An ancestral yearning: why do writers love the ocean?

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“I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world,” Herman Melville’s narrator, Ishmael, explains in the opening chapter of Moby Dick. “It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating circulation.”

There is, undeniably, something about the ocean and the sea – the “watery part of the world” – which draws human beings toward it. For millennia, we have found an affinity in these places, with their sense of the sublime – as Melville writes, we are enraptured by “times of dreamy quietude, when beholding the tranquil beauty and brilliancy of the ocean’s skin.” Creation myths across history and spanning a multitude of different faiths begin in the sea – as though our ancestors somehow knew, inherently, of our origins as single-celled amoebas drifting in the primordial soup of the earth’s first ever oceans.

So it is perhaps understandable that this natural human connection with the oceans can transform into something of an obsession among writers and artists. The beguiling, ever-changing nature of the sea moved TS Eliot to write: “The sea has many voices / Many gods and many voices […] we cannot think of a time that is oceanless.” Michel Foucault, meanwhile, observed that “In civilisations without boats, dreams dry up.”

Since Juliet first told Romeo: “My bounty is as boundless as the sea, my love as deep. The more I give to thee, the more I have, for both are infinite,” Shakespeare’s lines have been whispered for centuries by star-crossed lovers stealing his words. And the bard’s love for the sea is almost as infinite as Juliet’s for Romeo – the word ocean appears well over 200 times in his plays.

From birth to life

The Australian novelist Tim Winton has nearly drowned several times; yet he, too, comes back again and again to the ocean, both in his writing, and in his general pursuits (he plays a key role in the Australian Marine Conservation Society’s campaign to protect the ocean from overfishing and pollution). The reason for this obsession, Winton believes, is simple:

“Let’s face it, you do nine months as a free diver in your mother’s womb; you belong to a planet that’s mostly water; your body is mostly water,” Winton says.

“I don’t think there’s any mystery why we would be drawn to it – I think there’s some kind of ancestral yearning. We all came from water. It feels like home.”

Perhaps this sense of homecoming was what English poet Percy Bysshe Shelly was searching for during his days with his piratical friend Edward Trelawny, who recalled Shelley jumping into a river and sinking to the bottom, as if seeking his amniotic origins – once again returning to the womb as an unplugged foetus.

Shelley, of course, would drown before his 30th birthday. And while his death was an accident, there is a connection here that spans the centuries between both himself and another literary giant – Virginia Woolf.

That Woolf would commit suicide by drowning mirrors a deep connection with water and the sea found in her writing. In her most elegiac work, The Waves, the sea is fundamental both to the structure and themes of the book, and also to the characters themselves.  In a passage auguring her author’s own fate, Rhoda imagines launching a garland of flowers over a cliff, to “sink and settle on the waves” and her body with it, like the suicidal Ophelia. “The sea will drum in my ears. The white petals will be darkened with sea water. They will float for a moment and then sink. Rolling me over the waves will shoulder me under.”

A scientific hypothesis

Such intense connections – or obsessions, depending on your point of view – with the earth’s watery bodies, can possibly be explained scientifically.

In 1984 Edward O. Wilson, a Harvard University biologist, naturalist, and entomologist, coined the term “biophilia” to describe his hypothesis that humans have “ingrained” in our genes an instinctive bond with nature. He theorised that because we have spent most of our evolutionary history—three million years and 100,000 generations or more — in nature (before we started forming communities or building cities), we have an innate love of natural settings. Before that, our biological connection to water (human foetuses still have “gill-slit” structures in their early stages of development) extended for millions of years as our early ancestors evolved in the earth’s oceans. Like a child depends upon its mother, humans have always depended upon nature for our survival. And just as we intuitively love our mothers, we are linked to nature and water physically, cognitively, and emotionally.

This, perhaps, is the reason that human beings simply like to see the sea. If you hand photographs and paintings of natural landscapes to people and ask them to rate the ones they find most attractive, and which they felt more positive towards, respondents gave the highest ratings to the pictures containing water.

While humans were developing an evolutionary preference for a certain type of water-containing landscape, the human brain was also being shaped by environmental demands. Indeed, according to molecular biologist John Medina, the human brain evolved to “solve problems related to surviving in an unstable outdoor environment, and to do so in nearly constant motion.” Because water has been crucial for our survival – both as source of food, and in more recent years as a source of money through trade and maritime industries – our brains have become neurologically wired to seek out the sea.

Waves of inspiration

Perhaps, however, writers are drawn to the sea because it possesses the same infinite and impossible qualities of the imagination – and of the task of writing, or creating any form of art. Just as the sea exists in a state of constant change, can lie tranquil and calm for a seeming age before suddenly erupting into the most enraged and energetic storm, and has the power to both lift you up and drag you under to dark and fathomless depths, so too must the writer grapple with the instantaneous changes that take place within the mind and imagination; and struggle with the challenge of putting word after word to paper consistently, fighting the various afflictions of writers’ block, distraction, and self-doubt. Writing, when the words are flowing freely, has the ability to lift you up and make you soar – the adrenaline rushing in your bloodstream. But it also has the ability to make you weak, and take you down some twisting rabbit holes as you uncover the secrets of your heart.

Joseph Conrad wrote that “the sea has never adopted the cause of its masters.” Neither has the act of creative writing, which is no formulaic act that can be mastered in totality. It is perhaps this enigmatic and uncontrollable quality that so enamours writers – and human beings – and also brings them back time and time again to stand at the shore of the sea, and sit before the typewriter, blank page, or computer screen, and grapple with the frightening and exciting infinite possibilities of both the sea, and of artistic endeavour.

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One thought on “An ancestral yearning: why do writers love the ocean?

  1. Aptly described the influence of water on humans especially as writers. I find that even knowing that i can’t swim and getting clise to the water is endangering my own life, i find it impossible to resist the allure of water. It’s very soothing and calming. Bringing an inward peace and serenity that you can’t get anywhere else. And those highs n lows…don’t get me started. #lifeofawriter. Thanks for this piece

    Liked by 1 person

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