The Unbearable Whiteness of Being
How would it be to choose solitude, with no certain hope of changing one’s mind? How would it be, in the end, to rely upon who you are, your skills and talents, and upon surrender to, and understanding, the implacability and indifference of the vastness of the natural world?
This is a fascinating subject to me. Most of us are so used to having our needs met by the interdependency of community; we never need to confront our deepest identity, who we are in relationship to ourselves. Only oneself as a measure of what it is to be human.
I’ve read a lot of books that are factual accounts of exploration of solitude, A Book of Silence and a relationship with the environment The Wild Places or an attempt to piece together a book about someone else’s solitude Into the Wild and there does seem to be something particularly challenging and revealing about the ‘extreme North’ both as idea and as reality. Something about the light and the unearthly clarity of deep snow, and the frozen brightness of that white and unforgiving landscape.
Harding’s book, written with a sombre, bleak descriptiveness is a fictional account of one man’s experience of ‘North’. Set in the seventeenth century, it recounts the tale of a sailor choosing to spend nearly a year in an isolated whaling station, in the far Arctic. Lack of any technology makes this particularly risky, as there is of course no certainty that the whaling ship which leaves him will itself survive the journey back to civilisation or even the return the next year to collect him. Cave is left with himself, his thoughts, his history and his ingenuity, and the experience is of course burning and refining.
A wonderful and thought provoking read, even if I couldn’t go quite to 5 star, as the final third of the book, where the wider historical perspective really kicked in, felt a little disconnected, and there was, at moments, a sensibility which felt a little ‘modern’ rather than of its time.