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Cold comfort

Wikimedia Commons

I’m not sure when I first started complaining about winter, but it must have been soon after I learned to talk. The single fireplace in the living room of our house threw out only a tiny circle of heat that was monopolized by the cat. It was no wonder that the cat lived to a great age, and it’s astonishing that I lived to any age at all. There were shortages of food in that post-war period, shortages of everything including heat and light. It was not the kind of growing-up experience that was likely to make a person nostalgically romantic about winter.

If there is any pleasure to be had out of this season, it is pleasure of a purely abstract kind. Winter, which is so unpleasant physically, may have something to teach us philosophically. Let’s consider, as we begin the second week of January, what we can get out of winter intellectually speaking.

Most obviously, winter teaches us that we are living in the wrong place. Humanity originated in Africa, and Western civilization began around the warm shores of the Mediterranean. Some people claim that it has never moved from there, but that’s another question. The point is that our bodies and our brains were never designed to function in icy darkness, and they don’t. Winter is a time for hibernation, as many intelligent animals know. There’s no point in fighting nature.

Winter in this hemisphere is a northern phenomenon. The very word “north” has a nasty ring to it, and for good reasons. Historically the north has been associated with darkness and barbarism. Homer speaks of the Cimmerian darkness (a wonderful word) of this desolate land of cold mist and clouds at the end of the civilized world. He had a point. Why does the compass point north? So we know which way to go, namely south in the general direction of Florida.

In Homer’s Odyssey, the crew of Odysseus’ ship did pretty much exactly that. When they finally reached a warm climate, the land of the Lotus Eaters, they refused to sail north again. Homer gives them no credit for this sensible decision.

Cold, mist and clouds have a bad effect on the character. People living in these climes tend to be gloomy, for obvious reasons. They also tend to be energetic and restless, because this is one way of keeping warm. It’s a dangerous combination. The barbarian hordes tended to come from the north, as did the warrior Vikings. In medieval times, all evil was thought to come from the north, and the most terrible part of Dante’s Inferno is not fire, but ice. Hell is an eternally frozen lake, and I’m sure Dante got it right.

Puritanism, violence, upper respiratory infections and hard work are the typical miseries of cold climates. Where do the richest people go in their super-yachts when they can go anywhere? Not to Alaska, or Antarctica. No, they’re sunning themselves down there in the tropical zone, the zone of bikinis and long warm evenings.

Yet winter also teaches some virtues: endurance, a sturdy pessimism, a suspicious attitude towards nature, and a brave commitment to pay the enormous financial and environmental cost of heating the frozen north into a semblance of habitability. It’s madness, yes, but madness on a grand scale. We should be proud of ourselves, just for staying here.

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.