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Winter 2014

Lessons of Darkness

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Geoff Dyer

Arctic,
an exhibit at the Louisiana Museum
of Modern Art, Denmark,
September 26, 2013–February 2, 2014.



“I hate traveling and explorers.” A great and famous first line (from Claude Levi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques) because, for the reader—and who knows, maybe even for the author as well—it is such a provocative untruth: we love explorers. When we’re tired of every other kind of reading expedition, we’ll trudge along in the footsteps of the great explorers; even if we no longer have the stamina to read about them, we’ll settle for pictures of them.

And what about Albert Camus’s claim, in the opening line of his essay “The Minotaur or the Halt at Oran,” that “There are no more deserts, there are no more islands”? How can that be true, even at some metaphorical level? Okay, the Maldives might sink beneath the waves in the not-too-distant future, but there are still plenty of islands left—I live on one—and there are loads of deserts. The danger, as I understand it, is that if we’re not careful we’ll lose some islands and there will be nothing but deserts.

It’s the ice that’s endangered, receding and melting by the day, making polar exploration a thing of the past when it’s already a thing of the past. The only thing left to do is to do again the things—man-hauling across some much-traversed expanse—that were done so early in the twentieth century it looks like the nineteenth. In that distant past, it was the explorers who were at risk from the ice and everything associated with it, not the ice that was at risk from man and the man-made. So maybe a compound amendment of Camus and Levi-Strauss is in order: “I hate the way that there are no more explorers.”

Photographs of these old explorers, even ones who made it back, who lived to tell their tales to packed crowds at the Royal Geographical Society, always have a sense of doom brooding over them like a dark sky, as if they—the photographs—weren’t expected to be carried back by the men who are in them or took them, but by later expeditions searching for traces of the earlier ones. Sometimes search parties would find the bodies as well as the photographs, journals, and letters. Some-times there’d only be the words and pictures, seemingly written and taken without any shadow of doubt—these were the days before “unreliability” became a key component simultaneously underpinning and undermining the assumptions of modernity—that they would one day be found and seen. How comforting it must have been, shutting one’s eyes for the last time, secure in that faith. The island castaway stuffing a message in a bottle hopes to be rescued; the polar explorer scribbling in his diary knows that he will be remembered. The incentive to self-mythologize, to cover up one’s blunders, deny allegations of incompetence—“If Scott fails to get to the Pole he jolly well deserves it,” griped fellow expedition member Titus Oates—and apply what will hopefully prove a lasting gloss to one’s posthumous reputation is, in such circumstances, considerable. “We are showing that English-men can still die with a bold spirit, fighting it out to the end,” wrote Scott of the Antarctic (as he “prepared his exit from the stage,” noted Roland Huntford in a damning re-assessment almost seventy years later).

Scott’s prose is frequently and atypically grandiose. In an essay of genius, “An Expedition to the Pole,” Annie Dillard observes that the default style of the polar explorers, even in the intimate setting of their journals, tends toward “a fine reserve.” Were they selected for the task of exploration, she asks, on the basis of “the empty and solemn splendor of their prose”? Going further—Dillard is nothing if not an intrepid explorer of barmy ideas—she wonders “if some eminent Victorians, examining their own prose styles, realized, perhaps dismayed, that from the look of it, they would have to go in for polar exploration.” There is a picture of Nansen seated in his parlor that would seem to have caught exactly this determining moment of awakened self-knowledge. Dillard follows her own question by immediately quoting Andrée, as he confides in his diary “with almost his dying breath, ‘Our provisions must soon and richly be supplemented, if we are to have any prospect of being able to hold on for a time.’”

I could easily—and perhaps should —learn more about Nansen and Andrée. The pictures, after all, are of famous expeditions, about which a certain amount is known. Normally photographs encourage you to do precisely this, to enable access to lengthier and more comprehensive mental captions. These extraordinary images have the opposite effect.

Rather than viewing them as part of a larger explanatory record, I prefer to think of them as furnishing the sole evidence of expeditions about which nothing else is known. In this way they provide “a kind of truth” that might be “the enemy of the merely factual. Ecstatic truth, I call it.” The words are Werner Herzog’s, from an explanation of why his documentaries rely on touches of fabrication and invention, thereby breaching the assumed obligations of the form. Isn’t that what the Andrée pictures most vividly resemble? A stash of stills from a lost Herzog film in which the documentary sublime and the painstakingly fictive are impossible to distinguish: a sci-fi movie stranded in the icy wastes of the past, or a historical drama set several days after tomorrow?

The soundtrack to this tragically vanished or unmade epic is rumored—by me—to be by the Australian trio The Necks. Taken from a sequence from their hour-long track “Silver-water,” the main theme of the movie sounds like the last transmission from the crew of a space station: doomed when first sent, dead by the time received, but still faintly bleeping its way through the rest of eternity. That’s what I hear in these pictures, made at a time when the polar night must have seemed as infinite, distant, and dark as space itself.

As with Robert Capa’s D-Day photographs, they’re enhanced by damage and imperfections which seem immanent rather than intrusive, emanating from rather than imposed upon. The harm to the Capas was actually done back in London, in the safety of the lab, but they seem imprinted and drenched with the danger and salt-water of Omaha Beach. I’m unclear as to when the flurries and sleets of blurs and blobs began to afflict the polar pictures. In the process of being made or in the course of their long afterlife? Has time played an active part in the emergence of their distinctive look and flavor—as happens, according to Ryszard Kapuscinski, in the production of cognac—or has it merely stored and preserved what was damaged from the outset? Either way, compared with Frank Hurley’s immaculately magnificent photographs of Shackleton and the Endurance, these images are stoically flawed—frostbitten—by the experiences depicted. Some consist of nothing but the flaws, as if life, at a certain point, shrank to an agonized breathing that eventually became indistinguishable from howling wind. A swirling diminution of the visible slowly gave way to an all-engulfing emptiness—and we can see this happening.

Some, on the other hand, could almost pass as generic ancestors of the holiday snap. Once the destination—the ice—is reached, however, a vital difference emerges. Snaps are taken by the holiday makers themselves, whereas the best of these appear not to have been taken by members of the expeditions. They seem—and this essay, as will by now be clear, is a faithful account of a viewer’s responses to certain pictures, not an exploration of the circumstances of their production—to have been made without human intervention, as if the place itself somehow achieved the means to record and preserve the bizarre activities of the people visiting it. (In a few instances they seem almost to have been made without the benefit of a camera!) As a result, a place which, in the normal course of things, had nothing to look at—or with—for half the year stood briefly revealed to itself in a new and strange, that is to say human, light. Maybe that’s why, instead of just looking at the pictures and marveling at the ingenuity and resilience depicted, we inhabit them. On occasions, as when animals are being killed—a necessary and eminently reasonable task from the point of view of the explorers—the pictures have about them the qualities of evidence and potential indictment.

More usually the activities recorded seem absurd or ludicrous. At times this barely sentient landscape, entirely reliant on its blemished sense of sight, becomes a species of silent anthropology, struggling to understand what is unfolding incomprehensibly in its midst. Essentially this boils down to two simple questions: Why on earth have they come here? And how long will they stay? To the first, the landscape has no answer; to the second the answer is: Not long at all. For their part, the explorers encountered a massively distended version of the time with which they were familiar and on which their plans depended. Measured round the belly of the planet, the illuminated part of a day lasts about twelve hours. Here it lasts six months. Time passes, as they say, at a glacial pace. Photographs are often thought to freeze time. Here it’s already frozen and in these pictures it’s as if we see frozen time in the process of thawing. Frozen and thawing in the same image—which is not so different, when you think about it, from dead and breathing. By these terms the most severely distressed pictures are less records of the dying of the human light than a kind of self-portrait of a landscape in recovery, one by which an alien presence is gradually enveloped, but never quite forgotten.



Geoff Dyer is the author of The Ongoing Moment, Out of Sheer Rage, and other books of indeterminate genre. His new book, Another Great Day at Sea, will be published by Pantheon in May 2014.
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