Death is a very little thing

Enough life and money has been spent on this sterile quest. The pole has already been discovered. What is the use of another expedition?

Winston Churchill, then 1st Lord of the Admiralty, 23rd January, 1914

Dear Mr Winston Churchill,

Do please look favourably … I am trying to do good and serious work … Death is a very little thing, and Knowledge very great … And really Regent Street holds out more dangers on a busy day, than the 5 million square miles that constitute the Antarctic continent.

Ernest Shackleton, 27th February, 1914

I went to Enduring Eye: The Antarctic Legacy of Sir Ernest Shackleton and Frank Hurley yesterday, and found it very moving.

Spectral figures, in caps and sealskins, with their pipes and tins of food and books and roll necks, standing in icy desolation, at the centre of a long night, trapped in cabins and makeshift huts.

Walking through Frank Hurley’s remarkable photographs makes a hard challenge to Shackleton’s statement that Death is a very little thing. The photographs in the exhibition seem to represent a group of men and dogs in Death’s encroaching hinterland, vast and implacable to human endeavour. One of the most striking images, of the Endurance trapped in the ice floe, is entitled by Hurley The Long, Long Night, taken in the middle of that first fearful June, when they never saw the sun, and slept and ate in their winter cabins. The black and white photography makes it look like a ghost ship, the negative of the image even more so, but in fact it bulwarked life. If Death was a very little thing, it was because they made it so over those two long years, and it is hard to conjecture a person for whom It was not little who you can imagine surviving that long Antarctic isolation.

When they were  rescued finally, after an astonishing 750 mile trip by Shackleton and three others to get help, there is a sort of glory in it. It is very hard to see how the men Shackleton left behind could maintain hope against despair, and given the delays attending the rescue mission itself as it fought its way to the marooned men on the uninhabited Elephant Island, it’s hard to believe that there weren’t times when it must have seemed as if they must die there, among the penguins they burned for fuel and food.

They did return, but it was to the worst of worlds. Although war had been declared as they sailed down the Thames two year before, the full implication of that declaration was not a thing they could know. The light of hope, of defying odds, that must have kept them alive and which characterises their endurance, is something that goes out with the slaughter in northern France and Belgium. The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition is expressive of the individual, or small collection of individuals, facing Death by themselves – David against Goliath. The War – The Great War – the most total experience of self-engineered death humankind had known – harvested individuals so comprehensively it destroyed a generation.

I have done it … not a life lost and we have been through Hell.

Shackleton to his wife, 3rd September 1916

We … are going home to take part in this awful war.

Alexander Macklin

Hurley became a war photographer and his pictures show a world  where Death is no longer Tennysonian, or Romantic, but had become industrialised, a harbinger of the modern world, delivered with a form of cost-benefit strategically applied, a vast and grotesque tactics of triage: who should we allow to die to achieve our purpose.

As Walter Benjamin said in his essay, The Storyteller, on Николай Лесков (Nikolai Leskov – yes I’m practicing cyrillic, no I didn’t get it right first time), in a quote I’ve continually returned to:

Beginning with the First World War, a process became apparent which continues to this day. Wasn’t it noticeable at the end of the war that men who returned from the battlefield had grown silent – not richer but poorer in communicable experience? What poured out in the flood of war books ten years later was anything but experience that can be shared orally. And there was nothing remarkable about that. For never has experience been more thoroughly belied than strategic experience was belied by tactical warfare, moral experience by those in power. A generation that had gone to school on horse-drawn streetcars now stood under the open sky in a landscape where nothing remained unchanged but the clouds and, beneath those clouds, in a force field of destructive torrents and explosions, the tiny, fragile human body.

I return to this quote often because of its emphasis of the replacement of experience as authority – and I think that an understanding of statistics and probability filled that space, a largely welcome occurrence, though not without significant collateral negative effects.

Here I quote it because of the line about the generation that returned, and its relation to the experience of the men on Shackleton’s expedition. There are two aspects to that relation. The first is the nature of what they returned to: while they were in Hell, the world they existed outside of, or had been separated from, became transformed by a colossal and unprecedented rupture. Like science-fiction stories where explorers return to Earth after devastating epochs have passed, they exist during this period in an oblivious icy silence. The second aspect to the relation lies in the striking simile with which Benjamin finishes, the distant echo of the landscapes which they endured, as if the photographs I saw yesterday were the documentation of some dark and uninterpretable prophesy.

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