“Although the living is subject to the ruin of the time, the process of decay is at the same time a process of crystallization, that in the depth of the sea, into which sinks and is dissolved what once was alive, some things ‘suffer a sea-change’ and survive in new crystallized forms and shapes that remain immune to the elements, as though they waited only for the pearl diver who one day will come down to them and bring them up to the world of the living.”
Hannah Arendt (Introduction to Illuminations by Walter Benjamin, trans. Arendt)
Quoted in Ali Smith’s book, How To Be Both.
In 2015, on first reading Smith’s book, How To Be Both, the quote had little meaning for me. The book itself drew me in, however, and I loved it for the concept, the format, the contrast of two periods in history, and the link between the two main characters. At the end of my article is a link to a review of the book. I’m convinced that when I found the quote, or the quote found me, thoughts of pearl divers, crystallization, and sea-change did lodge somewhere in my memory banks, deep in Davy Jones’ Locker, perhaps. I had no conscious memory of it, however.
In 2017, when working on my Master’s dissertation exploring authenticity in book publishing, I remembered loving the book and reread it. I rediscovered the themes of authenticity in visual art and in how life is lived, both feature (amongst other themes) in Smith’s story of Renaissance painter Francesco/Francesca del Cossa and UK teenager, Georgia/George. I’d referenced Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations (translated by Hannah Arendt) in my dissertation as he discusses authenticity surrounding objects, their ‘aura’, in great depth. During this second read, the quote about pearls and divers and things undergoing a sea-change, sparked my imagination.
In 2019, working on my PhD thesis, I turned to the book for a third read and found it even more fulfilling. The themes of identity and authenticity sang loudly. The metaphor of divers and transformation carried so much more colour, vibrancy, and meaning. I started to carry around with me the idea of a cycle of personal transformation, elemental change, and the pearl diver, an individual who lifts up and inspires others to new levels. I thought of writing this article – ha! – but I couldn’t ‘get it down.’ Sadly, in December ’19, I learned that another of my pearl divers had passed on. The red bus in the picture for this post was pimped by Douglas in honour of me leaving Baillie Marshall in 1991. It travelled with me back to Glasgow from Edinburgh, then parked on my desk at The Media Shop until 2017. Now, it’s parked up on my desk at home. I still have a Philip Glass/Malcolm McLaren cassette tape he made for me, too, although have run out of something to play it. He had such energy with a passion for art, science, and life, with a talent for bringing people together.
Last year, in lockdown, I read the book a fourth time, prompted by one of those chains on social media to post my favourite books each day for a week. How To Be Both is clearly one of my favourite books. There are very few which I have read four times. Each time, the story of the two characters gives me new perspectives on authenticity in art and personal identity.
Surely, all of us have connected with at least one person who has taken a deep breath to swim down to lift us from the seabed to re-join the world above, transformed? We all must experience one ‘sea-change’ or many of them throughout our lives. We lose elements and bits of outer shell, or we grow new characteristics and useful armour, as we experience life. This may mean resting on the seabed for a time while our forms alter as we get ready for the next adventure, our edges smoothed or sharpened, our colours burnished or made more subtle.
We start a new, yet another strange, year. Perhaps this is the best time to think about your own pearl divers, those who lifted you up to new heights. They realised your potential and brought you back to the surface, to a new landscape with fresh challenges and new experiences. They believed in you and helped you to see your own potential.
So! Here are my pearl divers in chronological order:
Elizabeth, Ronald, David, Lyndsay, Jim, Douglas, Terry, Valerie, Frances, Claire.
I wonder who’s next?
Link to How To Be Both review: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/sep/07/how-to-be-both-review-ali-smith-dual-narrative-francesco-del-cossa