… Swimming is ambivalent.
This is from Water and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Matter by Gaston Bachelard (1983):
… If provocation is a notion that is indispensable for understanding the active role of our knowledge of the world, it is because psychology is not built upon defeats. We do not come to know the world all at once, with a placid, passive, quiet knowledge.
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… Swinburne was … deceived by the impressions, accumulated during his lifetime, that had been superimposed over an initial impression when he wrote, in Lesbia Brandon: “It was rather desire than courage that attracted and attached him to the rough experience of water.” He does not see the exact composition of desire and courage. He does not see, remembering his first courage when desire was absent, that the swimmer obeys the desire for courage. In an energetic experience like swimming, there is no alternating between desire and courage, only the vigorous action of a genitive. Like so many psychologists of the antepsychoanalytic era, Swinburne slips into a simple analysis that plays on pleasure and pain as though they were isolated, separable, contrary entities. Swimming is ambivalent.
… The swimming pool, with its ridiculous name, will never give its true setting to the working out of a complex. It will also fail to provide the ideal of solitude, so necessary for the psychology of a cosmic challenge. In order to project our will successfully, we must be alone. Poems about voluntary swimming are poems about solitude. The swimming pool will always lack the fundamental psychological element that makes swimming healthy from a moral point of view.
Even though will furnishes the dominant theme for poetry about swimming, feeling, naturally, is also present. It is thanks to feeling that the special ambivalence of the struggle against water, with its victories and its defeats, can be included in the classic ambivalence of pain and joy. Moreover, we shall see that the ambivalence is unbalanced. Fatigue is the destiny of the swimmer; sadism, sooner or later, must yield to masochism.
My lips will feast on the foam of they lips
Thy sweet hard kisses are strong like wine
Thy large embraces are keen like pain.
But there comes a moment when the adversary is the stronger, when, consequently, masochism comes to the fore. Then, “each wave hurts, each one cuts like a whip.” “The scourging of the surf made him red from the shoulders to the knees, and sent him on the shore whipped by the sea into a single blush of the whole skin. … ” And faced with such metaphors, often repeated, Lafourcade rightly calls to mind the ambivalent suffering of flagellation, which is so characteristic of masochism.
If we recall now that this flagellation appears in a narrated swim, that is, as a metaphor of a metaphor, we will understand that this is a literary masochism, a virtual masochism. In the psychological reality of masochism, flagellation is a preliminary condition for pleasure; in literary “reality,” flagellation appears only as a consequence, as the sequel to excessive happiness. The sea flagellates the man whom she has conquered and thrown up on the shore. Nevertheless, this inversion must not deceive us. The ambivalence of pleasure and pain marks poems as it marks life. When a poem strikes a dramatic, ambivalent note, we feel that it is the multiplied echo of a valorized moment when the good and evil of a whole universe are bound together in the poet’s heart. Once again, imagination can raise insignificant incidents of private life to the cosmic plane.
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… Of course there are many other types of swimming besides the violent and active kind that we have just examined. … [writing about Coleridge] John Charpentier helps us to reach an understanding of the relaxed, volumetric swim at the precise dividing point between active and passive, floating and propulsion, which is allied to the reverie of rocking (for everything is related to the unconscious). This image is a great Coldridgian truth. Did Coleridge not write to Wedgewood in 1983: “… my whole Being is filled with waves, as it were, that roll & stumble, one this way, & one that way, like things that have no common master.” Such is the dream of a man who cannot provoke the world; this will be the kind of swimming for a man who cannot provoke the sea.