An obsession with the sea

The rugged skyline of the Massif de l’Estérel seen from the Bay of Cannes

The ancient European cultures were nourished by an obsession with the sea. The foundation myths of the Greeks and the Romans, their theogonies and a large part of their self-understanding focused on the sea.

The thalassobsession of the ancients, the matrix of the modern world. The sea represents both the highway of exchange and the byway of fear and death, the source of life and the risk of dissolution. The ancient ambivalence towards the Middle Sea was built into most Greco-Roman myths. Agamemnon’s armies made their wildest dreams of conquest come true through the intercession of the sea, but the victorious Greek were lost to the deep on their way back.

What role does the sea play in our culture today? A switchboard for mass tourism, the gentle, solar, tamed, instagrammable sea, an object of immanent admiration cut off from the tapestry of our being.

The myth of the sea was lost after the fall of Rome. It was given a new lease of life during Romanticism, but compared to the ancients, this kind of thalassobsession was manneristic at best, decadent at worst. We ride the waves but we’ve lost the sea.

In the Middle Ages, the obsession with land replaced the sea. The sea got modernised, a transport convenience, nothing more. In Dante, the last flickering of a metaphysics of the sea flares up and then dies forever.

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