Johnson's Chart of Comparative Heights 1864

The 2009 spring ascent season on Mount Everest has just drawn to a close, with what may be more than 330 climbers managing to reach the summit of the mountain in this record-setting year. The march to the top of Everest is a fascinating phenomenon, not least for the entanglements of cultural values, political exigencies, and psychological contouring that are revealed in each individual bid to stand on the highest spot on earth. In broad strokes, the Everest narrative describes the transcendence of the human spirit in the face of the most awesome and inhospitable natural conditions on earth. Under the generic stresses of a more realistic mode of story-telling, however, this narrative fractures into a series of conflicts that begins with the deeply unsublime competition for permits, clients, guides, and resources, and continues along all manner of argumentative lines: the supposed superiority of one particular bodily size, shape, or type over another, the value of age, wisdom and experience over the wayward resilience of youth, the purity of the unaided ascent over that of the oxygen-assisted, the sublimity of the solo attempt over the team pursuit, the tension between personal responsibility and corporate interests, the investments of local peoples in the fates of wealthy outsiders, the embroilment of national agendas in the problem of northern versus southern approaches to the mountain, the question of access to this unique place balanced against the ecological cost of that access – the ethical landscape of Everest, as it turns out, is as precarious and as fissured as are its ice-fields.

As contemporary and as topical as these ideological battle-zones seem to be, let it not be forgotten that the Age of Everest began in the mid-Victorian period, and was as mired in controversy then as it is now. In 1852, Radhanath Sikdar first recorded the height of what was known as “Peak XV” as part of his work on William Lambton’s Great Trigonometrical Survey of India. By 1856, Andrew Waugh, Surveyor General of India, had put in motion a plan to name the mountain after his predecessor, George Everest. Waugh’s intention to name the mountain in honour of Everest is a fascinating one, and not simply because Everest himself protested the idea. In Making History, Drawing Territory, Ian Barrow gives an engrossing account of just how complex the politics of naming this particular mountain were. Waugh’s gesture marked a departure from the Department of Survey’s policy on the naming of natural formations, which advocated the use of local names wherever possible. In order to proceed with his plan, Waugh had to argue that there existed no prior local consensus on the mountain’s name, and that, in any case, the sheer empirical force of the technological achievement that allowed the height of the mountain to be objectively substantiated was the function of a scientifically-verifiable order of knowledge against which any merely local claim to naming would be rendered hopelessly inferior.

The strategic imperialist advantages of establishing eponymic dominion over the tallest mountain on earth are undoubtedly too obvious to bear repeating. What strikes me as particularly interesting about the whole Everest affair, however, is the extent to which Waugh’s rhetorical contortions were predicated on the problem of distance: owing to the politics of the day, British surveyors couldn’t actually get anywhere near the Himalayas, which meant that Sikdar’s calculations were based on measurements made more than 100 miles distant from the mountain. On the one hand, Waugh’s claim against a local name for the mountain was weakened by his distance from the region – the existence of Nepalese and Tibetan names for Peak XV was asserted by a number of Westerners who had actually lived and traveled in the area. On the other hand, the technology used to measure the mountain’s height depended upon a triangulation of distances to produce its result, in what amounted to a reification of the value of the objective distance that inhered in the scientific method itself. The matter of distance worked both for and against Waugh’s agenda, and he seemed intensely aware of that dynamic.

In a kind of free-floating (ha!) set of associative thoughts, Waugh’s predicament leads me to contemplate the function of distance in what we do as we study Victorian literature and culture – distances critical, geographical, ideological, and, ultimately, temporal all inflect our interest, scholarly or otherwise, in the past, and there’s a (very limited) sense in which Waugh’s 100 miles from Peak XV is not entirely unlike our 100 years of distance from the Victorian period. What is it, exactly, that we’re working towards in our study of the Victorians, and to what ideological investments do we cleave in our research and argumentative efforts? Do we gain more than we lose in being as far, historically, from the period as we are? Can novels and other artifacts collapse this distance in any meaningful way? What are our Great Theodolites, and how do we construct knowledge around them? What distances do we celebrate, and which ones do we obscure? How does our distance from the period play into our proximity to contemporary scholarly debates?

Barrow, Ian J. Making history, drawing territory: British mapping in India, c.1756-1905. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Map image is Johnson’s Chart of Comparative Heights of Mountains and Lengths of Rivers of Africa, Asia, Europe, South America and North America, published by AJ Johnson in 1864, and made available by the always-stunning BibliOdyssey.


One thought on “Going the distance

  1. These are some great — and complex questions — that you raise about Victorian Studies. I often think about how I have a very strong sense of decade breakdowns in the twentieth century. That is, I can more easily call to mind the distinct fashion, or music, or just general visual character of the 1930s, 1950s, 1970s, and 1990s than I can the 1830s, 1850s, 1870s, and 1890s. Of course I know about the various intellectual, political, and material culture developments over the course of the nineteenth-century but not with the same visual recall or shorthand as the twentieth century. Is this related to developments in visual technology– that is, I think I can picture 1950s America because of all the film footage I have seen of the time? And is this notion of proximity providing knowledge just as illusory?

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