Popsicle #32: Submergence by J.M. Ledgard

a_250x375I’m currently in Colombia for an exhibition of my project from ten years ago, Dog Days Bogota. While I’ve always been eager to exhibit this work in Colombia, I’ve been equally apprehensive. I know nothing of the complexities of this place and don’t want to pretend otherwise. The other day I had coffee with a fellow photographer from Minnesota who lives in Medellín. He was explaining to me the six official social classes in Colombia. How could I publish a book about this place and not know this? My only defense is that the pictures were made as a sort of family album. In terms of cultural investigation, they barely scratch the surface.

I thought a lot about ignorance, cultural and otherwise, while reading J.M. Ledgard’s deeply intelligent novel Submergence. The book tells the story of two travelers: A British spy held captive by jihadist fighters in Somalia and a half-French, half-Australian biomathematician exploring the depths of the Greeland Sea.  The book is part love story (the two meet on holiday at an exclusive French hotel) and part suspense story (will the spy escape? will the couple meet again?). But mostly, the book is a somber ode to the cosmic ignorance of Homo sapiens.

“We exist only as water,” the scientist says to the spy over dinner, “We’re nature’s brief experiment with self-awareness. Any study of the ocean and what lies beneath it should serve notice of how easily the planet might shrug us off.”

Ledgard contrasts the roles of the spy and the scientist this way:

They had different understandings of time and space. He worked on the surface, the outside of the world. For him, everything was in flux. He was tasking agents to infiltrate mosques in Somalia and along the Swahili coast. He was concerned with alleys, beliefs, incendiary devices; with months weeks, days, with indelible hours. For her, an age was an instant. She was interested in the base of the corrosive saltwater column, delimiting through mathematics the other living world, which has existed in darkness and in continental dimensions for hundreds of millions of years.

Submergence is a brilliant book. It is knowledgeable not only about East Africa and oceanography, but also religion and literature. But fundamentally the book seemed to me about the necessity of recognizing our ignorance.  As Ledgard writes on page three: “The essence of it is that there is another world in our world.”

8 Replies to “Popsicle #32: Submergence by J.M. Ledgard”

  1. Your photos from “Dog Days Bogota” are some of my all-time favorites. Are you going to take more dog photos on this trip? It might be an interesting companion piece exemplifying your personal journey, your reflections on ignorance, and changes you witness in the country 10 years later (reflected through the changes in you).

    Also, wondering if you’ve ever read anything by Wendell Berry? So many of your posts seem to have agrarian themes, though you don’t use that word. May I recommend “The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry.” Have a great time. http://www.amazon.com/The-Art-Commonplace-Agrarian-Wendell/dp/1593760078

  2. Funny– i also just finished Submergence but in a very different place than you. I was on Madeline Island in Lake Superior becoming increasingly familiar with my water self mostly by kayaking and just starring at the big lake.

    The more I thought about, Submergence, is a remarkable well-written non-fiction book cloaked in fiction. I was drawn to the characters but ultimately found the deeper subjects, the earth, our existance, our assumptions about the other, and why going to outer space is more attractive than descending into the earth or ocean. And yes, about our ignorance!

    1. Thanks so much for commenting David. It is a remarkable book…and pretty perfect for a scientifically trained artist with a keen interest in water.

    1. Thanks so much for this Thomas. I have a book of Guadalupe’s family photographs that are absolutely fantastic. Excited to see this.

  3. I am a photographer from Chile, South America. And I think Dog days is a remarkable work, and it address many social issues referring to Colombia, maybe you were not aware of this, but from my perspective, they are present in your photographs. The violence, the social stratification and the complexities that are a reality in latin america.
    I just hope some day this body of work it could be shown here in my country.
    Congratulations

  4. Reading this post, and especially the last line: “the essence of it is that there is another world in our world” for some reason reminded me of this quotation from Giacomo Leopardi:

    “To consider the inestimable amplitude of space, the number of worlds, and their astonishing size, then to discover that all this is small and insignificant compared to the capacity of one’s own mind; to imagine the infinite number of worlds, the infinite universe, then feel that our mind and aspirations might be even greater than such a universe; to accuse things always of being inadequate and meaningless; to suffer want, emptiness, and hence noia — this seems to me the chief sign of the grandeur and nobility of human nature.” (Giacomo Leopardi, Pensieri LXVIII, translated by W.S. Di Piero (Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University Press, 1981), 113).

    I sense a certain resonance here between these two seemingly disparate ideas that I can’t quite elucidate: our ignorance of all that exists and our infinite desires. But I’ll put it out there for thinking upon.

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