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Polar Exploration in Finnegans Wake

From: Joyce Studies Annual
pp. 312-326

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Polar Exploration in Finnegans Wake

Polar exploration in Finnegans Wake? This might seem like “nansense”1 to many readers weary of yet another eccentric reading of Joyce’s final text. However, upon closer inspection, we see that the names of some of the most famous polar explorers appear throughout the Wake. This note discusses two earlier appearances of the polar regions in Joyce’s work (in one of the “Epiphanies” and in Ulysses) and then goes on to argue that in Finnegans Wake polar exploration is integral to understanding the way in which Joyce represents the territorial aims of imperialism.

I begin here with an overview of the Heroic Age of Polar Exploration (the 1890s to the 1920s, roughly), to set the stage for the themes of imperialism that pervade Joyce’s engagement with polar conquest. In the late twentieth century, there was little uncharted territory left on earth. Most exploration had ended well before the twentieth century began with the exception of two vast, uncharted regions: the Arctic and the Antarctic. The preceding “nansense,” from II.3 of the Wake, alludes to Fridtjof Nansen, the Norwegian explorer and key figure of the Heroic Age. Nansen became an international figure after two significant achievements: In 1888, he led the first team to cross Greenland, and then Nansen’s North Pole expedition of 1893–96 reached a record northern latitude (86°14′).2 Chronicling both of his journeys in two popular books, The First Crossing of Greenland (1890) and Farthest North: Being a Record of a Voyage of Exploration of the Ship Fram, 1893–1896, and of a Fifteen Months’ Sleigh Journey (1897), Nansen’s bravery and heroism attracted a large following.3 In addition to his scientific, navigational and exploratory achievements, the excitement and danger of his travelogues inspired a generation of polar explorers.

In July 1895, the Sixth International Geographical Congress was held in London. The Congress was closely linked to the Royal Geographical [End Page 312] Society (RGS, founded 1830),4 although delegates from more than a dozen other nations were in attendance. During this period, the nature of geography as a discipline was being heavily debated,5 and the aims of much early geography, particularly involving mapping and surveying, were commonly discussed in terms of their role as a tool of imperialism.6 The polar regions were of highest concern to the Geographical Congress, and one of the primary talks of the Congress was on the subject of “Arctic and Antarctic Exploration.”7 Introduced by Georg von Neumayer (director of the German Maritime Observatory at Hamburg) and Clements Markham (president of the RGS),8 this session of the Congress decided that Antarctic exploration should be undertaken by the end of the century and needed to grow from international cooperation. Despite good intentions and the assertion by Neumayer that some rivalry would “stimulate the competition on a field ennobling the human race” (qtd. Lüdecke 129), the next Congress, held in Berlin 1889, revealed definite political rivalries (particularly between England and Germany) and led to the division of the field between these two nations.9

The necessity of cooperation for the purpose of “scientific progress” was overtaken by national pride, and thus the endeavor became the “race for the pole” as it is now known. David Mountfield argues in A History of Polar Exploration that behind the “sudden burst” of polar exploration in the last decade of the nineteenth century were two main motives: “scientific curiosity and individual, or nationalistic, rivalry.”10 Exploration simply provided another platform for individuals and nations to compete. Coupled with new developments in science and technology and the mystique of the polar regions, the politics of polar exploration ensured that the Heroic Age would be characterized by competition over the modernization and technological competence of individual nations.

Although Antarctica’s existence had been posited since the classical period, no record exists of any person actually seeing the continent until 1820. It would be almost another one hundred years until the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen (1872–1928) reached the South Pole on 14 December 1911. While reaching the poles might no longer seem remarkable in a culture where it is possible...