Archive for Women
One hundred years ago this winter, two polar expeditions disembarked on the northern edges of the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica with the goal of reaching the South Pole. One party, led by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, reached 90º S on 14 December 1911. The second party, led by British officer Robert Falcon Scott, arrived a month later on 17 January 1912. Amundsen and his men returned to announce their victory, while Scott and his party of four men died on the trek back, succumbing to starvation and cold.
The meaning of Antarctic exploration has been cast in the forge of the Scott-Amundsen race ever since. There are good reasons for this. The event was significant geographically: representing the attempt to erase the last, substantive terra incognita from the modern world. It was also important politically: highlighting the competition between different Western powers on the eve of the Great War. For historians, it offered a way to demarcate the eras of exploration: signaling the key event in Antarctica’s “Heroic Age” and capping the end of a century of intense polar exploration. Lastly, it offered a great story: in the great race to the South Pole, writers have found heroes, villains, experts, and bumblers toiling on a landscape both severe and sublime.
Yet Scott and Amundsen were not the first to understand Antarctica’s power as a canvas of the imagination. Three hundred and forty years before Robert Scott and Roald Amundsen raced across Antarctica, this southern world filled the mind of Abraham Ortelius as he crafted his magisterial atlas, Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (The Theater of the World). Terra Australis, as Antarctica was then called, sprawled over the page of Ortelius’s world map. Its ragged coastline reached South America and brushed up against the shores of New Guinea and the Spice Islands. It was a polar continent, but it was also a tropical one, crossing the Tropic of Capricorn in the western Pacific to come within twenty degrees of the equator. Even accounting for the distortions of map projection, Terra Australis was a vast place, dwarfing the other continents of the world.
Despite its imposing form, however, Terra Australis was built on fragile empirical foundations, something that Ortelius knew when he published the atlas. The title page of Theatrum, which depicts the continents in allegorical form as goddesses, expresses his ambivalence about the southern continent. At the top of the page, Europe sits on her throne, while Asia and Africa, semi-clothed and semi-barbarous, stand beneath her. At the bottom of the page reclines America the cannibal, naked except for her loin cloth. Terra Australis stands next to her, a figure incompletely revealed in a block of marble, a continent glimpsed but still unknown.
In seeing explorers as sculptors, Ortelius was probably thinking about the sculptors of his day, artists like Michelangelo who had been moved by the spirit of Neo-Platonism and who saw it as their task to “liberate the figure imprisoned in marble.” From this perspective, the congruence between the artist and explorer was easy to see: they were both the messengers of objective truth, vectors of knowledge rather than its creators. Terra Australis waited for the explorer to chisel her out of the hard whiteness of high latitudes, revealing her true form to the world.
Yet Ortelius’s allegory of Antarctica carries different meanings today, a time when artists do not often describe their work as the liberation of perfect forms or pre-existing ideas, but as creative and subjective acts. If sculptors fashion their figures rather than reveal them, the half-rendered figure of Terra Australis has a different message. In order to bring this continent to life, the allegory suggests, the explorer must envision it and give it shape. Its storms, mountains, and coastlines – its very identity as a place – emerge as the vision of its creator, subject to ideas, expectations, and beliefs. The marble is not silent, of course. The continent of Antarctica, like every artistic medium, carries its own powerful agency (as Scott and his party would attest) imposing its own limits on the form revealed.
Had Ortelius been alive in 1912, the year of Scott and Amundsen’s great race to the South Pole, I suspect he would have felt the impulse to finish his Antarctic goddess, to give the continent her final unchanging and eternal form, installing her in his allegorical pantheon like a stone deity in the temple of Olympus. Yet the continent of Antarctica is not so fixed. While its coastlines and topography are now stable enough to secure within the pages of the modern Atlas, its meanings are not.
The Hero’s Journey
The hero’s journey is a story common to all human cultures. While this story varies from from place to place and era to era, there are deep structural similarities among its forms. So common were these basic structural elements that comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell called the hero story a “monomyth.”
The story has a structure that we recognize in Bible stories and big-screen films alike: a hero departs the comforts of the known world on a quest. She endures physical and emotional trials, gains wisdom, and returns home to impart lessons learned on the journey.
Campbell’s eagerness (following Jung’s) to reduce all stories to basic structures makes me a little uneasy. (Can we really blueprint all human art forms?) But in the case of the hero story, I think he was on to something. The power of the journey story does appear to have almost universal expression and a common lesson also: that we gain knowledge by our encounter with the unknown and its perils.
That doesn’t mean, however, that the monomyth is monolithic. I see two important variants: some heroes gain knowledge in their quest that adds to things they already know (e.g. Moses and Jesus). Others discard their possessions and beliefs in order to find the truth (e.g. Plato’s prisoner of the cave, Siddhārtha Gautama, and St Francis of Assisi).
Since the late 1700s, the latter variant of the hero monomyth — that one must escape civilization in order to find oneself — has gained a strong foothold in the West. Although the idea that civilization corrupts is an old one, it has blossomed with the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and others.
In its most extreme form, the escape-civilization-to-find-enlightenment myth suggests that the traveler or explorer gains wisdom only when civilization is burned away by extreme experience. As climber Robert Dunn put it in 1907: explorers were “men with the masks of civilization torn off.”
Or as climber David Breashears expressed it a century later:
The idea is that all the artifice that we carry with us in life, the persona that we project—all that’s stripped away at altitude. Thin air, hypoxia—people are tremendously sleep-deprived on Everest, they’re incredibly exhausted, and they’re hungry and dehydrated. They are in a very altered state. And then at a moment of great vulnerability a storm hits. At that moment you become the person you are. You are no longer capable of mustering all this artifice. The way I characterize it, you either offer help or you cry for help.
But if the journey does its wisdom-building work by tearing off the mask of civilization, by stripping away artifice, we are left with this question:
What’s underneath the mask?
Dunn and Breashears imply that the true self is revealed: the intense experiences of the journey shear the subject of culture and its trappings. This is a comforting idea at first glance because it presumes that
1) you can find yourself by setting out on an exceptionally difficult adventure.
2) your problems are the result of your culture rather than your essential nature.
This reminds me a lot of John Locke who also believed that you could neatly separate the original self from one imprinted by civilization. In An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), Locke argued that human beings begin their journey tabula rasa — as blank slates — waiting to be shaped by experience. The Lockian newborn was a human TiVo pulled from its styrofoam packing, waiting to be filled by sounds and images that would give it its special identity.
I doubt that Dunn or Breashears believe the journey can return the explorer to the perfect self of the infant. I expect they see the perilous journey as a way of re-booting the TiVo rather than wiping it clean, clear out old programming to make space for new material.
The Cult of New Experience
The important point here is this: those who think of the self as something that can be purged of culture, like a psychological master cleanse, tend to weight the power of new experience over the power of reason or ideas, to prefer the bungee jump over the writer’s retreat. In their view, traditional ideas impede our understanding rather than advance it. To access the new, we need to leave our old selves — like a pair of flip-flops — at the door.
Perhaps this obsession with the power of experience explains why so many travelers and explorer seem concerned with having “authentic” experience rather than ones they see as packaged, hybrid, or touristy. In the traveler’s search for the truly different, she must avoid experiences that carry the whiff of world left behind. She avoids the McDonalds in Karachi. She turns down the tour bus to the pyramids. She resists the urge to text-message home from the summit of Everest.
But is our faith in the uber-experience wise? Can we peel away our culture like the rind off an orange? Closer inspection shows how much culture enters the flesh, shapes us, makes us. Humans have an innate form, of course, but its a form that cannot function without an environment. So speaking about one without the other is like asking “Which do plants need more: water or light?”
Before we make pure experience the holy grail of the self-knowledge, then, we need to pay closer attention to the way humans think about these experiences.
First, authentic is a rather squishy concept. Cultures routinely borrow and import what they need from other cultures. For example, in Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert discovers herself in part through her ecstatic encounter with Italy. Italy’s authenticity is expressed through its foods: it is a place of fried zucchini blossoms and sizzling Margarita pizza. Yet the core ingredients of these foods — zucchini and tomatoes — are foreign to Italy. They are both New World species, brought back to Europe and incorporated into Italian cooking in the 19th century. What is authentically Italian experience for Gilbert was, two centuries earlier, suspiciously foreign and non-Italian.
Second, experience itself is never pure, never unmediated (as I wrote about in my recent post about Moscow). Even those experiences which seen so expressly sensory — the joy of food, sex, art — feel different according to our beliefs about them. In his book, How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like, Paul Bloom explodes the myth of pure experience:
What matters most is not the world as it appears according to our senses. Rather, the enjoyment we get from something derives from what we think that thing is. This is true of intellectual pleasures, such as the appreciation of paintings and stories, and also for pleasures that seem simpler, such as the satisfaction of hunger and lust. For a painting, it matters who the artist was; for a story whether it is truth or fiction; for a steak we care about what sort of animal it came from; for sex, we care about who we think our sexual partner really is [xii]
Can we apply Bloom’s analysis of pleasure to the explorer’s experience of pain? Does the ascent up Everest gain meaning because of the pure experience of frostbite and hypoxia? Or does it matter more that the climber is enduring such pain on the slopes of the world’s tallest mountain? The mask of civilization is not something that the climber rips away. It’s the reason the climber is there in the first place.
Firsts have always been important in exploration. This seems rather straightforward, even tautological, to say since being first is woven into the definition of exploration. After all, traveling to unknown places is doing something that hasn’t been done before (or at least hasn’t been reported before). And this is how the history of exploration often appears to us in textbooks and timelines: as lists of expeditionary firsts from Erik the Red to Neil Armstrong.
In truth, though, firsts are fuzzy.
Some fuzziness comes from ignorance, our inability to compensate for the incompleteness of the historical record. This is a perennial problem in history in general and history of exploration in particular. (I call it a problem but it’s actually what makes me happy and keeps me employed).
Was Christopher Columbus the first European to reach America in 1492? Probably not, since evidence suggests that Norse colonies existed in North America five hundred years before he arrived. Was Robert Peary the first to reach the North Pole in 1909? It’s hard to say since Frederick Cook claimed to be first in 1908 and its possible that neither man made it.
Some fuzziness comes from the different meanings we give to “discovery.” The South American leader Simon Bolivar called Alexander von Humboldt “the true discoverer of America.” Bolivar did not mean this literally since Humboldt traveled through South America in 1800, 17 years after Bolivar himself was born there, 300 years after Columbus first arrived in the Bahamas, and about 16,000 years after Paleo-Indians arrived in America, approved of what they saw, and decided to stay.
But for Bolivar, Humboldt was the first person to see South America holistically: as a complex set of species, ecosystems, and human societies, held together by faltering colonial empires. Being first in exploration, Bolivar realized, meant more than planting a flag in the ground.
At first glance, we seem to have banished fuzziness from modern exploration. For example, there is little doubt that Neil Armstrong was the first human being to set foot on the moon since the event was captured on film and audio recordings, transmitted by telemetry, and confirmed by material artifacts such as moon rocks. (Moon hoax believers, I’m sorry. I know this offends.) Were the Russians suddenly interested in challenging Armstrong’s claim to being first, they would have a tough time proving it since Armstrong could give the day and year of his arrival on the moon (20 July 1969) and even the exact hour, minute, and second when his boot touched the lunar surface (20:17:40 Universal Coordinated Time).
But this growing precision of firsts has generated its own ambiguities. We have become more diligent about recording firsts precisely because geographical milestones have become more difficult to achieve. As a result, there has been a shift from firsts of place to firsts of method. As the forlorn, never-visited regions of the globe diminish in number, first are increasingly measured by the manner of reaching perilous places rather than the places themselves.
For example, Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary were the first to ascend Mt. Everest in 1953, but Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler were the first to climb the mountain without oxygen in 1978. In 1980, Messner achieved another first, by ascending Everest without oxygen or support.
Now as “firsts of difficulty” fall, they are being replaced by “firsts of identity.” James Whittaker was the first American to summit Everest in 1963. Junko Tabei was the first woman (1975). Since then, Everest has spawned a growing brood of “identity first” summits including nationality (Brazil, Turkey, Mexico, Pakistan), disability (one-armed, blind, double-amputee) and novelty (snowboarding, married ascent, longest stay on summit).
It would be easy to dismiss this quest for firsts as a shallow one, a vainglorious way to achieve posterity through splitting hairs rather than new achievements. But I don’t think this is entirely fair. While climbing Everest or kayaking the Northwest Passage may have little in common with geographical firsts in exploration 200 years ago, this is not to say that identity firsts are meaningless acts. They may not contribute to an understanding of the globe, but they have become benchmarks of personal accomplishment, physical achievements — much like running a marathon — that have personal and symbolic value.
Still, I am disturbed by the rising number of “youngest” firsts. Temba Tsheri was 15 when he summited Everest on 22 May 2001. Jessica Watson was 16 last year when she left Sydney Harbor to attempt a 230 day solo circumnavigation of the globe. (She is currently 60 miles off Cape Horn). Whatever risks follow adventurers who seek to be the oldest, fastest, or the sickest to accomplish X, they are, at least, adults making decisions.
But children are different. We try to restrict activities that have a high risk of injury for minors. In the U.S. for example, it is common to delay teaching kids how to throw a curve ball in baseball until they are 14 for fear of injuring ligaments in the arm. Similar concerns extend to American football and other contact sports.
So why do we continue to celebrate and popularize the pursuit of dangerous firsts by minors? What is beneficial in seeing if 16-year-olds can endure the hypoxia of Everest or the isolation of 230 days at sea. Temba Tsheri, current holder of youngest climber on Everest, lost five fingers to frostbite.
We must remember that to praise “the youngest” within this new culture of firsts, we only set the bar higher (or younger as it were) for the record to be broken again. In California, Jordan Romero is already training for his ascent of Everest in hopes to break Tsheri’s age record. He is thirteen.
Myers-Briggs personality assessments are sprouting up everywhere on Facebook this week. For those who don’t know what this is, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is the most widely used personality profile in the United States, a favorite tool of career planners, team-builders, and guidance counselors.
Brain child of Katherine Briggs and her daughter Isabel Myers, the MBTI divides the human psyche in four separate areas, each one of which has two different tendencies or dichotomies:
Extraverion (E)/Introversion (I)
Intuition (N)/Sensation (S)
Thinking (T) /Feeling (F)
Judging (J) /Perceiving (P)
There is nothing obvious about these psychic divisions. In truth, the categories of the MBTI were long in the making. In the early 1920s, Briggs was experimenting with a number of different categories for explaining the diversity of human behavior. More specifically, she was interested in explaining the strange, unBriggs-like behavior of her new son-in-law.
Then Myers read Carl Jung’s Psychological Types in 1923 and psychometric light bulbs started to go off in her head. Jung’s system seemed perfectly suited for creating a system of personality profiles. This is probably because Jung had his own strange in-law to explain, former mentor and father-figure Sigmund Freud.
Freud, Jung observed, gained energy by focusing on the outside world, a process that Jung called extraversion. Jung, however, was different. He found succor looking inward. (As a boy Jung spent his days writing secret messages to a mannequin carved on the end of his ruler). These were not neuroses, he thought, as much as they were different expressions of personality (though Jung does make one wonder).
Indeed, Jung felt that the spectrum of introversion and extraversion expressed a key dichotomy in western thought, one that dated back to the different approaches of Plato, who usually sought truth inwardly through the world of ideas, and Aristotle, who looked for reality in the phenomena of the world around him.
All of this is to say that the roots of the MBTI go deep. By the 1940s, Myers had expanded on Jung’s types and established a test that could be used for commercial application. Since then the MBTI has rocketed into mainstream culture, used to profile everyone from religious seminarians to astronauts.
Next Post: MBTI and the Explorer Type
Steph Davis climbs such outrageously steep things that one wonders whether sorcery is involved, that perhaps her gifts extend beyond climbing to include the manipulation of physics. She has put up first ascents on the world’s most frightening big-walls, from mountains in Pakistan and Baffin Island to Kyrgyzstan.
Davis is the first woman to free climb the Salathe Wall on El Capitan in Yosemite and to summit Torre Egger in Patagonia. She has also become an expert in BASE jumping (the acronym stands for Building, Antenna, Span, and Earth), a wild and unforgiving off-shoot of skydiving.
Yet Davis is also a scholar and accomplished writer. Her masters degree in literature focused on the canon of mountaineering literature. In her book, High Infatuation, Davis asks difficult questions about high-risk climbing, examining her own motives, personal relationships, and the broader meanings of her life’s work.
Welcome Steph Davis.
You’ve done some amazingly dangerous climbs, from Mt Fitztroy in Patagonia to the Salathe Wall on El Capitan. When you pursue projects like these, how do think through the risks? Is there a red line that you won’t cross? Or does the line change as you climb?
Climbing varies a lot with risk. For example, free climbing el cap is really difficult, but is much less risky than climbing in the mountains, even if the peak is technically easier to climb. So every style of climbing presents different challenges, in terms of difficult and danger, with lots of blurred lines too. I feel very aware of those elements, and at times I am pulled more towards pushing difficulty, and at other times more pulled toward negotiating risk.
For your masters thesis at Colorado State University, you studied mountaineering literature. Could you talk a bit about your project?
I was in the literature graduate program at CSU, and when the time came to do a master’s project, I tried to think of areas that would interest me. Finally I went to my committee and asked them if I could do the project on mountaineering literature. At the time, this didn’t exist as a field of study there. They were really receptive, and told me if I could write up a bibliography of works with short descriptions as part of the project, they would accept it. I chose a selection of mountaineering and climbing books I found canonical and made the bibliography, and then wrote a thesis project called “the reality of experience in mountaineering literature,” about the ways in which reality can be so disparate and shifting for each individual who is living through extreme experiences. I framed the project as a personal essay, around a summer spent climbing on the Longs Peak Diamond in Colorado, because that was a writing style I was studying a lot.
Do you identify with any particular explorer or mountaineer?
I will always be in awe of Ernest Shackleton, and what he accomplished.
When Darwin went to Patagonia, he carried a copy of Alexander von Humboldt’s Personal Narrative with him, an account of Humboldt’s own journeys through South America. Do you bring books with you on your climbs? Do you ever have other climbers’ experiences in mind as you make your ascent?
When I go on an expedition, I choose carefully since weight allowances force me to limit the books I bring, and I read very fast. So it‘s impossible to bring enough books for a whole trip. I usually try to bring some very thick, dense novels, also some books about natural science. I also bring one or two books in French or Spanish with a dictionary, because those can be entertaining for days. On actual climbs, I can barely spare the weight to bring food, much less books….but if I am climbing big wall style, I will always bring a journal.
You’ve written about the challenges of being a woman rock-climber in a male-dominated sport. Male climbers didn’t always take you seriously or belittled your accomplishments. Has that changed with your success as a climber or do you still feel like you are treated differently?
It has changed. I wrote about that phase in my book, because it was a strange experience for me. As time has gone by, that phase is over, and I’m relieved, because I didn’t appreciate it.
Do you think being a elite women climber affects the way you are treated by sponsors, fans, or the general public?
That is hard for me to answer. I have been climbing for 18 years, half my life, and have been climbing at a high level for a long time. So I don’t have much perspective versus not being that way. People I meet do tell me that they are inspired or motivated by things I’ve done, and that makes me feel good. But I also feel that doing all these things is not really so unique or special. Everyone I meet has done amazing things in life, they just might not have the same sense of drama attached.
Many people can identify with your struggle to balance family relationships with your work. Yet even by these standards, it seems that you spend a great deal of time away from your friends, family, and dog Fletcher. How do you find the balance point in your life between climbing and these relationships?
Living a simple life is really difficult sometimes, oddly enough. For me, the hardest challenge right now is balancing travel with climbing. Travel is about the worst thing I can do for climbing fitness, but sometimes it‘s necessary for work or certain climbing or jumping plans. When I am at home, on a schedule of working out, and living a simple life, I can climb my best. Being in cars and airplanes and not climbing regularly just doesn’t work….so it can be tricky. In recent years I started base jumping and wing suit flying. Now when I am traveling a lot, I take advantage of being in good jumping places, and focus on jumping instead. Which is great. It is also interesting right now, with Fletcher being 15 and very arthritic. She does not travel well, and mostly needs to be at home where she is comfortable since she can’t walk as well. I definitely prefer to do things which don’t require a lot of walking (certain climbing areas with short approaches where I can carry her and good campsites, skydiving at the local airport where she can be at the landing field, base jumps where she can hang out at the landing site) right now. I sometimes have to force myself to go running, because I really miss her when I run. And I worry a lot when I go on a trip for several weeks, right now.
After successfully free-climbing the Salathe Wall, you experienced a period of depression and self-doubt. As I understand it, you were trying to reconcile your beliefs in a philosophy of acceptance and mindfulness with the sometimes obsessive, single-focused determination you needed as a climber to reach your goals. Could you speak a bit about this? Does this conflict still affect you or have you come to terms with it?
The Salathe experience was pretty severe for me, partly because the climb took so much out of me. I was also dealing with a lot of challenges in my marriage, which made things even harder and raised a lot of questions about partnership, support, and giving. So the experience forced me into a lot of self-examination, and also eventually led me to conclude that there are positive ways to organize personal projects, without having to feel like a burden on others. So I feel very happy now when I get enthusiastic about a project, because I have found there are fun ways to involve others, without the sense of imbalanced giving or taking which is so often the characteristic of a major, individual climbing project, and that makes the entire experience very fulfilling.
It seems to me that the conflict you experienced after climbing the Salathe has parallels in the climbing community where some climbers seek some kind of inner peace or connection with nature whereas others are interested in peak-bagging and new ascents. Could you speak a bit about the culture of elite climbers? Is there a common set of values or is everyone different?
One of the best things about climbing is the fact that people can experience it in so many different ways.
What is your next big project?
Something involving free soloing!
Thanks Steph, good luck and safe travels.
On February 6 2000, Guy Waterman drove his Subaru Impreza to Franconia Notch in New Hampshire, hiked up Mt Lafayette, and in the windy -16 degree night, let himself die of exposure.
Waterman was a man of many gifts and torments, a climber, writer, and environmentalist who lived for thirty years with his wife Laura Waterman off-the-grid in Vermont.
Of these torments, which drove him into deeper and deeper isolation, Waterman said little. Yet he wrote about them through the characters of literature. He was Shakespeare’s Ariel battling the witch-child Caliban. He was Milton’s proud Satan. He was tragic Prometheus. He was Melville’s Ahab.
Ahab. As I read Laura Waterman’s spare, graceful memoir, Losing the Garden: The Story of a Marriage , it seemed an appropriate metaphor for Guy Waterman.
Then, this morning, reading Maria Coffey’s book, Where the Mountain Casts its Shadow: The Dark Side of Extreme Adventure, Ahab surfaced once again. Near the summit of Everest in 1996, David Breashears and Ed Viesturs come across a body near the Hillary Step.
They found [Bruce] Herrod’s body clipped on to fixed ropes with a figure-eight rappel breake. He was hanging upside down, his arms dangling, his mouth open, and his skin black. “Like Captain Ahab,” Breashears later wrote, “lashed to his white whale.” [Coffey, 118]
It made me pause. One hears different many different literary metaphors for explorers and adventurers, but rarely Ahab.
Successful explorers find comparison to Odysseus, the brilliant, cock-sure hero of Homer’s Odyssey. (Confined to the scurvy-ridden cabin of Advance over the long winter of 1854, Arctic explorer Elisha Kane would keep up the spirits of his men by reading them Alfred Tennyson’s Odyssean poem “Ulysses”) Those explorers who perish are commonly portrayed as Icarus, a boy whose joy with altitude overcame good judgment, causing him to fall to earth.
Both of these are figures are imperfect but bright of heart. Ahab is a different creature, a man of darker spirit, a figure turned in upon himself. Ahab’s travels to the ends of the earth bring no discovery or enlightenment; he sees only the white whale. Ultimately his obsession brings tragedy to all, not only Ahab, but to those who follow him.
Is Ahab the true spirit of extreme adventure? You would not think so reading most adventure literature. While these books reveal some of the dirty laundry of expeditionary life, they mostly chronicle struggle and attainment, heroism and transcendence. Indeed, elite climbers often speak of the transcendent moment as the Holy Grail of high-altitude climbing, that thing which brings them back, time and time again, to the most dangerous mountains in the world.
Yet transcendence, going beyond oneself, is the opposite of obsession, a psychic tunneling-in so extreme that it diminishes or excludes everything around it: Golem’s ring, Ahab’s whale, Herrod’s mountain.
Grim metaphors indeed. Perhaps the legions of 8000-meter peak baggers and Seven-Summiters should read Moby-Dick, digest the moral of Ahab, and then turn their attention to the Ahab’s Quaker First Mate Starbuck:
[H]is far-away domestic memories of his young Cape wife and child, tend[ed] to bend him … from the original ruggedness of his nature, and open him still further to those latent influences which, in some honest-hearted men, restrain the gush of dare-devil daring, so often evinced by others in the more perilous vicissitudes of the fishery. “I will have no man in my boat,” said Starbuck, “who is not afraid of a whale.” By this, he seemed to mean, not only that the most reliable and useful courage was that which arises from the fair estimation of the encountered peril, but that an utterly fearless man is a far more dangerous comrade than a coward. [Melville, Moby-Dick]
If this seems too tame or Quakerish for the modern climber, perhaps they’d learn more from a more modern Starbuck, the character Kara “Starbuck” Thrace of the Sci-Fi channel’s Battlestar Gallactica. Thrace is a woman of many demons, of violent appetites. Her thirst for transcendent experience has no limits. But ultimately she channels her dare-devilry into objects of common interest, the search for Earth, the return home.
It is sunny, cold, and quiet here in Hartford. No one is out. Everyone, it seems, is waiting for the big storm that will roll through this afternoon. It seemed a good opportunity to sit down with Laura Waterman’s book, Losing the Garden, a memoir about Waterman marriage to Guy Waterman and the events leading up to his suicide on Mt Lafayette in 2000. I didn’t even make it to the first page, though, because I was rather struck by Stephen Dobyns’ epigraph:
It is hard for me to say what is precisely true. Memory distorts. Psychology, emotions, good health or bad — all drag their feet across events. The details that I might remember one day are not those that I might remember on another day. And certainly my memory has its own agenda — to show me off this way or that. My subjectivity is the smudgy window through which I squint. [Stephen Dobyns, quoted in Laura Waterman’s Losing the Garden]
In this simple, elegant paragraph, Dobyns expresses an idea that is at the core of academic history: the perils of subjective experience.
For historians, there are two parts to this.
The first: beware the recollections of your subject. People remember events in ways that are selective and distorted. Often these distortions of memory increase over time. Oral historians often find that subjects interviewed forty or fifty years after a particular event remember it in ways largely at odds with the records they kept at the time.
The second: beware the distortions of the storyteller. Many of my students think of history as a fixed series of events that have been culled from the documents, dutifully analyzed, and then set down in stone (or in their case, textbook) for the ages to admire.
Historians, however, are much more aware of history as a living thing, something in continual motion, pushed, pulled, or turned upside-down by scholars of the present. These changes do not emerge from the discovery of new historical data (although this happens too), rather because historians cannot help but bring their own interests, beliefs, and preoccupations to the subjects they study. As culture changes, so do historians and the histories they write.
One sees the dangers here. If one carries too much of ones beliefs back into the past, it will dominate one’s thinking. We could write a factual, empirically rigorous book called George Washington: Our Racist, Sexist, Non-vegan Founding Father.
But such a book would be of limited value because these labels tell us little about Washington as a unique figure. Washington’s ideas about race, sex, vegetables, etc were broadly shared in the 18th century, enough to be seen as social norms in his society.
Focused on the chasm of difference between Washington and modern society, such a book would miss the subtle textures of past itself, the differences that mattered to people of the day. In the profession, we even have a name for this sin of modern bias which is called “Whig History.”
Yet the historian cannot leave modern influences at the outer door of the archive. Nor should she. As much as a historian’s ideas and beliefs are a hazard, they are also the engine of historical creativity, the force which keeps history fresh and ever-changing, even when the events we hope to understand are long ended.
To offer one example: until the 1950s, historians tended to emphasize politics and economics events, focusing on the roles of kings, ministers, and generals.
Yet the social revolutions of the 1960s made a deep impression on historians (and other academics) who became aware of the way that certain groups — women, minorities, colonial subjects — had been excluded from public discourse. Many historians took this revolution to heart, asking questions about these groups in the past.
The result was a proliferation of new kinds of histories, of peoples who had largely been ignored by earlier generations of historians. If my hypothetical book about George Washington is an example of the present’s influence on history at its worst, Lauren Thatcher Ulrich’s book A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard is an example of it at its best.
Working on the project in the 1980s at a time when women’s history had come into its own, Ulrich saw the potential of Ballard’s story to change the way we thought about gender, culture, and economics in colonial America. But to offer this story, Ulrich faced a difficult choice, one she writes about the in her own diary of 1982:
The trick would be to write something more accessible than the diary itself. Is this midwifery or bastardy– to borrow a metaphor from Mrs. Ballard’s world? Am I giving her life to the world or substituting an “illegitimate” book for a real book–hers.
Ulrich thought her book would be more valuable is she – and not Ballard – served as the ultimate storyteller. And an amazing story it is, one that illustrates Ballard’s industry and Ulrich’s genius. Yet it is also a book of its day, made possible by changes in the culture of the late 20th century. It is an example of the beauty of the present in history, of history’s undeniable subjectivity. It is the force that makes history art and not science, ever fallible, never finished, always new.