Saturday, January 24, 2009

Brrrrr! (The Sydney Morning Herald)

The Antarctic: An Anthology, Francis Spufford (ed.)
Granta; $24.95; 281pp
The Arctic: An Anthology, Elizabeth Kolbert (ed.)
Granta; $24.95; 275pp

It is thirty-nine degrees in Perth. Thirty-nine degrees and freezing. Such is the power of the written word:

Scott kicks out suddenly, like an insomniac angry with the bed-clothes … It is forty below in the tent. The cold comes into him. Oh how it hurts. His skin, which was the frontier of him this whole long time past, is breached: he is no longer whole: the ice is inside his chest, a spearing and dreadful presence turning the cavities of him to blue glass. His lips pull back from his teeth in an enormous snarl; but Scott has left the surface of his face, and does not know.

Thus Francis Spufford describes the death of Robert Falcon Scott in I May Be Some Time (1996), a piece that both augments and enriches The Antarctic: An Anthology. Likewise Elizabeth Kolbert’s account of a visit to the Arctic Circle in The Arctic: An Anthology. Here, indeed, the hundred-year history of polar exploration comes full circle. As Kolbert writes in her introduction: ‘A landscape that once symbolised the sublime indifference of nature will, for future generations, come to symbolise its tragic vulnerability.’

Containing gobbets of fiction and non-fiction, with contributors ranging from the early explorers to the modern representatives of science, these two anthologies take the reader on a fascinating and often agonizing journey. Perceptions change as technology advances but nearly all of the contributions are underwritten by a sense of awe. On the whole, it was the accounts of the Antarctic that I found both more affecting and more gripping. Why this should be is hard to say. Possibly it has to do with the fact that the Arctic is more accessible. ‘You could,’ writes Spufford in his introduction, ‘hail a taxi in New York or Berlin, and be driven to the Arctic: but the Antarctic was on a separate map.’ Perhaps it has to do with the fact that the Antarctic is unpopulated – a detail that gives the latter pole a psychological edge over the explorer. Truly a terra incognita of ‘eternal ice [and] unsurpassed desolation’, the Antarctic is a place of Burkean terror. ‘Its sublimity lies in width,’ writes Spufford; ‘in horizontals that go on and on … Its bigness takes you by the heart and squeezes. Once it has you, it tends to keep you.’

Physical extremes become psychical ones and herein lies the real fascination of the subject for the student of good prose. Jack London compared the white expanse of the Arctic Circle to a sheet of foolscap and indeed the writer is no less an explorer than the men who set off across the ice. Often, of course, they are one and the same. Frederick A. Cook’s Through the First Antarctic Night (1900) is the first account of the Antarctic winter, with its seventy days of continuous night, and its description of how the human soul shrinks to a dim phosphorescence when deprived of light is as gripping as it is excruciating. The symbolism is almost self-generating, the sense of existential drift a permanent and deeply menacing presence. ‘It is a strange sensation to know that, blown with the winds, you are moving rapidly over an unknown sea, and yet see nothing to indicate a movement. We pass no fixed point, and can see no pieces of ice stir; everything is quiet … Danco and I are trying to repair watches.’

Of course, the connection is more than symbolic; one’s thoughts turn to death because death is so proximate. The realisation that most of the planet is either too hot or too cold to sustain life – that life itself exists on a knife-edge – is grist to the existential mill. Fridtjof Nansen’s meditations in Farthest North (1897) are a case in point: ‘I have never been able to grasp the fact that this earth will one day be spent and desolate and empty. To what end, in that case, all this beauty …?’ The poles are a natural subject for the modernist who would show us as we really are – naked and alone in an indifferent universe. ‘The chicks are born astride a grave’, writes Diane Ackerman, channelling Beckett. Images of civilisation flicker. Scott’s men thought they saw the ruins of St Paul’s floating by them on the icy waters, while Nobu Shirase’s saw ruined temples. H. P. Lovecraft saw the ruins of Macchu Picchu, Louis Bernacchi the tiers of an amphitheatre (‘but it was only a momentary vision’). Civilisation is merely a mirage.

There are many fine things in these anthologies but perhaps it is to Ernest Shackleton and Robert Scott that the laurels fall; the stories they tell are just so fascinating. Moreover, the prose they employ to tell them has a deeply moving quality, as if it, too, were slowly freezing, slowly giving up the ghost. At the end, Scott was writing with his entire body, blisters forming on his stiff upper lip (‘A long way to go, and, by Jove, this is tremendous labour’). His final entries are unspeakably poignant:

Thursday, March 22 and 23. – Blizzard bad as ever – Wilson and Bowers unable to start – to-morrow last chance – no fuel and only one or two of food left – must be near the end. Have decided it shall be natural – we shall march for the depot with or without our effects and die in our tracks.

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