On a very broad level I convened the Hungry Ocean to try to bring competing oceanic models into contact with each other. On the basic question, we’re in critical agreement: historicizing is a good thing. But size and continuity matters, and the physical pressure of the ocean as ocean exerts a counter-historicist and counter-cultural unifying pressure. “The great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago,” writes Melville — but surely it’s our task as critics to peek under that shroud?
Bernhard Klein’s talk, “Fish Walking on Land” (love that title), with its great analysis of a satiric maritime how-to book from the 16c, was perhaps our sharpest reminder of historical alterity in the maritime world. But several other papers also, including Hester Blum’s fascinating anatomy of printing under polar conditions, Mary K Bercaw-Edwards on “Sailor Talk in the South Pacific,” and Jennifer Schell on social whalemen and Rocky mountain isolate-trappers, brought forward the anti-ecstatic, historically unfriendly sea. Not a space for Club Med, nor Crusoe, nor happy little grommets.
It’s easy for historicist critics to value these historical exfoliations for the alien pasts they open up to us, and possible also to find in our modern ambivalence about the ocean connections to these lost places and unforded passages. But, sentimental swimmer that I am, I’m still attracted to the ocean as symbol and reality of global and historical connectedness. When the weather gets nicer I’ll go swimming in the same ocean as a certain recently buried body, and I’ll think about that physical connection. Does that make me anti-historicist? (I know it’s an imagined unity in space, not time — but so what?)
Glissant, as usual, guides my uneasy historicizing. He insists on errant particularity — “Generalization is totalitarian” (20)– but also on the unities of oceanic forms and currents. The master-metaphor is not Romantic or modernist transformation, but something messier, hidden, submarine:
We no longer reveal totality within ourselves by lightning flashes. We approach it through the accumulation of sediments. The poetics of duration… (33)
Underwater in the moving salt body, in Caribbean “defraction” rather than Mediterranean focus, on a beachy edge “between order and chaos” (121-2). In an “aesthetics of a variable continuum, of an invariant discontinuum.” (151).
We clamor for the right to opacity for everyone (194).
Glissant’s beach is a good place to be.