The Idea of North.
Author: Debies-Carl, Jeffrey S.
Pub Date: 01/01/2009
Publication: Name: Cultural Analysis Publisher: Cultural Analysis Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Social sciences Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2009 Cultural Analysis ISSN: 1537-7873
Issue: Date: Annual, 2009 Source Volume: 8
Accession Number: 249607725
Full Text: The Idea of North. By Peter Davidson. Topographics. London: Reaktion, 2005. Pp. 271, introduction, notes, illustrations, image credits.

One can see and feel a place in a physical sense, but each place also carries an "overload of possible meanings" and presents an "assault on all ways of knowing" (Hayden, Dolores. 1995. The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 18). In The Idea of North, Peter Davidson provides just such a perspective on place, as both tangible and deeply meaningful. However, rather than focusing his analysis on any particular locale, this book examines the concept of north itself from a variety of perspectives. North is impossible to locate precisely, in part because its location and meaning vary by culture and by individual. Instead it is presented as "always a shifting idea, always relative, always going away from us" (8). To the painter Eric Ravilious, north was Iceland and the arctic regions of the world; to Ovid, north was Bulgaria; and to the contemporary poet, Simon Armitage? Why, north is right 'here,' in his home in West Yorkshire, England. North is seen as a direction, a feeling, a place that is usually other than "here," that is both real and imagined. For some, north may call to mind remoteness, loneliness, desolation, exile, and melancholy. Yet, just as readily, north may invoke adventure, savage and austere beauty, purity, freedom, and the possibility of the unknown, all expanding outward to the distant horizon. All of these ideas of north, and more, are culled from Davidson's intensive, cross-cultural survey of art, literature, film, myth, and personal experience. The end result is a fine work that communicates the depth and range of meanings that have come to be associated with this concept.

The main portion of the book is organized into three sections: Histories, Imaginations of the North, and Topographies. Each of these sections examines ideas of north as embodied in a particular set of media or forms (although these overlap somewhat from chapter to chapter) We are told that the materials selected for inclusion were considered to be "particularly indicative or representative" (19) of each category rather than comprehensive or randomly selected--an understandable method given the scope of the work. Despite this selectivity, the reader is indeed given a wide range of materials to consider. The first section of the book provides "a history of ideas of the north, from ... archaic Greece, through the medieval and renaissance periods of speculation and cartography, to. the nineteenth century" (19). The following section on "Imaginations of the North" focuses more closely on the ways that ideas of north have been captured and portrayed by artists, writers, and film-makers, while the final section examines more specific topographies of the north ranging from Canada, the United Kingdom, Scandinavia, China, and Japan. Along the way, the reader is treated to analyses of materials of striking diversity. We are presented, for instance, with Icelandic sagas where dead spirits sing gustily in their open barrows, Sami tales about wizards who sail across the seas on a bit of enchanted bone, works of art that purposely exploit and confound the similarities between ice and snow, the (post)industrial landscapes of Britain, and accounts of a dry Japanese river bed which divides this world from the next, and where one can here the sobbing of ghostly children. Despite this great diversity, all of these materials express some concept of the north, and contain many similar, if often competing, themes (e.g. north as the place of death, north as a source of truth, etc.).

No work is without its faults of course. Two shortcomings in particular detract from the overall contribution of the text: one conceptual and one practical. First, Davidson offers no concise thesis. The main theme seems to be that the idea of north moves people to extremes. However, Davidson does not provide any more specific arguments that could contribute to the scholarly effort to understand the relationship between people and place. For instance, why is north a powerful concept? Is it something intrinsic to the properties of a round planet, shortages of daylight, and cold weather? Or does it have to do with something inherent in the human condition, where areas and others far removed are considered otherworldly or inhuman? The book seems to imply both explanations without ever directly stating them. The second shortcoming of the book is more practical: it lacks a bibliography and, worse, an index. This makes it exceedingly difficult to consult the book once one has finished reading it, a particularly vexing issue considering the scope of sources detailed within it.

Despite these issues, The Idea of North is a powerful and impressive piece of scholarship. The northern places included here range from the "real" (e.g. Scandinavia), to the fictitious (e.g. Nabokov's Zembla), to the mythological (e.g. the Hyperborea of the Greeks). But since the north is both real and imagined, perhaps the importance of distinguishing between real and unreal places is not so great after all. As Yi-Fu Tuan (2001. Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota.) reminds us in his classic study of place, Europeans once firmly believed in the reality of both a paradise on Earth and (of particular relevance to Davidson's book) a Northwest Passage, despite repeatedly failed and often disastrous efforts to find them. None of these failures dissuaded the belief in these places, however, since "[s]uch places had to exist because they were key elements in a complex system of belief" (Tuan 2001, 85-86). Thus, the idea of north is itself influential, is itself a motivating principle of social and cultural significance, regardless of whether that idea is coupled with an actual, physical location, and regardless of whether any two people agree on any particular location as northern in character. Davidson's work helps the reader appreciate this reality for what it is.

Jeffrey S. Debies-Carl

University of New Haven

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