The Sea and the Soul: Poet, Painter, and Philosopher Etel Adnan on the Elemental Blues of Being

“For seeing the sea it’s sometimes better to close one’s eyes.”

The Sea and the Soul: Poet, Painter, and Philosopher Etel Adnan on the Elemental Blues of Being

“It is a general sense of the poetry of existence that overcomes me. Often it is connected with the sea,” the young Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary a century ago as she reckoned with the “extraordinary emotions” that often overcame her — the source from which some of humanity’s greatest literature was about to spring.

Half a century later, the protagonist of Iris Murdoch’s exquisite existentialist novel Sea and Sea gasped: “The sea. I could fill a volume simply with my word-pictures of it.”

The painter, poet and philosopher are still alive in another era. Etel Adnan (February 24, 1925–November 14, 2021) filled with exquisite existentialist word-pictures her slender, splendid volume Sea & Fog (public library) — a suite of quickenings and questions: unanswerable, perhaps unaskable, but beautiful for the momentum by which they impel us to go on asking, the momentum we call life.

Kanagawa: The Great WaveHokusai (1831), Japanese artist. This print is also available as a mask for the face, which benefits The Nature Conservancy.

Adnan has used the mountain and the night to explore the soul. Now she turns her attention to the ocean.

Only the sea. There is nothing else. No other explanation. Sea. Wasser tumbling.


Dryness peels away the soul caught in gravity’s unconquerable solitude. The body’s magnetized metals turn naturally North. With eyes, nostrils and mouth, the face struggles to recall complex mental structures. Bones end dust over dust.

A generation after Rachel Carson watched “earth becoming fluid as the sea itself” in her reflection on the ocean and the meaning of life, Adnan writes:

The sea’s instincts collaborate with ours to create thinking. Thoughts are born and die, and then evanesce. We feel we own them but we’re the ones to belong to the radiations that they are, lighter than fog, but endearing in their unreliability.


Sea made up of chains. It is difficult to find a place where impermanence can be protected. It is a threat. Is there a permanent connection between light and mind that is both a machine of processing particles of thoughts, as well as if it’s a processing device?

Painting by Etel Adnan from Etel Adnan: Light’s New Measure, Guggenheim Museum, 2021. (Photograph: Maria Popova)

She reflects on how we bask in “the soft happiness that invades the spirit when water meets light” and at the same time find ourselves “exasperated by water’s alarming coherence” — an echo of the great Scottish mountaineer and poet Nan Shepherd, who captured this bipolar enchantment a generation earlier as she contemplated the might and mystery of water on the edge of a rushing river near its mountain source: “The most appalling quality of water is its strength. I love its flash and gleam, its music, its pliancy and grace, its slap against my body; but I fear its strength.”

For Adnan, this vital tension between violence and serenity, between uncertainty and coherence, is the element’s nature — the very aspect of the sea that speaks to the elemental in us:

Lay down on your back and create a bird raft. Finally, take a dive in the middle night. You will hear the water spitter and your ears will vibrate.

Elements. Elemental… And we are here, anywhere, so long as space would be. We are given sea/ocean; sea permanent revelation, open revelation of ourselves, to ourselves. Mind approximates the lit lines at the front; that dark above meant to obscure but not understand, so it can penetrate to increase its power and reach essential unknowing.

Her orphic voice adds:

Be kind to the Pacific, before you are gone. You will not find the most beautiful of promised paradises without its colors or splendor.

Spring Moon at Ninomiya Beach, 1931 — one of Hasui Kawase’s stunning vintage Japanese woodblocks. This image is also available as a printed version.

A passage that is evocative and reminiscent of the immortal line. The Little Prince — “What is essential is invisible to the eye.” — Adnan writes:

For seeing the sea it’s sometimes better to close one’s eyes.


You must see the sea. The sea is waiting. Wait. Don’t rush. Don’t rush to her. You should wait, she tells you. Or, you can say. Look at the sea. Take a look at the sea with your eyes. Open them, those eyes that will close one day when you won’t be standing. She will still live, even though you’ll be flat like her. Take the time to look at her. Do not let your eyes get tired and burned. Don’t let them go. You can leave them as open at noon. Don’t worry. You can trust that other eyes will be able to see her. They won’t look for signs or divine presence. They prefer to continue seeing water that stirs and shouts, which becomes ice at the North or vapor in the Tropics.


Eyes have busied themselves exclusively with seeing although they can hear better than ears whenever they join forces with what’s outside the mind’s perimeter.

Adnan states that one century after Whitman was swept into New York’s flooding-tide by the belief that the body is the spirit, Adnan also adds:

Without a body there’s no soul and without the latter there’s no way to speak about the sea.

Complement Sea & Fog — the other half of which brings Adnan’s singular lens to the mystique of the mist — with her deathbed meditation on how to live and how to die, then revisit two centuries of great writers reflecting on the color blue.

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