“If we didn’t remember winter in spring, it wouldn’t be as lovely… half of the keyboard of life would be missing. We would be playing life with no flats or sharps, on a piano with no black keys.”
By Maria Popova
“In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer,” Albert Camus wrote in what remains one of the most beautiful and enlivening thoughts ever committed to words. But it’s also a thought emblematic of the cultural baggage that burdens our seasonal metaphors, in which winter is invariably a season symbolic of spiritual barrenness, a psychoemotional tundra of chilling discomfort and anguishing longing for warmth.
In 2011, beloved essayist and longtime New Yorker contributor Adam Gopnik set out to reclaim the singular splendors and satisfactions of winter in his lectures celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s reliably rewarding Massey Lecture Series, published as Winter: Five Windows on the Season (public library). Part lyrical love letter to winter, part rigorous cultural history of the season’s image in the popular imagination, Gopnik’s inquiry ranges from the works of Schubert, Pushkin, Hans Christian Anderson, and Goethe to the role of engineers, architects, and polar explorers in shaping our sensibility of the season.
Human beings make metaphors as naturally as bees make honey, and one of the most natural metaphors we make is of winter as a time of abandonment and retreat. The oldest metaphors for winter are all metaphors of loss.
Reflecting on the “rare feeling of perfect equanimity” that winter has awakened in him since a young age, he offers a delightfully defiant counterpoint to our cultural mythology of the white season:
My heart jumps when I hear a storm predicted, even in the perpetual grisaille of Paris; my smile rises when cold weather is promised, even in forever-forty-something-Fahrenheit New York. Gray skies and December lights are my idea of secret joy, and if there were a heaven, I would expect it to have a lowering violet-gray sky (and I would expect them to spell gray g-r-e-y) and white lights on all the trees and the first flakes just falling, and it would always be December 19 — the best day of the year, school out, stores open late, Christmas a week away.
But such a disposition, he argues, is a luxury unique to our time:
A taste for winter, a love for winter vistas — a belief that they are as beautiful and seductive in their own way, and as essential to the human spirit and the human soul as any summer scene — is part of the modern condition. Wallace Stevens, in his poem “The Snow Man,” called this new feeling “a mind of winter,” and he identified it with our new acceptance of a world without illusions, our readiness to live in a world that might have meaning but that doesn’t have God. A mind of winter, a mind for winter, not sensing the season as a loss of warmth and light, and with them hope of life and divinity, but ready to respond to it as a positive, and even purifying, presence of something else — the beautiful and peaceful, yes, but also the mysterious, the strange, the sublime — is a modern taste.
A master of intensely gratifying asides, Gopnik substantiates this with the finest, richest, most beautifully worded definition of modernity I’ve ever encountered:
By modern I mean in the sense that the loftier kinds of historians of ideas like to use the term, to mean not just right here and now but also the longer historical period that begins sometime around the end of the eighteenth century, breathes fire from the twin dragons of the French and Industrial Revolutions, and then still blows cinder-breath into at least the end of the twentieth century, drawing deep with the twin lungs of applied science and mass culture. An age of growth and an age of doubt, the age in which, for the first time in both Europe and America, more people were warmer than they had been before, and in which fewer people had faith in God — a period when, at last, the nays had it.
Much as the most spirited defense of darkness was penned only after the proliferation of artificial light, Gopnik reminds us that the allure of winter was made possible by the conquest of artificial warmth:
The romance of winter is possible only when we have a warm, secure indoors to retreat to, and winter becomes a season to look at as much as one to live through.
In a sentiment that calls to mind Robin Wall Kimmerer’s exquisite meditation on how naming confers dignity upon life and gives meaning to existence, Gopnik writes:
There is a humane purpose to watching winter that is found simply in the acts of naming and describing… The first thing that the earliest polar explorers did was to name the ice shelves and coasts — naming them after their patrons and their patrons’ moms — and then the very next thing the very next group of explorers did was to change the names, naming those same things after kaisers and their daughters. Names are the footholds, the spikes the imagination hammers in to get a hold on an ice wall of mere existence.
[The act of naming] is the thing that makes the world humane. It gives structure and meaning to natural events that in themselves contain none… In the past two hundred years we have turned winter from something to survive to something to survey, from a thing to be afraid of to a thing to be aware of. It’s through the slow crawl of distinctions, differentiations, and explanations that the world becomes … well, never manageable, but recognizable, this place we know. The conquest of winter, as both a physical fact and an imaginative act, is one of the great chapters in the modern renegotiation of the world’s boundaries, the way we draw lines between what nature is and what we feel about it.
Nearly a century after Rilke’s magnificent letter on what winter teaches us about the richness of life and the tenacity of the human spirit, Gopnik writes:
Ice wine, as every drinker knows, is sweetness made from stress. That’s not news, or not exactly. All good wine takes its essential sugar from the stress of its circumstances: pinot noir, the grape of the cold country of Champagne, gets flabby and soupy as the climate warms. But ice wine is extreme sweetness made from extraordinary stress. Every winter the grapes on the Niagara Peninsula are left not merely to chill but to actually freeze — the worst thing that normally can happen to fruit — and then the brutal cold forces all the natural sugar into the core of the grape, where it waits to be pressed out.
And in that simple paradox — the hardest weather makes the nicest wine — lies a secret that gives shape to the winter season, and to our feelings about it. Without the stress of cold in a temperate climate, without the cycle of the seasons experienced not as a gentle swell up and down but as an extreme lurch, bang! from one quadrant of the year to the next, a compensatory pleasure would vanish from the world. There is a lovely term in botany — vernalization — referring to seeds that can only thrive in spring if they have been through the severity of winter. Well, many aspects of our life have become, in the past several hundred years, “vernalized.” (Even those who live in warmth recognize the need for at least the symbols of the cold, as in all that sprayed-on snow in Los Angeles in December.) If we didn’t remember winter in spring, it wouldn’t be as lovely; if we didn’t think of spring in winter, or search winter to find some new emotion of its own to make up for the absent ones, half of the keyboard of life would be missing. We would be playing life with no flats or sharps, on a piano with no black keys.
Complement Gopnik’s altogether bewitching Winter with Annie Dillard on winter and the wonder of life and Tove Jansson’s marvelous wintry allegory of the paradox of control and surrender, then revisit Gopnik on Darwin’s clever strategy for preempting criticism.
For more of Gopnik’s enchanting genius, treat yourself to his wonderful On Being conversation with Krista Tippett: