The Waterless Sea: A Curious History of Mirages
Christopher Pinney. ISBN: 9781780239323. Reaktion Books, 2018
Mesmerised within “zones of blindness and insight,” the British anthropologist, author and multiple temporalities enthusiast Christopher Pinney has emerged with perhaps the finest homage to evanescence yet written, The Waterless Sea: A Curious History of Mirages.
While literalism and utilitarianism define 21st-century consciousness, Pinney's belongs squarely to the 19th. A romantic and a questing philosopher, he is passionate about the discovery and subsequent adoption of new frontiers. In this case it is the “enduring attraction of the Sublime potential” of the mirage.
The visions Pinney presents are strange and rich and compelling, and, as he reveals, mirages are far from uniform. The Fata Morgana, “a complex superior mirage,” was believed to be a tableau of fairy castles created by Arthurian sorceress Morgan le Fay with the intention of distracting sailors to their death.
Other wondrous mirages include the Ghost Riders of the American deserts, the Sanskrit Mrigtrishna, a desert hallucination of water, and Shinkiro, a mirage ascribed by the Japanese to the exhalation of giant clams.
Pinney reports that in 1888 the prospector George Kershon, travelling in Alaska, told a journalist of reaching the “outskirts of this mysterious city, and found that the place was laid out in streets, with blocks of strange-looking buildings, what appeared to be mosques, towers, ports.” As if in a dream, Kershon had seen the ruins of a vast city on the Muir Glacier.
To the layman, cities in ice, horizons suspended as a shimmer above the earth and mountains of spectral beauty may appear complex, but the science is relatively simple. Light bends as it plunges through different air densities or temperatures. Similarly, the water ripples in desert mirages and heat haze shimmer are simply by-products of the volatility of the heat gradient.
Such atmospheric optics are, however, the least interesting attributes of the mirage. Pinney's fascination rests in the complicity at the heart of the mirage. As he points out, “the act of beholding involves an erasure of this distantiating knowledge.” In short, the mirage cannot exist without the visual, cultural and epistemological template of the onlooker, whose interpretations invest magic into pretty, if otherwise meaningless, refractions of light.
The onlooker's response to the mirage also reflects the tenor of his era and its morality. In both the Bible and the Koran, mirages symbolise falsity, mockery and traps, and have been used throughout history as a warning against the “allurements of the world.”
Illusion and geography are strange bedfellows, made stranger still by cultural preferences and prejudices. Associated with the deserts of the Muslim Middle East, the mirage still holds a sense of otherness impregnated with danger. Both people and animals can be lured to their deaths.
A feature of the “inevitable confrontational dramaturgy of the desert,” the mirage has always been perceived through a prism of Oriental despotism.
“Mirages (water, palace and so on) are seductive and alluring but always underwritten by a falsity,” Pinney writes. “Their positivity rests on the foundation of being other than they appear.”
Mirages are thus, “un-Christian” and to be addressed with caution but — and here's the rub — infused with an intoxicating mystery.
European anxieties about Islam and the East were invested in mirages; they acted as mediators of “fundamental contests of vision … further complicated by a long European preoccupation with Ottoman 'dreaming' and an even longer Islamic tradition that opposes the truth of dreams to the falsity of everyday sense perception.”
It's an intriguing association, one that has persisted through the centuries not only in terms of linking Islam to evil and deceit but to narcotics, terrorism and so on. The Orient, Pinney notes, is, to the West “a space of occlusion and illusion linked to bad politics,” and the mirage its phenomenon, one demanding “contextualisation within a political history of light.”
Transparency and visibility thus became — and remain — of paramount concern in Western political exchanges. To illustrate this commitment, Pinney cites a monument to political clarity: Norman Foster's steel and glass Bundestag dome atop the Reichstag in Berlin.
While mirages, in the literal and metaphorical sense, have always acted as cautions about the deceptive, the motif “created a space of intense ambivalence where a magic that could never be -destroyed was offered a disavowed reverence.” Hence the hypnotic intensity, promises of escape, liberation from fixity and, of course, “sheer visual delight.” In the same spirit, the German critic Walter Benjamin coined the idea of an “optical unconscious”: a set of visual truths that ordinary vision fails to grasp. Mirages are, in contrast, part of what Pinney refers to as an “optical fallaciousness,”
[O]ptically “real,” but not “true,” they disordered experience, tricked their beholders and provided proof that sense experience was not to be trusted.
And yet it is in this glamour or promise that Pinney locates the mirage's transhistorical appeal: “A delusive persuasiveness that even men of science could not deny.”
This willingness to be duped by a beautiful delusion has its roots in that which Joseph Addison called “the pleasures of the imagination.” In the First World, the closest most of us come to a mirage is through unwise love, the illusion of union where there is nothing other than the refraction of hope.
As confusion is associated with suffering, the mirage was historically assigned if not baleful intent then a kind of malevolent disinterest. It tricks the vulnerable — the lost, desperate and thirsty — for no reason other than it is its nature to do so — in the mirage's beauty, mortal peril. Its unpredictability, too, places itself beyond human control. “[U]ncanny, the unheimlich, the reliable mark of alterity,” it is the antithesis of reliability and comfort.
Coming to its philosophical rescue, Pinney argues the mirage in fact reconfigures Plato's hierarchy between essence or original (“superior”) and appearance or copy (“inferior”). The mirage, he argues, is a perfect example of a simulacrum — “that thing which is not a degraded copy” — in that it denies both model and reproduction. After all, it copies nothing; it is entire in itself, paradoxically real and authentic in every way other than its deceiving impression.
In the East, the mirage remains a powerful moral metaphor: “The city in the sky delivers the same moral message as the deer in the desert: desire magnifies the illusory.” Such qualities imbue the mirage with divine significance in that it teaches us the illusory nature of being.
Mirages, to Pinney, are an atmospheric form of anarchy. These “shreds of the elfish vapour” dispense with the need for epistemological crutches such as evidential certainty. “The numerous narratives that declare the optics and physics of mirages before conceding seduction pose a thrilling challenge to Cartesian certainty,” he writes. “These narratives suggest that there is no knowledge which can withstand dream or illusion.”
Pinney likens such representation to smoke — sfumato, the term used for Leonardo da Vinci's “ability to magically fuse matter with air.” Into this, he writes, the interpretative dimension of the mirage can be folded. He presents atmospheric phenomenon within the context of poetry, in the process lifting it to art.
Ultimately The Waterless Sea reveals its author to be as spiritually refracted as the elusive and translucent occlusion he seeks to own; the richness of his sensibility is every bit as compelling as his subject. As Pinney shows, the mirage is primarily a phenomenon of spiritual resonance, ungovernable and in that, unimaginably potent. Fuelled by the tangible in its creation of the fantastic, the mirage exists to turn the human eye inward.
The reviewer Antonella Gambotto-Burke is an Italian-Australian author and journalist based in Kent, England. This review first appeared in The Australian in June 30, 2018.
Courtesy: Waqar A. Khan