In literature, as in life, the art of swimming isn’t hard to master
By Willard Spiegelman
The most famous swimmer among the English poets, Lord Byron, wrote a jaunty poem on the activity—one of the many activities—that made him legendary throughout Europe in his lifetime. “Written After Swimming from Sestos to Abydos” reverses and updates the old myth of Leander, who braved the Hellespont every evening to visit Hero on the other side. Whereas the lissome Greek swam for love, Byron allows that he, “degenerate modern wretch,” aimed for fame and glory on the one-mile swim in strong currents he took on May 3, 1810. And where Leander perished in his pursuit—a pursuit treated with fervor and high camp by Christopher Marlowe in his luscious mini-epic Elizabethan poem “Hero and Leander”—Byron comes out of his adventure with nothing nobler than “the ague,” a cold.
The man who swam, after a night of revelry on the Lido, across the lagoon and up the Grand Canal in Venice in three and three-quarters hours, took to the water for the same reason that he took so easily to horseback: he could do anything but walk normally. Swimming hid a congenital deformity and allowed him to forget it temporarily. Cursed with a clubfoot, for which he always blamed his mother, Byron became both the beau ideal of the Romantic lover and a classic case of an overcompensator. Buoyancy of all kinds—sang-froid and physical bravery, flamboyant wit and aristocratic ease—were in his case the flip side of angst, gloom, and sinking torpor. I wonder whether swimmers, regardless of the loneliness and isolation they endure in the pursuit of their pleasure, aren’t by nature more cheerful than other people. After all, what does “buoyant” mean?
With Byron, swimming really enters English literature. The 19th century is full of swimming writers, most notably Arthur Hugh Clough and Algernon Charles Swinburne, the latter of whom preferred dangerous coasts. But there aren’t many of them before Byron, aside from Marlowe, who described Leander being tickled and fondled lubriciously by Neptune, who swims underneath him in the sea. Even after the 19th century, writers have tended to ignore the activity: not just poets but also fiction writers and journalists. For every sports writer with an interest in baseball, boxing, or football (Roger Angell, Joyce Carol Oates, and George Plimpton) there has been almost no one to testify to the beauties and pleasures of this loneliest of physical activities, as either an observer or a participant.
Almost no one: Laurel Blossom’s 1996 anthology Splash: Great Writing About Swimming, with an introduction by the late Plimpton, who never met a sport he didn’t like, contains some wonderful modern selections, including John Cheever’s “The Swimmer,” that eerily chilling allegory of a man who swims across the suburban pools of his neighborhood only to discover that he has grown old and forlorn in his quest to get home. This is the most famous contemporary American swimming piece. Blossom’s anthology has other, unexpected delights: poems by A. E. Housman, Philip Booth, James Dickey, Mary Oliver, Stevie Smith, and Anne Sexton, and prose by Jack London and Doris Lessing. Perhaps most touching is Laurie Colwin’s “Wet,” about a man who doesn’t realize that his wife sneaks off every day for a secret, private hour that excludes him. The story ends: “What had grieved him was simply a fact: every day of her life she would be at some point damp, then drying, and for one solid time, wet.” The revelation shocks, even terrifies.
The reasons for the activity’s relative literary neglect are not hard to find. By definition, swimming excludes husbands and wives, lovers, everyone else in the world, indeed everything else except for one’s thoughts. Like Cheever’s hero, Colwin’s main character has an existential crisis when he realizes the essential isolation of his wife under water. For her part, the wife has no problems at all with the isolation, because swimming keeps her sane.
At least one great poem has been written about swimming. Charles Tomlinson, an Englishman who himself can’t swim, wrote “Swimming Chenango Lake” during a stint in the late 1960s while teaching at Colgate in upstate New York. It is a poem that at once gives a sense of what it’s like to be in a New England lake in the fall and to observe a lone swimmer take a last plunge before winter. Having read “the water’s autumnal hesitations / A wealth of ways,” the swimmer enters into and contributes to the water’s geometry as he “scissors the waterscape apart / And sways it to tatters”:
For to swim is also to take hold
On water’s meaning, to move in its embrace
And to be, between grasp and grasping, free.
The swimmer becomes part of the element that supports him, part of an ever-changing geometry through which he slices and which then corrects itself as he moves past. The human body is 70 percent water, so swimming returns us to ourselves. The action combines fact (“grasp”) and process (“grasping”); it requires submission that then becomes liberation. You move beyond yourself and leave no trace. Swimming frees you from the world.
I think of Tomlinson’s poem every time I swim outdoors, the sun on my back, shedding its rays on the water all around me. In middle age I began to suffer from a modest case of heliophobia (a word of my own invention), brought on by pesky, small precancerous growths. This condition prevented me from venturing out too often unless the skies were almost totally overcast. But years ago, when I was still fearless, I had an experience that has stayed with me. I was swimming in a public pool near the Charles River in downtown Boston. Labor Day had passed; the pool was closing for the season. Children had returned to school, and I was the only person in the water on a crisp September afternoon. The pool was sorry, old, and ill maintained, with crumbling tile—the kind of pool you find in every major city, a sad remnant of some municipal public works project. It was shallow but 50 meters long, the perfect length for the serious lap swimmer because it allows you to build momentum and pace, and to turn less frequently. It makes you get—as they didn’t say then—into the zone, and getting into the zone is what swimming, like long-distance running, is all about. The day was cool; the equinox was approaching; the sun had begun its descent. In the water I had the exquisite sensation that the entire world belonged to me, that like Robert Frost’s unnamed character in “The Most of It,” I “kept the universe alone.” There was nothing but me and the cosmos, together.
Swimming, unique among physical activities, diminishes and almost eliminates the sense of sight, our primary means of engagement with the physical world. You see the sides of the pool, the bottom, the lane markers; you get momentary glimpses of the world as you breathe or raise your head above the water as you turn, but by and large, vision is kept at a minimum. Mostly you witness the shimmer of light surrounding you. Hearing, too, undergoes a change. Unless you’re the kind of desperate person who wears a SwimMan, the underwater equivalent of a Walkman headset, all you hear are the constant rush of the water and the sounds of your own movement and breathing as you glide through. Of the senses, it is touch that defines the swimmer’s activity, and even “touch” is virtually metaphorical as you pull, push, and otherwise make your way through a fluid medium. When swimming outside, weather plays a delicious part in the body’s responsiveness. You can swim in the rain, feeling one kind of water hit you from above while moving through another kind of water. You can catch short glimpses of clouds passing across the sun. In streams, ponds, or the ocean you can proceed suddenly from one temperature to another as currents cut in.
Like all physical activities, swimming asks of us that we attend not only to our body but also to its relation to the physical world beyond us. For Paul Valéry, the analogy was to sex: “to plunge into water, to move one’s whole body, from head to toe, in its wild and graceful beauty; to twist about in its pure depths, this is for me a delight only comparable to love.” Water buoys and supports; it also resists. To swim, as Tomlinson says, is to take hold of water’s meaning, and in that meaning we come to learn something about ourselves, our world, and the relations between the two.
Swimming does not come naturally to anyone, except perhaps to those newborns whose mothers decide to return them to a new equivalent of amniotic fluid soon after they emerge from the womb. Otherwise, it’s an activity fraught with fear—of sinking, drowning, losing sight, losing control—until one learns to give oneself in or up to water’s buoyancy. In addition, before the Salk vaccine more or less eliminated the polio virus, public swimming pools, like drinking fountains, were places burdened with danger. Unlike walking, which we can do without being taught, or even running, which kids do automatically, swimming requires not only instruction but also a kind of courage. Some people can remember their first baptismal dips or swimming lessons. I cannot. My first instructions probably took place at summer day camp under the supervision of a patient counselor, or perhaps even at the hands of my own unathletic parents at a local pool or at the beach in Atlantic City. I must have made it from one end of the pool to the other in high school gym class. I must have splashed in back-yard or country-club pools when I was a teenager. I know I did, but I also know that I was by no stretch of the imagination a swimmer.
To a bookish, intellectual youth, a transformative revelation occurred when, at the age of 23, I decided that I had a body that required tending to. Does one have a body? Does one inhabit the body, a soul within a carapace? Are you your body? The philosophical dimensions of the questions interested me at the time. In graduate school I lived next door to the university swimming pool. Swimming seemed the easiest and the most expedient exercise, and one that depended on no one else’s schedule. For sheer convenience, running or walking is always the easiest thing to do: neither weather nor location should ever inhibit you. Swimming demands both a place and scheduling, but since I was free at 10 in the morning when the pool opened, and since it was never crowded at that hour, I had no excuse other than laziness for not doing it.
In those days, swimming, like exercise in general, had not reached as far into the depths of national consciousness as it has since. Everyone knew that exercising was healthy, but no one discussed it. No one talked about endorphins. If you wanted to do something, you did it. Running shoes had not become a highly specialized, scientifically controlled, and commercially advertised product. Ergonomics was not yet a word in the layman’s vocabulary. Varsity swimmers must have worn racing suits, by Speedo or some comparable company, but ordinary people wore what were called trunks. Or, as in my case, they wore nothing at all. The university pool was all male. It was in the days before the contemporary modesty that obtains in many male locker rooms, and men went unashamedly naked. Women had a separate, far from equal, facility elsewhere. The drill was simple and ancient, like the building where we swam. You undressed in the dingy locker room with rusty lockers, showered, walked through a largely symbolic foot bath, and there you were with six 25-yard-long lanes in front of you.
I can no longer recall if there were lane dividers, but you simply found yourself a place and dove or, like me, slid into the water and pushed off. On my first day I made it to the other end and stopped, feeling dizzy. I paused, regained my energy, and swam back. Not knowing how to breathe properly, I didn’t put my head in the water, but managed something between an inept crawl and an inefficient doggy paddle. One full lap, two lengths, 50 yards. I climbed out, feeling a bit nauseated (had I eaten breakfast too soon before exercising?), and made it to the toilet just in time to vomit.
That was Day One. Day Two: I returned and managed two laps, with no adverse physical effects other than slight muscle pains and a bit less dizziness. I was on my way. I hardly thought about what I was doing. In fact I barely knew what I was doing. I could improvise a path from one end of the pool to the other, but I still didn’t breathe properly for some months; I must have had a fear of keeping my ungoggled eyes in the chlorinated water. Eventually I bought goggles and taught myself how to turn my head from one side to the other, but I must have looked pretty foolish and ungraceful to anyone who happened to watch me flail my way back and forth, up and down. Still, one perseveres. After several weeks I found myself—not nauseated and not dizzy—gaining strength and endurance. I managed to set and meet modest goals for myself.
Was I becoming a jock? I, whose idea of pleasure in school and college was sitting quietly in a room reading and smoking? I always relished the famous bon mot of Robert Maynard Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago, namely that whenever he felt the urge to exercise he lay down and waited for it to pass. Never run when you can walk; never walk when you can be driven. A college teacher of mine, a nice Jewish fellow from the Bronx, told a similar story. When he was an undergraduate in the early 1950s, he belonged to an organization called Exercisers Anonymous: whenever you felt the urge to sweat you dialed a number and within minutes some helpful agents would arrive at your doorstep, bearing a bottle of whiskey, some cigarettes, and a deck of cards.
I was hardly a jock. But, like any solo exercise, swimming is noncompetitive, so I didn’t feel threatened by anyone else. I also took equal, virtually inexplicable pleasure in the simple idea that I was doing it at all. I had no delusion or even a thought that medals lay in my future. I amazed myself, no one else. One day I noticed that I was swimming between Erik Erikson and John Kenneth Galbraith. The former performed an elegant breaststroke, never putting his leonine head of silver locks into the water; the latter, what seemed like all eight feet of him, simply pushed off from one end and arrived at the other almost immediately, effortlessly. There we were: world-famous psychologist and biographer, world-famous economist and ambassador, and I, world unknown. The Harvard swimming pool was more like an extension of the Faculty Club than it was a venue for serious athletic prowess. Even when women were admitted, the genial informality remained. In retrospect I am glad that nothing strenuous was demanded. I would have been scared off, as I had been as a child by my ferocious public school gym teachers. Coming to the pool as an adult and on my own free will made all the difference in my sense of my body and my relation to it, or of its relation to the rest of me.
Swimming is an imaginative adventure: “The experience of swimming is both sexual and spiritual. The sensation of water flowing over the body is dynamic, erotic, enlivening, and yet it awakens, at every moment, our consciousness of the fragility of our breath.” So said the great Australian swimmer and early film star Annette Kellerman. Water supports and resists, and there’s no one lonelier, even a runner of the longest distances, than a swimmer. Sensory diminishment, or the transformation of the senses under water, forces you in upon what inner resources you have. The imagination complements the body as you work through the water. John Nabor, a 1976 Olympic medalist, has remarked upon the relative gregariousness of competitive divers, who preen, strut, and sit around between dives in hot tubs and Jacuzzis to keep their muscles loose. Swimmers, on the other hand, are by definition loners: “Swimmers don’t have anyone to commune with except themselves. . . . Nothing but the rush of water in their ears, hour after hour in practice. Many of them sing to themselves, to pass the time.” I must have been on to something—not knowing that I had placed myself in the company of my betters—because I too was singing. (Large swatches of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas have passed through my mind during a 90-minute swim.)
Swimming gave, and continues to give, me the chance to sing to myself, to recite poems, to plan my future and to review the past. To enter a meditative Zen-like state as I count my strokes per lap, like the Buddhist practice known as kinhin, matching your steps to your breath as you walk around a room. And in another way, as well, I was part of this company of self-reliant loners: apparently, the best swimmers rarely excel at other sports, because their bodies are too oddly developed, with long pliable muscles and large hands and feet, which are the prime requirements for competitors. They don’t adapt well to land games. Not that I ever thought of grooming myself for other activities, and not that my hands and feet are long, or my muscles especially pliable.
According to Mark Spitz, swimming is perfect for narcissists. Like the mind, the body is self-absorbed. Spitz calls swimming the only sport that puts a competitor on a pedestal (i.e., the racing block) even before he begins, where he “is introduced and applauded. He hasn’t even done anything. Instant recognition. That’s so much of what an athlete wants. Then he gets rewarded immediately afterwards. It would be terrible if he got the award the next day. He might forget what he got it for.” Spitz makes it seem as if long sessions in the water have affected the poor athlete’s mind, as if short-term memory has begun to vanish.
Even more than to narcissists, swimming appeals to obsessives and dreamers. Charles Sprawson, whose Haunts of the Black Masseur (1992) remains the best book devoted to the activity, observes that both opium addicts and swimmers “tended to be solitary, remote figures, who felt themselves superior to dull, conventional minds.” Both sorts of person were absorbed by the strangeness of their experience, and it is no wonder that swimming gained new currency among the reticent or eccentric English in the 19th century. What is oddest about swimming is that it has a story that has changed over time and in different places. In ancient Greece, it was a skill that fathers were expected to teach their children. Most pictorial representations show swimmers doing a sidestroke or swan diving. The dive suggests that there may have been informal competitions, but we have no records about spectators. Different strokes, like poetic stanzas, move in and out of favor. The swimming competition at the first modern Olympics (Athens, 1896), was held in the Bay of Zéa at Piraeus. Distances were marked by the spacing of the barges that also held spectators and judges. There was no division among strokes: the first event was a 100-meter race, and the breaststroke was by far the favored technique. (The backstroke was introduced in 1900, the Australian crawl a bit later.) The only American entrant was not used to cold water, having spent his time in pools; he dove in, screamed, and went back to the float he’d just jumped from. Most of the men were naked, except one Hungarian and the delicate American.
Apparently some version of the breaststroke held sway longest in the West. One theory is that it evolved after the fall of Rome, when water either became dirtier or was considered a source of plague and disease. Hand motions kept the body above water and kept water from entering the mouth. I suspect that the metaphorical phrase “keeping your head above water” must have originated for this practical reason, although by now we mostly keep our heads submerged when we swim, except on our backs. Elizabethans preferred a doggy paddle, replaced by the frog or breaststroke. In 1726 young Ben Franklin swam in the Thames from Chelsea down to Blackfriars, just for the fun of it, although we’re not sure which stroke he used. The crawl, or freestyle, emerged at the end of the 19th century. American Indians, in competition with English swimmers in London in 1845, used an overarm, flailing windmill stroke, which much later inspired Johnny Weissmuller. Duke Kahanamoku, a Hawaiian, streamlined the crawl. By the time Gertrude Ederle swam the channel in 1926, she beat the men’s record by two hours, swimming the crawl the whole way.
Melchisedek Thevenot wrote one of the first manuals, Art of Swimming, in 1696. Published first in French, then in English three years later, it reminds us of swimming’s past and of how different that past was from its present. People swam less for pleasure, pure and simple, than for cleanliness, commerce (diving for pearls, for example), self-preservation in battle or when they happened to find themselves on a sinking ship. The instructions and pictures are hilarious by our standards. The actual teaching deals almost exclusively with the breaststroke as the default mode. There’s also a mini-treatise on a kind of armless elementary “backstroke,” with a frog kick, all performed with your hands on your stomach. Chapter 15, “To Swim on the Belly, Holding Both Your Hands Still,” teaches how to swim dorsal side up with your hands behind your head or on your back. The action is all in the legs. It’s really just glorified floating. The author observes: “This way of swimming may be useful, in case of accident, as the cramp, etc., should happen to your arms, or if you were forced on occasion to swim with your hands tied behind you, or in case you were a prisoner, and your life depended on it.” Ah, yes: a useful skill. The next chapter gives direction on how “to Carry the Left Leg in the Right Hand,” helpful—again—in case of cramp or gout, “or if one leg should be entangled among the weeds.” My favorite? Chapter 27, which having reminded us that an expert can stand, sit, lie, or move through water, shows us how “To Cut the Nails of the Toes in the Water.”
Although we know that the ancient Greeks enjoyed swimming, the activity underwent changes in popularity. Under Christianity it declined but was revived with spectacular energy at the start of the 19th century. In Britain, the homoerotic, or at least the homosocial, angle was strong, as it was in Germany. Cyril Connolly summed up the old Etonian tradition in a prewar journal: “a fusion of my old trinity, grace, greenness, and security” came from his sense of the tradition of “two friends going down to bathe.” Hellenic worship of the body and pastoral sinlessness merged, at least in the imagination. Bloomsbury swam. Rose Macaulay as well as Virginia Woolf swam naked with Rupert Brooke before the Great War. Iris Murdoch was one of the last great English river swimmers.
For all of these people—and for all of us swimmers—water has cleansing, purifying powers. “Ariston men hudor” (“water is best,” especially when it’s cold): the swimming society of old Etonians took as their motto the opening line of Pindar’s first Olympian Ode. The swimming rite, compounded equally of physical and spiritual parts, continues to provide a sense of awakening even for those of us who resort to the enclosed spaces of indoor pools rather than to the loci amoeni (the “pleasant places” in pastoral poetry) of springs, lakes, and oceans, all with their attendant deities. But in addition to its physical and quasi-religious aspects, swimming allows something else: the expansion of the mind in the act of contemplation.
Ludwig Wittgenstein articulated the connection best: “Just as one’s body has a natural tendency towards the surface and one has to make an exertion to get to the bottom—so it is with thinking.” The opposite might also be said: the body unaccustomed to the water has a tendency to sink; only buoyancy, innate or learned, can keep it up. And with thought, the same is true: we divide our focus between what remains on the surface and what seems to lie below it, seldom realizing that the very metaphor we are using to describe the mind’s realm has an analogy in water and our experience of it.
Oliver Sacks, whose expertise ranges across many scientific and humanistic disciplines, has described in a sweet autobiographical essay, “Water Babies,” the joy that comes from playing in and with the buoyant medium that supports the swimmer. More important, he describes how the mind-altering properties of swimming can get thinking going as nothing else can. “Ecstasy,” he calls it—a word whose origin in Greek refers to standing outside of oneself: “There was a total engagement in the act of swimming, in each stroke, and at the same time the mind could float free, become spellbound, in a state like a trance.” In such trances one dreams, one composes—poems, songs, lectures, it hardly matters what. Sacks also aligns swimming with “musical activities”: flowing, buoying, suspending in its dynamics. Swimmers pay attention to rhythm, much as dancers do. Like Sacks, an athlete engaged in any endorphin-producing activity knows the fretful nervousness that ensues when he is deprived of the source of his euphoria. “Healthy addiction” sounds like a paradox, but to be addicted to the natural physical high that comes from exercise has got to be one of the best, and certainly the cheapest, thrills available to us. The life of the senses leads to kinds of pleasure that reach far beyond the senses. Buoyancy keeps our spirits, in several senses of the word, up.
Willard Spiegelman is the Hughes Professor of English at Southern Methodist University and editor in chief of The Southwest Review. An enlarged version of this essay will be included in his forthcoming book Seven Pleasures: Essays on Ordinary Happiness.
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