Antarctic Summer

Alphonso Lingis
September 01, 1997

Pearly gray and white with a red bill and a deeply forked tail, sea swallows careen in the wake of the ship advancing across Drake Passage. They nest on cliffs, making nests of algae not unlike the cups glued together by our barn swallows. In this season they are in the Antarctic, but when the hours of daylight begin to wane, they scroll up the latitudes all the way to the Arctic, enjoying thereby more hours of daylight a year than any other creature. It's what you have to do if you really want enlightenment. Science knows them as Sterna paradisaea.

water in snowy mountains

It was only in 1895 that Carsten Egeberg Borchgrevink made the first confirm- ed landing on the Antarctic continent. It was only after the Second World War that aircraft, radar, sonar, infrared and microwave scanning made possible the mapping of the continent, covered with glacier up to 4,800 meters deep. Antarctica, invisible, abstract, where the locations themselves—the south pole, the south magnetic pole—are abstractions, never contoured by indigenous myth or culture, is a terrain only through scientific representation. The conquest of this continent is eminently postmodern: the only resource that can be taken from it is information. The information brought back is cast in the sciences, without any spin-offs in art or ethics. Strip away scientific concepts and the scientific lexicon and one is left speech-less before the frozen continent. Yet the exploration of Antarctica has nowise produced any revolution or paradigm shift in science; the theory of continental drift was elaborated and accepted without Antarctic data. The satellites that scan its contours are using the equipment and the methods already proven on interplanetary missions. Science did not take from, but brought its information to, Antarctica; "The Ice" would be a place to which scientific ideas would go, not a place from which they would come. The Ice is an information sink.

The ship is pursuing channels between islands, to avoid the open sea raging under gale winds. This blue channel is open this month, the captain must know, and deep enough, but his charts and his instruments cannot plot the ship's course in the Heraclitean flux of the fragmenting cliffs. Yesterday the ship found itself in an impasse, the channel blocked with bobbling icebergs. Broken from the glacial flow from the interior whose mass has compacted them so much as to change their molecular structure, magnesium-white with bottle-green incandescence in them, they clatter like wreckage from an inter-planetary armada. The blue channel flows on but the ship turns back.

Current, float, circulate, flow, surge, outpour express life and destiny in all our ethical discourses; torrent, flood, effervescence, cascade formulate joy. We have found our joy and our destiny in sunlit clouds and springs, rivers, and wells. When I first discovered diving, I thought about four-fifths of my body being water, three-quarters of the planet's surface being ocean: how little of reality I had seen and touched until then! Now I think of the 70 percent of the fresh water of the planet that is ice, piled up on Antarctic glaciers. How much longer I had taken to come here, but it had been equally necessary. In what thoughts or what deeds would this necessity be revealed?

Avalanches have revealed mountain cliffs, black schist and marble, very jagged. I ask the geologist on board if they are too young yet for erosion; he answers that they are very eroded, but instead of wearing smooth they crack and break in crystal slivers. Behind them, he tells me, there is ice millions of years older than these mountains. On their steep flanks where the glaciers have slipped, there are delicate veinings from drifting snows like the ice flowers on our windows. One never sees mountain ranges; lying low on these occasional rock faces and behind them there is always a chalk-white fog of frozen mist. The sky is almost continually overcast, not with dark but white cloud blankets through which the sun soaks in a platinum stain. The total lack of dust or moisture in the air garbles the perspective we have on other continents programmed in our eyes. A seal that looks a hundred yards off turns out to be ten; icebergs that look a hundred yards off may be a mile away. The frozen mist eliminates the horizon, and perspective can have no Renaissance vanishing point. Sometimes the air is so full of minute prisms of ice that the light refracted in all directions erases all the shadows, and you can no longer see the ridges of the snow under your feet; you seem to be walking on space. Cocooned under layers of cloth-ing and parka, you feel only the tepid sub-stance of your own flesh. But the icescape looks cold, a cold everywhere within it that does not touch you. The silence muffles even your heartbeat, then from time to time a block of the ice cliffs breaks free with the clap of a cannon shot.

For days I have been contemplating this icescape without a single thought forming about it; today I abruptly thought of the concept of the sublime. And how misconstructed it was in Königsberg. For Kant, the sublime arises in a confrontation between man and the immense and the chaotic; man measuring himself sensorily against, blocked by, the monstrous, his spirit triumphing in the formation of conceptions of totality, infinity, eternity. It is true that in domestic perception our eyes and ears pattern the flux of sensation—finding an elementary rhythm in the dripping of a faucet, in the waves of a lake—and our minds extrapolate those patterns to domesticate the universe. My eyes have been nowise gestalting this frozen intricacy into patterns. They have been dedomesticated. There is nothing less fix-formed and informative than the ice lines on the rock faces and the cobalt-blue lightning bolts frozen in the ice cliffs abruptly breaking loose and thunderously sinking into the waves, the blue shadows that blaze in the floating glaciers, this white sky overhead condensing into horizonless frozen mists. Concepts like infinity and eternity are only mental furnishing swept away through the open eyes. White-out of the mind. The eyes, mesmerized, transported, are no longer mine. Several times I simply thought how perfect it would be to die here.

Deception Island is a circle of cliffs, the rim of a sunken volcano. A narrow piece of the cliff walls has collapsed, creating a passage called Neptune's Bellows. The ship hurtles through on gale winds. There was a lesser eruption inside in 1970, still simmering in the flooded crater; the plan was for us to go for a swim in the steaming waters above. But suddenly hail whizzes vertically through the air, our skin is punctured with needles of ice, and the anchor loses its grip. The captain pulls it up, tries again, then again, it does not hold.

We head north, to cross the Drake Passage heading for Tierra del Fuego. The sea swallows join us.

Alphonso Lingis, Ph.D., is professor of philosophy in the College of the Liberal Arts, 242 Sparks Bldg., University Park, PA 16802; 814-865-1652; This essay was excerpted from his book Abuses, published in 1994 by the University of California Press.

Last Updated September 01, 1997