Poetry, Floatation Chambers, and the Nature of Water

The following essay was written while I was studying at The Cooper Union. It brings together issues raised during a talk with D. Graham Burnett, editor of Cabinet Magazine and a specialist in the History of Science and of the ocean in particular. I had also spent an hour in a Floatation tank earlier in the year.

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Tyrrenian Sea, Amalfi 1990


“…nothing of himself

Remained, except some starker, barer self

In a starker, barer world, in which the sun

Was not the sun because it never shone”

Wallace Stevens, The Comedian as the Letter C, 1923

Water eludes our control. It is the antithesis of an object: it cannot be formed, only contained; it cannot be shaped, only channeled; it is transparent, it distorts; it cannot lie still, it evaporates. It is this resistance to design and technology that makes the sea a symbol of the subconscious and of the sublime. In The Comedian as the Letter C, the poet Wallace Stevens presents a complex reading of the sea/letter C through the sea voyages of Crispin, a bourgeois city-dweller in search of his ‘self’. Bounded by the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, America’s creation myths are dominated by conflicting perspectives of the ocean. One view is of the sea as an open field for humanity’s territorial expansion, embodied in Christopher Columbus’ discovery of America; the other is as an alien territory from which Nature fights mankind’s encroachment, embodied in Herman Melville’s cetacean antagonist Moby Dick.

According to D. Graham Burnett, the history of science is governed by the tension between how much we are able to control Nature and how much we are subject to Nature’s power.[1] Water’s liquid formlessness gives it the ability to simultaneously affect and be affected by its container. While we cannot determine the shape or form of the ocean, we seek to control the sea intellectually, and to categorize it like an object. The human mind projects its imagination onto the tabula rasa of the ocean, according to the observer’s individual perspective. The historian’s rational inclination is to impose cause-and-effect onto the unpredictable ocean, and the poet’s creative tendency is to bestow human attributes onto bodies of water. Stevens suggests that we live in the tension between the changes we undergo as the world acts upon us and the ideas of order that our imagination imposes upon the world. The imagination is the mechanism by which we unconsciously conceptualize the normal patterns of life, while reason is the way we consciously conceptualize these patterns. As Stevens says in his essay Imagination as Value, “The truth seems to be that we live in concepts of the imagination before the reason has established them.”[3]   In The Comedian as the Letter C, the exact symbolism of the C/sea is questioned: it exists as a watery body on which we project our own humanity, but like Nature itself, it does not reflect us; it is not a mirror and we cannot subject it to our control. Although humans cannot contend with the sheer scale of the ocean, we are able to conceptualize Nature into smaller manifestations, which we are then able to control.  In the poem, the ocean is first characterizing as an endless expanse, a “World without Imagination” within which the human is powerless. By the end of the poem, Crispin’s experiences have allowed him to come to terms with the idea of Nature. By seeing Nature in relation to agriculture rather than in relation to the ocean, Crispin is able to domesticate forces that he could not otherwise control:

“The world, a turnip once so readily plucked,

Sacked up and carried overseas, daubed out

Of its ancient purple, pruned to the fertile main,

And sown again by the stiffest realist'[2]

It is the search for the shifting meanings of the sea and the environment’s effects on our sensory perception that relate the real sea with the imaginary ‘C’. As Stevens notes, “the imagination loses its vitality as it ceases to adhere to what is real. When it adheres to the unreal and intensifies what is unreal, while its first effect may be extraordinary, that effect is the maximum effect that it will ever have.”[4] Stevens seeks to transcend this aesthetics of illusion and superficial effects, just as his protagonist Crispin wants to escape the social norms of society and the middlebrow culture of the city. By constantly shifting the symbolism and interpretative meaning of the letter C / the sea, the entire poem becomes a meditation on his consciousness.

From his birth in 1879 until his death in 1955, Stevens witnessed the industrialization of America, its engagement in two increasingly mechanized World Wars and its disconnection from its own myths of creation.  In addition, during his working life as an insurance salesman in New York, he would have seen the emergence of the 20th century metropolis and the objectification of human labour. In this context, the multiplicity of metaphor, illusion and symbolism employed in the Comedian as the Letter C offers an alternative approach to the individual’s position in modern society. In the poem, water is the polar opposite of the human as functional automaton; water pervades the verses, forming a linguistic surrogate for Nature through which the boundaries of the imagination are explored.


“Water, water, every where,

Nor any drop to drink.”

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,  1798

While Wallace’s poetry was an attempt to give linguistic form to the new scales and patterns that followed the arrival of modernity, his death in 1954 coincided with the emergence of America as the leading global superpower following the end of World War II. The victory of Capitalist socio-economic governance and the rise of consumer culture during the “baby-boomer” generations gave birth to twin views of the self: on the one hand, the analytical self-awareness derived from Freud’s theories of consciousness, and other the other hand, the commercial production of objects of desire to exploit the subconsciousness and spiritual drives of the consumer.[5] Through the growth of advertising and mass media in the 1950s and 1960s, the public made aware of how to express their innermost ‘self’ through consumer objects and of technology’s role in helping them do so.

It is at this junction between technological progress and psychological desire where the Sensory Isolation Tank first appeared. This architectural machine is a lightless, soundproof tank inside which subjects float in salt water at skin temperature. These were first used by John C. Lilly, a medical practitioner training in psychoanalysis at the US National Institute of Mental Health in 1954 to test the effects of sensory deprivation. In neurophysiology, researchers had been questioning what processes the brain undertakes when idle, as well as the origin of consciousness. It was argued that if all stimuli are cut off to the brain then the brain would go to sleep. An alternate hypothesis was that the energy that drives the mind is internal and does not depend on the outside environment.. Lilly decided to test this hypothesis and created an environment which totally isolated an individual from external stimulation. Using the Sensory Isolation tank as an experimental device, he studied the origin of consciousness and its relation to the brain.

The human body has three perceptual pathways to situate itself in space: the optical system for vision, the vestibular system for balance, and the haptic system for touch. Through subconscious and conscious feedback loops, we learn from young to train our bodies to filter and process incoming sensory data so that we can navigate our environment, and control it to some extent. Within our everyday experience of Architecture, our understanding of the environment is based on underlying scales and patterns that operate in design. On land, we are able to establish our geographic location through a combination of vertical orientation (gravity revealed through the plumb-line), and the ground plane (which we navigate through the horizon and compass).While historical styles of building differ in their treatment of material and proportion, they are nonetheless based upon a matrix of scalar relationships synthesized through systems of perception.[6]

Lilly’s experiments in sensory deprivation led to the experimental proof that depriving a single one of our senses lead to a corresponding increase in the sensitivity of the others. For example, sight deprivation leads to an increased sensitivity to touch. The act of floating in salt water replaces the localized pressure we experience when standing, sitting, and lying down, into a whole-body haptic experience. The elimination of external light, sound, and localized touch gave users (or test-subjects)  the opportunity to be self-conscious about their internal mental processes that could not be halted.[7] Within this environment, it was observed that the free-association similar to that which was painstakingly constructed within Wallace Stevens’ poetry took the place within the subjects’ conscious awareness. Despite a total lack of outside stimulation, subjects reported hallucinations and imagined visual symbols floating through their visual field. This is differentiated from the trance-like dreamstate of Freud’s patients because the subjects were alone, fully conscious, but sensorially deprived. Within this seemingly empty matrix, the mind and body sensorium remained fully active, engaged in  unbounded spatial experiences closer to Crispin’s voyages than the physical enclosure of a tank would suggest.

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Bay of Sagamii, Atami, 1997


“Humanity starts within one’s own structure. One is not one’s whole structure. One is only an inhabitant of that structure.”

John Lilly, Simulations of God, 1975

In the Floatation Tank, the ocean is domesticated. Just like the ship on the sea, the machine operates on the simplest possible physical principle – the difference in buoyancy between a body of salt water and a body filled with water. Within the boundary of the tank, the salt water is an extension of the human body – a prosthetic characterized not by its mechanical functionality, but by its psychological effects. Here, the vessel contains the sea, and the elimination of weather and the chaotic aspects of natural environments inverts the relationshipbetween the human and Nature that Wallace Stevens imagined. This ‘Prosthetic Sea’ is Nature scaled to the human body, a miniature ocean with all of its power removed and converted to a machine for imagination.

Despite humanity’s efforts in science and engineering, our ability to attain control over our environment is illusory and results from the limited perspective that the human lifespan allows.  John Lilly’s Sensory Isolation tank is just one artefact produced by an uncanny synthesis between technology, psychology, the natural world and the individual. While society’s conflicts are complex and difficult to solve, the tank temporarily frees its subjects from conventional notions of space and structure, and thereby provides them with an alternate Matrix: one of sensory memory, from which to generate subjective interpretations of the world.  Perhaps the simplest and most profound function of this ‘Prosthetic Sea’ is to remind us that humanity emerged from the water, gradually, over millions of years. As such, it is only natural that we seek to return to the sea psychologically, even as we seek to control it physically. In these geological terms, we are all Ancient Mariners.[9]

[1.] Burnett, D. Graham. Lecture “The Inscrutable World: Art, Science, and the Sea”. Cooper Union 2012

[2.] Stevens, Wallace. “The Comedian as the Letter C”, Harmonium 1923

[3.] Stevens, Wallace. “The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination”, Random House 1965

[4.] Stevens, Wallace. “The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination”, Random House 1965

[5.] Packard, Vance. “The Hidden Persuaders”, Pocket Books 1957

[6.] Forster, Kurt. Lecture “Scale, Pattern, and Chance in Architecture”. Cooper Union 2012

[7.] Lilly, John C. & E.J. Gold. “Tanks for the Memories: Flotation Tank Talks”. Gateways Books & Tapes 2000

[8.] Lilly, John C., “Simulations of God”, Simon & Schuster 1975

[9.] Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” 1798