Aquatic Attraction : Poets, Pragmatists and Scholars Ponder the Inexplicable Appeal of Being Near Water

Times Staff Writer

Dr. Tom Rusk, a San Diego psychiatrist and author of self-help books, has never met Billy Al Bengston, the acclaimed Venice painter whose work is identified with the “L.A. Look” or “Cool School” that established Los Angeles as a major art center in the early 1960s.

But Rusk, a clinical associate professor at UC San Diego School of Medicine who deals in the logic of science, and Bengston, a motorcycle aficionado and renounced surfer whose major frame of reference is presumably visual and unstructured, both find themselves drawn to the sea.

In describing this aspect of their personalities, the psychiatrist and the artist speak different languages. But they are talking about the same thing.


From somewhere within the psyches of Bengston, Rusk and an undetermined--but, some researchers agree, very large--number of other people emanates a need to live near water.

Somewhere between an attraction and a compulsion, the feeling of being drawn to water has been noted by observers of the human condition down through the ages. Surprisingly, the phenomenon seems not to have inspired so much as a shred of scientific research.

Indeed, a problem with all of these assumptions, Rusk conceded, is that there has never been a research study that explored the attraction--primal or not--of water or bodies of water to the human psyche. Neither a database search of the literature of mental health research, conducted by Claremont Graduate School psychology professor Robert Gable, nor three such searches conducted by The Times could find evidence of any study ever appearing in a scientific journal.

“The most ignored area of human psychology is the study of human feelings,” Rusk said. “It is so ignored that the bastions of science in our country almost totally ignore the study of feelings. So feelings are left to psychoanalytic theory, which everyone decries as non-scientific--and I’m not arguing to the contrary. Science doesn’t tend to study things having to do with feelings because feelings are, by definition, subjective.”

To get at the innate feelings humans have about water, he concludes, “you’re going to have a lot more interesting and edifying conversations with poets than you’re going to have with scientists.”

In the absence of hard data, then, there is disagreement over whether oceans alone fill this need. Many observers believe that other large bodies of water, like the Great Lakes, and even major rivers suffice.

An Evolutionary Throwback?

There are other disagreements. One of them is over whether this is a primal attraction somehow organically imprinted in people--perhaps a throwback to the evolutionary origins of human beings as water creatures or even, in a more Freudian sense, a latent effect of being snugly afloat in the womb.

Observers who agree that many humans share an inner need to be near water, but who don’t accept such primal explanations, suggest that it is an acquired taste, motivated by economic and other pragmatic considerations.

Betty Graham, manager of two Jon Douglas Co. realty offices in Malibu, for instance, said that in the economic climate there, the price of property more than doubles on the ocean side of Pacific Coast Highway compared to the inland exposure yards away. But whether this is because of the primal draw of the water, or the urge to cash in on it, is open to question.

To Bengston, 54, the first clues to his own primal attraction to the sea came when he was 15 and his parents decided to leave the home of Bengston’s birth in Dodge City, Kan., and head west. They didn’t stop until they got to California. The son they raised says now that he cannot imagine ever existing more than a short distance from the ocean.

Meeting of Land and Sea

The ocean has been a consistent subject in Bengston’s work for 20 years. Starting in about 1970, he began treating underwater subjects after he became fascinated by skin diving. Beginning in 1974, he turned his attention to the surface and, specifically, to the meeting of land, sea and air--an artistic direction that appears to emanate from preoccupation with what Rusk calls interfaces.

In a telephone interview from Hawaii, where Bengston maintains a second residence, the artist reflected on the necessity he feels to live near the ocean.

“The way I’ve always thought about it is of the ocean being a terminal situation,” he said. “You go as far as you can go on land and the ocean is the end of it, a stopping point . . . usually with a clear vista.

“There’s something that’s comforting about it. I have been inland on various occasions. I never feel very comfortable. Palm Springs gives me the hives. I like the desert, but I never feel comfortable with that unless (the desert) is right up against the ocean, like in Baja California.”

An Expert’s Theory

Bengston isn’t familiar with psychiatric jargon. But, to Rusk, Bengston’s words perfectly illustrate the psychiatrist’s basic explanation of why the ocean in particular, and large bodies of water in general, seem inwardly important. His theory is that human life at many levels, starting at the edges of a single cell, focuses on what Rusk calls “interfaces”--places where one key element butts up against another.

He concedes the terminology borrows from contemporary computerspeak, but he says the word makes its own point. “You can look at it sort of in a cosmic or even a biological sense,” said Rusk, “that everything that’s important occurs at interfaces--the interface between two entities or things that we have in our mind.

“It is not the center of the sun that is most critical, it is what happens (in the sun) at its outer edges. (The same is true of) the surfaces of cells.”

Rusk thinks mountaintops are interfaces, too, but he contends that the interface of land with water has a quintessentially primal attraction. This may be, he said, for more Freudian reasons.

‘Most Fundamental Thing’

“Next to air, water is the most fundamental thing we need,” he said. “Think about flotation tanks and what that feels like. There is something very primal about that particular experience that is tremendously powerful. It touches on our memories of being suspended in water--or, more accurately, amniotic fluid.”

“I think there is something extremely basic, or primitive, about water (the understanding of which) doesn’t require you to be scientific.

“Overlaying all that, there are very few people who can look at a magnificent sunset over the sea and not be moved. There is something universally moving about those vistas.”

To Edward Krupat, a visiting lecturer in psychology at Boston University, the interface concept makes a great deal of sense. “The manifest destiny was to get not to California, but to the ocean,” he said. “It served as fulfillment. I think the issue of interfaces is inherently there. The end of land and the beginning of water are a port. It is an entry and an exit.”

“From the standpoint of people who explore, sighting land is the form of discovery or the end of a voyage. So I guess reaching water and reaching land can be major landmarks in some actual or symbolic form of journey.”

A Poet’s View

One poet who has pondered the need to inhabit the shoreline is Charles Wright, a widely published practitioner of his craft who teaches at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. But for 17 years Wright lived in Laguna Beach, while he was on the faculty at UC Irvine. While the sea and its influence cannot be said to permeate his work, the ocean’s voice is clearly heard in poems like “Laguna Blues” and “Laguna Dantesca,” both of which are contained in an anthology first published in 1977 and titled “Southern Cross.”

“I moved to the sea because I got the job at Irvine, to be honest,” said Wright. “But once I got there, I had that attraction for the sea. That’s what I liked best about Laguna. I never once went into the ocean but I think there was something primal about it.

“I am attracted to large bodies of water. I was born on a lake (in Tennessee). I never really got to the big stuff until I went to Monterey, Calif., in the Army (for language school).

“Maybe I kept somehow wanting to go back toward it since I came out of it. I don’t know. It was rather comforting to think that it was there. I liked to look at it. I liked the wind off of it. I didn’t like the people around it. That’s one of the problems about Southern California.”

The Historical Perspective

On the other hand, Brian Fagan, a UC Santa Barbara anthropologist who is also an experienced sailor, believes that the practical role played by bodies of water in human civilization may have more to do with why people gravitated there than more subjective considerations.

“Archeologically, there was evidence of people fishing and living by the ocean in Africa at least 115,000 years ago,” he said. “That’s a long time ago. Water has been an element in human life for that long. Humans have tended to live in places where there have been abundant and predictable resources, like fish. The very rich marine environment has always attracted human beings.”

Fagan believes this historical record of human behavior explains the sense of rapture for the sea. It’s a sense he shares.

“I couldn’t envisage not living by the sea,” he said. “I like to smell it and see it and sail on it. I lived for a while in Africa 600 miles from the nearest ocean. It drove me crazy. I feel a very strong pull. I think this pull is very common among human beings. (But) I think it’s an adaptive mechanism.”

A Womb With a View

Alan Dundes, a professor of anthropology and folklore at UC Berkeley, said a host of explanations may be appropriate for water love.

“One theory along Freudian lines is that bodies of water are female,” he said. “We are all born from a flood of fluid. There is the security of being drawn back to the womb and the womb includes water.”

The subject has, off and on, occupied the mind of Roger Revelle, a professor of science and public policy at UC San Diego and director emeritus of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Revelle said a whole complex of pragmatic characteristics--the ocean’s tendency to produce more equitable temperature ranges than inland areas, primarily--and softer, more aesthetic considerations explain the attraction.

“It is an object of beauty that people never tire of looking at,” Revelle said. “One reason is that it’s always changing. Summerset Maugham pointed out that you can’t look at a beautiful object for more than a short time.

“But you can look at the ocean almost indefinitely because it isn’t always the same. The atmosphere over the sea and the froth on the surface are always different. It’s an object of beauty that is not tiring.”

Predictably, some scientists throw cold water on the concept. Claremont’s Gable is one of them. For two years, Gable lived in Malibu, in prime real estate between Pacific Coast Highway and the Pacific Ocean.

Instead of liberated, the situation made Gable feel hemmed in. “I was trapped between the waves and the stream of traffic,” he said. “I felt I was in a prison. It was a beautiful prison, but it was house arrest.”