Empire and Eskimos

Cover of NorthThis was first published on the now-retired polarcosmology.com website, a companion site for the book North: The Rise & Fall of the Polar Cosmos by Gyrus – an epic, animism-infused history of cosmology. Check out more information, or buy from Strange Attractor Press.

‘Meeting the Esquimaux’ by Elisha Kent Kane (1856), depicting the second Grinnell Expedition to find the lost Franklin Expedition

There’s a free exhibition on until the end of March 2015 in the British Library, called Lines in the Ice: Seeking the Northwest Passage. It’s a small series of exhibits, but well worth a look.

One prompt for the exhibition was the discovery, in September this year, of the long-lost HMS Erebus — the ship in which Sir John Franklin sailed in 1845 on a doomed quest for the commercially and strategically important passage northwest, through the Canadian archipeligo, to the Orient. Franklin’s voyage foundered in the ice, and his crew descended into disease and cannibalism.

The discovery of the Erebus has corroborated the testimony given at the time by Inuit people who claimed to have encountered Franklin. They were dismissed as unreliable savages, but everything we’ve learned since has backed them up. Significantly, as this exhibition highlights, the passage was finally achieved in 1906 by Roald Amundsen, who relied heavily on Inuit guidance.

For me the most fascinating items here were the Inuit ‘maps’ — small carved pieces of wood, which would rest easily in your hand, which depicted in three dimensions the inlets and promontories of a coastline. Apparently they were meant to be felt rather than looked at when navigating. These objects are a beautifully vivid expression of the sensual intimacy through which hunter-gatherers experience their environment. As Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari remarked, the primary modality here is haptic rather than visual. Not just literal touch, but a kind of ‘close vision’ in which all the senses interact, sensitised to textures in a way that recalls touch rather than sight.

Where there is close vision, space is not visual, or rather the eye itself has a haptic, nonoptical function: no line separates earth from sky, which are of the same substance; there is neither horizon nor background nor perspective nor limit nor outline or form nor center; there is no intermediary distance, or all distance is intermediary. Like Eskimo space.1

Other exhibits include: many maps revealing the international struggle for dominance in the Arctic; explorer William Scoresby’s exquisite drawing of snowflakes; headphones plunging you into the amazing submarine sonic world of the bearded seal; and prints showing how cartoonist Thomas Nast shifted Santa’s base of operations from Lapland to the North Pole in the midst of the searches for Franklin’s lost expedition.

An early edition of Frankenstein is rallied as an timely barometer of interest in the Arctic. In this novel Captain Walton has high hopes sailing north, imagining the polar region as one of ‘beauty and delight’. This recalls the eighteenth-century theories of an Arctic Golden Age (which went on to supply Nazism with some of its mythic grounding2 ), but also reflects the glittering imperial promise of the northwest passage. But the Monster’s desolate self-sacrifice at the North Pole presaged the tragedy of Franklin’s voyage — scuppered to a large extent, like the Monster, by misplaced confidence in modernity’s technological prowess.

In any case, Mary Shelley’s fantastic modern myth forms a nice link to the current main exhibition at the British Library, Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination, which I’ll certainly be visiting before it finishes in January.