Beaches, bodies and being in the world
The beach resonates in my memory, as in the memories of many of those of us who grew up in sunny nations and on shore lines, as expanses of sand and moving water, as hot sun and nearly-naked adult bodies, as endless play while being buffeted by the waves, as growing overtired, and being driven home, and being carried in to bed. It was a place quite distinct from everyday life because of its promise of freedom – though a peculiar, a closely patrolled, kind of freedom: swim between the flags, don’t eat before swimming, don’t talk to strangers, don’t go out of your depth … Freedom, all the same, because these rules were mildly articulated by sleepy summery parents, and there were always sufficient numbers of other children to deflect their attention. It was also a place distinct from everyday life because the beach seemed back then to be committed to, or to permit, a kind of animal being – albeit one underpinned by firmly laid-out, if erratically enforced, social rules. And it continues to engage my attention because it resonates for me as the place where the body (temporarily) wins the struggle between nature and culture, between social constraints and unspoken desires. Beaches and bodies go together, I’d argue, because of the possibility of wildness or otherness that exists in each, beneath their groomed and guarded everyday identities.

It is the body rather than the beach that I want to discuss here, the beach serving as a space operating as a series of metaphors. It works thus, usefully, in a number of ways: firstly, the beach metaphorises the body, because like the body it is nature inscribed by the social; next, it can metaphorise being, because it is not a unitary or fixed thing, but is both liminal and contingent; and finally, the beach, seen in these contexts, can metaphorise the relation between being and death. I am taken by these possibilities, because in each metaphorical state, the beach/the body can offer a particular creative impetus to artists and writers.

My starting point is William James’ notion that the body is ‘the storm centre, the origin of co-ordinates, the constant place of stress in all that experience-train. Everything circles around it and is felt from its point of view’ (James, 1967: 284). It is this notion of the body that shapes the first use of the beach as metaphor, because the beach signifies this kind of active, passionate physical being. It is, as Robert Drewe writes in the Introduction to his 1993 Picador Book of the Beach, a site for ‘the ambivalence of pleasure and pain’ (Drewe, 1993: 1) – in other words, a space committed to physical engagement. In this regard, arguably, the body is most particularly a Jamesian kind of storm centre, exposed to and battered by so many sensate triggers, exposed to and responding so acutely to wind and sand and sea. For me, and for others – as is recorded in many stories and visual images – it is at the beach that individuals can become most acutely aware of their bodies, and of the body’s own tides, passions and anxieties. This heightened physical awareness means that it is at the beach – which is itself often a kind of storm centre – that ‘everything’ can be experienced as circling around and being felt ‘from its [the body’s] point of view’, rather than being (‘merely’) social or conscious.

The notion that the body itself – rather than the mind – can be understood as the centre of perception is, of course, one side of a very ancient debate in western thought: is self in the mind? is self in the soul? is self in the relation between body and mind? In the absence of an authoritatively and empirically confirmed answer, what I’d suggest is that the beach can become the site for a new discussion about this issue because, for me anyway, subjectivity is experienced differently here. As a child I found (as many of us have probably found) that the beach is one of the most physical of places, and recalls to me my most physical identity. Being here I experienced as a highly positive dispossession, a ‘being-in-the-body’ that wasn’t especially conscious (at least until my teens when bikini-wearing made me more self-aware), but marked, rather, by the sense of decultured delight attendant on feeling absorbed by salty wind, deafened by the roar of water on rocks, overcome by rolling waves, disturbed by the plangent cry of gulls; being alone and unregulated, my parents’ voices blown away before they could reach me; and most of all, being disconnected from the highly structured and sheltered symbolic world that, as a middle class urban child, I normally inhabited. This ‘wild’ delight was also found in other sorts of littoral uncertainties and their related threats: standing on huge shoreline rocks as the water boiled around my feet; being lured by the depths of the ever-present seabush that is so much denser than land forests; looking out to the far horizon, which curves with the curve of the earth, and watching the ocean liners slide out of site, literally falling off the edge of the world. These experiences led me to doubt the truths I avowed at school about biology and geography and geology, because those scientific certainties lost their assurance in that ‘storm centre’ which is the body on the beach at the bottom of Africa.

I’m not alone in my response to the passion of being on the beach (or, perhaps, being-on-the-beach). The beach in general terms, and water in particular, are fascinating subjects for many creative practitioners, and indeed for many Australians who might normally deny any creative tendencies. It is a significant subject in Australian creative production, an object of painterly and writerly curiosity from seventeenth-century European pictorial images of the continent (not surprisingly, etchings and watercolours and sketches of the shore) to the present bodies of beachly work – and this despite the ‘rural gerrymander’ that Graeme Turner cites (Turner, 1994: 113). Its attraction may be, I suggest, because the writers and artists see the beach through a kind of prism: through one angle is reflected their early childhood memories of frolicking, of free play in a nature-ised setting; and through another angle they can identify the attractive metaphorisation possible in the ‘sign’ of the beach. It is, arguably, the beach’s identity as a liminal space that allows it to act thus as metaphor, because it is a literal littoral, a space-between: between fluid and solid, between safety and risk, between the social and the natural. This liminality, and littorality, mean the beach can figure the body, as I suggest above. Think, for instance, of the peculiarly evocative relationship between the water and the edge of the land: the uncertainty and indeed the mutability of that edge’s location metaphorises the uncertainty about where the body ends and the rest of the world begins, or where the cut-off point is between the body’s own inside and its outside. But it can also metaphorise being – especially, of course, being-in-the-body. Think, for instance, of the uncertainty implicit in the sensation of treading on sliding sand, tripping over unexpected rocks, dropping into unexpected sinkholes, instead of being on solid ground; which can be read as a metaphor for the insecurity always attached to ontological questions – what am I? who am I?; in short, for the highly contingent social identity of any individual in a community predicated on agonistic pluralism.

The uncertainties and contingencies of being, and especially of being-in-the-body, are a feature of the stories anthologised in Robert Drewe’s collection of beach and water stories. This book actually isn’t by any means distinctively Australian although he and several other Australians are represented there; rather, it attests to the extent to which writers from around the world have been drawn to write about the beach, about being in water, about being on sand. My main interest, though, is in how Drewe presents the beach in his Introduction. It is, for Drewe, a place of neurotic and erotic attachment – exemplified by the Swinburne Complex which he details in the first couple of pages. He lists one ‘name’ after another as sea-lovers: Whitman, Shelley, Woolf, Brooke, Flaubert, the Fitzgeralds; all of whom, he tells us, were passionately, even excessively, lovers of the sea, possessors of ‘exceptionally hydrous psyches’ (Drewe, 1993: 2), and a number of whom finally died by drowning. This is, for me, the attraction of the beach – its combination of delight and danger. The delight is a physical, even erotic one. Drewe records, for instance, Flaubert’s fantasy of the sea’s ‘thousand liquid nipples’ caressing his skin (2) or Valery’s insistence that swimming is ‘fornication avec l’onde’ (3). But it is also a place of transformation and transmutation, and this is both its seduction and its danger. Drewe describes this aspect of the beach by recounting the death of Shelley by drowning, and his funeral pyre where the corpse split open, revealing his heart and brain. He describes the frantic hours Byron spent swimming away his grief at the loss and exposure of his friend, time in the water that caused his own translation from beautiful Lord Byron to a sea-changed being, covered in great blisters, the consequence a fantastic sun and saltwater burn that led to the peeling away of all his skin. The delight is physical; the danger is physical; and the sea and proximity to the sea, Drewe seems to suggest, changes us because it lifts us out of our ‘safe’ social existence and forces us to pay attention to the body.

Pierre Bourdieu has noted something similar about physical existence in his recent Pascalian Meditations. ‘The relation to the world’ he writes, ‘is a relation of presence in the world, of being in the world, in the sense of belonging to the world, being possessed by it, in which neither the agent nor the object is posited as such’ (Bourdieu, 2000: 114). Here he raises a corollary to that very ancient question I cited above, of the location of the self. This question addresses not just the relation of the body to the self, but also the relation of the social world to the natural world. The beach seems a reasonable place to site this discussion, because as incorporated beings it is at places like the beach, where we are so obviously embodied, that we can experience the relation of presence in the world, of belonging to and being possessed by the world, and of being attenuated as a consequence of this experience and presence. And this is perhaps more true in our relation to the water than to the beach per se. Even the weakest swimmer, when in the sea, experiences the sensation of being simultaneously dunked and supported by the water (delight and danger); but also the sensation being enveloped by the water, and enveloping it (possessing and being possessed by). After a while, especially if you’re swimming in surf, every orifice contains water, you’ve swallowed litres of the stuff, it’s inside and around you; where do you end, and where does the water begin? In this condition, neither the agent [me] nor the object [the sea] is posited as such.

This is not to argue that human being is simple animal being, mere being-in-the-world and indistinguishable from natural phenomena; but it does point out a flaw in the notion that humans are outside or beyond the natural world, closer to the transcendent, more valuable and more highly evolved than plants or animals. Nietzsche has Zarathustra say: ‘body am I entirely, and nothing else; and soul is only a word for something about the body’ (Nietzsche, 1995: 34); and here he is much closer to monist Aristotle than to dualist Plato in his perspective of being. I am in the world; I am in the body; I am, in fact, the body. A body that thinks, perhaps, and speaks, that remembers and narrativises, that makes representations, and yet a body that is both irreducibly physical and ineluctably social.

Nietzsche goes on to dismiss the notion, repeated by Heidegger, ‘that man is an individual living being among others and that the skin is his boundary’ (cited in Bourdieu, 2000: 132). Body am I entirely, perhaps, as Nietzsche insists, and nothing else, but this is not an isolated body. Much as the boundary between sea and land at the beach is constantly changing, and impossible to determine absolutely, so too the limit between ‘me’ and the world, ‘me’ and others is indefinable. The notions that I exist inherently as a discrete individual living being, and that I simply inhabit my body as a letter inhabits an envelope, come out of a Platonic tradition, and Bourdieu along with Nietzsche rejects both. Bourdieu in fact identifies this attitude as naive ‘spontaneous materialism’, and ‘mentalism’ (2000: 132), flawed because it asserts the possibility that ‘I’, as subject or soul, am able to look from the outside, dispassionately, on that object which is my body:

this body-as-thing, known from outside as a mechanism, the limiting case of which is the body undergoing the mechanistic dismantling of dissection, the skull with the empty eye-sockets of pictorial vanities, and which is opposed to the inhabited and forgotten body, felt from inside as opening, energy, tension or desire, and also as strength, connivance and familiarity, is the product of the extension to the body of a spectator’s relation to the world. (Bourdieu, 2000: 133)

But even if the body were in fact, as the dualist tradition positions it, the inhabited and forgotten envelope that accommodates the self; or alternatively if it is mere mechanism, a Deleauzian series of surfaces and parts machinically connected to the world (to books as literary machine, to tools as work machines), it cannot be understood and experienced thus on the beach. If anything, in fact, being on the beach (being-on-the-beach) with the necessary connection to rock and sand and moving water demachines the body, and de-envelopes it. The inevitable engagement with the elements forces us to concentrate on the body as lived rather than as observed, because all the while the burning of sun and water and wind textures the skin itself, the ingestion of salt water affects the interior, and in every way the self turns out to become and to be experienced more as body, less as soul, and certainly less as machine.

This is a position supported by writers such as Nietzsche, Pascal, or Merleau-Ponty, a position which, it could be argued, locates the self not first of all in the cogito [‘I think’], but in the sum [‘I am’]. The beach is again a productive place to discuss these issues because it is here that bodies are most obviously visible, and most exposed. It is exposure, Bourdieu writes, that propels us into a condition of identity in that:

we are disposed because we are exposed. It is because the body is (to unequal degrees) exposed and endangered in the world, faced with the risk of emotion, lesion, suffering, sometimes death, and therefore obliged to take the world seriously (and nothing is more serious than emotion, which touches the depths of our organic being) that it is able to acquire dispositions that are themselves an openness to the world, that is, to the very structures of the social world of which they are the incorporated form. (2000: 140-41)

Here, of course, he is writing of more than the physical elements of existence; but this focus on exposure (organic and emotional, natural and social) shows that he is thoroughly distanced from what Slavoj Zizek refers to as the ‘spectre [that] is haunting western academia … the spectre of the Cartesian subject’ (1999: 1). Indeed, in this statement of being-in-the-world, Bourdieu is moving away from the Cartesian ‘spectre’, and towards scientist-philosophers like Hippocrates, who identified identity as the physical, rather than the ephemeral (the soul or mind): ‘Men ought to know,’ Hippocrates wrote, millennia ago, ‘that from the brain, and from the brain only, arise our pleasures, joys, laughter and jests, as well as our sorrows, pains, griefs and tears’ (1964: 32).

In following or reciting some of these sorts of perspectives, Bourdieu seems to be pushing quite a long way the notion that being is physical. I don’t, however, want to imply that he (or Nietzsche, or Pascal) are being reductive in their somewhat phenomenological statements of identity. Being-in-the-world may indeed be the effect of incorporated habits, perceptions, sensations; and our experiences, sensual and conceptual, may indeed arise from the brain only; but it seems to me that none of these writers is positing a simple ‘natural’ or animal existence. Rather, each is articulating something about the extent to which the social world is inscribed in and by the body, and asserting, like Merleau-Ponty, the interconnectedness of mind and body. Consciousness exists, but only as it is incarnated, Merleau-Ponty writes, and hence human being is not so much ‘being-in-the-world’ as ‘being-to-the-world’ (1962: viii); a cheerier view than Heidegger’s sense that being human is, finally, ‘being-toward-death’ (1962: 287).

Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology is in startling contrast to the contemporary standard where the simulacra precedes the real, virtuality takes precedence over materiality, and stable meaning or final referents slip into pure difference and pure contingence. While there are compelling and convincing arguments for accepting these views (and, indeed, I do), the problem I experience in applying their standards unproblematically is that if we privilege the simulacrum and the virtual, we lose something important: the reminder that in this condition of uncertainty and ephemerality, one remaining verity is the body. Hold a stethoscope to it, and – with or without the incorporation of social mores – you’ll hear the pumping and grinding of the organs, or the blood whooshing under the skin. Or if the body’s dead (as it will be, one day) then it’ll certainly putrefy. Because of this constancy the body is, Nietzsche has said, the place where truth (or, rather, ‘truth’) can be found. And it is as incorporated beings, I’d suggest, that we can experience our selves as physical: as at once the site of vitality and dynamic existence, and the site of decay. In this regard, being-in-the-body becomes a point of intersection between the self and itself, the self and the natural world, the self and the social world.

It is this latter intersection that makes us human. Our individual connection with the natural world, the one which is so evident in our beach identity, our being-on-the-beach, belongs to the private sphere – and, like our sexuality or our ablutions, is not supposed to be paraded in the public sphere. And, too, that ‘individual connection with the natural world’ is an idea rather than an actuality. Though the beach and being-on-the-beach may stand in for an idea of freedom and nature – even for the Real – they are after all only ideas. Whether we are in the private sphere, in a ‘natural’ state at the beach, or clothed and named and positioned as members of the public sphere and the Symbolic order, we are always, as Bourdieu points out, the incorporated form of the very structures of the social world, and therefore always highly socialised beings. If we excise the romantic discourse from our narratives of the beach, this becomes very obvious; the beaches of my South African childhood may have seemed free and natural, but in fact were regulated, classified, and carefully segregated: ‘white’ beaches if they were beautiful and accessible; ‘black’ beaches if they were distant and/or less salubrious. Consequently, rather than sites of physical being, of freedom, they were sites for the markings of privilege and politics. South Africa isn’t alone in this; Puberty Blues narrates the extent to which social strictures apply, even in Australia, in this ‘free zone’ (who’s cool and who’s not; who can surf, and who must watch admiringly), and any public beach is, by virtue of the necessary exposure of the body, a site for the evaluation and classification of subjects: beautiful and toned, old and saggy, desirable or repugnant. Those who don’t meet the current standards must take up their being-on-the-beach under a marking – cover up with towel or sarong if you’re short on confidence; waddle along boldly, knowing you’re being observed and graded, if you’re long on confidence. So, in this apparently free space, there remain both written and unwritten codes of who may go where, and do what, at what cost, and on which beach.

What this points out is that while the beach may indeed be a liminal space which is not fully incorporated by the social/symbolic, still, as social beings, we bring to the beach with us, and establish there, rules and social practices. Bourdieu, again in Pascalian Meditations, asserts the sort of relationship between self and society that I’ve suggested between the body and the beach, writing:

The body is in the social world, but the social world is in the body ... When the same history pervades both habitus and habitat, dispositions and position ... , history communicates in a sense to itself, gives back to itself its own reflection. The doxic relation to the native world is a relationship of belonging and possession in which the body possessed by history appropriates immediately the things inhabited by the same history. Only when the heritage has taken over the inheritor can the inheritor take over the heritage. (2000: 152)

Thus, even in a place that stands in for freedom, for physicality, and for visceral vitality, we remain possessed by our heritage – which is history and all its laws – and we carry this with us where we go, even to the beach.

The beach, then, metaphorises the body (in its ‘wildness’, in its contingency); and metaphorises being (it is both and neither land and sea, as being is both and neither nature and society). It can also work as a metaphor for the interconnection of death and life. As the beach marks the limit of both land and sea, so too death constitutes the limit and the boundary of social, or meaningful life: the limit because it marks the end of self-awareness and physical vitality; the boundary because it removes the human subject from the symbolic order, and returns it to the territory of the Real. Death dissolves meaning because it is itself beyond language, beyond signification, and beyond the Symbolic order; we can’t say ‘I am, and I am dead’. Given this, it seems that we can’t discuss being or understand life without (as Heidegger pointed out) addressing death. Indeed, Anthony Flew argues that all the centuries of philosophising about the soul and the body can be boiled down, roughly speaking, to attempts to understand the degree zero that is death, and further, can be seen as attempts to secure immortality through knowledge: ‘It would be fair to say that in the past most enquirers have had at least half an eye, and sometimes both eyes, on the implications which the various possible views of the status of mind hold for the question of a future life’ (Flew 1964: 3).

Despite all these centuries of investigating the relation between being and body, mind and meaning, vitality and decay, death still escapes knowledge, and remains for us as the ‘un-canny’, literally the thing ‘beyond our ken’: in Certeau’s words, ‘a wound on reason’ (1984: 192). We can’t understand it because it is outside the Symbolic; and we won’t understand it because of its paradoxical uncertain-certainty (I know everyone dies; but I’m not going to die, not now, not here). So for most of us, death is both there and not-there, a stain on consciousness, a reminder of our own inevitable disintegration and expulsion from the world of meaning, a reminder that spoils the present and makes it difficult to concentrate on being-in-the-world or being-to-the-world. And here is the logic of the beach as metaphor: conscious life can be seen as the time we spend on the beach with the sea (that is, necessary death) sometimes lapping at our feet, sometimes boiling in against the rocks or the shore. We can stand on rock or sand, beyond the reach of the water; we can even paddle or swim, teasing death; but still we must know that at some point the sea will catch us, and catch us up, and take us completely and irreversibly away from the shore.

This constant undercurrent (undertow?) of threat, of the certainty of non-being, must be refused, and we do this in various ways. Some are playful – the endless massacres on video games and in movies, where the deaths are always temporary, waiting only for the ‘new game’ command, or the actor waiting to be being cast for a new movie. Others are darker in tone – as Zygmunt Bauman writes (1992: 2), we treat the dead as outcasts and as deviants, and ‘expel [them] from the company of the normal, innocuous, these to be associated with’ in funeral rites, putting them away from us, as irreducible, irreconcilable difference. Despite such refusals and exclusions and denials, we know we will die; yet in the interests of asserting our own being – not a ‘being-toward-death’ but a ‘being-to-the-world’ – we must avow life and disavow death.

This is never successful. Anything repressed, Freud insists, will always return, and we see death’s return in the stories of the unquiet dead – vampires, zombies, ghosts – who haunt every culture. We can’t keep the dead at bay because death is part of, and can’t be finally exiled from, life. But we can make creative use of this; it is precisely the tension of the divide between life and death, and the tension of the assurance of death, that can be seen to provide the creative impulse. Certeau writes that there is:

a first and last coincidence of dying, believing, and speaking. … There is nothing so ‘other’ as my death, the index of all alterity. But there is also nothing that makes clearer the place from which I can say my desire for the other; nothing that makes clearer my gratitude for being received – without having any guarantee or goods to offer – into the powerless language of my expectation of the other; nothing therefore defines more exactly than my death what speaking is. (1984: 193-94)

We can speak (or write, or paint) because we know that this expression is going to cease, finally and irrevocably; we can desire because we know that desire too is always and only of the moment, and gives that moment its vitality. The inevitability of my death, therefore, can become an alluring undercurrent, or even co-presence, to my life and, by extension, to my creative and intellectual practice. And certainly each practice of artistic production is a kind of death itself. In the act of making work, something of the artist is transferred out of the self and into the work. As Roland Barthes writes (1977: 142), creative production is ‘that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing’. We can write, letting our identity slip away, and do so confidently because, if the artist’s self-identity is in fact leached out into the work, then we can die without ceasing to be: the ‘I’ remains present in the work, and the work remains as the trace and marker of self-identity – the guarantee of life-in-death, and life after death.

All this, of course, is a game; much as when on those now rare occasions I actually do swim in the sea and feel that my identity, my being, is entirely leached out into and dispersed through the water, still I know that all I have to do is shower, towel off, and drive home, and I’m back to being me. So too, while I may feel dispersed and disconnected – lost to myself – while engaging in creative writing, I know that all I have to do is finish the work, send it away, and I have myself back. But in every act of experiencing this dispersal of self, I have to admit the contingency of my own being – and the sense of play, and the drive to engage in life, that this affords. And, especially if we are possessed of what Drewe calls ‘hydrous psyches’, being-on-the-beach – as a metaphor both for being-to-the-world and for being-towards-death – can be used to stimulate and manage creative production; and ironically, in a place without clear boundaries, to craft some boundaries within which we can live and make work.

Jen Webb
Program Director, Professional Writing
School of Creative Communication and Culture Studies
University of Canberra


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