Friday, February 22, 2008

how to keep things in perspective

Lately my reading has taken a particular tone: histories of horrendous suffering. I started sliding into depression and dark thoughts lately, and what has pulled me out and got me back on stronger footing was reading accounts of suffering of a Biblical proportion.

This reading spree started with "The Birthday Party: A Memoir of Survival" (2007) by Stanley Alpert. This has just been released in paperback, and I strongly urge you to go pick up a copy. Poor Stanley, a Manhattan prosecutor, was abducted off the street by young thugs on a cold night before his birthday. His teenaged captors kept him in a filthy apartment for 25 hours while scheming to get the $100,000 in Mr. Alpert's savings account. Terrified for his life, for good reason (his captors kept him at gunpoint and threatened him and his family), Stanley tried to make friends with his captors with some surprising successes. When he was released, the cops didn't believe him at first, assuming Stanley had celebrated his birthday by going off on a coke binge and was making up a cover story out of embarrassment. This book was riveting. As someone who was the victim of a violent crime, I found Stanley's retelling of his feelings and reactions so true. (Thankfully my own crime didn't drag on for so long).

Later I quickly read "American Born Chinese" (2006) by Gene Yang, a graphic novel about a Chinese boy's hellish experiences in a suburban junior high, where he was only one of three Asian students. This is interspersed with the retelling of the Monkey King myth. I hated junior high myself and didn't enjoy revisiting it, but I did adore how Mr. Yang drew the Monkey King. Also, this is the first graphic novel to be nominated for a National Book Award. Go, Gene Yang!

Then I settled down for several days with the true winner, an amazing achievement in the field of Horrific Memoirs: "The Worst Journey in the World: Antarctic 1910-1913" vols. I and II, (1922) by Apsley Cherry-Garrard. My God, how much suffering poor Cherry-Garrard endured. He starts the first volume out by noting that it's a bit late in being published because by the time he healed up from his Antarctic travails, he had to answer his country's call to fight in World War I, where he was severely injured. Of the two, he felt the Antarctic was worse than the trenches of France. I felt so sad for him, thinking that there was no peaceful old age in his future, what with the Battle of Britain lurking around history's next corner.

Cherry-Garrard was part of Scott's Last Journey. I had a vague memory that this expedition ended with just about everyone dead. After reading the book, I learned that it was just the actual small group of five who reached the South Pole who died, but there were plenty of close calls for the rest.

"The Worst Journey in the World" is actually, to Cherry-Garrard, not the entire expedition but rather a smaller expedition taken by himself and two others (and both of the others later died with Scott after reaching the South Pole). Dr. Wilson had set his heart upon obtaining fertilized Emperor penguin eggs on this expedition, which meant a small number of men traveling a great distance in the middle of the Antarctic winter to the penguin breeding grounds. The three men who did this, Wilson, Bowers, and Cherry-Garrard, suffered immeasurable hardships and gave themselves up for dead. Dr. Wilson became severely ill with scurvy on this journey (fascinatingly at that time, the cause of scurvy was not known, and Cherry-Garrard presented a number of theories for what could cause it), and he asked the others to save themselves and leave him for dead. They gallantly refused, and Bowers bravely set off alone to try to reach help. As Cherry-Garrard waited with the invalid in a tiny tent, he rationed out the food and waited to die as a blizzard struck. It seemed inconceivable that Bowers could have reached safety alone (but of course the reader knows that there's a whole second volume ahead, so our brave Cherry-Garrard clearly must be saved, and so he was).

The result of that horrific, insanely dangerous journey was that three fertilized and pickled penguin eggs were delivered personally by Cherry-Garrard (as the sole survivor) to the British Museum, where poor old Cherry was treated like a nuisance and made to wait for hours before anyone would deign to receive the eggs and give him a receipt. Cherry went into a nigh-homicidal rage at this treatment, having expected rather more to be hailed as a man who had nearly given his life for the expansion of knowledge. He reprinted in his book the eventual report made after the penguin embryos' dissection, leaving it up to the reader to decide whether the contribution made to science was worth the horrific suffering it required.

Of course, "the Worst Journey in the World" occurs before the party actually sets off for the South Pole, only to discover that businesslike Amundsen had already planted a Norwegian flag there. Was the death of Scott and his companions worthwhile? The survivors of the expedition faced a lot of criticism for not having rescued Scott, and Cherry-Garrard devotes a large amount of volume II to explaining why the South Pole party was not saved (in a nutshell, the other men were largely emaciated, frostbitten and ridden with scurvy; it's not easy to rescue anyone in Antarctica; and by the time they realized the South Pole party wasn't coming back, it was too late anyhow).

I had heard of the heroic death of Capt. Oates before, but getting a sense for the man made it all the much more tragic. Capt. Oates was in charge of the poor ponies hauled down to Antarctica to haul supplies, and he was a hardworking, affectionate steward of those wretched animals. He became horrifically frostbitten and unable to proceed on the way back from the pole, and he requested that Scott, Wilson, and Bowers leave him for dead in his sleeping bag. They refused, and after a polite conversation (God, those Brits were so polite and genteel back in the days of Empire), Oates expressed the hope that he would die that night in his sleep. Disappointed at not having passed peacefully in the night and unwilling to risk his companions' survival, Oates said calmly the next morning, "I am going outside. I may be some time" and then walked to his death in a blizzard. Who among us would have that courage and sense of self-sacrifice?

There's nothing like a rousing tale of suffering to make one appreciate one's own life more. My own troubles fade in comparison with Cherry-Garrard's. Just to state a few: on his winter journey, Cherry-Garrard kept getting blisters... and the fluid inside the blisters would instantly freeze. Evidently walking upon little frozen icicles in side your very skin is agonizing beyond belief. Also, poor Cherry-Garrard was quite nearsighted, and it became impossible for him to wear his glasses in the most severe weather. The only time he complains about this is when his companions enjoyed the amazing aurora borealis at night, and he, poor nearsighted thing, was unable to make it out even squinting. (Oh, how I feel for him, my companion in astigmatism and myopia). Not to mention having to bury one of your closest friends...

Anyhow, if you are feeling down and wish to perk yourself up, I recommend heading for the nonfiction accounts of horrific suffering, rather than the romantic comedies or feel-good fluff. Next on my agenda: a memoir of a man forced to have a lobotomy as a 12 year-old by his evil stepmother (yes, really).

love, the Drunken Housewife


Anonymous said...

I loved American Born Chinese even though I'm really young to be reading it I just felt like I was stuck in a magical world with a monkey king and someone is spying on me from heaven.

hughman said...

"I just felt like I was stuck in a magical world with a monkey king and someone is spying on me from heaven."

welcome to my world sweet iris.

hokgardner said...

Once upon a time I read several accounts of the explorations of the poles and the disasterous outcomes for man and beast with great enjoyment, for lack of a better word. But I just can't anymore. I take it too personally - I spend all that time reading and getting to know someone, and then he or she ups and dies on me. I end up in a huge funk.

2amsomewhere said...

... histories of horrendous suffering. I started sliding into depression and dark thoughts lately, and what has pulled me out and got me back on stronger footing was reading accounts of suffering of a Biblical proportion.

I guess it must be Lent. ;-)


Epiphany said...

If you liked the Antarctica books, you should definitely read T.C. Boyle's "Water Music." Fiction, but sounds quite similar. And you get to figure out which is more horrifying: the African jungle or 17th-century London. (I vote for the latter, personally....)