Our Winter Ourselves
Andrew Taggart explores the meanings a season can give us in his review of Winter: Five Windows on the Season by Adam Gopnik.
Last winter in New York City, Mayor Bloomberg forgot his shovels. The subways stopped, the children reveled, and the grownups got especially good at kvetching in unison. This was winter, we thought. But the storm was nothing close to the myelin sheath of ice that encased the bird feeder I’d watched in my post-PhD life in Madison, Wisconsin some years ago. Nor was it like the winter freeze that swept over Europe this year, the minus-25 degrees Fahrenheit casting hell over Italy and Poland, numbing the elderly and killing the poor. Nor was it even scarcely like the picture of the woodsy car draped in purple glass my Swiss friend sent me, the sad green thing set against the black trees and the turquoise night. This year in New York City it is nothing at all like winter. It is none of these, nothing like any of them. This year, winter came for a day in mid-October and then forgot to complete the rest of its assignment. For months, the warmth has sallied forth sprightly, back and forth between late autumn and early spring: between fungi and balmy, earthy and sweet. One morning in early February I saw the thinnest patina of snow mottle on a diagonal wooden beam, like a catapult without a rope, bow, or arrow. Well before noon, the catapult had returned to its striated, weathered state, leaving it to its musings of someday retiring upstate to that picturesque barn set well back from the dirt-clad country road. This winter, the scene beyond my window is all very cozy, so full of birdsong, so springy from top to bottom.
The springiness I feel is also quite deceptive, not least because part of what Adam Gopnik claims in his essays in the history of ideas, Winter: Five Windows on the Season, makes winter modern is its sense of the picturesque. Gopnik, who writes regularly for The New Yorker and grew up in the unforgiving winters of Montreal, suggests in the opening survey of the season, the invention of central heating in the middle of the nineteenth century transformed the experience of northern winter into a sweet scene to be beheld. As if for the first time, by patient eyes looking out from their living room windows, the warm air circulating, and the gentle folk insulated against the nightly chill. Cozy inside, snug beneath their afghans, warm mugs of cider in hand, while the whole scene appears soft and white and lovely without. It is this idea of winter, which is also very much mine, that heated comfort made possible, taming the potentially harmful through art and technology, opening the outside world to the calm eye and the poetic word.
For me, the best part of Winter is to be found in Gopnik’s ruminations on Romantic Winter which is, by turns, “sweet” and “scary,” these being his gustatory substitutes for “beautiful” and “sublime,” respectively. If central heating “sweetened the view” by turning winter into “first of all a thing to see,” then the Little Ice Age that grabbed hold of Europe from 1550-1850, with especially bitter moments around 1770 and 1850, lent to winter that splendor of horror and fear which Gopnik finds most clearly in painter Caspar Friedrich’s forest scenes. For the Protestant Friedrich, winter partook of blighted trees, deserted cemeteries, and ruined Gothic churches. There is something immense hinted at in Friedrich’s paintings, a sense I’ve felt of winter as ominous, unceasing and strenuous, a power so great that you can’t help but lose. Winter is a force to be fought, yes, in tooth and claw, but also a thing so unrelenting that when it stops so do you. The immensity of the ineffably awful power both destroys and sustains. As it’s got you, you have no thought of providence because you have no thought but blankness.
When Gopnik the surveyor and ruminator meets Gopnik the taxonomist, something appears to get lost, concrete particulars and cover concepts not quite matching. For this reason, it was not without some shoehorning that I made his sweet and scary taxonomy fit his tastings of the English winter (I note: seeming sweet because cozily heated), northern German and Russian (scary only), the Swiss winter (sweet mostly but occasionally, what with the Alps, scary and at times a combination of both), and the Canadian winter (some admixture of newly sweet in virtue of the dashing sleighs and strangely scary on account of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century fascination with faceless icebergs). One is left with the sense that Gopnik is trying, by an act of will, to affect a harmony between experience and abstraction, to make winter into spring through an Adamic act of naming.
It is not surprising, though Gopnik at times seems to find it so, that rich Western nations would, during the nineteenth century, send explorers off to the North and South Poles in search of the North and South Poles. The story is that nothing much happened apart from a few people dying and some rich people paying to retrieve the bodies and then some more expeditions to plant some flags upright in the tundra. I’m telling the story Gopnik relates in this absurdist vein because this is how Gopnik argues his case: before they were anything else, these expeditions were “theaters of the absurd.” For unlike the colonial adventures, there were no spoils to be gotten, persons to exploit, or glories to be had. This was simply money thrown in the direction of a conceit, solely the desire to scrawl your initials deeply into the blankest of blank space. So, they were epics, Gopnik thinks, but absurdist ones.
Gopnik’s volta is to see the comic side in these tales. “Adventures,” he writes in Radical Winter, “always become absurdities when we look back at them, and that is why there is always a close relationship between courage and comedy.” On Gopnik’s accounting, absurdity thus loops back to courage, discovering its reason in the opportunity to be brave. As I see it, Gopnik is fishing about for an explanation that would account sufficiently for why human beings risked their lives for the sake of nothing remunerative, lofty, or grand, and the best thing he can dredge up is the desire to show off one’s mettle. I have my doubts.
Let me venture an alternative explanation that alleviates the tinge of Gopnik’s garçon absurdity. It seems to me that what likely held explorers’ fascination with discovering True North and True South was the all too human desire to expand the bounds of the known world, making the unknown world more “like us,” bringing “the natural” farther into the ken of “the human.” And what could be more truly elegant about this Promethean conceit than the very modern idea that man’s volition would lead the way? How much humans could actually will (and, come to that, endure) became the key to answering how much they could actually know (about themselves and the world). And how fitting, how truly perfect is that, that harmony of willing and knowing, of activity and otherness.
On this construal, there is no paradox in (or absurdity surrounding) the desire to make the other known to us through the force of our acting alone. Unlike Radical Winter, however, Recuperative Winter, limned at considerable length in the third essay, does paradoxically combine the idea of winter as renewal with that of winter as reversal. Christmas, as Gopnik is keen to make plain, symbolizes the rejuvenation of life in the figure of Christ and the reversal of austerity in the time of commercialized gift exchange. In this, Christmas brings uneasily together the overturning movement of New Year’s with the rejuvenating spirit of Thanksgiving.
There is something of this leitmotiv about dissonance not quite overcome that can also be felt in Gopnik’s riff on sport. Gopnik offers us a paean to hockey, with its attempted synthesis of clan and craft sports, its incorporation of speed and virtuosity alongside such terrible brutality. His ode to hockey as a thing of wonder reaches its high point in the late 1970s and is followed by a soft-hued elegy for the gory NHL version witnessed and valorized today. Of course, Gopnik still watches but not without lodging his complaint.
In some respects, the first four essays are merely an introduction to the final, more contemplative one on memory. For in Remembering Winter, Gopnik circles back to the leitmotiv with which he began: winter as a reminder of the altogether alien. In his reflection on how we talk about winter, he brings into view how the earlier conceptions he surveyed are our conceptions of winter. Calling it “the Adamic act” par excellence, one of the most basic ways humans make sense of the world, Gopnik suggests that conferring a name upon a thing is at the heart of making “the world humane.” His implication draws a distinction between the world as it is and the world as we conceive it, and because of this he is convinced that there are moments when we may experience an intimation of this discrepancy and emit a gross shudder. Indeed, he writes near the end of Winter,
There are moments when we can experience winter as, in effect, the universe experiences it: loveless and emotionless and just there, an endless cycling of physical law that is not just indifferent to our feelings but in some sense arbitrary that it doesn’t even have the quality of being elemental.
But, according to Gopnik, in our more honest, more lucid moments, we recognize this “Adamic act” for what it is: a falsification of reality. To escape the metaphysical coldness, to turn away from our confrontation with a raw, unwelcoming, unhumanizable reality, “we write it poetry, we play it music, we experience it as a personality—and this is and remains the act of humanism.” In this way, reality faces us again, turns its face to us once more: if not with a kind face, then at least with a good word.
Gopnik presents us with a dilemma, one from which he thinks we cannot escape. Either we live with bald reality, refusing to lie to ourselves by refusing to call it by any name, or we make the alien world intelligible to us by exercising our Adamic faculty of naming—in art and literature, and adventure. We name the rocks and stones and trees; the Pole above and the one below; the times of creation and destruction; the seasons that turn and turn about. And by naming, we soften the tension without resolving it. The two unpalatable conclusions are either to dispossess nature, making the other into “our own,” with the further implication that such is an act of metaphysical dishonesty; or, we leave untouched what is not “truly ours,” though not without feeling unmoored and metaphysically lost. What is accurate about Gopnik’s view, I think, is that we have inherited the modern concern that the human simply can’t be made to fit the natural. But what is misleading is the sense of resignation that seems to follow: the sense that the world, and specifically the winter season, we know and inhabit cannot be humanly inviting.
Let me assure you that it can.
The temptation that we can’t step outside our conceptions is to infer that these conceptions of winter are “all there is,” as if we were exiled forever to some frigid “circle of consciousness.” But it is a temptation we needn’t succumb to. For if we can’t understand the nature of winter apart from the windows we use in order to make winter first intelligible to us, this mundanely means that the discursable world is the only world with which we are and can ever be acquainted. It is “our” world, then, because we have no access to any other, and (don’t be alarmed, be tranquil still) we needn’t be cheered or discouraged by this. This and the next and the next winter are also “ours” because the idea of winter is “ours.” This all too human world is also “ours” and no others’. Rather than dissolve the mystery, the mystery of mere being abounds. Gopnik’s fear, like that of many others, is that we moderns can’t possibly fit into the disenchanted order of things. His doubt is that the modern world can’t possibly be a home, unable to accommodate the idea and experience of the human within the natural. His horror, finally, that we can’t communicate, in some very deep and loving way, with the whole circle of others—the birds as much as the bark, the blasted forest and all the rest—we meet. Yet if the disenchanted picture of nature he has inherited is not the only, or even the most accurate, picture of what the order of things is like, how might we imagine our being at home with our fellows, with other creatures, and with all of nature? How might we reach communion with and be able to communicate through all others? How might we be enveloped completely in the fullness of existence?
I don’t have a final answer, but I do have some provisional, near daily experiences with mystery. There’s a moment, not long, sometime after late afternoon but well before twilight. It’s not like the early morning before the signs turn to face you and the feet clap up the stairwells. It’s not like the “dead of night” or the “dead of winter” when stillness is near universal and the “streets are empty.” It’s not like either of these, these rests before generous or strenuous movement. Rather, it’s a fugitive stillness that brings to the most ordinary scene–in my case, the view beyond my window–the slightest touch of sadness and wonder.
Andrew Taggart is a philosophical counselor at home in New York City. Outside his bedroom window, there are courtyards, gardens, and eager robins telling of spring.