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."
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
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
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.
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
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
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]"
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"
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
[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.
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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