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Thursday, November 6, 2008

THE GREEN INTEGER REVIEW Nos. 11-16 (Jules Michelet)

Jules Michelet
The Sea as Viewed from Shore / from
The Sea

A brave Dutch sailor, a steady and cool observer, who has spent his life on the sea, says firmly that the first impression that one has of it, is one of fear. For any terrestrial being, water is the unbreathable, asphyxiating element. It is the fatal and eternal barrier, which irreversibly separates two worlds. It should come as no surprise that the enormous mass of water that we call the sea, whose profound depth remains unknown and obscure, has always appeared formidable to the human imagination.

Orientals see it as none other than a bitter chasm—the Night of the Abyss. In all the ancient languages, in those of India and of Ireland, the term for sea is synonymous or analogous to the desert and the night.

It is with great sorrow that every night we see the sun—the world’s joy and father of all life—sink into and be engulfed by the waves. The world and especially the West mourn it daily. And although we see this spectacle every day, it holds the same power over us; it has the same melancholic effect.

When diving into the sea to a certain depth, one is quickly deprived of light and enters a twilight where only a single color persists—a sinister red. Then, even that disappears and total darkness descends. It is absolute darkness, except perhaps for certain extraordinary phosphorescent phenomena. Immense in its expanse, enormous in its depth, this mass, which extends over the majority of the globe, seems a world of obscurity. Above all, this is what unnerved and intimidated the earliest men. It was believed that life ceased where there was an absence of light and that with the exception of its surface layers, the rest of the sea’s unfathomable depths, its bottom (if an abyss has a bottom), was a black lonely expanse. There, lay only arid sand and stones, along with bones and debris, so many lost goods that this miserly element is constantly taking and never returns, and which are jealously hidden in the deep treasury of shipwrecks.

Seawater does not offer a reassuring transparency. Unlike the engaging nymph of springs or of crystal-clear fountains, this water is dark and heavy. It strikes hard. To venture into the sea is to feel strongly transported. It is true that seawater helps the swimmer but it also controls him, he feels like a weak child, cradled by a powerful hand that could just as well crush him.

Once a boat is adrift, who knows where a sudden wind and an irresistible current can carry it? Thus, northern fishermen, in spite of themselves, found polar America and returned with terror-filled accounts about a mournful Greenland. Every nation has its stories, its tales about the sea. Homer and The Arabian Nights preserve for us much of this frightening lore: the reefs and storms; doldrums that are no less deadly where one dies of thirst while surrounded by water; man-eaters; sea-monsters; leviathans; krakens and great sea serpents. “The land of fear,” as the desert is known, could have also been used to designate the great maritime desert. The boldest of sailors, the Phoenicians and Carthaginians, the conquering Arabs who wanted to annex the world, enticed by stories about the land of the Hesperides with all its gold, went beyond the Mediterranean, set off on the great sea, but soon they stopped. The dark line eternally shrouded in clouds, which they encountered before reaching the equator, filled them with awe. They stopped. They said: “This is the Sea of Darkness.” And they returned home. “It would be impious to violate this sanctuary. Woe to anyone who follows his sacrilegious curiosity! On the last islands, we saw a giant, a menacing figure who said: Don’t go any further.”

These rather childlike fears of the old world are no different than the obvious emotions of a neophyte or a simple person who having come from the interior suddenly catches sight of the sea. Anyone, who has had this sudden unexpected surprise, feels the same way. Animals are visibly disturbed by it. Horses are uneasy even at ebb tide, when the water, which is weary and weak, drags sluggishly along the shore. They shudder and often refuse to walk through the languid waves. Dogs back away and bark, in their own way reviling the waves that they fear. They never make peace with this dubious and seemingly hostile element. According to one traveler, the dogs of the Kamchatka peninsula who are used to this spectacle are nonetheless frightened and irritated by it. In large packs by the thousands, over long nights, they howl at the roaring waves furiously fighting to the bitter end with this northern sea.

The melancholic course of the rivers of northwest France, the vast sands of the Midi, or the heaths of Brittany, act as the Ocean’s vestibule, a natural introduction that prepares us for its impact. This intermediate region that heralds the sea strikes anyone approaching by these routes. Along these rivers, is an infinite wasteland of bulrushes, willows and other plants, which with the intermingling of increasingly brackish water, eventually become marine plants. Before reaching the sea, the heath is a preliminary sea of low rough grasses, ferns and heather. At a distance of one or two leagues, you notice scrawny, sickly, grimacing trees that herald by their bearing—I am tempted to say by their strange gestures—the proximity of the great tyrant and its oppressive breath. If their roots didn’t hold them down, it is obvious that they would flee. They look down at the ground and turn their back to the enemy. On the verge of retreat, they seem disconcerted and frenzied. They bend down, bowing to the ground, and for lack of a better solution, as they stand fixed there, they contort themselves in the stormy winds. Still elsewhere, tree trunks becomes small and they endlessly extend their branches horizontally. On the beaches, trees are overcome and engulfed by the fine dust given off by fragmented shells. Their pores close up. They lack air. They suffocate but conserve their form and remain there as trees of stone, as ghosts of trees, as gloomy ever-present shadows, as captives even in death.

Well before catching sight of the sea, one hears her and therefore begins to imagine this formidable character. At first, it is a far off sound, muted and unchanging. Then little by little all other noises yield to her and are subsumed. Soon, one notices the solemn alternating and unvarying return of the same loud and deep note that increasingly rumbles and roars. The oscillation of a clock’s pendulum measuring out time is not as regular in comparison. And yet, there is nothing monotonously mechanical about this pendulum. In the case of the sea, we feel or we believe that we feel the vibrant intonations of life. In fact, at high tide when one wave—immense and electric—rises above another, the sound of shells and of thousands of diverse creatures brought in with the tide mixes with the stormy rumble of the waters. A murmur at ebb tide makes it clear that long with the sands, the waves are reclaiming a world of loyal tribes that the sea gathers to her breast.

And the sea has still other voices! When she is emotional, the sea’s moan and deep sighs contrast with the silence of the mournful shore. In fact, the shore seems to be quietly meditating, in order better to hear the threats coming from the one who just yesterday was flattering it with a caressing wave. What will the sea be telling the shore next? I do not want to predict. I do not want to speak here of the frightful concerts that the sea may give, of her duets with the rocks, of the basses and the muffled thunder that she produces deep inside the caves, nor the astonishing cries in which one thinks one hears: “Rescue me!”… No, let’s examine the sea in her so solemn days, when she is strong but not violent. It should come as no surprise that, when confronting this sphinx, both children and ignoramuses have always exhibited a stunned admiration—not so much pleasure but fear. As for the rest of us, from many perspectives, the sea is still a great enigma.

What is her true size? It is greater than that of the earth, we are certain of that. On the surface of the globe, water is the rule land is the exception. But what is their relative proportion? Water makes up four-fifths of the globe. This is the most probably theory. Others have suggested two-thirds or three-fourths. It is difficult to say for certain. Landmass increases and decreases. It is a work in progress. This part rises and that one sinks down. Certain polar lands that have been discovered and mapped by one sailor can no longer be found on a later trip. Elsewhere, countless islands, immense reefs of madrepores and coral are formed, rise up and upset our sense of geography.

The depth of the sea is even more of an unknown than her area. The first few soundings, which have only recently been attempted, have proved unreliable.

The small and daring liberties that we take on the surface of this indomitable element—our boldness in sailing over this deep unknown—do not amount too much, and can do nothing to diminish the sea’s rightful pride. In fact, she remains inscrutable and impenetrable. We are just now beginning to learn for certain about what we imagine is a prodigious world, filled with life, war, love and varied works moving within her. But the moment we penetrate the sea, we can hardly wait to get out of this foreign element. If we need the sea, she has no need for us. She manages perfectly well without Man. Nature does not seem to care to have us as a witness. This is God’s exclusive domain.

This element, which we perceive as fluid, ever moving, and capricious, does not really change. It is the embodiment of regularity. Man is the one who is constantly changing. Tomorrow, man’s body—which, according to Berzelius, is four-fifths water—will have evaporated. In the presence of the great immutable powers of nature, this ephemeral apparition has every reason to dream. No matter his well-founded hope that his immortal soul will live in eternity, Man is nonetheless saddened by his frequent deaths and by the crises which break at each moment of life. The sea seems to prevail over him. Each time that we approach the sea, it seems that she says from the depth of her immutability: “Tomorrow you pass away but I never will. Your bones will be in the ground, and, over the centuries, they will decompose. Majestic and indifferent, I will continue the great, perfectly-balanced life which hour after hour, reconciles me harmoniously with the life of far away worlds.”

On the violent beaches where the sea, twice daily, snatches stones away from the cliffs, then throws them back, dragging them along with a sinister sound like a ball and chain, this humiliating contrast is exposed in a deeply distressing and scornful way. At first, every young imagination pictures the sea as a war or a battle, and is frightened. But then, having observed that this fury has limits beyond which it may not venture, the reassured child feels hate rather than fear for this wild and seemingly resentful entity. And, in turn, the child throws stones at this great roaring enemy.

I observed this duel in Le Havre in July 1831. A young girl that I had brought there in the presence of the sea summoned up her young courage, becoming indignant at such defiance. She met the sea head on. This lopsided struggle between the delicate hand of a fragile creature and the frightful force that hardly noticed her made one smile. But the laughter did not last, when one realized what a short life this beloved child would have and when contemplating her ephemeral weakness, in the presence of this tireless eternity that will recapture us all. This was one of my first times gazing at the seas. There were my reveries that were marred by the all-too accurate omen that this struggle between the sea, which I am gazing upon again today, and that child whom I can no longer behold, inspired.

—Translated from the French by Katia Sainson

English language Copyright ©2008 by Katia Saison. Reprinted by permission of Green Integer.

Refusing to swear allegiance to the regime of Emperor Louis Napoleon, the great French naturalist Jules Michelet (1798–1874) turned his attention to a study of the natural world, which he published in several volumes. La Mer (The Sea), one of the best of these, is part prose poem, travelogue, and autobiography, which influenced such notables as Jules Verne and was the subject of studies by Roland Barthes and others. Green Integer will publish The Sea in early 2009).

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