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Forms of Tide Pools

Updated: Apr 30, 2022

For Andrew

A tide pool is a small aqueous world within a greater land-based world, a cradle of captured sea life at the ocean’s edge, an ephemerally sealed-off liminal environment while the tide is out and then reabsorbed by the wider sea as the flow-tide overwhelms it once more.

The tide pool is a source of sensation become perception, of image and metaphor. Sylvia Plath gave her reason for conjuring it (hers, off Cape Cod Bay):

“I’d come for

Free fish-bait: the blue mussels

Clumped like bulbs at the grass-root

Margin of the tidal pools“

(Plath 1967, p. 69)

while Ted Hughes, invoking Pygmalion’s protectrice in his version of Ovid, pictured how:

“[Venus] swirled in the uplift of incense

Like a great fish suddenly bulging

Into a tide-freshened pool.“

(Hughes 1997, p. 150.)

Of tide pools, the marine biologist Rachel Carson suggested that they “contain mysterious worlds within their depths, where all the beauty of the sea is subtly suggested and portrayed in miniature” (Carson 1955, p. 106). They “contain,” she thought, “many moods,” night moods “hold[ing] the stars and reflect[ing] the light of the Milky Way as it flows across the sky above them” (Carson 1955, p. 106) and day moods in which “their beauty is the beauty of simple elements—color and form and reflection” (Carson 1955, p. 107).

Tide pools are sites of containing and holding, concealment and discovery, transformation and release.

In Dinard, a seaside town in Brittany along La Manche, I watch—watching here may be characterized as an instance of free-floating attention—children climb across the rocks slopes on either side of the Plage de l’Ecluse (“Floodgate” or “Sluice Beach”) in the shadow of the great villas, buckets and nets in hand, hoping to capture tiny, darting grey shrimp, freshly hatched hermit crabs, drowsy sea slugs, or the exceedingly rare starfish; or as they gaze into the craggy shallows and follow the slow, featherlike swaying of the tubular worms or spiky sea urchins, or contemplate the fate of the oysters whose shells have been cracked open by gulls. Mussels cling to the rocks and pseudo-reefs, the engineering of the hermelle worm, line patches along them. On a clear day Chateaubriand’s tomb on the Grand Bé (“tomb” in Breton) islet might be faintly seen near an old fortress while looking out across the bay towards Saint-Malo, his native city.

Along the seawall is an outdoor swimming pool whose basin is also filled by the incoming high tide. When the sea withdraws far off (and along this part of the Breton coast, as in Normandy, the broadly withdrawn low-tide makes swimming in the sea impractical) the pool is much appreciated by bathers. This too is an enclosure filled cyclically with seawater; again, a tide pool. A further one, situated just behind it in a modern building on the esplanade, is covered but also filled with (heated) seawater.

And yet another still, though now gone, could be found on the other side of the peninsula in one of the great villas, constructed in 1860.

Dating from 1935 and not quite a swimming pool, however, the Dinard aquarium, designed by the architect Yves Hémar, like Chateaubriand a native Malouin, was the showcase of the National Museum of Natural History beside which marine researchers worked until it closed in 1997 (Fraud 2012, p. 6f), though its magnificent double doors, rows of leaping fish adorning them, can still be seen today as part of a luxury hotel and spa that has taken its place.

At the time consisting of three rooms, visitors could observe, in fact, study, hundreds of local species including sea bream, cuttlefish, skate, lobster, and seahorse held in twenty-four tanks.

As such, tourists and locals came into regular contact with marine naturalists. In our days, one can have dinner in the hotel’s restaurant, called the Pourquoi-Pas? (‘Why-Not?’) after the the ship whose captain was Jean-Baptiste Charcot, the son of Jean-Marie Charcot, the head of the neurology department at the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris and Freud’s teacher with whom he had an internship to study hysteria. Born just over ten years after Freud in 1867, the two could have well known each other—both studied medicine and might have been introduced by Charcot père—, though it seems they did not.

The idea of bringing the marine biology station to Dinard belongs to Captain Charcot, who had a home nearby on the Rance river and was familiar with the wealth of coastal plant and sea life. As a marine biologist, he took the Pourquoi-Pas?, described as nothing less than a “floating science laboratory” (Fraud 2012, p. 35), as far as the polar north and south to study marine ecosystems.

In the summer of 1936, a year after the inauguration of the laboratory and aquarium, Captain Charcot, then nearly seventy years old, and his crew (which included a younger captain) set off in the Pourquoi-Pas? for Greenland to deliver material to another researcher, Paul-Emile Victor. The ship’s boiler then needed repair and was berthed at Reykjavik before setting out again for Saint-Malo on September 15th of that year.

I cite this particular story not only due to its contiguity with the early history of psychoanalysis but further because it indicates that it is possible to co-exist in relative harmony with the natural world, letting it enrich us and deepen our knowledge of it and ourselves. And yet (we know too well) the natural world is increasingly imperiled, leading to the imperilment of our own well-being and lives. This is the subject of Cosimo Schinaia’s Psychoanalysis and Ecology: The Unconscious and the Environment (2022), a book that joins a growing list of others by the likes of Sally Weintrobe in the UK and Luc Magnenat in France in which a psychoanalytic perspective on the environmental crisis is laid bare.

Memories of places frequented in childhood and adolescence that have been transformed, sometimes to the point of obliteration, are disquieting to consider. Cosimo Schinaia writes disturbingly about Taranto, an Apulian coastal city whose beach had become “a dead and terrifying place” (Schinaia 2022, p. 98) due to the construction of a pier and the destruction of the sea bed built up with concrete and toxic waste likened to “a malodorous landfill.” The sea and shore that enriched his imagination as he was growing up had become a poisonous danger. The mussels and oysters from the area he once relished are no longer fit for eating as they are suffused with dioxin. “Pollution destroyed my childhood memories, even the olfactory ones, and forced me to authentically face my ignorance of the transformations that had taken place” (Schinaia 2022, p. 98).

As a psychoanalyst, Cosimo Schinaia intelligently considers Freud’s reflections on the death drive and our primal urge to destroy as he quotes from the terrifyingly prescient, final paragraph of Freud’s Discomfort in Culture (1930):

“The fateful question for the human species seems to me to be whether and to what extent their cultural development will succeed in mastering the disturbance of their communal life by the human drive of aggression and self-destruction. […] Humans have gained control over the forces of nature to such an extent that with their help they would have no difficulty in exterminating one another to the last.” (Quoted in Schinaia 2022, p. 34; translation modified.)

While the looming Hitler threat is doubtless alluded to in Freud’s lucid words—a few short years after penning them Freud with his family would flee the gathering Nazi storm for hoped for safety in London—, the drive to death finds other objects at which to aim and in still other moments. The opening paragraph of Rachel Carson’s chapter on “The Obligation to Endure” (an expression she owes to the biologist Jean Rostand, and perhaps one not to be quickly forgotten), for example, in Silent Spring reads:

“The history of life on earth has been a history of interaction between living things and their surroundings. To a large extent, the physical form and the habits of the earth’s vegetation and its animal life have been moulded by the environment. Considering the whole span of earthly time, the opposite effect, in which life actually modifies its surroundings, has been relatively slight. Only within the moment of time represented by the present century has one species—man—acquired significant power to alter the nature of the world.” (Carsons 1962, p. 24.)

Rachel Carson did not use the term anthropocene to describe this manufactured catastrophic process yet its meaning is present: we have entered an age in which humankind has irrecoverably altered the natural environment, a tipping point in which biodiversity has declined significantly, the world’s macroclimates and microclimates have been modified drastically, and geomorphology has been scared deeply or, as Schinaia defines it, “the present geological era in which the presence and activity of humans determines life conditions through global territorial, structural, and climatic modifications” (Schinaia 2022, p. 29 note 3).

It’s but a small step to move from the environment considered on a global scope to that in which the individual grows and lives, from the disastrous, ravaging effects, for example, of the carbon economy on human, animal, and natural life to a discrete, personal scale. Cosimo Schinaia’s discussion of the “non-human” environment in Searles’s thinking and the “human” environment in Winnicott’s is very helpful when grappling with the detrimental effects of potential destructiveness in relatedness gone awry. Of course, this need not be. When relatedness is salutary, when it facilitates intra- and interpsychic growth, several effects may be observed including (I quote): “a) the alleviation of various painful and anxious emotional states; b) the promotion of self-realization; c) the strengthening of a personal feeling of reality; and d) the fostering of appreciating and accepting other people” (Schinaia 2022, p. 43). Insights from a range of psychoanalytic and non-psychoanalytic literature are used in order to shed light on clinical situations in which is found, for example, the psychopathology of waste and wastefulness, of light and noise pollution.

And yet perhaps we as human beings as a species have gone too far. Perhaps humanity cannot manage itself, cannot overcome the drive to aggressiveness, to expropriation, to maintaining the other within a domineering, controlling grip.

“Antiquated,” on the face of it, is not a terrifying word. It is typically applied to objects, often enough mechanical, which have become obsolete, are no longer needed or phased out. As technology changes, a material object, say, a computer or camera, has lost its usefulness due to age. It is outdated and so irrelevant, at least from a functional point of view. This can be annoying (if the object needs to be replaced) or a source of relief (if one no longer wants it around). But “antiquated” may take on a more sinister meaning, for example that used by Günther Anders in reference to humanity itself. Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen, which may be translated as The Antiquatedness or Outdatedness of Humankind, is his great study of the destructive effects of the industrial revolutions on the “soul” (Anders 1956, 1980). It seems needless to say that his vision is pessimistic, grim: the development of ever autonomous technology, unbridled consumerism, and the potential for mass destruction combine to negate humanity from the world in which we live.

Globocide is neologism invented by Günther Anders (Anders 1980, p. 407). Its meaning is simple enough, it hardly needs unpacking. Following the First World War, the principal motors behind humankind’s antiquatedness are, for Anders, genocide and the atomic bomb by which the risk of apocalypse is realized. Despite the acknowledgement of the absolute maleficence of Auschwitz and Dachau, of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we must nevertheless ask ourselves if they are but antecedents for the potential of killing on an even broader, global scale. This potential has furthered an essential alienation between humans and the world, the environment in which we live (for Anders, typified in literature by Kafka and Beckett). Humanity is not only antiquated, out of date, but obsolete. While not put in theological terms, we have been banished from Paradise by our own incapacity to care for it.

I mentioned above how Captain Charcot set out in July 1936 in the Pourquoi-Pas? after having the ship’s boiler repaired in Iceland when it weighed anchor for Saint-Malo on September 15th. What happened afterwards needs recalling.

Favorable sailing conditions were given by two weather reports originating in England and Iceland (Gonidec 1936). By mid-afternoon, however, the weather took a change for the worse: the sky turned overcast, rain began to fall, and the wind gained strength. The Pourquoi-Pas? attempted to return to land as the barometer fell. As midnight passed, cyclonic gales battered the ship with “indescriptible violence” making navigation nearly impossible. The ship rolled and pitched while an unidentifiable light, which the crew supposed shown from Akranes (just over thirty miles north of Reykjavik), could be observed in the distance. They attempted to manoeuver the ship windward but the bow could be break through the gales and then the communication antenna snapped, cutting off all outside communication. As the sun was rising at 5am, they observed rocks just below the surface of the water, till then hidden due to poor visibility. Fifteen minutes later the ship’s bottom twice struck them as an “enormous wave” swept across the bridge and men were thrown overboard. Despite all efforts to maintain the pumps, by 6am the ship was nearly entirely underwater and then destroyed on the Altfanes reef off the Iceland coast. Eugène Gonidec, a nineteen-year-old master helmsman, managed to swim back to the coast at around 9am even as he saw some of his fellow sailors drown before his eyes. The bodies of twenty-three sailors (including Charcot’s) were recovered while those of another seventeen men were lost. Eugène Gonidec was the sole survivor, and it’s to him that we owe the narrative of the final voyage and wreck of the Pourquoi-Pas?.


Anders, Günther (1956). L’obsolescence de l’homme: sur l’âme à l’époque de la deuxième révolution industrielle. Translated from the German by Christophe David. Paris: Editions de l’Encyclopédie des Nuisances/Editions Ivrea, 2002.

Anders, Günther (1980). L’obsolescence de l’homme: sur la destruction de la vie à l’époque de la troisième révolution industrielle. Translated from the German by Christophe David. Paris: Editions Fario, 2011.

Carson, Rachel (1955). The Edge of the Sea. Preface by Linda Lear. London: Penguin, 1999.

Carson, Rachel (1962). Silent Spring. Introduction by Lord Shackleton, preface by Julian Huxley, and afterword by Linda Lear. London: Penguin, 2000.

Fraud, Christian (2012). L’étonnante histoire du petit aquarium de Dinard. Dinard: Editions Bow-Window.

Gonidec, Eugène (1936). Rapport sur les circonstances du naufrage du “Pourquoi-Pas?” Retrieved on April 25th, 2022.

Hughes, Ted (1997). Pygmalion. Tales from Ovid. London: Faber & Faber.

Plath, Sylvia (1967). Mussel Hunter at Rock Harbor. The Colossus and Other Poems. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Schinaia, Cosimo (2022). Psychoanalysis and Ecology: The Unconscious and the Environment. Translated from the Italian by Guiseppe Lo Dico and Kathryn Haralambous. Foreword to the English edition by Sally Weintrobe and foreword to the Italian edition by Lorena Preta. London and New York: Routledge.

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