As far apart from each other as it is possible to be: either ends of our globe. Half the arctic ice shelf melts at the arctic, but there is no such melting cycle at the antarctic; and while the North pole is cold – with minus 34 decrees celsius as an average temperature at the North Pole – the South Pole can plummet to minus 49 degrees.
Poles apart, indeed.
Yet, so very similar. White, vast, freezing expanses at the very edge of mans’ experience. The place where Frankenstein’s monster fled, and Ice Station Zebra was based seem almost identical to the ice wilderness in which Scott perished.
They are worlds apart, yet they are the same.
From the same root as ‘polar’ we get our word: polarisation. The tendency to divide into two groups at the extremes of opinion.
The idea of such extremes is acted out again and again in our folklore: and nowhere with more haunting resonance than in a fairy tale written by an Aberdeenshire minister, writer and poet named George MacDonald in the latter half of the nineteenth century.
“The Day Boy And The Night Girl” was a nightmarish experiment conducted by a witch in pursuit of complete knowledge.
She invited two expectant mothers to the castle. One was an ambassador’s wife, who was given sunlit rooms in which to give birth; the other, a blind widow, was entombed in windowless rooms beneath the castle. She disposed of the mothers.
The boy, Photogen, born in the sunlight, grew up in light and somehow, the witch managed to ensure he never saw the night. The girl, Nycteris, grew up with the light of one dim lamp.
Forever in darkness, Nycteris learnt how to give the witch the slip, and discovered the night forest and the moon. She fell in love with the enchanting world of the night. Photogen, who adored hunting, set out after a nocturnal beast and stayed out after sunset by mistake. And as darkness fell he was paralysed by terror.
They met, of course.
She comforted him; and watched over him as he slept. And in time the sun rose and she was utterly horrified by it. Photogen became immediately brave and left the forest; but he came back the next night, and the next.
Each used the other’s strengths, reconciling fear and learning courage through the eyes of their polar opposite. Thus, together, they were able to defeat the woman who had devised such a damaging experiment. And finally, they married.
In the end, Photogen loved the night because it was his love’s home; and Nycteris yearned for the day, the symbol of everything for which her beloved stood.
The author insisted this was no allegory.
Yet it has something to say about what happens when two polarised feelings are happening within us. Contradictory impulses. That concept that was named at the birth of the 20th century by a man called Eugen Bleuler: ambivalenz. What we call, ambivalence.
A sister may adore a clever, talented brother in whose shadow she stands, yet resent him too. An employee may idolise the boss whose methods infuriate him. There are a thousand applications, a thousand thousand; as many as the myriad human emotions which nestle, incongruous, next to each other beneath our conscious minds.
Because life is never that simple. It is never polarised. We keep contradictory feelings in our hearts, in some dark cellar where they cannot remind us of them. Our minds are built to tune out such dissonance, yet the mixed emotions are part and parcel of the way we are.
It is only by allowing ourselves to meet the other half of our feelings – the night-girl living in our subconscious – that we can be most truly us.
Written in response to Side View’s Weekend Theme, Ambivalence, which you can find here.
Picture source here