Monsters   /   Spring 2020   /    Notes And Comments

On Winter

It is hard to sustain the illusion that there is anything good about winter after the hundredth day or so.

Matt Dinan

Driving in winter; Marcin Jucha/Shutterstock. Inc.

Very early in Henry Miller’s intemperate novel Tropic of Capricorn, the narrator asks why people choose to live in “outlandish climates.” His cynical answer: “because people are naturally idiots, naturally sluggards, naturally cowards.” Inertia, in other words, keeps us shivering in Canada or sweating in Texas. Miller reveals that it was not until he was ten years old that he learned that there were countries that were simply warm: places seemingly made with human comfort in mind, where it was not necessary to freeze “and pretend that it was tonic and exhilarating.”

Evaluations of winter lean heavily on this pretense of the putatively “tonic and exhilarating” character of the cold. One of Emily Dickinson’s memorable poems about winter facilitates an almost uncanny reproduction of the experience of stepping into the cold. Its speaker attests, “Winter is good,” describing his “Hoar Delights” before, stopping to catch her breath, qualifying the statement with a comparison to the self-indulgent intellect “inebriate / With Summer.”

Can we straightforwardly affirm that winter is good without comparing it with louche vernal pleasure? In Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the title character admits that winter is a “wicked,” “hard,” “fierce” guest, but characteristically praises his own ability to honor it anyway. Zarathustra’s wintry visitor curiously straddles the line between the physical and the intellectual: Breathing the cold air of the mountaintops seems to mean denying oneself the comfort of a steady and sure ontology—but it also seems to mean being, well, cold. Zarathustra’s praise of winter is knowingly contrarian, a refusal “to pray to the pot-bellied fire idol like the weaklings.” Life in a cold climate invites this kind of self-satisfied casuistry. Sure, long winters make you feel terrible, but an eternal summer makes you terrible.

But if we are being honest, it really is quite hard to sustain the illusion that there is anything good about winter after the hundredth day or so of temperatures below freezing. “This is tonic and exhilarating,” one tells oneself, as every careful step solidifies a pleasing sensation of brumal toughness. If, when we’re cold, we see pictures of friends, family, or acquaintances living or “wintering” somewhere in the tropics, do we really believe we’re better off, or are feelings of superiority only cold comfort for cold people?

As Dickinson and Nietzsche both observe in their own ways, the experience of the cold makes it more difficult than usual to deny the very real connection between the body and the mind. Yet the applications of this insight are strangely literal, as if the actual hardening of water makes the spirit similarly gelid. The cold, they suggest, makes us individualists. More straightforwardly materialistic accounts of the effects of the cold on human life concur—for example, that of Montesquieu in The Spirit of the Laws. Montesquieu makes the case that the cold makes a people more “vigorous.” In that tenuous early modern way, he argues that it apparently quickens the heart and makes the “reaction of the extremity of the fibers” more efficient because they constrict. Even Aristotle, writing from pleasant Greece, suggests that northerly people are more “spirited” and thus free, but less given to “thought and art” and therefore “unpolitical,” when compared to Mediterraneans. In any case, cold weather has long been thought to make us heartily self-sufficient, but there is perhaps reason to doubt an analysis that has also been used to justify imperial rule over people from warm countries. Like Miller, political philosophy has tended to view the acceptable climate rather narrowly.

The miracles of modern technoscience have, however, done much to make human experience in this regard more uniform. Those of us who live in cold places aren’t typically outside enough to gain the sort of entirely questionable vigor or spiritedness cold weather was thought to imbue. Nevertheless, one does have to go outside sometimes. And one notable way in which winter still exerts a distinguishing impression on life in cold climates is through snowstorms. Fredericton, New Brunswick, where I live (think Maine, but colder and snowier), averages more than 100 inches of snow a year. That means that between November and March we can count on it snowing one or two days a week. People who move here from warm places always comment on the fact that we always comment on the weather. It’s true. But soon enough these same people invariably find themselves doing the same thing, because the weather really is worth talking about.

Since the mid-twentieth century, the apparent collapse of deliberation in politics has been a popular topic among political thinkers. In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt suggests that deliberative politics is made more difficult because of the way modernity focuses human activity on tending to the biological life process. Human production, Arendt says, should properly attempt to interrupt the cyclical patterns that govern nature; by standing against nature’s flux, human beings can create a stable world that can outlast an individual life—that can endure. Because our technological efforts, no matter how sophisticated, are ultimately aimed at caring for our bodies, we fail to create a shared and meaningful “world.” Our technology mimics and channels natural cycles instead of attempting to differentiate us from them. Without the intersubjective gathering made possible by a stable world of things, it becomes harder to create truly public spaces in which we can meaningfully think and act together. This crisis of “worldliness” is made worse because of the esoteric nature of our technology. Modern technoscience is so monstrously complex that human brains can no longer understand human know-how: We need technology in order to understand technology, because we cannot perform computations unaided, nor truly understand what they mean outside of a narrow, technical vocabulary. For this reason, Arendt avers, it might be said that we can no longer truly think together about what we are in fact doing. Properly political questions are thereby turned over not so much to our experts as to our “know-how.” The effect of all of this is a critically impoverished ability to deliberate together.

Snowstorms are certainly a part of nature’s cyclical “bad infinity” (to borrow Hegel’s term), and would thereby fail Arendt’s requirement of works that cut against nature to provide a space for politics. But, mediated by modern telecommunications, the snowstorm facilitates a rare intersubjective gathering, a focusing of our collective attention on a shared phenomenon. When a snowstorm is coming, we’re called on, in a relatively low-stakes way, to evaluate, deliberate, and decide—together. Schools, businesses, government offices, sports teams, choirs, volunteer groups, families, friends—every part of civil society needs to decide whether it’s worth staying open, going out, or hunkering down at home. Snowy places don’t declare a “state of emergency” for every storm; we learn to figure it out for ourselves. It’s not precisely rocket science (despite the satellites involved in weather forecasting), but there is an art to citizen weather augury, group decision-making, and learning which types of arguments prevail. Do we absolutely need to meet? Is it worth canceling the holiday party? At precisely what time will the snow turn to freezing rain? Are the roads still “bad” from last time? How many cancellations have we already had?

These are not pedantic questions, and there are immediate consequences for getting their answers wrong. When you’re forced to deliberate together about a course of action, people uniquely show themselves for who they are: You get to see how people think, how they weigh evidence, how risk averse or heedless they may be. You’re free to set out on the worst of roads if you must, but you’ll probably decide for yourself not to. Snow day deliberations are at once a part and microcosm of political life—an edifying mixture of fact and opinion, body and soul, character and institution, experience and youth, and the conflicts that attend when such things meet. If the idea that cold weather “hardens” us into rugged individualists seems irresistible, the experience of the snowstorm, here and now, provides an opportunity for a glimpse into what community life should look more like.

Surely, part of this insight applies to nature—understood as those things with which we can’t really negotiate—as such. There are similar deliberations about more catastrophic natural events: typhoons and hurricanes, earthquakes and tsunamis. But snowstorms are decidedly nonapocalyptic. The decisions they force on us are not as wrenching as an evacuation order, and the penalties for an incorrect decision are not usually existential, if one simply decides to stay home. A winter storm is more of a general assertion of natural indifference to human volition. In Canada or the snowier parts of New England and the Midwest, winter travel always bears an implied asterisk. This small but meaningful restriction of freedom puts the lie to the dream of unbounded freedom or autonomy. Speaking of our more general impending climate catastrophe, winter, perversely intensified by hotter summers, is good practice for a coming age of constraint. Snow forces literal slowness and uncertainty on a culture focused on the quick and the sure.

Montesquieu’s turn to considerations of climate was in part an attempt to push back against the homogenizing theories of human nature advanced by other early modern thinkers such as Machiavelli and Hobbes. If human behavior is reducible to certain maxims flowing from universalizable accounts of human nature, then politics can be reduced to a series of complex but ultimately solvable technical quandaries. By insisting on the way that geography and climate—among other things—alter the character of a political community, Montesquieu is attempting to show that because politics is not a problem that can be solved, once and for all, liberty is real and should be preserved. Similarly, Aristotle’s seeming denigration of the creative capacity of people living in northerly climates occurs during his account of the unlikely combination of good luck and good management required to bring about the regime “one would pray for,” a city so specific and improbable that it instead seems designed to turn us back to our own political communities, and to the hard task of considering together how we might make them better. Snowstorms shift and change suddenly, and meteorology remains imprecise enough that snow days can still take us by surprise, forcing a cozier break in our lives than the cold that catches our breath. But the disinclination of the weather to fulfill the meteorologists’ dream of completely accurate forecasting, and the problem of what less than accurate forecasts mean for prudent planning, are not bad news: Both give us vivid examples of those parts of nature—and human nature—that resist technical control. The edifying character of winter, then, has less to do with heroic individualism than with its capacity to force us into something less common: community.