Globalization and the Image
University of Wisconsin Oshkosh
Because It's There: Mount Everest and Ideology
Do not cite without permission of the author.
In August 2001, an Associated Press story ran in several newspapers around
the country. It was a travel story, of sorts, that described, if not the
most famous, certainly one of the most recognizable houses in America:
the white wood frame country house with the gothic window on the second
floor, the house in Grant Wood's painting American Gothic (1930). The
story notes that people frequently make "pilgrimages" to Elton,
Iowa to see the actual house, describing succinctly what makes an icon
in contemporary society "You've probably seen it hundreds of times"
(Schwartz). These twin strands, of religious terminology and mass-mediated
recognition, are the keys to icon-making in our late-capitalist society.
The emphasis is on sight and re-seeing, on the product and its reproduction
through many media.
While it may seem, literally, quite a distance from Mount Everest, American Gothic and the famous snow-capped peak have something in common: they are both easily recognizable icons in contemporary society. Their images have been used and replicated. They have moved from the realm of artifact to the imaginary. One way that they have accomplished this is through photographic media. "In earlier eras," the historian Walter LaFeber points out, "a culture was transmitted across national boundaries by migration, travel, or reading. Since leisure travel and literacy were often limited to the rich, the understanding-and exploitation-of other cultures was often enjoyed only by elites. Television and the post-1970s media, along with cheaper and more rapid transportation via jet airplanes, changed all that. Culture could move with nearly the speed of sound and reach billions of people, not just the privileged" (18). Although "globalization" tends to be a negative epithet applied to capitalist United States expansion, it can also be used to describe the rapid dissemination of images across borders.
How is the rhetorical critic affected by globalization? The most obvious answer is that critics now have rapid access to multiple images, including satellite photographs, that are disseminated almost simultaneously with the events that they represent, what we could identify as the synchronic access to material for analysis. In addition, critics can track the circulation of images across the timeline of an unfolding news story, which is the diachronic aspect of visual analysis. Diachronic analysis is not limited to the "present," however but to the analysis of images that have gathered a particular rhetorical impact by borrowing from iconic structures and meanings, such as the foundational meanings associated with American Gothic. These images are translated across time and across technologies: paintings and photographs reappear on postcards, notecards, T-shirts, lunchboxes. Placing the image in new contexts thus results in new meanings for that image, while it also provides the rhetorical critics with opportunities to investigate its relationship to the original meaning and context of the image. The rhetorical critic, then, is impelled to consider the discourse in which the image is embedded and transmitted. This embededness is historical and cultural and may range from the use of a photograph in a government document to the way that an abstract painting is displayed in a museum. Finally (but, I hope not exhaustively), the rhetorical critic must study relationships of power, particularly who has the power-or agency-to shape the meanings of the image. Power, as we know from the work of French historiographer Michel Foucault, is either granted or assumed. Its implications for the study of images are many, for we are, with any image, presented with a limited view. Quite literally, the "scene" extends beyond the borders of the painting, photograph, or cartoon. The image encourages a particular point of view by limiting its subjects and scene, often avoiding the representation of material conditions that may disrupt the harmonious content and intended meaning of the subject.
Of course, if I turn these comments above on myself, I am guilty here of providing a limited view. Each image is fixed within a politics of representation in which particular speakers have the power over the master narrative. In order to study Mount Everest as image, icon, and myth, I have selected two strong visual texts, separated in their production by nearly half of a century, The Conquest of Everest (London Films 1953) and Everest (IMAX 1998). Everest has been made an icon by technologies ranging from the scientific instruments of surveying to the digital photograph. At the root of my discussion is the conviction that Everest is spectacle, something to be seen. Furthermore, it is a spectacle that has been, and continues to be, embedded in various discourses of imperialism, science, and personal tragedy. Everest the icon places viewers in the scene, the realm of imaginary experience that calls forth abstract notions of "adventure" and "exoticism." At the same time, in order to serve as an icon, it must be reduced in size so that it may be transmitted as an image. In other words, the "Everest" that the general public knows is a representation. In his comprehensive book on the rise and fall of vision in Western society, Martin Jay turns, inevitably to the imperial gaze and tourism. Drawing on Timothy Mitchell's phrase "the world as exhibition," Jay notes that the nineteenth century spawned "[m]ass tourism based on the visual appropriation of exotic locales and the no less photogenic natives (or fauna) inhabiting them" (140). A photo "attaches a possessable image to a place name" (Trachtenberg 125). With this appropriating gaze, however, also comes mapping. Since the British mapped and named Everest in 1852, they have symbolically projected "ownership" over the mountain. It could be argued, as well, that merely seeing the mountain from Katmandu or Tibet constitutes opportunity. As W. J. T. Mitchell asserts,
Empires move outward in space as a way of moving forward in time; the "prospect" that opens up is not just a spatial scene but a projected future of "development" and "exploitation." (17)
As I have argued elsewhere, reducing a rocky terrain to an image that can be framed, mapped, and held in the palm of one's hand symbolically subdues the wild ("Creating" 73). Formulas for composing the sublime and the picturesque for display have operated in artistic circles since the eighteenth century and are often difficult to see beyond. The sublime, a conventional response of awe and spiritual inspiration when faced with towering and forbidding peaks, is offset by the comforts and regularity of picturesque view, a regulated, horizontal landscape of foreground, middleground, and background. Both sublime and picturesque are discourses that frame images. They have become naturalized in our perception because they have been imitated by countless professionals and amateurs working with the conventions.
With the generation of interest in Mount Everest sparked by the 1996 "disaster" season in which eight climbers lost their lives and the subsequent publications by American journalist Jon Krakauer in Outside Magazine and his own Into Thin Air, it is an appropriate moment to examine the means of representation of Everest in the twentieth century. While the published stories about Everest yield tropes of quest and heroism, I focus here on the two films in order to assert that Mount Everest becomes the icon "Everest" through visual memory, the cultural imaginary, and the technologies that create and disseminate words and images. These films are separated by more than the ideology that characterizes the conditions of their production. Each embeds a different national viewpoint; each was prompted by different means for undertaking the climb. Whereas the film and writings to emerge from the 1953 climb employed unabashedly British imperialistic rhetoric (read the published account "with a strong dose of historical sympathy," cautions author Jan Morris [viii]), the 1996 climb is dominated by familiar commercial tropes. The sponsors of the IMAX film are the National Science Foundation and Polartec. Everest represents desire and achievement, setting goals and playing together as a team. Recounting the events that led to him being left for dead on the mountain in 1996, Dallas physician Beck Weathers acknowledges that his own motives to climb Everest were that it was "the ultimate challenge" (4) against which he could test himself and provide evidence of his "grit and manly character" (6).
Weathers' comments are important, as he emphasizes from the perspective of an ordinary observer the personal nature of climbing. Because of the extreme conditions, there is little on the mountain Everest to "discover." Records of ascents (such as Jan Morris's Coronation Everest, 1953) spend little time waxing over poetic beauty of space or detailed accounts of natural phenomena. Even Krakauer comments that "glossy coffee-table book[s] picturing snowcapped peaks under perfect blue skies" (Eiger 42) do not reveal the "horizontal rain and sleet . . gale-force winds . . . [and] continuous, thirty-four-degree spray" (Eiger 49) of the high peaks that hamper sport climbing and scientific expeditions. The emphasis of mountaineering tales is on human endurance. With the improvement of equipment and the development of sports medicine and exercise physiology as fields of medical research, a new emphasis on the affects of altitude on the human body has emerged in the literature. In either case, the emphasis of the narratives is on human experience. Images become important counterparts to narratives of human endurance and hardship. Equally, the more the legends, myths, and images that surround the subject are circulated, the more that the feat of endurance assumes significance.
There have been many other films, of course, both fictional and documentary; however, these two have been recently marketed (Conquest was re-released in 1997) to an audience whose interest has been raised by the Krakauer publications. Krakauer has been credited with fostering an interest in "extreme travel" and extreme travel narratives, in which men and women--many times acting alone--set themselves against harsh elements in order to test their skill and their will. Krakauer didn't invent this genre--it is medieval in its Christian origins--but Into Thin Air and subsequent films employed the genre's principal trope: determined protagonists wrestle to survive against a forbidding antagonist, Nature. In addition to employing the familiar plot of "man" versus nature (and in the case of the 1953 climb, it was men), these two films move chronologically through time from preparation for the ascent, to summit, to the return to base camp. Through their narratives, they not only commodify the mountain, but argue that a landscape can be owned, broken, and conquered. A frequent image in Conquest is that of John Hunt's disembodied hand drawing routes on a crude and rather small outlined map of Everest. The mountain symbolically is reduced to traversable terrain, smaller than a man.
The icon or idea of "Everest" also holds out the promise of what is possible. Not only does Everest the image reference the physical mountain, but is positions the viewer in the realm of what Barbara Zelizer has recently called the "as if." As spectators we can interpret the mountain as that which lies beyond our physical ability and (frequently enough) financial capability. Thus, the visual representation of "Everest" gives way to visual rhetoric through the intersection of personal desire and cultural recognition.
Conquest of Everest
As one surveys the published literature on Everest, it is clear that the language used to depict climbing the mountain moves through several phases of institutionally-based, authoritative discourse: from military assault following World War I, to a mythological narrative of conquest following World War II, to a more dispassionate discourse of expert testimony in the 1990s. None of these three narrative conceits is ever exclusive, however; each appears in print and film accounts of Everest ascents, but one of the three narratives dominates the script. The language of both films, Conquest and Everest, is important because it verbally establishes the discourse into which the images are placed. Although in the case of Conquest there is a relationship between spoken word and image, I don't mean to suggest in this discussion that the meaning of images always depends on language. The discourse into which the images are inserted can be unspoken, which is often the case of ideology. Ideology operates at the level of the unspoken; its objects are the products of beliefs and not the beliefs in themselves. It is not my intention to log scene-by-scene the images and text of either of these films. Rather, I present through a selection of images, text, and video some of the ways that these films depend on pre-existing attitudes toward mountains, mountain-climbing, and Mount Everest.
In this segment of my essay, I consider the ways that an archetypal battle between Man and Nature is deployed in the film The Conquest of Everest. Although Conquest devotes a short segment of film to the technical considerations-the climbers' training in wind tunnels and the "new" materials used for the construction of tents and boots--its primary concern is with the hero's (or in this case, the plural heroes') narrative. Following the structure set forth by Vladimir Propp in his Morphology of the Folktale, British poet Louis MacNeice's colorful narrative for The Conquest of Everest presents us with the departure of the heroes, the adoption of a Sherpa guide (Tenzing Norgay), the encounter of hardships, and eventual triumph. The rhetoric of the narrative hearkens back to the Romantic sublime, so eloquently detailed by Marjorie Hope Nicolson in Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory: the landscape is described as "terrifying," "murderous," a "nightmare," a "frozen, but burning forest," and "inhospitable." Corresponding images depict the humans as mere dots against the rocks and ice.
The opening film credits, even though they are outside the primary moment of the narrative, are richly ideological, marking the appropriation of the exotic, glacial locale and politically suggesting that Everest is now owned. An image of the mountain Everest, standing alone, removed from its environment of surrounding peaks and descending clouds, appears against a blue screen. The text "London Films" is placed over top of it, symbolically conquering Everest with visual and verbal representation. The first scene within the film narrative, is not a depiction of Everest, however, but of London. Red-coated guards march under Ceremonial Arch and through Trafalgar Square, important sites of military commemoration. Crowds cheer. A military band plays. It is the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. The narration avoids the mention of Everest, thus subordinating any talk of Hillary's and Tenzing's ascent to the importance of the monarch:
June the second, 1953. People in London were excited. A queen had been crowned. On June the second, everything was new and exciting. (MacNeice)
The use of the past tense announces the documentary status of the film. This will be a formal record of the relationship between two historic occurrences. The past tense further indicates that the film will employ techniques of film narrative, the splicing and ellipses that characterize the rapid shifts of time and place of cinema. The British, badly bruised by the wars of the first decades of the century, have regained a stature by twin new events: a new queen, a new territory. The film Conquest makes it clear that the accession to the summit by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay is a conquest of political importance. "After 30 years of defeats," the narrative recounts, the British (in this case, not the more general "man") were victorious. The film cuts to images of newspapers being placed on the newsstand-and just as quickly being snatched from it by disembodied hands. The Daily Mail and the News Chronicle announce, "The Crowning Glory Everest Conquered," metaphorically reducing the size of the mountain to the dimensions of a royal headpiece to be worn by the new queen. This is one of many symbolically reductive moves within the film that consistently frame the mountain as a possession. These two scenes establish the connection between the queen and her political power and Everest with its physical power. The film shows the events-ascent and coronation-happening simultaneously, when, in fact Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary reached the summit on May 27, four days before the coronation. It is the news, the representation of their climb, that reaches London on the eve of the coronation. Time is collapsed in the film through the technology of splicing so that Everest is not only marked as "British" but subordinated to the human events of the coronation. It is presented as a gift to Queen Elizabeth, the "jewel in the crown." Everest is at this point clearly away, while Britain is visually crafted as the center of power, print, language and images.
From this grand introduction, the film moves into a quiet sequence that recounts the history of Everest from the point where it was "discovered" by the British. "Once there was only Peak XV," the narration records, as an organ murmurs solemnly in the background. The scene is of the churchyard in the English seacoast town of Hove, where the former Surveyor General of Great Britain, Sir George Everest (1790-1866), is buried. Verbally, as is graphically illustrated in the London Films opening sequence, the British name is placed over the Himalayan mountain. Visually, the gravestone inscribed with the name Everest is present. The mountain, once again, is away. Finally, the images of the film take in the mountain Everest, having fully established this as a British film and a British story told from a British perspective.
The first view of Everest in the film is accompanied by dramatic music, brass and timpani, the martial and regal instruments. In fact, the score to this film is of paramount importance in setting the mood and influencing the interpretation of the images and the narrative. The score was composed by Sir Arthur Benjamin (1893-1960), one of the premier British composers of the 20th century. The relationship of music as a rhetorical device to narrative and images is seldom studied, yet music is a strong suasive medium because it affects emotions and intellect. Music may invoke the cultural imaginary by its instrumentation and by its harmonic and melodic structure. Rather than being ambient sound, there is a prime intention behind the use of the timpani and trumpets in this film. They announce the arrival of a character of importance (as Sir William Walton's score for Henry V did in 1944) and establish this narrative as one with a military and political significance. The members of Colonel John Hunt's party are helped in their ascent by violins that swell over the trombones and timpani which continue to represent the mountain. Thus, the mountaineers' walk is aurally represented as a traverse upon the mountain. If we were to examine the score for this soundtrack, we would see that the notation is also visual. The mountaineers' theme is a pattern of notes that traces a mountain upward and downward in a tumble of descending eighth and sixteenth notes, something that would trace (if one were to connect note heads as dots) as a rather jagged triangular peak. Towering blocks of blue ice are represented by parallel octaves playing a pentatonic scale on the piano and harp. To trace these chords would lead one vertically downward on the page. (As an aside, the pentatonic, or five pitch, scale was widely used by Romantic and Post-Romantic Western symphonic composers to represent "Oriental" sounds and here it serves the same function of exoticizing the locale.) MacNeice characterizes the mountain as "aloof, inviolate, murderous," to the accompaniment of a wind machine, a choice of percussion which attempts to recreate what the climbers might have heard themselves, but which also chills the audience. Benjamin's music exacerbates the tension with tight intervals of seconds and thirds and incremental, upward chromatics. These are frequently separated by illustrative "crevasses," short rests between notes, that are like "hiccups."
The reports of summit attempts by George Leigh Mallory, the legendary British climber who failed to return from a summit attempt in 1924, may be responsible for the military imagery that is invoked to this day in the description of climbing Everest. Not only was Mallory enlisted in World War I, the British expeditions were led by career military men. Hunt, Colonel John Hunt, we are told, was "summoned from Germany," told to come to England "as quickly as possible." Summit attempts are generally referred to as "assaults" and, if one looks closely at the labeling on the rations for the 1953 climb, one notices that they are labeled "assault rations." MacNeice refers to the climbers "planning their attack" while Base Camp is compared to "building a fortress." Climber, photographer, and author Edwin Bernbaum addresses this issue as well, borrowing from the book of Genesis to describe that:
. . . .climbing the mountain has become a symbol of the value that Western civilization has put on the conquest of nature, a conquest that glorifies the spirit of man and establishes his dominion over the things of this world. (236)
Anthropomorphizing is a frequent conceit in MacNeice's narrative, causing the mountain to become a "worthy opponent," as in a war. "Some crevasses are rather blue color . . . and hungry-looking," the narration tells us. The South Col "has the smell of death about it." This familiarizing move is a common rhetorical strategy when faced with the unknown. Feminist critics would note, as well, the invocation of the "vagina dentata" in the description of murderous caverns: the woman whose sex has the power to devour men. The antagonist of this story is the mountain; the heroes are Tenzing and Hillary. And the narration tells us, Chomolungma, "The Goddess Mother of the World . . . can only be conquered by men."
Everest on the Big Screen
The 1998 film Everest, directed by expert climber David Breashears, was designed as mass entertainment for a diverse audience at one of the 195 specially-designed IMAX Theaters throughout the world. The film is also available as a home video; however, the real interest is generated in the theater by the "as if you were there," giant screen. Everest was shot, partially, during the spring of 1996, when a sudden storm stranded several climbers on the mountain. Eight people died in the storm. Yet, although the film comments briefly on their deaths, it predominantly focuses on the triumph of American climber Ed Viesturs, who summits the peak without the use of supplemental oxygen, demonstrating his superior physical ability and excellent training. The moral of the film narrative seems to be that, although Everest is deadly for some, "it is there" to be conquered by a few men of strength and ambition.
Unlike Conquest, which begins its narrative in London, Everest opens with scenes of Nepal. A monk lights candles in a monastery, flames flickering upward toward the spectators. We look down upon them to the center of the flame. Liam Neeson narrates the story of four climbers who ascend to the summit of Everest. The image of the delicate flames dissolves to snow blowing furiously over open rock and an avalanche pouring snow on a valley below, as Neeson points out that at "the top of the world" is a "desolate, deathly place."
Three of the four climbers are introduced in their home countries: Jamling Tenzing Norgay, the son of Sherpa Tenzing who ascended with Hillary; the American Viesturs, riding mountain bikes with wife Paula in Utah; and the Spanish rock climber Araceli Segarra, who in the opening shot is clinging to a cliff above a blue lagoon. A fourth climber, Sumiyuo Tsuzuki, is not shown in the opening sequence. Following their introduction, the mountain is located on a computerized map within a "frame," as if it is upon the wall in the Surveyor General's office. This is followed by a colorful, computer generated sequence demonstrating plate tectonics.
The rationale of this trip appears to be the placement of a GPS Satellite receiver near the peak of Everest. As Viesturs tells us, "I brought together a team of highly-skilled climbers to assist a scientist who's studying the geology of the Everest region." This scientist receives less than five minutes of screen time in the film and is unnamed in the credits. In addition to the four primary members of the team, there are ten climbers carrying IMAX camera equipment, including experienced climber, writer, and photographer David Breashears, Viesturs' wife Paula, sherpas and cooks, for a total of thirty people on the expedition. In the words of the LA Times review from October 1998,
"Everest" not only shows us the beauty of the mountain, it also details how painfully arduous getting up and down on it is. Everest's most celebrated obstacles, with names like the Lhotse Face and the Khumbu Icefall, are shown in discouraging detail, as are ice crevices that seem to extend downward to eternity. . . . The result is a dizzying collection of heroic vistas that words are not equal to describing. (Turan)
Heroic is an apt word choice, but it is not the landscape that is the hero. This film celebrates the achievements of humans. The film disguises the apparatus and filmic conventions that create it as a text, focusing instead on those few who take action within the "desolate, deathly" landscape. The dominant style of narrative is expository rather than poetic; narrative and image are a one-to-one correspondence. We see an avalanche, as Viesturs tells us, "Several times a day, at base camp, you hear the roar of an avalanche" or we see two climbers placing a ladder across a crevasse as Viesturs explains, "In the Icefall we use ladders a lot." Thus, in a filmic riddle, the images illustrate the text while the text provides captions for the images. What is interesting about this film, however, is not so much the film itself, but the aporias and incongruities that litter its text and imagery.
That this film is as much a work of commercial fiction as a documentary is evident in the opening ten minutes of film. My hunch is that audiences are inured to the derivative commercial-style music that filters daily through television dramas, commercials, and even televised sporting events. (While both composers listed in the credits have other experience as IMAX composers, Daniel May also can be credited with the score to the 1989 release, Chopper Chicks in Zombietown). The title sequence for "Everest," although brief, makes full use of familiar studio music codes, quoting motifs from Xena and Star Wars, and remarkably borrowing the familiar nasal Celtic wail of the Uilleann pipes from the 1997 film Titanic to instill in the audience a sense of drama and poignancy. What relationship the Uilleann pipes have to any of the climbers or the region of Sagarmartha is not made clear by either text or image. Perhaps we are meant to understand the pipes not so much at their nationalistic denotative level, but at the emotional level. The Irish composer Shaun Davey has argued that:
[Irish music] has been seen so comfortably coexisting with other traditions and with modern music forms, that it is not an Irish-exclusive music, but an international and contemporary one. It has crossed over, become intelligible to the rest of the world. (Alarik L3)
In other words, although the film frequently emphasizes that these climbers form a multi-national team, the musical score de-naturalizes itself in order to de-nationalize itself. The commercial studio music that functions as the soundtrack is an indication of "globalization" in its own right, having crossed national boundaries to ubiquitously advertise cars, food, and health care products. Interestingly, each of the three climbers introduced to us receives a "local" musical treatment that is abandoned in favor of a global, but not distinctive, "Everest" sound. Norgay is accompanied by flutes, Viesturs by American finger-style guitar, and Segarra by a suave American West coast Latin style guitar. When the scene shifts to Everest and the Himalayas, however, the music becomes more bland and internationally recognizable as dramatic accompaniment. An orchestra swells here, the horns and a gong echo to illustrate the Icefall.
As I mentioned earlier, the mountain is introduced with a sequence of blowing snow and avalanche. If one looks closely at the closing credits, however, one discovers the following disclaimer: "Some climbing scenes were re-created and filmed in the USA." In fact, some snow and ice scenes were filmed in New Hampshire and Colorado. Thus, when Neeson reveals that "only the strong and lucky survive" at the top of the world, what the audience may be looking at is an entirely more familiar and less exotic snowscape in Colorado or a rocky outcrop in northern New Hampshire. This textual footnote is essential to understanding the images of the film. Although we are constantly reminded that there is a direct relationship between word and image, there is no way to verify that correspondence. Instead, we must rely on the dominant narrative strategy of the film-the transparent correspondence--to believe that the wind, rocks, and snow are Himalayan. Kenneth Turan's review points that, since the IMAX camera can take only 90 seconds of film per magazine, Breashears "tried not to shoot anything that wasn't going to be in the final film." The camera weighs 48 pounds and would require close to 50 magazines of film to shoot the film, thus the equipment is bulky and heavy. The film closes with an acknowledgment of the fact that one of the true feats of Everest was not to put the GPS receiver on the mountain top, but carrying the apparatus necessary to make the film, as the producers "The thank the ten climbers who carried the IMAX camera to the Top of the World." Nowhere are these ten climbers shown with the equipment, nor are they acknowledged by name. We see yaks carrying equipment through the rocky valley approach to base camp or three climbers against the snow. Eventually, there is just Ed Viesturs against a bright blue sky, summiting without supplemental oxygen. The significant absence of most of the thirty member team from the images in the film emphasizes the first words of the narration, that there are only a few who can make the climb, and these are "the strong." Despite the fact that there were many teams on the mountain that spring and close to fifty going up Lhotse face in one day alone, we see only our protagonists against the snows, underscoring the grand narrative theme of personal achievement and individual excellence.
In a climactic segment of the film, Segarra and Norgay summit after Viesturs, and look out across the clouds and neighboring peaks. Segarra comments, "I was sure I could see halfway around the world." But are they at the top of Everest in this sequence? Or are they in New Hampshire? Perhaps what we really see are two stand-ins wearing bulky and visage-disguising Polartec gear, crawling over a snow mound near Denver. While we can be certain these three climbers (Viesturs, Segarra, and Norgay) made it to the summit, we cannot be certain that what we see in the film is in fact the summit of Everest. Everest exists purely in the realm of the imaginary in the film bearing its name. The many representations of the mountain and its reputation as being inviolate and murderous influence the way that we read the film. We believe because we are meant to.
Mountains, Pathways, and the Sacred
From these descriptions in only two of the many published reports about Everest ascents, we can see that Everest yields apocryphal stories and master narratives. Everest is an icon because of mass-mediated recognition and because of its relationship to the sacred. Together with other elements of the landscape-sky, sun, moon, trees, and water-mountains have been ascribed sacred status in many of the world's religions and thus the iconic status of Everest borrows from that cultural assumption. Mountain streams provide the nourishing, life-giving water that descends to the valleys and plains below, and their summits cut into the sky, towering above the clouds. Hikers and climbers know the experience of being high on a peak when the clouds descend to greet them and the experience is awe-inspiring, frightening, but sublimely beautiful. Everest holds a particular status in the minds of Western climbers because it is the highest point on the earth. To reach the summit of Everest is to go beyond the clouds to the top of the world, to stand above the millions, physically and emotionally. As Bernbaum notes, sacred spaces are often the link between humans and the heavens ("Sacred" 12.528). Ironically, however, as Bernbaum points out, to the people of the Himalayas, Everest is not sacred. Even the supposed sacred name Chomolungma, or "Mother Goddess of the world" is a Western interpretation, "[r]eflecting a Western tendency to assume that the local people must revere the highest peak on earth as the most sacred" (Bernbaum 7). Bernbaum asserts that other readings of the name Chomolungma refer to the plume of snow that blows from the peak, and can be read as "Lady [chomo] of the Wind [lung]" or "Goddess of the Place [lung]" (7).
Early on in his collection of essays titled Eiger Dreams, Jon Krakauer asks the perpetual question, "Why would a normal person want to do this stuff?"-subject their bodies to physical deprivation and the punishments of extreme temperatures (x)-when it is a given that, "Any alpinist who sets his sights on the higher reaches of the Himalayas stands a fair chance of being party to someone's premature demise" (136). The answer, posits Bernbaum, is the connection with something "other," something beyond ordinary human experience: the sacred. As Bernbaum comments, "The harsh environment of the heights demands that climbers rise above their physical, mental, and spiritual limitations" (244). As Weathers noted, it was important to test himself, but also to rise above the "bottomless pit of despair and misery" that characterized his bout with depression (5). The "barren and remote" mountains (Weathers 6) were extra-ordinary. Ordinary human experience is cluttered by technology, from cell-phones to digital media. Thus, as art historian Barbara Stafford points out, these media "have exacerbated the nostalgia for primitive environments not yet besmirched by the duplicities of the view screen or the computer monitor" (57). Among these "primitive" environments are the mountains, for they stand outside of human time.
In the discourses that frame mountaineering, the use of the word "primitive" often reveals a deep-seated rhetorical tendency to view the mountains as something to be conquered. As Johannes Fabian stresses in the important critical work Time and the Other, the term indicates a hierarchy in conceptions of the self and other. The self (usually Western) views the "primitive" other (Asian, African, non-Western) as a vestige of a former time. At the same time, the time of the observer is essentially prized as more "advanced," more valuable, knowledgeable, and sensitive. The observer is aware of progress (always moving toward betterment and improvement) by viewing the other as a "primitive" (Fabian 39).
Progress is further represented by the very physical aspect of climbing. As it connects to the ideals of the sacred, climbing to a summit is the continuance of a spiritual line. As pilgrims followed the road to Canterbury and as John Bunyan eloquently illustrated in Pilgrim's Progress, to walk is to study a metaphor for life and the Christian spiritual quest itself. Bernbaum points out, "Here lies one of the great attractions of mountain climbing: the ascent to the summit offers an inspiring model of a path leading to a lofty goal, a path such as we would wish to follow through the confusing maze of everyday life" (Bernbaum xii). The pathway brings physical, intellectual, and spiritual enlightenment. People go to sacred space to "meet the gods" (Bernbaum 12. 528). The point is amplified by Diana Eck, who writes that "Mountain ascent is associated with vision and the acquisition of power. . . . In both cases, transformation, including spiritual insight, is part of the mountain experience" (10.132). It is uncovered in the writings of Krakauer and Weathers, the latter going so far as to claim that he was raised from his exhausted, frostbitten condition on the side of the mountain by a spiritual "force" or "vision" that changed his life forever (7).
This idea that mountains harbor mysterious, spiritual forces is neither new nor original. Part of the fear of mountains that Nicolson describes in Mountain Gloom is the perception that their rocky crags were a haven for evil demons. Even as the perception of the mountains shifted from the sublime to the picturesque in the late eighteenth century, Mary Shelley removed her "demon" creation, the monster of Frankenstein, to the Swiss Alps in order to ponder his unnatural existence. In 1918, British mountaineer H. E. M. Sutfield claimed in all seriousness that mountaineering was a religion.
Our understanding, then, of the power of Mount Everest as icon can borrow from religious history and theory. In Orthodox Christianity, the religion that reveres particular images as uniting the real and the spiritual, icons are gateways to everlasting life, not mere symbols. Like the icon, the images of the mountain carry a dual power:
[Mountains] belong to the material world; yet they evoke the spiritual realm. Their physical height and grandeur inspire a sense of wonder and awe that conjures up images of the sacred enshrined in religious traditions-gods and demons, heavens and hells, visions of revelation, scenes of damnation. When an artist chooses to paint a mountain in an awe-inspiring manner, he automatically calls forth such images from the repository of his own tradition and juxtaposes them with the image of the peak. Acquiring in this way a metaphoric dimension, the work of art takes on a numinous depth that reveals to the viewer a deeper vision of reality, shimmering on the edge of awareness. (Bernbaum 226)
Perhaps, in the final analysis, to tell a true story about Everest is to invoke human dreams, aspirations, and desires rather than landscape or Nature (which are, in themselves, human constructs). "Symbols of space and its order most clearly illustrate the religious act of orientation, that is, the fundamental process of situating human life in the world," Mircea Eliade has noted (Eliade and Sullivan 11.105). Thus, the need to follow a path on the quest is a key motif in human experience. Walking a pathway is an ancient impulse, and many Western and Eastern philosophers and inspirational religious figures have traversed wide areas in their search for meaning or their dissemination of belief. That which is unknowable is sacred, writes Bernbaum (xviii), but that which can be traversed comes to assume the dual "consonance between internal and external passage" (Solnit 3).
A Frozen Coney Island
In this discussion, I have tried to illustrate that images convey meaning through their association with other images, their association with descriptive text, and their association with music. Both text and music perform rhetorical functions, by fixing the logos, or identifying language for the image, and suggesting an interpretive emotional stance or pathetic appeal. A more comprehensive analysis may reveal, however, that the meaning of any image or icon may become overdetermined and therefore inscrutable when it is placed into too many discourses. In the early twentieth century, as Krakauer suggests in Into Thin Air, Everest is too known, too mapped. Its name appears on commercial and mundane products. George Mallory's broken body is discovered and photographed and the photo disseminated on websites (such as the reputable Nova). Bernbaum frequently returns to this theme in Sacred Mountains of the World and it is a frequently refrain in stories of Everest that the mountain attracts too many visitors each season (in fact, there is even a website devoted to the cleaning of the "world's highest trash dump," www.everestcleanup.com). Bernbaum calls the Alps, the "Coney Island of Europe":
It has become increasingly difficult to find a place from which to see the Alps cleanly without the sight of a cable car or condominium to sully the view. Religious pilgrimage to mountain shrines in other parts of Europe has undergone a similar process of commercialization: guidebooks to sites such as Montserrat and Mont Saint Michel warn visitors not to be put off by the clamor of vendors hawking devotional items to busloads of pilgrims. (127)
Globalizing of the worst sort rears its head in the rush of commodities that surround Nature. However, as W. J. T Mitchell notes, Nature and landscapes come to the viewer already encoded with symbolic form and overwritten by ideologies. They are never free from human intervention or representation. Although Mitchell's contention that "landscape is already artifice in the moment of its beholding" (14) may seem radical, it is ideally illustrated by Mount Everest. When Western eyes located the mountain, it was named, surveyed, and placed on a map. It became a "territory" and a "possession." Eventually, it was climbed. It entered into the realm of myth, imagination, and conjecture. Then it was conquered by many nationalities, shifting it from a jewel in the British crown to a global industry. Since the turn of the century, Everest's image has been disseminated as the location of dreams, the site where the "impossible" can be realized. Despite representing freedom and the rejection of commercial values, the mountain must sustain alternative meanings that focus less on its characteristics as a physical space than its meanings for the humans who have climbed it, and the many more who know of its existence through the eye of the camera.
Some of the ideas for this essay were generated during the 2001 Visual Rhetoric Conference at Indiana University. The author thanks Kevin DeLuca, Anne Demo, Barbara Zelizer, and Greg Clark for their thoughtful (although perhaps unwitting) contributions to this essay. The insights of all the conference participants helped to shape the questions by which we not only evaluate images, but consider their place in an ever-changing society.
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