Kabloona Friday (Summer comes, and with it, the end.)

This is the last installment of quotes from Kabloona, an account of Gontran “Mike” dePoncins’s year spent among the Eskimo of Canada in 1939. To make it easier to read, I am going to dispense with the blockquote:

“Spring was returning to the arctic. The temperature rose till it stood well above zero, and suddenly one day–it was the 25th April–it mounted to 30 degrees Fahrenheit. A nasty warm wind was blowing, the kind of win which, at home, makes us fearful of catching an unseasonable cold. The “heat” was intolerable. …

Light had come to the northern night–or if this was not light, at any rate it was no longer darkness. The air was filled with an eerie glow; the horizon was swollen with the promise of light, and the night was a ruddy purple. … as the days went by the lamp became unnecessary and we had the light of the sky all though the night.

One of the most curious things was our resistance to sleep. … Sleep would not come. I would get quietly out of bed and go out-of-doors to sketch. … Across the northern sky stretched a band like white gold, white and liquid, like gold in a crucible. … The southern sky was a hard bright blue, and so luminous that the caplets of islands and the faraway mountains emerged in the distance with brilliant clarity. … something stirring, something vibrant was present that filled the being with a nameless agitation. It was impossible to be still. You wanted to walk, to run, to go on endlessly from hillock to hillock, shouting verses aloud, singing songs you had never before heard. You were seized by what could easily become delirium and might move you as plausibly to religious ecstasy as to sexual explosion–of itself and without the intervention of your will. The earth was being born again. You were witnessing its creation. You wanted harps to chant its glory’ and you knew that it was moving the missionaries to prayer and urging on the Eskimos to their indefatigable mating. …

It was three o’clock in the morning and children were at play out on the frozen sea. Women, their mothers, sat on the point of a knoll and watched them, called out to them. … They will wander like this all summer long, sleeping only when they are too weary to stand, and sleeping wherever they happen to find themselves

This is the season of Eskimo madness, particularly for the young. I remember a boy of eleven or twelve years, named Ivitaligak, who went out of his mind every spring.  do not know if this malady exists elsewhere in the same way, but with Eskimo youths it takes the form of a violent somnambulism. Ivitaligak would rove like a somnambulist, coming, going shrieking, beating his head with his fists and screaming, “Give me a rifle! Give me a rifle! I want to kill myself!” It would not have been hard for him to kill himself before coming to. That night he picked up in both hands a burning stove and shook it violently without feeling the burns. His friends threw him down and pummeled him to try to wake him, but no one could do it. They smacked him again and again, holding him down on the ground as he twisted and contorted himself: all in vain. … Once awake again, he could remember nothing that had happened and when they told him, he burst out laughing and refused to believe them. His father, Anarvik, said to me that this always happened int he spring, when the boy did not get enough sleep, wandered all night long, night after night, and stretched out occasionally on the bare ground to slumber. Angulalik’s little son, Wakwak, displayed the same symptoms, though not so violently. Once they came to, the boys complained of headaches; but these things pass when they grow to be men.

Unlike ourselves, the Eskimos are still children of nature. Spring, the season of rut in the animal kingdom, induces physiological mutations in them. They change color: from earth brown they turn purple, a red glow lies over their cheekbones, and their eyes shine with a strange gleam. Here at Perry River a frenzy of sexuality had spread through the camp, embracing every member of it. Day and night they copulated in a sort of delirium, inexhaustible and insatiable.

Imagine a world covered by  the waters of an endlessly wide lake, and the waters receding until only peaks emerge like islands over the lake-bottom. There were hundreds of these peaks as far as the eye could see, with here and there a ridge that ran like a prehistoric river bank, its smoothly worn slope covered with pebbles that appeared from far away as fine as sand. Infinite in distance, hushed, seemingly deserted by man and beast, it was the landscape of a fairytale. Far away. farther away than I have ever been able to see anywhere in the world, the sun burned on the rim of a ridge, and every peak and slope and hillock stood bathed in a ruddy pink light, a rose that was unreal in its liquid softness. There were days enough when the land of the Eskimo, with its blizzards and its grey and horizonless air, had seemed to me in truth a ghastly world; but on this day, seeing this immensity spread out before me, being conscious of the solitude in which I stood gazing at it, I recognized the right of the Eskimo to the pride he took in his land, and fancied that in his mind this was an offering made to him by who knows what god, and that he too felt himself a member of a chosen people. Here, I told myself, is their Eden, this wide world stocked by the Great Giver with the magnificent game that came up year after year to feed them and arm them and clothe them and surrender itself, the constituent fundament of their households.

I thought of the months on the trail, of the hardships and even miseries I had endued, and of a sudden I began to miss them with an intensity which amazed me and which, since then, has never left me. … God knows we were poor enough. Our poverty was total. We possessed nothing: not even the snow was our own. … But there was a cheer and a contentment in our existence which I continue to muse upon and cannot altogether explain to myself. Was it because infinite poverty lent infinite price to the least object? There was more to it than this. I had lost all I owned, but had found great riches. Like a religious, I possessed the veritable treasures, those which could not be taken from me. I had lost the world, but I had found myself, had exchanged the glitter for the gold. Within me had lain potentialities for moral serenity;, and I had not known it. Storm and danger had been my salvation, an without them my spirit should have dropped heedlessly off to sleep in my flesh. Thee on that Arctic tundra I had constructed myself from within. Up though the lined and frozen layers of skin on my face, my true visage had begun to emerge, the visage that God had meant all men to show to one another; and that visage all the blizzards, all the adversity in the world could not decompose. …

I say “we” but I cannot pretend of course to lend to the Eskimos these thoughts I now express. The poverty that was my salvation had from the beginning of time been theirs … These men about whom I knew properly nothing at all, these beings of another race separated from me by thousand of years of the evolution of my kind, had stood shoulder to shoulder with me in the blizzard. With my friends Outside there had always been differences, we had always remained personalities, individuals. Here, after the first few weeks of my probation, none of this existed: he contact was direct, devoid of the detours of personality. Day after day a wind would raise, a sign of danger would appear in the air, and we would respond together, each forgetting himself and striving in the common cause. Outside, it wanted war and flood to give man this sense of brotherhood: here it was a commonplace of life. …

I stood on the shores of Ellice Island and said to myself that I did not want to leave this land. … And as I turned and walked down the hill, I knew that my fate lay elsewhere; and I know now that it lies in France. … for a Frenchman of our time, the trail back leads home.”

And thus de Poncins returns home just in time for World War II.

6 thoughts on “Kabloona Friday (Summer comes, and with it, the end.)

  1. I was strongly reminded of Ted Kacznski’s manifesto when I read this.

    “Modern man is strapped down by a network of rules and regulations, and his fate depends on the actions of persons remote from him whose decisions he cannot influence.”

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  2. […] Apparently circum-polar people live in a state of constant exhilaration, appreciation of the sublime beauty of nature, happiness, exhaustion, and cold toes. I am reminded of de Poncins’s descriptions of the Eskimo he lived with as counter-intuitively far happier than the people he knew from tropical, sun-kissed lands. Alas, I didn’t record that passage, but here is a similar one: […]

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