Amundsen and New Paradigms

Amundsen and New Paradigms

The Blinding Sea is coming out this Fall as a feature film, for the educational and institutional market. It took me awhile to break away from my older, more cautious self. I had to go back to the drawing board. I have done an enormous amount of new research, which has taken a few years. I have learned to think “outside the box.” Plus, writing the novel Mind the Gap has really made a difference: it has taught me a lot about story-telling.

The Blinding Sea is about Roald Amundsen, Robert Falcon Scott and other polar explorers from a century and more ago. Some people like to see Amundsen and Scott in stark for-and-against terms, as if the story could be reduced to a conflict between two larger-than-life men with towering, combative egos. That is a convenient stance for authors to take. Of course, the rivalry between Amundsen and Scott is noteworthy, but boiling the story down to a conflict between two men distorts the picture. The most interesting thing for me about Amundsen is that he was totally non-racist – a rare quality for a European at the beginning of the 20th century. More than that, he was open to new paradigms of aboriginal knowledge – that is, knowledge from outside of the Eurocentric university research world.

The Blinding Sea has five strands: a first strand is what polar explorers said or wrote in their own lifetimes; a second is family memories nowadays of the descendants of those polar explorers and also descendants of the aboriginal Inuit and Chukchi who played the biggest part in Amundsen’s own life; a third strand is my epiphanies as I crisscrossed the Arctic and Antarctic, filming new evidence; a fourth is the temptation to portray Amundsen either as a hero (which is myth-making) or as a villain (which is myth-breaking); and a fifth strand of this story is what Roald Amundsen and other polar explorers of his era experienced, in the light of our knowledge nowadays about physical and psychological health.

I have always been interested in health and science. I completed a postgraduate year in Medical Science at Oxford University; I have an MA and PhD from McGill University in the History and Philosophy of Science; I ran a medical research association for six years. All of this work focused on a few questions: What do we know about health and science? How do we know that? What conventions shape the knowledge we accept as valid? And what is so far from our conventions that we are unable to accept it as “knowledge”? Besides, health – whether physical or psychological – is the key to understanding this story. Polar exploration a century and more ago meant pushing beyond personal limits, and facing extremes of cold, hunger, deprivation, exhaustion and anguish … and sometimes the prospect of sudden death. Over the century since then, what have we learned about health and science that provides new understanding?

In the years when I was a journalist, I must have interviewed something like 15,000 people. Each time, I had to adapt to new ways of thinking, and this was always interesting. But when I went for the first time to the Ungava Peninsula in northern Quebec, it was like a complete change of paradigm for me. I was taken out of my comfortable home setting, away from academic knowledge: here I was learning from Inuit about their worldview, their understanding of Nature, their profound knowledge of the polar environment. I realized they had figured out how other animals think, feel and experience, on land and at sea. They showed me what they knew, instead of talking about it. Amundsen underwent much the same paradigm shift, when he dropped anchor in Gjoa Haven, on King William Island in the Canadian Arctic. He was forced out of his comfort zone, he lived two years with the Inuit, and during that time he learned directly from Inuit, a polar people. Norwegians, it is true, are also a polar people. Actually, Amundsen was able to combine two paradigms of polar knowledge – Inuit and Norwegian. Scott prepared for his first Antarctic expedition by reading books in a London library and consulting polar veterans. On Scott ’s second Antarctic expedition, during which he and his remaining companions died, it is an open question whether he learned from his own previous experience. He had no access to aboriginal knowledge. This had tragic consequences.

I have learned from the Inuit that Nature is not “out there” – something for humans to observe, manage, manipulate and control. Nature is a secret voice within us. When polar explorers from a century ago acted as if they were in some romantic, heroic struggle against Nature, like a military campaign, they were not just acting destructively – they were taking a self-destructive approach. That heroic struggle didn’t acknowledge and respect their own human limits, as part of Nature. Like the Inuit, Amundsen worked with Nature, not against it.


July 12, 2019

Wild Like Jazz

July 12, 2019

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