atlas complex

The Atlas Complex

Mount Fuji, Japan 2012

There is a psychological condition where an individual feels a responsibility to take all the problems of the world onto himself: An Atlas Complex. It refers to the giant in Greek mythology who was tasked to carry the universe on his shoulders.

He who perseveres might end up standing on his head
“He who perseveres wins,” my parents advised me when I was young. But my stepfather, who lived a rich 88 years, had the wisdom to know that to “keep on keeping on”, wasn’t always right. “There are times when you may as well stand on your head and whistle Sarie Marais through your arse – and not be able to change a thing.” Candour like this is handy, especially if, like me, you are prone to spend hours distractedly surfing the web, looking for answers that may perhaps never be found by any search engine. I have concluded: A mindful life on earth finds equilibrium somewhere between “never giving up” and “letting go”. The real journey begins when you take your eyes off the screen, look up at the mountains, and start walking.

Mount Fuji, as viewed from Mount Kilimanjaro
Early in 2011, I embarked with some friends on an investigative expedition to the rapidly melting ice cap of Mount Kilimanjaro. Amongst them were coffee merchant, Martin Fitzgerald and gentleman adventurer, Sean O’Toole. After Sean showed me the shirt and tie he intended to wear at the summit, I decided to outdo him. I bought an aluminium ladder and planned to climb a metre or so higher than the mountain’s peak, at 5895m above sea level, and stand a few steps closer to the heavens. Two-thirds up the mountain, at 4600m, altitude sickness got the better of me. Sean and Martin however completed the ‘artistic action’, which involved climbing up the ladder and waving for a photograph.

Months later I asked Sean to write an essay on our climb. He titled the piece, a collection of 14 vignettes, Fourteen views of Mount Kilimanjaro, the title an explicit reference to the Japanese artist Hokusai’s famous woodcut series Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji. At the time neither Sean nor I imagined that we would find ourselves on a pilgrimage to Japan’s most sacred mountain a year later.

The Kyoto Protocol, as viewed from the Durban Platform
The Kilimanjaro trip led me to do an art intervention at the COP17 Conference on Climate Change in Durban, which in turn pointed to Kyoto, where an international protocol was drawn up in 1997 to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by 2012. When I set off to Japan to revisit the agreement and climb Mount Fuji with Sean, I asked Simon Gear, a well-known environmental correspondent who had trekked up Kili with us, for his thoughts on the Kyoto Protocol as seen from the vantage point of the recent Durban Platform.

“My views on COP are pretty simple,” he replied. “It’s a good idea that everyone gets together and talks through this stuff but the process has not, and will never, achieve meaningful carbon emissions reductions. There is no example of mankind ever having acted against national commercial interests for the benefit of the planet. I don’t see that happening now. In fact, during the period that the COP meetings have been on the go, emissions from fossil fuels have accelerated. The only times they have slowed temporarily have been as a result of economic hiccups”. Simon ended his note stating: “COP will continue on for years to come but it is basic economics which will change human behaviour.”

The virtue of selfishness
Published in 1957, Ayn Rand’s 1168-page book Atlas Shrugged occupied a disproportionately large amount of space in my daypack while travelling in Japan. Not only was it weighty and voluminous, I also struggled to get into the old-style Hollywood storyline, heavy-laden with imagery of what a friend of mine calls the “macho-techno-complex”. Apart from Rand’s bestseller novel The Fountainhead, she wrote a number of non-fiction works elaborating her philosophy, Objectivism, including a book called The Virtue of Selfishness. Although raised in socialist Russia, she was a radical advocate of individualism, personal ambition, free enterprise and laissez-faire (unregulated) capitalism. In Atlas Shrugged, Rand calls it “the motor of the world” and sets up the plot in defense of the virtuous few who are bold enough to follow their drive to accumulate personal wealth and in the process “hold up the earth”.

The title of her book draws on a conversation between two of the book’s protagonists: “If you saw Atlas, the giant who holds the world on his shoulders, if you saw that he stood, blood running down his chest, his knees buckling, his arms trembling but still trying to hold the world aloft with the last of his strength, and the greater his effort the heavier the world bore down upon his shoulders– what would you tell him to do?” The question elicits an uncertain response – “I … don’t know. What … could he do?” – followed by a question in return: “What would you tell him?” The answer: “To shrug.”

Incidentally, the economist Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve of the United States from 1987 to 2006, held political views strongly influenced by Ayn Rand, according to Wikipedia. Although a subdued public personality, favourable media coverage raised his profile to the point that several observers likened him to a “rock star”. The “easy-money” policies he instituted and defended during his tenure have, however, been blamed for contributing to the American subprime mortgage crisis, one of the events that led to the global economic crisis of 2008.

Charles Atlas and the dynamic of tension

Following my failure to summit Mount Kilimanjaro, I decided to prepare myself better for the Mount Fuji climb – both physically and mentally. One exercise regime proved particularly useful: In my youth, I first saw Charles Atlas’s exercise programme advertised on the back page of a Richie Rich comic book. After some investigation, I discovered that it is still being sold today. His principle of “dynamic tension” is based on self-resistance techniques, pitting muscle against muscle. I made some dietary sacrifices, regularly cycled up the local mountain pass, did headstands and practiced morning meditation. After six months, my ‘Atlas training program’ had melted 25 kilograms of excess off my middle-aged core. I completed my ‘artistic gesture’ at 1:12PM, Sunday the 10th of June, 2012, at an altitude of 2882.5m, recorded my point-and-shoot camera‘s GPS. Nowhere near the summit yet. The thick mist that was preventing us from risking it any further up the steep, snowy slope momentarily cleared, but did not reveal the elusive peak of Fuji. O’Toole took the picture.