Q&A with Kimberley Patton

In her recently published book The Sea Can Wash Away All Evils: Modern Marine Pollution and the Ancient Cathartic Ocean (Columbia University Press), Kimberley C. Patton, who is Professor of the Comparative and Historical Study of Religion at HDS, examines our modern environmental crisis in light of mankind's ancient faith in the ocean's spiritual, regenerative qualities. Jonathan Beasley recently spoke with Patton about the book.

You point out early on that you were inspired to write this book by three things: Euripides' tragedy Iphigeneia in Tauris; the wild Inuit sea spirit Sedna; and the disquieting image of the submarine "mare fire" in the Hindu Puranas. Could you explain how you were inspired in each case?

This first story, that of Iphigeneia, is about a young woman who is, in many ancient versions, sacrificed by her own father, Agamemnon, as a kind of wind charm at Aulis to allow the becalmed fleet to sail and begin the Trojan War. Artemis, daughter of Zeus and goddess of the hunt and wilderness, is offended and will not allow the Achaean fleet to sail. In Euripides' version, Iphigeneia is rescued by Artemis herself from the altar. She ends up in Tauris, on the Black Sea, and there she lives her life, ironically, as a priestess of human sacrifice.

Shipwrecked onto the shore many years later comes Orestes, her brother, who has killed their mother, Clytemnestra, in revenge for her murder of Agamemnon. The Taurian king Thoas doesn't know of the stranger's connection to Iphigeneia; he only knows of the history. So he thinks that Orestes, who is stained with the blood of the murder of his own mother, cannot be a sacrifice sufficiently pure to offer the goddess. But Iphigeneia, who is an indentured servant and who has already hatched a plan to escape on the ship that brought Orestes and his friend Pylades, talks the king into letting her bathe them in the sea to prepare them for ritual slaughter. She declares that "the sea can wash away all evils"—the name of my book.

What she means by that is even something as horrific as the stain of matricide, the sea can purify; it can make even these victims pure enough to be killed. This is a hard concept for our non-sacrificial society to grasp. But in the logic of sacrifice, the victim has to be unblemished. No matter how polluted Orestes is, the sea can wash away his miasma and make him whole, re-divinize him as it were. So that's the ideal. The Euripidean verse is very powerful, because it basically expresses in one poetic phrase the entire Greek belief about the ocean. Running water and lakes, which can also purify ritual stain, are both superseded by the ocean, which is the ultimate place for catharsis. I have always loved that idea.

And Sedna?

Sedna was a human being. She had a history and, because of her refusal to marry, her father married her against her will to a seabird. In Inuit social life, women who refused to marry were particularly cursed, particularly outcast, particularly unstable and problematic. So the seabird took her to his home and mistreated her. Everything was horrible. The homesick Sedna cried out in distress to her father, who came to rescue her in his kayak. The seabird followed her, and he and his bird relatives began to mob the boat. Sedna's father grew frightened, took out his knife, and told Sedna to jump overboard. She refused, so he pushed her into the sea. She clung to the side of the boat; he started chopping off her fingers joint by joint. Each set of finger-joints as they fell became, the Inuit believed, a different set of marine mammals.

Eventually her father did let her crawl back in the boat, but when they finally made land, the earth opened up and swallowed them and took them to the bottom of the sea, which is where Sedna lives with her dysfunctional household forever.
Sedna is the inua, the selfhood of the sea. She dwells in a house with no roof. This allows her to view human transgressions above the waters, to see what is done or not done, particularly in terms of hunting. She observes how her children, the sea mammals, her former fingers, are hunted. If taboos are not observed, she puts a bowl over the mammals and keeps them from surfacing to be hunted by human beings.

What interests me about this story is that, as the community ritually transgresses more and more, Sedna's hair gets dirtier and dirtier, and it's actually clogged with what the anthropologist Daniel Merkur calls "free souls." These are the souls not only of aborted children, but also of animals who are hunted improperly. They are killed, but their souls are not free to be released; rather, they cling to Sedna's hair. A shaman then descends to Sedna and expresses the people's sorrow and repentance for their ill-treatment of the mammals. She becomes less and less angry. He combs her hair and cleans it; in some Inuit versions, he also braids it. Eventually her wrath is appeased; she lifts the bubble and all the animals swim back up. Thus Sedna's pollution—the pollution of the spirit of the sea—is tied to human moral agency, and can only be rectified through human, moral intervention.

And the "mare fire"?

Kama, the Hindu god of love, tries to scorch Shiva, but instead Shiva lets loose a fire from his third eye that's going to destroy the triple worlds, the whole universe. Everyone is terrified—the gods, the sages. Brahma, the creator god, reacts to this by calling Ocean up onto the seashore, which turns into a person. He puts his palms together in greeting upon his own shore and bows to ask the will of the god. Brahma turns the fire into a mare, a female horse, and he says to Ocean something similar to Iphigeneia's words about the sea: "You alone can bear it." In other words, the horse is so destructive that Brahma can't just sink it in a river or a lake. Only the ocean is big enough to contain it. The god tells the ocean that the mare will be feeding on its waters at the bottom, but at the end of time the mare will be released. He will come down to the shore and call her out; great rains will come and douse the fire of the mare and the sea will cover everything again in the Yugic cycle.

What is very interesting about this Puranic tale is not just that a very destructive, toxic force is being contained by the sea—the only thing that can contain it—but that this is not the end of the story. The sequestering will be reversed, as in Revelation 20:13: "The sea gave up the dead that were in it." Perhaps this is an omen.

You make two references to The Lord of the Rings before the first chapter. Tolkien was a witness to the lasting effects of England's industrial revolution, and his concern for how the environment responds to technological advances, specifically by those who abuse nature (i.e., Saruman), is evident in his writings. How have you been influenced by Tolkien?

The industrial revolution is the turning point at which the world Ocean began to be gradually polluted, now to the point where it is being chemically affected. The actual chemistry of the sea, its alkalinity, is changing. In his trilogy, Tolkien offers a vision of the consequences of undertaking a task that becomes more and more impossible. How can one find the deep courage to adhere to that task even though it's apparently hopeless? In this case, that task is the honest encounter with, and amelioration of, the vast problem of marine pollution.

This question is summed up for me by the dwarf Gimli's remark after Aragorn suggests that the remaining members of the Fellowship and the men of the West advance right to the gates of Mordor and draw out the enemy to distract attention from Frodo and Sam, struggling across the plains to the Mountain of fire to destroy the Ring. In Jackson's film version, the Irish-accented Gimli says: "Certainty of death . . . Small chance of success . . . What are we waiting for?"

This is an inspiring response, very Kazantzakis, very Hillel, very Wesley Autrey—that is, the brave New Yorker who jumped down between the subway tracks to shield another, in seizure, who had fallen in, as a train roared over them with one inch to spare… "Fool!" he said he thought to himself from the platform, when re-telling the story. "There's no one here but you." The calculation of the necessity of an action cannot be dependent on its likely outcome. It must be dependent on its ultimate worth as right action. It is so hard to live this way.

You write, "The drive to treat the sea as a receptacle for pollution is common to both the exigencies of religious purity and human habits of waste disposal." What do you mean by "drive"?

The "drive" idea is related to the urgency of maintaining what Mary Douglas would call a kind of collectively pure life or community or land, free of whatever is (Douglas would say arbitrarily) determined to be dirty or disordered: You have to dump what is getting in the way somewhere. A disproportionate amount of the world's populations live along the coast. I think the commitment to that ordered life has led to a corollary urgency about using the sea. It's not only that you can hide and dump, but that the ocean seems to sequester and carry away. I think it's had more symbolic power in that way—certainly religiously, but I think also in terms of environmental usage.

It's very hard for us to believe that the sea is fragile. And part of what the book wants to do is talk about the way in which we trust our eyes, even though we shouldn't: the testimony of our eyes. It doesn't look as though the sea could have a limit or could be affected by what we throw into it. But, as I say, it is indeed being affected—very dramatically at this point.

What do you mean by referring to the sea as a "cultural entity"?

Every natural element is always culturally constructed by whoever is looking at it. The Balinese people, for example, believe the ocean is about the most impure place in the world. One doesn't want to go near it or swim in it. As a colleague of mine who lived in Bali told me, the reason the Balinese give for the strange phenomenon of Americans swimming all the time at their beaches is that the sea is where Americans dump afterbirths (placentas). In Bali, one's true spiritual home is where one's placenta is buried. Because we are always dumping our medical waste into the sea, the Balinese speculate that that is why Americans are drawn to the ocean.

You reference the tsunami of 2004 and how people who had once revered the sea cursed it after finding themselves without family and homes. Have we witnessed a great reversal—the sea's regurgitating all that it has absorbed from mankind?

In the case of the tragedy of December 26, 2004, I don't think the sea regurgitated. I think what it did was wash away. What I observed most about the tsunami was that it was a reminder that the ocean is not passive but can be quite active. It is not just a dumping ground. It has its own force and power.

The tsunami transfixed me because ideas about the death-dealing ocean were often religiously framed by Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, or Muslim survivors, even when, as you say, sometimes previous religious ideas about the sea were reversed: Mother became Charnel House. My colleague and friend Nehemia Polen, who is a scholar of Jewish thought at Hebrew College, has a phrase, "the mysticism of catastrophe." Every catastrophe, in addition to all of its human horrors, proliferates stories of the mystical and the weird and unexpected and terrible in its aftermath.

How long did you research this book?

I researched this book for close to 20 years, but I wrote it in much less time. The first thing I started working on was the Hindu story of the underwater mare, and that was in 1986. I did not expect to find that there is a small but very disturbing sub-strand of stories about things coming out of the ocean.

You can't really talk about human emotions as universal. It is very hard to do that, because there are so many layers of acculturation and socialization. But it is interesting to me, having said that, that things come back out of the sea. Things you thought were gone forever do re-occur in a number of different cultures. It seems to have a particular kind of gruesome fascination. To me, that was a very interesting metaphor for the idea that not all pollution comes out of the sea. We get all this stuff that we thought we threw away, and there it is again. But there is the notion of reckoning, and this is a commonplace among environmentalists—there is no "away" in "thrown away." There's always a place pollution goes, and when you think of it as "away," you have deluded yourself.

Kind of like the old adage "out of sight, out of mind"?

Right. Our waste has to be reckoned with and confronted and dealt with. There's no "away." The ocean is a perfect example of that. So the idea that things come out in the mythical or religious imagination is, to me, a great metaphor of reckoning that was very surprising.

I came across a poem you'd written in 1995 called Nightwaking. I'd like to point out a couple lines, if I may:

I wonder, as I wade
Through night's surf, wonder,
Clinging toes to ancient boards
That pitch like ship's decks, wonder how,
How you must construe this world

Who or what is the 'I'?

The 'I' is a breastfeeding mother who is getting up to feed a little baby, an infant, who is actually my first daughter. That's what inspired the poem. She was brand new. The idea was: What is it like to go from the womb to the world with its endless sensory input? What is it like to be a newborn? You're recapitulating the journey our ancestors made from the ocean to the land.

Here, you make several references to sea-related imagery. How have you developed such an intimate relationship with the sea?

My house is made from ship-salvage timbers, because it was built in 1697 by a ship's rope-maker in the shipbuilding section of a port city. It's called the Mast House. When I was in college, I was very affected by James Agee's lyrical Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. He reflects on the sharecropper's house, even in its mean poverty, as a kind of ship, a shelter against the dark sea around: "Upon the leisures of the earth the whole home is lifted before the approach of darkness as a boat and as a sacrament."

I think every home has that quality. It protects us against the ocean of chaos that is outside, and so in the poem there is that sense of a ship rocking through the night. But also of vigil, and aloneness.

For mothers who are getting up to feed their children—even if the baby sleeps with them, they're still waking up—there's a sense of keeping watch, just like the people who keep watch on ships at night while everyone else sleeps, looking out for danger. There has always to be someone awake on a ship. Similarly, when you're a breastfeeding mother, you are constantly awake or half-awake; you lose the normal rhythms of waking and sleeping. So breastfeeding at night creates a kind of voyage together, an isolation, an enormous protectiveness for the tiny life that is now yours, an unreality, and all the other things that go with sleep deprivation. It's a very different space, an oceanic space. Woman who are going through it understand, and a lot of people react to the poem for that reason.

As with Gershon, the Jewish baker who, in the tale "Gershon's Monster," was given a second chance after he went through most of his life polluting the sea with his mistakes, is redemption, from an environmental standpoint, possible?

Gershon dumps his mistakes into the sea, which you're supposed to on Rosh Hashana, but you're also supposed to be sorry. He just dumps them without being sorry. The narrative and moral pivot in that story is the moment when selfish Gershon kneels before the monster and cries out for it to take him in place of his children. The monster is made up of all his dumped sins. He can see the scales as it rises up out of the sea, and every scale has one of his misdeeds written on it. The scales are threatening not him, but the thing he loves the most, his young children. So for the first time in his life, he does something unselfish, something sacrificial. He throws himself in front of his children and says, "Take me." So there is a kind of lifelong repentance that is catalyzed and expressed in one moment, and that is what is so powerful about this story.

If we feel the secular equivalent of repentance—and I'm careful about that because people get nervous when you start talking religiously about the environment, though I think it can be done—the questions then are: How do you reach industrial polluters, which is by extension all of us who dwell in first-world economies? How do you retool the global economy to protect marine viability? How do you give further incentives to China, which is producing coal-related gasses and will in a matter of years exceed all other outputs, dumping into its harbors with aggressive abandon as its economy explodes?

There has to be some sense conveyed that what is good for the global environment is ultimately good for the global economy. That case has to be made. It's in fact true, but these are longer-range benefits. But with that might come repentance. We can see it in terms of awareness of global warming right now, which is that both policymakers and people, with the help of precise scientific research, are starting to see that this is hurting the planet.

It is interesting to me how people's hearts are being changed through living things that are suffering. The concept of the ice caps melting and the sea level rising is very frightening, but something like the plight of the polar bear has a way of affecting us as nothing else can. We are all living creatures, and, as Thomas Berry said, a communion of subjects. The starving polar bear stranded on the melting ice floe can reach our sense of urgent compassion, can make us ask: What can we as a nation do about factory emissions? What can we do about our dependence on the automobile? If you can call that repentance, I would say it's relevant. I think you can.

The ocean is absorbing fully half of the carbon emissions we emit; it is the lungs of the planet. The rainforest pales in comparison to what the sea is absorbing. If it didn't, we would all be choking. As a result, the pH of the sea is declining, while its alkalinity is increasing, which is causing marine organisms to die. It's already happened in such a short amount of time. We need to reduce carbon emissions around the world, and whether it is too late or not is something with which industrialized nations are struggling. We don't know if it's too late, but we still have to try. That's my point about Gershon.

Fill in the blank: Right now, the sea is . . .

Still alive. It's not dead yet. You go out in a boat and you see a dolphin jump and you think, "Oh, we haven't killed it yet." Marine life is still here. The ocean is still here. It's not turned into a sterile sewer yet, and maybe that goes back to your previous question about hope. We see these great biotic populations still flourishing; we see birds flying and we see the ocean, which is still very much a great, organic entity, and it's just swarming with life. Even at the very deepest parts, it harbors giant clams and creatures that live on sulfur and things that we do not even know what they are. The sea is full of mysteries, danger, and beauty, and it is not dead. And this to me is a miracle. It means we can have hope of keeping it alive.