January 31st, 2010


The nihilism of cold

Seven months ago, while holidaying in Athens, I made an argument about The nihilism of heat. Citing solid empirical data from reputable sources like Camus' The Outsider, Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Greene's The Power and the Glory, I stated that there was little doubt that a clear, demonstrable link existed between heat and nihilism. In the light of chilling new evidence, I want to revise that statement.

To recap my argument: A sense of rationality and fairness prevails where it's cold. Human life is worth more, and humane values flourish. "In cooler, more northern countries a fundamental sense of fairness informs the idea that sidewalks are for pedestrians," I wrote. As a result of this, traffic accidents are less common and less dangerous where it's cold, I claimed.

I want to change my mind. It's not that I was wrong about the nihilism of heat, or the cultural connection between hot places and a certain moral insouciance. It's that I didn't give the whole picture. There's a nihilism of cold too.

Let's start with the traffic stats. Sure, in general there are fewer accidents in more northerly countries. But when it gets cold and icy, when road and pavement alike are white, accidents happen. The BBC reports that "heavy snow and high winds have caused traffic chaos across Germany with at least three deaths reported nationwide. Conditions closed some motorways and caused long traffic jams on many others. Public transport in some areas has been shut down and police have advised people not to travel if possible." In these conditions, even getting into your car is dangerous. Let's not even talk about the slithery time I had on my bike yesterday as I traversed treacherous ice and snow to see the new exhibitions at NGBK and Kunstraum Kreuzberg. I'm lucky to be alive.

In sweaty Athens I may have painted too rosy a picture of the thrillingly chilly life of winter, evoking freedom organised with Scandinavian efficiency and cheerful fishermen reeling the umpteenth plump fish up through their ice holes. But how could anything other than nihilism and despair greet the news that snow and temperatures of minus forty have killed over a million livestock in Mongolia this winter, and threaten to grip the Mongolian people in a downward spiral of hunger and poverty?

It's not that I was wrong about nihilism and heat, it's that this winter has shown me there's a nihilism of cold too. I could cite all sorts of Russian literature to "prove" this with literary "data" and establish a correlation between extremes of temperature and states of the soul. But, to be quite frank, I can't be arsed. My fingers are too cold to turn the pages. The ink in my pen is a black solid, and my computer keyboard is sputtering out. It's minus ten here today, and I'm stocking up on orphans to feed the brazier.