|THE LOST CONTINENT|
June 3, 1999
ROGER ROSENBLATT: The family motto of Sir Earnest Shackleton, the subject of a remarkable exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History, was, in Latin, Fortitudine vincimus-- "By endurance we conquer." But the theme of the exhibit really comes down to "endurance is conquest," especially when endurance is in the service of human life. What Shackleton attempted to conquer was Antarctica.
In 1914, he set out with 27 men, scientists and crew, in a 300- ton wooden Barquentine called "The Endurance" in an effort to be the first to cross the Antarctic on foot. One day and a hundred miles short of reaching the Antarctic, the ship was locked in the sea by ice floes that surrounded it like polar animals, and held it fast for ten months.
When the ice pack finally crushed "The Endurance," the men abandoned ship, and camped on the ice for five more months. Running out of time, Shackleton and a few crew members took a 22-foot boat, the "James Caird," and undertook an 800-mile ocean journey to South Georgia Island. Had their course been off but one degree, they would have missed the island. They endured 60-foot waves and 200-mile-an-hour winds. The temperature fell to minus-100 degrees Fahrenheit.
When they landed, they then had to cross the island's mountains to reach a remote whaling station, where they organized a rescue party and returned to the ice camp. Shackleton saved every one of the men he had left behind. Impressed? Overwhelmed is more like it, which is undoubtedly why the museum created the exhibit, why Caroline Alexander curated it and wrote the book about the expedition, and why all those who see the exhibit ought to be brought to their knees. "By endurance we conquer."
But Shackleton did not conquer-- at least he did not conquer the Antarctic. The exhibit, which consists of the "James Caird" itself, and photographs taken by the ship's photographer, Frank Hurley, a man who evidently was born fear-challenged, is a chronological account of the journey. Stark and cold in black and white, the pictures make endurance into art: The ship caught in the sudden, adamantine ice; the ship coated with frost at night, rising into blackness like a radio tower gone mad.
One hears the ice groan, the timbers of the ship creak, the cracking as "The Endurance" keels over like a dying elephant -- and then the "James Caird," the boat they hauled to safety, which eventually saved them -- and to complete the picture, the magnificent faces of the men, the men who turned out to be the reason this journey was unforgettable, representatives of the species as it contends against ice as encroaching death, pitiless nature, silence. Where did all that endurance come from? It exists in other forms, of course, though it's not so dramatically visible. Scholars have the courage of endurance: Years, decades of work, the end of which is often not achieved-- the unfinished symphony, the unfinished medical research.
Where the goal is not reached, one only has the unrealization, the unfinishing to go on, so that what is not done becomes what is done, and that, being done, becomes victory. Endurance is conquest. The true feat of Shackleton's expedition was his voyage to save his men. The 800-mile journey has been called the greatest voyage ever, because of the seamanship, to be sure, but also because it arose unexpectedly, and so was a test of human reflexes and the adjustment of human intelligence. Since Shackleton put the lives of his men first, it was a display of moral intelligence.
"The Endurance" set out only days before the outbreak of
World War I, that disastrous, purposeless killing spasm that set the
entire 20th century on its killing course. But this ocean journey showed
the other stuff that people are made of. Endurance is conquest. See
the photograph of the men the "James Caird" left behind, standing
on the ice and waving. They could not know if Shackleton would ever
be able to return their lives to them. Yet he came back.