First, eager anticipation: the blurb on the back from Barry Cunliffe — “this is the book that I have been waiting for” — got the hook in me pretty good. I’ve been waiting for a broad-brush exploration of the cultural meanings of the sea, with the sort of comparative and wide-ranging focus that I know I won’t write myself. John Mack teaches World Art History at East Anglia & he seems like just the person for the job.
Second, impatience. Sometimes I worry that there’s so much defensive writing in academic prose, so much base-covering and literature summarizing that even a book with a great salt heart doesn’t let itself sing. Mack’s early chapters are wonderfully comprehensive and would make a great introduction to maritime studies for a grad student in any number of humanities fields. But despite a couple of compelling focalizing images — Sutton Hoo and Madagascar — and a very careful, professional, reliable-seeming survey of assorted fields, I started to get impatient after the first 100 pages. It didn’t help that the brief references to Shakespeare were misled by relying too much on Jonathan Raban’s Oxford Book of the Sea.
Then I came to chapter 3, “Navigation and the Arts of Performance,” and I figured out what Cunliffe was praising. Working through two non-Western navigators, Ibn Majid and Tupaia, he unpacks a dynamic understanding of how sailors locate themselves that relies less on determanistic ideas like plotting or fixed location and more on poetic forms — Ibn Majid wrote his navigational works in verse — and in-the-moment laboring entanglement in the multiple changing seascape —
There is a sense in which the conditions confronted from moment to moment require a continuous creative engagement between navigator and the conditions of nature encountered at sea. (115)
Indeed it an be argued that translating indigenous practice into graphic form is potentially flawed for the experience of the sea is not fundamentally about the measurement of objective space but the sense of movement within it. (119)
Navigation is a complete, embodied, synaesthetic activity. (129)
After drawing this vision of seamanlike metis from classical Arabic and 18c Polynesian sources, he turns at last to Conrad and his vison of seamanship as moral beauty, an example of “the aesthetics of working in combination” (134), and a conception of “navigation as an art of performance” (135). It’s not quite the poetry-as-metis analogy that I’m working on right now for my book on shipwreck, but it’s pretty close, and very helpful.
The rest of the book didn’t, for me, return to the heights of this navigation chapter, though the section of shipboard societies (“Arguably ships are the first truly cosmopolitan spaces” 137), on the beach (“an ambiguous place, a in-between place” 165), and on the vision of the sea from the land (with a nice excursus on our fascination with sailor talk from Dana to O’Brian). Finally he returns to Sutton Hoo to rethink the sea-land split: “less a terrestrial appropriation of the sea than an offering of the things of the sea to the land” (216).
All good and useful stuff — but the chapter on navigation is the one that roils my waters.