Coolest point on the compass

The Idea of North
July 14, 2006

This provocative book explores manifestations of the idea of North in literature, music, the visual arts and material culture.

Chapter one, "Histories", charts the development of a range of ideas, from a poem by the late-Roman aristocrat Boethius celebrating the cleansing power of the North wind, to the Icelandic bishop Olaus Magnus's 17th-century meditations on the properties of cold. Chapter two, "Imaginations of north", discusses another eclectic selection of Northern sites, meditating on topics including the relationship between ice and glass, Northern exile, and "revenants", the dead who haunt those Northern territories where boundaries between the living and the spirit-world break down. Finally, chapter three, "Topographies", examines the distinctive articulation of ideas of North in Scandinavia, Japan and China, Canada and Britain.

Throughout, the author explores what he sees as the central tension in representations of North, a tension between "a place of darkness and dearth, the seat of evil" and "a place of purification, an escape from the limitations of civilisation". Dreams of a Hyperborean paradise beyond the North Pole, compete with diabolical associations, from the Book of Isaiah, via Dante and Chaucer, to Blake.

Davidson's evocative prose and sensitive analyses of an impressive range of sources heighten the reader's appreciation of the rich complexity of humanity's imagined Norths. Themes and arguments swirl through his narrative: the North as a source of treasure, a stage for marvels, a locus of authenticity, a place always out of reach. The works of Ingmar Bergman and the Finnish writer Tove Jansson prompt a moving consideration of "the undertow of melancholy" in representations of the Northern summer, a season of celebration and healing, haunted by the long darkness to follow.

But there are problems. "Everyone carries their own idea of North within them," Davidson repeats four times in the opening pages. The introduction declares that a "comprehensive" history would be "unthinkable": "the selection of subjects, of areas for consideration, has to be subjective".

This subjectivity is a strength of the book and a source of frustration.

The decision to eschew the well-trodden paths of exploration in favour of less familiar terrain is welcome. The book offers fascinating readings of the works, among others, of Norwegian film-maker Knut Eric Jensen and Scottish artist Reinhard Behrens. An extended discussion of W. H. Auden is effective, unpicking myriad ideas of North woven into Auden's works under the influence of Icelandic sagas and the writer's Pennine wanderings. But Davidson offers no explanation of the principles behind his selection.

Popular culture receives little attention, and while England and Scotland benefit from a penetrating series of reflections on urban pastoral, exile, authenticity, decay and regeneration, Japan and China get cursory mention, and a brief section on Canada fails to engage with the recent anthropological literature. The voices of the Inuit are noticeably faint.

Given that the range of Davidson's scholarship is one of the book's strengths, the absence of an index is particularly frustrating.

Max Jones is lecturer in modern British history, Manchester University.

The Idea of North

Author - Peter Davidson
Publisher - Reaktion
Pages - 1
Price - £16.95
ISBN - 1 86189 230 6

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