Today’s bloggy text comes from that medievalist exemplar of academic blogging, Jeffrey Cohen (inthemedievalmiddle.com ). 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.