Jonathan Franzen Travels to Antarctica

Jonathan Franzen (author of The Corrections and Freedom) went on a three-week expedition to Antarctica and wrote about his experience in the latest issue of The New Yorker. I’ve always liked Franzen’s depictions of life, and this piece delivers:

I’d never before had the experience of beholding scenic beauty so dazzling that I couldn’t process it, couldn’t get it to register as something real. A trip that had seemed unreal to me beforehand had taken me to a place that likewise seemed unreal, albeit in a better way. Global warming may be endangering the continent’s western ice sheet, but Antarctica is still far from having melted. On either side of the Lemaire Channel were spiky black mountains, extremely tall but still not so tall as to be merely snow-covered; they were buried in wind-carved snowdrift, all the way to their peaks, with rock exposed only on the most vertical cliffs. Sheltered from wind, the water was glassy, and under a solidly gray sky it was absolutely black, pristinely black, like outer space. Amid the monochromes, the endless black and white and gray, was the jarring blue of glacial ice. No matter the shade of it—the bluish tinge of the growlers bobbing in our wake, the intensely deep blue of the arched and chambered floating ice castles, the Styrofoamish powder blue of calving glaciers—I couldn’t make my eyes believe that they were seeing a color from nature. Again and again, I nearly laughed in disbelief. Immanuel Kant had connected the sublime with terror, but as I experienced it in Antarctica, from the safe vantage of a ship with a glass-and-brass elevator and first-rate espresso, it was more like a mixture of beauty and absurdity.

This commemoration of Ernest Shackleton on the voyage seems excessive:

There wasn’t even a good field guide to Antarctic wildlife in the Orion’s library. Instead, there were dozens of books about South Polar explorers, notably Ernest Shackleton—a figure scarcely less fetishized onboard than the Lindblad experience itself. Sewed onto the left sleeve of my company-issued orange parka was a badge with Shackleton’s portrait, commemorating the centennial of his epic open-boat voyage from Elephant Island. We were given a book about Shackleton, PowerPoint lectures about Shackleton, special tours to Shackleton-related sites, a screening of a long film about a re-creation of Shackleton’s voyage, and a chance to hike three miles of the arduous trail that Shackleton had survived at the end of it. (Late in the trip, under the gaze of our videographer, we would all be herded to the grave of Shackleton, handed shot glasses of Irish whiskey, and invited to join in a toast to him.) The message seemed to be that we, on our Lindblad, were not un-Shackletonian ourselves. Failing to feel heroic on the Orion was a recipe for loneliness.

And this encounter with an Emperor Penguin:

I fetched Captain Graser, who took one look through the scope and let out a whoop. “Ja,ja,” he said, “emperor penguin! Emperor penguin! Just like I was hoping!”

I’d already made a quiet, alienated resolution not to take a single picture on the trip. And here was an image so indelible that no camera was needed to capture it: the emperor penguin appeared to be holding a press conference. While a cluster of Adélies came up from behind it, observing like support staff, the emperor faced the press corps in a posture of calm dignity. After a while, it gave its neck a leisurely stretch. Demonstrating its masterly balance and flexibility, and yet without seeming to show off, it scratched behind its ear with one foot while standing fully erect on the other. And then, as if to underline how comfortable it felt with us, it fell asleep.

The piece reminded me of David Foster Wallace’s epic essay on his first time experiencing a cruise.

Readings: Skydiving from Space, Beethoven in Kinshasa, Google in Antarctica

Here are some interesting articles I’ve read over the last few days:

1) “Skydiving from the Edge of Space” [The Guardian] – this is a fantastic profile of two daredevils, Felix Baumgartner and Michel Fournier, who’ve long had plans to travel to the edge of space, skydive from there, in order to try to break the sound barrier. The introduction of the piece sets a thrilling pace:

At around 120,000 feet, on the fringes of space, the air is so thin that a falling human body would travel fast enough to exceed the speed of sound. A skydiver, properly equipped with pressurised suit and a supply of oxygen to protect against the hostile elements, could feasibly jump from that height and, about 30 seconds later, punch through the sound barrier – becoming the first person ever to go “supersonic” without the aid of an aircraft or space shuttle.

The two daredevils have been plotting their jumps for years:

Baumgartner has been plotting his space jump for four years, Fournier for 20, and this autumn both projects are coming to a head – 50 years exactly since anyone even came close to leaping from such heights or plummeting at such speeds. That was Colonel Joseph Kittinger, a test pilot, who completed a series of high-altitude jumps from a helium balloon in August 1960, part of an equipment-testing project for the agency that would become NASA.

The jumps cannot take place from an airplane and must be done via a balloon:

It can’t be done from an aeroplane (even a spy plane can only ascend to about 80,000 feet), nor from a rocket (any hopeful parachutist opening the hatch to jump out would be torn to pieces). Ballooning directly up is the only realistic option, but an option still fraught with difficulties. A helium balloon launched into the stratosphere needs continually to enlarge because of the changes in atmospheric pressure, and so must be made of a special expandable material that is less than a 1,000th of an inch thin; clingfilm thin. It also needs to be huge, about the size of an office block.

2) “Playing Beethoven in Kinshasa” [Der Spiegel] – this is actually a two part series (part one | part two) on a story about central Africa’s only orchestra. A new German documentary film, “Kinshasa Symphony,” tells the story of the orchestra’s most recent major performance and how it came to be. I want to see this film. A trailer below:

3) “Explore the World with Street View, Now on All Seven Continents” [Official Google Blog] – Google is making its presence felt, once again. This time, they sent an expedition to Antarctica and came back with views like this. The question: how much do penguins care about privacy?