Saturday, April 21, 2012

Imagining A to Z: S is for See/Sea, Again

The Constancy of Waves (M.A. Reilly, 2010)

S if for See/Sea, Again

In James Joyce's Dubliners, there's that lovely line in "Eveline" when the narrator speaking of Eveline tells us: "All the seas of the world tumbled about her heart."  For me the sea has a powerful allure. I cannot recall a time when I have not wanted to visit the sea, to linger there, to dwell.  It draws me to it.  A few years ago I visited where I was born, having no memory of the place, the land. Stamullen, about 40 kilometers north of Dublin is a stone's throw from the Irish Sea.

What is it about the sea that calls us? Maxine Greene in "Imagination, Oppression and Culture/Creating Authentic Openings" writes:
At the very beginning of Moby Dick Melville describes people who all year are trapped in
their desks, who can’t move in their desk, and how on Sundays they run to see the water,
they run to see the ocean. It’s a way of breaking free. And a way, again, of somehow
being liberated by a loop of the imagination, but by realizing there is another way of
being. There is another way of being in the world.
Here's Melville, at the opening of Moby Dick. Best to have someone read this to you and to listen, let your mind wander, much like rivers do to the sea:
Circumambulate the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon. Go from Corlears Hook to Coenties Slip, and from thence, by Whitehall, northward. What do you see?- Posted like silent sentinels all around the town, stand thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries. Some leaning against the spiles; some seated upon the pier-heads; some looking over the bulwarks of ships from China; some high aloft in the rigging, as if striving to get a still better seaward peep. But these are all landsmen; of week days pent up in lath and plaster- tied to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks. How then is this? Are the green fields gone? What do they here?
But look! here come more crowds, pacing straight for the water, and seemingly bound for a dive. Strange! Nothing will content them but the extremest limit of the land; loitering under the shady lee of yonder warehouses will not suffice. No. They must get just as nigh the water as they possibly can without falling And there they stand- miles of them- leagues. Inlanders all, they come from lanes and alleys, streets avenues- north, east, south, and west. Yet here they all unite. Tell me, does the magnetic virtue of the needles of the compasses of all those ships attract them thither?
Once more. Say you are in the country; in some high land of lakes. Take almost any path you please, and ten to one it carries you down in a dale, and leaves you there by a pool in the stream. There is magic in it. Let the most absent-minded of men be plunged in his deepest reveries- stand that man on his legs, set his feet a-going, and he will infallibly lead you to water, if water there be in all that region. Should you ever be athirst in the great American desert, try this experiment, if your caravan happen to be supplied with a metaphysical professor. Yes, as every one knows, meditation and water are wedded for ever.
But here is an artist. He desires to paint you the dreamiest, shadiest, quietest, most enchanting bit of romantic landscape in all the valley of the Saco. What is the chief element he employs? There stand his trees, each with a hollow trunk, as if a hermit and a crucifix were within; and here sleeps his meadow, and there sleep his cattle; and up from yonder cottage goes a sleepy smoke. Deep into distant woodlands winds a mazy way, reaching to overlapping spurs of mountains bathed in their hill-side blue. But though the picture lies thus tranced, and though this pine-tree shakes down its sighs like leaves upon this shepherd's head, yet all were vain, unless the shepherd's eye were fixed upon the magic stream before him. Go visit the Prairies in June, when for scores on scores of miles you wade knee-deep among Tiger-lilies- what is the one charm wanting?- Water- there is not a drop of water there! Were Niagara but a cataract of sand, would you travel your thousand miles to see it? Why did the poor poet of Tennessee, upon suddenly receiving two handfuls of silver, deliberate whether to buy him a coat, which he sadly needed, or invest his money in a pedestrian trip to Rockaway Beach? Why is almost every robust healthy boy with a robust healthy soul in him, at some time or other crazy to go to sea? Why upon your first voyage as a passenger, did you yourself feel such a mystical vibration, when first told that you and your ship were now out of sight of land? Why did the old Persians hold the sea holy? Why did the Greeks give it a separate deity, and own brother of Jove? Surely all this is not without meaning. And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.
 And here is how Melville closes the same text:
Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.
Seeing the sea allows me to feel the ungraspable, and understand it as ancient.

Literature offers lines of flight.
We need only grasp and ride.

Note: In this series of post during the month of April, I am participating in the A to Z blogging challenge, with each day focusing on a letter.  In order to bring some cohesion to this process--releasing the imagination is the focus of each post.


  1. I don't remember moby dick MaryAnn.
    though my credentials say I read it. got an A on it.

    thank you dear, for not just feeding me.. but for feeding my appetite, my hunger, my soul.

  2. Great "S" post, Mary Ann - like Monika, I also don't remember reading Moby Dick - but this excerpt has inspired me to pick it up (again). I have added it to my reading list.
    I recently read The Old Man and the Sea (both in English and German) and loved it.
    There really is something magical about the sea...and how it is described.

    Jenny @ Pearson Report
    Co-Host of the Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

  3. I've tried to read Moby Dick and have never finished it. Bummer. AND I've never seen the sea and I want to.



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