Professor Wu's Rulebook

Adam Gopnik’s love letter to winter

Winter sunset, Mount Tegelberg, Bavaria, Germany
Winter sunset, Mount Tegelberg, Bavaria, Germany

As we slink by the winter’s solstice and our dark days grow colder (or milder and wetter, as the case may be in the UK), there’s certainly a heavy amount of cultural baggage that burdens our seasonal metaphors.

Winter, after all, is so often presented as a season symbolic of spiritual barrenness – sometimes a psychological manifestation of emotional trauma and anguishing longing for comfort and warmth.

With the commercialisation of Christmas (UK households are set to spend well over £800 apiece in 2015 – largely on superfluous Star Wars merchandise), what once presented a core tenet of spirituality during the winter months has also become barren, and largely devoid of meaning.

Writers have often used this landscape as inspiration for their stories, poems and novels. Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, for instance, is as chilling as the wintery mountain air in which it is set. While Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is surely mandatory reading for every one of us, as we seem to need reminding that Christmas is meant to be a time of love and goodwill, and not Darth Vader toasters.

Yet few have truly explored the cold season’s splendour and significance to our own lives. Albert Camus famously wrote, “In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer” – in some of the most beautiful thoughts committed to words on the subject. But one writer has gone further still.

In 2011, essayist and long-standing New Yorker contributor Adam Gopnik set out to reclaim the wonder, the satisfactions, and the significance, of winter in a series of lectures celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s Massey Lecture Series.

These lectures, now published as Winter: Five Windows on the Season stand as a potent mixture of love letter to and cultural history of winter – exploring in depth the season’s image within popular imagination and interpretation.

Gopnik’s inquiry sees him explore winter through the works of Pushkin, Hans Christian Anderson, Goethe and Schubert, and he discusses the role of engineers, architects and polar explorers in shaping our perceptions of the season.

He writes:

“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.”

Yet for Gopnik, such metaphors are wholly unsatisfactory. To counter such images and perceptions, he offers a defiant counterpoint to our cultural mythological misappropriation of winter, what it is, and what it means:

“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.”

Such presentations and celebrations of winter are vital to us as human beings, Gopnik argues, though he notes that they may be part of a unique “modern taste”:

“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.”

Gopnik notes that the ability to praise winter, and to think of it as something to be celebrated and to fill us with as much joy as the sight of summer may give us, has been 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.”


Charting our changing perceptions of winter, Gopnik writes:

“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.”

Crucially, Gopnik argues that winter is essential to our enjoyment of summer, as without the coldness of one we would not be able to appreciate the warmth of the other:

“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.”

They are thoughts reminiscent of those penned almost a century beforehand by Rainer Maria Rilke – one of the most prolific and poetic writers in history, who wrote:

“This last long winter, I have experienced a truth more completely than ever before: that life’s bestowal of riches already surpasses any subsequent impoverishment. What, then, remains to be feared? Only that we might forget this! But around and within us, how much it helps to remember!”



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