Karl Steel's Reviews > At the Bottom of Shakespeare's Ocean

At the Bottom of Shakespeare's Ocean by Steve Mentz
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Jan 14, 11

bookshelves: theory, nonmedieval_nonfiction
Read in January, 2011

Cthulhu fhtagn.

For an excellent review, not by me, see here.

I'm glad I read this. Complaints first: Mentz's approach to Shakespeare is through Shakespeare rather than (very much) from the cultural surround. It's too easy to forget in reading his book that the plays were plays, performances, full of sound and fury for a time and then gone again (like a storm at sea?); likewise it's easy to forget that many other writers, not all of them writing in English, were thinking seas at this time (or that the Odyssey was raising its shaggy head once again), and that the seas are home to beings (becomings, critters, actants, even creatures: choose your ontological/ontotheological poison) other than human. For more on what I mean, look to the essay on Perceforest's fish knights Peggy McCracken and I drew out for Postmedieval 3. The big question, perhaps never answered, is: Why Shakespeare? (Because he is what he is; and because the "SHAKESPEARE NOW" series is what it is). But Shakespeare's perhaps NOT the most aqueous of writers, now or even then (I await PHINEAS FLETCHER NOW or WILLIAM DIAPER NOW). Shakespeare may be to blame, in fact, for Mentz's general anthropocentrism (as the book concerns the sea's interactions with "human bodies").

Mentz is essential, though, for his pages of bibliographic review on "The New Thalessology" (Gk: thalossos, sea) especially for those of us--like me!--expected to produce 8 or so thousand words on "the abyss" a year or so from now. And he should be given to students as a model of how to think poetically with Shakespeare: he writes beautifully, everywhere and especially in the material between his chapters, where for a time he sets himself free of the plays, or lets himself be washed over by them. I'll quote a bit:
What pain is it, to go down, like Jonah, all the way? What do the waters want? What's at the bottom?

At the surface the world breaks. Columns of air shatter into devilish brilliance and beauty. You're out, then you're in: no middle ground.

First the riches of upper ocean, boundless fields of ripe and golden wheat. Everything we love is here, swimming, flashing, tumbling, cradling bodies, and refracting light. Here Noah's flood never subsides, here is world without end or limit. All subtle and submarine. Look into the fish's eyes, and you see -- nothing. No strange analogy for something in yourself.

Passing five full fathoms colors darken and grow heavy. The ribs and terrors of the whale press down. Monsters swim, fast and fearful. No place to stay.
Keep going. Read it. And read past it by thinking of the immensity of what we will never see of our home. If Mentz is in the ocean, he is still on the surface, like all of us, barely able to imagine the igneous solidity of the great molten core of this earth.

What can we ever think of the fire so far beneath our feet?
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