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Spectral figure of Arctic explorer

The Spectral Arctic: A History of Dreams and Ghosts in Polar Exploration

The Arctic is a liminal place for Westerners – unexplored until just a couple of centuries ago, painted with a palette that most Westerners are not familiar with, and with weather that ranges from the otherworldly beauty of the Northern Lights through to storms that will happily kill ignorant non-indigenous people.

As the Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen’s described it while trapped in the Arctic ice…

…It is a dreamland painted in the imagination’s most delicate tints; it is colour etherealised. One shade melts into the other, so that you cannot tell where one shade ends and the other begins, and yet they are all there. No forms – it is all faint, dreamy colour music, a faraway, long-drawn-out melody on muted strings.

But that strangeness inherent in the environment – the geography, geology and weather – that Nansen noted in his diary, also appears to have had an effect on the early Western explorers of the Arctic that went beyond simply fascination or bewilderment. Indeed, it seems to have literally haunted them, with many of those explorers writing of strange experiences, dreams and ghostly encounters while on their expeditions.

These experiences are the subject of a new book – available as a free PDF from UCL Press, or in paperback and hardcover editions – titled The Spectral Arctic: A History of Ghosts and Dreams in Polar Exploration. Written by historian Shane McCorristine, The Spectral Arctic “rethinks our understanding of Arctic exploration by paying attention to the importance of dreams and ghosts in the quest for the Northwest Passage”.

McCorristine has mined the “outpouring of texts” that accompanied Western exploration of the Arctic over the last few hundred years which often “attempted to express the strangeness and magic of polar experience”:

Throughout the nineteenth century, ghosts and shadowy interlocutors featured in the narratives of British explorers in the Arctic and their audiences back home. Taking the history of Sir John Franklin’s last Arctic expedition from the 1840s as my central focus, in this book I examine how spectral experiences such as dreaming, clairvoyante travel, reverie, spiritualism and ghost-seeing informed ideas of the Arctic and the searches for a Northwest Passage through the Arctic. The role of spectral experiences in this geographical quest has not been adequately addressed before and I argue that integrating them into the cultural history of exploration revises traditional accounts of polar discovery that focus mainly on ‘men and maps’. This book, then, is about the cultural production of the spectral in Arctic narratives and what this can tell us about Victorian exploration and its legacies.

The book is a serious academic study which isn’t simply a list of Fortean stories (although there is certainly plenty of interest in that area), but rather a study in psychology, a narrative of grand exploration, and a wonderful exploration of the topic of ‘spirits of place’.

McCorristine says that the book makes two key arguments. The first is that British Arctic explorers “recognised and reflected on the spectral aspects of being in the Arctic”, which included “having strange dreams, reveries, hallucinations and other supernatural experiences.”

Highlighting these stories, he says, “complicates the pervasive idea that explorers were always, or always thought of themselves as, rational actors in a wild region.”

The second key argument of the book is that…

…the Arctic became so much more than an unknown, empty space waiting to be discovered and mapped by elite men. Rather, nineteenth-century audiences saw the Arctic as a dreamlike zone that overflowed the cartographic and literary space in which it was traditionally bounded by that tiny group of men who promoted and handled polar exploration. Because of the spectral power of the Arctic as an idea, it could be sensed remotely, dreamed about, imagined and consumed by people who were at a great distance from the Arctic geographically and politically. This was especially so for British women: although they had no formal access to the exclusively male expeditions, from the 1840s women began to feature as ghostly presences in Arctic fiction and poetry, haunting the journeys of men and adding emotional dimensions to cultures of exploration. Alongside this literary development, young women were able to psychically travel to the Arctic in search of lost explorers through the popular techniques of clairvoyance, mesmerism, and spiritualism.

There is so much more worth discussing in this book – from the power of dreams through to indigenous shamanism – but given it is available as a free PDF download, I simply recommend that you grab a copy and read through it yourself – it’s absolutely fascinating.

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