Surfing the Sublime: Tim Winton’s Breath and Eco-Heroism

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The sublime represents an ecological problem. Breathing poses an entangled solution. Surfing, in which a human body stands upright inside a rotating barrel of unbreathable whitewater, provides a way to imagine the connection between these two things.

The sublime has represented an elevated category of literary language since the classical writer Longinus’s On the Sublime (~1st century CE). From the start, the sublime captures grandeur and also an excess that challenges human thinking. Many of the essential Romantic and Post-Romantic tropes of the sublime that would later appear in dense philosophical accounts, from Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant to Jean-Francois Lyotard and Jacques Derrida, show themselves embryonically in Longinus’s brief classical description.1For a recent and valuable presentation of the full tradition of the sublime from Longinus forward, see Robert Clewis, The Sublime Reader (Bloomsbury, 2018). This short article lacks space to trace the full intellectual history in detail. The key force of sublime style, Longinus emphasizes, is irrationality: “A lofty passage does not convince the reason of the reader, but takes him out of himself. That which is admirable ever confounds our judgment” (1.4). The conceptual violence of the sublime strains our imaginations almost to breaking, and Longinus’s intuition that sublimity always sits on the far side of human comprehension becomes a central feature of this idea in literary history. Although we know very little about Longinus the author – neither his name nor the century in which he lived are certain – he fingers the particular pleasurable pain and rupture of coherence that would become the signature of the sublime in modern poetics. The problem with the sublime perspective is that it craves rupture, centers the human imagination, and refuses to make space for nonhuman collaborators. The opposite of the sublime’s imaginative conquest of the world may be simple breathing, the taking of alien air into one’s lungs and body, and the environmental dependence each breath marks.

The philosopher Graham Harman has recently traced the sublime lineage of Burke and Kant to Lyotard, Levinas, Derrida, and other twentieth-century thinkers, in order to reject the concept as fundamentally anthropocentric. Harman instead advocates for a philosophy that does not require the shaping structures of human perspective. He argues for an ecological art that engages with the world beyond the merely human perspective, “art that explores unforeseen interactions between the different parts of the external world.” What Harman terms “unsublime ecology” might reasonably be described as an inhuman ecological perspective. The philosopher reminds us that the sublime has always been, both from Longinus and in Harman’s reading explicitly from Kant and Burke to Lyotard and Derrida, a ju-jitsu trick in which the imagination of a (white male) subject reintegrates what it cannot fully comprehend. The list of poetic works whose language most commonly appears as exemplary of the sublime–Milton’s Paradise Lost, Shelley’s “Mont Blanc,” Shakespeare’s King Lear, Wordsworth’s The Prelude–suggest that the mode appeals to poetic egoists of a particularly masculiline type.2There is no space in this short essay to explore how Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, and Shelley represent mainstays of the sublime tradition, nor to elucidate the differences among these writers. Some of their shared qualities–all are white men with powerful and influential (and accurate) conceptions of their own individual genius–may be helpful to think with, even in this attenuated form.

The heroic sublime of these poets and theorists falters on the physical fact of breathing. Each day of their lives, more than 20,000 times per day, every one of these men, even stern, blind Milton dictating his prophetic poem to dutiful daughters after his revolution had failed, drew nonhuman air into and out of his lungs, exchanging oxygen and carbon dioxide. Each man’s thinking continued, while their minds dwelled little on how their body’s dependence on alien matter to suspire might impinge upon the heroic sense of self. Even prophets and geniuses, even Wordsworth and Derrida, depend on unconscious patterns. Even the greatest of poets breathes.

That’s where surfing comes in, in particular Tim Winton’s 2008 surf novel Breath, which relates a minor-key epic of surfing against breathing. The novel’s core figures devote themselves to intentional oxygen deprivation: our teenage narrator-hero Pikelet; his rebellious buddy Loonie; Sando, the Australian surf-seer they follow; and Sando’s American one-time freestyle skier wife, Eva (note the unsubtle symbolism of her name), whose injured knee keeps her off the snow but does not prevent her from chasing sublimity through self-suffocating games that involve sex, a plastic bag, and eventually Pikelet. To court mortality by cutting off one’s access to air, Winton suggests, replicates by direct physical force something close to the sublime rupture and ecstasy that poets and theorists find in impossible cogitation, and that surfers find in a wicked break. The language the novel uses for extreme surfing–the practice involves “appointments with the undiscovered” (71) and hits you “like you’ve felt the hand of God” (78)–echoes the familiar literary topos of sublime disorientation and reintegration. What these men and boys, and one injured woman, want, is nearness to the forces that nearly shatter their bodies and their selves. By connecting an experience that resembles the sublime to an intentional  suppression of breathing, Winton takes a rarefied literary concept and makes it visceral.

A more fluid language of aesthetic beauty also punctuates Winton’s quite gorgeous and (I think) deeply sincere hymns to surfing as practice. On the last page of the novel, the shattered retrospective narrator takes consolation in the infrequent days when his now-adult daughters see him surf. He enjoys having them observe him as “a man who dances … [and] does something completely pointless and beautiful” (218). The notion of surfing as a (mostly) masculine aesthetic practice, something “pointless and elegant, as though nobody saw or cared” (25), threads through the novel. It might be tempting to call this kind of surfing “the beautiful,” thinking about the meaningful contrast between the sublime and the beautiful that has exercised critics since Edmund Burke.3See Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (London, 1757). But beauty isn’t really what Winton’s novel is after. His dominant vision treats extreme surfing, and, less often, extended breath-hold free diving, as chasing the sublime. These practices entwine themselves in a masculine world of competition and violence whose goal is to get all the way to “the weird, reptilian thing that happened to you” (113). Sando the guru, previously described as having the “stink of chalk on him” (78), lays out the way the surf sublime hits as if he were a literary theorist:

It’s like you come pouring back into yourself…. Like you’ve explored and all the pieces of you are reassembling themselves. You’re new. Shimmering, Alive. (113)

Or, as Loonie, the more daring of the two teens, who eventually ends up dead in a drug deal gone bad in Baja California, puts it upon seeing the great white shark who guards the first of several secret breaks –

That eye … was like a fuckin hole in the universe. (76)

To surf-seek in these places of extremity, for Winton, means looking for tears in the fabric of reality, driving your mouth and nose into whitewater or, in a pinch, into a plastic bag, driving mortal bodies to their limits and then–hoping, most of the time, for reassembly. For a while, it works.

No Ecological Heroes! No Ecological Sublime!

On a theoretical level, there can be no heroes and no sublimity in an ecological system. The sublime and its necessary heroic egotism, which requires excess, danger, and assertive individuation, lacks meaning from an ecosystem perspective. What does the wave think of the surfer, the mountain of the climber, the storm of the naked despairing king? Nothing–the wave, the mountain, and the storm do not care about human emotions. As Pikelet observes, his own surf sublime represents “a rebellion against the monotony of drawing breath” (43), which is to say, a complete rejection of human dependence on nonhuman environments. When the boys are kids, before they meet Sando and Eva, they think free diving is just “cheap weirdness in the days before we knew about drugs” (44). To dive down and “hold our breaths so long that our heads were full of stars” (16) places these boys with Wordsworth on Snowdon, Lear in the storm, Shelly on Mount Blanc. There’s a retrospective pleasure in foolhardiness and danger, if you survive it.

Sando and Eva, the guru and his damaged wife, appear in the novel as precursors of the extreme sports-marketed heroism that now spans the global worlds of surfing, skiing, climbing, free diving, and similar sports. A cutting late observation in the novel suggests that Sando, having outlasted the deaths of his wife Eva and his disciple Loonie, goes on to rule an empire selling “snowboards, alpine apparel–all dripping radical chic” (207). But these figures can never be ecological heroes. Because there’s no such thing: an ecological point of view requires that we live without heroes. That’s one reason why our hero-centric culture is having a hard time with the Anthropocene.

What could make an ecological hero? Can human self-assertion ever be compatible with ecological interconnectedness? The sublime tells a story in which the heroic ego can be reabsorbed into a divine or aesthetic whole. I’m not sure I believe it. That vision of wholeness looks either like super-charged egotism or some radically ascetic version of religious practice. Neither vision offers much to the nonhuman environment that surrounds us and fills our lungs.

The problem with heroism is a problem of all human-centered thinking. Sando surfs like a god, but he’s a bad teacher who leads Loonie to his death, abandons his wounded wife, and ignores Eva and Pikelet until they conduct a masochistic affair while the guru’s away. All human heroes, by virtue of being human, exacerbate by their own self-assertion the problem of anthropocentrism. Even surfers who fixate on waves and sharks remain human when their skin dries. To the extent that we as humans still crave examples of ecological heroism, figures such as Rachel Carson or Al Gore or Greta Thunberg, we resist the full force of the ecological thought that decenters the merely human. Perhaps we should instead worship the air we breathe.

To some extent, the flexible practice of literature, including Winton’s ambivalently macho surf novel, may help address the problem of heroes. Winton, and his narrator Pikelet, know Sando’s a monster, though neither can quite help loving his drive. The novel attempts, perhaps successfully, to unravel the surf mythology, or at least to illuminate the conflict between the cultural prestige of (male) heroism and the counter-pressure of ecosystemic thinking. The massive surge of ecocritical responses to literature and culture since the 1990s suggests that the human-nature relationship may be in the process of being newly reimagined. That means that the sublime, one the most prestigious literary modes that addresses the nexus of humanity, power, and nonhuman nature, may also be ripe for reinvention. If so, I suspect that Winton’s surf aesthetic may have a contribution to make, as tragic counter-example and reminder that breathing may be monotonous but it keeps us human.

Suffocation Aesthetics

It may come as no surprise that I’m not sure Winton’s novel can on its own accomplish the urgent task of reimagining or replacing the Romantic sublime in the Anthropocene. But he has assembled some important elements of the project, which I’ll lay out by way of conclusion. The first of Winton’s generative moves is assuming an oceanic perspective. As I’ve argued elsewhere, to imagine a post-sustainability ecology we need to exchange green fields for blue seas. We need swimmers and sailors to replace our oversupply of warriors and conquerors.4See Steve Mentz, At the Bottom of Shakespeare’s Ocean, (Bloomsbury, 2009), pp. 96-99. Surfers may help too, though sometimes I fear they are too macho. The ocean, because it is not and has never been a home for humans, contains in its history many narratives that are much less anthropocentric. Oceanic heroes, who exert themselves in intimate and dangerous contact with the fluid element, may provide models for surviving the present era of environmental crisis and disruption. As the seas rise, heed the swimmers.5For more in this vein, see Steve Mentz, Ocean (Bloomsbury 2020), and “Swimming in the Anthropocene,” Public Books, December 2020: Accessed 9 June 2021. And maybe the surfers.

The second point about counter-heroism in Winton’s Breath emerges from his not-quite-completed critique of heroic masculinity. The surfers are too violent and selfish to be heroes in his narrative. Winton admittedly shows little feminist generosity toward wounded Eva, whose Biblical name anticipates her role as sexual temptress for Pikelet, and who ends up dying by accidental self-strangulation in a hotel room in Portland after the events of the novel have long since passed. But Winton clearly rejects Sando and Loonie’s distinctly Australian machismo, even if Winton, as the leading man of Australian fiction, himself may sometimes slide uncomfortably close to that role himself.6On Winton’s solitary and somewhat macho persona in contemporary Australia, see this profile in the New York Times: Accessed 8 June 2021.

The last counter-heroic element in Breath comes via the frame story. The adult who Pikelet has become spends the telling of the novel looking back at the wreck of his life, including a failed marriage and what appear to be several unsuccessful attempts at suicide. He has ended up a paramedic who lives for the danger and urgency he finds in emergency calls. In the opening scene of the novel, he arrives to find a dead teenager who appears to have committed suicide but whom Pikelet knows, via his own experience and keen eye, to having been playing with the sublime rush of near-death by suffocation. The unnamed boy has, the narrator pronounces near the novel’s end, “strangled himself for fun” (216), like Eva in her hotel. That death-by-error shadows the sublime contests at the center of the novel, the competitive breath-holding, surfing with sharks, and deadly offshore storm breaks. When Pikelet reflects on his life, however, he recovers the pattern of the return from chaos to selfhood that defines the sublime encounter. But enduring privation no longer brings Pikelet to the heights of ecstasy or glory. “I cohered” (215), he announces, as if bare coherence were the most that he could manage after his breath-rupturing life. Coherence is an essential quality in a narrative, and it gives the novelist Winton a through-line for his plot. Pikelet arrives in the end at a non-ecstatic form of coherence. These days he exhausts his breath by blowing a didgeridoo instead of extreme surfing or diving. He’s a diminished figure, but he also represents a safe descent from the heights of the sublime.

Since the sublime is not an ethos for ecology, this novel might more modestly suggest coherence take its place. There’s a place in ecological thinking for human coherence, or at least I hope so.7A modified version of this article appears in Steve Mentz, An Introduction to the Blue Humanities (Routledge, 2023).

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