And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker.
from “The Idea of Order at Key West” by Wallace Stevens
My wife is fascinated by sharks and the Titanic, so I’ve seen a lot of documentary footage of sunken boats since we met. Shipwrecks are one of those things that capture the imagination, and I think it’s partly because they echo human consciousness. They sing to us of the things that rest far beneath the surface, and pull us down to where the wrecks of our past lie silent, covered in rust and teeming with tiny, strange fish.
If we try to go back and visit them we find them transformed, familiar and yet totally alien. In our absence they’ve become home to other thoughts and feelings. They no longer fit us the way we remember them. It’s a sad, awkward, enlightening experience that shows us both how far we’ve come and how inextricably tangled we are in our own life stories. Everything that’s down there is in some way abandoned, but swirling around them are the deep currents connecting and subtly influencing everything we are and become, our narratives about ourselves and what our lives mean.
While I have no doubt that actually drowning is frightening and terrible, being dragged down to the bottom of the ocean does seem to lend itself to romantic cinematography. Possibly it’s just that anything suspended underwater becomes oddly beautiful – I saw a youtube video of a Halloween pumpkin in an aquarium with its guts and seeds floating around it and it was really pretty to watch – but there’s more to it than that. I’m thinking particularly of the ending of Jane Campion’s The Piano where Holly Hunter’s character loops her foot in the ropes as the boat crew heaves her piano overboard. She is dragged down through the water, impulsively enamored with the idea of ending her existence floating on the ocean floor above the ruins of her beloved baby grand. It’s the siren song of everything we struggle to let go of but can’t, and of the desire to stop struggling.
Even though the harsh reality of lungs without air disrupts the fantasy and she fights her way back to the surface, the final image in the film is of her down there still, floating above her piano. She changes her mind, but the other possibility rings true because with every loss there is some part of ourselves we can’t quite disentangle, a small piece of us that goes down with the ship. In an interview with the Radio Times earlier this year, 20 years after making the film, Campion said “…I thought, ‘For freaking hell’s sake, she should have stayed under there’. It would be more real, wouldn’t it, it would be better? I didn’t have the nerve at the time. What if Ada just went down, she went down with her piano – that’s it.”
Romanticized drownings hark back to Shakespeare’s Ophelia, whose offstage death is portrayed by Hamlet’s mother as a tragic accident. Reading into Queen Gertrude’s story, it seems as if Ophelia doesn’t so much actively commit suicide as in her madness simply fails to stop herself from sinking:
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide;
And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up:
Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes;
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element: but long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death. (Hamlet 4.7.2)
Two screen performances of Ophelia cast the lure of drowning in somewhat different lights. Helena Bonham Carter’s madness in Franco Zeffirelli’s version of Hamlet is very mad indeed. Of course, she’s made a bit of a career out of playing mad. Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd, The Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland, and Marla in Fight Club, where she’s the crazy chick your friends tell you to stay away from. Unfortunately for Marla, she’s not as crazy as her sometimes-boyfriend Tyler Durden, who literally doesn’t know what his left hand is doing. Her patented brand of crazy also made her a shoe-in for Bellatrix LeStrange in the Harry Potter movies. Zeffirelli and Bonham Carter’s Ophelia is more biddable than most small children and it’s actually not unbelievable that she drowned in something like the way Queen Gertrude portrays it, both because she was too mad to understand that it would kill her, and too helpless and passive to save herself.
Kate Winslet’s madness in Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation is a more complex derangement, a raging against the restrictions placed on her and the abuses of her trust. She dresses Hamlet down from her straightjacket, sings quietly to herself, and calmly produces the key to her confinement from where she’s hidden it in her mouth. Branagh and Winslett’s Ophelia seems periodically quite sane, and it’s believable that when cornered she attempted to use madness as a tool and a weapon, and ultimately actively embraced drowning as her only available means of escape.
In both cases, though, all we’re provided with is the image of her singing to herself as she sinks into the water, as if returning to her native element. For Ada and the Ophelias, drowning offers the illusion of peacefulness. The vision of themselves drifting slowly through liquid operates as a metaphor for being suspended in time, absolved of action, beyond reach of the human world and their own hearts. Like shipwrecks, they become sunken vestiges of themselves, almost forgotten but still visible in the outline of what they once were. Even though the likely reality is that death is death whether by water, fire or ice, something in that image is intellectually appealing and transformative.
The romantic version of drowning is itself a narrative, in which you slip painlessly down to rest in a seabed littered with all the losses of your life, now strangely beautiful in their brokenness, wondrously new and home to tiny fishes.
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.
from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot
alex MacFadyen does not think the mermaids will sing to him.