Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Centenary of Scott at the South Pole: the ridiculous, the sublime

There's been lots of coverage recently of the centenary of Scott reaching the South Pole on January 17th 1912 in that ill-fated expedition. The Guardian posted a series of photos, and the British Film Institute has restored the record of the expedition "The Great White Silence" - I haven't seen the latter but just the trailer is compelling.


It might seem odd that we remember Scott's failure more vividly than Amundsen's success, but really it's not that surprising. Scott's mistakes and pathetic end speak more eloquently to us about the human condition- it's "dying as an art" to quote Sylvia Plath. Or as Derek Mahon says, in his poem echoing the last words of Captain Oates, at the heart of the ridiculous there really was something sublime.


Antarctica

‘I am just going outside and may be some time.’ 
The others nod, pretending not to know. 
At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime.

He leaves them reading and begins to climb,
Goading his ghost into the howling snow;
He is just going outside and may be some time.

The tent recedes beneath its crust of rime
And frostbite is replaced by vertigo:
At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime.

Need we consider it some sort of crime,
This numb self-sacrifice of the weakest? No,
He is just going outside and may be some time 

In fact, for ever. Solitary enzyme,
Though the night yield no glimmer there will glow, 
At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime.

He takes leave of the earthly pantomime
Quietly, knowing it is time to go:-
‘I am just going outside and may be some time.’ 
At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime.

                                                                                              - Derek Mahon

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