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  • On the Sea
  • Cannon Schmitt (bio)

The wealth of attention paid to imperialism and globalization has transformed nineteenth-century studies by demonstrating the definitively global scope of Victorian geographies. Ironically, however, those approaches that seek most fundamentally to reorient our understanding of the period by foregrounding the web of cultural, commercial, political, scientific, and military connections in which Victorian Britain was enmeshed—transatlanticism and transnationalism, to name two—often end up eliding what may be the key to such reorientation: the routing of every thread in that web via the sea. The common prefix "trans-" concisely signals such elision. Meaning "across, through, over, to or on the other side of, beyond, outside of, from one place, person, thing, or state to another" ("Trans-," def. 1), "trans-" threatens to occlude that which separates one place, person, or thing from another. How might we scrutinize what these and related transisms relegate to a conceptual space between centre and periphery, developed and developing worlds, metropole and colony? What theoretical or methodological adjustments would enable us to see the sea? [End Page 20]

Two potential answers emerge, each defined by the direction of the critical gaze. The first presumes a look outward from the shore that attempts to fix itself on the water. The difficulty of such an undertaking becomes evident when one notes that even the most innovative efforts at something like nineteenth-century sea studies—I am thinking especially of the indispensable work done by Samuel Baker, Cesare Casarino, and Margaret Cohen—focus less on the sea as such than on the labour and skill demanded by sailing; the congeries of races and classes gathered together for whaling or fishing; the abstractions of longitude, latitude, and triangulation necessary for navigation; and other aspects of life afloat. In short, their attention centres on that metonymy for, inversion of, and antidote to life on land, the ship.

What would come into view if our eyes were lowered from the deck to the waterline?

Initially, the liquid expanse that confronts us might inspire a lament similar to that of Coleridge's ancient mariner: "Water, water, every where, / Nor any drop to drink" (121-22)—or, rather, nor any thing to interpret. This in itself would be telling insofar as it echoes the absence or unthinkability of the sea in so many Victorian texts—in Dickens's novels, say, in which seafaring, while crucial to a number of them, almost always takes place offstage, in the space of narrative ellipses. Were we to keep looking, we might perceive on the surface of such elliptical oceans the site of an elusive but recuperable and (oxymoronically) profound superficial knowledge. Consider D. Graham Burnett's analysis of whalers' sketches of surfacing cetaceans in Trying Leviathan: "Everything in a whaleboat hung on the correct interpretation of the glinting forms that broke, if only for an instant, the surrounding water" (caption to Plate 17). If such a perception aligns an ocean view with that "surface reading" that Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus extol in the introduction to their recent Representations special issue, "The Way We Read Now," we should not therefore neglect the once-inaccessible depths, the habitat of fantasmatic projections like Tennyson's kraken as well as actual but no less bizarre organisms dredged up from the abyssal plain in expeditions such as that of HMS Challenger, a naval survey vessel whose 1872-76 circumnavigation marks the advent of modern oceanography.

The second answer to the question of how we might begin to take sufficient account of the sea has been presaged by Ezra Pound, who, in ABC of Reading, comments that "the geography of the Odyssey is correct geography; not as you would find it if you had a geography book and a map, but as it would be in a 'periplum,' that is, as a coasting sailor would find it" (43-44). Pound refers to what is more accurately called a periplus or pilot-book, not a chart proper but a set of written directions for finding ports when at sea, one of the earliest European navigational tools. Ancient navigators put their periploi to use while on the ocean. Relocating our critico-theoretical practice likewise might produce the...


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pp. 20-23
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