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Poet, Painter, and Thinker Etel Adnan on the Elemental Blues of Being – The Marginalian

The Sea and the Soul: Poet, Painter, and Philosopher Etel Adnan on the Elemental Blues of Being

“It’s a basic sense of the poetry of existence that overcomes me. Usually it’s related with the ocean,” the younger Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary a century in the past as she reckoned with the “extraordinary feelings” that usually overcame her — the supply from which a few of humanity’s biggest literature was about to spring.

Half a century later, the protagonist of Iris Murdoch’s beautiful existentialist novel The Sea, the Sea gasped: “The ocean. I may fill a quantity merely with my word-pictures of it.”

One other epoch later, the painter, poet, and thinker Etel Adnan (February 24, 1925–November 14, 2021) stuffed with beautiful existentialist word-pictures her slender, splendid quantity Sea & Fog (public library) — a set of quickenings and questions: unanswerable, maybe unaskable, however lovely for the momentum by which they impel us to go on asking, the momentum we name life.

The Nice Wave off Kanagawa by Japanese artist Hokusai, 1831. (Out there as a print and as a face masks, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Having explored the mountain as a lens on the soul and evening as a lens on the self, Adnan turns her oracular thoughts to the ocean:

The ocean. Nothing else. Partitions ruptured. Sea. Water tumbling.


Dryness peels away the soul caught in gravity’s unconquerable solitude. The physique’s magnetized metals flip naturally North. The face, with eyes, mouth and nostrils, strains to recollect intricate psychological constructions. Bones finish mud over mud.

A technology after Rachel Carson watched “earth changing into fluid as the ocean itself” in her reflection on the ocean and the that means of life, Adnan writes:

The ocean’s instincts collaborate with ours to create pondering. Our ideas come and go, in delivery and evanescence. We really feel we personal them however we’re those to belong to the radiations that they’re, lighter than fog, however endearing of their unreliability.


Sea, made from instants chained. The place to shelter impermanence inside its defenses? A menace, for positive. What concerning the everlasting affinity between gentle and thoughts, each a processing machine, of particles, of ideas?

Portray by Etel Adnan from Etel Adnan: Gentle’s New Measure, Guggenheim Museum, 2021. ({Photograph}: Maria Popova)

She displays on how we take pleasure in “the delicate happiness that invades the spirit when water meets gentle” and on the similar time discover ourselves “exasperated by water’s alarming coherence” — an echo of the nice Scottish mountaineer and poet Nan Shepherd, who captured this bipolar enchantment a technology earlier as she contemplated the would possibly and thriller of water on the sting of a speeding river close to its mountain supply: “Probably the most appalling high quality of water is its energy. I like its flash and gleam, its music, its pliancy and charm, its slap towards my physique; however I concern its energy.”

For Adnan, this very important stress between violence and serenity, between uncertainty and coherence, is the aspect’s nature — the very facet of the ocean that speaks to the basic in us:

Let your again lie on the water and be a raft for birds, then in the midst of the evening, dive. Your ears will ring, spit fireplace; the waters will keep in mind that as soon as they had been you.

Parts. Elemental… And we’re right here, wherever, as long as area can be. Is given to us sea/ocean, sea everlasting revelation; open revelation of itself, to itself. Thoughts approximates these lit strains within the entrance, that darkness above, meant to not perceive however to penetrate, to silence itself whereas heightening its energy, to achieve imaginative and prescient in important unknowing.

In her orphic voice, she provides:

Look nicely on the Pacific earlier than you die. The most effective of the promised paradises have neither its hues nor its splendor.

Spring Moon at Ninomiya Seaside, 1931 — one among Hasui Kawase’s gorgeous classic Japanese woodblocks. (Out there as a print.)

In a passage evocative of that immortal line from The Little Prince“What is important is invisible to the attention.” — Adnan writes:

For seeing the ocean it’s typically higher to shut one’s eyes.


The ocean is to be seen. See the ocean. Wait. Don’t hurry. Don’t run to her. Wait, she says. Or I say. See the ocean. Take a look at her utilizing your eyes. Open them, these eyes that can shut in the future while you received’t be standing. You may be flat, like her, however she can be alive. Due to this fact have a look at her whilst you can. Let your eyes tire and burn. Allow them to endure. Preserve them open like one does at noon. Don’t fear. Different eyes inside will take over and go on seeing her. They won’t seek for varieties nor search divine presence. They are going to quite proceed to see water which stirs and shouts, turns into ice within the North, vapor within the tropics.


Eyes have busied themselves completely with seeing though they will hear higher than ears each time they be a part of forces with what’s exterior the thoughts’s perimeter.

A century after Whitman bellowed into the New York flood-tide that the physique is the soul, Adnan provides:

And not using a physique there’s no soul and with out the latter there’s no manner to discuss the ocean.

Complement Sea & Fog — the opposite half of which brings Adnan’s singular lens to the mystique of the mist — together with her deathbed meditation on the best way to dwell and the best way to die, then revisit two centuries of nice writers reflecting on the colour blue.


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