Xenobe Purvis

Groaning Glaciers

Ice: I’ve always hated it. The way it brings your teeth together in a bite, a sinister sound. It’s cold and concrete-hard. Like a slap, it leaves your flesh ringing. I know I’m not alone in loathing winter – bitter and sunless months here in northern Europe. Ice abounds at this time of year, but even in spring, in the sweating heat of summer, you never have to look too far for it. It has preoccupied writers and artists for centuries. Open a book and you’ll find it spreading frostily across the pages. Switch on your television and you’ll see it there. A backdrop. A mood. A wide and brilliant mirror.

What is our relationship with ice? It corrupts our bodies physically – it bites, it rots our flesh. It feels foreign to us, other-worldly, but it is very much of this world, and very much tied up in our lives. In ice we find questions about the way we behave. We find stories of our beginning and our end. As canvases go, it’s a broad one, chronicling all the far corners of human existence.

Ice is at the heart of our creation story – or so two Old Norse works, the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda, tell us. The Prose Edda recounts how the frost giant Ymir nourished himself from the udders of a cow feeding on a block of ice, and from that block of ice emerged a figure named Búri. Búri’s grandsons – Odin, Vili and Vé – went on to murder Ymir, forming the world from his dismembered body. Odin (with the help of translator Carolyne Larrington) describes it thus in the section of the Poetic Edda called ‘Grímnismál’: ‘From Ymir’s flesh the earth was made, / and from his blood, the sea, / mountains from his bones, trees from his hair, / and from his skull, the sky’.

Skip six centuries, and we encounter another dismembered body, another act of creation. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is remembered for the grotesque monster at its centre, stitched together from human remains. But Frankenstein also has its icy moments: the story is book-ended with episodes in the Arctic. Robert Walton’s letters at the start of the novel describe ‘vast and irregular plains of ice, which seemed to have no end’.

In the early nineteenth century – around the time that Frankenstein was published – European explorers ventured into the Northwest Passage; impressions of the Arctic made their way home and seeped into domestic discourse. Shelley found that the newness of the polar landscape, those previously un-described miles of whiteness, made it the perfect setting   in which the unthinkable might happen. A man pursuing a monster: it doesn’t feel quite so extraordinary in that Arctic hinterland. That’s where Frankenstein opens, easing us into a world without the social parameters of, say, Frankenstein’s Switzerland or Shelley’s Britain.

More recently, the strangeness of the polar setting has been embraced by the offbeat film-maker Werner Herzog. Take a look at his Encounters at the End of the World, a documentary about a research camp in Antarctica. Here, the staccato clicks of the seals carrying through the ice sound like the song of extra-terrestrials. Penguins are overcome with an inexplicable mania for suicide. The ice-scape seems to give humans licence to behave unusually, too. A volcanologist braves freezing temperatures dressed only in tweed, a tribute to his nineteenth century idols. On that language-less continent, a linguist spends his days tending tomato plants. A pair of scientists give a guitar concert on the roof of a building to a handful of their colleagues and the never-setting sun.

Herzog sees in the blankness of Antarctica a place where people have permission to behave as strangely as they like. There are no signs here, no clear systems or obvious rules. (The anarchy of this remote landscape was made real in October last year, with the news that a Russian researcher in the Antarctic had stabbed his colleague for spoiling the endings of too many books.) In many ways, the foreignness of these ice-caked places sets them apart from social norms.

One of my favourite depictions of this phenomenon, the liberating influence of ice, can be read in Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. The Great Frost descends on London at the start of the novel, and the frozen Thames becomes ‘a park or pleasure ground, with arbours, mazes, alleys, drinking booths’. Beneath the feet of the revellers, ‘[s]hoals of eels lay motionless in a trance’. This suspension of reality affects our protagonist, too. Dancing on the ice, Orlando sees ‘a figure’; he can’t discern whether this person is a man or a woman. He’s overcome with desire, ‘ready to tear his hair with vexation that the person was of his own sex […] but no boy ever had a mouth like that; no boy had those breasts; no boy had eyes which looked as if they had been fished from the bottom of the sea.’ The confusion brought about by the ice portends Orlando’s own transformation from man to woman later on in the novel.

Like the ice of Shelley and Herzog, Woolf’s sub-zero setting is a place outside the realm of social convention. On the frozen rink of the Thames, Orlando flirts with the possibility of same-sex attraction, while the object of his lustful gaze changes gender before his eyes. Ice and gender fluidity, Woolf discovered, went neatly hand in hand. Ursula le Guin would discover something similar forty years later, in her remarkable novel The Left Hand of Darkness. In le Guin’s story, the narrator Genly Ai is sent to the planet Winter to encourage its inhabitants to join the Ekumen (a kind of intergalactic EU). As its name suggests, this planet is plagued by the perennial cold. It’s also home to an androgynous population, who, once a month, temporarily take on either ‘a male or female hormonal dominance’ to reproduce. Genly Ai is unsettled by the ‘soft supple femininity’ of the people he reads as men. The inhabitants of Winter don’t seems to possess the conventionally masculine traits of aggression and physical dominance; indeed, their language doesn’t contain a word for war. ‘[P]erhaps’, the narrator suggests, ‘they use up their fighting spirit fighting the cold’.

In his brilliant book I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination, Francis Spufford recognises the subverting influence that ice holds over gender norms. Spufford points to the harshness of the polar landscape as a factor. In the nineteenth century, the ‘natural environment of the poles compell[ed] men to wait, suffer, and be patient, in the same way as the human environment compelled women’, he writes, going on to observe that ‘men confronting an implacable environment which was, by definition, stronger than them, might grow to experience the female variety of grace under pressure’.

Ice seems, in many ways, to demonstrate a brutish, muscle-flexing masculinity. People are passive in the face of it. According to traditional gender roles, we are all playing the woman’s part when we step out on the ice. This dynamic is caricatured in figure skating, which requires skaters, male and female, to adopt a cartoonish femininity. Sequins and ruffles. Make-up, perfect hair. Skaters must be elegant and gracious, both on the ice and off it; failure to conform to this ideal of femininity has been punished in the past. Take, for instance, the case of Tonya Harding, recently brought to life in the Oscar-nominated film, I, Tonya. Harding has an ‘unladylike’ appetite for success (at one point in the film, she tells the judges to ‘suck my dick’). She flouted convention on the ice, too; her routines were, in the words of I, Tonya’s director, Craig Gillespie, ‘aggressive and unruly’. She was eventually edged out of the ultra-feminine world of figure skating. It doesn’t surprise me to discover that – upon hanging up her shimmering leotard – Harding briefly became a professional boxer. Her name in the ring was ‘TNT’.

But back to ice: not just rinks of it, but worlds of it. Hellish worlds of punishing ice. Dante, in his Inferno, describes the last circle of hell, the home of humanity’s very worst sinners – it’s made, not of fire, as traditional Christian imagery holds, but of ice. In Dante’s words (translated by Robin Kirkpatrick):

I was by now (I write this verse in fear)
where all the shades in ice were covered up,
transparent as are straws preserved in glass.
Some lay there flat, and some were vertical,
one with head raised, another soles aloft,
another like a bow, bent face to feet.

The sinners are kept in a state of eternal suspension, all life-giving warmth prohibited from them. Here, too, hangs Satan, the ‘emperor of all these realms of gloom’, who holds, in three chomping mouths, Brutus, Cassius, and Judas Iscariot. The final circle of Hell is the preserve of history’s traitors.

Seven hundred years later, the discourse around ice has changed, but Dante’s themes have endured. In contemporary writing, ice is encumbered with very Dantean ideas of perfidy and guilt. With a difference. Ice is no longer the punishment for betrayal – it’s the measure of it. A burgeoning genre, climate change fiction (or ‘cli-fi’, as it has popularly been dubbed) examines the human impact on polar ice through global warming. With every calving glacier, our mistreatment of this planet is made abundantly clear.

Cli-fi is building momentum slowly; no-one likes being fed a moral message, it seems. I have some sympathy with this position. Who among us is happy to confront the guilt of global disaster? To stare unflinchingly in the face of our disintegrating planet? In our morning commute, reading dozily before bed, we turn to crimes we have had no hand in: thrillers, murder mysteries, Nordic noir (let the ice be the site of a violent murder; let it be stained with the spooling blood of some young innocent; let it   be anything but melting because of the lifestyle I lead). Clever cli-fiers have disguised their message, wrapping it in narratives readers feel more comfortable with. Laline Paull’s novel The Ice tells the story of a body found frozen in the Arctic and the clue-finding that ensues. The melting ice- sheets provide a backdrop for this thriller; the question of climate change is only addressed obliquely. Similarly, Ian McEwan’s Solar focuses on the life of Michael Beard, an unlikeable theoretical physicist and climate change denier, who visits the Arctic to distract himself from the fact that his wife is having an affair with their builder. Beard is the perfect cli-fi protagonist: if this greedy, self-serving man can come around to the idea of climate change, it’s possible that we can too.

Ice, in the work of cli-fi writers, is no longer brutal or blank; it has become vulnerable and beautiful – the yin to the yang of Spufford’s ‘implacable environment’. Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner and Aka Niviâna describe ice as something to be valued and protected in their haunting poem ‘Rise’, published last year. Jetñil-Kijiner, a poet of Marshallese descent, and Niviâna, an Inuk writer, address each other across the globe. ‘Sister of ocean and sand, / can you see our glaciers groaning / with the weight of the world’s heat?’, Niviâna asks; ‘Sister of ice and snow, / I come to you now in grief / mourning landscapes / that are always forced to change’, Jetñil- Kijiner responds.

In the cocooning heat of cities, in lives spent inside, on the internet, we don’t often think about ice. But it’s more important to us than we allow. In our writing, in our art, ice is intimately wrapped up in the way we present ourselves, in our bodies and our behaviours. Observing it, musing on its many manifestations, soon comes to feel like observing ourselves. (Seamus Heaney even equates ice with sight: ‘Keep your eye clear / as the bleb of the icicle’, he tells us.) It’s the mirror in which we see our many faces, the groaning bearer of our many burdens.


Xenobe Purvis
is a literary researcher living in London, working on her first novel and currently assisting in the preparation of a volume of Christopher Isherwood’s selected letters. Her essays and reviews have appeared in 3AM Magazine, Review 31, Litro, City AM, Glasgow Review of Books, and anthologies in the UK and US, among other places.

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