Zeitgeist happenstance, or coincidence of Captain Scott’s élan vital: Part I - Prolegomenon

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Krzysztof Sienicki

Chair of Theoretical Physics of Naturally Intelligent Systems, Topolowa 19, 05-807 Podkowa Leśna, Poland, EU.


Captain Scott’s journey to the South Pole in 1910-1913 was an extraordinary exploratory and social event, galvanizing many people, then and now. The question of his journey’s origin and aftermath from a social perspective is addressed. This approach sheds new light on this journey’s logistics and quasi-religious canonization of Captain Scott.

if it was so, it might be;
and if it were so, it would be;
but as it isn’t, it ain’t.
That’s logic.
Lewis Carroll
Through the Looking-Glass

Of late, there has been much interest in Captain Robert F. Scott’s journey to the South Pole. In these accounts, though in a zigzagged way, the matter was gradually disguised to portray Captain Scott as a hero and especially a scientist, like what was committed by (Martin, 2012). Attribution of these virtues was not happenstance, but rather a simple marketing notion: stories out of thin air that the common people become heroes and would-be scientists simply sell. An armchair explorer readily falls into the trap of following Judeo-Christian values (goals) via suffering and hard work. Suffering and especially recognized suffering means a battle – in our case, a battle for Captain Scott’s soul. However, Captain Scott’s suffering exemplifies all virtues of Britishness – a battle for Britain as an Empire, and the armchair explorer, as an individual and a member. In short, a zeitgeist notion emerges and self-propagates among individuals, who are ready to commit all delinquencies to defend deity and prepare themselves for even more fine-tuned glory.

The above moral setting, convoluted with the physical remoteness of action, its literary and narrative appearance through the only source, Captain Scott’s journal (Scott, 1913), matches the structure and power of the imaginative medieval world-view poem, the Divine Comedy (Divina Commedia) by Dante Alighieri in the early 14th century. Over time, the Divine Comedy became a descriptive foundation of Christian mysticism, and Captain Scott’s journal turns out, for some, to be a vivid narrative of a new uncanny Tennysonian final utterance – to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield – a quasi-religious counterfactual canonization of the South Pole journey’s participants.

Inferno (Hell). Antarctica, then and now is a Hell, an environmental Hell. It is not habitable and only a narrow spatiotemporal window exists for human endeavors in Antarctica outside the doors of research stations. However, even this middle summer window does not permit a leisurely existence and exploration. Our existential experiences and Anglo-Saxon utilitarian thinking cannot be transferred/applied to the hellish Antarctic environs. The blizzard may come in minutes, without apparent warning and cause. Antarctica is a Hell in the Divine Comedy, a physical space dotted by blizzards, crevasses, and mirages. Then and now, even the most adventurous explorer cannot formulate hypotheses nonfingo of safe passage and life in Antarctica.

All the way from Cape Evans, the Captain Scott party’s hypsometer was indicating a systematic relative height increase as they progressed toward the Pole. And then, right on the Antarctic Plateau and right on Jan. 13th, 1912, some 51 geographical miles from the Pole, Captain Scott conspicuously noted in his diary "It looks as though we were descending slightly…" What awaited his party at the Pole; a hollow Earth with a grand opening to the underworld? After all, ostensibly educated notions were advanced, and the literary narratives of Verne, Poe, and a number of others existed. Even my former neighbor Ferdinand Ossendowski (Ossendowski, 1922) believed so, many years after.

Captain Scott, however, pressed on, and there was no Hollow Earth, but the Hollow Souls of the party after being stabbed with the spire of Captain Amundsen’s black flag. It was Captain Scott’s Inferno and Captain Amundsen’s triumph at a grand featureless theater scene set at the Pole. There were hardly any spectators, but what a drama. With the black flag intro, a tent as the main part, and the final request to deliver a letter. The Empire reduced to the post office; a spasmodic laugh of history. Captain Amundsen and others, ..., emerged from the northern mists and humiliated the Empire. Enter a person from what was then formerly a mere member of the United Kingdom's of Sweden and Norway, and then "All the day dreams must go". Right at Captain Scott's Pole, the South Pole, Captain Scott met his nemesis: false hype, British hypocrisy, and the blinded inability to perceive Antarctica as it was, not as a British playground. It was nature’s task field.

Purgatorio (Purgatory).Though they were alive, the Antarctic Plateau leg of the return journey was their Purgatory an immense surface of snow through which all of them must pass. We do not know how, but it is certain, that thoughts crept into their individual and group feelings. Each time their ski poles pierced the Plateau’s surface on the way back, and with every period of time elapsed, their event horizon, the boundary, was shrinking to Antarctica itself. More precisely, to the record cones of points of no return; individually and collectively. One and all were gazing at Captain Scott, who was probing Uncle Bill, his confessor and éminence grise of the expedition.

At first, they met the Pole with a denial. On Jan. 16th, 1912 a day’s march from the Pole "Bowers' sharp eyes detected … a carin" or "sastrugi". But "soon we knew that this could not be a natural snow feature". Indeed, it was a sinister black flag planted by Captain Amundsen. The beacon of the slaying of a beautiful British superiority hypothesis by the ugly fact of Captain Amundsen's dominance on all grounds.

It was not long before they recognized that the denial could not be continued. The anger poured in. The pariahCaptain Amundsen trespassed on Captain Scott's territory and breached a gibberish polar etiquette on at least five counts. Forget science, forget exploration and discovery, it was an unacceptable act that "one explorer is walking on another explorer’s continent".

If, when told by Lt. Campbell on Feb. 22nd, 1911, that Captain Amundsen had established his base, Captain Scott's party was "furiously angry, and were possessed with an insane sense that we must go straight to the Bay of Whales and have it out", then what a fury mixed with despair was released at the South Pole.

However, though not at a definitive time, it became obvious to Captain Scott that like Odysseus, he was trapped between the Scylla and Charybdis of returning in personal shame, public shame, and under professional assault worse than that he had suffered from the Discovery Expedition; or not returning alive from Antarctica to escape the former. Mile after mile, day after day; while sledding back over the Antarctic Plateau, Captain Scott mulled over Odysseus’ dilemma.

They kept a fine sustained sledding velocity to meet returning depôts at predefined time intervals, which had been additionally stretched by taking Lt. Bowers to the Pole. It slowly crept into Captain Scott's head that "I have always taken my place, haven't I?" Indeed it was a process, slowly increasing its load, slowly to the degree of not noticing each infinitesimal terrace. Dante envisioned seven terraces of Purgatory, but for Captain Scott, it was an Antarctic Plateau Purgatory; white and endless sin by its very existence. If there had not been a Pole, Captain Scott would not have committed his soul to it. A few days before sledding to the South Pole, Scott professed that "If he [Amundsen] fails, he ought to hide!" (Pound, 1966).

What would Captain Scott’s destiny be if he failed not only to reach the Pole but to be the first to do it? To get financing and all the needed support, the national and imperialistic notions were exposed, stressed, and underlined quite publicly by Captain Scott from 1909–1910 in various public speeches recorded in newspapers. If not us, tacitly argued Captain Scott, then who? Was not the Pole a part of “the empire on which the sun never sets”? From Captain Scott’s perspective, should not he “ought to hide” if he failed to be first at the South Pole? Or on the contrary to Captain Amundsen – was he immune to social pressures?

His wife Kathleen’s instructions to him were explicated (Herbert, 2012) "[it] wouldn’t be your physical life [sic] that would profit me and Doodles [their son Peter] most. If there’s anything you think worth doing at the cost of your life – Do it". And it was not a literary allegory, as Kathleen Scott was not Matilda of Tuscany.

Kathleen's "Do it" was meaningless without Captain Scott's Purgatory tale, a well-defined principal entity possessing traits of omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence and divine simplicity. However, Kathleen's "Do it" should "profit me and Doodles" and not a real or imaginary deity. The Empire was second to none on the list. Death for the Empire's benefit was a crucible to their eternal salvation and a tacit condition of Kathleen's request.

From Feb. 2nd, 1912, the South Pole party was dogged –as described in Captain Scott's diary – by a long chain of events of unpredictable natural origins, which despite the party's fight and will finish them off. (Sienicki, 2016) "For God's sake look after our people" Captain Scott exclaimed in his last diary entry and committed in his Message to the Public one of the most dubious press releases in history The causes of the disaster are not due to faulty organization, but to misfortune in all risks which had to be undertaken … Every detail of our food supplies, clothing, and depôts made on the interior ice-sheet and over that long stretch of 700 miles to the Pole and back, worked out to perfection … But all the facts above enumerated were as nothing to the surprise which awaited us on the Barrier. I maintain that our arrangements for returning were quite adequate and that no one in the world would have expected the temperatures and surfaces which we encountered at this time of the year.

And a few lines down, Captain Scott made his appeal to the Empire by explaining his sacrifice of the souls in Purgatory I do not regret this journey, which has shown that Englishmen can endure hardships, help one another, and meet death with as great a fortitude as ever in the past. We took risks, we knew we took them; things have come out against us … Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman.

At first, it seemed a complete account. From then on, their souls awaited "the verdict of their hearings". Not for long. Already when the last tent was found on Nov. 12th, 1912, the heroism of Captain Scott and his comrades was emphasized, with its apogee back in London on Feb. 14th, 1913 with the zeitgeist's-whispering vortices in the galleries of St. Paul’s Cathedral – Oh! England! Oh! England! What men have done for thee. (Crane, 2006)

Captain Scott’s story "stirred the heart of every Englishman" and transcended to the state of self-sacrificing purification for the love of the Empire, which in deity-like gestures of eternal zeitgeist and, through trial of its selected members,removed all the remnants of imperfection from Captain Scott and his comrades, who "…have been willing to give [our] lives to this enterprise, which is for the honour of our country". The gates of the garden of Eden were open, and Captain Scott sledged in with his comrades. Or, like Odysseus/Ulysses, were they banished to the eighth circle of the Inferno?

It is fair to assume that on the very day of Feb. 14th, 1913, in St. Paul’s Cathedral, a social inquisition combating the heresy of the human origins of Captain Scott’s life and exploits was materialized. From then on until today, as in many small or big inquisitions, actions of otherwise deplorable moral (ethical) values were allowed at all cognition levels.

In this series of papers, I will look critically at the major events of Captain Scott’s journey to the South Pole.


Crane, David, Scott of the Antarctic, A Life of Courage and Tragedy, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2006.

Herbert, Kari, Heart of the Hero: The Remarkable Women Who Inspired the Great Polar Explorers, Saraband, 2012.

Martin, Colin. "Antarctica: Scientists to the end." Nature 481.7381 (2012): 264-264.

Ossendowski, Ferdynand Antoni. Beasts, men and gods. EP Dutton, 1922.

Pound, Reginald. Scott of the Antarctic, Cassell, London, 1966.

Scott, Robert F. Scott’s Last Expedition: Being the Journals of Captain R.F. Scott, R.N., C.V.O., Vol. I, Dodd, Mead & Company, The University Press, Cam¬bridge, USA, 1913.

Sienicki, Krzysztof, Captain Scott: Icy Deceits and Untold Realities, Open Academic Press, Berlin-Warsaw, 2016.