Heaven & Height: a Brief History of Human Elevation

Tall, elegant, slender—these words could describe super models, skyscrapers, or marble statues. Short, on the other hand, seems to lack any positive associations. One would rather be tall than short, elevated than diminished, lofty than little. It seems that culturally we prize tallness much more than its opposite. Women wear high heels to get a few extra inches; conventional beauty standards require fashion models to be at least 5’8, most are 5’10 and climbing; and we even have a sport—basketball—that essentially renders tallness as a prerequisite to play. Conversely, we disdain shortness so much we’ve turned it into a psychological condition (i.e. the Napoleon complex). The implication is that shortness corrupts one to all the foibles of the human condition whereas high stature makes one somehow more god-like and infallible. Why is this the case? Where does our obsession with height and elevation come from?

Humanity’s obsession with elevation goes back a really long way. Religious and mythical tales abound with stories of flight and ascension. Jesus, for example, goes up to Heaven and not down to Hell with all the short people. The claim, however, that classic stories from our past wholly endorse such notions of ascent would be a superficial one. Many of them—from Icarus to the Tower of Babel—both represent humanity’s desire for elevation and ascension, but demonstrate the hubris and dangerousness of such thinking as well. Icarus flies too close to the sun and melts his wax wings, falling into the sea and drowning. Similarly, the human builders of the Tower of Babel are punished by God and separated from each other through different languages. Closer to our time are the 19th century balloonists, whose daring feats and journeys via a hot air balloon led to many of their deaths. Time and time again, the human need for elevation has ended in self-destruction.

So have we learned our lesson from any of this?

One only needs to see a fashion model teetering on the street in her six-inch Louboutins to know that we haven’t. Clearly there’s something innate within the human mind that wants to move upward, both literally and figuratively. The most extreme version of this desire in contemporary times might be commercial mountain climbing. Those interested in climbing Mount Everest are looking at a 20,000-dollar price tag (but easily more) to climb the tallest mountain in the world. Not only is the expedition an expensive one, it is also incredibly dangerous, with the official death rate being 2% of climbers in the last ten years—and that is not including the many deaths, injuries, and rescues that go unreported. Is the sight at the top of mountain worth putting your cash and life at risk? Or is it the bragging rights?

Another form of human elevation is social climbing. From high school to the office, status has always been at the heart of human interaction. Who has it, who doesn’t, and how does one get more? Why do we want the promotion over colleagues? Or, on a somewhat smaller scale, wish to usurp Regina’s place as the Queen B and thus rule the cafeteria as the most badass Mean Girl ever? But, as most people know and experience—popularity, wealth, and fame typically never fill the hole that one’s desire assumes it will. Yet we still strive for these things, to get the higher ground over others so that we can look down upon them.

An interesting case study in social climbing are bankers. Again and again, bankers have bent (or broken) laws through insider trading to get better offices and promotions, rising higher and higher in the skyscrapers that line Canary Wharf. Yet—just like Icarus and so many others—in the wake of the 2008 financial crash, many bankers and financiers were fired, leading them to a fall from grace. Their financial situation fell apart as did their social standing. Some of them even jumped out of their offices, suicide being preferable to failure. The consuming wish for elevation was ultimately their downfall (literally and metaphorically).

In all of its forms—abstract or physical—humanity’s desire for elevation, then, brings with it violence and danger. But perhaps that’s what makes the realm of the elevated that much more alluring, the danger and mystique that comes with it. Fair enough! Maybe one day we can look to the skies and dream—just not so big that we sizzle or drown.

Header image: Vertigo by Fabio Giampietro

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