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  • Writer's pictureDave LeRue

Selling the Sublime: Iceland at the tourist turn

This is a repurposed post (with some modifications) from my time in the Iceland field school in 2018. I was extraordinarily sleep deprived from the 24 hour daylight that produced incredible sunrises, but no time for my mind to go dormant, so please excuse any errors.  Original post can be found here- 

From the moment you get on the purple WOW Air airbus A330-300 to Iceland, it’s apparent you're being sold an experience.  The cabin lights shift from green, to blue, then yellow, mimicking the northern lights that are common in northern countries. The flight attendants are dressed in cardigans and skirts which are intensely purple. The pocket in front of you has maps and magazines talking about different Icelandic excursions and destinations, listed with times, costs, and duration.

The Blue Lagoon tour is among the most popular and is a geothermal spa on a lava bed. Its website invites us to “experience the wonder” of it’s beauty and vastness. On the golden circle tour, guests are reminded that Iceland is tectonically active, with geysers that erupt several times an hour, a volcano crater, and Thingvellir national park, a long rift where the tectonic plates of North America and Europe meet. On the Into the Glacier tour, one can go by snowmobile or ice vehicle to the ice caves that have been hollowed out at the center of Icelandic glaciers.

On the Into the Volcano tour, guests are lowered into the center of a volcano that erupted 4000 years ago. Both are considered “extremely family friendly”, with only the most basic winter gear required for full enjoyment (and a camera, for those “indescribable” moments!). The tour bus and the extreme looking all terrain vehicles are equipped with full WiFi and USB charging ports, with comfort being a top priority. Behind these experiences is a perceived danger, presenting the landscape as powerful, rugged, and awesome. Iceland has a reputation for being a beautiful place, but I believe that this description of Iceland is miscategorized, as the primary draw to the Icelandic landscape is sublime.


Edmund Burke (1729-1797) published A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Beautiful and the Sublime. (1757) Burke argues that the sublime and the beautiful are often considered to be opposite ends of a spectrum but are in fact unalike. He defines both as stemming from passions. Beauty stems from our passion of love, as we find beautiful qualities in flowers, in human bodies, and in pleasing landscapes. Things that are beautiful are often smooth, delicate, and pleasant. The sublime stems from our passions of fear, dealing with the rugged, the unexplored, and the dangerous. Sublime characteristics are found in vastness, infinity, and magnificence. The sublime instils awe by reminding the viewer of an imminent danger and the finality of death, but from a position of safety and comfort. 

In Reykjavik, I made a friend who later added me to Facebook. She was a lawyer working in the United States and was kind enough to offer me drives to different places in the morning. She had rented a four-wheeled vehicle to travel on Iceland’s most extreme roads, which allows one to see the most rugged parts of the land. Her posts come across my Facebook feed and present a slew of hashtags, such as #detox #bliss #serenity #bucketlist #wanderlust. A google, twitter, or facebook search of these hashtags in relation to Iceland show many people standing in front of sublime Icelandic landscapes and monuments. There seemed to be a territorial aspect to it, "I was here," and presenting it to what Zizek calls "the big other." There is an absurd disconnection between these hashtags and the realities of existing within the land, as if the land itself provides self actualization, "detoxing" (whatever that is), and enlightenment. The tourist is not attracted to beauty, nor is that was Iceland's tourist industry is trying to sell.The tourist seeks an experience, something that transcends imaginations and simple comprehensions of reality. There is something spiritual being sold, something amounting closer to a religious experience than the enjoyment of landscape as a simple amenity. The concerns here are undoubtedly sublime, placing the visitor face to face with the awesome and harsh realities of natural forces.

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