First Published: 1937 by Island Press
My copy: Bought on Kindle
Memorable quote: “A funereal gloom hangs in the twilight sky. This is the period between life and death. This is the way the world will look to the last man when it dies.”
In 1934 Admiral Byrd led his second expedition to Antarctica, but this, his account of it, isn’t really a chronicle of action and derring-do on the ice. Rather, it’s an intense, psychological memoir of human solitude. Byrd chose to spend the perpetual darkness of an Antarctic winter staffing a small hut on the barrier taking meteorological readings. During this time he was completely isolated except for unreliable radio contact with the main base. He puts himself in an intensely dangerous situation, and several times almost gets lost out on the ice-field as well as facing the more insidious threat of carbon monoxide poisoning from the very stove that is keeping him alive. But more than the physical challenges of his frozen location, this is really a tale of psychological extremity. It’s a fascinating account of how the human mind copes (or fails to) in complete isolation. Byrd’s inevitable descent into depression is eloquently expressed and will, I’m sure, strike a chord with anyone who has struggled with mental health issues: “the dark side of a man’s mind seems to be a sort of antenna tuned to catch gloomy thoughts from all directions. I found it so with mine.” So I don’t think you’d need to be a polar nerd to find meaning and interest in this fascinating account.
Of course, as with all autobiographical memoirs, you have to take the story presented with a degree of scepticism. Like most heroes Byrd is an attention-seeker and clearly dresses up his narrative in parts, underplaying his own failings. But reading the text against itself and revealing the chinks in the public face that Byrd presents is part of the pleasure and interest in a book like this. Alone also offers a fascinating study in the dynamics of leadership and unspoken exchange: Byrd doesn’t want directly to ask for help because he won’t put his men at risk coming to get him, meanwhile his men can sense their leader is not being honest about how bad things are and strive to find an excuse to go to him without making it look like a direct rescue. We humans are complex creatures and Antarctica is the perfect blank but deadly canvas on which to paint large the workings of the mind, both socially and individually.