My Polar Quibbles

HBO just released a movie about Joe Paterno’s role in the child rape outrages at Penn State (where I teach), and the local community has issues with the film. The film’s misrepresentations include the following violations of verisimilitude, as detailed in the popular student blog Onward State:

  • “Penn State’s practice facility doesn’t have bleachers.”
  • “The Paterno statue stood seven-feet tall, even with his hand pointed in the air. This statue…seems to be closer to eight feet.”
  • “We would’ve preferred a more accurate portrayal of the press box’s meal for the media.”

I can understand the fanatic’s drive to quibble. Indeed I’ve been doing some television quibbling of my own in the last three weeks. I’m immersed in AMC’s excellent series The Terror, which brings supernatural horror to the true history of an Arctic disaster, the 1840s loss of two Northwest Passage-venturing ships, Erebus and Terror. In this story the monster is not Jerry Sandusky but a 12-foot-tall polar bear who tears men in two and who may or may not be an Inuit spirit.

In The Terror the acting, set design, and sound effects are superb, unsettling. The faces of the men are convincingly raw. But nonetheless I, too, quibble about some of the details that bring life and violence to this other prestige cable drama:

Terror detail: The men wear fingerless gloves and handle metal in -40˚ conditions.

My quibble: It’s too cold for fingerless gloves!–Arctic temperatures would have fulfilled the gloves’ “fingerless” promise in short order.

Mittens are on the mind of polar explorers. “I have been sewing all this morning mending mittens, stockings and sewing buttons and button holes on my jumper,” one wrote in 1860; “It was hard work to get through it but I managed it at last. Every three or four stitches I had to clap my hands under the blankets to thaw the backs of my fingers out, which freeze if exposed to the air for many minutes.” I will spare you details of the dog skin mittens.

Terror detail: Commander Sir John Franklin and his second-in-command Francis Crozier are shown perambulating the several hundred yards of hummocky ice between the frozen-in ships in the 24-hour darkness of polar winter in the shocking absence of lead ropes and posts to guide their way.

My quibble: Guide ropes are essential in polar night! So vital were the safe passages marked by guide ropes that their usurpation could be a source of mock outrage.

Note! Guideropes!

As a parodic story in a polar newspaper describes, a nesting penguin (“Mrs. Redbreast”) took her case to court when displaced from “Guiderope Walk” by the expedition’s meteorologist: “A distressing story of grasping avarice was heard this morning when Mrs. Redbreast appeared before Judge C. to ask for redress against one Dr. Levick who had evicted her from the site she had chosen in Guiderope Walk. At one time the whole Court was reduced to tears by the pathos of her narrative, but great enthusiasm was displayed as the dauntless widow described graphically how she was reinstated in her home by her neighbors who turned out in such force and showed such a determined front that this heartless man had perforce been obliged to allow her to occupy his ground. It is reported that there is trouble at Winter Quarters as the Meteorologist is none too pleased at what he has termed ‘That mistaken act of leniency.'”

Terror detail: The cabins in The Terror are curiously free of the interior ice that formed daily, thickly, from the frozen condensation of the men’s breaths.

My quibble: Ice should be everywhere, even belowdecks! “The difficulty of keeping the bed places dry may be gathered from the fact of a crust of ice forming every night,” one Arctic sojourner wrote.

Climate Control!

Shipboard condensation plagued nineteenth-century polar exploration history. Because the interior of the ship was warmer than the exterior, human breath would freeze and the walls would sweat, forming clouds of icy vapor or thin sheets of ice that had to be chipped away. “Every week or ten days throughout the winter we had to remove from our cabins the ice caused by the condensation of the moist air where it came in contact with the cool outer walls,” recalls Robert Peary; “Behind every article of furniture near the outer wall the ice would form, and we used to chop it out from under our bunks by the pailful.”

Such was the tradeoff for having temperatures above freezing in the cabins of the ship–condensation produced the great “annoyance” of “the incessant drip in our cabins and elsewhere on board.” The “disagreeable drip” was destructive to books and paper, naturally, and they had be removed from shelves and any position in which they might come into contact with the ship’s sides or beams. Albert Hastings Markham found it “decidedly unpleasant, whilst writing, to have a continual stream of water pouring down upon your head and upon your paper.” One of his messmates, however, “had brought an umbrella with him, and this being spread over his chair protected him from the wet, and thus enabled him to read or write in comparative comfort.” But the cabins we see in The Terror are perfectly climate controlled, the books mold-free.

Terror detail: On at least one occasion a sailor places a metal spyglass to his naked eye and easily lowers it.

Sir, your skin!

My quibble: Touching a metal spyglass to a face at polar temperatures would have ripped off an aureole of congealed skin! As an account of William Edward Parry’s 1819 expedition insists, “The effects of the cold were most distressing: the least exposure of the hand in the open air caused such severe frost-bites that amputation became sometimes unavoidable and the skin generally adhered to any metallic substance with which it came in contact!” (These last are Perry’s exclamation marks, not mine.)

Terror detail: In The Terror Franklin commands that a tarp be placed over the deck (for warmth and shelter) once the ship is frozen in, as per standard overwintering protocol.

My quibble: The tarp is never actually erected! The deck should look like this picture from Edward Moss’s Shores of the Polar Sea, in which condensation is clearly visible.

Ice! Clearly Visible!
Ice! Clearly Visible!

Terror detail: Sometimes the men don’t wear hats outside

My quibble: They don’t seem especially chilly!

Not Chilly!

There is a wonderfully petty pleasure in quibbling, in the exercise of cheap pedantry. So much is out of our control; the widening horrors of our present political situation can send us spinning. Why not anchor oneself with a small, piquant correction?

Take Scott Pruitt, our venal, craven dipshit of an Environmental Protection Agency head. He’s more in trouble for renting a room at $50 a night in D.C.–which any quibbler will point out is very much NOT market rate for politicos–than he is for his commitment to destroying ecological protections in order to serve his 3.1 million dollar masters, the fossil-fuel-gobbling Koch brothers. It is much easier to quibble with the extra foot added to the HBO Paterno statue than to ask thornier questions, like why a statue was built to a living human in the first place, and how such monumentalizing might have contributed to a cover-up of Sandusky’s crimes.

But I should be clear: quibbling, as I use it here, is very different from mansplaining. Unlike mansplaining, quibbling is not intended to seize control or ownership of the narrative, the facts, or the authority at hand. We quibble instead when we concede the broader point, when we recognize our helplessness in the face of larger terrors.

This is why I found Crozier’s solitary walk across the ice during the long Arctic night more frightening than the disasters I know loom in the story: he had no guide rope. But one should have guide ropes, I’ll keep insisting, as we muddle on in the dark of 2018.

Hester Blum: Long-time listener, first-time caller.