Currently on exhibit at the Folger Shakespeare Library is “Lost at Sea: The Ocean in the English Imagination, 1550-1750.” The exhibit not only displays a veritable trove of items – instruments, maps, paintings, and pamphlets – but also shows how these items flow around and within the oceanic imaginations of Humphrey Gilbert, John Smith, Daniel Defoe, William Shakespeare, and others. There is even a hands-on section for the more adventurous landlubber. My personal favorite is the panel describing the “hydrographic uncertainty” of life at sea; the first chapter of my dissertation thinks about how Walter Ralegh writes about water (hydrography) and the more theoretical ways in which water writes (hydrographesis) his narrative, even himself. Can water’s depths ever be fully known, its borders enlimned, or its touch avoided? What is certain about water? “We are reminded that everything is flowing,” John Muir says, when we contemplate water. What might happen when we drift with these flows? To find yourself “lost at sea,” then, might be both a condition of discovery and a desirable moment of (non)human creativity.
The curator, in fact, is someone who has recently completed an intriguing book on the subject of water and early modernity: Steve Mentz, author of At the Bottom of Shakespeare’s Ocean (Continuum, 2009). On Tuesday, July 13th he will deliver a free lecture at the Folger: “Stories from the Sea: At the Bottom of Shakespeare's Ocean.” You may also watch his interview on DC’s Let’s Talk Live from June 23rd.
Michel Serres describes the “visit” in nautical terms: “Voyaging begins when one burns one’s boats, adventures begin with a shipwreck.” Inhabiting and traveling simultaneously. That being said, a visit to the Folger this summer is highly recommended.
“Lost at Sea” runs until September 4th and is free to the public.