Matthew Turner is a writer and lecturer at London’s Chelsea College of Arts. His novella LOOM, published by Gordian Projects at the close of 2020, is a story of threads, hidden wealth, and identity. In this essay, he turns his attention to the shifting symbolism of the beach in landmark prose and poetry
“Sea, sex and sun” runs through Serge Gainsbourg’s 1978 classic as a mantra celebrating the granular, constantly shifting dreamworld of the beach – a place where desires can be freely pursued without the complications of language and inhibitions. The phrase has been adopted in various combinations by travel companies as a lure to far-flung coastlines. Yet in every burnout body recumbent on the sand, there is a sun-bleached vestige, an invisible sunburn, of why we started going there en masse in the first place.
In the various societal shifts following World War Two, the city was for remaking the mind, while beaches, and the waters that encroached upon them, were used as biopolitical laboratories for experimenting with body, leading to a renewed interest in therapeutic settlements on the coast – such as the De La Warr Pavilion; a continuation of the Victorian obsession with ‘taking the air’ in the manner one would a spoon of medicine. Think of how quaint Bexhill, Eastbourne and Southend-on-Sea now seem in the popular imagination; well, they were once at the radical forefront of a race to heal the machine-like body in order for it to perform manual labour again – a release valve to ensure the smooth running of the economy. The opening sequence of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock is reminiscent of a scene Brueghel could have painted, with ‘bewildered multitudes’ of revellers decanting their sorrows into the ‘fresh and glistening air’ to extricate a mere ‘grain of pleasure’, before sleepily drifting back to London’s ‘cramped streets’.
To prescribe a place as an environmental pharmaceutical is curious, but it worked because the beach was the opposite of the city. It was a place to escape poor living conditions, overcrowding, pollution, noise, and stress. It was a place where people could lose themselves in distant horizons rather than feeling trapped between buildings. This eventually gave rise to the slogan “Under paving stones, the beach!”, used during France’s 1968 student demonstrations – expressing the desire that beneath the city, which had been hardened into sterile grids by stone, there was the freedom of the beach. The beach has often demarcated escape, and still does. However, that might not always be quite the case. Weird things happen at the beach; maybe because it’s the only place where we’re all half naked. Perhaps it’s because it feels like a primal ground zero, with only the most elementary of ordering principles – the line between earth and sky still the same as that experienced by the earliest of organisms. There is more to it than that. Writers have often used the restorative and pleasurable attributes of beaches as backdrops to intensify uncanny events and emotional states, and in doing so have exposed its more secretive undercurrents of meaning and symbolism.
In 1921, after one of his many breakdowns, TS Eliot was recommended Margate as a place to recuperate, where he eventually composed Part III of ‘The Waste Land’ from the safety of a shelter overlooking the beach. Eliot once wrote that water and its interaction with the shoreline had a massive impact on his imagination, culminating in the recursive and tidal time signatures present in his later work; an effect present in the ‘East Coker’ section of Four Quartets, which begins with the line “In my end is my beginning,” and finishing with an interchange: “In my beginning is my end.” Washing back and forth as a continually reformed ruin, it mimics the way in which sea interacts with the shore: a dual action where sea forms the beach, and in turn the beach leads the movements of the water, just as the repeated phrases change. By the end of ‘East Coker’ there is a sense that what is cast out into the water always comes back eventually in some horrific accumulation: “The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters.”
The same can happen with the clothes and layers of personality that are stripped off at the beach, much the same as the old stresses coming back on your holiday’s final day. They may be gone momentarily but might just end up coming back as echoes – even if in slightly altered form. Recovering from heroin addiction, the narrator of Roberto Bolaño’s single-torrid-sentence short story, Beach, takes to the seashore to aid his recovery while undergoing methadone treatment. It seems idyllic until his actions become repetitive, and his justifications for going back each day are those of a junkie reasoning whether to take more dope. His tan becomes more intense, and still he goes for more. It is only when looking at the others lazily lounging next to him that “distant memories of junkies frozen in blissful immobility” return. He goes home to take a shower and examines his glowing sunburnt back, one that seems to belong “to someone else”. Rather than an escape to the sun, he sees old demons in his reflection once more.
These circular migrations are a strange phenomenon that can occur on beaches outside of fiction. If a stone is untethered from its chosen crevice by the water’s movements, it can be adrift for years; however, due to the repetitive motions of the waves, it can, at odds with all probability, easily end up back in that exact crevice again. Tom Ripley seems well aware of this in Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley. Beaches and azure tranquil seas loom large in Highsmith’s oeuvre, because where better to be tormented than somewhere heavenly? Early on, the beach is an important location of metamorphosis for Tom, where he is remade and casts away his old identity. A key source of suspense in the mid-section of the plot then hinges on waiting for when the tide will wash this unwanted identity back again, along with the dead body he has assigned it to, weighted down and hidden within the waves. Highsmith plants constant reminders of this potential fate through reference to his fears of water and drowning, and by how she cleverly picks Venice (the city a thin disguise for the 118 small sandy islands it’s built on) as his hideout from the authorities. With its ambiguous status between land and water, it has an identity crisis similar to her protagonist’s, echoing John Ruskin’s rhapsodies about the city’s entropic persona, “which seemed to have fixed for its throne the sands of the hour-glass as well as of the sea”. He saw Venice as Tom Ripley sees himself at moments of crisis and moral reflection, as “a ghost upon the sands of the sea”, so lost in its decline that “we might as well doubt, as we watched her faint reflection in the mirage of the lagoon, which was the City, and which the Shadow.”
Why are we attracted to the beach? Because it’s where, as Clarice Lispector notes in The Waters of the World, our bodies can soothe themselves with their “own slightness compared to the vastness of the sea”? A reminder that human history is just a microscopic grain in a vast sandbank? There is a fine line between this pleasure and total disappearance, as “The man” (later denoted as Jumpei Niki) finds in Kōbō Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes.
The novel begins: “One day in August a man disappeared.” The man, an avid entomologist, has gone to a remote area of sand dunes next to the sea, with hopes of identifying an undiscovered sand beetle. There is a strange shift in scale, and as night falls, unable to find transport home, he is coerced by locals to stay in a ramshackle house at the bottom of a funnel shaped pit of sand, strangely similar to the habitat of the beetles he wished to discover. The occupant of the house, a young woman, spends her nights shovelling sand into buckets which are then raised by villagers and deposited elsewhere: Her house is one of a bulwark which prevents the village being swallowed by the perennial shifts of the dunes. The man awakes in the morning to find the ladder he used to enter the hole is gone.
The sand is like a living being that, although insentient and without empathy, “creeps everywhere” with “shapeless, destructive power”, thwarting his attempts to climb out of the pit and feeding voraciously off his energy. The “tentacles of ceaselessly flowing sand” obsess his mind, then infuse his body, to the point of being buried alive, covering his skin, gathering in folds of his clothes, his throat and eyes. Next, it guides his actions, and he dominates the woman of the dunes in the same way the sand has imposed itself on him.
The sand is the prison: literally and symbolically, and not just for the man. We too are in this burning sand pit. We too must spend a lifetime fighting against something, dreaming of elsewhere and getting nowhere, not even leaving footprints in the sand. Shovelling never-ending deposits of sand around, or Excel cells and pixels. Just as we liberated ourselves from factories and hard labour, only to start going to gyms to work our bodies in the same way, the beach in The Woman in the Dunes is not an escape from the strains of work but a condensation of its hardships.
The beach is the eternal, what flesh is fated to fight against. It is the psyches that confine us, the ghosts that come back to haunt. It has been a place to question notions of existence and the trace fossils we leave behind ever since the first impossible footprint in the modern novel. When Crusoe, in Daniel Defoe’s 1719 Robinson Crusoe, finds “the Print of a Man’s naked Foot on the shore, which was very plain to be seen in the Sand”, he is scared and spooked by apparitions of human presence everywhere, “mistaking every bush and tree, and fancying every stump at a distance to be a man”. Is it his own print? His shadows? How can there be only one print of a foot, isolated in the middle of an otherwise pristine beach?
The students in France’s 1968 demonstrations may well have found sand under the cobble stones they dislodged to throw at riot police, but maybe, as a symbol, it’s just representative of another layer of struggle. The beach is a simpler place, purified of the physical strictures that ensnare everyday life, and without these normal distractions it’s a condition that initiates a troubling confrontation with other, even more byzantine, inner subliminal worlds. We may have misunderstood the beach all along. Rather than feeling better there, perhaps we just feel different.
Illustration Dror Cohen
This article is taken from Port issue 28. To continue reading, buy the issue or subscribe here