Jules Michelet The Sea, translated from the French by Katia Sainson (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2011)
Upon reflection, it seems a little odd that I, born in the land-locked state of Iowa in the US—a state which has but a few small lakes—should be standing here in Korea speaking of "The Poetic Spirit of the Sea." For a while as a child, I lived with my parents on one of those tiny lakes, Clear Lake (which today, I am told, is overgrown with algae, being anything but "clear"); and one day my mother gasped and rushed from the house to save me as I was led to the end of the pier by a slightly older child. I am sure I would not have jumped in, for I was afraid of water through most of my childhood, and only learned to swim in college.
For all that, I have spent most of my life since age 16 near the seas, living my senior year of high school in a small Norwegian town on the Oslo fjord, and shifting a few years later to New York, Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia before settling—now for some 25 years—in Los Angeles, which is the largest seaport, incidentally, in the US.
Perhaps it was in restitution for my long dry childhood that I drifted to the Atlantic and Pacific shores. What is also clear is that I discovered during my adult years how very much I enjoy traveling by any water-going vessel, being attracted to everything from large ships, to sizeable ferries (by which I traveled a few years ago from Oslo to Copenhagen and commuted several times from Naples to Ischia and back) and even small rowing boats by which I traveled by night from Praiano to Positano on the Amalfi coast one dark midnight and recently floated for an afternoon along the canals of Ghent. I have never been sea-sick despite the obvious sufferings of some of those around me.
Despite all of this love of water, however, I must admit that I am not the beach-going type. My doctor has long ago warned me of sitting in the sun for more than five minutes, and I have never enjoyed the grate of sand and rock upon the surface of my body. The light, moreover, is usually far too intense, so that even my favorite activity, reading, becomes difficult. If I were to live directly on the ocean I suspect I would prefer the coast of Brittany in France or Maine in the USA on a winter day, when large storms toss about the ocean's tumultuous waves. I would love to be inside a well-protected sea-side cottage on those days!
This is, of course, a Romantic conception of the sea. Today we need only to look to the oil-slicked tides in the once pristine Gulf of Mexico and remind ourselves of Hurricane Kathrina's 2005 devastation of New Orleans to perceive that the sea is quickly being transformed by man into something that is dangerous to live near or even transverse. In a few decades from now the lovely and fascinating cities and beaches of Venice, Santa Monica, and Malibu near my home may no longer exist, having been flooded over by the rising oceans.
I've not come here, however, to lecture on the obvious: the fears we all share for those waters that sustain and connect our shores. Instead of abandoning that "Romantic" concept of the sea, I thought I might return to it in the guise of the great French naturalist and historian of the 19th century, Jules Michelet, who wrote on everything from women, birds, and insects to religion, education, and the history of the French Revolution. One of his most important books, moreover, was titled The Sea (1861)—a book which, coincidentally my publishing house, Green Integer, has just published—which I thought might be appropriate to share with you in this conference dedicated to that very subject. Although Michelet may treat the great oceans less like a scientist than a devoted lover, perhaps the latter is what we most need today, a wise admirer, who will help us all realize the beauty and importance of the matter that covers most of the earth and, as the ice caps melt, may roll over even more of our planet's surface.
Michelet begins his book, surprisingly, by relating stories from the shore, beaches, and cliffs the powerful forces and fearful behavior of the ocean waters. Like me at the edge of that childhood pier, he seems, a first, so terrified of even looking at the great roll of waves, that it appears he will never jump in.
Throughout his highly poetic recounting Michelet gives the sea voices, but the first of these voices presents "her" (and for Michelet the sea is not just linguistically but psychologically a feminine force) as having a most "formidable character:
"...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.... 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 to better hear the threats coming from the one who just yesterday was flattering it with a caressing wave. What will the sea be telling to the shore next? I don't want to predict. I do not 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!"
Even witnessing the sea from atop a cliff or other promontory can be a dangerous act:
At the highest point of the Mont-Saint-Michel, one can see a platform called
the Madman's Terrace. I know of no place more apt to drive someone
crazy than this vertiginous structure. Imagine being surrounded by a vast
secluded plain of what looks like white ash—dubious sand whose mis-
leading smoothness is its most dangerous trap. It is land and yet it's not.
It is the sea and yet again, not. It's not fresh water either although beneath
the sands rivers constantly burrow through the ground. Rarely, and only
for a few short amounts of time, a boat will venture forth. And, if passing
by when the water is receding, you are likely to be swallowed up. I speak
from experience. I myself was almost engulfed.
By the time he gets to the great storms, quoting seafaring explorers such as James Cook, François Péron, and Jules Dumont d'Urville, we are nearly overwhelmed by the power of this dreadful force:
"...At the shore of the Aiguilles Banks also known as the D'Urville Banks" quotes
Michelet, "the waves reached heights of eighty to one hundred feet. I had never
seen such a monstrous sea. ...At times the sailors on deck were submerged. There
was awful chaos that lasted no less than four hours that evening...a century that
was enough to turn your hair white!... -This is what southern storms are like,
so horrible that even on land the natives that can sense their arrival are horrified
by them in advance and hide in their caves."
One particular storm of 1859 on the Western coast of France was witnessed by Michelet himself, and his recounting of that event, with its "shifting and bizarre winds," is perhaps one of the best written descriptions of the fierceness of ocean storms.
Moreover, one cannot be fooled by the tremendous illusions she
creates, by the immensity of her wonders or by what on the surface
appears to be moments of fury that are often in fact acts of kindness.
And it is already here, in the second chapter of the book, that Michelet takes up one of his major themes, which elevates this text to stand as a significant work even today. After describing the terrible landscape around Mont-Saint-Michel, the naturalist ponders:
Is it the sea's fault if this beach is so treacherous? Not at all. The sea
arrives thee, as she does elsewhere, noisy and strong but loyal. The
true fault lies with the land whose cunning immobility always seems
so innocent, and who, below the beach, is filtering stream water—a
sugary and whitish mixture that undermines solidity. It is especially man's
fault, because of his ignorance and neglect [italics mine]. During
This culpability of man is at the heart of Michelet's plea for the survival of things relating to the oceans. First, he establishes the oceans as the source of life itself by noting the great fecundity of the sea, which he describes as "the sea of milk," a kind of gelatinized water. A single drop of water, he insists, carry thousands of infusorium, "moving about and vibrating," coming together to create links of maidenhair. "This is not fable," he argues, "it is natural history. This hair with its dual nature—plant and animal—is life's eldest child."
Because such a life form is inherently shaped like a ship, the mother's
waist is narrow and this means that she cannot have the profuse waist of
a woman—that adorable miracle of life on land, that stable and harmonic
life, where everything disappears into tenderness. No matter how tender
the whale—that great woman of the sea—is, she still must make everything
dependent on her battle against the waves. Moreover, her organism is the
same under this strange mask—the shape, the same sensitivity. Fish
on the surface, woman beneath it. [This analogy continues for a few more
By doing this, however, Michelet has created a true link between the nursing whale and his readers that can only shock when, a few pages later, he decries what have become of these wonderful leviathans:
The strongest of the strong, the ingenious one, the active one, the cruel king
the world has finally arrived. My book is flooded with light. But what will it
show? And how many sad things do I now have to bring into this light?
This creator, this tyrannical God was able to produce a second nature
within nature. But what did he do to the other one, the original one, his
wet-nurse and his mother? With the teeth that she gave him, he bit her
hearted seals, the gentle whales, the peace-loving pride and joy of the Ocean,
all have fled to the polar seas and to the awful world of the ice floe. But they
cannot bear such a difficult life, and soon, they will completely disappear.
Soon after, the author introduces a chapter on The Harpoon, and moves forward to the discovery of the three oceans. And it is now, in the newly discovered world that he truly cries out against the barbaric acts of mankind. After describing the conquerors treatment of the native populations, Michelet continues:
It is obvious that if Man has treated Man in this way, he was no more merciful,
no kinder to the animals. He carried out a horrific slaughter of the gentlest
species. He made them savage and barbaric forever more...
In the New South Shetland Islands, Dumont d'Urville says, the English and
the Americans exterminated all the seals in four years. In a blind rage, they
would slit the throats of the newborns, and would kill the pregnant females.
Often they killed for the skins alone and wasted enormous amounts of oil
that could have been use.
"The water gushes forth with the red droplets..." the naturalist ends his description of the "drunken butchery" of tuna by men and women alike on a European shore.
There is one extremely big difference between these two elements—land is
silent and the Ocean speaks. The Ocean is a voice that speaks to distant stars
and responds to their movement in its deep and solemn language. It speaks
to the land and the shore, conversing with their echoes in poignant tones.
In turn plaintive and threatening it rumbles or sighs. Above all, it speaks to
man. Since the Ocean is the fertile crucible in which creating began and
within whose strength it continues, it possesses creation's animated eloquence.
This is life speaking to life. The beings, which are born from the Ocean in
the millions and billions, are its words. It speaks, even before the white and
foaming sea of milk—from which they emerge—with its fertile marine jelly,
is organized. All this, combined together is the great voice of the Ocean.
What does it say? It speaks of life, the eternal metamorphosis. It speaks of
a fluctuating existence. It puts the petrified ambitions of terrestrial life to shame.
What does it say? Immortality. An indomitable force of life can be found
in the lowest rungs of nature. And yet, theirs are so much more superior!
What does it say? Solidarity. Let's accept the rapid exchange, which
occurs between the different parts of an individual. Let's accept the superior
law that unites the living members of a single entity: humanity. And beyond
that, let's accept the supreme law that means that we cooperate and create,
with the great South, that we are associated (to the best of our ability) with this
world's loving Harmony and that we show solidarity with the life God has
Romantic? Yes. A few of Michelet's topics may even appear, in retrospect, a bit silly (his discussion of the restorative powers of the ocean are outdated and somewhat quaint, to say the least). But when it comes to describing that vast and troubled lake that surrounds all our continents, I can best hear his voice—the voice he has given to our Oceans.
Los Angeles, July 10, 2010
This essay was first read to a Korean audience on the occasion of the 2010 World Writers' Festival, "The Poetic Spirit of the Sea," hosted by Dankook University in Seoul, Jukjeon, and Cheonan, Korea on October 5, 2010. It was published in both Korean and English in the programme for that event, From the Sea of Discovery to the Sea of Communication (Seoul/Jukjeon: Dankook University, 2010).