Thursday, January 13, 2011


Part coming-of-age tale, part surfing novel, part secular-buddhist parable, Tim Winton's BREATH is a short but deep masterpiece much larger than its sum of parts.

The novel opens with a grown and mature Pike in an emergency vehicle, on a mission to help others.  We see him as mature, but he also says that he's addicted to the adrenaline rush, that he needs it in order to feel alive.  This first short chapter is like a prologue, and after that he narrates the story of his youth.  From the dustjacket flap:

"On the wild, lonely coast of Western Australia, two thrill-seeking boys fall into the thrall of Sando, a veteran big-wave surfer.  Together they form an odd but elite trio.  The grown man initiates the boys into a Spartan regimen of risk and challenge in which they test themselves to storm swells on remote and shark-infested reefs, pushing one another to the edge of courage, endurance, and sanity."

In the metaphor of religion and myth, man was formed from God's holy breath, breathed into the dust.  The breath is still a part of many Eastern traditions, a focal point of concentration during meditation.  In many creation myths, man was born of the sea.  The beautiful dustjacket on the first edition of Tim Winton's  Breath: A Novel speaks of the sea, but also of the foam, the air bubbles trapped in it.  

It is a good picture for a metaphor, and the one I ascribe to it is Ralph Waldo Emerson's: The rivers, ponds, and oceans of the earth are one, and it is the sea of life, the oversoul. We are like drops of ocean spray that are flung up on the beach, then we separate and develop individual egos so that we do not recognize each other or our common spirit, our common humanity.

By this reckoning, individual spirits are alien on these shores (the material world) and are filled with a longing to be reunited with the oversoul (sometimes taking the form of a death wish). We are spiritual beings having a physical experience.

Winton gives us many descriptions of the “churning white foam and wind-hurled spray” upon the beach, too many for me not to take note. The Great White in the novel is also the Great Blank, the nothingness of illusion.  And Tim Winton's male trinity of surfers in the novel consists of: 

1. Sando is Sanderson, the spirit guru to the other two, living on the edge, on the sand between ocean and shore.

2.  Pike is the middle man, caught between animal man and spiritual man.  He is called Pikelet at first when he is nothing more than a little fish, just learning to live in our common waters. In the first chapter we see him grown and compassionate, and at the end of the novel, he states as much, that his life now is about saving lives and being kind. Pikelet transforms into Pike at that moment when he learns compassion, when he learns to forgive.  In this parable, that same moment is the death of his father and the birth of his son.

3.  Loonie is a loon--crazy, yes, but also an aquatic bird who floats on the water, who dives in the water, but who has not learned to live in the water.

Eva Sanderson is the physically-dominated counterpart of her husband, Sando, who is the spiritually-dominated surfer guru.  Both live on the edge, pushing the envelope--Sando through his surfing exploits and travel, Eva through her sexual affairs.  Eva is Pikelet’s personal Eve, in accord with both Freudian and secular buddhist thought, and as symbolic of the evolutionary fall of consciousness into animal man--for which the Garden of Eden myth is itself a parable.

In this interpretation, what these four main characters face is the emptiness of self, and their flight from their empty selves results in addictions, to alcohol and drugs, to endorphin rushes and personal dangers, to new sexual conquests.  To Buddhists this emptiness is maya, the illusion of ego.

Enveloped in ego, we seek constant escape from the emptiness, or we become addicted to money and stuff, always wanting more, always wanting the new.  No matter what heights we attain, these soon become dull and, left with our empty selves, we then seek more.
Buddhists call this the hungry ghost, for it is a bottomless void, and when we try to fill it, as with the consumption of more stuff, the laugh is on us. I always think of Mark Twain’s blue jays trying to fill up a house with acorns, but other apt literary metaphors abound.

The novel moves to where the narrator, Pike, is an older, wiser man, almost 50, looking back.  He has learned to control his addictions.  He has forgiven Eva and no longer blames her. And he has forgiven his older self.  People are fools, he says, not monsters.

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