“My friend, you would not tell with such high zest/ To children ardent for some desperate glory,/ The old Lie; Dulce et decorum set/ Pro patria mori'”, Wilfred Owen (Dulce et Decorum Est, 1918)
Lately I’ve been reading Wade Davis’s long awaited offering, Into the Silence, his history of the first expeditions and ascent of Mount Everest. I should start by confessing to longtime fanboy status when it comes to Davis. I’ve read all his books, seen him lecture and enjoyed every minute, I see him as a new and more helpful kind of popular historian/intellectual. In my eyes Davis is the antidote to other public intellectuals like Jared Diamond or Huntingdon, his writing is normally encouraging, hopeful, and exciting to read (and rarely are there the sorts of gross inaccuracies I have come to expect from Diamond and others).
I was therefore surprised by the choice of area for this new book. I am used to reading Davis recount adventures he himself has had, so it seemed strange that he was now venturing into the historical realm. As I read the book however it gradually became clear, that in many ways there is a great deal in common between the story of the early Everst expeditions and the ethnographical accounts and adventure stories that are Davis’s bread and butter.
Davis often claims that ‘languages are the old-growth forests of the mind’, and that by that same token, storytellers and mythologies are amongst the most important products a society can offer to the world. Into the Silence is indeed a compelling story and it offers a glimpse into the cultural and sociological background of the those who lived in the period. By considering the mountains and the expeditions to them as uniquely connected to the Great War and the experiences of a generation of young men and women (though they seem few and far between), Davis takes quite a unique approach to a literary field often crowded with stories of disaster, betrayal and either the animalism or nobility of the human spirit. There is undeniable some of that, but I think where Davis really shines is in his consideration of the expedition members. When I was initially getting into the book, I found the historical preamble at times boring, but by the time I was a few dozen pages in I was hooked. The descriptions of the horrors of the trenches and the Somme certainly explain the longing that so many young men felt after the war to experience the cleansing cold of altitude, the silence and majesty of new snow in the Great Ranges.
There is one passage in particular which has stuck with me since reading it. It appears in a section of the book where Davis is describing the many letters of application received by the Everest Committee from around the world, asking to be considered for the first expedition. They are almost all from young men who have survived the war and are now trapped in the stagnation of civilian life. Likely most of the them would now be characterized as living with post-traumatic stress (PTS). One letter in particular stands out, by a young man who was also with Shackleton on his Antarctic expedition.
“My age is 42. I am a public school boy (Marlborough), 20 years military service, and was with Shackleton on his last expedition. Six months on an ice floe, four and a half under a boat on a dessert ice-covered island, very little food and never washed nor had my clothes off for ten and a half months. I can stand anything and, though impious by instinct, I made up my mind never to use a expletive on that expedition, and never did, nor even lost my temper.” (letter of Theodore Orde-Lees, page 130)
These are clearly men who are as the saying goes, ‘harder than a coffin nail’. While I haven’t yet finished the book (at nearly 600 pages it is taking me some time), so far I have been moved by these descriptions of a generation of young men made and unmade by the Great War. There is an innocence to Orde-Lees’ letter, when he mentions he was a public school boy (an important class indicator of the time), and yet he remains a man who can clearly, as he says, “stand anything”. I look forward to reading further.