BLP Conversations: Cormac James & Philip Hoare

Welcome to the BLP Conversations series, featuring dialogues between people whose lifework, like BLP’s mission, explores the creative territory at the intersection of the arts and sciences, and has become a testament to how science and the humanities can join forces to educate and inspire. This online series is inspired by E.O. Wilson and Robert Hass, whose talk about the connections between science and the arts was published in our book The Poetic Species: A Conversation with Edward O. Wilson and Robert Hass.


In this conversation, Cormac James, author of the novel The Surfacing, and Philip Hoare—whose nonfiction works such as The Whale and The Sea Inside blur the line between literary and natural history—ruminate on the ever-evolving relationship between man and nature, and how that relationship is enriched through literature and science.

Cormac James: While the details of the marine and natural world in The Sea Inside are both interesting and engaging in themselves, the book’s deeper concern seems to be an exploration of the nature of your relationship with that world. Without knowing anything about you beyond your books, I get the sense of a lifetime of personal investment, projection and association with all things marine; and while this book ostensibly sees you sharing that fascination with us by “navigating” through the sea’s rich history and contemporary state, what really fascinated me was the way in which “the sea” has served as an exploration and understanding of your own inner life. For instance, from the opening section there’s a particular fascination with certain animals and birds (e.g. crows)—perhaps a means of evoking ways of being with which you have a particular sympathy:

No one really knows what they do or how they think. Perhaps theirs just a convenient congregation, only motivated by food and sex. But then, you might say the same about us. As a species, we are unable to resist the temptation to impose our own failings on animals; it’s almost an act of transference and I’m as guilty as anyone else.

Perhaps taking the natural world as a subject is an opportunity to evoke the more instinctual aspects of ourselves without any kind of (social) apology?

Philip Hoare: I think you are right. The besetting sin for any scientist is to anthropomorphize. Yet to encompass the natural world—the world that exists outside ourselves, and our species—we can only use the language that we have evolved.

CJ: I’m even tempted to extend or flip that proposition, to say that not only are we limited to our own inbred ways of thinking when considering what we are not—but we also tend to use that “other” world as a tool for thinking or even feeling about ourselves. My sense is that we have an intuition of the complexity of that world beyond ourselves, but it remains inaccessible; and I wonder if we don’t use that definite sense of the abstruse to relate to aspects of ourselves which feel present yet evasive.

In The Surfacing, this would be the sense conveyed (I hope) of the vast processes (oceanic, seasonal, the climate) continually at work beneath the world’s visible surface (in the novel, the ice), which are almost beyond our comprehension in their scale and slowness, and which have an equivalence in the psychological processes of the novel’s main character, Morgan.

I’d like to risk suggesting that in The Sea Inside your relationship with your mother is given to us in a similar way. Reading the book, I saw your relationship to the marine world as corresponding in complex and compelling ways to your relationship with your mother—and perhaps to your own interior world of emotions. The otherness—or what I like to call the somethingness—of the marine world in the book is one of its most important characteristics, I think. And I admire the fact that you don’t resolve that elusive or evasive aspect. The strong feelings that certain experiences produce (I think of the multiple scenes of you swimming in the midst of cetaceans) are evoked but never over-clarified—not out of coyness or shyness, but because what it evokes is equally vague or ambiguous to the mind. And indeed that core, resilient ambivalence is key in the attraction of the particular context or metaphor for our minds.

PH: At the same time, that translation of emotion or relationship or observation reflects back on our existential states. It is why Melville’s Moby-Dick continues to fascinate artists and writers as much as it is an historical document of whales and whaling at a certain time. It’s Melville’s predictive power that continues to lead me on.

CJ: Moby-Dick is a perfect example. It’s impossible not to read the book as a psychological, social, and cultural portrait, and to read the narrative as metaphorical in those terms; yet our enjoyment of—sometimes reveling in—readings of such breadth and depth depends, I think, on the fact that the narrative and detail all work perfectly well on a literal level. I tried to bring the same strategy to The Surfacing: the search and drift must be perfectly credible within the historical context if it’s to facilitate a metaphorical reading. The moment there’s any sense of credibility being stretched or narrative sequence manipulated for the sake of psychological portraiture, readers would be jumping overboard, as it were.

PH: In your work, I also see that sense of a journey through the natural world, and the extraordinary way in which you write about it. The ice and climate conspire to act as dramatic settings for the characters of your novel. But they also intensify the work in another way: most especially in a mortal manner—in the way that the men and women of the novel are threatened by nature (even as they abuse it).

CJ: You could say that they find themselves in a setting where they’re constantly made aware of their own physical vulnerability; and also one in which neither they, nor their aspirations, are of any consequence. To anything animal, they’re sources of food or danger, that’s all. The climate and landscape are not only unsustaining but are actively hostile. No external help—divine or human—will ever reach them. One of the novel’s narrative threads is the long process by which the crew integrates that way of thinking about themselves and their situation.

PH: In their brutal world, they have ceded dominion. Is that why MacDonald, the cleric, is seen as such a useless person—even as his actions are crucial to the plot? I find it fascinating that the events in The Surfacing take place in 1850—the year in which Melville was writing Moby-Dick, in which Darwin was formulating his theories, and which also coincided with the mid-century decline in traditional religious faith. Matthew Arnold’s lines in “Dover Beach,” written in 1851, dwell on “The Sea of Faith”: 

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,

Retreating, to the breath

Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear

And naked shingles of the world 

This speaks to the bleakness of the setting of your novel. It’s contrasted, of course, with the hopeless optimism of the search for Franklin. Did your reading for the writing of your book take in these considerations?

CJ: There’s certainly something of that particular cultural moment that fascinates me. I think of it as the anteroom of modernity, but with resolutely old-fashioned props. I personally get from that period a whiff of a destructive or negative force that’s nonetheless invigorating—of them drawing away from the old order, even tearing it down, but not yet reaching towards a new one. Melville was definitely a big blip on my radar: the driven masochistic psychological “quest” element of Moby-Dick, of course; but also the relentless huit clos configuration and atmosphere of White Jacket, Billy Budd, and Redburn, amongst others.

The “hopeless optimism” of the Franklin searchers is often voiced alongside conventional expressions of patriotism and faith. But to me it often sounds like lip service, even in first-hand accounts. And it’s hard not to see in some of the Victorian’s exploration “projects” (such as the search for the Northwest Passage, then the search for the lost searchers) a reaching for the limits of hardship and endurance that at best are existential tests the men set themselves, but probably have strong masochistic and sadistic aspects to them too. It’s perhaps of little comfort to see that the kind of stupid but admirable presumptuousness they bring to bear on the natural world is also applied to themselves.

PH: Of course, Franklin is the great absence in your book, as is the absence of civilization. The ship, as in Melville, becomes a carrier of everything and nothing. It is a macrocosm—related to the natural world—and a microcosm, of human behavior. The inter-relationships are so extreme, so intense; strange how the vastness can be so claustrophobic; or that in the wilderness, the issues of behavior become so predominant. I was thinking of Greg Dening’s book, Mr. Bligh’s Bad Language, when I read The Surfacing, how respect between males (in particular) becomes a kind of dance, as well as a reflection of hierarchies.

CJ: It’s true that in The Surfacing there are constant maneuvers in the hierarchical relations of the officers, and it could definitely be seen with an anthropologist’s or sociologist’s eye, as in Dening’s book. The novel’s captain, Myer, should clearly be top of the totem pole, but he is a weak man. When he dies, his second-in-command Morgan should automatically become “head” of the ship—but that event coincides with the prospect of actual fatherhood (the pregnant woman), which is a role he’s reluctant to accept. All this is complicated by the presence, too, of a non-Navy man (Morgan’s boyhood friend, DeHaven, the surgeon) who has an open disregard for any kind of authority. And this “dance” (as you so well put it) is being performed under the eye of the woman, as though they’re trying to win her favor. Your comments make me wonder, just now, if the venerated but absent hero Franklin might not in fact serve as a greater Father Figure, whom one suspects they’d prefer to leave dead, rather than resurrect.

PH: The solitary—in a Romantic, Caspar David Friedrich manner—is psychologically updated. This is one of my favorite passages so far:

From his bed, he let his mind swing back compass-like to the scene. Often it seemed to him they were still out there, seen from afar—dim, tiny figures, featureless, the merest touch of a paintbrush on a vast backdrop. He didn’t know, he said, if they could have done more. They certainly could have done less. It was a first, faltering version of events, of their failure. He too wanted to understand what had happened, explain it, even if culprits had to be found. They seemed to have failed utterly, as though they had not tried at all. He felt it a mere sliver that separated all their efforts from some kind of success. As though a greater or smarter effort could have brought another result. But what effort exactly, where, and when? And from that sliver, how had the gap grown so impossibly wide?

Among those sublime scenes, I think of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, its characters continually undermined by the elemental world, even as they feel its passing, and theirs.

CJ: I think that complex relationship to the natural, elemental world is crucial to both books. While it occasions unwelcome reminders that our own physical substance is both animal and time-bound, we also draw from it the idea of participating in a far greater order, of an impossibly long and slow rhythm to which our own contribution is a brief pulse. (I think of your image of hailstones coming through the rotten shed roof at the family home “like sand in an egg timer”—as a perfect reminder that the home, family, self, and so on, are all subject to the determining factor of time. The absence of anything divine to attenuate that perhaps encourages us to construe our relationship with the natural world as being with something of the order of the sublime.) But that relationship is most interesting in allowing us to relate to internal processes or phenomena we otherwise find it difficult to connect with, or at least need to characterize by some external equivalent. I think of the section in The Sea Inside where, visiting the collections at the Royal College of Surgeons, you consider your own insides in morphological terms that wouldn’t be out of place in your descriptions elsewhere in the book of underwater habitat:

…touring this queasy cabinet of medical curiosities, I’m most taken by the jars which contain the stomach linings of whales, so convoluted that it amazes me my own innards should be so formed, resembling as they do a cavern dense with stalagmites, or the living extrusions of a reef… Our bodies are as unknown to us as the ocean, both familiar and strange; the sea inside ourselves.

If I can be allowed to squeeze a little more out of that metaphor, what would the creatures within that sea represent to our unconscious? Emotions? Memories? And how would that link up with the extraordinary account you give (based on certain marine scientists’ theories) that whales may perceive 3D pictures of our inner world—that for them, much as we often are for ourselves, we are solid blocks of emotions rather than mere knots of mechanical function:

For toothed whales blessed with pin-sharp sonar accuracy, everything is transparent; nothing is concealed. They live in another dimension, able to see into and through the solid, to discern structures inside. A whale or a dolphin can see the interior of my body as accurately as I can see the exterior of hers… [Thomas I. White] notes that his subjects are able to use their sonar to detect one another’s emotional states by the way their temperatures fall or rise, like a human lie-detector test. As a result they cannot dissemble about the way they feel, as we do.

PH: Here in Cape Cod, from where I am writing, the land runs out into the sea, subliminally, as well as sublimely. This is the scene from this shore this afternoon.

Philip Hoare shore

The continuity of physical elements fascinates me. On this same beach, this afternoon, I found the spine and skull of a long dead minke whale. Its bones had already become part of the land, and the beach; just as this morning, I watched its living counterpart in the ocean, equally part of its environment—the way an animal is both part and apart from where it resides.

CJ: I think your book strongly conveys that fascination with—almost visceral attraction to—that notion of a disintegration of clear limits. I’m thinking of the repeated scenes (a recurrent but evolving motif) where you’re swimming in the ocean in close proximity to huge sea mammals, almost as though to test their nature, benign or malign, making me wonder if there was not some desire to test or finally characterize or perhaps clarify your relationship with the maternal. In any case, the reduction of our separateness and the experience of a kind of continuity definitely seems desirable:

I fall back in the water, into a flurry of fins and limbs. We’re caught up in a trio of sperm whales, almost squashed between them. Their big square heads float past mine, eyes and flanks, a confusion of us and them. It takes moments to sort us out—cetacean from human—before the whales dive…

In the last such swim in the book, the same porosity of physical barriers is evoked (as in the whales’ sonar, above):

[The dolphins], like the whales, register my every move, my every dimension, both inside and out, my density, my temperature, what I am and what I am not… Everything is turbulence. The water is alive with clicks, as if a current were being passed through it.

That said, it’s one of the great strengths of the book that whereas the natural (marine) space has been an idealized one, invested with some hope that within it perhaps the sense of rupture or isolation might be diminished or abolished altogether, that hope of wholeness and connection—a fantasy of symbiosis?—is put in perspective by the book’s end:

I feel the sensual power of their bodies as they race past. But the space between us cannot be closed. Nothing passes in-between. There is no connection. As abruptly as they came, they are gone.

PH: In January, when I was here, in the freezing cold and bitter winds, staying in this wooden house on the beach, I read Sten Nadolny’s The Discovery of Slowness, a fictionalized biography of Franklin. It was somehow extraordinarily consoled to be slowed down by Nadolny’s prose, which seemed to pre-echo his subject’s end—even though Nadolny deals with Franklin’s most renowned and ultimately tragic expedition in barely a few pages at the end of his book. Had you read Nadolny before writing The Surfacing, I wonder? It is a strange coincidence that your wonderful book comes to me here, in this same place.

CJ: Nadolny’s book is on my shelf, but while writing The Surfacing I deliberately didn’t read it—I preferred to read just first-hand contemporary accounts of the searchers, and try not to be “infected” by other versions of the story. In any case, as you’ve pointed out, Franklin is noticeable by his absence, and the search is in many ways merely a starting point for the narrative rather than a genuine concern.

PH: My particular enjoyment in The Surfacing lies in the sly unrolling of Morgan’s character, as our protagonist.

This was his home and his inheritance. Without the ship, there were no more bears, foxes, or birds. The only life for a thousand miles was now within.

You build him so slowly—that also reminded me of Nadolny—and so powerfully. I think that sense is linked to the way you deal with time in the book.

It was unsettling, the way time had begun to expand, to make room for what was to come.

You date it like a journal—presumably mirroring Morgan’s own. This progression partners the physical allusions of the novel: the expanding and contracting of the ice, and of the human body, and what it will admit, and produce. All the while, the world recedes:

Some part of him did not want to stop the slide, or try to return—stay close—at least —to what he knew. He was too fond of the notion by now, the growing distance to the known world.

Which leads me to the question: have you been to the Arctic yourself? I have not.

CJ: I think the notion of time “expanding” and the journal-type pacing of the novel are probably connected. Morgan begins determined to impose himself in his mission regardless of landscape and climate. Cue the scenes early on of them trying to force the ship through the ice by sheer strength, discipline and determination; equally, a little later, the futile long-distance sledge journey in winter, for the success of which he thinks mere willpower will suffice. As the novel progresses, he adopts a more passive role—a type of surrender, resignation or acceptance—to the point where he merely lets the ship drift and adapts to the conditions and landscape as best he can. He begins to live according to the rhythm of the seasons – an order beyond his control—and to attune not only his behavior but his expectations to the evolution of natural phenomena that each new day brings. Boyish notions of returning home as a hero who’s ‘conquered’ the Arctic are quietly resigned.

And no, I’ve not been to the Arctic. After reading so much about its hardships, who would want to?


Cormac James was born in Cork, Ireland, and lives in Montpellier, France, with his wife and son. He has published short fiction in Columbia, 3rd Bed, and The Dublin Review. The Surfacing is his North American debut novel.


Philip Hoare lives and works in Southampton, England. He is the author of The Sea Inside (Melville House) and The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea (Ecco), winner of the BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for Nonfiction, as well as biographies of Noel Coward and Stephen Tennant. He is Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Southampton, and co-curator of the Moby-Dick Big Read.

*An earlier version of this BLP Conversations series installment first appeared at Literary Hub.