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Selkies and Nixies

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The Penguin Book of Mermaids

Cristina Bacchilega, Maried Alohalani Brown (eds.)

Penguin, pp.368, $17.00

The chief object of [Mr. Asterius the ichthyologist’s] ambition, the end and aim of his researches, was to discover a triton and a mermaid, the existence of which he most potently and implicitly believed, and was prepared to demonstrate, a priori, a posteriori, a fortiori, synthetically and analytically, syllogistically and inductively, by arguments deduced both from acknowledged facts and plausible hypotheses. A report that a mermaid had been seen ‘sleeking her soft alluring locks’ on the sea-coast of Lincolnshire, had brought him in great haste from London...

— Thomas Love Peacock, Nightmare Abbey

Note that, despite his firm philosophical convictions on the matter, Mr. Asterias longed for physical evidence to support his beliefs. This is to be expected. No rational person denies the real existence of fairies—or of, for that matter, elves, nymphs, dryads, sylphs, naiads, fauns, or any of the rest of the glittering hierarchy of the longaevi—and it would be a vulgarity to search for specimens to prove the point; but mermaids and mermen fall into a more doubtful category. As far as most of us know, reports of encounters with the species come principally from sailors, who are renowned for their charming propensity for tall tales. Only truck drivers and the now-vanished breed of traveling salesmen have ever rivaled them as inveterate fabulists. So a certain degree of skepticism is simply prudent here. Or so I had thought until now. The Penguin Book of Mermaids has convinced me that I have been clinging to superstition and calling it reason. Of course mermaids exist. Or, to be more precise, of course water spirits and magical marine beings of every kind are real and numerous and, in certain circumstances, somewhat dangerous. (The volume, in fact, might more accurately, if less fetchingly, have been entitled The Penguin Book of Aquatic Spirits or something of the sort, since there are nearly as many mermen in its pages, as well as any number of sirens, Lorelei, selkies, nixies, river-serpent spirits, undines, and so forth, including many beings that are not even hybrid in form.) The richness of its selection, to say nothing of its global scope, renders any continued hesitation in one’s will to believe absurd. It is unclear, however, whether the editors quite appreciate what they have done. To judge from their introduction, they remain somewhat mired in the baseless assumption that the tales they have collected are without exception fictions of one kind or another—individual or collective, literary or demotic. At least, they seem certain that none of these stories is emblematic of, say, any actual experiences of preternatural dimensions really to be found in this world, and that all can be explained by one or another set of cultural or psychological forces—for instance, misogyny, or at least distrust of the feminine as irrational, or wild and indomitable, or false, or whatever. But the stories they have collected give scant evidence of any general pattern of that kind. There are fables of erotic enchantment in which, as one might expect, one lover is keeping a secret from the other or dallying with someone he or she ought not be; but the dangerous, deceitful, mercurial, capricious, and perverse fabulous beings come in both sexes—as do the kind, curious, innocent, and beneficent. They also come from everywhere: all of Europe, the Americas, Africa, Polynesia, India, the greater Pacific, the Caribbean, Persia, the Far East, Oceania. Therein lies the real delight of this book. Its selections stretch as far back in time as Babylonian myths about Oannes, the sirens of the Odyssey, a Naga episode from the Bhagavata Purana, but they also include reports as recent as 2012. Needless to say, the specifically literary selections are by and large the most accomplished as stories, since folktales can, as a rule, tend toward the tedious. Happily, however, the editors have been fairly judicious as regards the latter. Still, though, I would have preferred more of the former. The volume includes Thomas Knightley’s version of the tale of Melusina, a story from Straparola’s Facetious Nights, Lang’s “Golden Mermaid,” and of course Andersen’s “Little Mermaid,” as well as more recent stories by Yumiko Kurahashi and Genevieve Valentine. But the selection from Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué’s Undine could have been longer, and it was cruel of the editors to abbreviate “The Fisherman and His Soul” by Wilde. And there are other specimens of mer-literature (such as the chapter from Nightmare Abbey quoted above) that deserved inclusion.  If nothing else, a few obvious poems featuring mermaids could have been included. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” immediately comes to mind, as does Elizabeth Bishop’s “From the Country to the City.” That said, I am genuinely grateful for all the material that, but for the editors’ diligence, I would never have discovered. The folktales, though they are often only entertainments, do speak eloquently of a human longing for the uncanny or the numinous. More fascinating yet are the modern reports of real encounters with mermaids or other water-spirits, such as two from Zimbabwe, one from South Africa, three from northeastern India, and so on. They are so ingenuous, well-attested, and credible that only a brute would refuse to believe them. And, of course, there is a real moral imperative in not dismissing such tales as lies or delusions. Herein lies the greatest significance of a book of this kind. Before the triumph of the mechanical philosophy, it was possible to conceive of nature and spirit alike as subsisting in a web of rational relations—Aristotelian “causes,” for example, though not “causes” in the impoverished modern sense—because neither the Cartesian alienation of rational consciousness from the physical world nor the subsequent materialist reduction of consciousness to mechanism had yet occurred. Once the whole world was alive: all things were, as Thales said, full of gods; all things were pervaded by God. When one gazed out at nature, another gaze—mysterious, fitful, terrifying, enticing—met one’s own. Nature was a realm of vital intelligence, of enchanting and terrifying mystery, and as such was to some real extent inviolable. Now we look out at a world composed from mindless mechanical forces and sheer blind chance, and absolutely nothing looks back. Full modernity was achieved by silencing the world, and by converting it into a mechanical arrangement of intrinsically dead matter. Where once (as Owen Barfield often liked to say) the inner world of consciousness was a direct participation in the living spiritual interiority of all of nature, we have been taught to treat such intuitions as hypertrophies of an evolutionarily determined “intentional stance.” More preposterously still, we have been taught to regard consciousness itself as an emergent effect of mechanism (though that is logically impossible). And the result? The “age of technology,” to use Heidegger’s term, the “enframing” that strips the natural order of its ontological or sacramental splendor, that denies its inner dimensions, that reduces it to a reserve of mere material resources to be exploited, as our uninhibited will to power and to profit dictates. Having exorcised the countless spirits that once inhabited and animated the world, we feel free slowly and relentlessly to murder the world without remorse. And so it really would be a sign of sanity and wisdom if we could once again learn (as Stephen R. L. Clark says) how to believe in fairies—or, as the case may be, mermaids. David Bentley Hart is a fellow of the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Studies.

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David Bentley Hart’s most recent books are Roland in Moonlight, Kenogaia: A Gnostic Tale (both from Angelico Press), and Tradition and Apocalypse (Baker Academic). This essay originally appeared in the Trinity 2022 issue of The Lamp magazine.