Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Beachy Calm and Agitated Depths

by J J Cohen

Steve Mentz has short response to a recent post here about my recent family trip to the Eastern Shore. If you've been reading this blog for a while, you know that many of the electronic postcards I send come from marinal, littoral and insular places: Saint Martin, Bermuda, Cozumel, Saint Thomas, Key West, Ireland, Maine, for example.

Steve quotes my Bethany Beach postcard (wherein I quote Michel Serres and claim that oceanic agitation is calming) and writes:
It may seem churlish to pounce on such musings, & I certainly love a trip to the beach as much as anyone, but I’m struck by the closeness of “calming” to agitation and to Serres’s “creative spur.”  Do academics go to the beach to work, or to forget?  I sometimes joke that I’ve structured my whole  recent academic focus so that every time I go to the beach — and I live at the beach, albeit not a surf beach — it’s a work trip for me.  But is that b/c I try not to be too calm when I hear oceanic noises?
Part of what Steve is getting at, of course, is the way in which the seaside can be relaxing, can be a vacation, can function as it would not have at many other times in human history (did Chaucer ever go the beach?). Most of us don't seek the shore to do work, or to get worked up. We tread briny sand in search of repose.

Don't get me wrong: if I'm in the Caribbean, I am seeking vacation. But vacation seldom means sitting still for me. I went to St Thomas in search of beautiful vistas, certainly, but also to visit the oldest synagogue on this side of the Atlantic, founded by Jews fleeing Spain. Is it work to go to such a place? Why distinguish? Such a pilgrimage gets at how the pleasures of work and the pleasures of being elsewhere are not always separable. 

But that's a special case, I'm sure. Steve writes that "our 21c experience of beachy calm is historically contingent, a function of our culture’s loss of the sea’s full terror and danger." I don't doubt it. But one of the many things I share with my wife (besides a phobia involving beets) is an innate attraction towards the ocean. Likely this magnetism arises from our both having grown up within easy access of the coast, her on Long Island and me very close to Boston. The sea edge could be vacation, of course, but more importantly the ocean was simply present. You could smell it, you could frequently see it, it was an actor in so many dramas, from blizzards to hurricanes to ships foundering to shark sightings to ... well, the list unspools for quite some time. The sea has a way of insinuating itself into those who live alongside. Being miles from the waves after spending life near them can lead to a feeling of landlock.

If I say I find the sea calming in its agitation, that's not because I sit at its edge with sun lotion and an alcoholic drink. For me the sea's edge is for beachcombing, hiking, exploring. It's a place of constant realization, of possible danger, of frequent reminders of death (empty shells, broken crabs, sea life suffocated in sand). The immensity of the sea reminds me of the small place of humans alongside its flow. Vastness gives perspective. That's what I find calming: my own small agitations dissipate under those relentless waves, those sudden vistas and unexpected glimpses of life, all that noise so saturated with meaning it is chaos itself. Beautiful chaos, chaos as art.

It's the sea's danger that attracts me, and that's why I so much enjoyed reading Steve's book At the Bottom of Shakespeare's Ocean. To use one of his favorite words, the book is salty: the tang of the ocean runs through and through. His narrative is even interrupted three times by what he calls interludes, irruptions of poetry that convey through undulating lines the sound and current of the sea itself.

OK, I am off to the sea again: this time the Mediterranean, along which the city of Barcelona spreads. Mostly I'll be inside an art museum, but I do expect to walk along water at some point ... provided, of course, the strikes in Paris don't cause me to be stuck there. Flying Air France through Charles de Gaulle seemed like such a good idea late in the summer.


Anonymous said...

See also, the Aquatic Ape theory:

Mary Kate Hurley said...

I remember the first time I realized the sea was dangerous: I was 10, and swimming hasn't been the same for me since.

But what I find most intriguing about the sea is the relentlessness of its noise -- the way it (like, perhaps, the Marabar caves in Passage to India) obliterates sound in its own roar. It's not so much that it takes away our ability to hear -- rather, it sweeps up the din of daily life into a kind of totality. It makes me feel small. And from seaside to cathedrals to mountaintops -- I like feeling small.

Anne said...

There's also Iris Murdoch's _The Sea, The Sea_ - it's all there: the retreat, the beauty, the terror, and that relentlessness of crashing waves that might have made Chaucer nuts. The sea as boundary, the sea as boundless... safe travels - bonne chance!

theswain said...

When in grad school, I remember translating Cynewulf's Elene and loving his descriptions of the "sea-steeds", ships plowing through the water. I loved it. I shortly thereafter read Great Scholar saying how the poet had likely never been in a ship or at sea. Huh, I mused, because the poem matched my experience very well. Having grown up in the mountains, or at least near them, and then going to sea in a craft 32 x 12, I've not forgotten the dangers of Nature. And then reading a lot of medieval literature in which Nature figures prominently....I think it gives an interesting perspective on what we do.