Winter: Five Windows on the Season by Adam Gopnik – review
Adam Gopnik’s love letter to the snowy season makes a perfect fireside companion
Winter, as we know, is the result of a prosaic fact – planet Earth tilts – but in this cosmic slant, the fundamental departure from the true, we find many of the leanings of human imagination. Adam Gopnik, of the New Yorker magazine, grew up in Montreal, and his ideas of winter therefore have a dramatic cast: winter is a place of snowdrifts and 20 below, a proper land of contrasts. This book began as a lecture series, delivered in his native city, and there is an anecdotal, homecoming quality to it; the writing appears designed to maintain a constant flame of curiosity in a lecture room shut against the cold. In one sense, of course, winter, at least for those on the northern curve of the Earth’s surface, is the ultimate kind of blankness, a tabula rasa to fill with whatever thoughts we like. Few writers are as adept as Gopnik, a natural born essayist, at generating such thoughts and seeing them spiritedly advancing across the page, like the « secret ministry » of frost at midnight.
Gopnik calls this advancing inquiry « five windows on the winter mind », and it quickly becomes clear that the idea of windows themselves are crucial to the project. Winter only became a subject worthy of this kind of contemplation with the spread of glass and firesides. Before the advent of the hearth, winter was always too nagging, too much in your bones; it was something to be endured and overcome rather than gazed at and eulogised.
For Gopnik’s purposes the idea of winter was really invented in northern Europe, between the years 1550 and 1850, when a long cooling of the Earth eventually coincided with the abundance of coal. Brueghel was its first serious propagandist. In the early part of this period, as harsher winters became a reality, and native forests were savaged to provide fuel for a growing population, winter was a time of great expense for the rich, and great misery for the poor. « Peak wood », as Gopnik nicely imagines it, occurred in Britain in the early part of the 18th century, when « the entire island was being deforested and fuel-wood prices rose 10 times in the span of 80 years ». It was not until the advent of industrial-scale coal mining that prices fell and winter hardship, at least for the middle classes, eased. While Dr Johnson routinely referred to winter days as « this bleak prospect », the poet William Cowper could write to a friend in 1785 that « there is hardly to be found upon the Earth so snug a creature as an Englishman by his fireside in winter ». As Gopnik establishes, this sentiment was not only something that had rarely been expressed before, it had seldom been felt before.
These shifting economics, in Gopnik’s view, gave rise to the Romantic imagination; winter lost some of its deathly and bleak associations, and took on the mantle of the sublime. Winter became a view, something to marvel at, and moreover one on to which you could, poetically wrapped up by the fire, fresh home and ruddy cheeked from an alpine ramble, project all kinds of interior wonder. Coleridge imbibed such possibilities from the icier Teutonic imaginations of Schiller and Goethe; Wordsworth, a champion skater in the times when Lakeland rivers routinely froze over and allowed children and adults their first sense of winter as a playground – « we hiss’d along the polished ice » – rooted them in his sense of homespun awe. For the Protestant mind, as Gopnik suggests, summer had always felt something like a cheat; winter was the cold truth and « by stripping nature down to her underwear, it lets us project our fantasies upon her ».
The author is often startlingly good at tracing the elements of these fantasies in two centuries since the invention of modern winter. From the creation of the full-on festive season by the Victorians, to the rise of winter sports, first in the imagination of intemperate Englishmen, and then across the world. Much of Gopnik’s quest is rooted in the joy of his own childhood imagination: if there were a heaven, he suggests, for him it would perpetually be 19 December; school is out, coloured lights are in the shops, there is ice underfoot and Christmas a week away. You would have to be Scrooge to argue. This sense of winter as the place of awfully big adventures takes in ever-shifting geographic and historic realities. Much as we have tended to think of winter as a seasonal constant it comes to seem – like all weather just now – as something far more notional and accidental, not only expressing different sentiments in different times and places but also not fully reliable.
The idea of dreaming of a white Christmas may well take on a more apocalyptic cast in years to come. For the time being, a more obvious point to emerge from these reflections is that when it comes to winter, preparedness is all. Just as there is no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothing, so a regular harshness of conditions has made some cultures less cowed by winter’s arrival. Gopnik’s Canadian childhood was not one of gridlock and snarl-up, but a time of speed and possibility; a time when you got your skates on. Some winter cultures experienced this freedom even more keenly. The British have never convincingly found winter erotic, they have often been too busy grumbling, but for Pushkin, for example, sledding off to his dacha with fur-clad companions, it was always sex personified.
As Gopnik’s snowy journey progresses, you begin to understand how, more than any other season, winter has held up a frosted mirror to our preoccupations. The Victorian and Edwardian obsession with manly virtue – a stoic, frigid balance to all that sweated empire building in the tropics – found its truest expression in the permanent winter of the poles. The motivations and meanings of Scott and Shackleton have been exhaustively re-examined in recent years, perhaps as a corrective to our own culture of globally warmed excess, but Gopnik brings to them a somewhat less nationalistic eye, seeing in all of that inching forward in ice a « note of absurd existential pointlessness », and an expression of a spirit that was not only courageous in the extreme but also « greedy, wordy, racist and sentimental ». This is not the only myth that he quietly melts, in what, in these long nights might well – fuel tariffs permitting – prove the perfect fireside companion. Another is the seductive idea that all snowflakes are different. The fact is they all start off life pretty much identical, high in the clouds, it is only as they fall through time and space that they take on more individual forms – « it is experience that makes them different enough to be noticed », Gopnik observes, to which the only proper response would seem: let it snow!
Tim Adams, The Guardian, 18 novembre 2012
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