An excerpt from the Introduction: The Sea is the Land’s Edge Also

Peter N. Miller

There was a depression over the Atlantic. It was travelling eastwards, towards an area of high pressure over Russia, and still showed no tendency to move northwards around it. The isotherms and isotheres were fulfilling their functions. The atmospheric temperature was in proper relation to the average annual temperature, the temperature of the coldest as well as of the hottest month, and the a-periodic monthly variation in temperature. The rising and setting of the sun and of the moon, the phases of the moon, Venus and Saturn’s rings, and many other important phenomena, were in accordance with the forecasts in the astronomical yearbooks. The vapour in the air was at its highest tension, and the moisture in the air was at its lowest. In short, to use an expression that describes the facts pretty satisfactorily, even though it is somewhat old-fashioned: it was a fine August day in the year 1913. 1

The opening of Robert Musil’s Man Without Qualities is as good an introduction to the problematics of thalassography as it is to a long novel about the end of the Habsburg world. Musil was trying to locate his story, not without some irony and even perhaps some satire, in space and time, but also to convey by analogy the way in which our microscopic world is affected by changes in the macrocosm. Tolstoy’s War & Peace does the same. Yet by using weather, rather than war, as the lever, Musil takes something completely ordinary and defamiliarizes it through distance. Its ability to effect change is from far away and is heavily mediated. How weather systems affect other weather systems, let alone humans, is extremely complicated. There is no calculus for the interaction of the weather nor, he proposes, for the interaction of people.

Musil’s beginning is apt for ours, too, because in its literal sense it describes a way in which sea affects land, and the weather at sea affects the weather on land. Metaphorically, this stands to remind us that the histories of what human beings do at sea affects the history they make on land and thus our writing of that history. Translated into historical practice, “thalassography” affects “historiography.”

But in just the same way, of course, “historiography” affects “thalassography.” Just as the question asked frames the answer given, the history of questions asked shapes the history of answers given. And though, as we shall see, many people have written about the sea, and seas have been studied, especially recently, with great intelligence and enthusiasm, the history of “sea studies,” and the history of writing about the sea, has been, thus far, no one’s concern.

Finally, still in the realm of metaphor but transposed into an even more distant key, Musil models for us the relationship between large scale narrative and the micro-reality of individual existence. Historians interested in concrete experiences invariably grapple with the additive nature of micro-histories: do they ever add up to more than the sum of their little stories? Musil, like Tolstoy before him, believes that they do, but unlike Tolstoy finds in weather a model for how this works. In effect, Musil, like all great writers, was casting about for the starkest contrast between the large and small scale, initiating his readers into one of the great mysteries of existence.

I. Oceans

Musil models connection: how things concatenate, in ever changing scale. Meterology is a powerful example of this alchemy, since it operates on a level that we still do not fully comprehend—even though our generation is much more aware than Musil’s of the stakes at play, or risk, in these interactions.

Musil, of course, wrote about an Ocean (the “low” was an “Atlantic low”) not a sea. Yet, historicizing the role of oceans did not, of course, begin with him. Adam Smith, famously, in the Wealth of Nations, identified ocean-crossing as the greatest event in human history since the establishment of the Roman empire (the Spanish Golden Age poet Góngora had gone further: the greatest thing since the advent of Jesus Christ himself). 2

Ocean-thinking gets sophisticated during the era of European expansion and was theorized then for its importance. But thinking about the oceans goes back to the first encounters with it. Pytheas of Massilia had written about oceans in the fourth-century BCE and had sailed the North Atlantic to Iceland, at least according to Barry Cunliffe. And Cunliffe himself has argued for the importance of the oceans surrounding Europe at least as early as the Mesolithic (7000 BCE) where they provided both enormous protein stores and, imaginatively, as lures to go beyond, plus ultra. 3 Baudelaire, more than two centuries after Bacon saw going beyond as our destiny, and more than five after Dante saw in it our glory, saw the black canker of disappointment in the mismatch between our hopes and our reality, as mirrored in the ocean. Freud’s “oceanic feeling” turned Baudelaire’s open wound into a feeling rather of vague helplessness. 4

As much as the fifteenth century, the twentieth was a century of oceans.  The two “world wars” made the realities of the Atlantic and the Pacific central to the destinies of the world, and in the Cold War that followed the United States projected its power via battle fleets (2nd in the Atlantic, 3rd in the eastern Pacific, and 7th in the southwestern Pacific). Valuable international commodities, such as petroleum, in turn cut superhighways across the oceans.

And though the rise of the British Empire created its school of “blue-water historians”, the Ocean itself was always the passive actor in this story: adversity to be conquered, or passive space to be tamed and traversed. It was only in the second half of the twentieth century that the Atlantic on which hinged the “West”—defined by the “North Atlantic Treaty” (1949) and NATO–became a subject for study in a way that oceans never had been before. Bernard Bailyn in the United States, and Pierre Chaunu in France, each saw in the early modern Atlantic the beginning of the modern histories of Europe and the Americas. Before long, and continuing with accelerated rhythm up to our own day and the late work of Bailyn and J.H. Elliott, Atlantic History has become one of the key ways in which early modern history has been articulated, with implications for scholarship, teaching, and professional advancement. The birth and flourishing of Atlantic History may well come to be viewed as one of the great historiographical creations of the twentieth century.

[Continued in book.]


  1. Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities, tr. Eithne Wilkisn and Ernst Kaiser  3 vols (London, 1979 [1954]), vol 1,  1.
  2. Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, ed. R.H. Campbell and A.S. Skinner (Indianapolis, 1981 [Oxford UP, 1976]), IV.vii.c.80, 626.
  3. Barry Cunliffe, Facing the Oceans: the Atlantic and its Peoples, 8000 BC-AD 1500 (Oxford, 2001), and Europe between the Ocean: Themes and Variaitons, 9000 BC to AD 1000 (New Haven and London, 2008).
  4. Baudelaire, “L’homme et la mer” begins: “Homme libre, toujours tu chériras la mer!/ La mer est ton miroir; tu contemples ton âme/  Dans le déroulement infini de sa lame,/ Et ton esprit n’est pas un gouffre moins amer.” Charles Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du mal (Boston, 1982), 200.