Adam Gopnik begins his second lecture on winter (first, here) by asking whether we remember that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein plays out in the northern, Arctic reaches.
I didn’t remember that: did you?
Nonetheless, I don’t have any trouble conjuring up the images that he describes in opening his discussion of this Radical Winter.
“If the first window on winter was a winter largely of the eye, recorded in paintings and photographs, this is a winter of electric enterprise, recorded largely in journals and memoirs, registering things suffered.”
This is about winter in the extreme.
While the tactile aspects of this chapter are striking, there are also more cerebral elements.
For instance, this idea that the polar expeditions (of Scott and Amundsen, Peary and Cook, who raced just like Mary Shelley’s characters) were all about words.
They were “wordbound literary journeys — fuelled by fiction, supported by stories, and ending in memoirs; the travellers wrote, got read, and caused others to write, and then they went to write again.”
The mythologizing of the journey, the act of discovery, the naming and the claiming: these are familiar subjects but, as with the first lecture, some threads are intertwined which bring a new energy to the story.
He does also discuss the cultural vandalism of the expeditions — and these are stories that must be told, because too often the tragic elements of the Europeans’ experiences are emphasized while those of the indigenous peoples ignored; yet Gopnik also reminds us that while it might be tempting to simply sneer and poke at these explorers — who were, indeed, glaringly imperfect — our own generation is perpetrating acts that will later be sneered and poked at too.
This, compared to the Romantic Winter chapter, is definitely a more sobering chapter.
But next up? Recuperative Winter. Perfect.
Note: This is the second of five posts that I’ve planned to celebrate this year’s Massey Lectures (really, just a sneaky way to celebrate my other favourite season: there I’ve said it).
The Massey Lectures are still available as podcasts at no charge for one more day, via CBC, and they are also available to purchase through iTunes. You can also buy the CD set next month here. And, best of all, you can buy the Book via House of Anansi.
Is Winter getting closer for you this November, or are you pulling your shorts out of your drawers on the other side of the world and wondering why the Masseys weren’t chatting about summer?