TEXT review

Penetrating a Mystery

review by Alice Robinson


James Bradley, ed
The Penguin Book of the Ocean
Hamish Hamilton Penguin Australia, Camberwell, Vic. 2010
ISBN 9781926428161
Pb 496pp AUD35.00


What we know of the ocean – our cultural repertoire regarding the watery world we inhabit – is most often framed by what is dangerous, bad or threatening: shipwrecks, drownings, sharks. The deep-sea floor of our culture is littered with stories of wrecks, sirens, storms and big hungry fish. Like water on wood, our understandings of the ocean are rubbed smooth by those tales – sea narratives slowly shaping our knowledge of the ocean over centuries; shaping it largely in narratives of human terror, for a majority of our stories centre on a pervasive fear of the enormity and indiscriminate brutality of the ocean.

How inconsequential is the will of one man, we tell each other, against the all-mighty, wild and indifferent sea. The narratives of the ‘unsinkable’ Titanic and of Jaws loom interchangeably large in our collective consciousness, worked and re-worked from the wrath and power of ancient Greek and Roman Gods, to the Open Water horror of abandoned pleasure-divers, left nightmarishly drifting, all alone far from shore. That tale is iterated again in The Penguin Book of the Ocean through Bradley’s ‘The Turtle’s Graveyard’, demonstrating just how much currency these narratives carry, retold across genres, forms and time.

Importantly, The Penguin Book of the Ocean invites a more penetrating examination of the sea than the old dichotomy of fear and thrill. It shows the majesty and might of the oceans, their quiet, grand beauty; and to some extent, their elusiveness. Perhaps they are unknowable to the human race in and of themselves, but what forms them for us is our own analysis of them, the way we turn to them again and again in text – as The Penguin Book of the Ocean demonstrates – searching for some kind of self-generated wisdom regarding the deep and complex worlds beyond our coastline.

Editor James Bradley’s selections (e.g. Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘A Descent into the Maelstrom’, Sebastian Junger’s ‘The Perfect Storm’, even Nam Le’s ‘The Boat’) show us that human relationships to the sea are perhaps so complex, enduring and fraught because, in all dealings with the ocean, we are not at all in charge. Instead, that watery ‘wild, rank place’ (140), as Thoreau terms it, is shown to be its own master, indifferent to the pitiful taming, traversing efforts of citizens, and seamen.

Those excerpts that explicitly detail our feeble efforts to know the ocean through science and exploration, even cultural critique (e.g. William Falconer’s ‘Lemma’, James Cook’s ‘Journal of the Second Voyage (1772-1775)’, Fiona Capp’s ‘That Oceanic Feeling’, Matthew Fontaine Maury’s ‘The Physical Geography of the Sea and its Meteorology’) reveal more the depth of human fascination with the subject matter, our desire to immerse ourselves in all things oceanic – to calculate, tame and understand – than they do of the ocean itself. Instead, across the anthology, the ocean remains more an object to be addressed and measured – reflected on – than it appears as a real entity in itself.

In searching for answers, these textual deep-sea dives serve only to reinforce their supposition that the ocean is enigmatic, remote and unknowable, and at the same time, irresistible to human kind. In that way, the book might better have been titled, The Penguin Book of Humans. This is not a criticism suggesting a failure of the collection, but merely an indication of the inexorable searching, questioning and positioning of the ocean by human kind that the chosen pieces so overtly convey. And even though Wayne Levin’s photographic essay ‘Resident Spirits’ appears at the centre of the book, allowing the ocean to speak for itself to some extent (the haunting images of graceful whales and schools of fish adding a valuable dimension to the literary investigations) these images are, we must remember, also human interpretation of the mysterious, illusive place; just another subjective gaze submerged.

Opening with Rachel Carson’s lyrical creation story and Derek Walcott’s poetic account which uses the development of civilization as metaphor for the evolution of the sea while simultaneously evoking the evolution of the sea in order to illuminate the past, Bradley begins his exploration of the ocean, reasonably, at the ‘beginning’. This is beginning in a geologic or evolutionary sense, rather than in a chronological sense according to author biography or bibliography. An editor faced with the task of assembling such a compilation makes many choices regarding selection of authors, works and excerpts, order and arrangement, and those choices shape the meaning and form of the narrative whole. The Penguin Book of the Ocean is thus a collage, the sum of its parts. What Bradley’s choices reveal about their editor is his awe of – and sensitivity to – the breadth of the ocean as a literal and literary place. Bradley has clearly tried to be inclusive of a wide range of voices, forms, genres, periods, experiences and imaginings in creating this literary expedition. From its beginnings, the book ranges widely across time and place; each piece one unique wave, in the overall sea of the collection entire.

As I was reading – and largely enjoying – the various pieces, I puzzled over the question of what motivates the commissioning and creation of such a book, if not to provide the reader with some knowledge of literature generally, and the ocean more specifically; and of course how the one interacts with the other. I am not certain that The Penguin Book of the Ocean illuminates either ocean or literature in or of itself: mostly the ocean is revealed by these literary investigations as being unknowable. However, what the collection does provide is a littoral zone between literature and the ocean: a place where the two wash up together, and meet.

Certainly, by selecting, extracting and assembling out-of-context disparate pieces on a particular theme, a new narrative is formed, one that tells a broader cultural story than the original works did when standing alone. This is interesting, of course, and valuable. However, I wonder about the need for prior knowledge of the provenance for these selections and excerpts. A sensitive reader can glean a measure of meaning from the collection, but there is a literacy required here that goes beyond the mere ability to read text, one that presumes a certain knowledge-base; one that, more often than not, rides on the cultural capital of education, privilege and class. What I mean to say is that rather than educating by collection, the collection to some extent excludes. Bradley takes pains to point out, in his articulate, rather beautifully-written introduction, just what he hopes the pieces en mass convey:

[The book] is not, nor does it pretend to be a comprehensive survey; rather it is a personal selection of writing I believe has something to tell us about the ways we think about the ocean and, more particularly, the ways in which the ocean has shaped our imaginations, and by extension our selves. (2)

However, if the reader has not encountered e.g. Melville’s Moby Dick or Malouf’s Fly Away Peter in full form before, can they adequately access all that this book has to offer? This sense of being an iceberg tip, this lack of literary context, is why the book fails to really illuminate, particularly considering that the overwhelming majority of pieces collected are excerpts.

I think the book might have been improved – or at least the reader’s comprehension broadened regarding the cultural significance of each work, its place in time and history, its contribution – had the context been made clearer, perhaps through the inclusion of a short introductory passage preceding each excerpt. While authors’ biographical details are provided in an index at the back, it is really the piece of writing that I longed to place.

Having said that, and it might seem a contradiction, the fact that these pieces are forced together without the explicit provision of their contexts is also why the book is so compelling. The inherent strength of The Penguin Book of the Ocean is that we come to the mystery of that place – the ocean – through a collection of works that are allowed space to exist together and create something new. Each reader will decide whether they find Bradley’s approach wholly satisfying, or whether greater depths of understanding might have been plumbed with the provision of some explanatory detail for each work.

In all, The Penguin Book of the Ocean delivers a fine and intriguing wash of writing. Like those early mariners who crossed the oceans of the world with only the stars to guide them, largely ignorant of what lay beneath; like modern submarines that sink to depths man can only dream of to photograph the dark recesses of the ocean’s secret places; and like every explorer in between, including that lone figure on the shore, gazing at a distant horizon, the book allows its readers a kind of access to the sea; a literary snorkel, boat and gills. It strikes me that Joshua Slocum’s observation from ‘Sailing Alone Around the World’ might more than adequately apply also to the task of diving deep into the textual seas represented in The Penguin Book of the Ocean:

The acute pain of solitude experienced at first never returned. I had penetrated a mystery … I had sailed through a fog. I had met Neptune in his wrath, but he found that I had not treated him with contempt, and so he suffered me to go on and explore. (115)



Alice Robinson is completing a PhD at Victoria University. She works as a freelance writer, professional book and writing group facilitator, and lectures in creative writing at NMIT. Her fiction, reviews and essays have been published in print and online. She blogs on books and reading at www.critrature.blogspot.com


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Vol 15 No 1 April 2011
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Kevin Brophy