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The Shape Of Water: On Charles Sprawson & Other Liquids
Adam Steiner , December 5th, 2020 09:29

From liquid lunches to wild swimming, Adam Steiner explores the literature of wetness

Water is everywhere, around and inside of us. This simple and ubiquitous part of our lives is an essential metaphor throughout literature. And while water itself never seems to change, our relationship to it is constantly in flux. One of my favourite books, Haunts Of The Black Masseur by Charles Sprawson, manages to fix our key experiences of water by creating a mythology of swimming and literature.

From the book’s subtitle “The Swimmer As Hero”, Sprawson argues for the transcendent experience of immersing ourselves in water, the life of the body given over to it is mediated by breath, depth, and current, each force serving to define the other. Sprawson’s book encompasses both successful (and failed) attempts at swimming, Channel crossings, diving, feats of athletic endurance becoming expressions of the human spirit that can result in spiritual rebirth, iconic achievement, or even death by drowning – the true challenge being how we try to put these experience into words.

Sprawson adapted the book’s title from a short story ‘Desire and the Black Masseur’ by Tennessee Williams (I am struck by its comparison to the title of a 1990 memoir by Pink Flamingos actor, Cookie Mueller, Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black). A keen and strong swimmer himself, Sprawson’s passion shows water to be his muse also. On his second attempt he succeeded in following the athletic achievement of Lord Byron who in 1810 swam four miles across Hellespont river, a dangerous tidal reach in Turkey (in Greek myth Leander drowned there, swimming to meet his lover Hero on the other side). It is this ability to place himself in the mindset of both the author and the swimmer that he reaches a unique perspective.

The book is great in throwing up the phenomenological experience of being in water and how this has become a divining experience for writers. Swimming offers an altered sense of reality and sensory deprivation, allowing us to move our bodies in strange ways; near-weightlessness being the closest thing to human flight. The fantastical and rejuvenating powers of “going to the baths”, whether a daily dip or strenuous swim bears the metaphor of cleansing, to come out feeling like new.

Submersion itself suggests the mirror-world sensation of reality flipped into an inverted world, as up becomes down and the sky can seem to fall away beneath you as gravity ceases to matter. Like Alice’s looking glass, we are the same but everything is different, cast in an alternative reflection. For some writers swimming allows them to reset their head, as in sleep, the conscious act of not-writing provides an organic incubation of ideas, allowing new connections to develop through the subconscious.

Sprawson shows how much of our concept of water comes from how it is shaped or contained. From the Olympic-standard swimming pools and the Romanesque culture of the public baths, to the macro and the micro scaling of seas, rivers, and puddles, bodies of water. He writes about the ornate bathing pools of the ancient civilisations, serving as quasi-religious temples. The beautifully tiled pools of the Roman Empire and throughout the Middle East became sites of worship to the human form, hygiene giving praise to health. It was only with the Victorian-era reforms of bathing pools and improvements to sanitation, such as sewage and clean water supplies to prevent cholera, that public swimming pools became accessible in the UK. A reaction to the enforced squalor of the industrial revolution, what was once an activity reserved for the privileged body politic was handed down to the body polis. The focus being to correct the unhealthy and unseemly city and manufacture a better kind of citizen, mutual benefit of water and swimming representing the health of the nation as cleanness was aligned to spiritual cleanliness.

Reading Haunts you begin to notice how much the spectre of water appears in books as heavy metaphor. With our adult bodies being made-up of 60% water there is a natural ebb and flow that echoes abject body horror, of water, like blood, to be spilt or smothering. As an elemental force, disaster films spark primal fears of water as an ecological threat. Two of J. G. Ballard’s early novels The Drowned World and The Drought, trade scenarios of water as a commodity of plentitude or scarcity, a battle between containment and release. A recurring image in Ballard’s fiction of the dystopic present would be the empty swimming pool, drained of water as of life and purpose, a hangover from his traumatic childhood memories of the Japanese invasion of Shanghai in 1937.

Olivia Laing’s book, The Trip To Echo Spring explores the notorious history of writers and drinking. The old line of writing drunk in order to repent and edit sober the next day has worked for many writers, but not without consequence. Unlike the drawn-out dehumanisation of the meat-only diet, the human body can only sustain itself for around seven days without water, we use it to purify and regenerate, compared to alcohol which is ultimately corrosive, a natural depressant that kills brain cells. As with swimming, a hangover can provide a mental reboot and spark new ideas, but often the alcoholic writer is drowning in poison and ultimately their temperament is brought into shade by the persistent nagging of addiction amid a rising tide of depression and suicide that has robbed so many writers of their urge to write.

Where alcohol can be seen as the lubricating fuel (see: Charkes Bukowski), it recurs throughout fiction as the birthplace of many writer’s first trauma, affirming itself as the quiet destroyer. In Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh’s beautiful (saint) Sebastian character slips from drinking in high spirits to persistently: “sip, sip, sipping; so insipid,” as friend Antony Blanche recounts. Drink diminishes his spark and lays his body low, becoming his own form of Chinese water torture. The novel’s protagonist Charles Ryder, shares in this process-as-exhibition, an unwilling witness, and in his own way a functioning alcoholic, their co-dependent friendship-cum-love affair is eroded by drink until nothing but Ryder’s sacred and profane memories of Sebastian “as he was” remain.

In interview Laing said: “water haunts me”, perhaps inspired by subject as personal muse she wrote To the River, walking the length of the river Ouse in Sussex, where Viriginia Woolf filled her pockets with stones and drowned herself in 1941. John Everett Millais’s 1851–52 painting showing the drowned body of Ophelia after she has been spurned by Hamlet evokes much-copied sickly glamour and death cult where pretty girls make waves. Garlanded in a halo of flowers Ophelia is guilty of making a scene as she is mourned and celebrated. Through water, Woolf’s writing realised the elusive extended self, as a writer able to voice layers of the unsayable with precision, her main characters exist at multiple levels of thought and feeling, in this she was a unique female modernist. Her best book, The Waves, consists of six characters that move in and out of one another’s lives, mingling alternative perspectives on the same events and the relationships between them. Woolf allows mental fluidity so that her six voices coalesce into one chain of thought, sharing the journey of their lives.

The idea of the writer possessing a watery, inchoate spirit, is present in the epitaph on poet, John Keats’ grave “Here lies one whose soul was writ in water”. He died of tuberculosis aged twenty-five, a shadow of drowning as his haemorraged lungs were slowly flooded by blood. The phrase might have been a more fitting memoriam for the poet Shelley, who successfully moved between Romantic-era verse and fierce polemics of protest. In her seminal book, Sexual Personae, Camille Paglia, noted a sense of speed and watery flux of gender roles and sexual identity shared in the poetry and lifestyles of Byron and Shelley – one the mighty swimmer, the other drowned at sea. (Byron burnt the body of his friend on the shore, burying his heart there after he claimed it would not burn.)

Perhaps the epitaph is tied to Keats’ concept of negative capability – that artistic drive is keener in pursuit of beauty (which offers its own form of objective truth about the world) and must rest on leaps of faith and intellectual uncertainty, acting in denial of our more concrete, worldly knowledge. This carries over into the freeing power of water, where it allows self-negation towards a zen-like state in which the individual, and their solid body, might “cease to be”.

Water as an “invisible” medium invites absence, it expresses colour but is ultimately transparent. And it is here that it provides a function for both writers and swimmers in general. What is often referred to as ‘wild swimming’, offers the experience of being truly alone and unreachable, to be at one with the water in nature. But what began as a form of subcultural activity has become reified and fetishised into a Sunday-columnist Hygge-ean lifestyle choice that people are more likely to talk about than to go out and do themselves. Like anything that sets out from cultish beginnings, swimming in the wild can easily become something prescribed and knowingly performed, rather than sincerely engaged with. It cannot be kept private, but must be mentioned, instagrammed, tweeted, easily written-up into the form of a cheap journalistic ‘investigation’, along with a list of the top places to go.

Andrew Fusek Peters’ wild swimming memoir, Dip, explains his own discovery of the therapeutic value of bracing waters as a positive and energising form of shock therapy to help break him out of a difficult mindset that stems from long-standing depression. Instead of trying to just ‘feel good’ and achieve the Matt Haig-somatic state of ‘wellness’; being proactive and finding the right pool, at the right time of day, becomes its own quest, although finding a private spot to swim alone increasingly becomes a clandestine act. The author Ben Myers talks about immersing himself in freezing cold waters during hikes as a refresher from general anxiety, a contrast to the intense concentration of writing. On Twitter he explained that keeping his bathing spots secret has become necessary. After sharing some locations, he would return to find them covered in litter, full of people getting pissed and making lots of noise – preventing him from getting away from anything.

For me, one of the best literary examples of the freedom of swimming and the shared experience of being in water as a non-verbal medium occurs in Albert Camus’ The Plague. The book’s protagonist, Dr. Rieux and his colleague, Tarrou, escape the oppressive plague-ridden city of Oran, with a swim in the sea, a spontaneous act in a time of occupation: “isolated from the world, at last free […] of the plague.” Swimming alongside Tarrou, Rieux realises a unique state of quiet communion: “they were conscious of being perfectly at one, [...] that brief hour of peace and friendship which had been granted him was not, and could not be, repeated.

Writing years before wild swimming became a thing, Sprawson balances out his praise of swimming by highlighting the darker, addictive side of water, how it invites forgetting and escapism. In the movie The Swimmer (based on a short story by John Cheever), Burt Lancaster undertakes his own private odyssey to “swim home” across a network of swimming pools. The noble fool, he embraces, and is embraced by, the water, a flaneur passing through the privileged lifestyles of his decadent and elitist neighbours who are neither his friends nor sympathetic to his blind obsession with constant movement. On returning home, his family gone and his house locked-up for sale, he stands cold and alone in the rain as puddles gather around him representing both the excess and thwarted exegesis of trying to outrun reality. The film’s tagline confronts the viewer: “When you talk about The Swimmer will you talk about yourself?”, a reminder that for all that water gives us, it can also take away.