Essay 42: The Second Antarctic Campaign

by rosalyster

(Maybe it would make sense to read the first essay I posted here before starting this one, or maybe it would not. Here it is, just in case:

I used to think I was better than other people. Everyone thinks this, a bit, some days, but when I was younger I really thought that I was much better than other people. All people. By far. Once, in matric, a girl I was nearly friends with looked at me hard in the face and said “You make it so clear that you think you’re better than everyone.” We were both extremely high, and I was taking a great deal of strain. I’d just come back from a spell in the bathroom, where I had spent a cool forty five minutes trying to make eye contact with myself in the mirror. I had sat down on the floor for a while, in order to study what my fingers looked like from that angle. I’d rolled up my jeans, and then rolled them down again, and thought for a long time about the word “jaunty”. Every time the fluorescent lights flickered, I assumed I was having a stroke, and then forgot about it straight away.  

On the way back to where everyone was sitting, I’d become seized with the conviction that I had shaved one of my eyebrows off. Surely I must have. A 45 minute spell in the bathroom bending your fingers and laughing under your breath at an episode of The Simpsons you just remembered, and not even one eyebrow off? Come. There was a razor like right there. I raised my hand to where my eyebrows should have been and they were both in place, but naturally I worried, and then laughed because imagine if you called them “eyebrowns”. There was a lot going on.  I was still feeling around at the top of my face when the girl I was nearly friends with laid it on me. “So clear,” she said. I can’t remember what I said to her back. “Please take a look at my eyebrowns,” probably. I remember what I thought, though. What I thought was “Good.” What I thought was that’s good, and I wish I could somehow make it even more clear. I really did feel like that. Even when massively stoned, even when coping with the imagined loss of one of my browns, I felt sure that I was the number one person around.

It’s hard to account for, except in the usual way, which is to point out that people carting round a sense of superiority like this are mostly also dragging behind them the sick sense that they are the fucking worst. There is a thing called “manhauling”. If you ever meet my dad, he will tell you about it. He will describe to you Captain Scott and the rest of the Terra Nova expedition, dressed in their tragic woollens, their useless trousers, pulling their food and telescopes and things in sleds across the arctic waste. Do you say Antarctic waste, rather, being as it’s the South Pole? My dad will tell us. He will encourage us to picture Captain Scott and the lusty Captain Oates, about whom we have already heard so much, straining against the straps of their sleds as they trudge towards a point where, right that second, Roald Amundsen is celebrating his victory with a tin of fish and some aqua vit. The champagne cork does not pop effectively in such temperatures, but Roald Amundsen’s team is fine with this. They won, after all.

The terrible thing about manhauling, firstly, was that it didn’t work very well. Dogs are better at pulling things than people are. Obviously. Dogs have four legs, and people only have two. Dogs are strong and kind, and people are not. The second terrible thing about manhauling was that this failure became something of a virtue for Captain Scott and the sassy pervert Captain Oates. The fact that manhauling was hard, and ineffective, meant that it came to be seen as inherently more noble. Nothing Comes For Free in This Life Etc.  Hard Work is Its Own Reward Especially When That Reward is Death. And so on.

You can haul all sorts of things across the ice. Food. Matches. Another pair of woolly trousers. Goggles that fail to deflect the glare in any way. Heavy photographic equipment which turns out, when you unpack it, to have shattered in the cold. A book about a boring historical period. The sick sense that you are the worst. Rope. A hat.

A person can haul all that stuff across the ice, even though it’s so futile and so difficult, and what can sometimes happen is that they can start to feel that, actually, its being so difficult and stupid is the whole point. Carrying all these frankly useless telescopes, and the sick sense that everyone in the whole world is okay and you are not, starts to become its own reward. Sort of heroic, really. Roald Amundsen is standing there at the actual South Pole, a flag in his hand, and he is saying You don’t have to do this, you know. Dogs are better at pulling things. Also, I won. Stop. A person can be having such a minutely calibrated terrible time that they can look at Roald Amundsen and his fine team of snapping yellow dogs and say Leave me, Roald. Go back to your wooden house in whichever part of Scandinavia it is that you come from, and leave me to collapse here in harness on the ice. A person can do all this and start to feel that they are pretty great, actually. They take out their little diaries and write “Suffering Is Ennobling And Only The Weak Are Happy. Still hungry. Probably going to die quite soon. Pity.” Leave me, Roald. Captain Oates and I can take it from here.

This was pretty much the state of things for me, in matric, and really for a long time after. You can dislike yourself enough that it comes back around looking like something good, and noble. You can put it in your little sled and drag it around with you for years, and only see how pointless it was when you take it out, finally.