In Jenny Diski’s 1998 memoir Skating To Anatarctica, Diski takes a cruise to Antarctica as a way to add “more whiteness” to a life consumed by depression, sexual abuse, and emotionally fucked parents. The metaphorical travelogue documents the landscape as erasure, a way to blankness that can be found through the eradication of everything but water and sky. Diski craves wallowing in nothingness: “I wanted white and ice as far as the eye could see, I wanted my white bedroom extended beyond reason.” To travel to such a distance indicates space, but certainly not from one’s brainspeak; rather, the memories of Diski’s abusive and despondent mother, and her own suicidal tendencies, infiltrate the gaps between struggling to adapt to such icy surroundings and Diski’s white obsession. It’s a gorgeously frustrated meditation on the inability to escape the same winds following you everywhere.
The wind following Andrea Sisson to Iceland is her brother, who remains nameless and faceless. Institutionalized for schizophrenia and paranoid delusions, he often hears voices and believes that he is Christ. “I wanted to understand him,” she narrates over and over again, the camera focusing on her skin against ice, her eyes the color of the sky. She opens the film with a monologue on her ADD diagnosis, admitting that she prefers to think of it as an “ability” rather than an obstacle. Mental illness seems to run in the family, but no mention is made of other family members. She travels to Iceland in order to “think the way he thinks” — a sentiment that is a problematic yet sincere approach to dealing with a loved one’s compromised mental state. She insists that he is not insane, as “nature” (i.e. Iceland) is incapable of rationality or insanity: it simply exists without state, without predication. The land, the ice, the weight of quiet, the intimidating sky — all of this can profoundly change the way you think, she says. What is the desire for epiphany from a world of water, the 75% sameness we share? Why ask anything frozen? And why are we so preoccupied with finding our reflections in the warped brain maps of others’ suffering?
I don’t understand why Sisson felt the need to narrate the film, as anything as massively ferocious as the land of ice can certainly present itself as the land of pain without Sisson’s repeatedly voiced inner dialogue. Speaking ruins everything. I imagined the hot air from Sisson’s mouth and her camera crew melting glaciers. The attempt to articulate mental illness as metaphor creates a mangled mirror for our exhausted inwardly idea of self. At this point, Ben Stiller eating a bowl of cereal seems more plausible as a truthful meditation on human sadness than any pretty art film made by a precocious sister; or something like Milton Rokeach’s The Three Christs of Ypsilanti, a brilliant case study of three men who believed themselves to be the son of God, its cyclical everydayness of sitting down with the same three delusional men creating a loop of frenzied dialogue that hypnotizes. The muck of disorder is a much more interesting thing to get stuck in when you’re not looking for a definition of who you are. Someone is suffering a far greater thing than your lack. Sisson’s experience of a new sensation via the navigation of space is much like Diski’s exploration of Antarctica, but as Diski comes to an almost accidental appreciation of an old pain, Sisson’s expedition to understand her brother’s illness seems perverse in its ego-driven motivation. Rather than lay her own disorientation out on the table to freeze and solidify into something new, she asks the stale, unanswerable ‘Who Am I’ question dressed up inside her brother’s hospital clothes. It’s a question that does little else other than hurl sounds at water.
But for Sisson, this hurling is something. How to cope with trauma is another unanswerable thing, a process that is maybe the last sacred thing left in this world. And here I am, writing about another person’s nightmare. When my brother had his first psychotic break, I was standing outside of a church in North Carolina. My brother called me and told me that he contained the trinity of James Joyce, Joseph Smith, and Jesus Christ. He had solved the mathematics of poetry. He was in complete fucking control of everything. This is the world. This is who we love. Trauma continues to exist until it doesn’t. We exploit the hell out of it on our own, using whatever medium we can to express the pupiled void of pain, but that is part of what makes a human. I think of John Banville’s New York Times Book Review of Joan Didion’s Blue Nights, an account of the year her daughter died, and Banville’s observation, “the dismaying fact that against life’s worst onslaughts nothing avails, not even art; especially not art.” And yet we continue.