‘Digging a Hole in the Ocean—On Philip Hoare’s The Sea Inside’
Sydney Review of Books, 2013.

Edited by James Ley

An Excerpt

When I was twenty I lived in the home of a greying sailor who had put to sea indefinitely. A season earlier a minor stroke had pressed its thumbs into the language provinces of his brain so that the only words he could find for small talk were bluer than the Indian Ocean beyond the window. He swore with a salted tongue at tellers and shop-girls, his granddaughters and his doctors. Ashamed and enraged in equal measure, he stocked a yacht for the Abrolhos Islands, the Kimberley coast and further still – and he wrote a surprisingly gentle letter asking a friend and I to mind the house.

The place was one of the last red brick buildings left on West Coast Drive, flanked by colossal coralline mansions shoved up by mining money. Laminex and linoleum downstairs, its second storey – a fibro extension – was carpeted in a bolognaise-coloured shag that formed a knotted system of eddies and swells recalling the sea across the street. The house was furnished with many map cabinets in which were archived a stunning collection of shells. The drawers were satisfying to tug open; their action smooth but magnetic, their contents organised by hue. Each drawer arrayed a subtly different shade of seashell – ivory, peach, purple, bottle green, gunmetal grey – from light to dark. There were conches and cockles, cowries and pieces of cuttlebone. One tray was filled entirely with iridescent nacre, known colloquially as ‘mother-of-pearl’. Another held fragile, airy globes: urchins in many sizes. Yet another, the carapaces of tiny crabs.

Hovering over this medley of coastal objects, the sound of the breakers mumbling through the hallways, I understood the sailor’s compulsion to bring the beach indoors and impose an aesthetic order. All that dazzle and scud outside – the recursions of scale and endless oscillations of a saltwater plane – it was categorically unfathomable. For all the hours spent watching it, the ocean never made itself available for description. Wherever your eye alighted each patch was a different complexion, a wholly unique contraption turning. Words ran right off the surface. The sea, to borrow from the American poet-musician David Berman, seemed put there to make you feel stupid. But every night it rushed into your dreams.

Many have thought the sea analogous to the unconscious or subconscious mind. At the 1936 International Surrealists’ Exhibition in London, Salvador Dalí arrived to deliver a lecture entitled fantômes paranoïaques authentiques (‘authentic paranoid ghosts’) wearing a diving suit made from iron, brass and lead. The equipment, he declared, pulling on weighted boots, was necessary for his descent ‘into the depths of the subconscious’. The stunt was a failure. Hyperventilating and suffocating, Dalí had to be rescued by the young poet David Gascoyne, brandishing a hammer. Yet Dalí’s characterisation of the subconscious as a geophysical environment – a sea – also found apotheosis in the luminous canvases of fellow surrealist Yves Tanguy: horizonless scenes littered with waxy machines, soft rocks and sopped vegetable-parts, rendered in the scattered light of the seafloor. Perhaps even more than Dalí, Tanguy worked the psychic-pelagic hinterland.

The surrealists were not the first to depict an ocean inverted as signifying the subliminal mind. Sigmund Freud (who held a low opinion of the surrealists, describing them in his letters as ‘complete fools – let us say 95 per cent, as with alcohol’) made popular the expression ‘oceanic feeling’ to describe sensations of limitlessness and eternality that might underpin an inclination for religiosity. The concept of oceanic feeling came to Freud through correspondence with Romain Rolland, whose work with eastern religions sought to explain the appeal of pious temperaments. The American eco-critic Lawrence Buell writes that after Freud the ocean came to denote unbounded inner space, whether that sense of unboundedness formed around a spiritual consciousness or otherwise. Buell suggests that it is impossible to look at the sea today and not wonder at your own depths. The modern ocean expresses subversive currents of attention, ambition and attraction, unknowable forces that tug your life this way and that without release. Every diver knows this: a descent into the depths is also a descent into what Barry Lopez has called ‘the intimate geography’ of the self. The heartbeat booms, the pulse surges, the breath takes up more space than the inner cupboards of the lungs allow: awareness of the body is heightened. So too does the water press the mind to introspection, to drifting through deep urges and aspirations.

The metaphor of the infolded ocean has currency even in the writing of contemporary philosophers who deny the biological reality of the unconscious mind as a storehouse of intuition. John Searle, famous for his work on artificial intelligence, has written that unconscious thoughts cannot be like ‘fish deep in the sea … hav[ing] exactly the same shape they have when they surface’. For Searle, the wetware of the brain is biochemical and bioelectrical – but he still uses the shorthand of a sea to describe the fallacy of subconscious states.

The cultural history of ‘the sea inside’, then, is replete with bewildering dreams, slippery images, non-linear reasoning and psychoanalytical decoding. That is to say, it is an intimate history, the vocabulary for which is as personal as it is symbolic. Randolph Stow echoes such sentiments, writing about ‘the author’s environment’ in his 1961 essay for Westerly, ‘Raw Material’:

‘environment’ as the artist meets it is almost too complex a thing to be written about at all. The boundary between an individual and his environment is not his skin. It is the point where mind verges on the pure essence of him, that unchanging observer that for want of a better term we must term the soul. The external factors, geographical and sociological, are so mingled with his ways of seeing and states of mind that he may find it impossible to say what he means by his environment, except in the most personal and introspective terms.

Stow’s ruminations on the interiority of environmental perception could easily be an epigraph to Philip Hoare’s The Sea Inside. As in his 2008 book, Leviathan, or The Whale, Hoare is as interested in how wild nature has been internalised and represented by other people, as he is in how he himself experiences it mentally and physically. The Sea Inside is orientated both to environments (largely seascapes) and to literature about mankind’s socio-cultural engagements with animals and places. It is a book generated from research undertaken in the library and the museum – indoor work – to an even greater extent than from what has been lifted off the sand. Yet it is anything but didactic. The Sea Inside plays with associative knowledge and pattern recognition, giving it a sometimes surreal quality as it leaps between clusters of information. Chronicled within its pages are scientists, docents, authors, bohemians, monks and adventurers, notable Indigenous figures, warriors and mystics. Crows and other avian creatures play a leading role, and some of the most delicate, captivating writing addresses albatrosses, blackbirds and gulls.

There are nine seas that entail the chapter headings: a suburban sea; the white, inland and azure seas; the sea of serendipity; the southern sea; two seas that are wandering and silent; and lastly, an indwelling ‘sea in me’. Like the names of the lunar mare, these titles are curious apertures through which to view a thematically uniform landscape. Hoare’s central preoccupation in the book is not, in fact, oceanic depths. He revels in conceptual edges: thresholds where one subject blurs into or cleaves from another. The edge between, say, animal and human, myth and science, nature and technology, night and day, seeing and being seen, or between the extinct and the extant. These are edges that threaten to shift or dissolve. Hoare’s book is most compelling when the author demonstrates how such liminalities are governed by language, tradition and belief, not the ‘raw material’ of the world.

It would be inaccurate, I think, to place The Sea Inside within the category of nature writing, although the vocabulary is consistent with that species of literature, and the book examines a history of the outdoors. The narrator is far more inwardly-dialled than the questing, first person voice of recent (scientifically literate) nature writing. Everywhere Hoare goes – even when his digressions are historical or technocratic – the author remains marooned on himself. Some readers will enjoy this cycling back to self and see therein an interesting series of psychological playlets. Others readers – popular journalistic non-fiction readers and classic ‘objective’ non-fiction readers – may find the self-regard claustrophobic.

Read the rest of the review here