My Underwater Self

I never sought out the wide open spaces. I longed for the peace of the deep.

When I was a boy I lived on the coast, and I went to sleep every night with my mind peacefully roving toward the dark water of the bay. The bay was murky, but in my dreams the water became so clear I could feel my eyes straining from the effort to extend their range, to locate some finite point in that endless crystal void. The creatures I saw gliding about underwater were always mys-teriously benevolent. They were not fish usually, but half-glimpsed amalgams of real and imagined animals, adapted—as I apparently was—for underwater life. They had been waiting for me to appear. The water’s sudden clarity seemed to have roused them, as if until now they had been physically entrapped in their gloomy element like prehistoric animals in a peat bog. I felt released too, beyond the reach of wakeful caution, beyond the jurisdiction of physical laws. I could breathe, I could range wherever my will would take me, soaring along the contours of the sea bottom or spiraling up toward the surface, into the high altitudes of the ocean atmosphere.

All my life I have dreamed one variant or another of that dream. I have had a passion to be underwater. How this passion developed I’m not sure, but I remember the longing I felt—the brutal, unappeasable longing of a very young child—when my mother used to read to me, night after night, a story called The Water Babies.

The Water Babies is a novel for children written in 1862 by a strange, sex-tormented Victorian cleric named Charles Kingsley. According to his biographer, Susan Chitty, Kingsley “could only accept the idea of carnal relations with his wife once he had convinced himself that the body was holy and the act of sex a sacrament in which he was the priest and his partner the victim.” Kingsley sorted through his obsessions by writing verse and best-selling novels and by producing a series of disturbing drawings that depicted him and his wife, Fanny, in rapturous postures of self-mortification—drawings that, in the words of Nathaniel Hawthorne, “no pure man could have made or allowed himself to look at.”

And yet purity was Kingsley’s lifelong ideal. The Water Babies is the story of a poor and abused boy named Tom, whose work as a chimney sweep has left him habitually covered with grime. While servicing the chimneys of a country gentleman’s estate, he finds himself in the presence of a sleeping girl whose angelic cleanliness makes him quake with desire and shame.  When she awakes and sees him by her bed, she screams, and he flees from the house. Finally he comes to a clear brook and tells himself, “I must be clean, I must be clean.” Entering the water, he falls into “the quietest, sunniest, cosiest sleep that ever he had in his life” and wakes up reborn as a water baby, a little naked human form four inches long, “with a pretty lace collar of gills.” In this form Tom goes through a series of adventures involving a courtly salmon, a ferocious mother otter, and a dim-witted lobster. The story grows increasingly weird as its author’s great throbbing themes of purgative redemption and “muscular Christianity” crowd out any hope of narrative coherence.

The version of The Water Babies that was read to me as a child was much simplified, a heavily illustrated condensation of the story in rhyming quatrains, which appeared in a popular series of children’s literature called My Book House. I still have that volume, and when I open its mildewed pages to “Verses on Kingsley’s Water Babies,” I can recall the wondrous sense of possibility that held me spell-bound for so many childhood evenings. Perhaps my mother, who never learned to swim and who has had a lifelong terror of open water, invested her reading of this tale of an amphibious baby with a note of fear that seized my attention. And the story—with its naked water fairies, its obsessive note of fast-moving streams and sluicing tides, its protagonist’s tendency, upon misbehaving, to break out in highly suggestive “prickles”—had an unmistakable erotic timbre. It’s not surprising that over the years scholars have viewed The Water Babies as a parable of sexual awakening. Critics have described it as everything from a cautionary tale about masturbation to a wild fantasy of infantile regression in which the water itself is a symbol of the lost comforts of the womb. I was certainly not immune to the imagery of The Water Babies. The story disturbed me with its hints of death and altered states and with its insistence on some vague but powerful desire that I could as yet only dimly perceive. For whatever reason, it got hold of me. It seemed to me, at the age of three or four, that it really was possible to slip unobstructed from one dimension to another.

THE UNDERWATER WORLD WAS MAGICALLY accessible to me then, and I suppose I have never quite gotten over the disappointment that it did not remain so. When I was older, I liked to arrive at the neighborhood pool early in the morning, before any other swimmers had had a chance to rile the surface. Standing on the edge, savoring the chlorine fumes, I would follow with my eyes the black tile track of the lane markers as they descended the concrete slope that led to the deepwater drain. The water had a harsh, denatured brilliance, and I could see every dimple of peeling paint, every lost penny on the bottom with unnatural clarity, as if I was looking through a microscope. Curling my toe over the brick edgework of the pool, I would try hard to execute an elegant dive, wanting my body to pass with barely a whisper into the untouched water.

It seemed a cruel whim of nature that as soon as I entered this world, all the marvelous visual detail would disappear. My unprotected eye saw everything through a gauzy film, and the environment that a moment before

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