December 21, 2008

Arctic hysteria

Outside, dead white and bitter. Inside the old brick building, dense and thick and protecting,storm windows dropped, insulated, and tight, there is steam heat running through the walls. A fire burns in the fireplace and no shortage of wood. There are lights brightening many corners; the electrical current wholly shapes the space. Still, it is possible to feel the faintest thread cold that blows in, somehow, like an ominous whisper.

Eliot Weinberger writes of living amongst the dynamic lifelessness of ice. He describes the point at which the mind of the hunter in the kayak off the coast of Greenland--forced to hunt ahead of the coming winter-- can no longer keep the immensity of the threat from the thickening, darkening water from devouring their consciousness. They never go out onto the sea again.

"The landscape is always changing. The icebergs are always moving. They calve, drift, suddenly flip over. The ice is alive. It creaks, groans, grinds, trickles, gurgles, drips, thumps. Sea slaps it; wind howls through its hollows."

He writes of Arctic hysteria: nineteenth-century seamen leaping mad from their ships, huddled in tents, delirious and paranoid.

He repeats the story told in Greenland of three men who set out to know the world and come across an igloo. They are unable to escape it. The igloo seems like an continent. They walk inside for days and days, holding fast to its walls, searching on and on, for days, weeks, and months:

"Two of the men could take it no more and sat down and died. The third kept walking. He finally found the exit: his kayak was where he had left it. He returned to his village an old man, and he told the people: 'The world is just an enormous igloo.'"

Photo: Cape Prescott, Franklin Pierce Bay, by Charles White (1875)