April 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 3
The idea is worth dwelling with for a while. Suppose, just for the sake of supposing, that something happens to push the horizons back once more, to restore the old feeling that we live in a world of infinite possibilities. What then takes place back in the adrenal glands? Do we then, in other words, find the dynamic force that goes with the unlimited view? Do the two actually go together?
Ernest S. Dodge has written a book called Northwest by Sea , which examines some of the steps which were taken, or at least attempted, back at the very dawn of the great age of exploration—the efforts to find a way through or around the unknown American continents, the search for the Northwest Passage, the long struggle to determine whether America was an obstacle or an opportunity or possibly a blend of both. It has a haunting overtone.
In the beginning, of course, America was simply in the way. Following the discoveries of the Portuguese and of Christopher Columbus, the other nations began to take to the sea lanes, looking for an open road to the fabled Orient. The American continents lay across their path, but for generations Europeans were unable to believe that an open highway did not exist. They prowled up into every sound, bay, and estuary on both continents, always hopeful and always disappointed; then, at last, they tried the northern route, and from John and Sebastian Cabot down to Roald Amundsen they looked for the channel by which winddriven ships could travel east by sailing west. What they were looking for was not there, but it took them nearly four centuries to assimilate that hard fact.
In the course of those centuries some great voyages were made; and it is mildly interesting to note that an odd sort of international brotherhood of technicians developed, men who knew the job but who were not firmly tied to any one nation. The technicians might be Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Dutch, French, or British; they sailed, off and on, for just about anyone who wanted a voyage made; their knowledge of seamanship, of the open ocean, and of the inadequate body of knowledge that was sole guide for men who wanted to sail over the top of the world was an international resource that could be tapped by any sovereign or trading guild that had money to spend. From the day of the caravel down to the day of the atomic-powered submarine, they kept at it, adding immeasurably to mankind’s store of wisdom about this planet, bringing the unattainable horizon down to the place where it could be charted, sounded, and made familiar, finding no Northwest Passage they could use … and at last running out of mystery and anything-can-happen into the workaday world which makes up the middle of this distressing twentieth century.
They had, in full measure, that sense of wonder, that ability to believe which survives because the solid reason for skepticism has not yet taken firm root. They discovered the authentic horn of the unicorn, which unhappily turned out to be the broken tusk of a narwhal. They found gold on the ghastly shores of Davis Strait, and only later did they learn that their ore was nothing but worthless iron pyrites. They saw attractive mermaids in the polar seas, and wrote about them with such convincing detail that we would be sure they really had seen mermaids if the years had not taught us better. In the end, they learned too that the sea lane they were hunting for was so clogged with ice and with danger that no one would ever be able to use it. They went to the end of North America and also to the end of mystery and fantasy, and when they had finished their amazing voyages, the world had shrunk to proper size, had become prosaic and familiar, and had become ever so much less stimulating. They gave us, in short, the modern world, which has room neither for marvels nor for the belief that marvelous things can happen, a world in which the human spirit is less expansive and less vigorous than it used to be.
This they left for us, and the great age of exploration is over. And yet … a faint tingling in the scalp, a quiver along the back of the neck, sets in just as we reach the end of this chapter. For, as Mr. Dodge remarks, the Northwest Passage has at last become a perfectly feasible passage for a craft which the Cabots and the Frobishers could not possibly have imagined: the atomic submarine. U.S.S. Nautilus did, without too much trouble, what the hard old-timers could not possibly do. The passage is in use today. The Arctic may yet be a highway rather than a barrier. Does not a faint touch of that lost sense of wonder return?
Northwest by Sea, by Ernest S. Dodge. Oxford University Press. 348 pp. $6.50.
Maybe not, except for a very few. And yet the world may be on the verge of becoming, once again, what it always was until recently, a world of infinite possibilities and unimaginable horizons. We apparently stand today in respect to exploration about where Western man stood in 1490—on the edge of something that could restore the old sense of limitless vistas.
There is in the world now an international body of knowledge—imperfect, confused, possibly in the end impractical—which, without too great an effort, can be equated with the knowledge that existed nearly five centuries ago regarding the exploration of this globe: the knowledge of the road to outer space. There are the experts, who have learned a little more than the rest of us know—scientists who can be pulled away from their own countries to work for any nation that has the money, the determination, and the basic sense of insecurity to demand the enlisting of their services. (Much of the exploration of this earth was done by countries which feared that their neighbors had got the bulge on them.) Ventures are being made; the open sea, once again, seems to be a gateway to the undreamed-of, and the fact that this sea is the perilous void of interstellar space, instead of the equally perilous void of intercontinental salt water, makes very little difference.
The caravels are out, and nobody can be sure where they may eventually go. Instead of being at the end of a great era, it is just possible that we are approaching the beginning of an infinitely greater one. Any teenager addicted to science fiction can testify that the sense of wonder is being regained. Can we, really, be certain that a new upsurge of energy and a feeling of confidence will not some day come back with it?