Archive for March, 2007

The Inner Life of Climbers

Monday, March 26th, 2007

The Boys of Everest: Chris Bonnington and the Tragedy of Climbing’s Greatest Generation, Clint Willis, 2006

In the current playgrounds of their sport, mountaineers learn what primitive people know instinctively – that mountains are the abode of the dead, and that to travel in the high country is not simply to risk death but to risk understanding it. Robert Reid Mountains of the Great Blue Dream

Books on climbing normally focus on the adventure, achievement, clashes among climbers, and tragedy. Or more recently, on the commercialization and destruction of the “extreme” sport where, for enough money, practically anyone can have an oxygen mask strapped on and be carried to the top of Everest. Good works exist on the lives of Anatoli Boukreev and Tenzing Norgay Sherpa and his family. But getting to know the climbers and what goes on in their heads in less common. It is precisely this inner dimension that Willis is adept at describing. During Bonnington’s first time on the Eiger Willis narrates:

He (Bonnington) took an hour to climb 60 feet. Ian (Clough) from time to time peered up at him and saw the rope still hanging free. They both knew that a slip here would kill them, but Chris knew this like a piece of news or history he couldn’t manage to believe. He put it well aside and got on with standing just so or tugging cautiously at a hold; his mortality shrank to a concept. And still his knowledge of the risk colored every action he performed, lending his movements and the stillness between them a deliberate and serious quality that awoke his desire for peace, for clarity.

On the direct Eiger route named for John Harlin who fell to his death when a rope broke, Willis writes:

Dougal (Haston) felt himself flotsam on the surface of something vast and deep…John’s death was a part of that dark scenery. Dougal felt a sense of urgent gratitude, almost painful in its intensity; he was alive with this task to perform…Dougal felt his isolation on the face. He liked the Germans; they grieved for Harlin without falling apart or expecting anyone else to do so. But Dougal was not like them…He could ignore the cold as well as his own spasms of grief and fear and the odd and somehow unfinished fact of John’s death. He would finish the climb whatever anyone else might choose to do.

Eiger North Face Eiger North Face

Willis’ book includes an inner life account of the remarkable climb of Annapurna’s south face by one of the greatest teams of climbers ever assembled. To understand this feat compare it to the north face of the notorious Eiger which has a summit of 13,000 feet and is about 5900 feet above the valley below. Annapurna’s south face starts at about 17,500 feet and extends to the summit at 26,545 feet. Most of the climb is in the death zone.

Climbers killed on Annapurna include famed Russian climber Anatoli Boukreev in 1997 and Christian Kuntner in 2005.

Boukreev Shrine Annapurna’s Anatoli Boukreev Shrine

Climbing in the Himalayas there is always the altitude, the thin air. Willis writes:

Peter (Boardman) was feeling the altitude without knowing it and he lost himself in games, in the twisted logic of dreams. He named the various knots cows and thought of the pitons as Americans. He gave a girl’s name to each of the carabiners that dangled from his waist.

After Doug Scott, Peter Boardman, and Joe Tasker had summited sacred Kangchenjunga, Willis writes:

They had been afraid to die on the mountain; now they feared a return to a world where such matters were misunderstood, where people thought dying mattered more than it did. They were afraid to leave behind the clarity of intention that had possessed them here. They were afraid not to know what to do. They felt uplifted and unworthy at once — they were drunk with confusion and joy and anxiety. They had come here and retrieved something. They worried that they couldn’t protect it, that they hadn’t changed and that they would forget.

Kangchenjunga Kangchenjunga

Completing this work featuring climbs from 1958 to 1985, the reader is surprised to realize that almost all of Boning ton’s boys have been killed in the mountains, one or two at a time. For each death, Willis imagines and narrates the last moments; what was the climber thinking as he fell, was buried, or simply quit. The most surprising account is the death of Peter Boardman, perhaps the strongest of all Chris’s boys at high elevation. Peter was climbing the northeast ridge of Everest with Joe Tasker in 1982, who had already suffered two strokes earlier in the climb. Willis posits that Joe slipped, caught himself, and suffered a final massive stroke which killed him. Willis speculates that Peter sat down briefly to grieve and never got up again. Peter’s body was found on the northeast ridge in 1992.

Chris Bonnington finally summited Everest for the first time in 1985 at the age of 50. Willis wryly notes that Chris had any number of Everest ghosts to help him up.

The tragedy of the title seems not so much all the deaths, although they are certainly tragedies for the families left behind, but that these young men cannot imagine life without the challenge of the climb; the new mountain, the new route, the lighter expedition. They keep returning until they die.

Their ever smaller teams of two to four climbers and Alpine style fast ascents without supplemental oxygen predicts the arrival of Anatoli Boukreev in the next generation; the solo climber able to tackle up to four 8000 meter peaks each season with virtually no equipment or support. And like them, Boukreev continues to return till his death. He simply can’t imagine any other life.

Grumble: Book editing is steadily deteriorating today and this book reaches a new low with entire sentences truncated or repeated on the next page (photo insert). The blame probably rests with an increased dependence on computer typesetting and grammar checking unaided by human proofreaders. The human reader doesn’t really need this added challenge.

Annapurna South Face, Chris Bonnington, 1971

Bonnington wrote this account and took most of the remarkable pictures in the book. Perhaps most remarkable is the folded photo in the back of the book of the south face with the climb route, camps, and elevations shown.

The Torontonians

Tuesday, March 20th, 2007

Consolation, Michael Redhill, 2006


Toronto figures as a major character in this inventive novel. Only two hundred years old, Toronto is constantly reinventing itself, destroying in the process all that went before. Unlike Montreal or Quebec, Toronto seems to have no interest in its history; only a vision toward the future.

Old Toronto Photo

The central human character here is an unlikely urban archaeologist whose main claim to fame is his discovery of the location of Toronto’s first parliament building. He has a degenerative muscle disease and not much longer to live. His future son in law is an unambitious seemingly dull man who works part time as a research assistant to a playwright with writer’s block. He spends most of his time in the libraries and archives of Toronto. There he uncovers the nineteenth century diary of a failed pharmacist who together with a presumed widow and aging Irish photographer set out to create a photographic record of Toronto as it was in the 1850’s. This record is lost when a paddle steamer sinks just yards from the wharf in Toronto. The steamer is presumably then buried under landfill as Toronto expands into the lake. Armed with the diary the archaeologist struggles to locate the buried steamer before he dies. We travel back and forth between 1850’s Toronto and 1990’s Toronto following the lives of these well drawn characters. Suspenseful, the book moves quickly to wards its surprise conclusion. Many of the novel’s key ingredients are based on little known historical fact; but it is the inventive combination of these facts that makes this work so enjoyable.

Irish Psycho

Tuesday, March 13th, 2007

Winterwood, Patrick McCabe, 2006

This novel is an ambitious experiment in indirection by the author of Breakfast on Pluto. The narrator is a full fledged psychopath, yet in the long traditions of Ireland, he is also a masterful, charming storyteller (lier). Yet somehow during the reading we are able to learn what has happened to him during childhood to create such a monster and to use our own imaginations to recreate his various crimes by reading between the lines of his own voice.

Downtown Dublin McCabe

The narrator lives a full life, marrying twice, having a child, and working as a journalist, free lance writer, and television documentary director (where he wins a U.K. prize). Most of his career is in newly yuppified Dublin but he also has a stint as a journalist in London. Like the character in American Psycho a 1991 novel by Bret Easton Ellis (movie with Christian Bale) whose narrator is a fully accepted 80’s wall street operative, the Irish narrator is able to navigate the newly gentrified Dublin as a normal career worker. But unlike the Patrick Bateman character where we never know if the vividly described crimes are real or exist only in the Bateman ‘s imagination, there is never a doubt that the Irish narrator is performing never specified or described horrific acts even as his literal narration paints mythological pictures of happiness and utopia heavens where everything is perfect.

To allow the Irish narrator to escape capture and punishment, McCabe has him change identity and name several times during the book even though he always returns to Dublin. This devise is a little far fetched but allows the narrator to continue his long life of crime and McCabe to produce an unforgettable black work.

Finn, Jon Clinch, 2007


Speaking of Irish Psychos ever wonder about the mental health of Huckleberry Finn’s dad Papp Finn? OK, probably not, but just in case, here is a novel exploring that very subject. Oh, and did you know that Huck’s mom was black? Probably comes as a surprise to Sam Clemens as well. Clinch got this idea from a Shelley Fisher Fishkin monograph Was Huck Black which calls attention to Twain’s use of “signifying” speech, a complex rhetorical doubling characteristic of black speakers of Twain’s time and documented by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (Harvard Prof.), in The Signifying Monkey.

William James at Harvard

Tuesday, March 6th, 2007

William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism, Robert D. Richardson, 2006

William James

For an interview with the author see: William James
A now famous characterization captures the essence of William James writing style; his ability to communicate difficult concepts through stories, contrasting his style with that of novelist brother Henry James;

Rebbecca West first observed in 1916, that one of the James brothers grew up to write fiction as though it were philosophy, and the other to write philosophy as though it were fiction.

William James association with Harvard spans the period from the low point of the money grabbing diploma mill that was Harvard prior to and during the civil war to the guild ed age of Harvard in the late nineteenth century. James received an M.D. degree from Harvard which consisted of receiving a passing mark from five of nine examiners during an oral examination. In other words, a Harvard medical doctor may have failed four of his nine final exams.

Much of the glory of the gilded age under President Charles W. Eliot, is due in no small part to William James and his colleagues of the Philosophy department including Josiah Royce, Hugo Munster berg, George Herbert Palmer, Charles Sanders Peirce, and George Santayana. This department included the most distinguished and famous collection of thinkers ever assembled at an American institution and perhaps ever assembled anywhere. Classic American Philosophers: Peirce, James, Royce, Santayana, Dewey, Whitehead

James and Santayana represented new trends in philosophy and psychology portending existentialism and psychoanalysis: the introduction of modernism; Other department members were scholars in the traditions of Kant and Hegel. James loved to argue with these scholars but was famously open, insisting his students be exposed to their thought in their own words, inviting them to lecture in his classes, and arguing vehemently with them. He considered these old fashioned scholars good friends and colleagues.

Yet, both James and Santayana felt themselves alienated from Harvard and its stratified social life. Both were highly critical of Harvard’s curriculum and its PhD programs. At the height of Harvard’s gilded age both James and Santayana remained critical of the widening social class distinctions and exclusive social circles and clubs at Harvard. Student housing was segregated by class with the “Gold Coast” at the pinnacle and only the very most exclusive class was welcomed into Boston society.

William James fought for and finally received permission for gifted Mary Calkins, a teacher at Wellesley College, to attend his graduate psychology seminar taught by Royce and James. Calkins was the first woman to be granted this privilege at Harvard.
Drew Gilpin Faust
Drew Gilpin Faust named first female president since 1636 founding.

One of James most important insights borrows from Cardinal John Henry Newman “God has two families of children on this earth, the once born and the twice born (today born again).” The former are born happy and view God as the animating spirit of a beautiful harmonious world. Examples for James were Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman. The twice born James views as sick souls. These sick souls may find community, solace, and comfort in religion but they remain sick and should never be entrusted with power.

The book is replete with great quotes from James and Santayana.

On zeal faith and fanaticism:

There is no worse enemy of God and Man than zeal armed with power and guided by a feeble intellect… The great lesson of history is to keep power of life and death away from that kind of mind, the mind that sees things in the light of evil and dread and mistrust rather than in that of hope. William James

The trouble about your robust and full-bodied faiths, however, is, that they begin to cut each other’s throats too soon. William James

Fanaticism consists in redoubling your effort when you have forgotten your aim. George Santayana

On the Monroe Doctrine and American Imperialism

In 1895 President Cleveland, invoking the Monroe Doctrine, threatened Britain with war over its interference in Venezuela. James wrote “We have written ourselves squarely down as a people dangerous to the peace of the world…Three days of fighting mob-hysteria at Washington at any time can undo the peace-habits of a hundred years.” Godkins, editor of Nation replied to James, “The newspapers stand between this generation and the light…The press is now the great enemy of good government and of rational views of human affairs.” James wrote to another “Cleveland in my opinion by his explicit allusion to war has committed the biggest political crime I have ever seen here.” Teddy Roosevelt wrote to the Crimson Tide supporting war to uphold “the honor and dignity of the United States, the honor of the American flag” … “If Harvard men wish peace with honor they will heartily support the national executive and the national legislature in the Venezuela matter; will demand that our representatives insist upon the strictest interpretation of the Monroe Doctrine; and will farther demand that immediate preparations be made to build a really first class navy.” James replied “May I express a hope that in this university, if no where else on the continent, we shall be patriotic enough not to remain passive whilst the destinies of our country are being settled by surprise.