Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog is one of the few works of art we can call iconic in both the figurative and the literal sense. The divine spirit of progress brought down from a Hellenic-Germanic pantheon and made almost flesh, we see its likeness everywhere from the “hero shots” of anonymous urban explorers to the silhouetted figures on the covers of thrillers to Stephen Hawking in his splendid solitude on the cover of A Brief History of Time.
As a society, we are having to do a lot of processing of deaths we find problematic at the moment. The arguments about the tears shed for Bowie are inevitable. So, too, are the arguments that will follow the death of explorer Henry Worsley, where the questions will be “why?” and “how could he?” (I will leave aside here the not so subtle sexism that accompanies the death of extreme adventurers, which outs itself in the order of the questions – were this Henrietta Worsley, “Howe could she?” would surely have preceded “why?”).
What I want to argue here (and thanks due to the poet Judi Sutherland whose questions sent me down this line) is that just as Bowie and Worsley are, essentially, the same, and Friedrich’s wanderer stands for the pursuit of intellectual perfection as much as the quest through physical peril, so extreme sports and Modernism are alternative manifestations of the same urge.
I’ve pondered at length on extreme physical endeavour before, most notably when musing on the fact that so many of the most instantly recognisable practitioners in different fields (David Belle and Sebastien Foucan in parkour, Alain Robert in climbing, tightrope walker Philippe Petit, and one of the main figures of my childhood, Jacques Cousteau) are French, but what has become clearer this past day is just how entwined the intellectual and the physical are. It is more than simply that these physical outlets are manifestations of a spiritual outlook (though they are).
Modernism within the arts combines two essential features that the Wanderer represents – the need to push at the limits of definition; and the belief that such exploration is possible. Woolf, Schoenberg, Joyce, Picasso – each has taken an artform and addressed it with a certainty that, in our Postmodern times in which we know where railroad tracks disappearing over the horizon ultimately take us, epitomises arrogance and egoism, declaring, “This is not all there is. It cannot be. It will not be.” And each proceeded to demonstrate that they were, indeed, right. This is exactly the kind of certainty that drove the rise of the manifesto – we can do more, but only if we do this! The creative intellect was there to be stretched to its breaking point and rebuilt better.
And extreme sport meets the physical landscape with exactly the same certainties. I can do more than this, proclaims the base jumper, ultra runner, free diver. Climber. And they make it happen by an act of what seems to be pure will. This is the same arrogant offspring of Romanticism (the relation to nature in both is fascinating but a subject for another day) that gave us Modernism.
This parallel genealogy is interesting but the real point of it is this. My sense is that our ambivalence towards extreme physical endeavour is borne of the same suspicion that makes society inimical to Modernism, suspicious of intellectual endeavour and openly hostile to the manifesto. And that antipathy goes back to the common root. To Romanticism. Romanticism is where we find the seeds of an ideological architecture that is hard to defend – it stands for a form of progress that easily aligns itself with supremacism, it stands for binaries, it stands for a belief in the kind of betterment that means the inexorable spreading of the strong at the expense of the weak. It is exactly the metanarrative that needs deconstructing.
It is this need for a deconstruction of Romanticism which has made me avoid using the term exploration. Explorers are, just as the Wanderer is, the embodiment of Romanticism. They stand for those things I outlined above that objectify and homogenise and perpetuate the notion that there is something external to us (and by us I mean largely Western white males) that needs to be brought within our compass and mapped to our coordinates.
But Modernism goes beyond this. Modernism seeks not to break something external to us beneath our will. It seeks rather to break the very notion of the self, to ask what more each human being can be. And in this we are brought back to parkour and the philosophy of the free climber and endurance runner whose arrogance is not the arrogance of egoism but the arrogance of one who knows that humanity has to be something more than it is and is prepared to break themselves to bring that about.
My feeling is that the same anti-intellectualism that laughs of Modernist efforts to make the novel do more, to break the poetic form or change the way we construct narrative is the same force that shudders not in disbelief at the why of the extreme adventurer but in fear. A fear driven not in the face of privilege but in preservation of it. A fear driven by a deep seated wish that humanity doesn’t attempt to be something more because being just what it is suits people just fine. And against that fear adventurers of the mind and the body are always needed, pushing themselves to do what the comfortable classes find unacceptable.
Click here to get involved in the project I am running with Ceri Lloyd to examine the role of the manifesto in contemporary culture.