This is the first installment of a special commission for our Food For Thought series. Focusing on each of the four Classical Elements – water, earth, air, and fire – American novelist Jessi Jezewska Stevens places Old Master paintings in the context of our changing and threatened climate.
The sea is returning to us, or maybe for us, the way one returns for revenge: by the 2030s it will begin to claim our coasts and cities, they say, unless we learn to adapt.
The return of the sea is, in a way, the oldest threat. The Dutch have been negotiating shifting sea levels since Roman times, using a system of natural dykes and sand dunes now being adopted by threatened coastal regions around the world. That water’s advance lies at the very inception of our fear of natural catastrophe is evidenced everywhere in Western art and literature, if not comfort, then precedent. Wunderzeichenbuch (The Book of Miracles), a 16th-century collection of apocalyptic illuminated manuscripts, originally printed in Augsburg, Germany and only rediscovered in the last decade, allots the very first folio to The Deluge, an allegorical study of the biblical flood of Genesis. A scattering of drowning souls clings to barrels and horses in the driving rain; in the lower right corner, a king in emerald robes puts his hands together — far too late, I’m afraid — to pray. It’s also what elevated ancient trade routes into mankind’s first act of “conquering” nature: the idea of making one’s fortunes out at sea yolked the two meanings of “liquidity.”
The sea is not only a threat, then, but a plane of promise. Perhaps its most generous gift is the way it expands our imaginations. Alexander von Humboldt, considered the West’s first environmentalist, sailed from Europe to South America to complete a voracious study of the natural world, only to exceed expectations by more or less predicting climate change itself. It was in Ecuador that Humboldt completed his famous Naturgemälde (Painting of Nature), which linked atmospheric parameters and the diversity of plant life to altitude, effectively globalizing the way scientists think about local ecological trends. The ideas of global ecology and “legitimate” wreckage take on new, more ambiguous meanings in a moment when we understand that the oceans act as our collective climate mediator, soaking up greenhouse gases and regulating weather patterns. They quietly swallow enormous amounts of trash in the form of carbon and microplastics and cargo alike. Earlier this year, 4,000 luxury vehicles sank to the bottom of the lawless mid-Atlantic en route from Germany to the United States. The ongoing Great Supply Chain Crisis, like climate change itself, is yet a further reminder of what a lifeline the sea is for global harmony and connectivity; what we refer to as the World Wide Web is in fact a series of cables laid along the silence of the ocean floor. And it is via our shared seas, finally, that centuries of Western overconsumption today translate increased risk of catastrophic flooding in the Global South.
For a novelist, there is something instructive in these lessons of the sea. Here on fellowship in Europe’s climate research capital of Berlin, I would like to address what is perhaps our century’s greatest challenge in the medium that comes most naturally to me. The trouble is, my own canvas — the blank, 8×11 page — has historically been better suited to the exploration of individual psychology, ambition, and concerns than to the kinds of ecological dramas that unfold on global scales. The sea’s invitation to imagine ourselves as part of a global order puts the individual in her place vis-a-vis the natural world without destroying her — that is, while preserving the individual perspective that lies at the heart of the novel form.
This is, to me, the same lesson that Romantic painters took from their panoramic studies of the natural world, made most legible in Caspar David Friedrich’s Rückenfigur — a lone figure seen from behind. As philosophers of the time established, the sublime is a moment, an encounter, between the individual and the world. The solitary figure in Mönch am Meer (Monk by the Sea), which today hangs in the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin, turns his back to us in contemplation of the sea and sky that dwarf him. I always feel the monk knows something I don’t — he has found more intimacy with the sea’s ambivalent sublimity than I can ever hope — and yet even he stops just short of dissolving a fundamental boundary. We feel the longing of the Rückenfigur to rejoin the natural world, as well as the enduring separation from it. The individual only ever almost belongs. The humility in recognizing the limits of human dominion and perception comes, these days, as a relief. As does the reminder that to dissolve the human perspective entirely, as some radical strains of environmentalism seem to advocate, is to do away with wonder.
Two hours north of Berlin, in Hamburg, Europe’s third largest port, the Hamburger Kunsthalle is home to one of the world’s most impressive collections of German Romanticism, including Friedrich’s notorious Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer (Wanderer above the Sea of Fog), now the somewhat reluctant symbol of the movement. Situated at the top of the Elbe River, and with more bridges than any other metropolis in the world, Hamburg immediately evokes the fortune of seafaring; it is Germany’s single wealthiest Bundesland. The new 866-million euro Elbphilharmonie, designed by Herzog & de Meuron, sits lightly at the top of the harbor like a full silver sail, backdropped by a horizon line already crowded with masts, ocean liners, and cranes for lifting shipping containers from deck to dock. Yet just beneath this ethereal romance of the Niederhafen district hovers the memory of wreckage. As a crucial port, Hamburg was the target of one of the most destructive Allied bombing campaigns in all WWII. Not twenty years later, the famous North Sea flood of 1962 resulted in over 300 deaths and the loss of 60,000 homes within city limits alone. The water rose so high that residents were rescued from upper-stories by raft.
Due to the city’s history of flooding, Hamburg has since reinvented itself as a model of sustainable coastal adaptation. The massive, undulating promenade along the Niederhafen, designed by Zaha Hadid and completed in 2019, transformed a crucial dyke into a publicly accessible waterfront. Buildings in tourist-heavy flood zones like the St. Pauli district (where, famously, The Beatles launched their career), have been retrofitted to withstand, instead of resist, rising waters. The crown jewel of the Elbphilharmonie, which lies beyond the dyke line, is situated on the semi-artificial island of HafenCity, where centuries-old Dutch techniques are used to elevate new, multi-use construction eight to nine meters above sea level.
Is this what the future of coastal adaptation looks like, glitz and all?
For me, the image that best captures a port city’s flirtation with the boundaries of the sea is a moonlit seascape by Friedrich, Küste bei Mondschein (Sea Shore in Moonlight). Without the usual solitary figure, Küste places the viewer directly at the top of a silver path of moonlight that glimmers both with menace and with invitation: Do you dare to walk? It serves as a kind of counterpoint to a biblical allegory by Friedrich’s contemporary Philipp Otto Runge, widely regarded as the founder of German Romanticism, which hangs a few galleries away: In Petrus am dem Meer (Peter Walks on Water), St. Peter makes his first, trepidatious steps out onto stormy waters to accept Jesus’s call. To walk on water is either the ultimate act of faith, or else the greatest folly.
It’s in this same gallery that the centerpiece of Runge’s Tageszeiten (Times of Day) series hangs. A picture Goethe once received as both “beautiful and foolish,” Der Morgen (The Morning) represents Runge’s most ambitious attempt to reduce landscape to a pure play of light. It converges, curiously, on the composition of a seascape: Morning personified rises above a grassy plain that stretches, like a smooth green sea, to the violet sunrise on the horizon. It proceeds to the very same, well-lit vanishing point, in fact, featured in Petrus am dem Meer. Perhaps the distant “roaring” of the sea lingers in every landscape, as Rainer Maria Rilke once suggested. Water’s logic lingers in this landlocked realm we think of as “ours”: “The sea, which is no longer here, which rose and fell here once, thousands of years ago…The things cannot forget it…The sea is the history of this land. It has hardly any other past.”
It seems the sea is returning for us, but perhaps it never left.❖