Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The other side of the mountain: culture snobs

I want to lead this post with the fact that I am enjoying Annapurna. Herzog is much more likeable than I expected when reading Devies’s fanboy preface. The imagery of the landscape and insight into what it means to have this kind of expedition are quite moving, and the fortitude of the group is inspiring. That being said, Herzog and I still have some issues to work through.  

The foremost issue and topic of this post is his confidence in the ethnographic area of the Expedition. His sweeping statements regarding what reputations certain ethnic groups hold and his ease in playing the role of the foreign superior before the porters. He more than once assumes the mantle of the “dignified and lordly” before the locals and porters, only to feel “a bit ashamed” for behaving so highhandedly (36). Despite his shame, the experience is repeated, with Herzog using the classic colonial style superiority to “deal” with the Tibetans and Nepalese.

The note of cultural superiority that weaves through the narrative strikes a different sort of discord from that created by the challenges presented by the extremes of the mountains. Herzog is unafraid to label the Nepalese culture and people as primitive, and goes so far as to wonder if a group of locals in Manangbhot are cannibals (48). For a man enlightened enough, or perhaps condescending enough, to call Buddhism “one of the wisest and most beautiful of all religions,” Herzog shows a remarkable capacity to fall into the same cultural assumptions of European explorers of centuries past.

When they encounter the Tibetan dancers, Herzog gives this analysis: “Its beauty was rough and primitive, for a dance always reflects the spirit of a people” (19). It is this careless reflection of an assumed hierarchy of peoples that disrupted my voyage up Annapurna.

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