I was hankering for a good adventure movie the other night- something 18th century and swashbuckling. I stumbled upon The Red Tent, on the cover: a tattered crew huddled in a wreck in the middle of an Arctic landscape-and a headshot of Sean Connery. I was sold. What Andy and I settled down to watch that night was not just a fun and harrowing adventure movie, but an artfully shot, psychedelic and psychological mediation on Loneliness and its close relation to the extremes of Nature.
The movie was about Umberto Nobile’s famed and follied trip to the North Pole in 1928. He piloted the Italia, an ill-fated blimp that crashed and ripped apart leaving six crewmen trapped in the ice floe in the Arctic circle. There the men waited for 48 days while a rescue mission of 20 ships, 23 planes, and numerous dog sleds tired to reach them in time. It’s a true story of a frozen zeppelin, Fascism, international aid, and snow-blindness.
The narrative was told as a flashback, in a dream sequence. Past characters from the adventure convene in the middle of the night in Nobile’s apartment to rehash the technical and logistical details of the expedition. They were in search of blame and justice, and to some extent forgiveness. It was your typical ‘play within a play’ set up, and there was something Star Treky to it-the characters in a Modern Italian apartment walking around in bearskins and with disheveled hair.
The most most striking concept in the movie though, (aside from the anomalous scene of the Swedish meteorologist Finn Malmgren and his nurse girlfriend laughing on the back of a reindeer pulled sled and then rolling down a snowy hillside together,) was Malmgren’s monologue in the bar before embarking on the Italia. In reply to the question about why he was going out on the blimp across the North Pole, he said that it had “something to do with Loneliness. With Purity.”
How is Loneliness pure? And why?
The Norwegians call it Polarhulle: “a yearning forever to return to the far, dark, cold places.” Is that what made General Nobile want to fly a dirigible to the North Pole? The accounts for longing in Polar explorations, the polarhulle, seem to have something to do with a human need for a Loneliness that emulates, or is at least well acquainted with, death. Then, there is a relation of that feeling to Purity.
Shakleton wrote after one expedition to the South Pole, “After months of want and hunger, we suddenly found ourselves able to have meals fit for the gods, and with appetites the gods might have envied.” It is as if going to the brink of death, (and of the planet) Shakleton discovered a need, so as to stimulate a sublime sense of his appetite for life.
I’ve been reading Nuala O’Faolain’s Are You Somebody? and in this memoir too, is this inexplicable hunger for loneliness as a sort of frontier to charter. Nuala lived a most uncharacteristic life for an Irish woman of the mid-20th century. She never married, was frank in her hunger for passion; she was an intellect and a bisexual. Arguably, her most famous quotation is that of when she rejected chemotherapy as a form of prolonging her life, when she was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She said “It isn't time I want. Because as soon as I knew I was going to die soon, the goodness went out of life."
Here is a portrait of an internal exploration, and the stakes are different. It was as if in being told that she was going to die, an axis or a Pole was crossed internally for Nuala. There was then no need for a vigorous life. She said “there is an absolute difference between knowing that you are likely to die, let's say within the next year, and not knowing when you are going to die -- an absolute difference.” The absolute difference seems absolute, and relative in light of The Red Tent.
Nuala said of her passion at the end of her life, “passion can go and take a running jump at itself, that's what it can take.” And that’s what Finn Malmgren was talking about in boarding the Italia. Abandon, and Passion taking a leap at itself. But why? The surviving men from the Italia painted their tent-on the center of an ice floe- bright red so they could be seen through the snow. And in their need for survival, perhaps they became the North Pole of Nobile’s dreams- they were a new sort of axis upon which their world would continue to turn.
I am curious about Abandon and how it seems to be in the business of Life, Loneliness, and Purity. I don’t understand it. I think it has to do with each person’s own self.
The other night, I was driving back from my tutoring job at Johnson State college, a small state college on the edge of the North East Kingdom of Vermont. I found a new way home that took me across open fields and paralleled a backbone of the Green Mountains. The Green Mountains are now every color but green. They were alight in the dark. I knew that as my headlights lit up the curvy road ahead. It was freezing outside. There was no one else on the road. Many of the houses had not a light on inside.
That was enough of a feat for me. I sped the whole way home.