June 22, 2017

To build a fire

river snowstorm

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal explains the reasons for tiny Norway’s historical excellence in the Winter Olympics. The country of five million, with a culture of egalitarianism,  has won more than three hundred medals in the Winter Olympics. Kids younger than age 11 must be awarded the same prize. I heard a radio interview last week, while enduring yet another snowstorm, in which the commentator complained the problem with American kids today is that everyone is given a prize, regardless of their performance. His lament was Norway’s most important trait, except for one important difference. Although Norwegian kids were all given the same prize, their training and competitions were never cancelled due to bad weather. These egalitarian kids showed up in the coldest temps, the worst weather, to learn their sport. The Norwegians embrace the beauty and hardship of the outdoors. The pain and cold of the wild trains the body and mind to become resilient. Cross country skiing, especially, demands endurance, years of practice, and high tolerance to pain. Cross country skiing is Norway’s most dominant sport.

This winter began with a major ice storm, knocking out power for a week during Christmas, and about the same time that I had just finished reading Jack London’s short story To Build a Fire. Then the snow came and hasn’t stopped, breaking records across the state. While the New York Times runs stories about global warming and the disappearance of snow, poor Detroit gets buried in the white stuff. Another cold shoulder for the city once known for its mass egalitarianism.

Salon has an interesting article on “the hunt for the Great American Novel.” The schlock of middlebrow culture, meaning the stuff that I like, throws snowballs at the elite writers creating art fiction in the post post-modern world. Realism and traditional narration are not admired in the pink Christmas tree society of the super novelists. The great writers of the past are viewed as boring cross country skiing compared to the daredevils on a snowboard. In defense of Jack London, he didn’t take a class on frostbite, snow blindness, and malnutrition to research his stories. He lived it. Melville and Hemingway didn’t google how to hunt whales and sharks.The Great American Novel is winning the gold medal in cross country skiing.

In Jack London’s To Build a Fire, the protagonist possesses alertness to the “things of life” but fails to understand the significance. London suffered frostbite and scurvy while in the Klondike, writing to a friend that the Artic cold was a “vast white silence, as if all the earth lay still and stark dead in her white shroud waiting judgment day.” Refusing to quit, London writes, “From the hunger of my childhood, cold eyes have looked upon me, or questioned, or snickered and sneered. What above all was that they were some of my friends- not professed but real friends. I have calloused my exterior and receive the strokes as though they were not; as to how they hurt, no one knows but my own soul and me. So be it. The end is not yet. If I die I shall die hard, fighting to the last, and hell shall receive no fitter inmate than myself. But for good or ill, it shall be as it has been- alone.” While the flashy wordplay of the super novelist melts with the spring thaw, the significance of a great writer’s words endures through all seasons.

The super technologist can also be like the protagonist in London’s To Build a Fire, always connected, continually alert, but failing to comprehend significance. Take your hands off the steering wheel, allow the engineers in the gated communities of Silicon Valley do the driving, and the thinking, for you. Until the frightened deer runs in front of your car on a snowy night and you must make a decision that the engineers can’t compute. The algorithms of Facebook, with much help from the Like and Click farms, create their own animal farms. The page views of the most popular sites resemble a flock of birds. I listened to another radio interview awhile ago in which an historian, I can’t remember who, discussed his book about Britain between World War One and World War Two, and the false hopes the British had in technology solving their problems. Their optimism in technology turned to disillusionment with the Great Depression and the rise of Hitler. The Cold War doesn’t appear to be over anytime soon. One of the best novels that I’ve read recently is Russian writer Mikhail Shisken’s The Light and the Dark. The great ones can work in bad weather.

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