The Art of the Sublime

Waste Dominion’, ‘White Warfare’, and Antarctic Modernism

Mark Rawlinson

This paper considers the historical coincidence of modernism and the heroic era of Antarctic exploration. In particular, it contextualises allusions to representations of Antarctic journeys in the writings of Henry James and T.S. Eliot, and reflects on the way these bear on the fate of the sublime in the twentieth century.
The argument of this paper is that, in the era of high modernism, polar exploration supplied pre-texts, of which I shall describe a pair of literal examples, for encounters with the sublime, and its connection to perceptual and epistemological crises.1 The sublimity of precarious sojourns on a true frontier of the human (Antarctic exploration was geographical expansion without the displacement or erasure of indigenous peoples) can of course be juxtaposed with the historical exhaustion of the sublime in the Great War and in its cultural representation. American poet and critic Ezra Pound contended in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (Life and Contacts) (1920) that authorial investment in ‘the sublime/In the old sense’ was ‘[w]rong from the start’.2 However, the examples I shall explore in detail below suggest that there was, nevertheless, a significant fillip to the sublime from the particular conjunction of the heroic period of Antarctic discovery and modes of modernist irony.
The power of the Antarctic over the imagination is anticipated by key texts in the history of the category of the sublime, including its careers as both a kind of moral experience and as an artistic device. My titular phrase ‘waste dominion’, chosen to encapsulate the superficial absurdity of economic and spiritual investment in power over a realm inimical to habitation, occurs in A Philosophical Inquiry Into the Origin of Our Ideas Of the Sublime and Beautiful, part 2, section 7 (1757). Here Burke writes about ‘Privation,’ a theme central to the popular record of Antarctic exploration, and, because it was an elective experience and a moral touchstone, a key element in the emergent twentieth-century ‘rational amusement’ or pleasure-culture of the Poles.3 Roald Amundsen recorded that his own decision to be an explorer stemmed from reading about nineteenth-century polar sacrifice: ‘What appealed to me most was the sufferings that Sir John [Franklin] and his men had to endure. A strange ambition burned within me, to endure the same privations’.4 For Burke, ‘[a]ll general privations are great, because they are all terrible; vacuity, darkness, solitude, and silence’. In this frame of reference, the Antarctic is the quintessence of great, general privation, and its most complete representation (as opposed to the solar brilliance of the desert – the ice cap has no oases, in mirage or reality). Benighted for months during the winter – the title of Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s memoir of Scott’s Last Expedition, The Worst Journey in the World (1922) is entirely justified as a metric of privation – Antarctica offers no fuel; no non-coastal food supplies; no orientation to the traveller; no possibility of human contact or care beyond the company of man-haulers. The iconic negation of this emptiness in the literature of the South Pole, an encounter with human ‘footsteps’, is Scott’s sighting of Amundsen’s flag, and then his tent, at 90 degrees South:
Great God! this is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without the reward of priority ... Now for the run home and a desperate struggle. I wonder if we can do it.5
With ‘priority’ snatched away, the loneliness of the polar party materialises in a realisation of remoteness and failing strength; the ordeal is exacerbated by falling short of a sublime limit.
The ironic resonance of the phrase ‘waste dominion’ is amplified by the source from which Burke took it, John Dryden’s translation of Virgil’s Aeneid VI, with its description of a subterranean rather than antipodean under-world:
Obscure they went through dreary shades, that led
Along the waste dominions of the dead.6
Virgil co-locates the cave of the Sybil who guides Aeneas through the Underworld (and who presides over T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land) with the landfall of the Trojans at Cumae in the Bay of Naples. The conjunction of privation and imperialism became much more explicit in Antarctica.7 In the context of the fifteen expeditions undertaken between 1898 and 1914 by parties from France, Japan, Belgium, Germany and from the Britain Isles and the Dominions, waste dominion resonates as a political symbol. It rapidly took on further, negative and ironic connotations as, after 1914, those same states turned themselves into ‘waste dominions of the dead’.
Dryden’s tropes for the infernal kingdom appears to present an antithesis – the fiery Styx juxtaposed with the iced Weddell Sea – to the ‘white warfare’ invoked by Sir Ernest Shackleton in his dedication of South: The Story of Shackleton’s Last Expedition, 1914–17:
‘TO/MY COMRADES/WHO FELL IN THE WHITE WARFARE/OF THE SOUTH AND ON THE/RED FIELDS OFFRANCE/AND FLANDERS’. The phrase ‘white warfare’ recurs later in Shackleton’s text in a construction in which war and exploration are not paralleled as modes of modern sacrifice or privation (as they are, for instance, in Wilfred Owen’s poem ‘Exposure’), but are viewed as constituting an experiential and moral sequence. This recuperative succession is performed by apostrophised readers ‘who now turn gladly from the red horror of war and the strain of the last five years to read, perhaps with more understanding minds, the tale of the White Warfare of the South’.8 Retrospectively, the Antarctic represents a cleansing of the ‘horror’ of war but also a privative supplement to these horrors (what Christopher Isherwood, in his premature autobiography from 1938, Lions and Shadows, would call a ‘Test’).
The idea of an Antarctic modernism points both to an historical overlap and the question whether and how this was articulated as a conjunction in the early twentieth century. The heroic age of Antarctic exploration, a period which enters its apogee in the years bracketed by the deaths of its defining celebrities, Scott and Shackleton, in 1912 and 1922 respectively, is concurrent with the cultural foment which periodises high modernism, from the premiere of The Rite of Spring to the publication of The Waste Land. These realms of metropolitan cultural production – the promotion of artistic and geographical discovery – are conceptually quite distinct in histories of twentieth-century taste and mores, though both were promoted as scientific advances.9 The Russian artist Kasimir Malevich’s painting White on White 1918 presents us with a hypothetical aesthetic framework for the conjunction of polar and modernist abstractions: James Joyce even made Leopold Bloom a hydrophile who admired in water ‘its sterility in the circumpolar icecaps, arctic and antarctic’.10 The canvas might, additionally, invite a reading in which it is an analogue of the perceptual challenge of Antarctic travel: the reduction of the figure/ground relation to one of absence and repetition correlates to the navigator’s difficulty in locating himself in an absolute space (at the very margins of the social production of space) on the empty Antarctic ice sheet or polar plateau. This dissolution of perspective is exacerbated in a white-out, when ground and sky become indistinguishable. But the painting lacks a contextual or intentional connection with Antarctica or polar exploration. Malevich’s thematics of aerial reconnaissance/photography, identified by Julia Chadaga, arguably anticipates the 1930s, and the William Byrd-era of Antarctic exploration and mapping by aeroplane, but this is only a further hint that the visual rhyme I adduce is dependent on the prior dissemination of representations of the Antarctic. The record of heroic-age exploration in the reports of mariners, scientists and photographers or cinematographers lies outside or, indeed, against modernism.11 It would also be true to say that exploration writing does not revel in the sublimity of Antarctica, or in the language of the sublime. The important literary records of the 1910 Terra Nova expedition were written by a naval officer (Scott), a ‘camera-artist’ (Ponting) and a zoologist (Cherry-Garrard), and those of the 1914 Endurance expedition by a merchant-mariner (Shackleton), a photographer (Hurley), a ship’s captain (Worsley) and a scientist (Hussey). Expedition reports were initially published as expensive, substantially-documented scientific reports, a justification of perverse privation in the pursuit of legitimising positive knowledge: the second volume of Scott’s Last Expedition (1913) contained ‘Reports of the Scientific Work’ by other hands.12 Cherry-Garrard’s Winter Journey to acquire Emperor Penguin eggs was over-determined as a factory of knowledge: a contribution to avian phylogeny (the ‘missing link’ in the account of the evolutionary relationship of reptile and bird), an experiment on polar trek rations, and a contribution to bringing unknown regions (water, ice or land?) under an absolute topographical description. Additionally, and crucially, it offered an insider’s view of a limit experience for Edwardian officers and gentlemen, which is the justification of his personal writing about the expedition in The Worst Journey in the World (1922).
Polar terrains do leave traces in modernist writing, however. The two examples I have chosen to discuss represent before and after in relation to the period 1895–1922, from the Fifth International Geographical Congress to the death of Shackleton. In Henry James’s The Golden Bowl (1904), the Antarctic is obliquely introduced as a figure for the inscrutability or ‘impenetrability’ of the mental states of others (the impenetrability of what James, in one of his major contributions to the practice and the theory of the novel in English, sought to make lucid as ‘centres of consciousness’). For Prince Amerigo, reading others’ minds is like being in a kind of ‘white-out,’ a meteorological disorientation (indeed, chapter one of the novel can be read as a variation on Heart of Darkness, Conrad’s ‘impressionist’ rendering of the geographically and epistemologically impenetrable dimensions of European Empire). The prince’s ethical white-out is pointedly derived from another literary source which imagines polar weather:
These things, the motives of such people, were obscure – a little alarmingly so; they contributed to that element of the impenetrable which alone slightly qualified his sense of his good fortune. He remembered to have read, as a boy, a wonderful tale by Allan Poe, his prospective wife’s countryman – which was a thing to show, by the way, what imagination Americans could have: the story of the shipwrecked Gordon Pym, who, drifting in a small boat further toward the North Pole – or was it the South? –than anyone had ever done, found at a given moment before him a thickness of white air that was like a dazzling curtain of light, concealing as darkness conceals, yet of the colour of milk or of snow. There were moments when he felt his own boat move upon some such mystery. The state of mind of his new friends, including Mrs Assingham herself, had resemblances to a great white curtain.13
This allusive figure for the inscrutable is congruent with a long-established ambivalence in the concept (and phenomenology) of the sublime. As Francis Spufford puts it in his 1996 study subtitled ‘Ice and the English Imagination’, this is the question ‘whether sublimity lay in the mind or the object looked at’.14 The transaction between Poe and James, via the question of the American imagination, also returns us to the perennial question of whether the sublime is a manifestation of the transcendent, or the textual performance of a merely, or indeed powerfully, rhetorical transcendence.15
Prince Amerigo’s stumbling over the destination of Poe’s Arthur Gordon Pym is a trace of an earlier representational stage in the cultural history of the poles. Poe’s narrative, published in 1838, built on the inscrutability of a region which had yet to be charted: the high southern latitudes into which Pym ventures were the province of a whaling industry displaced by declining northern ocean stocks, but pragmatic oil producers had little interest in pushing a furthest south beyond the achievements in the 1820s of Bellinghausen, who first sighted continental ice, and the sealer Weddell, who encountered open water in establishing a furthest south.16 Poe imagined the unknown by dramatising an environment drawn both from mariners and from speculators, notably, for the purpose of extending the narrative to its abrupt conclusion, the idea of ice-free polar seas which was disseminated by John Cleve Symmes (1779–1829) in his theory of polar openings to the interior of a hollow globe.17 Pym’s voyages, thus, continue through a warm Antarctic Ocean:
The range of vapor to the southward had arisen prodigiously in the horizon, and began to assume more distinctness of form. I can liken it to nothing but a limitless cataract, rolling silently into the sea from some immense and far-distant rampart in the heaven. The gigantic curtain ranged along the whole extent of the southern horizon. It emitted no sound.
March 21. – A sullen darkness now hovered above us – but from out the milky depths of the ocean a luminous glare arose, and stole up along the bulwarks of the boat. We were nearly overwhelmed by the white ashy shower which settled upon us and upon the canoe, but melted into the water as it fell. The summit of the cataract was utterly lost in the dimness and the distance. Yet we were evidently approaching it with a hideous velocity. At intervals there were visible in it wide, yawning, but momentary rents, and from out these rents, within which was a chaos of flitting and indistinct images, there came rushing and mighty, but soundless winds, tearing up the enkindled ocean in their course.
March 22. – The darkness had materially increased, relieved only by the glare of the water thrown back from the white curtain before us. Many gigantic and pallidly white birds flew continuously now from beyond the veil, and their scream was the eternal Tekeli-li! as they retreated from our vision. Hereupon Nu-Nu stirred in the bottom of the boat; but upon touching him, we found his spirit departed. And now we rushed into the embraces of the cataract, where a chasm threw itself open to receive us. But there arose in our pathway a shrouded human figure, very far larger in its proportions than any dweller among men. And the hue of the skin of the figure was of the perfect whiteness of the snow.18
This polar region is quite different from the one that Scott’s photographically illustrated published journal and Amundsen’s illustrated lectures, as well as the cinematographic records of Frank Hurley (South, 1919, Shackleton’s Endurance expedition) and Ponting (The Great White South, 1924, Scott’s last expedition) established in popular culture in the twentieth century. It is marine rather than continental, inhabited, and with the polar current drawing the venturer inexorably on to the geographical limit of his pursuit (by contrast the effort to climb to the Polar plateau drew on complex physiological, logistical and psychological resources). Poe’s current and cataract nevertheless are a ready metaphor for the self-destructive desire to venture ‘furthest South’ (epitomised in the contrast between Shackleton’s journey to within ninety-seven miles of the Pole on the Nimrod expedition in 1909, and the fate of Scott’s five-member Polar party in 1912).
From a cultural as opposed to a geophysical and a commercial perspective, when The Golden Bowl was published in 1904, the boreal and austral Poles were simply not as distinct and distinctive as human endeavour and national contest would shortly make them. Neither had yet been visited, nor been dominated by a representational convention.19 The subsequent power of these conventions is witnessed by the continuing strangeness of science-fiction writer Ursula Le Guin’s short story ‘Sur’ (1982), a fantasy in which a party of Latin-American women pre-empt the race for ‘priority’ between Amundsen and Scott (declining to publish their journal, they ‘refuse a narration of priority’, an element in Le Guin’s interrogation of the representational politics of imperialism, and of the construction of histories and geographies).20
Within years of the appearance of The Golden Bowl, the Americans Cook and Peary each asserted they had reached the North Pole (1908 and 1909 respectively). The latter’s claim was sufficient for Amundsen, bound for the North, to turn South (as he recalled on reaching his new goal):
I have never known any man to be placed in such a diametrically opposite position to the goal of his desires as I was at that moment. The regions around the North Pole – well, yes, the North Pole itself – had attracted me from childhood, and here I was at the South Pole. Can anything more topsy-turvy be imagined?21
The rage for discovery inscribed a geography but also narratives of privation: ‘Englishmen can endure hardships, help one another, and meet death with as great a fortitude as ever in the past’, Scott wrote in his ‘Message to the Public’, one of the founding texts of the ‘Scott of the Antarctic’ legend.22 Privation trumps priority in these dying words. This privative dimension of discovery (an inner rather than outer conquest, projected geographically as Imperial character) has subsequently been reproduced through ‘acts of repetition and imitation,’ which Elena Glasberg diagnoses as the compulsive repetition of encounters with ‘traumatic humanlessness’.23 (These repetitions, of course, threaten to travesty their exemplary models: journeying to a now permanently inhabited South Pole has become a charity stunt or an escapade for a reality-TV broadcast.) Scott’s part in the race to the geographic South Pole contributed to a framework for perceiving both Georgian masculine adventure and Antarctica. A polar geography which was still curtained (in Poe’s terms) by imaginative vacancy in 1904 was by 1914, when Shackleton embarked on the Endurance, a readily imagined vacancy.
Frank Hurley 'The Long, Long Night [The Endurance in the Antarctic Winter Darkness, Trapped in the Weddell Sea, Shackleton Expedition, 27 August 1915]' 1915
Frank Hurley
The Long, Long Night [The Endurance in the Antarctic Winter Darkness, Trapped in the Weddell Sea, Shackleton Expedition, 27 August 1915] 1915
National Library of Australia © The estate of Frank Hurley
Shackleton’s disastrous Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition is now most graphically symbolised as a time-lapse shipwreck, and the subject of a famous flash-photograph, The Long, Long Night, by Frank Hurley, the party’s antipodean cinematographer24 (fig.1). The Endurance, which sailed on 1 August 1914, was bound fast in sea-ice from 18 Jan 1915 until it sank on 21 November (a period from just after the Christmas Truce of 1914 to just before the withdrawal from Gallipoli, and nearly a year’s campaigning in Europe). Shackleton’s men did not take to their boats until April 1916 (a fortnight before the Easter Rising in Dublin), having continued to march and drift on the unpredictable medium of ice. Missing the first half of the Great War could be counted a signal good fortune for able-bodied men of the Empire. But it was the very margin of release from Antarctic isolation which imprinted itself from Shackleton’s memoir onto the imagination of T.S. Eliot:
Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
– But who is that on the other side of you?
The note Eliot later appended to the first book publication of the poem reads: ‘The following lines were stimulated by the account of one of the Antarctic expeditions (I forget which, but I think one of Shackleton’s)’.25 Shackleton’s South, published in 1920, describes the voyage in the James Caird from the uninhabited Elephant Island (where the rump of his the party were left behind) to South Georgia, an outpost of the Atlantic whaling industry. This is another reminder of how much early twentieth-century Naval and geographical antarcticism owed to the competitiveness of nineteenth-century oil- and whalebone producers seeking new hunting grounds. It also bespeaks the extent to which military and scientific adventure was in an ideological dialectic with the technologies and economic power that make them possible (Scott took two internal combustion engine tractors on an expedition faulted for a sentimental preference for ponies over dogs, which he nevertheless also embarked).26 Shackleton concluded his account, which critic Michael Teorey reads as an archetypal captivity narrative, with a displacement of his leadership onto a spectral guide or companion:27
When I look back at those days I have no doubt that Providence guided us, not only across those snowfields, but across the storm-white sea that separated Elephant Island from our landing-place on South Georgia. I know that during that long and racking march of thirty-six hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia it seemed to me often that we were four, not three. I said nothing to my companions on the point, but afterwards Worsley said to me, ‘Boss, I had a curious feeling on the march that there was another person with us’. Crean confessed to the same idea. One feels ’the dearth of human words, the roughness of mortal speech‘ in trying to describe things intangible, but a record of our journeys would be incomplete without a reference to a subject very near to our hearts.28
Eliot deflects this ‘intangible sense’ with an allusion to Luke 24: 13–15, Jesus’ appearance to two disciples on the road to Emmaus (and subsequently, the Bible’s, and Eliot’s, ‘third’ have replaced Shackleton’s fourth, in the adventure-mysticism of the ‘Third Man Syndrome’).29 But Eliot’s spiritual re-orientation of Shackleton’s recorded experience makes us look again at the explorer’s own allusiveness. Shackleton’s own quotation from Keats’s unfinished epic ‘Endymion’ (1818), which tells of a shepherd’s love for the moon (resonating with Hurley’s shipwreck-nocturnes), turns out to be a rhetorical repetition on its own account:
My happy love will overwing all bounds!
Oh, let me melt into thee, let the sounds
Of our close voices marry at their birth.
Let us entwine hoveringly – Oh, dearth
Of human words! Roughness of mortal speech!30
The convention of the insufficiency of speech, which is determinedly over-wrought in Keats’s description of the pagan lovers (including a pre-Donald Rumsfeld ‘known Unknown’), is a measure of and substitute for that which cannot articulated.
Eliot deploys Shackleton’s text in an unpacking of the sublime in its relation to horrors. The contrast Eliot enacts through his allusion to South rests on discriminating between an apocalyptic ‘unreal’ – in the reiterated terminology of the poem – and Shackleton’s domestic laconicism, ‘near to our hearts’. The catastrophe of a revolutionary future is invoked spatially and morally by a geometrical expansion of the third figure in the ‘brown mantle’ into ‘hooded hordes’ in a landscape of emptiness:
Who are those hooded hordes swarming
Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth Ringed by the flat horizon only.31
Between the human mass and the ‘fourth/third’ is the difference of the sublime (both transcendent and negative) and its internalisation as a lowest common denominator of physiological survival or as the taciturnity of the hero who will not, in the laconic idiom which symbolises a ‘curtaining’ of the disasters of the Second World War, shoot a line.
Eliot’s interest in heroic exploration as a frame within which to represent contemporary social and spiritual conditions did not stop here, though this is as much as the published text of The Waste Land revealed. Earlier drafts of the short section titled ‘Death by Water’ sketched a boreal odyssey by an East Coast fishing fleet:
And dead ahead we say, where sky and sea should meet,
A line, a white line, a long white line,
A wall, a barrier, towards which we drove.32
This strong echo of Poe’s polar sublime in Pym (as well as of Coleridge and Mary Shelley, and of course of the Barrier, the edge of the Antarctic ice-shelf that the Endurance only touched) is snuffed out in this part of the poem’s draft by the resurgence of a contemporary urbanity – ‘My God man, theres bears on it./Not a chance. Home and mother/Wheres a cocktail shaker, Ben, heres plenty of cracked ice’. Another juxtaposition of the distant and the domestic, this passage is rooted in an unsatiated Prufockian yearning to drown in the elements excluded from the polite drawing room. The whole episode was discarded under the tutelage of Ezra Pound, who helped Eliot cut and shape the typescript into the familiar but still disorienting collage of The Waste Land. But Shackleton’s story opened a way for Eliot to enunciate variants of the sublime in his poem, and to connect it with the device of the quest in which his reading and thinking about myth had been invested (the Shackleton-Rowett expedition of 1921–2, on which Shackleton died, was embarked on the Quest).
The secular and erotic source in Keats of Shackleton’s borrowed trope of adynaton, the trope of the inadequacy of description, may seem at odds with Eliot’s Christian and political glosses on privation. But given that the sublime’s arc from Longinus to the Romantics involved both a return to a concept of sublimity as a discursive effect, and the conception of a role for the imagination in either bridging or confirming a dualistic predicament (not least one which pits representations against history), it is not surprising that this has brought us, in these episodes at the beginning of the twentieth-century, to the insufficiency of speech in the face of experience.
Shackleton’s South does not end punctually with rescue, for a return to humanity must be negotiated (the close of his narrative is replete with failures of recognition which call into question anything as simple as a return). The difficulties here were as much Shackleton’s failure to recognise the world he has restored himself to as the whaling-station personnel’s failure to take Shackleton and company for who they were (white warriors):
‘My name is Shackleton,’ I said.
Immediately he [the whaling station manager Sorlle] put out his hand and said, ‘Come in. Come in.’
‘Tell me, when was the war over?’ I asked.
‘The war is not over,’ he answered. ‘Millions are being killed. Europe is mad. The
world is mad’.33
Eliot’s multiplication of the third into his threatening hooded hordes reverses the sequence in Shackleton’s tale, where the news of war is followed by thanks for rescue. In South the ultimate political illusion of being fast in the ice – namely believing that war will be over, perhaps since the previous Christmas – is succeeded by an acknowledgement of the unspeakable in the providence of rescue. This is of course the pattern announced in the preface, where the reader is imagined turning from ‘the red horror’ (not Eliot’s Russian hordes of course) to ‘White Warfare’, and of finding a kind of solace in privation which transcends politics and industry in the sublimity of a zone of news white-out, his party at once forgotten and unaware. The predicament of Shackleton’s party acquires its sublimity from its irony, but turned around into a report from beyond the world of war, this irony itself is the guarantor of a purely or sheerly sublime suffering.
Literature specialist Kate McLoughlin wrote illuminatingly about adynaton as a war trope, reminding us that it is not confined to the twentieth-century, though the poet Wilfred Owen’s contortions in showing and at the same time not sharing ‘the truth of war’ are an extreme case of an epistemological and ethical division between warrior and civilian.34 White Warfare is a surrogate for war in more ways than one. British adventurer Ranulph Fiennes cites Shackleton as answering the question ‘why seek the pole?’ with this unprescient claim: ‘War in the old days made men. We have not the same stirring times to live in and must look for other outlets for our energy and for the restless spirit that fame alone can satisfy’.35 True to these words, though against his ambitions, Shackleton offered the Endurance and its crew to the Admiralty while anchored off Margate on 3 August 1914 (two army officers in the party had already disembarked to rejoin their regiments). But the Admiralty declined, Endurance sailed down the Chanel towards its end in the ice, and the crew and expedition party would be kept safe from war until 1917:
Of the fifty-three men who returned out of the fifty-six who left for the South, three have since been killed, and five wounded ... Taking the Expedition as a unit ... our casualties have been fairly high.36
The privations described in heroic-era expedition memoirs are war’s substitute and equal, a voluntary precariousness in no man’s land. In observing that the sublime raised us above the ‘vulgar commonplace’, Kant noted that:
Even where civilisation has reached a high pitch there remains this special reverence for the soldier; only that there is then further required of him that he should also exhibit all the virtues of peace – gentleness, sympathy and even becoming thought for his own person; and for the reason that in this we recognise that his mind is above the threats of danger.37
The ‘white warrior’ against nature is this epitome, and taciturnity and adynaton are his idiom, as exemplified here in the writing of the biologist Apsley Cherry-Garrard, who as well as creating his own record of the non-polar activities of the British Antarctic Expedition 1910–13, had a hand in the editing of Scott’s Journals:
The horror of the nineteen days it took us to travel from Cape Evans to Cape Crozier would have to be re-experienced to be appreciated; and any one would be a fool who went again: it is not possible to describe it. The weeks which followed them were comparative bliss, not because later our conditions were better – they were far worse – but because we were callous.38
That callousness, which alienates the subject from his own humanity, would shortly become a cultural universal, the learned response of conscript armies dramatised in Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1929). But it is characteristic of the residual natural sublime which still has representational dominion over the unpeopled Antarctic of the Georgian era, that this alienation is not conceived as a bio-historical regression as it is by Remarque’s narrator Paul Baümer, who sees trench life as evolution in reverse. Instead, it was narrated as a form of self-transcendence at a scientific and technological frontier. In War and Peace, Prince Andrew, lying wounded on the Pratzen heights at Austerlitz, is presented by Tolstoy as transcending both his class and his ideology as Napoleon scrutinises the fallen bodies of the vanquished:
He knew this was Napoleon, his hero, but at that very moment the person of Napoleon seemed utterly insignificant compared with what was happening between him, his soul and that high, eternal sky with the clouds racing across it.39
In similar vein does Apsley Cherry-Garrard echo the Keatsian strain of Shackleton’s figure for the ‘providential’ dimension of privation in South:
I for one had come to that point of suffering at which I did not really care if only I could die without much pain. They talk of the heroism of the dying – they little know – it would be so easy to die, a dose of morphia, a friendly crevasse, and blissful sleep.40
The sublime survives into the twentieth century in images of the precariousness of Kant’s civilised soldier exposed to an awesome, near-abstract nature (writer George Orwell connected native English anti-militarism with care for animals, a vaunted national ideal which has its ironic apotheosis in the contrast between Edward Wilson’s diary entry about giving his rations to a pony on the eve of its being shot, and the relish with which Amundsen records the feeding of dogs to dogs: ‘[a]ll that was left after one of these canine meals was the teeth of the victim – and if it had been a really hard day, these also disappeared’ ).41 And this survival, as we have seen in the case of the transactions between Poe and James, and then Shackleton and Eliot, is channelled into a modernist perceptual and epistemological sublime. What Conrad called blank or white space had been overwritten with troubling signs:
It had ceased to be a blank space of delightful mystery – a white patch for a boy to dream gloriously over. It had become a place of darkness.42
And as is confirmed by film director Werner Herzog’s pursuit of the sublime in the film Encounters at the End of the World (2007), the Antarctic, while no longer a no man’s land, still symbolises a pivot point between fantasy and horror.


In another connection, there is a fascinating account of misprision and representation in Paul Simpson-Housley, Antarctica: Exploration, Perception and Metaphor, London 1992.
Ezra Pound, Selected Poems, London 1973, p.178.
For the relationship between geography and entertainment, see Elizabeth Baigent, ‘“Deeds not words?” Life-Writing and Early Twentieth-Century British Polar Exploration’, in Simon Naylor and James R. Ryan (eds.), New Spaces of Exploration: Geographies of Discovery in the Twentieth Century, London 2010, p.25.
Quoted in Max Jones, The Last Conquest: Captain Scott’s Antarctic Sacrifice, Oxford 2003, p.27.
Robert Falcon Scott, Journals: Captain Scott’s Last Expedition, ed. by Max Jones, Oxford 2006, pp.376–7.
The Works of Virgil, trans. by John Dryden, London 1903, p.147.
K.W. Gransden, Virgil, The Aeneid: A Student’s Guide, Cambridge 2004, pp.71–2.
Ernest Shackleton (1920), South: The Story of Shackleton’s Last Expedition 1914–1917, New York 1962, dedication and p.vii.
Michael North, Reading 1922: A Return to the Scene of the Modern, Oxford 1999, does not mention these texts.
James Joyce, Ulysses, ed. by Jeri Johnson, Oxford 1993, p.624.
For the conventions of expedition reports and their relation to life-writing, see Baigrent, ‘Deeds not words?’, pp.25–8.
The commercial conventions of polar expedition memoirs and reports are illustrated by the shift from North to South Pole, and from ‘Record’ to ‘Story’ in the titles of the following iconic publications associated with Polar celebrities: Fridtjof Nansen, Farthest North, Being the Record of the Voyage of Exploration of the Ship Fram 1893–96..., London 1897, 2 vols.; Roald Amundsen, The North West Passage: Being the Record of the Voyage of Exploration of the Ship ‘Gjoa’ 1903-7... , London 1908, 2 vols.; Ernest Shackleton, The Heart of the Antarctic, Being the Story of the British Antarctic Expedition, 1907–1909, London 1909, 2 vols.; Robert Scott, Scott’s Last Expedition (2 vols., vol.1 being the Journals of Capt. R.F.Scott, vol.2 being the Reports of the Journeys and the Scientific Work Undertaken by Dr E.A.Wilson and the Surviving Members of the Expedition), arranged by Leonard Huxley, London 1913; Douglas Mawson, The Home of the Blizzard, Being the Story of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition, 1911–1914, London 1915, 2 vols.
Henry James, The Golden Bowl, Harmondsworth 1982, p.42.
Francis Spufford, I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination, London 1996, p.19.
Philip Shaw, The Sublime, London 2006.
For the first sightings of the Antarctic continent, see Simpson-Healey, Antarctica, pp.9-12.
For an account of the impact of Symmes’s ideas on nineteenth-century North Polar navigation, see Fergus Fleming, Ninety Degrees North, London 2001, pp.1–5. J. Lasley Dameron, ‘Pym’s Polar Episode: Conclusion or Beginning?’, in Richard Kopley (ed.), Poe’s Pym: Critical Explorations, New Jersey 1992, pp.35–43, sees ‘verisimilitude’ designed to create ‘“novelty and wonder”’ behind Poe’s use of William Scoresby’s Journal of a Voyage to the Northern Whale-Fishery (1823), but does not cite Symmes.
Edgar Allan Poe, The Complete Poems and Stories, ed. A.H. Quinn and E.H. O’Neill, 2 vols., vol.2, New York 1964, pp.851–2.
This is not to claim that the Poles were tabula rasa, and hence that, as John Wylie puts it, ‘the “meaning” of the landscape can only be constructed a priori in the “imagination”’, ‘Earthly Poles: The Antarctic Voyages of Scott and Amundsen’, in Alison Blunt and Cheryl McEwan (eds.), Postmodern Geographies, New York 2002, p.171.
Ursula K. Le Guin, ‘Sur’ (New York 1982) in The Compass Rose, London 1984. Elena Glasberg, ‘Refusing History at the End of the Earth: Ursula Le Guin’s “Sur” and the 2000–1 Women’s Antarctica Crossing’, Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, 21, 1 (Spring 2002), p.108.
Roald Amundsen (1912), The South Pole, London 2001, vol.2, p.121.
Scott, Journals, p.422; for the public construction of the story of Scott’s Last Expedition, see Jones, The Last Conquest, pp.99–101.
Glasberg, ‘Refusing History’, p.114.
Hurley’s cinematographic work was distributed after the war as South: Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Glorious Epic of the Antarctic (1919). The photograph in question was reprinted in South (1920) and has been widely reproduced, see for example Caroline Alexander, The Endurance, London 1998, p.81.
T.S. Eliot, The Complete Poems and Plays of T.S. Eliot, London 1969, pp.73, 79.
The most important reassessments of a century of reinscriptions of polar privation, in which hagiography and iconoclasm go hand in hand, are Susan Solomon, The Coldest March: Scott’s Fatal Antarctic Expedition, New Haven 2001, and Jones, The Last Conquest.
Michael Teorey, ‘Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Miraculous Escape from the Antarctic as Captivity Narrative: “The Grip of the Ice”’ English Literature in Transition, 2004, pp.273–91.
Shackleton, South, p.211.
John Geiger, The Third Man Factor, Toronto 2009. In the form of the ‘Forbes-Chalmers Effect’, the Australian writer Thomas Keneally combined this phenomenon with elements of the Mallory/Irving Everest legend to supply the donnée of one of his two novels about the Georgian Antartica, the murder mystery A Victim of the Aurora, London 1978.
John Keats, Complete Poems, ed. by Miriam Allott, London 1970, p.197.
Eliot, Complete Poems, p.73.
The Waste Land: A Facsimile and Transcript, ed. by Valerie Eliot, London 1971, pp.66–7.
Shackleton, South, p.208.
Kate McLoughlin, ‘Adynaton: A War Topos’, Peer English, vol.1, Spring 2006, pp.15–24.
Ranulph Fiennes, Mind over Matter: The Epic Crossing of the Antarctic Continent, London 1993, p.24.
Shackleton, South, pp.345–7.
Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgment, trans. by James Creed Meredith, Oxford 1991, p.112.
Apsley Cherry-Garrard, The Worst Journey in the World: Antarctic 1910–1913, fist published 1927, Harmondsworth 1948, p.258.
Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace (All’s Well That Ends Well, 1866), trans. by Andrew Bromfield, London 2007, p.382.
Cherry-Garrard, Worst Journey, p.258.
See Scott, Journals, p.439, n.21; Amundsen, South Pole, p.59.
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, ed. by Paul B. Armstrong, New York 2006, p.8.
A version of this paper was first presented at the conference, ‘Wrong From the Start’: Modernism and the Sublime, held at Tate in November 2009, organised by the AHRC-funded research project, ‘The Sublime Object: Nature Art and Language’.
This essay was first published in issue 14 of Tate Papers in autumn 2010. Other papers relating to the project can be found in issue 13.
Mark Rawlinson teaches English Literature and is Academic Director of the College of Arts, Humanities and Law in the University of Leicester.

How to cite

Mark Rawlinson, ‘Waste Dominion’, ‘White Warfare’, and Antarctic Modernism’, in Nigel Llewellyn and Christine Riding (eds.), The Art of the Sublime, January 2013,, accessed 13 July 2014.