“Douglas Mawson, Hunger Artist” from The Smart Set
Like the inhabitants of other former frontiers, we Antarcticans like to think that the successes, the failures, the noble or ignoble exploits of our pioneers become essential narratives for those of us who have settled in their footprints. And as I found opportunities to leave the industrial-park confines of McMurdo Station for more remote parts of the ice — camping at -25 degrees Fahrenheit on the East Antarctic ice cap, say — and then sensed the same human insignificance and fragility they experienced amid the vast Antarctic austerity, their storied past provided a literary and historic language by which to understand my experience.
And then I read the saga of Douglas Mawson, and realized all was vanity. Mawson was an Australian explorer who knew more about Antarctic suffering than most, despite that he was more scientist than adventurer. He scoffed at the fame that came with Poles, and while nationalist enough to claim a wide swath of the continent for Australia, he came to the ice seeking facts. “The polar regions,” he wrote, “may be said to be paved with facts… As surely as there is here a vast mass of land with potentialities, strictly limited at present, so surely will it be cemented some day within the universal plinth of things.”
Antarctica, as it turned out, was more emptiness than facts. And a particularly empty emptiness, in the form of a deep crevasse, awaited Mawson and his comrades. After the saga that followed, from which a ruined Mawson would emerge as the sole survivor, he noted that, in the midst of his deprivation, “cocoa was almost intoxicating and even plain beef suet, such as we had in fragments in our hoosh mixture, had acquired a sweet and aromatic taste scarcely to be described… as different as chalk is from the richest chocolate cream.” Are we Mawson’s descendants or his antithesis? Either way, our lunchtime banter is trapped within an inescapable vanity: We take pride in occupying this rare and hallowed ground, but we do it by reveling in a cozy existence on a continent that could sponsor raptures over the benefits of starvation.