.For the European Romantics the mountains signified the sublime and the snowy heights were associated with religious awe and faith. However the image often shifted between impossibility and despair. Also, it was not unusual for women to scale up mountains and ascertain their individual selves, as the ascent of Mont Blanc by Marie Paradis in 1808 and the narratives that ensued thereon would show.In search of solitudeThe Summits of Modern Man is a phenomenal achievement; it links facts, figures, and theory into one powerful and intriguing tale of the trekkers who ventured in to the vertical heights of mountains in search of solitude and victories. The spring-board to encounter risk, danger and death was mostly that desire to conquer and dominate the wild and tame nature. The impetus of Natural history and theology also has contributed to this will to excel. As Hansen notes: “Mountain climbing did not emerge as the expression of a preexisting condition known as “modernity,” but rather was one of the practices that constructed and redefined multiple modernities during debates over who was first.”However as he concludes, when seen from the longer perspective of geological history, or deep history, to view anyone as first would be to “privilege the moment of beginning, not the process of becoming that precedes it and unfolds within it.” The verticality of mountains locates us in a continuum of past present and future. To conquer its summit is to exist briefly in time and space and feel the ephemerality and evanescence of being.Hansen’s book covers so much ground in terms of history and narrative, examining extracts from many sources. When perceived from the point-of-view of Euro-centric history the disputed chronicling and accounts of the first ascents of Mount Everest and Mont Blanc suggest the intertwining of a colonial dynamics entwining subjectivity, sovereignty and the natural world. Nevertheless, as he argues, “modernity rather than empire serves as the analytical anchor for the belay that is this book, which could have been written only in dialogue with postcolonial and subaltern studies and the cultural and imperial turns of the last few decades.”Multiple modernities illustrate tensions among self, state and mountain. Petrarch, representing the Renaissance individual, is dubbed the first modern man by the mid-19th century — his account of the ascent of Mont Ventoux came to be recognised as a struggle toward the formulation of a political and historical category — the paradigm of the individual self and identity of the modern individual man.King Charles VIII was on a pilgrimage in the mountains when he spotted Mont Inaccessible and he ordered his artillery officer Antoine de Ville to climb it. Eventually after dominating the peak and learning that it had another local name — Aiguille — Antoine de Ville baptised the peak Aiguille Fort in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, for the love of the monarch. For more than three centuries the ascent of Mont Aiguille was satirised or celebrated as a symbol of monarchical sovereignty, while the ceremonies of possession varied over geographical territories.Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac celebrates the notion of thinking like a mountain, as a metaphor for the network of inter subjective relationships between humans and the natural world — as an alternative to anti-ecological activities of science and technology — not reducible to the solipsism ofthinking like a self or the system building abstraction of thinking like a state.First on EverestOn the day of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, the news of the British conquest of Mount Everest was relayed to London. Edmund Hillary, the New Zealander and Tenzing Norgay, the Sherpa had reached the world’s highest summit on May 29, 1953. The British had an aggrandised sense of having got there first. However, as recollected by Sir John Hunt who had led the expedition, a few years later when they returned, the illustrations that adorned the triumphal arches along the road, depicted inglorious pictures of an almost unconscious Hillary being dragged hand over hand by the rope to the summit of Mount Everest by Tenzing the Sherpa, who had very little sense of a conquest in this act. While Hillary was knighted Tenzing was deferred any special mention on account of his dubious nationality — whether Nepalese or Indian. It was debated renaming the peak as Mount Elizabeth. An Indian newspaper poll went against this in favour of “Mount Tenzing.” The Statesman published a photograph of a street in the Sherpa neighbourhood with the caption: “Not Fit for Heroes — it is to homes like these that some Sherpa porters return from their mountaineering.”Tenzing’s poverty before the ascent was an important symbol of his incorporation into a prosperous new India on his return. He was awarded a radio, gramophone, electric stove, wrist watches, pieces of gold, 180 square yards of land, and a Gandhi cap, while his wife received a sewing machine.Jawaharlal Nehru handed over a whole wardrobe of old clothes to Tenzing which fitted him to a tee. But he refrained from handing over his white Congress party hat because he thought that the grand adulation Tenzing received might spoil him and make him unfit for social work!The significant question that troubled quite a few with regard to mountaineering as a challenge waswho was there first? And while versions of “thinking like a state” dominated the Everest expeditions of the mid-20th century, the act of conquering nature began to appear more and more ambivalent in the post-technological world of the present.To conclude, The Summits of Modern Man is not just another book on mountain climbing. It is an inquiry into the making of the modern world, and takes up various issues of current relevance reviewing historical periodisations like renaissance, enlightenment, romanticism, nationalism, fascism, decolonisation, globalisation and climate change. As Hansen notes: “Mountaineering did not emerge after enlightenment, they arrived together.” Thus history, philosophy, cultural geography, literature, natural history, and personal narratives configure the warp and woof of Hansen’s book on mountaineering after the enlightenment. It would delight the reader through erudite observations rather than arduous arguments, recalling the efforts and thrills of mountaineering at every stage.(Murali Sivaramakrishnan is Professor of English in Pondicherry Central University)

Regimes of Narcissism, Regimes of Despair

Ashis Nandy identifies despair and narcissism as the predominant psychological states in the prevailing political culture

Regimes of Narcissism, Regimes of Despair Ashis Nandy; Oxford University Press,YMCA Library Building, Jai Singh Road,New Delhi-110001. Rs. 595.

That in our own times the fate of an individual lies in the politics of interest groups which could determine not only the general quality of his/her life but also the mode of termination of both individual and community — either self-willed or inflicted from without — is surprisingly a fact quite well-known. In India today, much like in the rest of Southern Asia — what he calls the South as opposed to the developed countries of North America and Europe — Ashis Nandy identifies in the prevailing political culture two predominant psychological states: narcissism and despair. To characterise their institutionalised forms and inner dynamics, he dubs them regimes of narcissism and regimes of despair. This book close-examines compelling socio-political issues in terms of mass ideologies and as vectors in the inner life of individuals.

The social flux and moral anomie we see around have condemned large sections of men and women to live on with a vague sense of loss, anxiety and repressed anger. When ethical and moral values are invalidated and abandoned, many are blind to the hand of any agencies in these, and learn to contain anger through forms of consumerism and immersion in the world of total entertainment — which often goes by the name of normality. Living in a hedonic, secularised world, quite unable to decipher the reason why its hedonism seems evil to others, the cultural sensitivities of the globalised middle class, as Nandy points out, have further narrowed in recent times. In the essay “Terror, Counter-Terror, and Self-Destruction”Nandy underscores Jean Baudrillard’s observation that “evil is there, everywhere as an obscure object of desire.” As suicide bombers have made their presence felt in over 12 countries now, their act appears as wanton terrorism declared by the death-defying on the death-denying. The former as he points out, thrives on a theology of martyrdom, the latter on a psychology of this-worldly individualism and narcissism. In some contexts the idea of despair too has become central to our understanding of contemporary subjectivities much in line with the early hard-hitting modernist writers and artists like Kafka, Camus and Van Gogh. Even Nietzsche and Dostoevsky cannot be understood without this corollary of despair.

Eight essays ranging from issues of nationalism through terrorism and counter-terrorism, ideologies of humiliation and happiness, notions of the sacred in religion, ideas of tradition and modernity — wrought together in terms of a common interrogative stance relating to the individual and the nation constitute Ashish Nandy’s book. The range and reach of these interrogatives is indeed massive and for readers used to Nandy’s earlier works, proffer prolific views on an equally broad socio-political and intellectual span. In “Nationalism, Genuine and Spurious”, he engages with the political position of Tagore and Gandhi vis-a-vis nationalism in the early part of the 20th century. Obviously not having access to a vast array of socio-political terminology available today both Tagore and Gandhi have phrased out their positions in different ways, and Nationalism, in their eyes, as Nandy proposes, is an ideology while patriotism, as he distinguishes the term, is a sentiment and thus an emotional state. Tagore used something like 12 to 15 expressions to denote one’s love for one’s country, ranging fromdeshabhiman and swadesiprem to deshbahakti and swadesh chetana. But he used none of these as an equivalent of nationalism. Gandhi too appears to have recognised in the version of nationalism a touch of the shadow of Europe. However, despite these visionaries, versions of nationalism became part of the social evolutionist baggage exported to and internalised by a defeated civilisation veritably open to globalisation and exploitation.

Controversial figures

In two essays “ The Demonic and Seductive in Religious Nationalism” and “Coming Home” Nandy resorts to the biographies of two controversial political figures — Vinayak Damodar Savarkar and Madanlal Pahwa — in order to explore the deeper psychological reaches of violence and religious nationalism. Both Savarkar and Pahwa were victims of a perverted social order. “Savarkar is the name of a blown-up, grotesque temptation inherent in the Southern world’s encounter with the global nation state system and with religious traditions that facilitate internalisation of the core principles of western nationalism.”Pahwa’s life history on the other hand is read as “the story of a person battling memories of loss and exile through violence”; “and an unapologetic killer…who also was a victim of the ethnic cleansing in Punjab during 1946-48, seething with anger at what had befallen him and the Hindus in Punjab.” The process of dehumanisation is deliberately effected through hate-propaganda, and benumbing the victims as dangerous and contaminating. In many ways humiliation achieves the pathological substitute for dominance and genocide. The essay “Humiliation” explores among other things the consequence of colonial burden and shame and their impact on the political culture; it bespeaks of rape victims, blacks, dalits and the spectrum of dehumanisation in political history. This technique of pathologisation is fast becoming a post-colonial version of the colonial technique of infantilisation.

“Happiness,”likewise is a unique exploration of the contexts of this psychological state that holds tremendous implications for the present consumer culture. “The presently dominant idea of happiness,” Nandy writes, “being subject to individual volition and effort, ensures that the search for happiness has a linear trajectory… Perfect happiness comes when one eliminates all unhappiness.” Nandy’s essay focuses on the emerging idea of happiness as an autonomous manageable psychological variable in the global middle-class culture.

“Return of the Sacred” and “Modernity and the Sense of Loss” enquire into the political geography of religion, and dwell on the process of how the modernity of traditions has become a source of cultural pride, a prop for cultural nationalism. In a time when religions have apparently regained their popularity, and the compatibility between Vedanta and quantum Physics, Zen and psychotherapy are now subjects of bestsellers, “few dare to reverse the process and justify or criticise nuclear power or stem cell research from within the frame of Islamic ethics or Shaiva Siddhanta”.

The book is well produced and indexed in handy format no doubt, but one hopes that the proof-reading could have been a little more meticulous, taking care to avoid silly spelling errors and omissions in an important document by a senior academic. Regimes of Narcissism, Regimes of Despair, is not Nandy at his best, though, but the eight essays would serve to transfer the incessant critical spirit and irresistible inquiry of a socio-political intellectual attempting to interrogate a fast changing present, looking at politics and society through the prism of persons and their selves in order to ensure that the intelligent human is not overwhelmed by impersonal institutional structures and invisible movements of history. As Nandy himself notes: “these essays are about an India that is no longer the country on which I have written for something like four decades.” The critical minded reader is in the end left questing for more.

(Murali Sivarama-krishnan is Professor of English in Pondicherry Central University)