Monday, April 21, 2014

The Ocean as an active antagonist

Alfred Lansing’s description of Shackleton’s unease going into the sea voyage that marked part VI of Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage simultaneously presented a major difference between mountaineering and maritime adventure narratives in general.
            “Unlike the land, where courage and the simple will to endure can often see a man through, the struggle against the sea is an act of physical combat, and there is no escape. It is a battle against a tireless enemy in which man never actually wins; the most that he can hope for is not to be defeated.” 221

                  Based on the mountaineering literature that we have read thus far, I do not believe that the struggle against land can’t be an act of physical combat, but otherwise I agree with Lansing’s statement. The Ocean, frequently personified into having moods and temperaments, is a more active antagonist for me than Mountains can be. Significantly, there is no fast escape. There is no “void” for the adventurer to fall into, which leads to a closer relationship forming between man and element. The sailor’s curse is closer to purgatory, and lends to a very different style of narration. The seafaring section of this story struck me as much more intimately involved in the threats against sanity than preceding sections.


  1. I agree with both Lansing and you Matt about the sea acting as a fierce antagonist. But I don't know If I can easily dismiss Lansing's claim about land, and by extension mountains. Lansing says that "courage and the simple will to endure can often see a man through". Although there are certainly circumstances like the Everest disaster, but for the most part we have seen courage and the will to endure persevere in our mountaineering texts. Take what happened to Joe Simpson, yes he broke his leg and fell into a crevice. But he has the will power and determination to push himself back to his campsite. In such desperate circumstances, he was able to keep going. Also, in most cases, you can stop while you are climbing to take a break, or rest. And the most important thing is, you can "win" against a mountain. You can summit it and return safely. Thats a victory. However the sea is its own beast. You can't just stop rowing to take a break while the weather is bad. You can't predict when a wave will hit you or force you on your ass. And like Lansing said, you certainly can't win against the sea, the best you can hope for is to survive.

    Thus, I think Lansing's assessment of traveling over land versus the sea is justified. The land doesn't move, it doesn't have a will of its own. For the most part, you can depend on it, whereas the sea has its own tricks. For me personally in regards to the texts we have read, the difference is that in every mountaineering book, those people chose to climb the mountain for no other reason than to climb it and because they felt they had the skills to do so. In the arctic voyages we have read, people have had to cross the sea to survive, not for sport, and none of them would say they could sail successfully through sheer will.

  2. Does the land have a will you can depend on? Can't avalanches happen at any moment, or freak storms roll in unexpectedly? I see what you're getting at but I think that its not quite as black/white. I also think that even the people on the arctic voyages knew the risks that they were getting themselves into and felt that they had the skills to survive, just like climbers.

    I do agree that on nautical adventure, you have to be on 24/7. The boat is always going and if something happens there is no where to go. Often on climbs, there is a tent to surrender to. I think this is especially interesting in the context of technology. There is constantly new gear on the market for climbing, but how much have ships changed in the last 30 years?