What if the world hates us? What if drowning is the end toward which everything points? What if there is no dry spot left for human bodies in a world of salt?If you read my Twitter feed or have friended me on Facebook, you know that those lines from At the Bottom of Shakespeare's Ocean have been going round my head. I love vast questions, queries that intimate something so dark, so profound that no answer is sufficient. Unfathomable questions.
So does Steve Mentz. He demonstrates in this provocative little book that sometimes Shakespeare's sea is sublime, a space of art and transformation that only seems out of human reach ("full fathom five" is only about thirty feet deep, a sandy bottom that a good swimmer can attain). More often, though, his roiling waters demonstrate that "The sea is not our home." The ocean is indifferent, or -- worse -- hostile, lethal. Against the peace-and-harmony bent of the environmental theory known as Green criticism, Mentz plumbs Shakespearean drama to arrive at a turbulent Blue Cultural Studies. Nothing bucolic about these expanses, where the world is at war with itself, as in Timon of Athens' declaration of universal, elemental thievery. Mentz writes of Timon's speech ("The sea's a thief, whose liquid surge resolves / The moon into salt tears"):
The struggle between sun, earth, sea, moon, and earth defines the world-system, which produces new forms through 'composture' or composting .... Unlike the pastoral harmony of As You Like It or Marvell's garden poems, the interrelated world here is a place of desperate struggle. It's also strikingly inhuman ... Even the gods have been silenced. (93)Or, as he observes in the book's closing movement, "Long ago we crawled out of the water. We can't go back ... The sting of salt reminds us that the world isn't a happy story" (97).
Unlike many ecocritics, Mentz refuses to imagine the earth a lost Eden from which contemporary technoculture has alienated us. Nature is not awaiting our return; the world offers more shipwrecks than gardens. Such an "offshore perspective" (99) is an inherently posthuman one, even if Mentz does not use that term. The book is beautifully written. Four poetic interludes course through the text, wash around its critical observations with rhythmical prose: "Sunken Treasure," "What the Pirates Said to Hamlet," "Toward a Blue Cultural Studies," "Warm Water Epilogue." The volume concludes with a thorough and helpful overview of oceanic criticism entitled "Reading the New Thassology."
Early Modernists have been at work in ecocriticism for far longer, and with more vigor, than medievalists: you won't find very much in the bibliography taken from medieval studies. Throughout the book you will also find many statements about the sea in the Middle Ages that, if it is your period of study, will annoy you: this is one of those volumes that assumes theology determined meaning throughout the Middle Ages, so that the depths are a divine rather than human space ("The transoceanic turn of early modern European culture reshaped the cultural meanings of the ocean, so that it becomes not just hostile or divine, but also a space for human activity, risk, and opportunity"  -- oh how statements like that make me groan, as if from 500-1500 CE the ocean were, from Iceland to Jerusalem, a water of stilled meanings). And I know this is a short book, but if the Norse feared the ocean (85, citing Charles Sprawson) then I've been reading the sagas all wrong for the past few decades. A wide space exists for medievalists and early modernists to have period-disrupting conversations, but it can't flourish until both groups of scholars stop positing the Sea Change of 1500. Perhaps NCS 2012 is a good place for one such conversation.
I don't mean to end my flash review with a rant. It's been a long time since I've been as inspired by a book as I have been by At the Bottom of Shakespeare's Ocean. Mentz offers a model for concise, provocative, accessible scholarship that I hope will be much imitated. This book is one to be lost in.