The White Lantern

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

The White Lantern does not pretend to be a serious, scholarly work, and for this reason the good humor and wit with which it is written do not seem to be out of place. The book could be taken to be a “tertiary” source because, in most cases Evan S. Connell has not referred to the primary sources at all. A perusal of the book’s bibliography reveals essentially a list of secondary sources. For example, in his chapter on the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, he refers to Arthur Koestler and the Marqués de Santillana, but not directly to works by Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, or Isaac Newton. Such a synthesis as Connell has produced is eminently readable but one should not take the work as gospel. In fact, there is an inherent danger in this type of writing—the potential for the introducion of error and misrepresentation.

The White Lantern contains several such mistakes. The book is in error when it states that chimpanzees do not eat baboons. Jane von Lawick-Goodall, in her continuing studies of chimpanzees, observed their hunting behavior in which they chase down, kill, and consume baby baboons. An unintentional misrepresentation is to be found in the chapter on the scientific revolution: one gets the impression from reading Connell that the planet Pluto was discovered not long after the discovery of the planet Neptune (1846), when in fact Pluto was not discovered until 1930 when American Clyde Tombaugh sighted it. Also, it would not have been possible for the Russians to have retaliated against a move by the United States with a nuclear bomb in 1947 for the very simple reason that the Russians did not have the bomb until 1949 and were incapable of intercontinental delivery until the mid-1950’s.

On the positive side, the book is very well written as one should expect from a novelist with a number of works to his credit (including a collection of essays of the same sort as in The White LanternA Long Desire). The story of the early seventeenth century Swedish King Gustav’s dreadnought is a masterpiece of literary reconstruction of events. The King had ordered the construction of a very large ship which had unseaworthiness inherent in its design. Because the King was involved, however, no one wished to gain his displeasure by pointing out this fact. Naturally, the ship went down on her maiden voyage in full view of the watchers on the shore. An inquest was held to fix blame but eventually it simply petered out. In a couple of generations all memory of the event was lost. Connell reconstructs the events of the day the ship went down. The chapter has a purpose—that of revealing human folly—and he draws parallels with Watergate and the My Lai massacre. “And why was nobody guilty? Because everybody was following orders.”

The book’s title chapter illustrates the contrast of personality types in geographical quest, in this case, for the South Pole. It is true that much has been written concerning this, and one approaches one more rendering with some anticipation of boredom: one will be pleasantly surprised. The retelling is fresh, and additional detail has been textured into the background of the piece which makes it a pleasure to read. The centerpiece is the contrast between personalities and, therefore, between the approaches of Amundsen, the first to arrive at the Pole, and of Scott whom one would characterize as “mystic poet, not an explorer.” There is quite a contrast between the Norwegian Amundsen and the Englishman Scott. Amundsen got to the Pole first in his race with Scott because of planning and detailed preparation. He had even quantified, as far as was possible, the stages of the journey when the sleds would have certain weights and had even worked out to the day when sled dogs would be slaughtered for food. On January 25, 1912, the return of the expedition to its base camp marked the exact date which Amundsen had set in Norway two years before. Amundsen, as Connell notes, viewed “bad luck” as bad planning. Poor Scott, on the other hand, relied upon luck, and this is why he and his companions died on the journey.

Connell, in order to demonstrate the inhospitable nature of the Antarctic environment, lists some of the organisms that are found there—penguins, obviously, and a few spiders, lichens, and grasses—and some that are not. There are no indigenous humans, no land animals, no birds except the penguin, and no trees. One should not, however, shrug off the tenacity of the biosphere too lightly. There are algae that grow inside quartz rocks and which quite merrily photosynthesize their lives away; and, too, one-celled organisms live in the snow in some places in Antarctica. They, when crushed by a boot heel, turn the snow red. (The phrase “white lantern,” is derived from astronauts’ descriptions of the Antarctic from outer space.)

Connell has great fun in his chapter on the...

(The entire section is 2027 words.)