The Moth and the Mountain: A True Story of Love, War, and Everest by Ed Caesar
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is an amazingly thorough and competent telling of a story the likes of which could never happen again. It is a deep dive not just into the person written about, but also into the period which made him and the transformations it was undergoing.
Competent doesn't cover it. The writing here is masterful, but I must confess that I read it because it allowed me to avoid the much more challenging piles of books now resting on my virtual desk. A single sitting for this one. More relaxing than even to watch a film. More satisfying. More enjoyable.
Maurice Wilson, our protagonist, stands out from any crowd, for pluck for luck for derring-do, though he mostly disappeared from history. He would remain gone were it not for this book. That's mainly because he didn't accomplish what he set out to do. Extravagantly, he set out to fly solo from Britain to crash-land on Everest, and then to climb the mountain solo to its peak.
The world is full of such crazies. Only some succeed. These are our heroes.
The true craziness documented here is not to try Everest, but to fetishize the self. Wilson seemed to believe that his mystical individual self was uniquely capable to do what no large team had ever yet done. He may even have thought that a team never could do it because a team would lack the soul that he'd discovered in himself.
As someone who dies from cancer disappears while the 'hero' survivors are celebrated, Wilson would have gone down easily in history if only he had made it. Ed Caesar makes clear that 'making it' was not only not in the cards, but that it was utterly impossible for any individual man at that particular time. And once at the mountain, Wilson was far from the best equipped and most likely to succeed. But Caesar also makes clear that what Wilson did accomplish and suffer in his life was utterly remarkable in almost every other way.
Caesar delineates all of the budding forces of mass media and a world shrinking to where conflict and disease were globalized, and where martial technologies were already globalizing the self. Wilson was a global soul, formed by loves across many continents.
When I buy a cheap toaster now, it has a "frozen" button and a "bagel" button, but I have no way to know what these buttons do. I simply want to know what to do with a frozen bagel. When I search the Internet, I have to game the process to get beyond the words, all of which have economic valence now.
We live in a world where no ordinary person can purchase an airplane, learn to fly it (if poorly) and then fly it halfway around the world across borders, sneaking past them when grounded. We are taught our powerlessness by each and every transaction which mystifies the actual virtual thing behind the purchase.
Most of what you might pay for an airplane now is for the liability content. And you can purchase incredible power for free, though you are locked away from your own self as you have, unwittingly, sold it. You must build your own airplane if you lack wealth, and you must fly it within bounds. Were there only world enough and time to move beyond the established routes.
We also live in a world where authors of any sort must have large teams behind them. Those writings published as books now must follow conventions for training and certification and meriting all the support structures. This is all a simple conservation of resources. Except by lottery, these accomplishments are barred from most of us. Is lottery mystified merit or is it vice-versa? Is there a difference anymore?
Climbing Everest now can be had fairly easily, if you have the resources, which is hardly easy. Ironically enough, Wilson may have briefly been among those with the money had it been possible to purchase a climb in his time. But he would certainly never have availed himself of that sort of chance to climb Everest.
By now the climb has become as commodified as the posh 'wilderness trek' that Ed Caesar wrote about in the New Yorker. That article guided me to this book.
While Maurice Wilson channeled the already commodified ambitions of his time, he was also separated from ordinary probity and caution and sanction and lifestyle. That was perhaps because of his "lucky" passage through astonishing slaughter in the trenches of the first world war, and then the flu. Or it was perhaps because of his dissimilar experience of society, as a closeted transvestite. The author only weakly conjectures here. Not wanting to explain anything away.
And so, the actual man becomes a protagonist in a new novel. That is how each of us lives our narrative lives. And we are made to know by each transaction how utterly powerless we are, even as the world crumbles now all about us. Thank God there is no front to be sent to. Thank God that resources are not wasted on the crazies.
We live awash now in a sea of projected desire and controlled by oligarch bosses and their government lackeys. Which side of which border are you on? What would you do if you found yourself, as Wilson did, alienated from normalcy? What mountains are even left to climb? There is a price now on slingshot escape from earth's gravity. What a worthless thrill!
Wilson seemed to believe that failures to reach Everest's summit were compounded from the size of the expeditions. That size destroyed the possibility for the sort of individual drive which he felt that he uniquely possessed. The kind that can't be proven or even communicated except by action.
What actions are left for individuals to take now? Which centers of which power should we storm? I live in extravagant comfort in retirement because I limit my desires. Now what would compel me to take what action, even though it would risk my very life?
We are the legion, who were never attracted to the purple haired nose-ringed body sculpted gender-fluid commodification of the branded selfie. And yet those must be our heroes. This cannot be a bad thing, until they all sell out. I choose to hear them saying "you can't commodify me!"
But which action can I take now? Sorting my trash and staying off Facebook feels like inaction, and the cost to me is steep. Do I even have the nerve to wear a T-shirt into Walmart that says, "Unionize Walmart?" Maybe next year. Maybe on a mask.
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