notes: “the frozen ship” by sarah moss

“the arctic becomes a kind of prototype for heaven, the scene of the ultimate victorian quest narrative.

“much of the writing coming out of robert falcon scott’s journeys in the antarctic can be seen to continue this tradition in a deeply conservative way.  antarctica can be less problematically assimilated into a quest narrative because no one has ever lived there.  nineteenth-century accounts of arctic survival against all the odds or eventual, inevitable but heroic defeat by unbelievably difficult conditions are always to some extend undermined by the continuing progress of inuit cultures and societies in precisely the same locations and conditions.  antarctica on the other hand lends itself much more readily to representations of an almost entirely metaphorical landscape, where extreme cold is simply a challenge to planning /moral fiber and storms are sent to define the limits of travelers’ ability to cope.  in the years after the first world war the minimalist aesthetic of antarctica combined with this abstract understanding of the place to make it appealing to modernist writers and painters, but in scott’s journal and his subsequent hagiography, antarctica figures mostly as a stage setting for an ‘artistic, christian’ progress toward a glorious martyrdom for men who were too good for the post-war world.”  p.26

“it is hard to write about robert falcon scott becuase he has come to typify a kind of englishness, and particular a kid of english masculinity, that is historically and culturally specific.  over ninety years after his death, it is difficult to come to a serious understanding of scott’s status as a popular hero and very easy to mock the rhetoric that made a disastrous expedition into a moral triumph.  scott, whose body was found early in 1913, became an iconic figure for an england desperate to persuade the brightest and best to leave their work, their studies and their families for the near certainty of death on the battlefields of northern france.  british schools were still teaching ten-year-olds in the 1980s that the deceitful foreigner amundsen had used dishonorable means to stop the noble english scott from reaching the south pole first, but even then it was hard to make the leap of imagination to understand why scott was any more than wrong and dead.

“it is trite to say that the establishment made a hero of him on purpose in order to glorify knowing self-sacrifice as a prelude to conscription in the first world war, especially as most of the military and academic establishment seem to have thought (more or less privately) that scott got just about what he was asking for.  on the other hand, the parallel between the men who could see that scott was irresponsible but obeyed him unquestioningly as he led them to their deaths and those who knew that they were being used as cannon-fodder in the trenches but followed orders anyway is interesting.  historical generalizations are misleading – particularly those relying on hindsight – but there seems to have been a cultural moment on the eve of the great war in which it was uniquely possible for scott’s colleagues both to recognize and articulate his manifest failings and to obey him anyway.  it is perhaps this insistence on the heroic status of those who die willfully for a specious principle that is peculiarly english.  scott certainly did his own mythmaking, but the point of mythmaking is to attract and deploy cultural energies that are already there.  he could not have turned himself into a hero without the popular readiness to regard failure as heroic, and potentially more heroic than success.”  p97-99.

” perhaps, finally, this offers a key to the british treasuring of robert falcon scott,and explains why other nations find it both typical and incomprehensible.  the era that cherry-garrard describes as ‘artistic and christian’ was no more of a golden age than any of the other periods so called.  a substantial minority of the population were starving, and the majority cared so little that this only came to light when most of the poorer young men proved untit for active service in the war.  maternal and infant mortality rates were higher than they had been since the seventeenth century and most people had little access to healthcare and education, while the elite passed lives of leisure with unrivaled opportunities for conspicuous consumption.  but because the first world war forced the governent to depend on women (to keep the country runng while the men were at war) and the working classes (cannon fodder), and left an urgent need for capital, which made taxing the rich inevitable, the pace of political change between 1918 and 1922 was greatly accelerated.  women voted, the great country houses began to close, the empire started to slip away.  war marked the ‘end of an era’ in a way that nothing else could, and made a space for yearning.  there was so much grief for so many men that perhaps scott, dying far from the bloody brutality of war and dying in innocence of the wholesale slaughter of an entire european generation, became an emblem of all that was lost.  if he died partly because he insisted on regarding polar exploration as a mythic quest rather than a matter of warm shoes and good engineering, perhaps he is mourned because of rather than despite this romanticism.  others of his generation also thought themselves as capable of things that mattered, and their ambitions and personal achievements counted for nothing in front of the bayonets and guns in the trenches.  scott’s death is not an obliteration, and so he can stand for those who had no chance of an idiosyncratic end.”  p115-116

“they [scott and his comrades] may emerge ‘always young,” and the evidence from the exhumations of the arctic dead suggests that they would be recognizably themselves and recognizably youthful, but barrie bizarrely glosses over the fact that they are also always dead, as if his need for them to be alive effects a resurrection.  this casts light on the children’s literature of the day because it shows how much the prizing of youth is to do with the abandoned hopes of adulthood rather than the celebration of present childhood, a trope which is particularly marked in those whose childhoods were divided from their maturity by war.  childhood is by definition a dynamic time, shaped by a rapid succession of milestones on the way to less changeful years, but scott’s beloved barrie and his fellow writers glorify unnaturally static children, and it is not surprising that so many of the fantasy children’s books of these years end in death.  better, it seems, to be young and dead than to live to maturity.  in the aftermath of the first world war, it is not a surprising sentiment, but coming from a writer for children it is distinctly sinister.  this craving for frozen childhood is one that can be traced through the great english children’s books from lewis carroll to c.s. lewis.” p220-221

“where charles dodgson’s christianity would be impossible to deduce from lewis carroll’s fantasy worlds of random violence, [george] macdonald’s books are firmly in the victorian tradition of improving allegory.  as such, they purvey all the social ideals that later generations have found both powerful and distasteful.  good children are characterized by unthinking obedience, deference to their elders, and abasement before adults and children of higher social class than themselves.  their reward is in heaven because they would not dream of seeking earthly satisfactions.  bad children insist on thinking for themselves and attending to their own needs and interests, and they must be taught a lesson.  increasing maturity brings wider opportunities to behave well, but in general, adults are morally disabled by compromise, and it is better to die young.”  p.226

notes taken from ‘the frozen ship:  the histories and tales of polar exploration” by sarah moss, blue bridge, 2006


About jeanne

artist, grandma, alien

Posted on May 10, 2010, in antarctica, research. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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