“The Far North: A Cultural History”
By Bernd Brunner, translated by Jefferson Chase; W.W. Norton & Company, 2022; 256 pages $27.95.
Since ancient times, the European mind has been occupied by the North. For the Greeks, the mythical region of Hyperborea and the mythical northern island of Ultima Thule offered a vision of a world devoid of distortions, purer and closer to nature than those of the city-states of their Mediterranean civilization. The North became dreadful for the Romans, who extended their imperial influence far into it, but lived in fear of the tribes that poured in from its wild regions. Medieval Europeans lived in terror of Viking depredations from Scandinavia, but today that same region of Europe is widely regarded as the most politically advanced and peaceful corner of the world, even as its legends, expropriated by Nazi Germany, continue to inspire even more. Strongly racist white nationalists on this planet.
It’s a complex history, part of which is barely summarized above. As the German historian Bernd Brunner explains in his book The Far North: A Cultural History, it is history that remains one-sided even for an author sympathetic to broader interpretations.
Let’s first define what this book is: it is not a cultural history of the North. Brunner himself acknowledges that, by virtue of geography, what constitutes the North is difficult to define. What seems self-evident to Alaskans—we live in the North, after all—is a different concept than a refugee from Guatemala, or for whom “North” means nothing more than a Texan. If we were to define the North as the North Pole and the subpolar parts of the planet, however, as Brunner eventually did, we would not have found the point of this book.
What appears to be the “far north” is the cultural response of Europeans, especially Germans, to the idea of the North. Therefore, Brunner’s North is primarily Scandinavia (with occasional forays into Iceland). Greenland gets some attention, while Alaska, Canada and Russian Siberia are hardly more than passing mentions. The long history of the Aboriginal people group is ignored, with only a few listed by name.
From the outset, Brunner is unclear about where he wants to take this book. He opens and closes it in the Cabinet of Wonders kept by Dane Ole Worm in the early to mid 17th century. Filled with objects collected from the north – including a narwhal’s tusk, which in those days still served as evidence of a rhinoceros – the treasury hints at the wonders to be revealed by following the needle of a compass. Unfortunately, the promise of those wonders was never fulfilled.
The first sections of the book summarize how mapmakers came to account for a part of the globe that remained largely unexplored by Europeans until recent centuries. Even the idea that the north should sit on top of a map or a globe only came into existence over time, as we know, and what lies in the region is the realm of imaginary theorists and inspectors.
Once the Europeans set about filling in the blanks in their maps, Brunner’s account accelerates, and readers join the cavalcade of explorers, sea captains, naturalists, and eventually tourists who journeyed north, tending to find what they were looking for. Any north reflects their desires in it.
The nineteenth century was, in many ways, the pinnacle of dalliance with Europe stretching far north. Leisure tourism became accessible to the emerging middle class, in conjunction with the popularization of Viking legends, seen as local alternatives to biblical tales set in the Levant. The North has been put forward as the birthplace of European culture, especially Germanic culture, a misconception that would help lead Germany into the abyss in the next century.
What Brunner hardly touches on is the enormous effort that Britain in particular was making at that time to explore and map the Arctic, and how this expansion, often met with tragedy and failure, defined “the North” in the minds of English, Canadian and American citizens, who had learned to look To the world much differently than the Germans. And this is to say nothing of the impact of the arrival of Europeans on indigenous groups over North America, Greenland, Scandinavia, and Russia. The cultural history of the North is really the history of a great many Nordics, often in conflict with one another, and while Brunner pays periodic attention to this fact, he mostly ignores it.
The book culminates in an examination of how Nordic myths, the quest for a common identity sought by diverse Germanic peoples as they coalesced into a unified state, were exploited by Adolf Hitler and the Nazi leadership to create the myth of Aryan perfection. At this level, Brunner succeeds admirably. He is outspoken about the racist nature of Nazi views on northern culture, stating that “Although the Laplanders and Eskimos were the inhabitants of the North, Hitler denied them any ability whatsoever to create a culture”.
Brunner does not deny this ability on the part of the natives, but he largely ignores it. He never explored the ways in which different people responded to the diverse climates and ecosystems of the North, creating cultures in the process.
I don’t want to condemn Bruner’s work, for the most part it’s very good for what it is (although the use of the term “Eskimo” is an example of how it remains ingrained in the European view). In our present political moment, when erratic Norse myths once again fuel dreams of ethno-nationalist fever, he delivers an important warning. However, if he had paid more attention to the diverse cultures of the North, he would have done better to refute the misuse of history and culture. In an effort to show how Europeans misunderstood and at times mistreated the North, he instead fostered a very narrow conception of it. A different title or broader focus would have served this book well. Readers can learn a lot from it, and it is lyrically written and translated. But they will not end it with an understanding of the cultural history of the North. It’s a good book. It just isn’t what it presents itself as.
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