043 📻 A dreamer dreams a polar dream.

🚨 Assume there are spoilers everywhere. 🚨

Sometimes I browse through my reading app’s nonfiction categories without any particular aim. I just feel like reading a nonfiction book, not because nonfiction contains any less fiction than a book categorized as fiction, but because nonfiction tends to have a certain style that partially comes from the authors and readers having agreed to believe that it has less fiction in it. In other words, the fiction that says that nonfiction has less fiction than fiction partially contributes to the seemingly nonfictional style of nonfiction.

 So sometimes, I browse. And although at such times, I have no particular aim as to what I want to get out of a nonfiction book, I do have an overall expectation as to the topic of such a book. For example, if I entered the social science category, I expect the book to be about social science. Pretty straightforward, right? Sounds pretty predictable. A social science book in the social science category.

But then, sometimes, I come across books with topics that are in the correct overall category, and yet have such an unexpected twist to their topics that I am… I am thrilled. And it’s even more thrilling when said unexpected twist to the topic of the book specifically addresses the inevitable fictional nature of what is considered nonfiction. And that twist in the topic itself becomes part of the theme—the overall attitude of the book.

That is how I found and started reading the book “The Spectral Arctic: A History of Dreams and Ghosts in Polar Exploration” by Shane McCorristine. It has a theme that I just… I didn’t go about my life thinking that there would be a book about this particular theme, especially not in the form of a nonfiction book.

First, I thought the title was cool. “Spectral Arctic.” Oooh. I started reading the book right away. And in its early pages, the author nicely sums up the book. Quote,

Taking the history of Sir John Franklin’s last Arctic expedition from the 1840s as my central focus, in this book I examine how spectral experiences such as dreaming, clairvoyante travel, reverie, spiritualism and ghost-seeing informed ideas of the Arctic and the searches for a Northwest Passage through the Arctic. The role of spectral experiences in this geographical quest has not been adequately addressed before and I argue that integrating them into the cultural history of exploration revises traditional accounts of polar discovery that focus mainly on ‘men and maps’. This book, then, is about the cultural production of the spectral in Arctic narratives and what this can tell us about Victorian exploration and its legacies.

“The Spectral Arctic: A History of Dreams and Ghosts in Polar Exploration” by Shane McCorristine

End quote.

This part here is especially lovely. “…the cultural production of the spectral in Arctic narratives.” This part makes it clear that the author plans to keep in mind that he isn’t dealing with Arctic facts, but “Arctic narratives,” which have been culturally produced.

And I was so thrilled about finding a book about such a weird lovely theme, I looked up Mr. McCorristine. From his website, quote,

I am an interdisciplinary historian with interests in what I call the ‘night side’ of modern experience – namely social attitudes toward death, dreams, ghosts, hallucinations, and the ‘more than rational’. My research argues that, far from being peripheral, these aspects of life were central in making people (especially in western societies) feel modern. In looking at these topics I draw on a variety of approaches and literatures from cultural history, human geography, environmental humanities, and medical humanities.

Shane McCorristine’s Website

End quote.

Isn’t this lovely? He says, “…far from being peripheral, these aspects of life were central in making people (especially in western societies) feel modern.” The emphasis on the word “feel,” this time, is mine. “Feel modern.”

What a weird lovely focus. Also, he has a nice website.

Sometimes I find someone and I look them up and all they have is a social media profile and barely that. And at other times I find a well-organized website like Mr. McCorristine’s, and I am thrilled. I am grateful. Thank you. Thank you for allowing me to link to your own website, with relevant links and all. For example, here is another title of a book that he links from his website: ”William Corder and the Red Barn Murder: Journeys of the Criminal Body.” What? Whaaat? Well, there is the word “murder” and the word “journeys” and then “criminal body.” So… It must be a good book.

Anyway, back to “The Spectral Arctic.” This book excellently shows how what’s categorized as nonfiction is no less fictional than what’s categorized as fiction. It also excellently shows how one side of duality relies on the other side. For example, for someone to feel rational they need the irrational. In fact, they need the irrational more than anybody who isn’t interested in feeling rational.

And perhaps the most central irony of apparent dualistic elements actually being one within duality is that objectivity as represented in the stereotypical Enlightenment way relies on the separation between observer and observee, when, in reality, in actual reality, the two cannot be separated and therefore objectivity isn’t objective in the way that a separationist dreams of. Yes, dreams of. It is a dream that there can exist an objectivity that is independent of observer and observee. Nobody lives in the same world. If it looks like some people live in the same world, it’s because they agreed to subscribe to the worldview that supports that same world. There is no objectivity that isn’t the coincidental, intentional, or unconscious agreement of subjective worldviews.

In the book, “The Spectral Arctic,” there are plenty of mentions of the supernatural, as defined by the Enlightenment folks and similar schools of thought. But in this episode, I won’t talk much about such supernatural elements, because the most supernatural perspective depicted in this book wasn’t the so-called supernatural stuff. The most supernatural perspective was the one adopted by so-called rational and scientific people. It was supernatural because of how much effort above and beyond nature they must have put in to maintain their worldview.

Which makes this book quite humorous. The obsession with feeling scientific, as depicted in the book, is astounding. There seems to have been great fear for some of the people depicted in this book, about looking unscientific. But because they saw themselves as soooo scientific, they couldn’t admit that they wanted to feel scientific instead of actually being scientific, as defined by they themselves. It sounds like the spacetime covered in the book was one where such unscientificness was actually bought and sold as the pinnacle of science.

And it is my interpretation that their lack of science sprouts from the wrong division of observer and observee. Yes, wrong. Because in reality, in actual reality, the two cannot be separated.

When you and I stand right next to each other and we look at the sky “together,” in air quotes, we’re not looking at the same sky. Everything I perceive of the sky will be different from everything you perceive of the sky. One may attempt to measure the temperature of the day and the latitude and altitude of where we stand and in various other ways attempt to represent our situation objectively, but at the most basic level, it’s literally not possible for you and I to stand on exactly at the same spot. Like, we would have to overlap exactly, and that would not be possible. It’s not possible even for identical twins.

Even if you were to stand at one spot and then were to move aside so I can stand at that exact same spot, time would have passed. The wind will have blown. The light will have shifted slightly. The sky we look at will not be the same.

Again, one may attempt to put together all the data points of the various times and spaces we’ve looked at the sky. And sure, we could agree to call the sky blue. But the blue I looked at, am looking at, and will look at is not the same as any blue you looked at, are looking at, and will look at. All statical datasets are but faded collections of the averages of the vivid things that were actually experienced.

There are many mentions of dreams in this book, and at times, even dreams are seen as being separate from the dreamer. Also, at times, dreams are seen as being separate from the waking life.

I wonder how that is possible. Unless one adopts the worldview where the dreaming “I” isn’t the “I” of the waking life, how? In other words, unless the “I” becomes someone else while dreaming, how is it possible for the dream to be separate from the dreamer and for the dream to be separate from waking life?

If “I” am still “I” while I dream, just like “I” am “I” during my waking life, then the dreaming “I” is not separate from the waking “I.” The dream isn’t separate from the waking life.

From the book, quote,

Polar explorers frequently used dreams and dreaminess to explain what motivated them to travel to the poles.

“The Spectral Arctic: A History of Dreams and Ghosts in Polar Exploration” by Shane McCorristine

End quote.

This need to explain motivations is also quite interesting. Partially it was probably to get funding for the large ships, the employment of the crew, and all their food and medicine and other elements that were necessary for a long voyage. But also partially, using dreams as an explanation both extends and contradicts a person’s need to feel scientific. In other words, such a person always needs a reason other than “I just wanna do it” and at the same time, because the reason exists in the dreamland that is seen by some as existing separately from the waking life, the reason isn’t scientific enough.

This might have been why some others depicted in the book did not use dreams as an explanation for their motivation for polar exploration. Instead, they used other explanations, such as, quote, “how a rational male hero either conquers or is conquered by an inanimate and alien nature.” End quote. In other words, they used the, quote, “‘heroic man versus harsh environment’ myth.” End quote.

Also, quote,

In the emergent myth of British polar expedition it was not just the conquering of space that was at stake, therefore, but the unfolding and testing of patriotic duty and spirituality in the face of disaster.

“The Spectral Arctic: A History of Dreams and Ghosts in Polar Exploration” by Shane McCorristine

End quote.

Look at that. If all that isn’t fiction, what is?

The author specifically mentions one person named Barrow, who was crucial in forming Arctic narratives along these lines.

And quote,

Overall, the important thing for establishing narrative authority for Barrow was to maintain a separation between the subject and the world: even if the explorer became immersed in foreign spaces or societies, his body must always be shown to be under the control of his mind.

“The Spectral Arctic: A History of Dreams and Ghosts in Polar Exploration” by Shane McCorristine

End quote.

This attempt to separate the subject and the world is astoundingly irrational to the maximum. I know of no person—who is actually a person and not a robot—for whom this separation between their body and their environment is possible. And it’s not even desirable. Dear fellow Thursday’s children, we really gotta think about this. Where does this idea that, if you keep yourself unaffected by your environment, you’re rational or controlled or strong or whatever, come from? Where? When did this start? When we read books like this, “The Spectral Arctic,” it’s evident that Mr. Barrow’s worldview wasn’t a given in the times before him. No, he thinks he is representing something new and desirable and right. And so, we here, two hundred years after the time when he was active, have a choice.

Does this view make sense?

I say, it does not. But Mr. Barrow was apparently quite influential and he did his best to tell his story the way he pleased. Quote,

Perseverance despite bodily pain is a theme that runs through Barrow’s summary of this classic age of British Arctic exploration. … Barrow argued that what made men like Parry, Franklin, Back and James Clark Ross legitimate representatives of British endeavor was the moral energy to keep going without complaining, confident in the guidance of Providence. Ignoring the physical and psychological torment suffered by voyageurs and other indigenous guides, Barrow celebrated the commanders.’

“The Spectral Arctic: A History of Dreams and Ghosts in Polar Exploration” by Shane McCorristine

End quote.

Also, Mr. Barrow uses descriptions like this. Quote,

…a fine example of manly resolution under the most distressing difficulties, and of pious resignation to the Divine will.’

“The Spectral Arctic: A History of Dreams and Ghosts in Polar Exploration” by Shane McCorristine

End quote.

If only Mr. Barrow had accepted that he was telling a story. He was forming a narrative, nothing more. I mean, look how even religion is a struggle for him. A fight. It’s marvelous that a person can create a god that always punishes and challenges, and call that a god. Mr. Barrow is by no means alone in creating that narrative. And this goes back to the need for the opposing dualistic element if one is to cling and obsess over the other dualistic element. To feel rational one needs the irrational; to feel courageous one needs the cowardly, and so on and so forth. In other words, someone like Mr. Barrow wants, needs, expects, desires, cherishes, and loves “distressing difficulties,” as he puts it.

Without such ”distressing difficulties,” he doesn’t know how to define himself. He does not exist separately from the “distressing difficulties” no matter how much he believes he is trying to separate himself from them.

He, the observer, is not separate from the observee. And by observee, I mean everything that is observed. Everything in Mr. Barrow’s world. Everything that he observes and thereby uses to shape his narrative is he, the observer.

And yet, while doing this, he does not recognize that he is therefore the “distressing difficulties.” In fact, he is those whom he doesn’t want to include ub his narrative. His narrative relies on that which isn’t his narrative.

The popularity of stories like Mr. Barrow’s was how it was possible for these British men to go to places where other people were already living, and literally pretended that those people didn’t exist. They took Mr. Barrow’s ideals of not being affected by the environment to the highest degree and literally made the population already living in the Arctic irrelevant. This book talks about such Eurocentrism, which, during the time period that is the focus of this book, was done by men. Upon checking the website for Sponge, which has a search feature, I haven’t used the word “Eurocentrism,” specifically, so far, perhaps because I have never perceived Europe as being the center of anything. From my observation, this is mainly a word used by Europeans to criticize their own centrism.

But I do use words like “the Western view,” which is such a vague descriptor. And even that descriptor that is already so vague, when I really think about it, doesn’t… it doesn’t really mean anything absolute. So, it’s vague and on top of that, it’s not even… it’s not even meaningful in a vague way.

The reason I mention this is that… when words like Eurocentrism or “Western view” are used, it may seem like they mean something because the narrative of the West or Europe being a certain way has been so commonly spread, especially in the West or in Europe. But that narrative, just like anything else that’s supposedly nonfiction, is… fictional. The narratives of Eurocentrism and the Western way sometimes explicitly say or imply that non-Eurocentric or non-Western ways don’t share characteristics with Europe or the West. And this may be so during a particular time period. But overall… I think such narratives are fictional.

For example, Asian philosophy may seem like it was less dualistic, but Asian society and history shows that the application of such philosophy was limited in scope in a way that was convenient for people who prioritized the feeling of being a subscriber to such philosophies more than actually subscribing to such philosophies.

Sometimes I get the vibe that there is a narrative that implies Asian countries didn’t invade the West because Asians were… more peaceful? Or… I don’t know, better in some way, because they weren’t so eager to believe in a one-God, or something along those lines?

That narrative is fictional. Someone somewhere in Asia would have invaded someone somewhere in Europe, had Europe not invaded Asia first. Asians aren’t more peaceful than Europeans. Asian philosophies and religions aren’t more peaceful. We just happen to live in a timeline in which the order of events makes it so that a concept like Eurocentrism is a narrative that is not infrequently adopted.

The partial reason why Western perspectives were so successful in Asia was that those in power, in Asia, so conveniently pretended to be something that they weren’t, while actively neglecting a whole bunch of people.

So, for example, in Korea, Christianity, which has a history of committing sins and crimes that Christianity itself defines as sins and crimes, was able to be sold and bought as a religion of equality, because Korean society at the time was by no means equal. All the seemingly non-dualistic philosophies and religions in Korea and elsewhere in Asia were also as abused as Christianity was in the West.

That doesn’t mean that Christianity was better than what was there before. It was not better and is not better. It—or those who attempted to spread Christianity in Korea at the time—simply knew what story to tell. Life sucked for the slaves in Korea. Life sucked for the lower classes. And then Christianity brought this narrative of equality, which isn’t better or true or nonfiction, when you consider Europe’s history. Life also sucked for the slaves and lower-class people of Europe, no doubt. And look how Mr. Barrow describes the British Arctic explorations. He thinks they’re doing it in the name of God. He thinks ignoring the indigenous people is what God wants.

But a narrative doesn’t need to be better or true or nonfiction. Every narrative is fictional. It just needs to fit the circumstances of a particular spacetime, and a narrative becomes powerful and useful.

And the same applies to Asian philosophies and religions spreading in the West. And always, when such spreading occurs, it’s never the same as how the thing is perceived in its place of origin.

Always, the observer and observee cannot be separated. There is no objective one Christianity or one Buddhism or one anything. I have not seen attempts to create one version be successful. Never in history, actually. Always, that obsession with objectivity leads to that attempter committing sins and crimes as defined by them. Not as defined by me, but as defined by them.

This isn’t to say that we should be nothing. Not at all. We like what we like and dislike what we dislike. But the labeling, especially labeling for the purposes of forming a group narrative in the name of objectivity or something similar, is futile. It’s just agreeing on worldviews. It’s not more objective.

This book is filled with examples of how the rational man needs another to be irrational in order for himself to be rational, therefore he is the contributor to the existence of anything that he deems irrational. Most notably, the doctors who worked with clairvoyants needed the clairvoyants to be ignorant. One clairvoyant needed to stay, quote, “wholly ignorant of the mode by which a knowledge of distant things is obtained,” end quote, because only then could the doctor figure say that any information she collected on her clairvoyant trips was actually from her clairvoyance, instead of any previous knowledge. The doctor figures describe some clairvoyants as “childish” and yet such doctor figures are the ones who need the clairvoyants to stay uninformed, so badly, that they only belatedly think of teaching the clairvoyant how to read time from a clock, when, literally, they wanted the clairvoyant to go on her clairvoyant trip specifically to gather information. Like… what? Seriously, some of the behavior described in this book, performed by so-called scientific people, is so astoundingly unscientific that it is unbelievable.

And there is a very irrational fear for the supernatural going on, in the guise of rationality. In the book, the author quotes D. Graham Burnett, who said, quote,

On the one hand, the explorer was obliged to believe (and demonstrate) that Amerindian claims about geographical spirits were devoid of substance. On the other hand, the explorer’s identity as intrepid and courageous, his heroic character, hinged on the imminent potency of the ‘hostile forces’ he confronted. This ambivalence required subjecting native place-myths and ‘superstition’ to ridicule while at the same time offering some subtle intimation of their power.

“The Spectral Arctic: A History of Dreams and Ghosts in Polar Exploration” by Shane McCorristine

End quote.

If one were truly rational, one would see that one would have to pick one side. Either one can say that the indigenous cultures are laughable, or that they are powerful. But they cannot be both at the same time at the convenience of the picker, if the picker wants to be actually rational.

And, the book makes it quite clear, most people who called themselves rational scientific objective whatever were not actually so. They weren’t even interested in actually being so. They just wanted to feel like they were.

Now, if one doesn’t put objectivity and related virtues on the highest pedestal, it becomes very easy to be everything at the same time. Most things are everything and nothing at the same time. That is the actual reality, so much so that there is no separation between observer and observee. Whatever we see, that, we are. There is no objective reality that exists separately from us. There is no objective reality that awaits finding or conquering or whatever.

There are some beautiful quotes in the book that adopt this observer-as-observee narrative. The author refers to the works of the twentieth-century French philosopher, Gaston Bachelard in relation to, quote,

… the idea of reverie.

Bachelard took the reverie to be a creative daydream that, in contrast to the nocturnal dream, occurred during a period of ‘relaxed time.’

Bachelard thought of the moment of reverie as a time when subject and object folded into each other, thereby transforming Descartes’ famous cogito formulation: ‘I dream the world, therefore, the world exists as I dream it’ … The reverie, in this understanding, has ontological consequences, for the ‘dreamer’s being invades what it touches, diffuses into the world … The world no longer poses any opposition to him. In reverie there is no more non-I’ … .

“The Spectral Arctic: A History of Dreams and Ghosts in Polar Exploration” by Shane McCorristine

End quote.

This. This is what I mean, expressed much more eloquently.

And there is another beautiful idea here, on the conception of space as “atmospherical,” referring to the work of Anderson.

Space is seen, quote,

…as something that is leaky, that stretches and that involves the unbounded movement of affects between bodies, minds, spirits and things. Building on this notion of space as unstable, elastic and spectral, recent re-formulations of subjectivity posit the idea of a person as equally porous, an unbounded entity through which other subjectivities may flow.

“The Spectral Arctic: A History of Dreams and Ghosts in Polar Exploration” by Shane McCorristine

End quote.

What a beautiful beautiful description.

Also, regarding clairvoyance, quote,

Making claims about the future is something that has always been political because it touches on issues of power and authority.

“The Spectral Arctic: A History of Dreams and Ghosts in Polar Exploration” by Shane McCorristine

End quote.

This is an interesting interpretation. The doctor figures could not allow the clairvoyants to have too much power—real or perceived, it doesn’t matter. So-called real power is perceived power. The observer is the observee. So long as the observer thinks the observee has power, the observee has power. There is an excellent related quote from Game of Thrones.

Power resides where men believe it resides. It’s a trick. A shadow on the wall. And a very small man can cast a very large shadow.

Game of Thrones

All this to say, again, we are what we see. Cease to dream the dream of the separationist, and things make much more sense. More importantly, we can be whole. There is no need for labels for the use of some outside entity, because the only reality that matters is each of our own.

All links


  • Laurel Violet – Mysa

Image source


Everything I do is organized here:


© 2023 Ithaka O.

About me

🌊 Call me Ithaka. Everything I do is organized here.