Posted by: | 19th Jun, 2013

Arctic Reading Group Meeting #2

We will meet next Thursday May 23rd:

to discuss a few chapters from  Robert McGhee’s The Last Imaginary Place: A Human History Of The Arctic World.

Robert McGhee. 2005. The Last Imaginary Place: A Human History of the Arctic World.
Robert McGhee’s The Last Imaginary Place is either about the courageous nature of the western mind, or about its sheer lunacy in exploring the dangerous beauty of the arctic regions of our planet. I can’t decide which. Roughly half of this mesmerizing book defines the climate of the arctic regions of the world and the people throughout human history who have chosen to live there. The other half is dedicated to the largely western exploration of the arctic regions, the foolhardy gentlemen who sought a Northwest (or Northeast) passage through the Arctic, and how time and again they sacrificed ships and lives in the romantic quest of a mythical paradise, stores of gold, or easy passageways for international trade.McGhee opens the book with a poetic description of his first attractions to arctic climes and archaeology. He then discusses the ancient Greek search for Ultima Thule, the mythical tropical land thought to be undiscovered in the far northern reaches of the planet. The juxtaposition of icy reality and tropical fantasy emphasizes McGhee’s love for the Arctic, as seen in this quote:

A Disorienting, Dreamlike Strangeness

My early fascination with the Arctic was fed by images of its alien beauty. Like other southerners I saw a land of rock and ice, stripped to its essential stark form by the absence of forests, farmlands and intrusive remains of human endeavour. The perpetual daylight of Arctic summers added to the disorienting, dreamlike strangeness of this land, while the endless darkness and homicidal cold of winter were alluring in their menace (page 34)The book also describes the people who lived and live in Iceland, Greenland, northern Canada and Russia and other regions with arctic climates, how they cope, and how their lives have changed through time and contact with the modern world.

Quixotic Voyages to a Lethal and Alien Environment

The second half of The Last Imaginary Place is a gruelingly painful iteration of failed exploration and death. After a while, after the third or fifth or seventeenth failed voyage seeking a non-existent sea passage through arctic Canada, one is forced to conclude that the people who attempted such quixotic voyages – William Barents, Martin Frobisher, Henry Greene, Jens Munk, Samuel Hearne, John Franklin, and Robert Peary to name a few – were addled with greed for adventure, gold, or great shipping lanes. Again, McGhee puts it best: …[T]he story of Arctic exploration, which has so been cast as a simple tale of individual achievement, is far more than that. It is a narrative spun from the terror of being locked deep in the heart of a lethal and alien environment; the dreadful tedium as months of inactivity drag by in cramped and uncomfortable quarters; the homesickness that would barter life for the sight of a country garden; and the bleak depression that settles on those whose lives have been reduced to an apparently endless sentence of hard labour in a world of wind and ice (p. 132).
The Last Imaginary Place intersperses this narrative with numerous reports of the archaeological evidence of the various human occupations, including the failed voyages, and ample black and white and color photography. McGhee is a fiercely good writer, and The Last Imaginary Place evokes his fascination with the climate, people, and threat of the Earth’s arctic.

Leave a response

Your response:


Spam prevention powered by Akismet