A Short Talk on Two Axes

[Short Talks, inspired by Anne Carson’s collection of the same name,  is a bi-monthly series held at Green Apple Books on the Park. On February 12, ten writers gathered to give their interpretations on The End of the World. Some were literal, some figurative, and some, as seen in my talk below below, were entirely tangential.]

 

In a letter to Oskar Pollak dated January 27, 1904, Franz Kafka wrote: “I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like a being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside of us.”

In early spring 1923, while traveling along the coast of the Melville Peninsula, an inhospitable spit of land  that rims the northwestern edge of the Hudson Bay, Lorenz Peter Elfred Freuchen, a six foot seven inch tall Danish explorer whose accomplishments included winning $64,000 on the 1950s television games how The $64,000 Question, found himself and his team of dogs separated from his Eskimo guides by severe weather. The wind, he wrote in his memoir Vagrant Viking, was so fierce that his whip could not reach the sled-pulling dogs; it was fifty-four degrees below zero; the snow blew so thick that it seemed as if a fog had descended. Unable to continue in these inhospitable conditions, which to a seasoned adventurer like Freuchen were familiar and, given his experience, bearable, he calmly looked for natural shelter, as his attempt at building an igloo had failed. He took cover against an outcropping of boulders, where he kept himself awake by counting as he paced ten steps in either direction, this being the extent he could walk while remaining sheltered. Falling asleep in the snow is certain death, he knew. He kept at this exercise until he was overcome with “an unbearable desire to lie down,” then determined he could improvise a small cave in which to escape the elements and get much-needed rest. Freuchen reports that this cramped shelter, fashioned of packed snow and roofed with his sled, reminded him of the berth of a ship, and proved sufficient for him to stretch out in. He slept.

When he awoke, he could not feel his feet, an imminent sign of frostbite. The cramped space had, in the time he slept, grown more cramped: his condensed breath froze to the walls of the shelter, which put him in danger of suffocating—from his very breath. Freuchen tried kicking away the snow that had piled up by his feet, but the exit was covered by an immovable snowdrift. He attempted to push upward on the ceiling but was too weak to crack the ice, let alone shift the two hundred pound sled. Desperate, he removed a glove off to claw his way out with his fingers, reasoning it was better to lose a hand than his life. After several unsuccessful attempts at freeing himself and after desperate, gloomy hours of lying immobile in complete darkness in his self-constructed burial chamber, Freuchen came upon an idea. Or perhaps this idea came upon him: “I had often seen dog dung in the sled track and had noticed that it would freeze solid as a rock,” he wrote. “Would not the cold have the same effect on human discharge? Repulsive as the thought was, I decided to try the experiment. I moved my bowels and from the excrement I managed to fashion a chisel-like instrument which I left to freeze.”

Freuchen then used this axe, created of his own shit, to free himself from what was nearly a self-made coffin.

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