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Chomolungma Sings the Blues: Travels Around Everest

Chomolungma Sings the Blues: Travels Around Everest. Ed Douglas. Constable, England. 1997. 256 pages. $40.00.

In Chomolungma Sings the Blues, Ed Douglas, editor of Climber, a U.K. magazine, and The (British) Alpine Journal, recounts his experiences and observations on a trek through Nepal in 1995-’96. The main theme of this book (not always easy to decipher) is the degradation of Nepalese culture brought on by Western trekkers and climbers, of whom he does not have many nice things to say:

The megalomania of the climbers is matched only by the destructiveness of the culture that they bring with them, namely materialism and over-consumption. It is this westernizing influence that lies at the root of Nepal’s many present-day ills.

Douglas believes this “destructiveness” of Western culture is what lies behind pollution and overpopulation in Kathmandu, garbage and deforestation in the Khumbu, and the exploitation of porters generally. This lack of respect for Nepalese culture and the egocentricity and smug patronizing of Westerners is exemplified for Douglas in the gesture of a young British trekker “sleek in his black jacket and sunglasses” who, after a quick perusal and a yawn, tosses a pamphlet on Sherpa culture onto a pile of magazines. This horrifies Douglas, because he wants Nepal to be “a haven in the distant comer of the world where life is simpler, purer, without the constant grind of money or position, where we can be free.”

Despite Douglas’s brave attempts to eschew his own Western outlook in favor of a more Nepalese/Buddhist one, there lingers the scent of contradiction by virtue of his own presence as a Westerner in Nepal. This leads to a bit of hand-wringing, especially when his wallet gets stolen. “My reaction to the theft had been typically Western… I took it personally… I wanted retribution, revenge even… bad things to happen to a bad person in this world and not the next.” Douglas reflects that his reaction was wrong, not by degree, but by cultural orientation: “For a Buddhist, the concept of merit lies at the heart of morality… Sherpas don’t appoint themselves moral authorities in this way.”

Romanticizing about a more primitive culture has always been a big seller, and probably always will be. Literature as varied as Paradise Lost and The Swiss Family Robinson, as well as contemporary works like The Snow Leopard and Black Elk Speaks, not to mention films like Dances with Wolves, all imply that primitive societies are more harmonious and idyllic than ours. This search for a paradise lost is ingrained in our culture. Douglas’s call for a “haven… where life is simpler, purer…” is yet another call to the Garden of Eden.

I want to make it plain that I applaud Douglas for his critique of arrogance, materialism, consumerism and the lot. And yes, no doubt, Western culture is partly to blame. But it is more complicated than that. All cultures teach good things and bad things. And often these are internally contradictory.

Douglas seems to put on a new culture with all of its attendant morality just like we would put on a new set of clothes, simply because there are parts of the old culture he finds morally questionable or wrong. It may work for him, but I don’t think it will work for most of us. Attempts to adopt another culture usually come off as hackneyed as photographs of yourself spinning a prayer wheel in Nepal or bringing back prayer flags to hang over the backyard grill. Nepalese culture has no shortage of problems, its attitudes toward women and marriage among them (as Douglas alludes to in Chapter 10). We must pick and choose among good and bad in any culture. And therein lies the key to morality: choice, as opposed to cultural indoctrination, whether it be Nepalese or Western. Jerks are jerks, and we shouldn’t let them off the hook by blaming their culture instead of them.

Dave Hale