How the Beach Turned from Terror to Paradise
Until the 18th century the beach was a place of horrors and hazards. How did it become the paradise it is today?
Like every year, this summer crowds of people will move to the beaches on every coast on the planet. The lucky ones won’t have to go far. Others, less fortunate in climate and distance, will travel wherever it takes to breathe in the intoxicating air of the border between the two worlds; for the sea is the eternally “longed for”.
But it wasn’t always like this. Until the 18th century, the beach provoked fear and anxiety in the popular imagination. It was a place of shipwrecks, of natural disasters and mythological monsters and, of course, pirates and bandits who were all too real. Little wonder Dante’s third circle of hell was delineated by sand and that Robinson Crusoe, stranded on the beach, was one of the most wretched characters in the literature of his own time. The beach as we conceive it today is the perfect landscape of tranquility and leisure. It was born precisely when “wellness” and health gained prominence among the European elite.
The “discovery” of the beach has a lot to do with that imminent reminder that nature is a vital space for humankind, and this would certainly come about during the industrial era. In the 19th century, European elites began to need the fresh air and the breeze because they were dying in droves from tuberculosis. Especially in England, birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, intellectuals and aristocrats (who were paradoxically sickened far more than were workers) became concerned about health and hygiene. The notion of the “restorative sea” came to light.
The first beach resort was born on the east coast of England, in the tiny village of Scarborough, near York. Other coastal communities soon followed, drawing a huge clientele of the sick seeking treatment for a number of conditions: melancholy, leprosy, gout, impotence, tuberculosis, etc. But it was the poets and the romantic painters who endowed the beach with symbols and transcendence.
Some poets, like Percy Bysshe Shelley (“Julian and Maddalo”) and Matthew Arnold (“Dover Beach”) helped transform the seascape from dangerous and terrifying to sublime. The untimely glare of handfuls of phosphorus, the gentle foam, the walks on the beach and the repetitive sound of the waves, a comforting repetition, all acquired ontological value. Painters J. M. W. Turner and David Friedrich did their parts for the views of the coast, too, expressively intense, and quoted by the most sensitive minds of the day.
The irresistible awakening of a collective desire for the beach took place. The beach became a place of “escape” from cities and turmoil. Even the word “vacation,” which was used to describe an involuntary absence from work, changed in meaning. For better or worse, the phenomenon of the beach holiday spread worldwide. The beach became popular as a “non-place” in which historical, geographical and social vacuums are pristine and savored. The beach, as tabula rasa, is an abstraction in which the mind is recreated in the crash of waves. And everyone plays at existence for the sake of existence. This was only possible in the 20th century; a yearning to be part of the collective imagination.
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