- Phillipe Diolé
I’ve written many times, although not recently, about the ocean.
When I first began Universe in 2005, it was practically a ship’s log: meandering pieces on narwhal tusks, the accidental poetics of my hero, Rachel Carson, and adolescent screeds on the perils of the Mariana trench. At some point in my career, I ported my energies outward to the cosmos, reasoning, as the ancient alchemists did, that “As Above, So Below.”
The movement from the deep to the distant, from sea to space, seemed like a sensible evolution. I saw parallels then, as I do now. They are both cold, forbidding, strange, contain tremulous mysteries, and do not give their secrets readily. Tales of their early exploration contain feats of unspeakable audacity, as well as tragedy. Solitary heroes stand out: Yuri Gagarin in his Vostok spacecraft, Jacques Cousteau developing the Aqua-Lung in order to push deeper underwater, the elite few men and women who have dared venture far above, far below. Listen to a veteran diver discuss the sea and an astronaut space: you’ll hear the same hushed tones, the same fearful, learned respect.
After all, what experience does this planet offer us more phenomenologically similar to spacewalking than floating in a deep ocean? Water is the best environment for spacewalk training on Earth; substituting neutral buoyancy for microgravity, NASA Astronauts train at the Neutral Buoyancy Lab in Houston, a giant swimming pool. I’ve always been delighted by images of this place; if you squint just right, and ignore the scuba divers, it almost looks like outer space is robin’s egg blue and dotted with bubbles.
In spite of our egotism, the human organism is delicate. We’re only built to tromp around the accommodating portions of the Earth. The moment we’re submerged in the ocean, or we ascend too high a peak–to say nothing of outer space–we’re out of our league. Yet, in our incorrigible hubris, we’ve long used technology to wander beyond our territory. Aristotle wrote of diving bells, and (apocryphally) even Alexander the Great explored the deep ocean–in a submarine of white glass, where the fish gathered ’round to pay homage–and returned to pronounce of his experience, “the world is damned and lost.” Mercury spacecraft and the early Soviet Vostok capsules may as well have been diving bells; they were so small, it’s said that they were worn, not ridden.
“The sea,” Captain Nemo pronounces, in one of literature’s more glamorous depictions of the deep, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, “does not belong to despots. Upon its surface men can still excercise unjust laws, fight, tear one another to pieces, and can be carried away with terrestrial horrors. But at thirty feet below its level, their reign ceases, their influence is quenched, and their power disappears. Ah! Sir, live–live in the bosom of the waters! There only is independence! There I recognise no masters! There I am free!”
This sentiment, an inverted Overview Effect, sounds familiar. Astronauts consistently speak of the irrelevance of borders, even nations, on a planet viewed from space. It’s probably the most consistent revelation of spaceflight, the majestic panorama of a whole planet, seen without its despots and ideologues. The Soviet cosmonaut Gherman Titov, only the second man in space and the first to be there for more than 24 hours, described the experience of seeing the Earth from space as “a thousand times more beautiful than anything I could have imagined.” After orbiting the planet over a dozen times, Titov replied a call from mission control with the elated cry: “I am Eagle! I am Eagle!”
An Eagle, of course, has no masters.
Today, in cramped cockpits and bathyspheres, astronauts and their aquatic counterparts lie contorted in the same metal cabins, surrounded by death, peering from thick windows into empty, hostile landscapes. Cloaked in metal, they transport light where there has never been any–to what James Cameron, after his much-ballyhooed recent dive to the Challenger Deep, called a “barren, desolate lunar plain,” or (more viscerally) which William Beebe, passenger in the world’s first bathysphere, described as “the black pit-mouth of hell itself.”
This “black pit-mouth” is what interests me. Essentially every culture has a mythological history which includes primal undifferentiated formlessness. The abyss, as much topless as it is bottomless. And the abyss, figuratively speaking, is neither distinctly maritime nor interplanetary. Rather, it’s a little of both: Tao, the primal ocean upon which Vishnu slumbered, amorphous being, chaos preceding time. Is this because the ancients knew on a symbolic level what our scientists empirically know now: that the abyss–in both worldly forms–is the seat of our lineage? We are, as Carl Sagan said, “made of starstuff.” We’re also risen from the sea. The salt in our veins is testament.
Beebe, one of the greatest American explorers, in his book Half-Mile Down, a record of his dive to 3,028 feet in 1934, wrote that it seems “a very wonderful thing, to walk about on land today, vitalized by a bit of the ancient seas swirling through our body. It is somehow of a piece with stars and time and space-something to be very quiet and thoughtful about, and proud of.” Indeed, while beneath the waters lies a cruel landscape, and while the cosmos is vast and unforgiving, they are both our birthright. Our impulse to travel far below and above our limits is precisely that of children striving to return to the womb, only to discover that birth is as great a nothingness as death.
Between coral/Silent eel/Silver swordfish
I can’t really feel or dream down here