“Mallory is famously quoted as having replied to the question “Why do you want to climb Mount Everest?” with the retort “Because it’s there””
[George Mallory – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia]
Growing up, I had the privilege of interacting with people from a wide range of social classes on a daily basis. I didn’t think too much of it at the time; I thought that’s just how the world worked. It was…well, it just seemed like it was what it was.
But now I realize that what it was…was edifying.
While I actually had the benefit of observing this kind of thing first-hand, first-hand observation really isn’t necessary; you could just imagine it. In any case, I noticed a lot of big talk and overbite among aristocrats, and I noticed a lot of plodding, action and drinking among builders.
Aristocrats — and people who think like them — have courage and vision but lack even basic knowledge and all sense of practicality; they are deeply disconnected from reality.
Builders lack all sense of vision. They’re too busy laying bricks, too busy going to through the motions to really step back and wonder why and wherefore. They’re too busy moving to think where they’re going. “Too busy making a living to get rich”, as Dan Kennedy once quipped, paraphrasing someone else. But they are willing and able to work, and if simply given a direction, they will move in it.
Case in point: everybody, everywhere is learning a language. You are “learning” English right now, reading this. Right now, every single human being, everywhere in the world, is learning a language. He’s practicing it; he’s building new vocab, making new connections; he’s reinforcing it; he’s dreaming in it. So everybody is a language laborer. The only question is, what is the direction of your labor? It’s not whether or not you’re laboring at a language, because you are, the only question is which language.
It’s fashionable to put down aristocrats and pedestalize working class values. The opposite used to be the case. But both approaches are going to get you nowhere. Acting too aristocratic will kill you quickly in a blaze of glory; acting too working-class will kill you slowly from the inside and out, wearing you down with purposeless drudgery and struggle-for-the-sake-of-struggle. Aristocratic thought will give you direction but get you nowhere; working class action will lack bold and overarching direction, and thus also get you nowhere.
Mountaineer George Mallory wasn’t titled or anything, to my knowledge, but he did go to Winchester and Cambridge, so he’s pretty durn aristocratic. And that’s why he could do such Churchillian one-liners in praise of uselessnes. Even though (or perhaps because) I’m afraid of everything, and don’t myself climb or do anything remotely brave or dangerous, I’ve been reading quite a bit about moutaineering lately. And something hit me in my reading of books like the controversial Into Thin Air (空へ) and that other Russian guy’s book.
What follows is all second- and third-hand information filtered through my Khatzumoto fact distortion field, so feel free to correct me if you know better. Here it is.
One doesn’t “climb” Everest. That is, the people who “climbed” Everest didn’t really climb it. Not in the heroic, one-man one-mountain, ice-pick and crampon way that we tend to think.
Let me explain.
Sherpas climb Everest. They take virtually all the real risks; theirs is the highest death rate; they lay the rope; they set up the ladders; they carry the food and oxygen and all the other luggage; they set up the tents at each of the camps along the way. Sherpas set up everything; the whole infrastructure. And then everybody else kinda sorta hikes Everest.
But someone needed to give the Sherpas direction, to make it worth their while, to encourage them to dare to be stupid, to get them excited and fired up — because they’re just as up for adventure and derring-do as anyone else — and those someones are, literally and figuratively, aristocrats, which is to say, people who want to spend real time, real money and real effort doing really dumb and unnecessary things — like learning Japanese — for the heck of it. Because make no mistake, there is no socially redeeming value in mountaineering; no one’s finding a cure for a cancer up there; it’s cold and squalid and painful and hard to breathe and you might even die.
So, should people stop climbing mountains? Absolutely not. Mountaineering is play for grown-ups, and play doesn’t need to justify itself. Preventing stupidity (that doesn’t harm others) is stupid; every society that has done it has stagnated. That’s why this sensible book is one of the dumbest and most dangerous ever written. Hubris drives progress. Chutzpah drives progress. Arrogance and stupidity, real and apparent, drive progress — and the best part is, if you want, you can sit back and reaps all the benefits without taking any of the risks: it’s an investor’s wet dream. No frostbite or edema for you.
As Abraham Flexner pointed out in his essay (monograph?), The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge, useless now becomes useful later, in totally unforeseen ways. Call it serendipity, call it epistemic blindness, call it what you like, but almost none of the tools and knowledge we now collectively have, use and/or value today would be here if they’d have had to prove themselves “useful” from the get-go.
They just wouldn’t.
Invisible waves, concentric patterns made by iron filings, and kites in rainstorms were not useful. Instead of figuring out how to suck dirt, that Hoover guy or gal should have rolled up his sleeves and used a broom like a normal person. I remember when cellphones started to appear on TV more and more; the non-geeks in my life couldn’t see the “use”; I couldn’t see the “use” either, I just thought they were cool. But who’s addicted to their cellphones now? Much more non-geeks than geeks. Geeks make the Face Book and the Twitters, non-geeks get hooked on them.
“The philosophies of one age have become the absurdities of the next, and the foolishness of yesterday has become the wisdom of tomorrow.”
What use is sending electronic messages through computer networks? That’s gay and geeky! Letters work just fine! What use is inventing a writing system and writing s##t down? Just memorize it — like a real man! What use is a horseless carriage?! They all just break down anyhow! Why do you need a compass?! You should have a sense of direction already!
The aristocratic mindset focuses too much on eternity. The working class mindset focuses too much on immediate utility. Alone, both are useless. Together they are powerful. And you can have them together in your own mind. You kinda need to, because other people can’t think, pee or learn languages for you.
In history, we talk way too much about wars; I think wars are a stupid and overly bellicose way to analyze history, let alone live life. Perhaps I’m bellicose about bellicosity. Whatever, anyway. We talk about Caesar as if he personally conquered Gaul. He did nothing of the such. He was never out there sweating and raping and murdering and enslaving Celtic villagers: he had people — builders, destroyers — doing that for him; he was sitting in a command tent getting massages from a rentboy and sipping Mimosas while moving Lego pieces around on a parchment map; he gave the vision, they gave the muscle, the legwork. He gave dogma (?), they gave pragma.
So where am I going with this? As usual, I’ve spread myself too thin, tried to sound too clever, made too many socially disturbing assertions and backed them up too little. Yet the show must go on. So here goes. The only difference between war and murder is direction — spin. The only difference between living your life and learning Japanese is direction — spin. In war, you basically murder people. In learning Japanese, you basically live your life; you really do. Just with Japanese artifacts and objects instead of English-language ones.
But if you don’t fire up that inner aristocrat, you’re gonna be just a builder, living the default life you were given, in the default language and country you were given, and all within a twenty-five-mile radius of where you were born. Quaint? Yes. Romantic? Maybe. Interesting? Meh.
Let your inner aristocrat pronounce a bold, mad, stupid vision: “I am Japanese”, and then let your inner Sherpas set up immersion camps all the way up to the top — Japanese speakers in this room, iPod loaded in that room, subscriptions to Japanese premium cable, IMX in your email, whatever it takes.
And then walk on up and be a hero. Just remember to thank your Sherpas, and know that it’s them that did the work; you weren’t talented; you weren’t brave; you weren’t even competent; you certainly weren’t hard-working; you were just crazy and fun to be with. And together — not alone, but together — you and Tenzing climbed Everest.
Alexander the Great? Wouldn’ta been so great on his own. He and his people were both essential to the project of…random and unprecedented Hellenic imperium. Jordan and Pippen both needed each other — together, they ruled basketball; alone, they were two guys who used to rule basketball. You need both sides of yourself, the mad side to dream of towers and mansions, and the practical side to lay Lego bricks of fluency one at a time until they stack up high enough.
Now, this kind of thing should go without saying. But it doesn’t, so I will. Say it, that is. I am not a fan of hereditary ruling elites…or of ruling elites, period. In no small part because what you get with hereditary ruling elites is stagnant societies ruled by ugly, in-bred people who had one or two Good Guy Greg ancestors (case in point: the Medici ruling family of Florence…look at the first ones and then look at what they turned into 1). Ultimately, all you get is decay and decadence because the entire society runs on pure, unadulterated nepotism. The rulers are out of touch with reality and the ruled stopped having abstract thoughts around puberty. You don’t want that. Nobody but the delusionally nostalgic (ahem cough Alain de Botton cough clearthroat) want to live in that world. But you can take the good from both sides and make something that doesn’t suck. That’s all I’m saying.
Disclaimers aside, back to our regular programming.
- What’s fun?
- What’s elegant?
- What can I do forever?
Bob the Builder questions:
- What can I do right now?
- What can I do for the next month?
- What’s useful right here and now?
Ask both types.
That is all.
- And let’s not even go into how Florence’s rejection of its once-flourishing meritocracy killed innovation and vitality along with social mobility. For a time, Florence was easily the greatest city in Europe. Now, it’s a tourist attraction at most. Literally, a shell of its former self. Then again, I’m totally biased. If you or I had reached the absolute top of the heap, the temptation to kick away the ladder would be fierce. I am under no illusions as to what I would do: I would prevent social mobility in order to “protect” myself, and I would tell myself that my progeny would rule just fine because I would raise them to rule — it’s a lie, but I’d believe it because believing it would be far too convenient to pass up. On the bright side, maybe Florence is a good enough reverse object lesson; maybe humanity learns from its collective mistakes, despite the many slip-ups along the way. Otherwise-perceptive men like Marcus Aurelius were disastrously unable to see past blood, but we have one massive advantage that Marcus Aurelius did not: we have the example of his mistake in choosing Commodus; we know how that turned out. ↩