Beauty and Terror: Subjection and the “Watery Part of the World”

This post was written by Holly Boud, Humanities Center Intern

Have you ever noticed how many water metaphors we use in our language? Brainstorming. Surfing the web. Glass half-full (or empty). First/second/third wave feminism, etc. Our language is saturated … (no wait) … overflowing … (argh) … dripping … (see what I mean?) with water imagery. Isn’t it strange then how we sometimes forget the power of water (oceans, etc.) in our research?


On Thursday, the Humanities Center hosted Jeff McCarthy, Director of Environmental Humanities the University of Utah, for a colloquium. His presentation title incorporated Ishmael’s musings over “the watery part of the world” (Ishmael’s description of the ocean in the first chapter of Moby-Dick) as he stressed the sometimes forgotten, yet fundamental, place the ocean should play in the work of the environmental humanities but also humanities at large. He stressed how the humanities has important contributions to make to change the rhetoric of climate change, since its message still has yet to hit the hearts of communities at large.


Dr. McCarthy pointed out that even Environmental Humanities has maintained a largely land-based ideology, which is interesting given that 70% of the planet is ocean. The ocean determines our weather systems, which impact even the most land-locked amongst us, and it is the ocean where we see the greatest manifestations of climate change. The humanities, he says, has a lot to offer environmental studies, and not just as a supplement to science. He pointed out that the numbers we tend to encounter in environmental lectures have a hard time reaching into our consciousness. For example, the water level will rise by three centimeters by the year 2300. Or Greenland will have lost 4% of its land mass by the year 2500 (these are not real figures. I’m just illustrating a point). The anxiety that we could feel over planetary and environmental concerns is assuaged by the distance between us and those realities. Somehow the humanities could change the narrative to bridge that distance in ways that the sciences haven’t been successful at doing.


McCarthy used art works to illustrate the anxiety and tension that we feel as a race in the face of the powerful forces of water—utter lack of control at the mercy of the ocean. I found a beautiful collection of art work by the Armenian-Russian painter Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky, a nineteenth-century painter, some of whose art work is featured on My Modern Met. The beauty of the translucent waves is captivating. As the ships are tossed and thrashed by these powerful waves—an iconic image of man’s inability to harness nature—the light shining through the waves highlights a beautiful nuance that I think Ishmael gets at in Moby-Dick. It captures the colors we associate with tropical waters—a misty, light blue that seems warm and calm—but in this landscape it increases the terror. Somewhere in the midst of the terror is also a serene beauty of total submission. That is where I think we have a lot to learn from the “watery part of the world.” The ocean has a way of teaching us about our ultimate subjection to and powerlessness in the face of higher forces—a lesson, especially the religious amongst us, feel acutely.


The ocean embodies that juxtaposition between the beautiful and the terrible, and as humanists, we can’t ignore the power that has. Nor should we let scientists be the only ones to articulate the story of our planet—we after all, are the master story-tellers and have much to contribute to the discussion of the state and future of our planet—the dry and the “watery” parts alike.

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