The Sea and the Soul: Poet, Painter, and Philosopher Etel Adnan on the Elemental Blues of Being
“For seeing the sea it’s sometimes better to close one’s eyes.”
By Maria Popova
“It is a general sense of the poetry of existence that overcomes me. Often it is connected with the sea,” the young Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary a century ago as she reckoned with the “extraordinary emotions” that often overcame her — the source from which some of humanity’s greatest literature was about to spring.
Half a century later, the protagonist of Iris Murdoch’s exquisite existentialist novel The Sea, the Sea gasped: “The sea. I could fill a volume simply with my word-pictures of it.”
Another epoch later, the painter, poet, and philosopher Etel Adnan (February 24, 1925–November 14, 2021) filled with exquisite existentialist word-pictures her slender, splendid volume Sea & Fog (public library) — a suite of quickenings and questions: unanswerable, perhaps unaskable, but beautiful for the momentum by which they impel us to go on asking, the momentum we call life.
Having explored the mountain as a lens on the soul and night as a lens on the self, Adnan turns her oracular mind to the sea:
The sea. Nothing else. Walls ruptured. Sea. Water tumbling.
Dryness peels away the soul caught in gravity’s unconquerable solitude. The body’s magnetized metals turn naturally North. The face, with eyes, mouth and nostrils, strains to remember intricate mental constructions. Bones end dust over dust.
A generation after Rachel Carson watched “earth becoming fluid as the sea itself” in her reflection on the ocean and the meaning of life, Adnan writes:
The sea’s instincts collaborate with ours to create thinking. Our thoughts come and go, in birth and evanescence. We feel we own them but we’re the ones to belong to the radiations that they are, lighter than fog, but endearing in their unreliability.
Sea, made of instants chained. Where to shelter impermanence within its defenses? A threat, for sure. What about the permanent affinity between light and mind, both a processing machine, of particles, of thoughts?
She reflects on how we bask in “the soft happiness that invades the spirit when water meets light” and at the same time find ourselves “exasperated by water’s alarming coherence” — an echo of the great Scottish mountaineer and poet Nan Shepherd, who captured this bipolar enchantment a generation earlier as she contemplated the might and mystery of water on the edge of a rushing river near its mountain source: “The most appalling quality of water is its strength. I love its flash and gleam, its music, its pliancy and grace, its slap against my body; but I fear its strength.”
For Adnan, this vital tension between violence and serenity, between uncertainty and coherence, is the element’s nature — the very aspect of the sea that speaks to the elemental in us:
Let your back lie on the water and be a raft for birds, then in the middle of the night, dive. Your ears will ring, spit fire; the waters will remember that once they were you.
Elements. Elemental… And we are here, anywhere, so long as space would be. Is given to us sea/ocean, sea permanent revelation; open revelation of itself, to itself. Mind approximates those lit lines in the front, that darkness above, meant not to understand but to penetrate, to silence itself while heightening its power, to reach vision in essential unknowing.
In her orphic voice, she adds:
Look well at the Pacific before you die. The best of the promised paradises have neither its hues nor its splendor.
In a passage evocative of that immortal line from The Little Prince — “What is essential is invisible to the eye.” — Adnan writes:
For seeing the sea it’s sometimes better to close one’s eyes.
The sea is to be seen. See the sea. Wait. Do not hurry. Do not run to her. Wait, she says. Or I say. See the sea. Look at her using your eyes. Open them, those eyes that will close one day when you won’t be standing. You will be flat, like her, but she will be alive. Therefore look at her while you can. Let your eyes tire and burn. Let them suffer. Keep them open like one does at midday. Don’t worry. Other eyes within will take over and go on seeing her. They will not search for forms nor seek divine presence. They will rather continue to see water which stirs and shouts, becomes ice in the North, vapor in the tropics.
Eyes have busied themselves exclusively with seeing although they can hear better than ears whenever they join forces with what’s outside the mind’s perimeter.
A century after Whitman bellowed into the New York flood-tide that the body is the soul and Melville wrote in Moby-Dick that “all deep, earnest thinking is but the intrepid effort of the soul to keep the open independence of her sea,” Adnan adds:
Without a body there’s no soul and without the latter there’s no way to speak about the sea.
Complement Sea & Fog — the other half of which brings Adnan’s singular lens to the mystique of the mist — with her deathbed meditation on how to live and how to die, then revisit two centuries of great writers reflecting on the color blue.
Published July 1, 2022