Sunday, September 10, 2023

Iceland's Immeasurable Boundlessness

"...time was slipping past, beating life out silently and with ever increasing speed; there is no time to halt even for a second, not even for a glance behind. 'Stop, stop,' one feels like crying, but then one sees it is useless. Everything goes by — men, the seasons, the clouds, and there is no use clinging to the stones, no use fighting it out on some rock in mid-stream; the tired fingers open, the arms fall back inertly and you are still dragged into the river, the river which seems to flow so slowly yet never stops.
Twenty-two months are a long time and a lot of things can happen in them- there is time for new families to be formed, for babies to be born and even begin to talk, for a great house to rise where once there was only a field, for a beautiful woman to grow old and no one desire her any more, for an illness- for a long illness- to ripen (yet men live on heedlessly), to consume the body slowly, to recede for short periods as if cured, to take hold again more deeply and drain away the last hopes; there is time for a man to die and be buried, for his son to be able to laugh again and in the evening take the girls down the avenues and past the cemetery gates without a thought. But it seemed as if Drogo’s existence had come to a halt. The same day, the same things, had repeated themselves hundreds of times without taking a step forward. The river of time flowed over the Fort, crumbled the walls, swept down dust and fragments of stone, wore away the stairs and the chain, but over Drogo it passed in vain- it had not yet succeeded in catching him, bearing him with it as it flowed."

- Dino Buzzati (1906 - 1972)
The Tartar Steppe

The passage above is taken from a novel of one of my favorite authors. Buzzati was trained as a journalist, but channeled his creative energies into creating a magical-realist-like (Kafkaesque, even Borgesian) surrealist world of fantasy just on the cusp of seeming "real." The Tartar Steppe is arguably his best known work. The "hero" of the story, Giovanni Drogo, is stationed at a fort in the desert that overlooks the vast Tartar steppe and told to await an invasion; one which, as we learn over the course of the novel, never actually comes. Among other things (e.g., a scathing rebuke of military life) it is a Camus-like Sisyphisian meditation on time, life, the specter of lost opportunities, and the perpetual - unquenchable - thirst for fulfilment. But, while all of these elements are fascinating on their own (and should prompt anyone with a penchant for Kafka and Borges who has not yet experienced Buzatti's writing to become acquainted with his work), I was reminded of another element of this allegorical tale while driving with my family around Iceland. Namely, its subtle depiction of the immeasurable boundlessness - the infinity - of space and and time. 

Iceland is a curiously dynamic blend of physical, aesthetic, and spiritual contrasts that never do more than only hint at some unfathomable underlying "reality." Iceland's vast stretches of land and sea can be used as backdrops to Drogo's endless wait for something to happen. Seemingly infinite blocks of solidified magma and melting glaciers are omnipresent on the horizon; approachable, in principle (by inquisitive souls willing to risk flat tires or broken axles - or both - while traversing the unpaved roads trying to get to them) but perpetually just-out-of-reach. Measures of time and distance both loose conventional - indeed, any - meaning. Just as the Apollo astronauts had difficulty judging how far rocks and mountains were from them on the moon (in the moon's case, because of the lack of an atmosphere), my family and I often struggled to estimate how "near" or "far" anything was; or how "long" or "short" a time it would take to get somewhere. In our case, this was due not to a lack of an atmosphere (the ever-churning transitions from clear skies to moody clouds to thick unrelenting globs of wind and rain to clear skies again were constant reminders of Iceland's dramatic weather; unlike in Buzatti's novel - in Iceland things emphatically do happen!), but simply to how alien Iceland's landscape is compared to our calibrated norms. Everything In Iceland seems to be simultaneously so close as give the illusion of intimacy, and yet so remotely far, so incomprehensibly and immeasurably distant, as to be unapproachable, at least within a single lifetime (or, at least, during a single trip 😊

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