home     authors     titles     dates     links     about


21 august 2021

I don't think I've ever seen squid in the wild. Though it's hard to say. Salt-water fishing piers can feature a lot of squid, but mostly as bait, and maybe I've seen somebody catch squid and maybe they've then used the same squid for bait. Living far from the ocean now, I see squid mainly in the form of batter-dipped gaskets that make a comforting last-resort freezer meal.

Martin Wallen, in Squid, is only tangentially concerned with fishing squid for sport, and leaves culinary concerns aside. His main theme is what squids are and especially how humans have come to know and sometimes to think, even to obsess, about them. For Wallen, the history of knowledge about squids is at least as important as the history of squids themselves – especially given that squids themselves must be as alien to human understanding as one can get without arriving in a UFO.

One of the heroes of Squid is a fellow named Japetus Steenstrup (1813-97), a natural philosopher who took the contrarian path of listening to the lore of the sea. Sailors had been reporting giant tentacly things in the water since at least the time of Homer, and as science became less credulous, such reports were increasingly read as bullshit. Steenstrup wasn't so sure. Obviously tale-tellers could exaggerate things, but the reported sightings of giant squid were too numerous and too consistent to be entirely fantasy. The problem was that when one of these supposed prodigies washed up, it quickly disintegrated. Steenstrup, in the 1850s, took to comparing the relatively durable beaks of washed-up squid and on that basis named a new species that has since become amply documented as Architeuthis dux, the giant squid (39-42).

Wallen writes that

All these efforts to give a factual grounding to myths of Scylla, Kraken and sea serpents reveal a distinctive unease in the West with the kind of knowledge and understanding provided by non-empirical modes, such as literature and legends. This unease arose after the Enlightenment, when the need for a direct observation led to subsequent requirements to arrange observations into a system of defined categories and clear relations. (103)
But fable and science, Wallen says, are compatible. He argues persuasively in offbeat fashion that those who spin legends based on encounters with nature are just as earnest in their epistemology as just-the-facts lab-coated academics:
Conventions and formulaic narrative devices … enable storytellers to frame descriptions of bizarre and frightening events in familiar ways. And this is so especially for descriptions of sea monsters that we reject too easily nowadays as fabulous or exaggerated, because modern accounts have shifted towards scientific descriptions, which adhere to their own conventions and descriptive devices. (92)
He's not saying that things exist just by virtue of us discussing them. Instead, things certainly exist without us having any part in them, but in order to communicate any understanding of them, we have to follow a discourse with its own vocabulary and grammar.

Squids seem to have their own expressive conventions; they have huge brains, they are magnificently able predators, they form shoals for purposes presumably like those of other animal communities. Yet, good luck trying to communicate with squid. Their Umwelt couldn't be less like ours. Only their eyes resemble human organs, so squid vision shares certain aspects with human vision; but they perceive images (in black-and-white) more immediately, and react to them more quickly, than we do. Perception, thinking, and action are almost instantaneous in squid (Nik Money would say that the world just seems more slow-motion to a squid). They sense color somehow, if not via sight, and can alter their own to fit changing conditions, and can do so communally. They do not hear and do not have a lateral line as fish do, but they perceive motion and changes in pressure at a distance. Squid live only a few months, eat ravenously, carry large amounts of biomass across oceans in their wanderings in the form of their own bodies, quickly mate and die – and then their offspring, untaught, live the same exquisitely adapted predatory lives, remarkable for their resourceful behavior in the face of novel situations – their intelligence, we'd call it – despite never having a chance to learn anything from a previous generation.

Squid are also pre-eminently prey animals. Huge assemblies of squid throng the world's oceans, like many other sea creatures inexplicably proliferating and then crashing for reasons just as obscure. Nasty customers as some of them may seem – even humans are wary of the notoriously aggressive Humboldt squid, which make sharks look like dainty diners – squid are also basically unarmored rolls of goo; their main defenses are speed and deception (using their famous ink). Sperm whales seem to live mainly on large squid, including A. dux, and of course humans love calamari.

Overfishing is thus a concern; but many squid live far from human reach or even observation. Some are creatures of the deepest abysses, where their soft but perfectly pressure-balanced bodies are an adaptive advantage. That connection with the deep and with the margin of human consciousness gives squid a special place in the human imagination of the monstrous.

Wallen is especially good on squids in literature, giving a survey of 19th-century squid representations that could work unaltered as a unit on literary history. (This is hardly surprising, since Wallen is professor emeritus of Romantic literature at Oklahoma State.) Wallen traces the figure of the squid through quasi-supernatural horrors in Scott, Coleridge, Tennyson's "Kraken," and Poe to Melville's Moby Dick, where despite its awful and secret attributes, a squid is just a squid. Even if "few whale-ships ever beheld, and returned to their ports to tell of it" (167). The Pequod certainly doesn't.

Though once established as a squid, the Kraken, if anything, gets scarier. It is no tall tale that attacks the hero Gilliatt in Victor Hugo's Travailleurs de la mer, Wallen points out, but a real-life … something, halfway between giant octopus and giant squid, but real, anyway. So too with the energetic swarming squid of Jules Verne's Vingt mille lieues sous les mers.

Squids thus rarely get featured as benign and are usually on the attack, even if it's more our own unconscious attacking us than a prosaic cephalopod. Vilém Flusser, whose work I keep encountering in the oddest places (asemic art, the theory of photography), says of the squid that "we necessarily want to experience it … and it necessarily wants to swallow us" (182). And perhaps to replace us. In The Future is Wild, the Discovery Channel proposed a extrapolation where squid, being among the smarter things in the sea, emerge and take over the land, even rising to fill a primate niche in the form of "squibbons," which will presumably then descend from the trees, develop literacy, and write books about us.

Wallen, Martin. Squid. London: Reaktion, 2021.