It operates as a refuge for a civilizing element in short supply in contemporary America: honest criticism
Brine & rime
A review of Race for the South Pole: The Expedition Diaries of Scott and Amundsen by Huntford Roland
was right!Support The
Roald Amundsen (1872–1928) was not someone who did anything by half measures, and if one can possess a genius for being willful, Amundsen had it. He also had a genius for preparation and practice, and for knowing that a game can be won before it is even started. This volume marks the first publication of his South Pole diaries in English, a major event in Arctic studies, and one that makes you wonder why no one had undertaken the translation (from Norwegian) until now.
Narratives of suffering pervade Arctic literature. If Amundsen had failed miseraby or died on his journey to the Pole, would his strory be that much better known? That’s where Robert Scott’s horrible end comes in—he was found frozen in his tent having trailed Amundsen to the Pole by five weeks. Roland Huntford, whose comments are woven throughout these diaries—clarifying or filling in details—is no Scott fan. Scott, meanwhile, was no Shackleton fan. Huntford (like Scott before him) spends a lot of time bashing a man he can’t stand. According to Huntford, Scott was inept at just about every aspect of polar exploration, from the picking of his team, to his stunning lack of preparation, to a lack of urgency that makes one wonder if some portion of his brain had decided on a kind of tacit suicide once he realized how thoroughly Amundsen had bested him.
Outcomes are rarely so one-sided as this particular contest—and that’s exactly how the Norwegians viewed it. The Englishman Scott, in entry after entry, tries to write himself into the Arctic hagiography any way he can. His prose is padded not by excess so much as careful couchings. He doesn’t always lie, but he evades and qualifies and misrepresents. The gripes about Shackleton are subtle but constant, and Huntford steps in after each such entry to underscore once again how much Scott hated his Arctic predecessor. Amundsen, meanwhile, is a much more benign presence for Scott, one of the many ironies that recur throughout his diaries.
It’s difficult, given Huntford’s portrait, not to consider Scott a fool, but one does come to root for him, as the shadows gather around and the prose takes on new life as the writer and his companions’ near death. I had to put the book down and go for a walk in the fresh air after reading this description of a comrade’s demise:
He was a brave soul. This was the end. He slept through the night before last, hoping not to wake; but he woke in the morning—yesterday. It was blowing a blizzard. He said, I am just going outside and may be some time. He went out into the blizzard and we have not seen him since.
“Hoping not to wake”—there’s a shudder-inducer for you. Then again, they might not have been in the position they were had Scott not stopped their retreat from the Pole to go geologizing, a decision that makes you question his sanity.
Amundsen doesn’t effuse like Scott; he simply conquers, confidently. He is almost elemental in these pages, a force of nature unto himself, and not a man phased by the Arctic. “Nippy,” he writes in one instance, before marching on. Scott’s entries often read as attempts to exculpate himself from charges he suspected would later be leveled. Amundsen misrepresents the opposite way, with consistent understatement of his own accomplishments. It’s probably just a matter of a sensibility: Amundsen understood the high level at which he did things, and he regarded the deployment of his abilities as nothing more than part of the job.
Amundsen built his enterprise on dogs, which the English regarded as beneath them, given their lack of civility and habit of eating their own excrement when starved. Amundsen, who was utterly unsqueamish in matters that would make just about anyone else retch, would have considered this bit of information to be a sign of the beasts’ enterprising spirit. Huntford gives full marks to the dogs, and to Olav Bjaaland, Amundsen’s right-hand man, whose diary is also presented here, for the first time anywhere. Where Amundsen is understated, Bjaaland is, shall we say, colorful. A champion skier, he was also a farmer, carpenter, and ace piss-taker. Coming off like a man who has embarked on a mere stroll, out of boredom, Bjaaland takes all of the pomposity out of Arctic exploring, and makes the whole venture sound far more workable than you’d think. “Heigh ho, polar life is a grind,” he writes in one instance, but most of the grind, as it were, comes from the rest days that Amundsen had scheduled so that his men would be rarin’ to go, or when the weather required them to heave to. Bjaaland was not a skilled rester: “Bugger this lying still,” he writes, with his characteristic frankness. “Hope we can get off tomorrow.”
Amundsen ran a democratic enterprise, and while he gets most of the credit for what his team pulled off, that’s in large part because he knew what each individual could do, and what that would mean to the whole. I can see two instances in all of the diaries where he makes legitimate mistakes, and it’s thrilling when this most cautious and well-prepared of men realizes when it is, as they say on the farm, nut-cutting time, and gets after it. The key example of this is when he sends out three men, each in a different direction, to “box the Pole”—that is, establish its exact point, by fixing a grid. It’s a dicey thing to command even one man out alone in such a situation, but time was short, and when Amundsen needed to go for something, he went for it.
In what has to be the most gutting irony in all polar history, Scott mistook the material left behind by one of Amundsen’s “boxers” as the very spot where the Norwegians had determined the exact Pole to be, and so never really made it to the spot. One always hopes to get there and get back, but not getting there and not getting back makes you wonder if someone shot an albatross on the way out.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 30 June 2012, on page 85
Copyright © 2013 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.comhttp://www.newcriterion.com/articles.cfm/Brine---rime-7416
E-mail to friend
view more >
Poet George Green reads from his award-winning Lord Byron's Foot
Celebration of the Life of Robert H. Bork, 1927–2012
James Panero on price gouging at the Met, with Fred Dicker
May 19, 2013 03:15 PM
by James Bowman
May 17, 2013 07:16 PM