Toward the end of the nineteenth century, expanding imperial states found that they needed harder facts about the icy landscapes that had for so long floated beyond their grasp. Icebergs had never been more prominent in the Western imagination. This spike of interest and exploration coincided with the American purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867, an acquisition that increased the northern foothold of the United States by more than half a million square miles. Scientists were fascinated by icebergs, too. With the Iceberg, or Drift, Theory, geologists emphasized the role of icebergs and glaciers in carving valleys and casting boulders far and wide. The theory dated from the eighteenth century, but had gained new traction in the nineteenth-century writings of influential naturalists like Louis Agassiz, Charles Lyell and Charles Darwin.
Expeditions of reconnaissance and experimentation were launched in both Europe and America in order to excite the public imagination—and earn its support. In 1870, for instance, the U.S. Congress decided that financing the journey of Charles Francis Hall aboard the ship Polaris would advance Arctic knowledge and boost national morale. (The trip resulted in treachery and tragedy: the crew splintered into factions and Hall died mysteriously of arsenic poisoning.) In 1868, famed German geographer August Petermann organized journeys to Greenland and Spitsbergen that set visions of icebergs dancing through the heads of continental Europeans.
Artists helped supply the dreamwork for these strange new territories. The renowned American painter Frederic Church offered a mysterious view of the imaginary north in his 1861 canvas The Icebergs, a panoramic landscape painting that immersed viewers in an arctic environment colored extravagantly by polar light. It was understood both as a symbol of the cool-tempered Union cause in the Civil War (a reference made all the more clear by the work’s original title: The North) as well as structured “ice-architecture” which rose above the water and dissolved into its acid-green depths. In 1873, groundbreaking photographs of Greenland in The Arctic Regions, a luxurious book conceived by the marine painter William Bradford, popularized dramatic stories about icebergs; its pages were animated by images of polar bear hunts, Norse ruins and disbelieving “Eskimaux.” The Arctic seemed like a blank slate, a place where fantasies of self-revelation and patriotic power could be fulfilled.
It’s no wonder that icebergs were simultaneously drifting into the unconscious, a concept that the field of psychology was wrestling into form during the same period. As early as the seventeenth century, German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz had proposed the notion of petites perceptions—little perceptions of things that occur constantly but just beyond our awareness—as part of his theory of the monad. Friedrich Schelling coined the term “unconscious” (Unbewußte) in 1800. Probing the processes of the mind with increasing focus, the early nineteenth-century philosopher Johann Friedrich Herbart helped to craft the concept of “limen,” or thresholds of consciousness, that has become fundamental to the field of modern psychology. But in order for philosophers and psychologists to understand these elusive dimensions of thought, a common framework was needed to describe them. Was there a way to conceptualize this relationship between the conscious and the unconscious mind with imagery that everyone could understand?
Today, we generally credit the good Austrian doctor Sigmund Freud with the solution: a “topographical model” that compared consciousness with an iceberg. In this view, the conscious mind sits above the surface of the water while a vast unconscious lurks below. Psychology textbooks remain riddled with casual references to “Freud’s iceberg model”; Google even combined the psychoanalyst’s face with an iceberg in its official Doodle on May 6, 2016. Yet the precise origins of this analogy are less clear. In 1900, an article in the International Journal of Ethics offered only an ambiguous gesture: “Some philosopher, I think it was Herbart, has compared the unconscious part of human character to the submerged part of an iceberg at sea.” In 1912, as the specter of the Titanic loomed, the developmental psychologist G. Stanley Hall pointed to another influential precedent: experimental psychologist Gustav Fechner, one of the few figures from whom Freud openly borrowed ideas. “To Fechner the soul was not unlike an iceberg,” Hall wrote, “which is eight-ninths under the water’s surface…”
Working in the 1890s on The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud wrote that “old Fechner” was the only one to say sensible things on the subject, specifically that the “psychical territory on which the dream process is played out is a different one [than being awake]. It has been left to me to draw a crude map of it.” Freud’s map, a simple series of intersecting curves forming the outline of a broken oval, elucidates the doctor’s tripartite model of the mind. It comprises the id, that low, leviathan region of instinct and urges, the “unconscious” part of the mind; the superego, the self-conscious sense of awareness that brings social standards to bear on our actions; and the ego, the “I,” the sense of self that, like the superego, bridges our unconscious and conscious minds.
The rub is that Freud’s drawing scarcely resembles an iceberg. It’s more like a squat pear, sketched stiffly in a diagrammatic, cubist way. Or perhaps the oblong plan of a ship’s hull that has been split and splayed. More problematically, Freud’s work lacks a clear mention of icebergs in relation to the mind. The signature reference appears in A Case of Hysteria, where Freud recounts the recurring dream of a patient named Dora, which always happens the same way: Dora is swimming in a sea, “enjoying the sensation of cutting a path through the waves.” On one occasion, the sea is frozen; she is swimming among icebergs.
That the mind was like an iceberg may have been so obvious by the beginning of the twentieth century that the analogy became atmospheric; it was Ernest Hemingway, in any case, who transformed the iceberg into a metaphor for human creativity. In 1922, a 23-year-old Hemingway was working to become a Serious Writer when his manuscripts were stolen en route to Switzerland. Crestfallen at the loss of so much material, Hemingway tried to reconceive his creative efforts in such a way that could prevent them from vanishing whole cloth. In Death in the Afternoon, his 1932 book about the beauty and brutality of Spanish bullfighting, Hemingway offered an early iteration of what would become his famous theory of artistic ingenuity:
If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.
Hemingway elaborated on the idea throughout his career. In his 1958 Paris Review interview, he clarified that with icebergs, “[t]here is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows. Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg. It is the part that doesn’t show.” In A Moveable Feast (1964), Hemingway claimed rather glibly that “the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.”
Finding elegance by shearing off the unnecessary is certainly a valid theory of style, and of artistic expression more broadly. Under stern logic, however, it is less a practical theory than a productive fantasy. For the notion that a reader might break through the surface of the text and fall into vast reservoirs of understanding below represents the desire to achieve minimalist sharpness without sacrificing depth of meaning. Put differently, it is the conviction that a hard-edged contour can be more evocative than a well-shaded study: a compelling idea, but a contestable one.
There is another (arguably more relatable) way that the iceberg has come to signify the creative process. It works like a transect, a way of visualizing unequal volumes in relation to one another: a smaller above and a larger one below, nearly invisible. A seductive 1969 sculpture by Sam Richardson titled Most of that Iceberg is Below the Water explores this idea. Combining malleable but challenging materials (polyurethane foam, polyester resin, fiberglass, polyester filler, lacquers), the artist created a punctured cube translucent in some places and opaque in others. Working in the San Francisco Bay Area in the Sixties, Richardson’s interest in representing the unseen or unheard reflected the aesthetic and political forces that surrounded him: a West Coast wave of artistic minimalism, environmentalism, counterculture and the civil rights movement.