Skating to Antarctica

I stumbled onto this recommendation by way of Hermione Lee’s description of it as “a typically uncategorizable mixture of travel journal, childhood memoir, and Melvillean meditation on whiteness and oblivion” in her review of another of Jenny Diski’s books. How can one resist immediately reading something so categorized?

It was as stunning as expected, Jenny keeping three plot lines cool in her hands as she plays out the rope, letting them tug at their fish. This was her first foray into memoir, non-fiction, and I hope to find the rest of her works as compelling. My favorite parts were the meditations during the sea voyage to Antarctica in quest of white nothingness.

Indolence has always been my most essential quality… I know that during such periods when I have experienced free-running, obligationless time, the boredom and restlessness that occasionally comes over me is curiously part of the pleasure, and not detrimental to my feeling of well-being at all… As things stand at present a phone call initiating activity is never so welcome as the one cancelling it… When I am alone, at home, I get up, work, eat, sleep, work, sleep, eat in a pleasurable round dictated by my physical needs… It is the external appointments, those made by people on other schedules that I find trying.

While on the cruise with 70 other people, she rails against the holier-than-thou attitude of today’s modern eco-warrior who details the grim reality of ancient whaling amid boos from the audience:

I like a whale as much as the next person. I’m entirely in favor of animals as well as people being let alone if at all possible… But we had a boatload of rich folk booing at their wicked forebears for killing something dramatically large. No one mentioned the cruelty of fishing for cod. We were people who could afford to buy free-range chickens so that their brief lives will be a little more comfortable than their battery cousins that only the poor can afford. Most of the commerce in whale products had been in oil, used for lighting and heating before paraffin became available. We no longer need whale bones for our underwear or for any of the things which plastic makes far better. Take away our electricity and petroleum by-products and we would be in the dark and very much inconvenienced. The self-righteousness of those who could afford to do without whale products, who had the time and technology to appreciate the beauty of whales in a state of nature, and who had benefited from the wealth of previously unreconstructed commerce, rendered me sullen.

Describing the elephant seals sulking by the edge of the sea:

gravity bore down on their enormous bulk in the same way that large stones are piled up to squash pressed beef. A grey jellied mountain results, whose sides slope down to their inadequate-looking flippers. One more stone on the pile of gravity and the whole strained substance would rupture, exploding flesh and blubber through its skin for miles around.

Published in 1997, I enjoyed her diatribe on photography and wonder what she would say about this 20 years later.

Elephant seals being what they are, and modern travellers being what they are, the photography had begun in earnest. The debate about taking a camera with me on this trip raged for weeks. I’ve never owned a camera, never taken one on holiday… just about everyone insisted that I take a camera with me. How could I go so far, to such an out-of-the-way place with such out-of-the-way sights without taking photos? Easy, I say. I like looking at stuff. You have to stop looking in order to point a camera at something. And why peer through a lens which limits your vision? You can’t see if you’re always composing what’s in front of you into a fancy shot…

Everyone else, however, was snapping off film like there was no tomorrow, let alone two more weeks of touring… People were weighed down on each shoulder with spare lenses, light meters, and those lucky enough to have wives or husbands handy let them carry tripods one pace behind like native bearers. The most offensive person on the trip was a Scandinavian professional photographer… elbowing people out of his way…

The camcorder was much in evidence, so, added to the click and whirr of motorized snapping, was the monotonous murmuring of voices, not people in conversation with each other, but individuals talking into their machines, adding commentary to their motion pictures. Every time I heard what I thought was someone talking behind me and politely turned around to listen, I saw a Cyclops with video camera replacing the missing eye, pacing deliberately about, moving the machine and their head up and down and around, as if eyes no longer swivelled in their sockets, muttering into their chests. To anyone not aware of the purpose of the camcorder, we would have been mistaken for an outing of the deranged… The present experience was already in the past for them, they had skipped over time, and were seeing the world through their video lenses, as it would look when the current moment was dead and gone.

A few pages later, she’s delved into reminisces about her mother, but returns to the theme:

I wondered, too, whether it was possible to experience anything fresh any more. If there was a moment of marvelling, it was in the amazing closeness of the reality to what I had already seen in other media. Sometimes, looking out to sea, I had to shake away the films I had seen, the sense of remembering, without having ever actually experienced the event…

But the photography does more than push the present out of the way and possibly make memory even more unreliably your own than ever. It also captures a slice of the world, makes it private territory, deprives others of the right of access. Photography is a modern, miniature form of colonization.

In the final pages, she returns to the idea of photography:

But what, I wondered, was the point of witnessing this sublime empty landscape and then passing on? That question was one reason, I suppose, for the rate at which the cameras clicked away. The photograph was evidence for oneself, not others really, that you’d been there. The only proof that anything had once happened beyond an attack of imagination and fallible memory. It also caused there to be an event during the moment of experiencing, as if the moment of experiencing doesn’t feel like enough all by itself. If you merely looked and left, what, when you returned home, was the point of having been? It was not hard to imagine such a landscape, to build one in your head in the comfort of your own home, and spend unrestricted time there all alone. In real life, you look, you pass through, you leave—you take a photo to make the activity less absurd. It provides something to do with your hands while you are trying to experience yourself experiencing this experience.

They land in St. Andrew’s Bay, the breeding ground for 100,000 king penguins who all are lined up, staring out at the sea when they arrive:

To us, they seemed to be watching, but if we hadn’t been approaching the shore, they would still all be standing there looking out to sea. That’s what penguins do. Stand. For the penguins, it’s just another day of standing and staring. They were not even slightly interested at our approach… We were not part of their existence, presented no obvious danger and therefore were ignored, quite overlooked…

I was very taken with this timeless standing, unwitnessed, unwitnessing, that we were interrupting, though only barely. That was the point, for me, of Antarctica; that it was simply there, always had been, always would be, with great tracts of the continent unseen, unwitnessed, cycling through its two seasons, the ice rolling slowly from the centre to the edges where eventually it breaks off. A place that is and always had been unseen.

Of course, she brings along Moby Dick for the trip, and finds herself yearning to spend the day reading in her cabin.