Eric G. Wilson. The Spiritual History of Ice: Romanticism, Science, and the Imagination. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003. ISBN: 0312292996. Price: $45.00.[Record]

  • Robert Mitchell

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  • Robert Mitchell
    Duke University

Eric G. Wilson’s The Spiritual History of Ice: Romanticism, Science, and the Imagination is inspired by an ambitious goal: to provide a “spiritual history” of ice, especially as it was developed in British and American (and occasionally German) Romantic literature, but also as those two literary movements found their roots in classical and early modern reflections on ice. The result is a book in which readings of Aristotle sit side by side with discussions of James Cook’s journey to the Antarctic Circle; Humphrey Davy’s researches into chemistry are linked to Swedenborg’s reflections on crystallization; and the Zoroastrian figures of Ahrimanes and Ormuzd are positioned as interpretative keys to P. B. Shelley’s reflections on ice and glaciers in “Mont Blanc.” Wilson usefully focuses this very long, complicated, and multi-layered history by dividing the book into three sections, each devoted to a different aspect of ice (crystals, glaciers, and the poles). Nevertheless the historical expansiveness of Spiritual History will probably appeal most to readers comfortable with the extensive “history of ideas” approach to Romanticism favored by authors such as A. O. Lovejoy, W. H. Auden, and Marjorie Hope Nicholson, rather than readers more committed to the intensive analyses of New Historical literary criticism (a point that Wilson acknowledges at the outset). Yet if Spiritual History is a history of ideas, it is a particular and peculiar variant of that mode, as the book’s title suggest. Wilson contends that his book has a threefold aim, seeking to provide “a spiritual history of Western representations of frozen shapes from ancient times to the early nineteenth century; an anatomy of these representations of ice; and an apology for a Romantic mode of seeing that ecologically inflects the spiritual history and anatomy of ice” (3). While the latter two goals seem (relatively) straightforward, it is unfortunate that Wilson does not devote much discussion to what, precisely, a “spiritual history” might be, since this is by no means a self-evident term. In a long footnote to the first chapter, Wilson provides a list of the kinds of historical approach that do not characterize what he is doing, contending that his book is “not a ‘new historical’ or ‘cultural’ study of representations of ice,” nor is it “a natural history of crystals, glaciers, or the poles” (227 note 8). Instead, he contends, it is a “scientific, psychological, and occult complement” to recent cultural studies work on ice and Romanticism, as represented by Robert G. David’s The Arctic in British Imagination, 1818-1914 (2000) and Francis Spufford’s I May be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination (1997). The Introduction hints that a spiritual history is equivalent to an “esoteric” reading of ice, which, rather than seeing frozen water as either malignant or simply neutral, “sees icescapes as revelations of an abysmal origin, marriages of opposites, mergings of microcosm and macrocosm” (3). A spiritual history of ice is thus one that does not simply treat past descriptions of ice as culturally- or ideologically-motivated representations, but rather shares with past authors the belief that ice really does enable spiritual revelations. As a result of this methodology, many, if not most, of the key sources of influence that Wilson discusses—for example, Jacob Boehme, Albertus Magnus, Paracelsus, Emanuel Swedenborg, Zoroaster—are names more commonly associated with religion and magic than with science. In this sense, the book’s subtitle—“Romanticism, Science, and the Imagination”—is perhaps a bit deceptive, for while The Spiritual History of Ice is unarguably about Romanticism and the imagination, but it is not really about science, at least as that term is generally understood. Romantic era scientists such as Humphrey Davy and …