Saturday, October 11, 2014

In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides

I finished this book last week, a thriller for armchair adventurers. I guess I can claim that soubriquet, but I read such like for more than the sensation of my hair standing on end. The book concerns an attempt to sail to the North Pole, back in the yeasty end of the 19th century.

I shan’t speak overmuch about the book. Suffice that the narrative rollicks, and that depth and scholarship show clearly. What gets me is the craziness of the undertaking.

The publisher of the New York Herald subsidized the expedition. He is the one who subsidized Stanley’s search for Dr Livingston (who was not exactly lost and didn’t exactly need saving). The Stanley expedition was a publishing coup—it stirred the public—and the polar one struck a public chord as well.

The polar expedition, led by Captain De Long, held the central idea that the polar sea was warm. Leading scientists and cartographers felt sure that an open sea existed in the polar region. One theorized that a Pacific current similar to the Gulf Stream drove warm water thru the ice to make a passageway to the North, and kept the ocean there in a liquid state.

I don’t know, speaking definitively, if this idea is hypothesis or theory. Hypothesis (if I understand the term rightly) is an idea to be tested; theory has faced tests and has yet to be disproved. Scientists actually had some reason to believe that the Arctic Sea could be warm. For instance, the warm northerly-tending current does exist. None of the whalers and others who have found their way to the region ever found hint of such a situation, tho. That whalers never found a warm sea does not mean one didn’t exist. It ought to, however, have tempered the theories.

The USS Jeanette, then, pretty quickly seizes up in ice, the ship remains stuck for two years, until finally crushed and sunk. The expedition slogged across 1000 miles of ice before reaching Siberia. Many died. Like I said, a hair raising story.

I know hindsight gives me strength, but it is hard to believe that so much was risked on the advice of so little knowledge. I guess that defines the human condition. Out of ignorance we sometimes find the light switch.

Poe, interestingly, in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, writes of a warm southern polar region where dark-skinned natives help fulfill a scurvy vision of a master race. Poe had a brilliant mind but here his swipes never quite hit the light switch. The hardest challenge is to listen to yourself.

Poe of course took many crazy undertakings. Imagining the tale-telling heart or the pit with the pendulum with such unsettling closeness shows a daring many of us can’t match. Likewise Lovecraft. One can lose one’s way, by which I mean, one loses the generative understanding. That is, if you can imagine a bleak and lacking race—frankly if you can imagine race at all (scientifically speaking, the term is a whole lot less settled than most people understand)—then perhaps you look for the light switch in the wrong place.

Theories should be placed within the coven of proof. Another book read recently, Into the Silence by Wade Davis, recounts the experiences of those who made the first attempts to climb Mount Everest. Most of them survived, somehow, the intensely stupid and foolish commands of the opposing armies during World War I. Commanding officers nowhere near the front were designing elegant plans that murdered millions and millions and millions. Was that just the olden days? Let’s talk climate change, let’s talk fracking, let’s talk…

So anyway, castles made of sand.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014


Mention of Poe recently and I found an urge to read him. Been a while. I have two volumes from Library of America. One consists of poetry and fiction, the other his reviews and critical work. One of the cover photos of him, he looks roughly like Baudelaire with his intense eyes and the expansive brow. Fitting.

In school, elementary school, we were fed the highlight stuff: the well-known poems and a few of his so-called horror stories. One gets a skewed vision of his work from that sampling. His poems are somber yet overripe. An eleven year old could tell that Poe’s a bit bent. The horror stories were problematic because they lacked monsters, To this elevated eleven year old, horror meant Frankenstein, the Thing, and Dracula lurking nearby. Some hyper loony thinking he hears a dead man’s heartbeat comes a cropper compared to that. Not to say the intensity of Poe’s narrative didn’t grab me.

Poe’s oeuvre is quite varied. He writes humourous pieces (somewhat labored, I think), satires, capers, even. “Eureka (A Prose Poem)” is a philosophical treatise. His detective stories, to call them that, are thorough masteries of the words induction and deduction. He had a surprisingly scientific mind, surprising because he could launch the wildest conjecture, crazy Lovecraft style.

Poe’s erudition shows most in his non-fiction, but he reveals it thru out his fiction, as well. One can fairly call him an autodidact. Yes, he went to West Point, but didn’t do well. Thru out his work, one sees him pressing his knowledge forward. Reading The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym again, I surmise that Poe hasn’t the practical nautical experience of a sailor that Melville had, but he seems to have made a good study nonetheless.

As to Pym, in which I am ensconced, we have an imperfect but curdling precursor to Moby Dick. Poe proves intent on providing close detail. Poe came from an era when readers wanted to remain in the sentences, not skim to the period. Honestly, I want to let the sentence envelop me, but I also want to get to the next one. I admit it, I jump ahead. But Poe tries to be precise, and detailed. I admire that. He tries to embrace the totality. He may be faking it, in terms of experience, but I am okay with that. He is writing the world.

Some of Pym can only be termed implausible. Pym himself, a stowaway, is tucked into a box in the hold of a ship. The box resembles Thoreau’s fine vision of a perfectly fine residence—refer Walden—a coffin-sized box whereat to lay one’s head. The bad air of the hold causes him to swoon for several days. Too much a machination. During that time of swoon, the ship undergoes a mutiny. It is a bit of a labour, transforming the plot necessities into believeable behavior. As I said, tho, Poe details it carefully. Let us just ride his wave, he is so intent.

He definitely angles towards something. He commands—or sort of commands: he’s an explorer—a rare sort of intelligence. Autodidacts must prove themselves, no diploma certifies them. We are weak that way.

His critical work is fun to read, if you can glean a sense of the subject. If Poe writes about Longfellow, you have a reference point. Poe seems to have reviewed anything that made it thru the transom, so many of the contemporaries about whom he writes are as ciphers to me, so it’s hard to rally interest. He finds some weirdoes, tho. He writes of one author, who writes in English yet inexplicably provides footnotes in French. I mean, whoa!

I write here wishing I had the time to just read everything by Poe. I think he is worthy of that. There’s a lot of crap here, that much I can tell. But he’s so certain in his work, certain that if he keeps at it, the many trails, there opens a way.

It’s a weird undertaking, an American literature. I don’t mean that jingoistically. The settlement here, in all its English motivation, eventually moved toward American. Hawthorne, Poe, Melville, Whitman, Dickinson, these five in literary bundle describe a possible place. I don’t care America, but in a wilderness sort of project—make your own—these startled a hart.