A review of George Belden's Land of the Snow Men
by G.S. Evans
Belden, George (ed. Lock, Norman). Land of the Snow Men. New York: Calamari Press, 2005.
he recently discovered Land of the Snow Men, a journal of Philadelphia architect George Belden's experiences in the Antarctic at the time of the Amundsen and Scott expeditions, is a fascinating and important document. This is not only because it has high literary value, but also because it necessitates a rewriting of the history of the doomed Terra Nova expedition and biographies of its leader, Robert Falcon Scott. The journal was unearthed by the writer Norman Lock (whose work has appeared some number of times in The Cafe Irreal); Lock happened upon it while staying at a private sanatorium in Vermont's Green Mountains, where he was recovering from a nervous breakdown.
That the journal, first published in 2005, hasn't caused more of a public sensation is no doubt a result of Mr. Lock's assertion in his introduction that Belden "was not in Antarctica at the time of Scott's 1910-12 expedition to the Pole, but the year after the disaster," and that, therefore, Belden's journal, "purporting to be that of a witness to the misadventure, is clearly an invention." While we believe that Mr. Lock has done a great service in uncovering this fascinating document and that he is, in addition, absolutely correct in pointing out its considerable literary value, it is also our belief that future scholarship will likely prove his assertion regarding Belden’s absence from the expedition false.
In stating this, we have no desire to question Mr. Lock's scholarship. Especially since we have only the highest opinion of his talents as a writer of fiction. The fact that he is one of the few writers to succeed in establishing himself in the mainstream of the American literary world without falling into what one contributor to The Cafe Irreal once called "the black hole of American realism" is strong enough testimony to his abilities in this area. However, he has not, so far as we know, similarly distinguished himself in the arena of scholarship, and this is where the issue regarding Belden's journals lies. (Footnote 1) Which is to say: it is difficult for us to believe Mr. Lock's assertion that an otherwise undistinguished Philadelphia architect with no apparent previous writing experience would be able to provide such powerful and cogent descriptions of the Scott expedition and its participants if he hadn't himself been present and witnessed, in some form or the other, the events described. Even Mr. Lock alludes to this difficulty when he writes in his introduction: "How Belden came to compose his strange and luminous texts is one enigma among many surrounding the life of this visionary artist."
A far more reasonable assertion, from our point of view, would be that Belden was, at least for a while and to some degree, present with Scott and his ill-fated expedition. If not at the very end (and, indeed, Belden's final entry covering Scott's death does seem largely hallucinatory and symbolic), then for at least some fair portion of the time. Enough time, indeed, to understand and effectively describe the men, especially Scott, and the torments, both existential and physical, that they experienced in the vast, frozen wastes of the Antarctic. The few pieces of evidence offered by Mr. Lock to try to establish that Belden only arrived in Antarctica in 1913, after the Scott expedition’s tragic end, are easily enough dispensed with--Mr. Lock himself acknowledges that there is no conclusive proof of this. To give legitimacy to our assertion that Belden was indeed present for some part of the expedition, however, it is necessary to explain why all mention of him was expunged from the expedition's records, his journal suppressed, and Belden himself committed to the (as it was then called) Waterbury Asylum in Vermont.
A probable explanation for this might well lie in the extraordinary nature of the journal itself. Especially its depiction of Scott, which contrasts so much with the myth that was built up around him in the aftermath of his death; a myth that made him the ideal prototype of the British soldier; specifically, a practical, stoical sort who gets down to business and doesn't brook any nonsense and who, when it comes, meets catastrophe with the proverbial stiff upper lip. The "Scott of the Antarctic" presented by Belden distinctly cuts across this grain, especially in its descriptions of Scott’s ultimate goals in undertaking the expedition and, therefore, his overriding vision of the world. According to the official accounts, Scott was simply a career British naval officer who took on the Antarctic challenge because the opportunity presented itself; specifically, during a chance encounter on a London street with an acquaintance of his, he "learned for the first time that there was such a thing as a prospective Antarctic Expedition" and, two days later, applied for its command. The reason for this sudden enthusiasm? None is given to us. In fact, Scott's sole comment in this regard was: "I may as well confess that I had no predilection for polar exploration." Indeed, we are left with the sense that Scott undertook this gargantuan expedition for little more reason than because the Antarctic, like Mt. Everest for George Leigh Mallory, "was there." That it was a task to be accomplished, in as matter a fact way as possible, after one has accomplished all the other tasks that he or she had set out to do.
But Belden's journals present us with a Scott who is an almost Christ-like figure, on a single minded pursuit of truth, fighting the ultimate battle against imagination and metaphor along the way. (Footnote 2) In the journal entry "The Beauty of Poetry" Belden writes of Scott: "We admire Scott. His single-minded determination to study first principles--'life in the raw,' in expedition member Henry Robinson Bowers' words--is worthy of admiration. His is an intellectual rigor beyond our power and--let me confess it--desire. Empty of anything that might give it meaning--history, memory, love--Antarctica serves him well in his pursuit of the ultimate. I should say that life here is like a wire stripped of insulation, and all the more dangerous for it; but Scott disapproves of similes. Similes, he says, are circumvention: they are used by those who would rather step aside than confront a thing. They are reality once removed." And finally, in the entry titled "The Beauty of Their Bones," Scott himself is reported to say: "Antarctica is a laboratory. Here, where it is all but extinguished, life is easiest to isolate and observe...ever since I was a boy, I have hated ambiguity. It's this perhaps more than any other reason that explains my explorations. To eliminate the empty spaces on the map--and in myself. To close them. I'm not troubled so much by an absence of meaning as that there might be more than one." (Footnote 3)
That Scott, once we understand him to be philosophically inclined, might be so concerned with such questions is not as surprising as it might, at first glance, appear. The early part of the 20th century, after all, was not only a heady time for the British because the sun never set on the their empire. Their intellectual circles were convinced that they too would soon conquer the world thanks to the theory recently propounded by the great philosopher-mathematician Bertrand Russell that, through the proper analysis of language, it was possible to reduce language to its basic, "atomic" elements. Since, in Russell's view, language also mirrored reality, this analysis would reveal to us the world as it really is, being composed of facts that are utterly simple. Thus it seemed possible that, in the near future, a method would be developed that would strip language, and therefore the world, of all metaphysics and multiple meanings. This would mean, for example, an end to all demagoguery, as it would be possible with this new logic-based language to prove the demagogue wrong as easily as the scientific charlatan who claims that the earth is flat. They did not, however, think it an easy task to achieve this new language. No easier, in fact, than conquering the South Pole. To achieve it would require a rigorous analysis, a journey, if you will, into the murky depths of language to cleanse it of all of its extraneous elements. It is, perhaps, instructive here to point to the rather extraordinary parallel between the Scott presented to us by Belden and Russell's student Ludwig Wittgenstein. Upon discovering Russell's ideas, Wittgenstein realized that his own ability to articulate his ideas in logic was handicapped by how "full of the most hateful and petty thoughts and acts" his own mind was. "How," he asks, "can I be logician if I am not yet a man? Before everything else I must become pure." And how did Wittgenstein do this? By heading toward the other polar region, in his case an isolated cabin in Skjolden, Norway, near the Arctic Circle.
It is not hard, then, to see why these important aspects of Scott’s character and outlook might have made the propagandists of the empire uncomfortable. The iconic R.F. Scott, a career military man matter of factly taking on the task of trying to plant the Union Jack before any other nation's flag at the South Pole, would certainly seem to serve the needs of an imperial empire better than the apparent reality of Scott, who in many respects more closely resembled Goethe's Faust. Nonetheless, it does not seem likely to us that this disparity alone would have sufficed to suppress Belden's journals, especially given the distinctly anglo nature of his philosophical quest. Rather, we believe, it was, additionally, the failure of that philosophy, the failure of Scott's quest to eliminate the "empty space" of ambiguity on the map that made Belden's journal simply too threatening to be tolerated and doomed it to complete obscurity until Mr. Lock stumbled upon it.
For, more than anything else, and for all of Scott's efforts to find truth in its pure form, the journal is a record of the impossibility of removing all ambiguity, all simile and metaphor, from the world. In fact, Scott's failure foreshadows the failure of Russell's and Wittgenstein's attempts to develop a purely logical, and simply true, language, which only became apparent some two decades after Scott's expedition. In fact, one of the many remarkable aspects of Belden's journal is his chronicle of a valiant but failed attempt to realize a philosophy's precepts so directly in reality.
We can see the beginnings of this failure in the third of Belden's ten journal entries ("The Cruelty of Poetry") when Scott, who had earlier proclaimed that the South Pole "is not an object...it's a geographical convenience...with no symbolic weight whatsoever," cries out in anguish, "I'm beginning to see things! Depths of meaning!" Scott is further put on the defensive in the next entry, when expedition member Herbert Ponting brings back a bag full of frozen shadows that he'd collected while out on a glacier (mostly of birds, but also of an iceberg and, most significantly, of a man, presumably from an earlier expedition); Scott forbade any discussion about the shadows, stating, "We're not only racing Amundsen to the Pole; we are studying reality in its purest form. I must insist that you do nothing to adulterate it."
The full extent of the failure of Scott's ambitious philosophical project, however, only becomes apparent with the seventh entry, "Women at the Bottom of the World." In it Belden describes how the men start imagining, and even believing, that their wives have joined them, because, "besieged by constant necessity, each of us was making an outpost of the imagination in order to escape." Though Scott was out on the ice shelf for most of the episode, Belden even finds indications that Scott too had succumbed to this collective delusion. With the eighth entry, "The orders of architecture," the crisis continues as the men, too long "entranced by the snow" which had "seeped in everywhere," find that they had exhausted by overuse "thoughts of Levantine women, or Persian, languid in the molten sun," as well as Ponting's magic lantern slides because, anymore, "not even a garish Amazonian sunset or the pink-and-red-petaled bloomers of the can-can girls could alter the fixity of our inward gaze. A gaze that comprehended nothing, revealed nothing, and nourished not at all." Briefly, but spectacularly, knowledge and the sometimes beguiling nature of a human discipline saves them from this abyss when, spurred on by Bowers, Belden lectures them about architecture: "I spoke then of colonnades, porticos, embrasures, esplanades; of roofs--gabled, hipped, gambrel, and mansard; of window--oriel, Palladian, bay and rose; of arches--Roman, Tucor, Syrian, Moorish, and Gothic; of moldings--the cavetto, cyma recta, cyma reversa, ovolo, sotia, and torus. And as the words tumbled pell-mell from my mouth, there rose up in that narrow hut an edifice, classically proportioned, harmonious in its parts, ingenious in its spatial geometry, and luminous. We, all of us, saw it shining there! All but Scott, who had left during my recitation to take a measurement with the theodolite out on the ice shelf." Inevitably, however, it gets to be late and, after Belden finally exhausts his considerable knowledge of architecture, the men extinguish the lights to go to sleep and are once again plunged into "the terror of the polar night."
Finally, in the next to last entry, "Waltz of the Snow Man", the men begin to openly rebel against Scott. "It was not his body we wanted to annihilate but his naive convictions. We wished for the death of his unswerving belief in enlightenment...". Scott seems powerless to stop his men, "so puissant is irrationality, so seductive are the Lares and Penates of the madhouse," and, sensing the danger, takes his leave. "Without his dour presence to chasten us," Belden writes, "we rioted in unreason," engaging in an orgy of astrology, divination, and communication with the dead. But, in the face of the unrelenting cold and icy nothingness of the Antarctic, this flame soon burns itself out too, after which the men are "possessed by a sadness impossible to describe," which serves as a prelude to their deaths and, in the last entry, Scott's as well.
Thus we can see how Belden's journal would have been a double blow to the British self image of the time: Not only to its view of British soldiers as being (on the eve of World War One) absolutely matter-of-fact and pragmatic, but also to the very core of British philosophy, whose belief in finding an ultimate, analytic truth underlie the Empire's rationale of itself as the great civilizing force of the world. That Scott's great journey of the mind did not wind up reinforcing the prevailing British analytical approach to philosophy but rather the dreaded continental approach--which not only acknowledges but sometimes even emphasizes the need for ambiguity, metaphor, and imagination--must have been even more galling. Indeed, even now, almost a century later, one need not spend much time in Anglo (-American) philosophical circles to learn of their almost virulent antipathy to most manifestations of continental philosophy. According to Belden, Scott would have, "if the imagination could be isolated in a single organ," cut "it out of each and every one of us like a diseased appendix." Perhaps Belden and his journal, having so powerfully shown the inevitability of imagination, were similarly "cut out" from the body politic. And, we might add, it would not have been the first time that a mental institution was used to lock up the embodiment of a dangerous and threatening idea.
(1) In this regard we might mention Mr. Lock's oversight in his submission of three excerpts from Belden’s journal to us, which we published in Issue 12 of The Cafe Irreal; such is his scholarship that he failed to mention that he was merely the editor, and not the author, of these excerpts.
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(2) Indeed, one expedition member comments on Scott's absence when the men are imagining that their wives are present: "Good thing, too. He would have driven them out like Christ did the money-changers."
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(3) Scott’s own journal, which gives no indication of the philosophical torment he was clearly experiencing, can be seen as a daring attempt to realize, on paper, his vision of a world without ambiguity or multiple meanings. Or, as he stated to Belden, "My journal will read like the surveillance notes of a private detective who refused to speculate." (28)
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G.S. Evans is a writer and translator, as well as the coeditor of The Cafe Irreal. His fiction has appeared (in translation) in Czech literary journals such as Labyrint and Host, and his translations of the work of the Czech writer Arnošt Lustig have been published in The Kenyon Review and New Orleans Review.
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