“There is nothing more enticing, disenchanting, and enslaving than the life at sea,” wrote Joseph Conrad. And there is certainly nothing more integral to the development of the modern world. In The Sea: A Cultural History, John Mack considers those great expanses that both unite and divide us, and the ways in which human beings interact because of the sea, from navigation to colonization to trade. Much of the world’s population lives on or near the cost, and as Mack explains, in a variety of ways, people actually inhabit the sea.
The Sea looks at the characteristics of different seas and oceans and investigates how the sea is conceptualized in various cultures. Mack explores the diversity of maritime technologies, especially the practice of navigation and the creation of a society of the sea, which in many cultures is all-male, often cosmopolitan, and always hierarchical. He describes the cultures and the social and technical practices characteristic of seafarers, as well as their distinctive language and customs. As he shows, the separation of sea and land is evident in the use of different vocabularies on land and on sea for the same things, the change in a mariner’s behavior when on land, and in the liminal status of points uniting the two realms, like beaches and ports. Mack also explains how ships are deployed in symbolic contexts on land in ecclesiastical and public architecture. Yet despite their differences, the two realms are always in dialogue in symbolic and economic terms.
Casting a wide net, The Sea uses histories, maritime archaeology, biography, art history, and literature to provide an innovative and experiential account of the waters that define our worldly existence.
In this scholarly tome, Mack (The Art of Small Things), an anthropologist and professor of World Art Studies, begins by examining the physical characteristics of the seas, from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea and the Pacific. He hypothesizes that the human relationship to the waters and shores is impacted by wind and current conditions and goes on to discuss the sea as it appears in both literature and art, including The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Robinson Crusoe, and Snow-Storm. On a more technical level, Mack reviews navigation, its challenges and methods, and various aspects of living on or near the water. "rguably way-finding is about a fluid process, not the fixity of a picture of objective geography. It is about the sensory experience of movement, the movement of the maritime environment and the movement of a vessel within that environment." He addresses the ways in which humans interact with the sea and how our interactions with this entity have consistently shaped the human race. Mack broaches this gigantic topic with enthusiasm but hardly lives up to the expectations inherent in the title. With many reproductions of photographs and diagrams, as well as detailed references, it's likely to entertain those with an intense or academic interest in water and its impact on humans. 20 halftones.