- The Pastoral Submarine:William Diaper and Eclogue's Marine Frontier
Since nothing here we fix'd or constant find,Why should the Nereid boast a settled mind?1
In 2014, the geographers Laurence le Dû-Blayo and Olivier Musard published "Towards a Shared Language: Semantic Exchanges and Cross-disciplinary Interaction," their introduction to an edited book called Underwater Seascapes: From geographical to ecological perspectives. Their essay asks whether it is possible to speak productively about underwater landscape when the meanings of landscape—in English, at any rate—have tended historically to derive from the countryside. ("Towards a Shared Language" was composed in English, but does briefly note a meaningful distinction between "landscape" and the French paysage.) As if composing landscape's champ lexical, Le Dû-Blayo and Musard ponder the words that tend to spring up in its vicinity, such as "visibility," "panorama," "belvedere," and "background." It is widely understood that aesthetic properties like these become altered, if not utterly transformed, when transposed to submarine settings.2 Le Dû-Blayo and Musard contend, similarly, that when "vocabularies" traffic between terrestrial landscapes and underwater seascapes, they variously "intersect and complete or contradict one another." These uncertain dynamics are demonstrably consequential, partly because they touch on the key legal question of whether the European Landscape Convention can, or should, be understood to apply to the undersea.3 [End Page 109]
In what follows, I discuss some other, older, poetic attempts to work from terrestrial conventions to imagine and represent the aqueous, the oceanic, and the submarine. I begin in the present in order to indicate the persistence, not to say the intransigence, of the concerns I will be examining in an eighteenth-century context. And I begin with geography so as to suggest how scholarship in poetics, aesthetics, and art history might have some important things to say to and with colleagues in other disciplines who involve themselves with underwater (and other) environments. As Le Dû-Blayo and Musard make clear, language, sensation, and imagination have material as well as theoretical impacts on undersea space, because they are involved in establishing its ontologies: as extractive zone, cultural seascape, sovereign territory, or otherwise. We who study the cultural histories of nature, and do so through eighteenth-century prisms, may have more to contribute to these debates than we tend to realize.
At the same time, this article is concerned with the work historicist scholarship can do to contribute to the blue, and more broadly environmental, humanities, diverse scholarly networks that frequently, and reasonably, stage their inquiries in or in close proximity to the present.4 I am interested, above all, in alternatives to the kinds of cultural analysis that reduce artifacts to unambiguous indicators of prevailing attitudes, and interpret relations among them strictly in terms of linear shifts in such attitudes. Accounts like these are not necessarily wrong, and can produce narratives of appealing vigor, but they hazard a reliance on generality, as well as a self-defeating tendency to regard their objects as absolutely cohesive and resolved. Many humanities scholars who have undertaken interdisciplinary work, and many who have not, will be familiar with the misconception that the primary contribution a literary academic (for example) can furnish is to tell an elegant story about another, ostensibly more knowledge-producing, discipline. Ironically, humanities research that treats its materials as plainly narratable data reinforces this misunderstanding, and may perpetuate the various misfortunes it brings about.
It is possible to animate the complexities of artifacts, and of their authors, while participating in the blue and environmental humanities, as well as other interdisciplinary formations. Doing so requires rigorous care: readings that desire a fluid and changeful sea ought to recognize authors, artifacts, and arrangements as fluxible, too. Alice Te Punga Somerville is one scholar recently to have argued that an Ocean Studies that cannot think past catch-all concepts—the ocean, the Pacific, the undersea, and so on—risks ignorance not only of marine histories, but of cultural, linguistic, ecological, and artifactual multiplicities.5 Literary criticism can provide uniquely productive tools for recognising and promoting granularity and polyvocality, which are known but sometimes elusive virtues in interdisciplinary work.
The present study joins others...