The Lure of Numinous Exoticism
Every landscape is exotic, from the perspective of those who stand apart from it. Even places we assume to be familiar remain, on some plane of perception, implacably strange. So the appeal of exoticism is not always escapist. Barry Lopez points out that not only Arctic space but any physical landscape exceeds our grasp, shows itself “baffling in its ability to transcend whatever we would make of it.”1 And that which surpasses our understanding and control draws us inevitably toward religious experience.
Yet this sense of strangeness, of forbidding or alluring resistance to human hegemony, arises most palpably from encounter with places regarded as uncivilized, unmapped. Long before Frederick Turner articulated his “frontier thesis” in the 1890s, Americans had associated dreams of freedom and inner renewal with unsettled territories. In Nature, for example, Emerson linked his Transcendental call for the emergence of “new men” bearing “new thoughts” with the opening of “new lands” to Euro-Americans. By 1912, with borders of the lower forty-eight states firmly established, settler culture had to image its exoticism elsewhere. John Muir had already been drawn to visit and describe Alaska. Later prose writers of note, including Barry Lopez and John McPhee, were also inspired by Arctic settings. Other American writers looked to liminal territories beyond America—Ernest Hemingway for example, looked to Africa, and Peter Matthiessen looked to remote sites throughout the developing world.
Even within official U.S. borders, though, exotic or heterotopic spaces can sometimes be found in close proximity to centers of civi