The Sherpa and The Mountaineer

Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary

Note: It has been made clear to me that Tenzing Norgay was not in fact a Sherpa, but that he married into the group at 19. He was in fact an accomplished mountaineer at the time. He is still known as Sherpa Tenzing in common parlance, so I have decided to keep the title. The idea of having a more experienced guide still stands tho.

29th of May 1953. Two men finally reach the summit of the highest peak in the world, the Sherpa Tenzing Norgay and the mountaineer Edmund Hillary. They had defied all the odds by reaching something that was, and still is, one of the greatest challenges in the world. Tenzing had previously been a part of an expedition that almost reached the top, but had to turn around due to bad weather. An unusual agreement between Edmund and Tenzing meant that, for years, they both claimed to have reached the summit at the same time, so as not to make the achievements of one mountaineer more important than the other.

In 1967 Roland Barthes published The Death of the Author. In it, he challenged the old way of analyzing literature (and therefore all storytelling) by saying that the receiver was more important in how a text should be viewed. To make the author “godlike”, it was argued, gives the identity, experience and opinions of the author far too much power. He proposed that the author be separated from the text, or the storyteller from the story, to better assess the work’s merits.

The essay revolutionized the field of literature, and soon produced many adherents and detractors. One of Barthes’s strongest opponents, a supporter of the traditional methods of viewing literature (termed “author’s intent”), was literary theorist Seán Burke. He wrote the book The Death and Return of the Author where he highlighted his issues with Death of the Author and why he believed the traditional way was better.

For a long time, I have thought about why both theories perturb me. When I was younger, I was an absolute follower of post-modernism. It led me into a cycle of depression, and I produced very little, feeling there was no reason to produce anything at all. I was concerned with what people would do with what I wrote. If I broadcast something, and its interpretation is out of my hands as soon as a reader or viewer gets a hold of it, would I still incur the wrath or ridicule that has read something horrendous in my words — even if that was merely a projection of something within themselves?

Perhaps this paralysis was not be the only reason, I am after all very much the classical creative person, jumping from project to project, never really completing anything. But the fear of how someone would receive it, was far more dominant than my love of exploring new ideas and new worlds.

As mentioned in my previous article on how storytelling improved my life, what I write is dead until someone else reads it. It is the moment when someone picks up my book, watches a movie based on my screenplay, or reads an essay I have written, that my ideas transcend my sphere of thought onto someone else, and I can but hope my idea is read as intended. This is an important principle to me, and something that has helped me produce something out of the myriad of stories I have collected from my scattered mind.

In a series of letters on Letter.wiki, I have exchanged thoughts about Death of the Author with a fellow author, Rebecca Christensen. It has been an extremely productive and insightful conversation that I hope to prolong for as long as Rebecca tolerates me spouting my ideas at her, while she gives very helpful feedback. In the letters I mentioned the outline of an idea that was taking form. I called the idea the Sherpa Method.

It was quite simple to begin with. A Sherpa is someone hired by a mountaineer to help and guide them to the mountain peak. It came from something that the comedian Joe Rogan said while talking about how a comedian works with the audience. The comedian guides an audience member through the bad shit in life and allows them to laugh at it. Is this not the role of all creatives? When an author writes a story, is that not an attempt at guiding someone through the ideas that inspired them, the questions raised and the mind that explored everything in the book? When a painter is exploring something, like this video of Pablo Picasso, is that person not delving deep within the landscape of their mind?

What then about the reader, viewer or listener? What role do they have in this interaction? I do not believe in the inactive receiver, someone who does do anything but receive information. There is no evidence of the empty vessel that is molded by the information that it receives. This is why propaganda has to be repeated on several occasions, and often has to be built upon half-truths or incomplete stories. Think of the stories of Jews running the banking system throughout history. This did not appear out of thin air, but was based on an idea that did not tell the complete story.

The receivers of such propaganda already have a narrative established in their mind. Think of the term that something has hit fertile ground, as far as a message is concerned. There has to be something there to start with, something that starts the cooperation with the broadcaster. Take your regular Soviet farmer or German worker, who has struggled all their life and maybe made some mistakes in their life. When they hear something that they may have suspected, but not expressed, uttered by some demagogue, then they might jump onto this and allow their jealousy or anger to drive the cause of the narrative for the demagogue.

What does this have to do with the Sherpa you might ask? Well, the reader is the mountaineer, or any type of adventurer seeking out a foreign land, or foreign idea. This person has an idea of what it wants to explore, but contacts an experienced guide, the Sherpa, to guide the through the dangerous terrain that might present some danger to the reader if he explored it in real life.

This is also the beauty and danger of storytelling. The fact that you take a trip or an experience with someone you barely know. To walk alongside characters that you have never met, interacted with or who have never existed. The most important part of what you do when you read is that you get to know the author, or when you listen to a radio play, you get to know the playwright. What are their fears, desires, experiences or thoughts on various matters? A good writer is like a good guide, a person who points out the pitfalls of others, but also where they themselves have fallen down.

That good guide cannot work without a mountaineer or adventurer with their own unique view on the world. This cooperation colors the world that the creator may have made on their own. That world does not become alive until someone hears, reads or views it and ponders the same questions, or even new questions, that may have plagued the guide.

A very good example of this is the author of Dune, Frank Herbert. He builds up a Messiah like character in the form of Paul Atreides, the young heir to Duke Leto, the head of House Atreides. In the 1985 film by David Lynch that is exactly what he is, a Messiah figure for the Muslim-like Fremen of Arakis, or Dune that it is popularly known. This is not however who Paul is. He is, in the books, a warning to how dangerous a Messiah figure can become. Frank Herbert takes us on a trip through that universe to make us think about who do we view as a perfect leader in our lives and that maybe we need to be aware how easily it is to fall from such a position.

In a purely external analysis about Dune, you might say that the Imperial forces and House Harkonnen represents all the structures that oppress people of color, or people who have a different lifestyle to what is accepted, and that could be a valid analogy, but how is that helping you on your journey? Could it harm you in your life later if you ignore the warnings that Frank Herbert presented to us through the deeper reading of the books and viewing the struggles in the stories as stories that represent smaller parts of our personalities?

If we start to view authors as guides, helpers or Sherpas on our adventures in life, instead of as authoritative voices or just purely open to our interpretations, maybe that can open up a better cooperation and more empathy towards voices that are not like ours. It would be interesting to try.

Writer, story analyst and writing consultant

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