THE MOST UNFORTUNATE feature of John Mack’s new book is its subtitle. I can only hope that “A Cultural History” was the work of an editorial assistant who feared that Mack’s effort would be sequestered on a shelf of academic or scientific tomes unless some popular tag were attached. Since cultural histories are all the rage, Mack’s book at least has a fighting chance of sharing a display with the most recent profundities of David Brooks.
But no literary trend is more damning of our collective intellect than that of the cultural history, which often amounts to little more than a lazy attempt to compress cataclysmic world events within one unsuspecting object, as if to say, here it is, all neatly wrapped up (or rather, as Mark Kurlansky puts it in his quasi-scholarly treatment of the oyster, “history on the half shell”). Maybe because our culture has become small, we need small things to believe in. Thus we have A Cultural History of Tarot: From Entertainment to Esotericism; Color: A Natural History of the Palette; Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol; Wedding Cakes and Cultural History, and on and on. While some of these books contain interesting enough factoids, for the most part they mistake ubiquity for significance. Much like the Germans of Bismarck’s time and the Brooklyn hipster down the block from me, the Egyptians brewed beer! But so what?
Mercifully, The Sea is utterly different, free of the glib confidence that is all too eager to hand you the world in a few vivacious pages. Mack has before him one subject, and he knows it well, having done respectable stints along the coast of eastern Africa and eastern England, near the Sutton Hoo burial mound, where the remains of an ancient vessel speak to an abiding Anglo-Saxon love of the sea.
It would have been easy to write rhapsodically of the sea, to blaze through ancient Greece, with its trireme and imperial China with its pagoda. Then, suddenly, there are the Dutch and Portuguese colonizing Africa and the New World, the Merrimack sailing headlong into the Civil War, the Titanic, the Lusitania—and doesn’t The Great Gatsby have something wonderful about boats and beating back the past? But not here. Mack’s dry wonderment about the watery part of the globe smacks of learned curiosity of the eighteenth-century naturalist, enthralled by his subject; but unlike his twenty-first-century counterparts, Mack is too rigorous a thinker to universalize his curiosity ad absurdum.
On more than one occasion, for example, Mack chronicles the superstitions of sailors or the politics of mutiny. These passages put me in mind of Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, with its boundless interest in human experience—as when Mack writes, without any discernible irony, that “from Greenland it is not an immense task to go onwards to Newfoundland.” Elsewhere Mack notes that on a nineteenth-century ship, “swearing is expected whilst praying is discouraged,” leaving the observation at that, without attaching a cheap punch line. Never does Mack stoop to conquer.
His goal, instead, is to counter the long-held Western notion that the sea is merely something to overcome and traverse, that it is nothing but “a quintessential wilderness, a void without community other than that temporarily established on boats.” He does not labor over the fact that countless creatures live in the sea and that, for this reason alone, it is valuable in its own right. (This much is evident from The Little Mermaid.) His more subtle point is that the “inherent triumphalism” of the Western maritime mentality does not represent the sum total of humanity’s vision of the sea.
So while he acknowledges the great explorers, Mack does not cede them ground: they have had enough of that. Columbus, he says, was “not an especially gifted navigator.” He is far more interested in non-Western cultures, such as the Aborigines for whom the sea is “suffused with spiritual vigor” or the Bajau Laut of Southeast Asia who eat two hundred varieties of fish and forty varieties of shellfish. They, for Mack, understand the true possibilities and beauties of salt water, not to mention its delicacies.
But this is not an anti-Western screed disguised as a nautical history. Mack acknowledges that writers such as Melville and painters such as Turner were able to deal frankly with the sublimity of the sea, without taking a mercenary or territorial view of its boundless depths and distances. He also waxes somewhat poetic (but not too poetic) about the Irish peregrine monks who bravely explored the North Atlantic, though he notes that “some of this voyaging by the faithful seems not to have been motivated by informed navigational assessment [but] more by a sense of submitting to the will of God.” In general, his teasing out of how the sea is viewed in literature and the arts, from the prints of Hokusai to the writings of Jonathan Raban, are the finest points of this book.
And, as Mack concedes, while some Asian cultures were fearless on water, others were far from daring. He singles out the isolationist Japanese as particularly uninterested in the nautical arts, quoting from an account from the eighteenth century: “Even when the weather improves, the crew are at a loss to tell in which direction to head, and the ship floats about hopelessly.”
In fact, while the natural history of the world’s seas is captivating enough, it is the history of seafaring that shows Mack at his best. After all, when you have chapters like “The Landings of Castaways, Madmen and Gods”—about beach encounters—you know that, like Robinson Crusoe, you are in for something new. At the same time, Mack is excellent when detailing life aboard ships, pointing out that “ships are the first cosmopolitan spaces.” This was captured by Melville in Moby-Dick, where Ishmael muses about the crew of the Pequod, composed of a multitude of backgrounds and races: “Yet now, federated along one keel, what a set these Isolatos were!”
There are easier books to read than this one, and books more overtly amusing. But while The Sea does not always yield its ideas easily—I will not pretend that the discussion of Mediterranean wind patterns had me abdicating society and sleep—the insights that it does have are well worth the effort. Otherwise you might as well just a read a history of the necktie.
Alexander Nazaryan is on the editorial board of the New York Daily News. He is completing his first novel.