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?