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Pascal's Winter Cabin

Winter is not just a season of climate, but is also a phase in a person's mind. In 18th and 19th century novels, the rural gentry conventionally retired to London in winter. Can you blame them? It wasn't just the darkness and weather, it was the muddy roads. People living in "normal" places in the modern world forget how frustrating muddy roads can be.

Every now and then I run into an Alaskan in the Arizona desert in the winter. They usually curse the darkness in the North more than the cold. Easy to believe.

I suppose there is a correlation between northern latitudes and alcoholism. Some of that might be the lack of grapes, and the northern grains lending themselves to hard alcohol. But surely some of it is due to the darkness and isolation.

There is something about sinking into the reality of winter-camping that brings a piquancy to a famous quote from Blaise Pascal in his Pensées, probably the only work of his still read today:
When I have occasionally set myself to consider the different distractions of men, the pains and perils to which they expose themselves at court or in war, whence arise so many quarrels, passions, bold and often bad ventures, etc., I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber.
Well, maybe Pascal would have been good at making it through winter in Alaska. 

But there is a bitter-sweetness to the rest of the chapter, as he advertises for an internal life. He was so ill. He was walking away from his brilliant accomplishments in mathematics and physics during the "breakout" century, when European Christian civilization led the world out of superstition and scientific ignorance. The long term consequences were so great it was as if homo sapiens had become a new species.

And yet this brilliant fellow was shifting his emphasis from explaining the real world in order to move towards morbid religious sensibility. If he had lived longer and continued down this track, what would he have accomplished? Sit indoors and wallow in a pool of emotion? Wouldn't he have wasted his life in self-absorption and introspection, as so many monks and holy men had done before him? What was new or brilliant about that?

I am not really sure I agree with Pascal's quote. I don't want to lose the healthy and external orientation to life in the winter. I don't want to become a monk or a 'holy man of the desert.'
But any winter camper or resident in an isolated cabin has an internal emphasis forced on them by the darkness and the social isolation. How far should we go in that direction? There is no one correct answer, of course. I do not seek one. But I would be pleased to identify the symptoms better, so I can switch back to an external orientation when I have gone too far.


John V said…
"I don't want to become a monk or holy man of the desert"
Too late!
I hope this isn't another anti-bibs comment!
For some reason, the readership is reluctant to jump on the B.B.B. (the boondocking bibs bandwagon)
XXXXX said…
On a serious note here, in the practice of meditation (which is the process of directing one's
attention inward,) there is an exercise one can engage in which is exactly what you describe, moving one's awareness to the external and then redirecting it to the internal. There's always an external, you know, even when snowbound. It can simply be the external quiet/stillness that one intends to keep their active awareness on. And then to redirect inward to focus on what is happening in one's mind...what are the thoughts, feelings, etc. that emerge spontaneously. I know this isn't really your thing. Just thought I'd mention it.
That is interesting, George. (I know nothing about meditation, proper.)
Anonymous said…
I think it’s rare nowadays for a cabin dweller or winter camper to fret much over “darkness and social isolation”. When cabin fever (internal emphasis) strikes, s/he simply connects to the internet or cranks up the sat antenna. Nevertheless, too much darkness even with outward connections can be daunting.This DVD, Alone in the Wilderness, about Dick Proenneke's 30 years of living alone in Alaska's wilderness, has always impressed me.

I looked at the website, Chris. But it seemed too much like ye olde "solitary loner with a beard and a tattered copy of Thoreau's Walden, with half the pages stuck together, if you know what I mean."

I know, I know, I am terrible at stereotyping. Maybe I would have to see his DVD to see I am being fair.
Anonymous said…
Yes, one does need to look at the DVD. What was impressive was that he built his cabin, furniture and everything he needed to live by hand, some things with tools he made himself. Anyway, it's not for everyone but it surely made me feel less than secure as a handyman. Chris
XXXXX said…
So what's the scoop on "Great Expectations?"
I am surprised that I have adapted to the prose style of Dickens. I used to think it was too turgid.

He has been criticized for Sentimentalism, but isn't everybody sentimental some of the time?

My favorite novels are not those that have the best plots -- I have accepted the fact that plots are just trite crowd-pleasing junk. But there are so many opportunities to sneak in important comments on 'how to live life' in the middle of a paragraph, and thus avoid obtrusive preaching. I think the novels of the 1700s (including Jane Austen) are better at this than Dickens.
XXXXX said…
I can see your point. I tend to like novels from the Gothic period which began in the late 1700's. I'm not talking about the current definition of "Gothic" here....that's just horror junk. Have you ever read "The Monk" by Matthew Gregory Lewis, written in 1796 I believe. It is credited as introducing the Gothic novel in England. More followed there though "The Monk" is a classic. Lewis was only 21 when he wrote it. It is a bit of the Faustian theme which is probably my #1 favorite plot of all time since it really does speak to the dark side of our human nature.
Can you give an example of Dickens sneaking in a worthwhile "how to live life" comment from "Great Expectations?" I appreciate such things as well. It has been a long time since I read it.