Calm, with agitation

Today’s bloggy text  comes from that medievalist exemplar of academic blogging, Jeffrey Cohen ( ).  He was posting while on family vacation in Bethany Beach last weekend —

And is there anything more beautiful than the noise of the water upon sand? I was reading Michel Serres’s short book Genesis just before I left, and I keep thinking about his obsession with the creative spur that marinal disorder yields. I believe it. There is nothing so calming as the ceaseless agitation of the sea.

It may seem churlish to pounce on such musings, & I certainly love a trip to the beach as much as anyone, but I’m struck by the closeness of “calming” to agitation and to Serres’s “creative spur.”  Do academics go to the beach to work, or to forget?  I sometimes joke that I’ve structured my whole  recent academic focus so that every time I go to the beach — and I live at the beach, albeit not a surf beach — it’s a work trip for me.  But is that b/c I try not to be too calm when I hear oceanic noises?

Three things seems possible.  Maybe all three at once.

First, our 21c experience of beachy calm is historically contingent, a function of our culture’s loss of the sea’s full terror and danger, partly b/c of the marginalization of sea travel & also, perhaps, because so many more of us are taught to swim reasonably well than was historically the case.  I certainly think the “meditation” that Ishmael claims 19c New Yorkers connect with the sea in Moby-Dick is a more fraught thing than today’s calm recreation.

Second, writerly types like to conceal disorderly thinking under a calm facade, so that the agitation of the surf covers up the ceaseless churn of (imagined?  inchoate? real?) intellectual productivity.  Perhaps this is a happy fiction?

Third, maybe  it’s our separation from the natural world, not any potential union with it, that “spurs” human creative work.  The distance between us & the sea motivates.

Is it a different love than we feel for tall mountains or wildflowers or Tintern Abbey?  I think it is.


  1. I went to one of the many art museums in Washington D.C. about two years ago, and one of the exhibits was a photographed portrayal of tourist beach scenes from a bird’s eye view. Each of the photos were enlarged to take up a whole wall’s space. The artist’s purpose was (and I’m interpretively remembering here) to juxtapose beachgoers acculturated beach experience of carefree, relaxing, fun vacation environment, with the enormity of the beach and ocean that is potentially isolating and terrifying. I think part of this exhibit exemplified the illusory mystique we bask ourselves in when we go to the beach, but everyone looked so cut off and isolated in the vastness of the beach and ocean. I guess it was one of those scenes where nature overshadows our attempts at control and logic. When I go to the beach, part of it’s appeal to me is the awe and mystery of it’s enormity, along with it’s calming sights and sounds.

    • Robert Frost writes about this in “Neither out far nor in deep,” his short poem about beachcombers —

      They cannot look out far
      They cannot look in deep
      But when was that ever a bar
      To any watch they keep?

  2. Perhaps it is the kinetic energy of the ocean, and we can place our bodies at the center of this movement. While mountains create a sense of the sublime, for example, when I saw the grand canyon for the first time, I felt a ping in stomach…but there was no real connection – as much as I was a part of it, I felt very disconnected. What’s wonderful about the ocean is that it’s ever changing, never still, and restless…much like human beings. I think fear still exists, and I truly believe the waters are more rough than I can remember as a kid, or perhaps I didn’t care if I was getting tossed around by the waves. Nowadays, I mostly observe the ocean rather than swim in it…or wade where the tide breaks (although I did swim at Cape May this summer). For me, inspiration or creativity just comes easily at the beach – there is so much to observe at once between the people relaxing or sand crabs digging holes…it’s teeming with life.

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