a seaside conversation
Tempests are kind and salt waves fresh in love
—Viola, Twelfth Night (III.iv.350)
Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus from the Sea, 1445
Surfer: I’m a simple man; my needs are very basic: give me the beach, the blue horizon, and a good wave and I am perfectly happy. I imagine natural men were not that different.
Priest: I believe you are simple, but you are mistaken about “natural man.” The very idea of “natural men” is a very complex cultural phenomenon that emerged and was refined over the past two centuries. Moreover your peaceful pasture, your beach and its blue horizon, are guarded by military and political might. Even more essential than military protection is the cultural and linguistic composition of your set of values, the freedom to choose them, and the peace needed to indulge them.
Surfer: But every man of every culture seems to appreciate what I love because it’s simple.
Priest: The concept of “natural man” is one of the most sophisticated and probably the most advanced cultural products. It sits on millennia of cultural development and certainly was not available to primitive men, who were anything but free to enjoy nature. To less civilised rudimentary societies nature is a monstrous and unpredictable enemy, not a bucolic idyll. The ability to perceive a violent wave or strong wind as anything other than a source of destruction and to control the fear it arouses is a highly refined psycho-cultural phenomenon.
Surfer: Then why is it so easy for people from less civilised parts of the world to appreciate and accept this lifestyle?
Priest: Once a product becomes available, it is easily consumed by all. Most consumers don’t ask if the product fits their culture and background. Like commercial images of instant aesthetics, which owe their appeal to an invisible, hidden production process, the numerous editing cuts and manufacturing stitches, superficial lifestyle features are easily copied and imitated, but they don’t change and don’t communicate with the more fundamental layers of the culture that receives them, remaining at best ornamental, primarily disposable, and at worst material for the stronger cultural elimination systems, scatological.
Surfer: Which is why you invoked political and military protection. My lifestyle is very precarious and likely only the most advanced cultural systems are able to protect it.
Surfer: Go on, I am intrigued now.
Priest: we may well be moving toward a political order that will no longer protect it for the same reason you were unable to appreciate the cultural significance of your seemingly simple lifestyle. The political, academic, and, unfortunately, clerical proletariat lacks knowledge of the production history and process of the culture they inherited. Contemporary systems of preserving and transmitting knowledge may well be condemning our common cultural background to scatological rabble. It won’t be long before your lifestyle is condemned and eliminated as insignificant to governing structures, just as romance and heterosexual love were devalued and eliminated from the cultural milieu. Simple bucolic lifestyles like yours have been associated with heterosexual love and romance since the inception of literary culture.
Surfer: Paul and Virginia, Daphnis and Chloe, Arcadia…
Priest: You know your literary history.
Surfer: Yes, I’ve devoured some university knowledge.
Priest: Then you know the sea wasn’t always a pretty site. Even to ancient Europeans it was just a means to an end and a dangerous business involving every thinkable monster and feminine treachery?
Surfer: I’ve heard of it yes, the Odyssey, Dido and Aeneas, and so forth.
Priest: It all began with the cultivation of natural spaces in Christian Europe. Renaissance art was obsessed with the sea. It is not surprising that at the time the British maritime empire was born, when America and the new world were discovered and developed, continental artists turned their eyes to the sea to define the standards of artistic beauty that dominate aesthetics to this day. Alongside the highest achievement in language, the Shakespearean canon of dramatic works, the Renaissance was also the time that established the visual idiom of modern aesthetic sensibilities.
Surfer: I don’t know about history, but just as I speak English I consider the sea my homeland.
Priest: The two are not unrelated. Britain remains the one and only maritime power in the world as we know it. The German Hansa was an equally successful achievement, but it didn’t survive intra-European rivalries and lost to the Swedes. Hence the English language has a great deal to do with the development of the marine aesthetics that dominate your worldview. Since the British isles were the first great maritime power, the oceans assumed a central position in the psycho-historical development of the Western imagination. In Italian art especially the sea became an icon of visual experience. The ancient Greco-Roman myth of the birth of the goddess of love Venus from the sea was revived in the context of global trade that involved predominantly Western European merchant ships. What you enjoy today and take for granted, even natural, isn’t natural at all, but has a long and complicated cultural history.
Surfer: That may be interesting, but doesn’t do much for me.
Priest: You said the sea is your homeland.
Surfer: It is.
Priest: But the sea is no homeland, no land at all!
Surfer: We surfers aren’t really into history and politics. We have no homeland. We are everywhere.
Priest: That’s what I’m trying to explain to you. You have a homeland, the old maritime powers that mapped the world. You inherited their cultural makeup. What you call awesome isn’t simply awesome naturally. It has a cultural history. And yet, you are right, you have no land-based homeland, only maritime culture.
Surfer: That may well be, but I’m not interested.
Priest: You are closer to our Lord than any man living on land.
Surfer: How so?
Priest: Like I said, Italian artists of the Renaissance revived some dead and forgotten Greco-Roman myths to compete with the pagan background of world trade partners, but the centrality of love and its association with world waters in the Western psycho-historical imagination has a different origin. Love is a Christian concept and virtue. Water is the element of baptism: the second birth and first sacrament of Christian worship. The sacrament of baptism represents the renunciation and crucifixion of earthly being. Everything in nature is perishable and mute. The profane is lacking in light. It is mute and dumb, unreflected. It lacks the intelligence of the Holy Ghost. The reborn, or born again, those who receive the baptism also receive the light through their second birth from the water, from the sea in a sense. Your understanding of your element is profane, but the origin of its valuation is definitely not profane.
Surfer: I carry light? You mean “salt of the earth,” that sort of thing?
Priest: Not directly, not unless you’ve been touched by God’s grace! You do know something that land creatures don’t. It’s your advantage. Like our Lord and his followers you have no earthly home to lay your head. The wave is your pillow, the cloud your blanket.
Surfer: All I know is how to ride a wave. I’m no figure of enlightenment. Nor do I wish to be anyone’s guide or model.
Priest: No, but you are a figure of baptism. You have the existential experience necessary to understand the message of our Lord.
Surfer: But I don’t have the message.
Priest: You are fertile ground for it.
Surfer: Base earth! A profane being.
Priest: No, you have a special, sacred relationship to beauty. You can see beauty at its inception. That is rare. It lends you grace and continual rebirth. Before birth and after re-birth, beauty appears in its pure form, the highest form of life.
Surfer: Like the unborn? Or the undead? Zombies, vampires, ghosts… Hollywood creatures?
Priest: You sneer, but yes. Transitional states of being are also eternal states. These two forms of life, the unborn and the undead, come closest to the purity of the medium of creation, the Word.
Surfer: Because the unborn lives in water?
Priest: Water is the perfect embodied metaphor for the Word, yes. The beauty of the unborn is greater than empirical beauty, because it represents a different state of being. The concept of unborn life and the Christian notion of the interior as sole temple of the Lord are very similar. The Virgin Mary receives the Holy Ghost and forms the Saviour in the interior temple of the mind? Word before flesh, spirit before matter. Christian experience takes place exclusively in the feminine realm of love, grace, and beauty. It is the only female religion. It softened and domesticated the sea and the furious wilderness.
Surfer: In love we are conceived, love we are, and to love we return. In its purity love contains the stuff all beauty is made of, primal beauty.
Priest: Like I said, you are a natural born philosopher!
Surfer: You must be joking.
Priest: You dwell in the no-land of the source of life, you know betweenness, you understand the impossibility of representing empirical beauty, because you feel it in inexplicable ways. And your sense of love is superbly refined.
Surfer: Words fail me.
Priest: You feel the impossibility of speaking the whole truth about what you know deeply; often words fail you when you try to tell others why you chase the waves; yet you know exactly what beauty is, you feel love to the core of your fear, and you sense its infinite power. Only love has the power to bring you back.
Surfer: The wave is different every day; how can you explain something that has so many shapes and that changes so often? Sometimes the fear just swallows everything.
Priest: You understand the impossibility of finitude, yet you fear it at every moment. You know every breath could be your last. You thrive on defeating finitude. You overcome your fear and your trembling every day, because you know love like Mary did. You go in only to come back a different person, transformed to the core. You thrive on change.
Surfer: No, I fear the elements, but I don’t fear change. I can’t afford to fear change. I have to stay on top of a constantly shifting ground. I can’t let it get the better or me. Change is inevitable. You have to think quickly on the water and go with whatever comes your way. If you are bent on carrying out the routine you learned yesterday, you are out of luck. You have to think fast and react faster.
Priest: I know, you live at the edge of human instinct. Instead of repressing, you chase and explore it. Instead of practicing learned habits, you adapt to untapped, slumbering human instincts. Instead of mastering natural forces, you seek to unleash them. You run the blade of human experience and redraw the boundaries of instinct, feeling out its limits as you go. In land-based cultures equestrians and falconers were valued very highly for their cultural achievement, because they support the cultivation of instinct. Maritime powers developed new forms of instinct design. Surfing is a key practice that developed in the context of oceanic exploration & conquest.
Surfer: I’m not too deeply learned.
Priest: Why do you think people admire you? They feel your mastery of instinct is superior and that’s a sign of advanced intelligence. Manifest human knowledge is very limited. The sum of our entire scientific know-how makes up less than one percent of material reality and the sum of our encyclopaedic knowledge less than one percent of our referential reality. Unbound the human mind is infinite, versatile and very prolific. One of the main functions of Christian faith is to unlock the mind and to open it to new dimensions of experience, to help it get accustomed to change just as you have to adapt to your constantly changing environment. Your craft is not learned, you learn it anew every day.
Surfer: That’s true. I can’t repeat a single run twice; every day is a new experience. But tell me, if the mind is infinite, why do we find it chained and belittled everywhere we look? Is it to satisfy what infinitely inferior knowledge considers necessity?
Priest: Sadly, yes.
Surfer: And infinity guarantees beauty? Is that why we love the undead, all the losses we couldn’t let go of?
Priest: We don’t understand infinity, or to be correct, simple infinity is all we understand. No given moment understands itself as finite, rather it perceives itself as infinite, but once it is gone and replaced, it can only return to a secondary infinity. It’s no longer simply unaware of its finitude, but it has overcome it. The infinite time of the undead is the origin of sacred love.
Surfer: We are all bound to earth by the same gentle fetters of beauty’s bounty. Otherwise we’d be committing suicide as soon as we are born. Existence is a terrible burden.
Priest: Yes and no. Existence is terrible in most belief systems, including the ancient Greek, but in Christian thought only what is capable of love and of being loved exists. Beauty is being, beauty is truth. Beauty that binds is earthly, but heavenly beauty sets us free.
Surfer: You mean naked beauty! The nakedness of the sea.
Priest: You don’t know it, but your foreknowledge of beauty, the very precondition of your passion, is instinct that has been educated, refined, and painstakingly cultivated through the ages by sacramental culture. There is nothing natural in naked beauty, though as in the Greek myth and in Botticelli’s painting, it is born from the sea. Rebirth before birth. Naked beauty suffers a sea change before it comes into existence.
Warhol, Detail of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus
Earthly beauty is clothed in human knowledge and rank, but the beauty you speak of when you speak of the sea is naked and it is absolutely superior. The Renaissance masters were able to render these truths in their visual idiom, like Titian’s “Sacred and Profane Love,” for example.
Titian, 1613, Sacred and Profane Love
Earthly love is clothed and sits at one end of the sepulchre. Her sacred counterpart is naked and sits at the other end of the tomb. The clothed beauty represents our love of earthly pleasures and our bourn identities, but the sacred one represents the unborn and the undead, pre-birth, re-birth, and after death. Naked beauty represents the soul, which is filled with the spirit of infinity. We can only grasp it in its relation to earthly beauty, the tomb, and the elements surrounding her: earth under her bare feet, water and clouds behind her, incense and air above, and the simmering fire in the censer. Earthly beauty, on the other hand, is surrounded by her attributes: the luxurious shadows of a leafy shelter, her fashionable dress, and the burg on the hill, symbol of prestige, rank, power, and wealth.
Surfer: If they represent different forms of life and temporality, before and after birth and rebirth, why are they sitting on a tomb? Are love and beauty ultimately related to death?
Priest: Yes, love and beauty are never containable in simple temporal structures, because they exceed them; they don’t just exist and don’t simply cease to exist, but rather serve as frames for death. Beauty contains the passage between states of existence and temporalities. One could say it is the very necessity to defeat death that calls them into existence.
Surfer: Is that why this tomb is also a fountain?
Surfer: Because death like the sea is a source of naked love and sacred beauty?
Priest: If by source we understand something that undergoes transformation, yes. The origin is never fixed, never constant. Like water and the sea, a source — the origin — is in constant motion. There is no stable origin because it is the substance of mutability itself, a gate between states of existence. Likewise death is never final. Life and death are not opposed, but rather transitional states. Much like sleep death is a state that must be surmounted, transformed, and completed before life can spring eternal.
Surfer: So it’s not so much that death is the fountain of life, but that beauty and love spring from the triumph over it, transforming the sepulchre into a fountain of living waters?
Surfer: Not only are love and beauty not bound to the laws of time on earth, but their power consists in the triumph over time and over the powers of earthly authority.
Surfer: But profane love appears to be on the side of earthly authority.
Priest: Yes, there is a relationship between the two Beauties that mirrors the relationship between the first and the second Eve, Adam’s companion and the mother of Christ, Mary. Profane beauty is perishable, yet it becomes a source of sacred beauty after death. This is why the allegorical figure for profane love is looking away from the fountain and the figure representing sacred love gazes deep into it. Profane beauty knows no death and no mourning, whereas her sacred counterpart dwells on the remains in the tomb, which also contains the fountain of life. One cannot be represented without the other.
Surfer: Titian was a devout Catholic and painted almost exclusively religious material, didn’t he?
Priest: Yes, the iconography for this execution of a very philosophical visual reflection on love and beauty goes back to the image of the two angels who greeted the Magdalen at each end of the Empty Tomb.
Surfer: The Resurrection?
Schedone, Two Marys at the Tomb 1613
Surfer: It appears this is another transitional phase, like being on the water, like surfing the waves.
Priest: Indeed. Death is a transitional phase and so is most of life. We live out what is conceived during phases of transition. What’s significant here is Jesus’s commandment to the Magdalen: do not touch me before I have gone to the Father (https://designwithin.net/2016/08/12/work-of-marriage/). The period is 40 days, but this number is merely symbolic, not instructive. It refers to the period of mourning, during which time the bereaved practice abstinence from material satisfaction that involves the dead. Much like the time when unborn life forms in the mind and body of the mother, the period of mourning shapes what remains of the dead, the departed, and the distant, which becomes the fountain of life. The arts evolved as practices of mourning. All forms of art from painting and poetry to dance and music are elaborate mourning processes. The taboo on the dead isn’t simply neurotic, as Freud thought, but a very healthy process of sublimation, the psychic fabric of all cultural achievement. (please see https://designwithin.net/2016/04/22/sublimation-immaterial-self-design/)
Surfer: Is this why sacramental culture is organised around mourning, ordering the remains?
Rogier van der Weyden, The Seven Sacraments, 1450
Priest: Absolutely. The Sacraments order the transitional phases of human life from birth, through baptism, confirmation, communion, to marriage, confession, sickness and death. Transitional times are times of mourning, because a certain presence and reality are lost only to be replaced by their memory through the practice of abstinence. The cross is at the center of these transitions as the point of eternal return of the same. Perishable profane beauty does not return to dust and is not lost forever, but is transformed into sacred beauty, which is born in mourning. The resurrection angels Christians traditionally place on tombs and crypts personify sacred beauty, which in Titian’s painting is represented by the naked allegorical figure for Sacred Love. Yet there is nothing morbid about this focus on mourning. To the contrary, it is the source of life’s exuberance, the richness of experience, its infinite affirmation and ephemeral beauty.
Surfer: So ultimately the source of my delight, my homeland, the sea and the wave, is not the natural sea nor the natural body, but the cross, its memory data bank produced by the sacramental culture that has taught me sentience?
Priest: I envy you.
Priest: Because you feel what I know deeply. I spend my days in reading and prayer, but my body is weary, my sleep uneasy, my wine tastes bitter. The profound recognition of what I only read about is given to you. One of your days on the waves is more powerful and more persuasive than a full year of my liturgies.
Surfer: I wouldn’t know it if it weren’t for you. All I have is the nakedness of the sea.
Priest: The contemporary idea and ideal of beauty is body-based. We think it’s natural and spontaneous because we neither see the process of its production nor the history of its valuation, which goes back to our Lord Jesus. Sure the Greeks and Romans had beautiful bodies, but their beauty was purely external and passed on from generation to generation without feeling, bypassing the interior and its crypt. Christ taught us to internalize love. To the Greeks love and beauty are the same, but in Christian thought Beauty is profane, Love is sacred. In Christ beauty can change, develop, and deviate from classical proportions. In Christ beauty receives eternity, the human interior, and the infinity of the sea.
Surfer: The editing cuts and technological stitches that produce contemporary images of beauty have to be seamless and invisible to create the idea of natural, naked beauty. But that’s not what you mean by “naked.” I understand that now.
Priest: Naked beauty is transitional, immaterial. It exists between states of being and inherits the unborn dreams from the past recorded and transmitted in works of art, which is why they are so precious to our faith. Real pieces of art and technology endure beyond the constraints of the times of their performance. They carry the invisible, concealed but powerful creativity of being. Naked or sacred beauty is the origin of all art and of everything that keeps us in love with life on earth. You feel it in the moment when you undo your existence on the water and re-emerge reborn, undead… You love like no other creature on earth; your love is ferocious because it knows its precious transience. It carries the memory of our finest instincts.
Heather Brown, Lady Slide, contemporary
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