Research Notes I
The penguins of the Antarctic were a new discovery for the explorers, who began filming them in the early twentieth century. Everyone was soon taken with the sweet creatures; people wanted to see images of the playful penguins. But if you’ve seen Encounters at the End of the World, by Werner Herzog, you’ll know that sometimes a penguin will voluntarily separate from the group and head in the opposite direction, away from the sea, toward its death.
There’s a store downstairs on the street level that sells frozen foods. The cashier is tall, blond, stocky. He reminds me of Amundsen, the explorer.
PEAKS AND POLES
The Sherpas and the Inuit have similarities. The former reach the summit every day, the latter helped everyone discover the North Pole.
The mountaineer Ferran Latorre gave up on his ascent of Everest in order to rescue a sick Sherpa.
THE WHITE RABBIT
When I was little, my mother worked in a small-town school. Its playground was the woods. Once I saw a bunny nestled among the roots of a tree. But it wasn’t one of the typical rabbits that camouflage themselves amid the brown tones of the Mediterranean landscape; it was a white rabbit. When I got closer I saw that it was quite big; stock-still, it stared at me with its red eyes. It let me pick it up and I realized it was panting. I decided to take it to the vet, but on the way there, in the car, it died.
Death by freezing is called sweet death, or white death. It is somehow linked to sleep, because of their apparent likeness, as opposed to the violence of a death by fire. Those who’ve seen it up close say that there’s nothing sweet about an icy grave; freezing is as terrible a death as burning.
Yet ice retains the body’s shape the way images do; it is like photographs. Photography is to its subject as ice is to the interred explorer: a thanatological process that presents us, abruptly, with a body from the past.
Honor and Recognition
The white backdrop to polar explorations magnifies the already highly abstract nature of attempting to reach a geographic goal as intangible as a few coordinates on a map. What was it that led so many men to endeavor to conquer these vast white spaces devoid of any apparent commercial or strategic interest? What does such a conquest represent and how is it, in turn, represented?
While the historical research that makes up part of this investigation seemed to be a straight line leading to crystal-clear regions crowned with stories of scientific aplomb, it actually turned out to be meandering, and plagued by paradox and murkiness. The conquest of these last uncharted regions is so fascinating precisely because of its ambiguity, and because of its fertile hold on the popular imagination. One example: the conquest of the North Pole was attributed to Robert Edwin Peary in 1909. After twenty-three years of unsuccessful attempts, Peary pulled it off on his eighth try. Frederick Cook claimed he had reached the pole a year earlier. With no scientific means to prove who was the first to conquer the region, a dispute arose that captured the public interest. Popular opinion eventually shifted in Peary’s favor, ruining Cook. When comparing the ‘conquest photographs’ of each of the two explorers, there is no doubt as to who the winner would be. Peary’s is shot from a low angle, and shows five men in front of a flag lodged in a carefully prepared mound of snow on the arctic plain. The staging, perfectly composed in the vast whiteness, excluded his most loyal companion, the African-American Matthew Henson. Cook’s conquest was very different. With no one else to operate the camera, he photographed the pair of Inuits who traveled with him beside an igloo hoisting the inevitable flag over the arctic expanse. The resulting photograph is blurry.
Man in Ice
My brother is a man trapped in ice. He looks at us through it; he is there and he is not there. Or more precisely, there is a fissure inside him that periodically freezes over. When he is present, his outline is more clearly defined; other times he’s submerged for a while. His focus is at times ten thousand meters high (he likes to watch planes cross the sky) or, when the ice is thicker, ten thousand meters inward. In addition to planes, he’s interested in trains, cars, dogs, cats, and birds. In his day-to-day life, the fissure within him leaves him stranded between one action and the next. But because his body is fully there, we have to make every decision for him. There is no outward indication of what’s going on inside him. Disability is basically what hinders someone from being self-sufficient and having skills society is willing to pay for (if we take this less literally, it could include many of us); therefore, you could say that he is simply different, that he has other abilities: freelance air traffic controller, attentive observer of the local fauna, silent but present companion. The lack of external signs is somewhat disconcerting to strangers when they approach him and he responds in a stutter. Luckily he lives in a small city, he’s known around the neighborhood and people generally take care of him if they come across him blocked, hesitating over crossing the street to drop the trash in the bin, one of his day’s few moments, if not the only one, when he is by himself.
‘How’s it going?’ I ask.
‘Goodrealgood.’ It comes out all in a rush, his typical answer to that question.
M has a catalogue of responses that help him confront social situations. That is how he’s learned to integrate into the world of others, a world where he has adapted over time, like a stranger in a distant land with an unfamiliar language. He knows that if everyone is laughing, he must laugh, and if everyone is serious he has to be serious. He only interrupts conversations in order to ask urgent and basic things, which he repeats in the same way each day at the same time:
‘Should I go to the bathroom?’ Right after meals.
‘Should I drink water?’ Once he’s sat down at the table.
Having a son like this, let’s be frank, is hard on my mother.
I think sometimes she feels guilty, even though the origin of his problem is unclear. My mother and my brother, who is now grown-up and hairy (yet maintains a childlike innocence), have developed a certain interdependence. She hasn’t had a serious relationship since splitting up with my father more than twenty years ago. So she is a polar conqueror and pulls my brother along on a sled.
As a boy it wasn’t yet clear what was going on with him; at school he was just a bit behind in some aspects. Later the problem became more and more apparent. We don’t know what caused it, whether it was due to a complication at birth – he was delivered via vacuum extraction, was it a question of not getting enough oxygen? – or if it’s genetic, a thought that makes the idea of my having children fraught, even though there isn’t another case in our family. Some research suggests that it has to do with the fertilizers that were used in the sixties and seventies, because there was an uptick in cases, but the increase could simply be due to the fact that they’d begun to diagnose it. The studies on autistic spectrum disorders don’t clarify anything, and the doctors know very little. There are cases of genetically identical twins raised in the same home where one is autistic and the other isn’t. The importance of the various environmental and genetic factors is still unknown, and there are no biological indicators that can detect the presence of autism after birth. That has weakened my trust in science: for years doctors have given my brother different names, depending on the pathological trend at the time: first he was borderline, from borderline he became Asperger, from Asperger to autistic, and now, since the classification encompasses so many different cases, it’s called autism spectrum disorder (ASD). To me, this vague label seems like a path back toward uncertainty; the differences in behavior and appearance between the different cases are so vast that they often have very little in common.
When I came into the world, he was already there, and for many years his condition was an enigma, something unnamed. My older brother was diagnosed at the age of thirty. I was grateful to have a name for it, even one that isn’t entirely apt. And I believe that I’ve been able to talk about it more since then. It is very important that things have a name, otherwise they don’t exist.
The idea that the name often makes the thing is completely true.
Frederick Cook’s polar obsession started when his first wife and their baby son died during the birth. It was as a surgeon on one of Robert Peary’s expeditions that the doctor began his explorations. The so-called ‘polar controversy’ took place when, years later and on different expeditions, in 1909 Peary and Cook returned at the same time from the Arctic claiming to have been the first to reach the North Pole. One of the documents that Cook brought back from the expedition was the photograph of his companion reaching the summit of Mount McKinley, the highest peak in Alaska, which is actually still quite far from the North Pole. Peary was convinced that the photograph had been retouched, and thus began the first argument questioning his adversary’s honesty, as a means to call into question his having made it to the North Pole. In the photograph the shape of the peak had been modified by cropping both sides of the mountain to accentuate the steepness of the slope. Even though several expeditions of the period sought to confirm its veracity, the weather conditions made it impossible to recreate a photograph from the same angle to determine the facts.
Later, Cook gave conferences depicting himself as a misunderstood man who had been robbed of his glory by Peary’s influential circle of friends. He even went so far as to make a film, The Truth About the Pole (1912), that shows, above all, the scant means needed to represent life at the poles: a wood cabin on a white background tells his version of the events. The dispute continued until the United States entered World War I and public curiosity in the polar question waned and Cook turned his eye to oil speculation, for which he was accused of fraud and ended up in prison. After his release in 1930, he tried to again stake his claim as the first conqueror of the pole, but the scientific committees no longer took him seriously.
Every month all the things we couldn’t buy, and we won’t buy in the months to come, end up somewhere, out, under the ice. The platonic loves form into crystals and also get stuck beneath the snow. Unfulfilled desires, when they accumulate, cause cracks that appear on the forehead. Sometimes we slip on the ice and fall into deeper crevasses. After a long time there can be a thaw and everything below emerges like the mammoths on the Siberian plains in summer. The remains are damp and smelly. Then we no longer want them. We think they’re not worth it. Money wasted or love squandered on the undeserving.
The desires frozen for lack of money or unrequited love are different from the ones we freeze because we’ve given up on them. The latter have the gleam of stoic heroism. Even though we might be renouncing our desires out of fear, and we’ll spend our lives blind, without feeling or seeing anything . . . On the other hand, if we obey our desires we could end up lost. What makes Odysseus a hero is that he renounces and does not renounce. When he allows himself to listen to the sirens’ song, he remains careful but allows himself his desire.
Captain Shackleton and his entire crew suffered a shipwreck while trying to cross the Antarctic. They were adrift for months, hearing the song of the orcas; his feat, like Odysseus’s, was returning home. But there on solid ground something sank inside the captain – the domestic realm can be the most difficult territory to settle – and in 1920, just three years after having miraculously escaped death several times, Shackleton abruptly announced that he needed to return to one of the polar regions. He didn’t care whether it was the North Pole or the South.
The above is taken from Brother in Ice by Alicia Kopf, published by And Other Stories. Order your copy here.