The Sea and Matters of Life and Death

Taken from the Little Great Wall (小長城) on Cheung Chau Island.

Two or three weeks ago, I consented to show my college essays to a friend. I only applied to two American universities, so my collection is quite limited. Nonetheless, he still managed to make a respectable handful of observations. One prompt was: what historical moment or event do you wish you could have witnessed? And he immediately asked me why all three events1 mentioned in my response had happened on boats or in the sea. His question kept resurfacing in my mind, because I hadn’t known how to answer – I didn’t notice this connection myself. Just a week after he had asked me, I unearthed a scented candle that I had bought almost a year ago. It is supposed to encapsulate the clear Caribbean shallows. Even more recently, I was dithering over whether to buy a sea salt perfume or a mandarin one, and eventually chose the former. When I told my friend, he laughed. Do you have some Freudian subconscious attachment to the sea? But although it was meant in jest, as he looked around his room, he also noticed tchotchkes that would suggest a tendency towards naval pursuits. And yet, as we considered the possibility of an actual attachment, the edges of both of our impressions of the sea were tinged with fear – of drowning, of the cold, unforgiving depths. So we wondered:

Why does the sea hold such a paradoxical mixture of allure and fear?

The seaside has traditionally been synonymous with endless supplies of freedom, glamorous vacations and luxurious sunshine, at least in Western literature. But the depths, although still breeding fascination in the braver few, usually inspire fear. Could it simply be the dangers of drowning and strange creatures that push us away? Is it just the shadowy line between the shallow and the deep (or the far away from shore) that causes such conflicting emotions? Or is there something more fundamental, fuelled by the dual nature of water itself?

Four years ago, my English class watched Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. Many of us pointed out the recurring motif of water, especially in the defining moments of the titular characters’ romance. (They first meet on opposite sides of a fish tank, the balcony scene ends with an underwater kiss, and Romeo ominously falls into the pool when he leaves after consummating their marriage.) When someone asked our teacher why water is so important (Isn’t fire a better embodiment of love and passion?), he smiled. “Ah, because water gives life, but can also drown us.” Even today, I am periodically reminded of his comment – from analysing Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice to reflecting on my trivial preference for sea salt perfumes. Do we unconsciously consider the sea to epitomise the cycle of life and death? Are our inconsistent emotions the consequence of this perplexing juxtaposition?

Perhaps these questions are taking too introspective a step into what is probably a superficial phenomenon. As a young(er) child, I was obsessed with mermaids, sirens and other lore surrounding the vast seas. I printed colouring pages of The Little Mermaid, and read any book mentioning mythical sea creatures. The idea of a secret world, kissing yet so distinctly separate from our own, as familiar as it is unfamiliar, nourished my thirst for something beyond the ordinary. But not too far beyond, like Narnia or Middle-earth. I wanted something almost believable – a world within our world. The mythical creatures aside, it may very well be this partial familiarity that generates so much collective interest in and fear of this 70% of our planet’s surface. While the land also boasts a dizzying amount to study, to comprehend, the sea whispers the additional allure (and repulsion) of a sense of foreignness. And humans, being the greatest extremophiles on our planet (as a Medicine professor at Cambridge once declared), always seek to conquer territories designed to keep us out.

Photograph by Christy Lau.

1For those who are interested, the events were: the abandonment of Mary Celeste, Syracusia’s maiden voyage and the Battle of Red Cliffs.

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