I’ve spent an enjoyable weekend reading Charles Emmerson’s Future History of the Arctic. Charles, a friend of Global Dashboard’s, looks at the opening up of the Arctic and the scramble for its natural resources among the great powers of the North, and puts it into the context of the region’s history, from the heroic age of 19th century explorers like Nansen and Amundsen, to the present slightly less heroic age of Gazprom and Statoil.
He’s a great generalist, by which I mean he really knows his foreign policy, but he’s also able to bring in the cultural and literary history of the North Pole, to talk about how it resonates as a symbol and myth in different people’s narratives.
One of the things that most interested me in the book is the idea, found in the early chapter on Norway’s great Arctic explorers, that the polar regions are somehow a testing ground for character, a laboratory for resilience. Emmerson quotes Fritjof Nansen, the charismatic explorer, and in some ways the father of the Norwegian nation: ‘deliverance will not come from the rushing, noisy centres of civilization; it will come from the lonely places’.
This phrase sounds like something one would hear from a hermit monk of the Dark Ages, one of those hardy souls who ventured into the wilderness to found monasteries, battle demons, and push forward the boundaries of civilization.
Perhaps explorers are, in some sense, the secular hermit-saints of our time. They put their minds and bodies through unbelievable austerities, in order to push forward the barriers of civiliation, and also to test their spirits, to see what humans can endure, and to see what they encounter, geographically and spiritually.
We are curious as to whether explorers, when confronted with the worst that nature can throw at us, have any sense of a benevolent deity behind all that natural hostility. Some do. Shackleton, for example, speaks of the constant sense of a fourth man walking beside the party of three who walked across South Georgia to get help during the ill-fated Endurance expedition. He speaks of a ‘Divine Companion’ who seemed to accompany them:
I know that during that long and racking march of thirty-six hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia it seemed to me often that we were four, not three.
Others, however, come out of such experiences with a profound sense of the lack of God and the total indifference of nature to man’s sufferings. Joe Simpson, for example, who broke his leg and fell down a deep crevasse while climbing in South America, says in his account of the trip, Touching the Void:
I never thought of some God or some omniscient being that’d lean down and give me help, and I feel, actually, if I had believed that, I just would’ve stopped and waited for it, and I would’ve died. And so in a way, that’s why that loneliness, I think, came in. I was 25, I was fit, strong, ambitious. I wanted to climb the world and I was dying. There was no afterlife, there’s no paradise, there’s no heaven. It’s just dead. And I really didn’t want to lose that.
But whether you believe in God or not, the accounts of such expeditions are inspiring, and useful, because they reveal how the human mind operates in highly adverse situations, and what it takes, mentally, to get through such situations.
In civilization, men are taken at their own valuation because there are so many ways of concealment, and there is so little time, perhaps even so little understanding. Not so down South…These men were gold, pure, shining, unalloyed….Through all those days, and those which were to follow, the worst I suppose in their dark severity that men have ever come through alive, no single hasty or angry word passed their lips.
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