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Incomplete Obliteration: Antarctica and the Impossible Escape from Existence

Updated on April 4, 2017
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V Ron Dorn is a Canadian writer with a Bachelor's in English and World Language Studies and a Master's in English and Creative Writing.

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Sarah Wheeler’s travel narrative Terra Incognita presents Antarctica in somewhat conflicting terms. At first she portrays Antarctica as the ultimate escape, a sublimely seductive vacuum whose primary purpose seems to be to swallow up those who go there. Antarctica appears to obliterate the rest of the world and the human histories that existed outside of and before it, and it does so in two main ways: by replacing the familiar world with one that is barren, alien, and almost apocalyptic, and by instigating a loss of sense of self in the people there. It is an unfamiliar land, impossible to navigate with usually helpful tools like the human senses, and even at first seems to offer Wheeler a respite from her Nomadic Thoughts, the metaphor she uses to represent the mundane tragedy of human existence. Antarctica’s capabilities in these respects, however, are not in fact entirely effective, and soon enough it becomes clear that Antarctica can neither function completely as an obliterating force nor as any real form of escape; no matter how powerful Antarctica may be, the outside world and the Nomadic Thoughts always come creeping back in.

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As aforementioned, Wheeler presents Antarctica’s obliterating powers in two main ways: Antarctica eliminates the familiar aspects of the world as well as the human tools used to navigate them, and seems to destroy the existence of the self. In the former category, one of the most obvious examples of the destruction of the familiar world and the human ability to understand it is the loss of the human senses. Wheeler points out an unnerving trend among Antarctic travelers, one characterized by the lack of, or inability to properly use, certain senses, something perfectly encapsulated in the following passage:

I had noticed how much the absence of smell had affected the people at Fryxell, when one day I put on a dab of perfume from a sample bottle I found in the bottom of a bag. When I went into the Jamesway everyone reacted as if I had poured a bucket of Chanel over my head (p. 115).

This is particularly interesting because the human sense of smell here has not been destroyed, but Antarctica has so deprived it of materials to maintain its normal function that it no longer plays a useful or discerning role in navigating the world. Essentially, Antarctica’s lack of scents has left the human sense of smell so overly sensitive that it is no longer effective. Wheeler goes on to say that

People at the Pole often talked about sensory deprivation. One of their favorite topics was the rush of arriving in New Zealand after leaving the ice, and they always mentioned specifically darkness, trees, colors and smells (p. 115).

Things like “darkness, trees, colors and smells” work alongside the human sensory capacity in order to construct a coherent world. They are important landmarks in the human experience that, while perhaps at first not seeming significant, become a monumental absence on the jarringly stark Antarctic horizon.

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The loss of these human senses and the subsequent sensory computation of familiar landmarks is an important factor when considering Antarctica’s alien atmosphere. However there is also the feeling that, even with the sharpest senses imaginable, one would still not be able to comprehensively contextualize oneself within the Antarctic setting or understand its almost apocalyptic nature.

Wheeler’s inclusion of the Byrd quotation is a good example of this, as he describes Antarctica as home to the “imponderable processes and forces of the cosmos”, further claiming that Antarctica looks “the way the world will look to the last man when he dies” (119). Right away the sense of separation from the familiar is clear; Antarctica is presented not as a recognizable landscape that corresponds to human ideas of reality, but is rather a celestial wasteland wracked by an apocalypse.

Antarctica appears not only to be able to eliminate the familiar forms of reality and those navigational tools so necessary to human existence, but seems to be able to eliminate the sense of human existence itself, something Wheeler describes in detail:

It was so quiet I heard the blood pumping around in my head, and I had the same sense of immersion in a different world that I’ve experienced scuba diving. The silence was the accumulation of centuries of solitude. I was shocked that such emptiness could inspire me with awe, but it did. It was the purest landscape, the grandest, and so, it seemed to me, the most exalted. I had a powerful sense that I didn’t exist at all. The sublime grandeur of nature can strip away layers of the ego… (p. 112)

Antarctica’s obliteration has provided the perfect blank space into which Wheeler can disappear, can completely lose herself. There is an almost ecstatic approach to a Nirvana-like state of spiritual nothingness, the “powerful sense” that Antarctica provides escape from oneself. And yet, this escape is never fully complete. Even at her most serene moment of disappearance, Wheeler can hear her “blood pumping around in [her] head”, an obvious (although purely physical) reminder of her existence (p. 112).

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Antarctica’s obliteration never comes to full fruition because of the inability to completely eliminate that final and most important human element: the sense of self. Wheeler tells us that “travel represents either a journey of discovery… or an easy access escape” (p.122). However, even when she reaches the Pole, when she had “got as far, geographically, as anyone can go on this earth” (123), she acknowledges that “you can run away as far as you like but you’ll never get away from yourself” (122).

When considering this idea of escape in Antarctica, it is also important to look at what Wheeler calls her “Nomadic Thoughts”, which are perhaps the most significant part of herself she hopes to leave behind. She describes this phenomenon as “thoughts trailing nomadically around inside [her] head… intermittently stage[ing] rebellions, coalescing into a mass of far-reaching grief and paralyzing fear” triggered by anything from “an old man replacing a box of teabags on the supermarket shelf” to “a young woman with Down’s syndrome staring out of the smeared window… because there was nothing else for her to do that day” (98). Antarctica, with all its alien wonder and sublime obliteration appears to be the ultimate refuge from such psychological turmoil. Wheeler says that

[i]n Antarctica [she] experienced a certainty amidst the morass of thoughts and emotions and preoccupations seething inside [her]… head… The landscape was intact, complete and larger than [her] imagination could grasp. It was free of the diurnal cycle that locked… earthlings into the ineluctable routine of home (p. 99).

Wheeler’s Nomadic Thoughts, brought on by the sad slow plod of everyday life, are part of her own specific “ineluctable routine” that, in Antarctica, she seems to be free of. This escape, however, despite Antarctica’s immersive, almost destructive power, can never completely come to be; while Wheeler claims that “the unownedness and the overpowering beauty that made Antarctica different [from other places she had been]… diverted the Nomadic Thoughts”, she goes on to say that “[i]t wasn’t a permanent diversion” and the she knew she “would meet [her] demons again and again” (100).

These Nomadic Thoughts seem to be an essential, inalienable element to Wheeler, and despite Antarctica’s admittedly far-reaching abilities, they cannot be outrun or destroyed. Antarctica is powerless against these painfully human forms of haunting.

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There is something both dark and hopeful about Antarctica’s initial presentation in Wheeler’s narrative; Antarctica has the dual capability of obliterating both the familiar features of the real world and the human systems of navigating them, as well as appearing to even go so far as to obliterate the human sense of self. It appears to be a power both for erasure and for escape, a surreal landscape that stands outside the scope of navigable human experience, “strip[ping] away layers of the ego” of those who dare to venture so far south (112).

And yet, despite all this, Antarctica’s powers eventually fall short. Any sense of swallowing of the self is purely an illusion brought on by sublime silence, and no matter how jarring and alien the landscape may be, no matter how effectively it destroys the human senses and the landmarks of familiar reality, it never manages to completely obliterate the outside world or the inner human existence of those who go there. Wheeler presents Antarctica as the destroyer that cannot completely destroy, the escape from that which cannot be escaped. No matter how dangerously powerful it may at first appear to be, its process of obliteration will always be incomplete, and its status as complete escape will never quite ring true.

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