- The Lure of the Sea
Alain Corbin’ s new book, first published in French in 1988, resoundingly rejects the “long-term prison” imposed on cultural historians by the Braudelian emphasis on the “longue durée,” which submerges “histoire événementielle” in the broad sweep of long-term change. Corbin, like his British contemporary Keith Thomas, sets a far more circumscribed goal: to trace the evolution of a single cultural phenomenon—smells (in Corbin’s earlier book Le miasme et la jonquille, translated as The Foul and the Fragrant, 1987), nature (in Thomas’s Man and the Natural World, 1983)—over a limited period of time.
Such a methodology, far from leading to a narrow specificity, makes up in depth what it lacks in breadth. The Lure of the Sea examines changing European discourses about the sea and its shores between 1750 and 1850. As a boundary territory, and an especially unstable one, the sea and the coast provide the meeting-place for a vast array of emotions and activities. Corbin indulges briefly in speculation about the “ceaseless quest for the mother” (171), but in the development of the seaside holiday, above all, he finds a microcosm of the process toward modernity. He fully exploits the more obvious sources of travel literature and poetry; but art, religion, science, and medicine play equally important roles in his work.
Corbin’s story begins in 1680 with natural theology. The horror and revulsion the sea and its shores evoked in earlier ages owed much to the belief in a primeval flood. Even in classical literature, the sea was often a place of madness and decay, an anti-creation. The natural theology of the seventeenth century, in such works as Thomas Burnet’s Sacred Theory of the Earth (1680), retained the flood’s significance but recast its meaning as an example of God’s sovereign might; for God chose to end the flood and created the shore as a dividing line between safety and chaos. The “spectacle de la nature” (the title of an enormously popular eighteenth-century text) provided both aesthetic and spiritual delight in contemplating the works of God.
As the theological significance of the sea began to fade in the eighteenth century, other forms of appreciation took its place. The “Grand Tour” emphasized the sites of classical culture on Italian shores; new medical fashions, however, decreed the health-giving benefits of northern waters (alongside the virtues of mineral spas). New attention to the self and the body led crowds to the chilly waters of the Atlantic and the North Sea with an alacrity which disconcerts the twentieth-century seeker of sun and sand.
The decline of natural theology led to a new reading of the text the sea provided, and the rise of geology was intimately tied to the doctrine of primeval waters. The shore as a geological site inevitably merged into a generalized appreciation of natural history, the Victorian habit of collecting which began in the 1780s. Geological appreciation also merged into a new aesthetics of the sublime, which viewed mountains and oceans as wonders rather than horrors. The emotions evoked by the sea were encouraged rather than repressed, finding one expression in the Gothic landscape (and seascape) of Ossian. Fingal’s Cave became a popular tourist site. To [End Page 114] Gothic aesthetics the Romantics added a more complex emotional response, making the seashore “the favourite spot for self-knowledge” (164). Simultaneously, a newly discovered sensuality and eroticism of the sea also turned attention back toward southern shores.
By the 1840s, Europeans had completed their invention of the beach, that complex set of emotions and practices which revolved around the sea and its shores. From Brighton to Boulogne, Travemunde to Nice, Biarritz to Naples, the sea became the favored site for escape from everyday life. By the 1840s, this means of escape was already filtering down to classes below the aristocracy, and the advent of railroads only accelerated this process of democratization.
This book is not without flaws, but they are relatively minor...