This week we reflect on a landscape of special importance on the coast of Iceland and the ways that the experience of visiting it for the first time shaped the author’s future and his dedication to sharing the meaning of the ocean with others, and its contributions for the health and welfare of us all.
In my reading, I recently came across the phrase “oceanic feeling” as apparently mentioned by Romain Rolland, recipient of the 1915 Nobel Prize for Literature, in a letter to Sigmund Freud regarding the concept of spontaneous religious feeling, the simple and direct fact of awareness of the “eternal” without perceptible limits. Rolland was considering the example of Ramakrishna and other mystics of the early part of the 20th century.
Freud’s response and explanation defines this state as a “primitive ego-feeling,” a condition that exists in infants prior to the cessation of breast-feeding, that point at which, he asserts, the ego is created as an expression of an independent “self,” a oneness with the world or a limitlessness that is simply a description of the feeling by the infant before it learns, by separation from its mother, that there are other persons in the world. I think I have it clear. But you will understand that this was a very disconcerting revelation for me who, at the risk of over-sharing, was informed decades ago by no less an authority than my mother that I was never breast-fed, thus, as per Freud, have remained for all the ensuing years in a state of pure, independent ego oblivious to others? Does this explain everything? Remind me not to consult a Freudian to find out.
I have oceanic feeling every time I experience the ocean, regardless of place or condition. It is as close to purity as I suspect ever to come. I am transfixed: by the light, the motion, the smell, the sound, and all the other sensations of body and mind that the ocean inspires in me consistently and profoundly on every occasion. Is it ecstatic? Sometimes. Frightening? Frequently. As profound and joyful an identification of spirit and Nature as I know? Always.
A few years ago, this idea came home to me both emotionally and intellectually when I visited Reynisfjara, a world-famous black sand beach found on the south coast of Iceland, just beside the small fishing village of Vík í Mýrdal. The place is unique and almost beyond description in its beauty. The approach is along a path through secretive dunes with the roar of waves announcing something very dramatic to come. The sand turns to grey, then to black, a coarse ground that is both dark and light, tessellated, conjoined in an unexpected, anomalous revelation in contradiction to every beach previously known. Along the way, bits of rusted iron emerge, portions of an anonymous ship, wrecked on that perilous lee shore, relentless waves pounding its humanity to hulk, then pieces, then buried like fragments of being lost to an indifferent, hellish place.
But Hell it is not. What emerges with the full scape of the beach is one of the most heavenly beautiful places I have ever seen — with glaring metallic light that is both cold and warm, harsh and pure, an arrangement of peaked and cragged rocks offshore, fragmenting and foreboding, refracting the light and bifurcating the rollers. The sound of waves and rattling pebbles is enormous, percussive, and galvanic. The onshore wind brings bits of wet and sand and disorientation. The birds turn, at once recognizable, and then lost in the light as if dissolved into nothingness by the sun. I have never experienced such a place before. I could neither feel it nor think it adequately. It was simply beyond my imagination. No perceptible limits. Poets try to write of this, artists attempt to paint, and I, neither, will surely fail here too. Transcendence does not bend easy to words, or pictures, or pyscho-analytical theories. What could I do before such power? Admit to a God? That was not the outcome. But what was?
At Reynisfjara, I was standing, of course, on the penultimate edge. It was the dividing, and unifying line between aqua and terra. It was a glorious manifestation of Nature, and a celebration of self — mine, yours, and others — as distillate and individual as it gets, as dissolved and communal as it can be. There was no hate there, no evil, no anger, no greed, no alienating other.
It became clear to me there and then that the ocean was, and remains the expression of all that is incorruptible and good in this world, pure and simple, and it was my obligation to protect it.
I was to presume to be a voice for its condition, its meaning, its understanding, its fecundity, and its universal and egalitarian contribution to the health and welfare of every person on land forevermore.
Grandiose ambition? Perhaps. Achievable? Probably not. But that was, and remains, the outcome. It became then and there my responsibility to the very extent of my self to share the ocean and all its meanings with all who might listen, who might join me, indeed, in transcendent feeling for all the ocean’s implications for the best of our selves and for our human survival.
The sea connects all things.
PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio upon which this blog is inspired.