Review: Rebecca Giggson Philip Hoare

Digging a Hole in the Ocean: The Sea Inside by Philip Hoare

When I was twenty, I lived in the home of a greying sailor who had put to sea indefinitely. A season earlier a minor stroke had pressed its thumbs into the language provinces of his brain, so that the only words he could find for small talk were bluer than the Indian Ocean beyond the window. He swore with a salted tongue at tellers and shop-girls, his granddaughters and his doctors. Ashamed and enraged in equal measure, he stocked a yacht for the Abrolhos Islands, the Kimberley coast and further  still – and he wrote a surprisingly gentle letter asking me and a friend to mind the house.

The place was one of the last red brick buildings left on West Coast Drive, flanked by colossal coralline mansions shoved up by mining money. Laminex and linoleum downstairs, its second storey – a fibro extension – was carpeted in a bolognaise-coloured shag that formed a knotted system of eddies and swells recalling the sea across the street. The house was furnished with many map cabinets, in which were archived a stunning collection of shells. The drawers were satisfying to tug open; their action smooth but magnetic, their contents organised by hue. Each drawer arrayed a subtly different shade of seashell – ivory, peach, purple, bottle green, gunmetal grey – from light to dark. There were conches and cockles, cowries and pieces of cuttlebone. One tray was filled entirely with iridescent nacre, known colloquially as ‘mother-of-pearl’. Another held fragile, airy globes: urchins in many sizes. Yet another, the carapaces of tiny crabs.

Hovering over this medley of coastal objects, the sound of the breakers mumbling through the hallways, I understood the sailor’s compulsion to bring the beach indoors and impose an aesthetic order. All that dazzle and scud outside – the recursions of scale and endless oscillations of a saltwater plane – it was categorically unfathomable. For all the hours spent watching it, the ocean never made itself available for description. Wherever your eye alighted each patch was a different complexion, a wholly unique contraption turning. Words ran right off the surface. The sea, to borrow from the American poet-musician David Berman, seemed put there to make you feel stupid. But every night it rushed into your dreams.

Many have thought the sea analogous to the unconscious or subconscious mind. At the 1936 International Surrealists’ Exhibition in London, Salvador Dalí arrived to deliver a lecture entitled fantômes paranoïaques authentiques (‘authentic paranoid ghosts’) wearing a diving suit made from iron, brass and lead. The equipment, he declared, pulling on weighted boots, was necessary for his descent ‘into the depths of the subconscious’. The stunt was a failure. Hyperventilating and suffocating, Dalí had to be rescued by the young poet David Gascoyne, brandishing a hammer. Yet Dalí’s characterisation of the subconscious as a geophysical environment – a sea – found apotheosis in the luminous canvases of fellow surrealist Yves Tanguy: horizonless scenes littered with waxy machines, soft rocks and sopped vegetable-parts, rendered in the scattered light of the seafloor. Perhaps even more than Dalí, Tanguy worked the psychic-pelagic hinterland.

The surrealists were not the first to depict an ocean inverted as signifying the subliminal mind. Sigmund Freud (who held a low opinion of the surrealists, describing them in his letters as ‘complete fools – let us say 95 per cent, as with alcohol’) made popular the expression ‘oceanic feeling’ to describe sensations of limitlessness and eternality that might underpin an inclination for religiosity. The concept of oceanic feeling came to Freud through correspondence with Romain Rolland, whose work with eastern religions sought to explain the appeal of pious temperaments. The American eco-critic Lawrence Buell writes that after Freud the ocean came to denote unbounded inner space, whether that sense of unboundedness formed around a spiritual consciousness or otherwise. Buell suggests that it is impossible to look at the sea today and not wonder at your own depths. The modern ocean expresses subversive currents of attention, ambition and attraction, unknowable forces that tug your life this way and that without release. Every diver knows this: a descent into the depths is also a descent into what Barry Lopez has called ‘the intimate geography’ of the self. The heartbeat booms, the pulse surges, the breath takes up more space than the inner cupboards of the lungs allow: awareness of the body is heightened. So too does the water press the mind to introspection, to drifting through deep urges and aspirations.

The metaphor of the infolded ocean has currency even in the writing of contemporary philosophers who deny the biological reality of the unconscious mind as a storehouse of intuition. John Searle, famous for his work on artificial intelligence, has written that unconscious thoughts cannot be like ‘fish deep in the sea … hav[ing] exactly the same shape they have when they surface’. For Searle, the wetware of the brain is biochemical and bioelectrical – but he still uses the shorthand of a sea to describe the fallacy of subconscious states.

The cultural history of ‘the sea inside’, then, is replete with bewildering dreams, slippery images, non-linear reasoning and psychoanalytical decoding. That is to say, it is an intimate history, the vocabulary for which is as personal as it is symbolic. Randolph Stow echoes such sentiments, writing about ‘the author’s environment’ in his 1961 essay for Westerly, ‘Raw Material’:

‘environment’ as the artist meets it is almost too complex a thing to be written about at all. The boundary between an individual and his environment is not his skin. It is the point where mind verges on the pure essence of him, that unchanging observer that for want of a better term we must term the soul. The external factors, geographical and sociological, are so mingled with his ways of seeing and states of mind that he may find it impossible to say what he means by his environment, except in the most personal and introspective terms.

Stow’s ruminations on the interiority of environmental perception could easily be an epigraph to Philip Hoare’s The Sea Inside. As in his 2008 book, Leviathan, or The Whale, Hoare is as interested in how wild nature has been internalised and represented by other people, as he is in how he experiences it mentally and physically. The Sea Inside is orientated both to environments (largely seascapes) and to literature about mankind’s socio-cultural engagements with animals and places. It is a book generated from research undertaken in the library and the museum – indoor work – to an even greater extent than from what has been lifted off the sand. Yet it is anything but didactic. The Sea Inside plays with associative knowledge and pattern recognition, giving it a sometimes surreal quality as it leaps between informational clusters. Chronicled within its pages are scientists, docents, authors, bohemians, monks and adventurers, notable Indigenous figures, warriors and mystics. Crows and other avian creatures play a leading role, and some of the most delicate, captivating writing addresses albatrosses, blackbirds and gulls.

There are nine seas that entail the chapter headings: a suburban sea; the white, inland and azure seas; the sea of serendipity; the southern sea; two seas that are wandering and silent; and lastly, an indwelling ‘sea in me’. Like the names of the lunar mare, these titles are curious apertures through which to view a thematically uniform landscape. Hoare’s central preoccupation in the book is not, in fact, oceanic depths. He revels in conceptual edges: thresholds where one subject blurs into or cleaves from another. The edge between, say, animal and human, myth and science, nature and technology, night and day, seeing and being seen, or between the extinct and the extant. These are edges that threaten to shift or dissolve. Hoare’s book is most compelling when the author demonstrates how such liminalities are governed by language, tradition and belief, not the ‘raw material’ of the world.

It would be inaccurate, I think, to place The Sea Inside within the category of nature writing, although the vocabulary is consistent with that species of literature and the book examines a history of the outdoors. The narrator is far more inwardly-dialled than the questing, first person voice of recent (scientifically literate) nature writing. Everywhere Hoare goes – even when his digressions are historical or technocratic – the author remains marooned on himself. Some readers will enjoy this cycling back to self and see therein an interesting series of psychological playlets. Others readers – popular journalistic non-fiction readers and classic ‘objective’ non-fiction readers – may find the self-regard claustrophobic.

Hoare eschews nostalgia for a pristine nature as an antidote to the rigours of urbanity, and offers instead a nature that is alloyed to human culture and industry. In this way, The Sea Inside shares common territory with Robert MacFarlane’s Mountains of the Mind: a History of a Fascination (2003), on the one hand, and on the other, the short fiction of activist writer Rick Bass (stories such as ‘Pagans’ and ‘Fiber’, in particular).

The book opens, with a sea that is ‘a place through which to pass, rather than to stop at for its own sake’:

The beach isn’t much of a beach. It’s really all that’s left behind by the slow-moving estuary, more a kind of watery cul-de-sac, fed by two converging rivers. One is filtered through chalk downland to the north-east, flowing through watercress and filled with swerving trout, slowly widening and losing its virginity until it reaches a carved-out bay in the semi-industrial arse-end of the city. Its outer curve, bulwarked by great heaps of rusting cars, is strewn with every imaginable item of litter, deposited by the tidal flow. … Yet somehow, somewhere, all this forgotten in the conjunction of tide and shingle: something quietly miraculous, perpetually renewed.

Though this is a beach to traverse, not linger on, ‘[i]t is never not beautiful here’. The grace of the suburban sea survives Hoare’s sensitivity to the human aspects of the scene – all the gritty flotsam, trashed species, tides rumpled by the garbage below. It is a sensitivity that resists paysage moralisé by refusing to tune in to any emotional frequency of humiliation or contrition. Hoare may not be a nature writer, but he is not an environmental writer either; he does not link himself, or the reader, to any culpability for this looted, lovely scene. At least, he does not make the connection explicit.

Later in The Sea Inside, the author interviews Dr. John Wise, of the University of Southern Maine, Portland, on the highly polluted bodies of sperm whales. He observes a porpoise autopsy where the parasite-ridden carcass has been made more vulnerable to infection from exposure to anthropogenic contaminants. Again, this doesn’t serve to obscure Hoare’s romantic response: ‘the animal is as beautiful inside as it is outside; I ought to put down my camera and paint it instead.’ While never so mishandled as to be seen as an outright moral failing of the book, there is a blitheness to the psychological and social impact of stories like this – a distaste for discussing human complicity in the rot beneath the enchantment. Hoare does a brilliant job of unpacking the role of animals in our culture, but he is less deft in analysing the role our material culture has played in diminishing the lives of these animals. There is a sadness that inheres here that the author never directs his full attention to.

If it is not a book of nature writing, where else to file The Sea Inside? It might be considered a travelogue, in that it documents the narrator’s journeys within the UK, to Southern England, the Isle of Wight and London, and then overseas to the Azores, Sri Lanka, Australia and New Zealand. It also recounts the journeys of Hoare’s forebears, from as far back as 1782. Yet there is not the attendant unfurling of character, or drive towards revelation, that typically propels a travelogue. A portion of the book is clearly family history. Other sections that deal with the death of the author’s mother read, in tone, like memoir. This is a familiar topic, for Leviathan, or The Whale also reflected, in part, on the decline and demise of Mrs. Moore (Hoare, her maiden name, was adopted by the author in the mid-1970s). The Sea Inside was, in fact, written in the author’s childhood bedroom, within his parents’ house, and the close of the book sees him begin the painful work of finally clearing his mother’s room.

Perhaps most compellingly, The Sea Inside assumes the conventions of the notebook. From the first chapter, the reader is plunged into information and observation without any foreshadowing of the book’s direction or its theses. There is a scrapbooking, a stockpiling of smaller narratives, without a conspicuous arc. Its logic is driven by lyricisms and fascinations that are personal, not public and rhetorical, as much contemporary non-fiction is. In my local bookstore, for example, The Sea Inside has been displayed alongside George Monbiot’s Feral: Searching for enchantment on the frontiers of rewilding (2013) and Jon Mooallem’s Wild Ones (2013). These are books that, in different ways, identify problems in environmental attitudes in order to explore and propose a re-thinking of – or tentative solutions to – those problems. Hoare’s book looks fragmentary and poetic in this context. The risk he runs is that The Sea Inside will seem indulgently digressive, especially given its focus on nature’s encounters with the human world and the air of emergency that now arises from those encounters.

The illustrations and photographs also give the impression that The Sea Inside is a miscellany or a diary. In the second-last chapter, Hoare describes the notebook he has kept for the duration of this project – a mise-en-abîme device: the journal within a journal.

Everything is invested in its pages: the postcards and dried leaves and ticket stubs I’ve stuck in it, the slivers of whale skin, the sketches of unknown places and animals. In the absence of anything else, it is my home, my life spiral-bound between black card, the anchor I let down.

The struggle to ‘place’ The Sea Inside is not just a librarian’s labour for dewey decimal consistency. It is a material consideration because the book’s internal structure proves problematic. There is an emerging split in the non-fiction market between books that strike out from the stance of an essay, and books that assume the voice of long-form reportage and commentary. Essay writers – seeking, as Michel de Montaigne put it, to ‘write the mind’ – are given to productive hesitation, hunches deduced from perception, and first-person speculations. Essays are not only interested  in ‘the story’. The form aims to depict how the story feels, how the mind consciously and unconsciously registers it. The Sea Inside, to be clear, is a long book written by an essayist. Magazine writers, though they might also include a quotient of wandering and wondering, write books that are typically much more tightly argued. Their goal is to get to the bottom of something.

The drift through excursus and affiliated knowledge in The Sea Inside aims to be poetically persuasive, but frustrates a demand for clearer patterning. Reading this book can feel, in places, like digging a hole in the ocean. There are points in the text where the author writes coyly – exasperatingly so. He includes empty squares, for example, to denote photographs he cannot reproduce, and on the subject of Tasmania’s thylacine he alludes to, but will not commit in writing, a comment by a curator to the effect that it will be revealed that the animal never died out at all. The reticence in Hoare’s style seems a kind of deliberate outmoding. By withholding information, deviating, offering fragments, he proposes that his experience of the book’s subject matter is more important than the reader’s (again, this reaffirms the notebook style). Our trust is drawn out, and though we learn more about the author and his preoccupations as the book progresses, the payoff is all light and movement.

Leviathan, or The Whale, which won the BBC Samuel Johnson Prize in 2009, did not suffer from this problem. It is a far stronger book, both in comparison to The Sea Inside and to a great deal of non-fiction writing currently being produced. There, too, digression was employed, and an encyclopedic ambition diffused the book: the structure of Leviathan could hardly be said to be modular or founded in argument. But perhaps because the nucleus of that book was a literary essay about Herman Melville and Moby-Dick, it had a centrifugal energy. The Sea Inside is missing this, and so casts out multiple lines – many brilliant, hooking anecdotes – without ever reeling the reader in. Perhaps the intrinsic qualities of the material Hoare explores, and the sheer breadth of the travel undertaken in the book, resists a clearer structure. And had the publishers merely subtitled the book ‘a notebook’, they might have established a different set of criteria by which to evaluate it. Genre-skipping non-fiction is, after all, almost a genre unto itself these days.