by Michael Angerer
To us, narrow-minded land-dwellers that we are, the sea has for millennia been the great unknown, the Other, a fear to be overcome. Even now, in the age of submarines and recreational scuba-diving, it has managed to remain enigmatic: it is one of those so-called interesting facts that less than five percent of our oceans have been explored. Little wonder, then, that we so frequently invoke the sea to play its menacing part in the stories of our lives, from the Odyssey to the Titanic; the very word ‘wave’ has a threatening ring to it – here comes the towering Other, ready to break and bury you beneath its foaming waters. But one of the most recent uses of this image also showcases the dangers of trusting narratives of reality: the so infelicitously named ‘migrant wave’ of 2015 reminds us to watch the murky waters of political framing carefully.
Many of our earliest narratives betray a fascination with the inscrutable sea: are we not captivated by the tribulations of Ulysses upon the wine-dark sea all the more because of this forbidding backdrop? In the Odyssey and its unauthorised sequel, the Aeneid, it is a natural force that is only overcome after innumerable challenges. The Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, on the one hand, has the eponymous hero safely sail to and from Denmark; on the other, we hear of him fighting off sea monsters for days on end during a swimming contest. These stories show us the ocean as an impenetrable expanse: men brave the uneasy calm of the surface, but deadly threats lurk beneath. Steven Spielberg’s Jaws exploits this fear of the unseen masterfully, with its monster out of the deep. The ocean, in these narratives we tacitly accept, is best kept at a safe distance.
It is absolutely terrifying indeed when the ocean itself does not see it that way. Regularly, we are reminded of our impotency by the news of underwater earthquakes and tsunamis: 2004, an earthquake in the Indian Ocean caused waves of up to 30 metres that killed over 230,000 people; more recently, the 2011 earthquake off the coast of Japan resulted in waves 40 metres high and provoked the Fukushima nuclear disaster. These natural catastrophes are above all tragic for all those whose lives they impact. But even while casually reading these facts in an article, it is difficult not to feel afraid: such events subvert our comforting narrative; there is no distance to be had when a tropical beach can within seconds turn into instant destruction. The wave is the deadly arm of the unprovoked Other that without warning reaches out for the innocent bystander.
With this in mind, we see the force the figurative use of the term ‘wave’ can have. The tactic of the ‘human wave attack’, an infantry charge frequently used until it was made completely ineffective due to modern weaponry, builds upon the same psychological effect: the Other – by now very firmly the Enemy – pushing relentlessly forward. For a slightly different use, we may turn to Morton Rhue’s 1981 young-adult novel The Wave, based on a real social experiment. The title is the name of a pseudo-fascist group created to demonstrate how National Socialism could gain support: discipline fuses its members together into one common movement, a single wave ready to crush those who oppose it. Here we do not see humans as individuals anymore, but as one mass: alien, dangerous, and, like a tsunami, threatening to engulf us at any moment.
It should come as no surprise whatsoever, then, that the term ‘migrant wave’ – used together with other endearing terms like ‘refugee crisis’ – does not exactly encourage a very welcoming response; the dramatic increase in refugee arrivals to Europe in 2015 predictably resulted in a sizeable boost for right-wing parties and may well have played an important part in the vote for Brexit. There is a German word for it (there always is), Flüchtlingswelle, ‘refugee wave’, which is used almost constantly – and it is one of the reasons for Angela Merkel’s heavy losses in the 2017 elections and the rise to power of a new right-wing government in Austria. This goes beyond simple framing: this is the adaptation and acceptance of a narrative. Refugees are cast as the malevolent mass of Outsiders sweeping in on the peaceful lives of the people; they are the villains of the story. And since every good story needs a hero to defeat the villain, populists thrive in the wake of this wave.
But we must remember that life is not a narrative; rather, it contains many of them at the same time. Is it not just as easy to cast the roles completely differently? Going back to the Odyssey, we might think of the refugees crossing the Mediterranean as embodying the Ulysses of our times; the hero defying gods and nature in order to bring about a happy ending. Warsan Shire’s poem ‘Home’ powerfully shifts the focus back to the individual in the ‘migrant wave’, back to the story behind the journey:
you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
Perspective, as always, is a powerful tool; it would pay to be more aware of that rather simple fact. This is not about glorifying anyone, or insisting on a particular narrative view: this is about empathy, understanding, and looking beyond the narrative to maybe catch a glimpse of the world. Do not look for narratives to keep you afloat in deep water.