“The Far North: A Cultural History”
By Bernd Brunner, translated by Jefferson Chase; WW Norton & Co., 2022; 256 pages; $27.95.
Since ancient times, the North has occupied the European mind. For the Greeks, the fabled region of Hyperborea and the mythical northern island of Ultima Thule offered a vision of a pristine world, purer and closer to nature than that found in the city-states of their Mediterranean civilization. The north became fearsome to the Romans, who extended their imperial reach there, but lived in fear of the tribes descended from their wilder regions. Medieval Europeans lived in fear of plundering Vikings from Scandinavia, but today that same region of Europe is widely viewed as the most politically progressive and peaceful corner of the world, even as its myths, which were hijacked by Nazi Germany, they continue to inspire the most fervently racist. white nationalists on the planet.
It’s a complicated story, with only a fraction of it summarized above. And as German historian Bernd Brunner demonstrates in “Extreme North: A Cultural History,” it’s a story that remains one-sided even for an author sympathetic to broader interpretations.
Let’s first define what this book is not: it is not a cultural history of the North. Brunner himself acknowledges that what constitutes the North is, due to geography, difficult to define. What seems self-evident to Alaskans (we live in the north, after all) is a different concept to a refugee from Guatemala, or to whom “north” means nothing more than Texas. However, if we want to define the North as the arctic and subarctic parts of the planet, as Brunner ends up doing, we have not yet fulfilled the purpose of this book.
What appears to be the “Far North” is the cultural response of Europeans, and especially Germans, to the idea of the North. This is why northern Brunner is mostly Scandinavia (with occasional forays into Iceland). Greenland gets little attention, while Alaska, Canada, and Russian Siberia hardly deserve more than a passing mention. The long histories of the panoply of indigenous residents are virtually ignored, with only a few listed by name.
From the start, Brunner seems unsure where he wants to take this book. It opens and closes in the cabinet of wonders owned by the Danish Ole Worm in the early to mid-17th century. Filled with items collected from the north, including a narwhal tusk, which at the time still served as evidence of unicorns, the cabinet hints at the wonders to be discovered by following the compass needle. The promise of these wonders is never fulfilled, unfortunately.
The first sections of the book summarize how cartographers came to deal with a part of the globe that remained largely unexplored by Europeans until the last few centuries. We learned that even the idea that north should be at the top of a map or globe arose over time, and what was in the region was the domain of fanciful and crazy theorists.
After Europeans begin filling in the blanks on their maps, Brunner’s account picks up speed and readers join a parade of explorers, sea captains, naturalists, and eventually tourists who traveled north intent on finding what they were looking for . That is, a north that reflected his wishes for him.
The 19th century was, in many ways, the height of Europe’s flirtation with its far north. Leisure tourism became accessible to an emerging middle class, coinciding with the popularization of Viking legends, seen as indigenous alternatives to Biblical tales set in the Levant. The North was presented as the cradle of European culture, specifically Germanic culture, a misconception that would help push Germany into the abyss in the following century.
What Brunner scarcely mentions is the immense amount of effort Britain, in particular, was putting into exploring and mapping the Arctic at the time, and how this expansion, often met with tragedy and failure, defined the ” North” in the minds of the English. Canadians and Americans. citizens, who learned to see the kingdom very differently from the Germans. And that’s not to mention the impact the arrival of Europeans had on indigenous groups in upper North America, Greenland, Scandinavia, and Russia. The cultural history of the North is truly a history of many Norths, often at odds with one another, and though Brunner periodically pays attention to this fact, he mostly ignores it.
The book culminates with an examination of how Nordic legends, channeled through the search for a common identity pursued by the various Germanic peoples when they merged into a unified state, were exploited by Adolf Hitler and the Nazi leadership to create the myth of Aryan perfection. At this level, Brunner is impressively successful. And he is explicit about the racist nature of Nazi views on Northern culture, noting that “although the Lapps and Eskimos were Northerners, Hitler denied them any ability to create culture.”
Brunner does not deny this ability on the part of the Indians, but largely ignores it. He never explores the ways in which different peoples responded to the varied climates and ecosystems of the North, creating cultures in the process.
I don’t mean to condemn Brunner’s work, for the most part it’s pretty good for what it is (although using the term “Eskimo” is an example of how entrenched it remains from a European perspective). In our current political moment, when misinterpreted Norse myths are again fueling ethnonationalist fever dreams, it is sounding an important warning. However, if he had paid more attention to the various cultures of the North, he could have better refuted this misuse of history and culture. By trying to show how Europeans misunderstood and sometimes mistreated the North, he reinforced a very narrow conception of it. A different title or broader focus would have been helpful for this book. Readers can learn a lot from it, and it is written and translated in lyrics. But they won’t end with an understanding of the cultural history of the North. It is a good book; It’s just not what it appears to be.
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