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Extraordinary Voyages to the Edge of the World

A journey through Iceland, above and below ground, in the footsteps of Jules Verne.

 

Budir sits at the tip of a rocky finger on Iceland’s west coast. I could tell you that it’s a proper town, but I’d be lying. It is, at best, a village or hamlet, the remnant or distant echo of an ancient dwelling place. It is a reminder that all towns have life spans. They are often but temporary shelters, entry points to elsewhere. When the Norse made their way to the New World a thousand years ago, they used this peninsula as their last port of call before the insane trip across the North Atlantic.

After our two-hour drive from Keflavik, the one major airport in the country, through the otherworldly landscape of lava fields, cliffs, and waterfalls, I was hoping for a little civilization in Budir. Instead, we found a few divots in the ground—the foundations of the buildings the Vikings inhabited before their journeys to America— as well as three brightly colored mobile homes, a black timber church erected in the early 18th century, a cemetery, and an inn. Hotel Budir, is touted as one of Europe’s finest, a “Mecca of Icelandic cooking,” but on that afternoon in late spring Mecca was completely abandoned. As we rolled into the empty driveway and parked, Carol leaned across the center console of the car: “Is this the right place?” she whispered. I had no idea.

 

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According to Norse legend, the real city of Budir is underground—in the latticed network of obsidian that lies beneath the spongy earth of the Icelandic coast — and its real inhabitants are trolls and fairies. Carol and I are not inclined to indulge superstition, but by the end of the weekend we both agreed that the place—the town—was “not altogether normal,” which, for two philosophers, is a way of saying paranormal. It was the place, at the very least, for impossible journeys.

When Otto Lidenbrock and his nephew Axel, the protagonists of Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, stayed in Budir in the first half of the 19th century, they, like the Vikings, were only passing through. Otto at least was hell-bent on leaving. They hiked inland, I imagine, through the pockmarked lava field now covered in moss and ferns, past the same black timber church, uphill through the thick North Atlantic fog, toward the snow-covered rim of Snaefellsnes. Ages ago, it blew its top and the glacier that had long crowned the mountain fell into the volcanic crater. Today, new-agers claim that the dormant giant is one of the earth’s energy centers and has an unexplainable magnetic attraction. Otto Lidenbrock was drawn. So was Carol.

According to Norse legend, the real city of Budir is underground.

I, following in the haltering steps of Axel, was not. The mountain-cum-volcano looked like Mordor. In the end, however, young love—the most insane adventure—conquered all and I found myself in the car, creeping my way to certain doom. I contented myself in knowing that Road F 570, the only way to get to the glacier, was usually closed. And it was. But Carol astutely noted that there was enough room next to the locked gate for a small vehicle like ours to scoot by. So up we went.  

The road consisted of loose basalt and traced the crest of a sharp ridge. We were driving a Subaru hatchback, but four-wheel drive scarcely matters when all four lose traction at once, or when a car is in complete free fall. As we slowly ascended, Budir seemed more and more like a proper town, and I desperately wanted to return.

 

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After twenty minutes of driving, the road completely vanished and I was left to steer my own path. When the rock turned to snow I stopped the car, looked over the lip of the crest, and remembered Axel’s timorous words: “The ocean lay beneath us at a depth of more than three thousand two hundred feet—a grand and mighty spectacle. We had reached the region of eternal snows.” That was about right. And about the time to stop. Carol pleaded, but she, at that point, didn’t have a driver’s license and I informed her that the chauffeur service into the void was over.

She, like Otto Lidenbrock, would not be deterred. She would walk. I followed her up the hill into darkening clouds which, when they occasionally broke, exposed the glacier stretching down into the crater. Again, in the words of Axel, “Our real journey had now commenced. Now we were about to encounter unknown and fearful dangers. I had not as yet ventured to take a glimpse down the horrible abyss into which in a few minutes more I was about to plunge. The fatal moment had, however, at last arrived.”

 

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It started to snow in earnest and the entire trip slipped from the realm of the beautiful into the abyss of the sublime. What do I mean by the sublime? Well, that’s hard to say. It evinces a certain attraction, a magnetic fascination—the kind that makes you walk out into a growing snowstorm. And it evokes a certain repulsion, an utter horror—that makes you want to find shelter. The German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, suggests that it is wrong to say that any particular object is sublime; rather, sublimity is the sense of the imagination coming up short, reaching and failing, again and again, to make sense of an immense, formless presence. The sense of the sublime can spur us to create work of arts that capture something of the imagination’s strivings.

Sublimity is the sense of the imagination coming up short, reaching and failing, again and again, to make sense of an immense, formless presence.

I finally convinced Carol to return to the civilized world of Budir, and we hiked back to the car just as the wind picked up. In his “Aeolian Harp,” Samuel Coleridge imagines how the “desultory breeze” caresses this simple wind lute to produce the sweetest of music. There were no such breezes on Snaefellsnes. Gusts, gale forces that rip through flimsy instruments and produce unearthly sounds. I don’t know what would have happened if we’d stayed on the sheer slopes. Perhaps we would have followed the Lidenbrocks: down through tunnels of calcareous rock, whispering caves, to the subterranean ocean of a great sea monster. Straight to the center of the earth.

 

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In 1864’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, Verne claimed that if you journey far enough into Snaefellsnes you eventually pop out in southern Italy. Or you could, as we did, return home to the beautiful, temporary, town of Budir, and then travel on to Reykjavik, the northernmost capital in the world, a city that is also more imagined than real. After being so close to Verne’s center of the earth, I could actually appreciate what it represented.

When you read Verne’s Journey, it is easy to get lost in its gripping tale of early science fiction. You leave civilization, explore foreign lands, discover past cultures, wade through primordial soup, and finally return to civilization. Usually one or two of his characters get to make a celebratory homecoming, as well. Most of his novels take this form and there is a reason for this. The reason is named Pierre-Jules Hetzel. Publisher of Balzac, Hugo, and Zola, he brought Verne into his stable of writers in the 1860s, and largely determined the course of Verne’s career and the content that he would address in his writings. This sounds more suspect than it actually is. Hetzel had big plans for Verne—the author would write popular books of fiction that would serve as intellectual Trojan horses for the science and culture of tomorrow.

 

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Through his early science fiction, Verne exposed tens of thousands of people to the discoveries of 19th century geology, anthropology, ethnography, engineering, and biology. This was the intent of his Around the World in Eighty Days and Ten Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.  But there was another side to Verne that Hetzel never let him fully express. Most of Verne’s books herald the coming of a new and audacious age that would explore unknown worlds and would at least temporarily triumph in the technological discoveries of the modern age; but at one point, in 1863, he wanted to be realistic about the future. In other words, he wanted to imagine a dystopia. It was supposed to be called Paris in the 20th Century; and its vision of cities has since become reality.  

 

 

Verne describes Paris one hundred years later: skyscrapers define the skyline; gas stations supply “gas-cabs” (cars) the fuel they need to negotiate asphalt roads that are lit by electric lights that obscure the starry heavens; security systems guard an endless series of fungible houses; suburbia stretches into the hinterlands; department stores sell useful goods to visitors who stay in mega-hotels; and computers talk to one another endlessly. Just like our modern cities. Hetzel was appalled. Verne’s description made these inventions seem Janus-faced at best, but usually simply diabolical. The protagonist of the story, in his search for real literature and culture, walks himself into the ground. And dies. Hetzel hated this ending and cancelled the book. He wanted a welcoming future. He wanted fiction. Verne wanted to warn the future, to suggest that our obsession with cosmopolitan progress might be our undoing. I suspect he would have been rather impressed by Reykjavik.

 

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At first glance, Reykjavik is singularly unimpressive. The most notable thing about the city is its views. Ocean, horizon, mountains, clouds, sky meld into a single presence. In Reykjavik, it (nature) is always right there. Even at night. Carol and I walked along the bay until midnight. Only then did the town begin to fade into darkness. But then the stars—real, honest-to-god, stars—came out. It took me a day or two to realize that the structure of the town was responsible for these views. It is situated in, rather than on, the landscape, and its 120,000 occupants have gone to great lengths to maintain its understated character. Most of the buildings in the capital are nothing more than houses that seem to have been constructed by an urban planner with a single benign mindset: every house shall be different but no house shall overshadow its neighbor; walls shall be off-white; roofs shall be primary colors; houses shall be inhabited by actual people.

In Reykjavik, ocean, horizon, mountains, clouds, sky meld into a single presence.

The single structure that deviates wildly from this plan is Hallgrímskirkja. The Lutheran Church, named after the clergyman-poet Hallgrimur Petursson, looms over the rest of the cityscape. Two logarithmic curves of granite ascend and then meet at 244 feet, directly over its single front door. The primary objective of the building isn’t to provide a shelter but rather a signpost: its dramatic curves of stone point to the sky. Of course, this is supposed to be the case with lots Gothic cathedrals in Europe as well, but it rarely works. People come to gawk at the cathedrals themselves, not the clouds. But this is not the case in Reykjavik. You go to Hallgrímskirkja to see past it.

The front door bothered me. It seemed like a strange fire-hazard. Human beings in Reykjavik, however, don’t need more than one entrance—they aren’t in a particular hurry and they know how to queue. The townspeople are not friendly in the American sense of the word, probably because they’re too busy being respectful. Iceland is routinely named the most peaceful place in the world (its first official murder was committed in 2012 by a regretful man who turned himself in). Being peaceful, to an American, is usually confused with being boring or aloof, so it took me a few days to really understand what was going on. It is a place where boys on the verge of their teenage years talk in hushed tones and walk the streets freely in quiet packs, where sleeping babies are left in strollers outside coffee shops and bars, where the loudest person, by several decibels, is a tourist.

 

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The people are quieter but also infinitely hipper. And yes, perhaps there is a bit of standoffishness, but I fear that it is warranted. While my ancestors were in the shadows of the Dark Ages, theirs were creating the first Parliament in the world, the Althingi (literally, the “all thing,” the general assembly where inhabitants would peacefully convene to dispense justice and make laws). It is tempting to think of people from the north as horn-helmeted barbarians, but really we are the savages. Compared to Iceland, the United States looks exactly as technologically advanced and socially backward as it actually is. When the World Economic Forum puts out its Gender Gap statistics, the United States never makes the top ten, but usually loses to the likes of Latvia, Rwanda (genocide is good for women’s political representation when most of the men are killed off), and Burundi. Iceland is at the top of this list—for six years running. Health care in Iceland is universal and life expectancy is 83, the highest in Europe.

 

 

In Paris in the 20th Century, Verne predicted an educational system, administered by the state, devoid of literature and classics, dominated by technical vocational training. This imagined school system was tantamount to professional boot camp. “Making a living” in this dystopia amounted to making money, and making money was the ultimate (not even proximate) end of education. It was a place where professors of rhetoric and philosophy were fired and never rehired and lovers of literature died of broken hearts. Reykjavik in the 20th century is nothing like this. They have state-funded education, but five years ago, it joined five other towns in the world that were named by UNESCO as “Cities of Literature.” It is a place to read and write—not the showy kind of writing that ends up on bestseller lists (although some of Iceland’s authors make their way there), but the kind that reflects an intimate connection between writing and the conduct of life, between art and human existence. For every Icelander, five books are published in the country each year, more than almost any other country on the globe. The frequency of publishing increases to a deluge before Christmas, in a time that locals fondly call jólabokaflód, or “book flood.” In the spring, residents take to benches that line the coastline walk and read together, embodying a simple aesthetic camaraderie that goes unrecognized in most urban settings.

 

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Reykjavik, like Budir, is a lonely place. The settings of most extraordinary journeys are. Verne’s books are tales of technological advancement, of incredible futures defined by the marvels of humankind. Despite these marvels, Verne’s characters remain pointedly human, that is to say, lonely, scared, and hesitant. Like Axel on Snaefellsnes. His novels convey the definite sense that despite the dawning of the technological age, individuals will remain individuals who explore at their own peril. Even in a world of submarines, balloons, high-speed trains, and deep drilling, people remain fragile and alone. They are able to do many things, but they are unable to escape this most basic of existential situations. That is, at least in part, the impetus for friendship in Verne’s novels, a bond forged in ever-present danger. This is a harsh realism that is not lost on the inhabitants of Iceland’s towns—small islands of life, atop a barren island, on an endless ocean. Here it is quite clear that we are cosmically en route, passing, trespassing, on some impossible journey.

In the words of Iceland’s Nobel Laureate, Halldór Laxness, “Human beings, in point of fact, are lonely by nature, and one should feel sorry for them and love them and mourn with them. It is certain that people would understand one another better and love one another more if they would admit to one another how lonely they were, how sad they were in their tormented, anxious longings and feeble hopes.” In front of Hallgrímskirkja is a statue of Leif Erikson, who discovered the New World a thousand years ago, basically by himself.

 

Photographs by Bea De Giacomo.