Friday, October 29, 2010

Flash Review: Steve Mentz, At the Bottom of Shakespeare's Ocean

by J J Cohen
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" [3] -- 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.


Karl Steel said...

Great stuff, and will prove VERY useful, I expect, for my "abyss" piece in Postmedieval several years from now.

Peggy McCracken and I wrote an oceanic response essay for our forthcoming Postmedieval (3) on animals. We talk about a long-time obsession of mine, the fish knights, which, as we read it, raise questions about distinctions between humans and animals, autonomy and causation, life and nonlife, and land and sea. The ocean, at least in Perceforest, is not simply hostile or human, nor is it so for the Middle Ages. It's a place of wonder, or, in many instances, a parallel world, an enormous place where things go on much as they do up here, out of our sight. Either they imitate us or we them, as Alexander the Great (who learns hor to tourney from fish) does in Perceforest.

For more on parallel worlds in the ocean (and a source I hope Mentz used!), see

Leclercq-Marx, J. 2006. L’idée d’un monde marin parallèle du monde terrestre: emergence et développements. In Mondes marins du moyen-âge: actes du 30e colloque du CUER MA, 3, 4, et 5 mars 2005, ed. Chantal Connochier-Bourgne, 259-71. Aix-en-Provence: Publications de Universitaire.

Anonymous said...

'Publications de l'Université de Provence'
Other french publications mentioned in:

Jeffrey Cohen said...

@Anonymous: L’espace maritime, monstres marins: this looks really great: thanks for the link, I will try to track the journal down (doesn't look like there is an electronic version, sadly)

@Karl REALLY looking forward to this issue of postmedieval!!

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Never comment before coffee. Thanks, anonymous, for that link to the review of the conference proceedings. The review does very nicely in its course lay enumerate many medieval texts in which maritime space opens, and indicates the many uses to which this space might be put. It's a trove of primary sources, so again: thanks.

Karl Steel said...

Thanks anon for the link and correction: will make the change before this goes to press. I have to confess I DIDN'T look at the whole volume: only the Leclercq-Marx article (which is excellent). Maybe I can do a quick review in next months?

Steve Mentz said...

The Norse didn't fear the ocean? In the sense that fear is the beginning of wisdom? Have I been misreading "The Seafarer" all these years? (The most direct reference to medieval lit in the book is the opening sentence, which channels "The Seafarer.")

I do agree that the longer sentence you quote is less forgivable, & more sloppy shorthand. I've been wrestling with the pressure of expanded empirical experiences of the deep oceans after c1450, & certainly don't want to prejudice or oversimplify earlier periods & texts that I don't know well. Karl Steel's comments on oceanic parallel worlds are fascinating & I look forward to reading about the fish knights.

I often have similar reactions to 18c critics who think that the novel is "new" with Defoe, Richardson, et al. Doesn't everybody read Thomas Nashe as well as *Peaceforest*? I suppose we know the answer to that one...

Thanks for the stimulating review, Jeffrey!

Karl Steel said...

If any Mentz-searchers stumble here, here's a link to my review.

Ed Keller said...

There's a nice, related set of work the McMenamins conducted in the 70s/80s, leading to their 'Hypersea' theory- "Hypersea is a geophysiological entity consisting of eukaryotic organisms on land and their symbionts. By means of a process known as hypermarine upwelling, the expansion of Hypersea led to a dramatic increase in global species diversity and a one hundred-fold increase in global biomass."