“In the mind of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Arctic was a region of severe—even sacred—purity.”

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“In the mind of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Arctic was a region of severe—even sacred—purity.”

The Romantic tradition of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries included attitudes towards nature that can often be summarized in terms of the sublime. While today we think of “sublime” as something like grandeur or incredible beauty, in the Victorian world it also had strong connotations of desolation and fear, or terror and awe. A sublime landscape might be one characterized by towering mountains of such starkness and size that they inspired an almost religious dread in a person viewing them.

Philosopher Edmund Burke, in his widely-read 1765 book A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, contrasted the sublime and the beautiful, and argued that they were mutually exclusive. Later thinkers, including writer Victor Hugo, defined the concept as a combination of the beautiful with the grotesque, rather than setting one against the other.

To nineteenth century artists, to experience the sublime was akin to experiencing God, but a God indifferent to human suffering. It was a sudden, intense awareness of the infinite, the unsympathetic universe. It was glorious and stirring, but made humanity seem insignificant in comparison. The sublime contained both attraction and fear – an example many modern readers might relate to is the irrational and terrifying urge to step off the edge of a high place like a cliff or a tall building. The sudden chilling “what if?” as we wonder what it would be like to fall is the same kind of experience, according to the philosophy of the sublime, that an explorer might feel in a desolate field of polar ice.

The Arctic, though it lacked such things as huge mountain ranges, still exemplified an aspect of the sublime. It was a forbidding landscape of its own sort: barren and cold. In winter, there was only darkness, and in summer only glaring light. The polar regions were immense – inescapably so, with no mountains or trees to block the view – and they seemed not just indifferent but actively antagonistic and unwilling to give up their secrets to just anyone.

In writing of the time, the north pole is often personified. It is something that grabs and crushes the explorer and his ship, that jealously guards its secrets. And what better for an intrepid explorer to vie against that a consciousness that seeks to stop him? But it seemed the Arctic brought only death, and escaping it alive was far more thrilling.

The pole was both a Godless place and a place where only God dwelt and that sublime contradiction was irresistible.

(Image via Wikimedia)

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