Friday, 2 November 2012

Polar Dreams, Ghosts and Psychics, a talk by Shane McCorristine

 On Hallowee’n 2012, Shane McCorristine gave a talk to a mixed audience at the Polar Museum in Cambridge, examining cultural meanings of the Arctic.  It turns out that we betray a surprising ambivalence to what at first glance might just seem an unproblematic place of ice and cold.  McCorristine has utilised a wide range of sources, from explorers’ diaries, memoirs and anecdotes, to folk tales and ghost stories, in order to build a picture of the underside of the top of the world, its, as he called it, “Supernaturality.”  Our standard image of the Arctic is of the landscape as majestic and starkly beautiful, a magical environment, carrying connotations of purity, magnificent beauty, and wonder.  Concomitantly, the image of polar exploration is of the rational masculine explorer, valorising sacrifice and achievement, a story of endeavour, teamwork, of comradeship in a challenging environment, imposing a human presence on a blank canvas.  In short, a Boy's Own story.

Yet but the ice can also be seen as female, an ice maiden, comforting yet treacherous.  There is a dark side to polar exploration, and magic can be two-edged, black as well as white.  Of course the obvious point is that death and injury are ever-present, as is starvation, and even the necessity for cannibalism to survive.  McCorristine had some graphic examples of the damage extreme cold can do to the body, especially hands and feet, from losing fingers to skin sloughing off feet “like a sock”, or a foot becoming so welded to a boot that it was impossible to know where one ended and the other began.  In addition to the physical pain, there is the risk of mental anguish and paranoia.  Even hypothermia is not the peaceful gradual falling asleep of common belief: the American explorer Elisha Kent Kane (who was romantically linked to Margaret Fox, a pioneer with her sisters of the Spiritualist movement) described it as like being electrocuted.

The typical Victorian view of the Arctic was that it was a tablua rasa, a lonely empty region (a common colonial attitude).  But this was wrong, as it is inhabited, with a history and culture.  However, this perceived emptiness, while it made it another place to be conquered, at the same time gave it the character of a realm of enchantment, an entry point to the supernatural.  It was a borderland, liminal, state where science and superstition met and where the supernatural threatened boundaries between worlds, where hallucinations undermined confidence in one’s abilities to distinguish reality from fantasy, and hardened explorers yearned for wives left behind; a dreamscape as much as a landscape.  McCorristine argues that it is the focus of cycles of enchantment in which we become enchanted, disenchanted and re-enchanted.

He touched on Shamanism and traditional beliefs in the region, the use of spirit guides by indigenous peoples to assist with survival in an unforgiving environment.  Their tent ceremonies link to nineteenth century séances as a method of utilising psychic abilities to obtain information.  The talk though focused on two aspects of the region’s uncanny.  The first is the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights), a sight guaranteed to fill the viewer with awe in any case, but accompanying which, folklore had asserted, are strange rustling noises, just at the threshold of perception.  The Lights bestow a kind of anthropomorphic quality, and the locals attribute the mysterious sounds to the souls of the dead.  Hesitation in determining the cause is a sign of the uncanny, unheimlich, as we struggle with interpretation.

Drawing of an aurora in Fridtjof Nansen's In Northern Mists (1911)

The bulk of the talk was devoted to the ill-fated expedition of Sir John Franklin and his gallant crew who in 1845 set out with two ships to locate the Northwest Passage, and then vanished.  The resting place of the ships, and Franklin himself, are unknown, and only a few bodies, remarkably well preserved, have so far been recovered.  McCorristine discussed the place of Franklin’s expedition in cultural history.  Its disappearance was a topic of enormous importance in the 1840s, fuelled by Jane Franklin, who refused to believe her husband was dead.  Sir John pushing out into the wastes while Jane stayed at home mapped directly on to the ideal of Victorian domesticity, but her behaviour after his disappearance indicated that she possessed steely determination of her own as she did all she could to locate her lost husband.

Franklin and his officers, Gleason's Pictorial, 18 October 1851

Efforts to find out what had happened took two forms, one physical, the other mental, as naval expeditions were supplemented by psychical investigations.  The mystery came at a time when interest in mesmerism was at its peak, and ascertaining the expedition’s whereabouts was a prime focus of animal magnetism’s “higher phenomena”, with clairvoyants submitting their accounts of what their visions told them.  Reports were generally positive, with most claiming that Franklin was still alive.  McCorristine gave us some examples, including the ‘Seeress of Bolton’ (a name perhaps modelled on the more celebrated Seeress of Prevorst) who psychometrised Franklin’s possessions, and Louisa “Weesy” Coppin, a dead four-year old child who appeared as a ball of bluish light.

This clairvoyant network covered the globe in parallel to more conventional methods of communication.  Information gleaned from mesmerised subjects from as far away as Australia and India was the best they had, given the information vacuum into which the expedition had sailed.  Given the vast publicity which caught the public imagination, Franklin became an industry, with ballads and knick-knacks to commemorate him, perhaps the best known being the folk song Lord Franklin (which begins, appropriately, with a dream).  McCorristine played a snatch of Martin Carthy’s version, but it is also well known through versions by A L Lloyd and more recently by Eilis Kennedy.  The Franklin industry continues today in both non-fiction and fiction, attempts, like the efforts of Victorian clairvoyants, to re-imagine his fate, while Sir John enjoys a vigorous afterlife online.  You could perhaps call it a Franklin mint.

HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, Illustrated Lonon News, 24 May 1845

The disaster was a turning-point in our view of the Arctic, as it became ghostly (a Canadian blog devoted to the search is called ‘Franklin’s Ghost’).  The linking of the Arctic to the controversial pursuit of mesmerism served to promote the frozen north as a region of secrets, and a gothic atmosphere was incorporated into its persona.  Even the names of Franklin’s ships – Erebus and Terror – seem to claim a mythic status.  The hunt for the two lost ships continues today, with Parks Canada still looking on an annual basis.  According to McCorristine, Canada has claimed Franklin as their own as part of their geopolitical aspirations in the region, with its considerable untapped resources.  Unlike earlier searches, the Canadians have taken Inuit testimony into account and found it surprisingly accurate, including accounts of cannibalism among the crew which have been confirmed by autopsies of the recovered bodies.

Part of McCorrstine’s research builds on Ralph Lloyd-Jones ‘The Paranormal Arctic: Lady Franklin, Sophia Cracroft, and Captain and 'Little Weesy' Coppin’  (Polar Record Vol. 37, pp.27-34, 2001), much of the research for which was also undertaken at Cambridge’s Scott Polar Research Institute, but as this fascinating talk demonstrated, there is a huge amount of mileage in exploring the polar uncanny.  Perhaps though, as the ice recedes and sea routes are opened, much of this mystery will be lost.  The sea passage, and exploitation of resources, may make the place grimy and banal, and its associations with exoticism seem as quaint as mesmerism does today.  In the meantime, McCorristine has done an absorbing, if occasionally macabre, job of highlighting the Arctic’s darker side, and our consequent fascination with the mysteries it refuses to yield.  One wonders what will happen when we voyage out into deep space.   Will that become a dreamscape as much as the Arctic was in the Victorian imagination?