The diminutive iceberg was an afterthought by the time it broke apart. I was riding a soft inflatable boat towards one of the great glaciers of Spitsbergen, an island located north of Norway and east of Greenland. Spitsbergen is part of the remote archipelago of Svalbard, deep within the Arctic Circle and about halfway between mainland Europe and the North Pole. A tall ship had carried me there along with a troop of photographers and writers and scientists for an improbable artist residency. We stared at the glacier’s calving face in Fuglefjord, where it stops gouging the earth and splinters into the sea. We were trying to catch one of those awesome, humbling instances when ice splits like marble in a quarry and crashes into the water. Momentary respects had been paid to a distinctive but small iceberg (no bigger than a stout Victorian house in San Francisco) but we puttered past en route to the glacier itself—where we thought the action was.
We shuddered when the iceberg broke at our backs. Turning in unison with my shipmates, I felt the air change. It had become so fresh it was almost repellent, as though an ancient sepulcher had cracked open to release a saturated gush of oxygen. Dark, clear ice below the berg’s surface began to rotate upwards, cranking horologically into its new position. After a collective gasp, we hushed and watched.
Once a land on the margins, the Arctic has become a global center of attention for climatologists, environmental activists and tourists. The rhetoric of the sublime is no longer required to imagine the epochal changes that happen there; we can watch the footage ourselves. Time-lapse videography has made the retreat of the world’s glaciers dramatically clear. James Balog, photographer for the award-winning 2014 documentary Chasing Ice and director of the Extreme Ice Survey, calls ice “the canary in the global coal mine … the place where we can see and touch and feel climate change.” The film’s most dramatic sequence shows an iceberg the size of lower Manhattan splitting and rolling off Greenland’s Ilulissat Glacier. At the time, it was the largest calving event ever filmed. And that was in 2008. Between 2013 and 2017, Greenland’s ice sheet will have lost more than a trillion tons of ice, enough water to fill a pool 23 feet deep with a surface area the size of New York State.
These grim revelations have changed the ways we think about ice in deep time, and about icebergs in particular. Their earth-shaping powers are no longer so obvious in our era of anthropogenic, or human-created, climate change. The marauding bergs that sank the mighty RMS Titanic in the small hours of April 15, 1912 are disappearing. Instead, we approach icebergs like endangered species. Photographer Camille Seaman captures this pathos by describing her series of iceberg images as “portraits” of individuals “headed to their end.”
For much of modern history, icebergs have helped us speak about deeper reservoirs of meaning. The phrase “just the tip of the iceberg” has, at least since the environmental movements of the Sixties, expressed the idea that there is much more to something than meets the eye. As the historian William Cronon observes, internalizing nature through language like this is our best way of understanding it—and ourselves. “The nature inside our heads is as important to understand as the nature that surrounds us,” he writes, “for the one is constantly shaping and filtering the way we perceive the other.”
There is still an undeniable thrill—even hope—to be found in an iceberg. As I watched that Svalbard berg bob heavy in the water and snap into new shapes, I felt things intensely: my physical body, a full-hearted awe of the natural world, a sense of respect and responsibility for the creatures that inhabit it with me. Feeling for the ice was an expected reaction; what I had not counted on was a more profound understanding of myself.
For centuries, Arctic explorers delighted and cowered at the sight of icebergs. In 1578, an English sailor named Thomas Ellis reported that he had seen a “great and monstrous piece of ice” whose shape and size defied measurement and comprehension. Eighteenth-century explorers made sense of their reactions using the language of the sublime, an aesthetic category first described by Edmund Burke in 1757 and found most convincingly in landscapes of terrific scale and unfathomable depth. In 1855, searching for the Northwest Passage as well as the sailor–explorers who had frozen to death trying to find it, American explorer Elisha Kent Kane noted this paradox: Icebergs were terrifying obstacles, able to move implacable men to tears, but they were also as inviting as “God’s own buildings, preaching … lessons of humility to the miniature structures of man.”
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.
With his subject matter and title, Richardson used a representation of the iceberg to tease out a familiar challenge associated with the creative process. The bulk of work behind any final product, the sculpture tells us, is a remainder, found in footnotes, left on the cutting-room floor. The work also makes clear that this remainder is not merely an abstract idea. While difficult to see, it is materially there, below the surface. Like creative work, the iceberg under water is not just a metaphor; it still exists in the physical world.
That physical world is changing. The acceleration of global warming in the 21st century has thrown certain truths into doubt. Polar sea ice once melted in the summer and froze in the winter. But after several of the hottest years on record, and with the Arctic warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, that ice now retreats in the winter, too. The ice at 81 degrees north that I laced through with my artist companions last summer was more than a million square miles smaller than it had been in 1980. An iceless summer in the Arctic seems inevitable. The loss of Arctic sea ice at this scale is already producing terrible environmental consequences about which there is no shortage of urgent reporting: ocean acidification, methane pollution, drought, rising sea levels.
We possess an enormous vocabulary, scientific and indigenous, to describe the complexity and transformation of ice. A recent survey of pan-Arctic languages and dialects recorded over 1,500 distinct terms for sea ice alone. For the Kalaallit, Inuit peoples of western Greenland, sea ice is siku. Ice calved from the end of a glacier is uukkarnit. The word for iceberg is iluliaq. Do these words have a future? To what will they relate? In other words, climate change threatens more than the gaunt polar bear I saw ambling along the coast of Svalbard. Language, even culture itself, is melting away.
Scholars in disparate fields, from linguistics to neuroscience to art history, have shown that metaphors matter and that language born from our experience of the natural world forms the bedrock of our sense of who we are. Many of us derive our identities, at least in part, from the melding of climate with topography, from mountain snow to desert heat to urban sky. Icebergs, in particular, have pushed us to the limits of our selfhood. They have drawn us to explore and expire at the edge of the world. They have helped us to describe and learn from the planet’s wonders and fold them into our imagination. With icebergs as models for our minds, we see ourselves in their image. If knowing nature helps us to know ourselves, what might be the hidden human costs of melting ice?
Before they melt away entirely, we should recall that for most of their history icebergs have symbolized not gloom but glory. As the metaphor goes, there is so much more to the iceberg than the tip. Indeed, icebergs continue to serve as a reminder of our own depths and unrevealed prospects, our reservoirs of untapped creativity. Even as they dissolve, shards of sea ice can still point us towards such hopeful horizons. They must—else the fight for a sustainable future is lost already and we consent to going down with the ship.
On that bright June day in Svalbard’s Fuglefjord, my spirits were raised. As iceberg and bay settled back into momentary calm, I felt like a younger, more vibrant version of myself. The world had made itself new before my eyes: What more hopeful sight can one imagine?
Art credits: Arctic images by George Philip LeBourdais