Thoughts on Seashells

Why, when on holiday, do we always want to pick up seashells? Plentiful to the point of being mundane, they nonetheless seem to hold the status of a secret treasure. As soon as one is discovered, it must be collected, unless it has some crack or chip in it, in which case it is worthless and should be discarded. The seashell has many quiet contradictions. Every child knows that they shouldn’t keep a seashell that still has the body of the shellfish inside. Apart from the cruelty of harming a still-living one and the inevitable stench soon emitted by a dead one, we do not wish to be reminded of the mismatch between the geometrical perfection and beauty of the shell, and the amorphous globule of unconstituted life of the fish on the inside.  The aphrodisiac qualities of shellfish are the reward for overcoming the fact that they don’t look like food. But as the philosopher Gaston Bachelard exclaims in his discussion of shells in The Poetics of Space, “for one living shell, how many dead ones there are! For one inhabited shell, how many are empty!” The beaches and rock pools are littered with these vacated homes. The permitted shells are the dead ones. 

Bachelard’s account of the iconography of shells – of shellfish and otherwise – shows us how frequently they have been associated with death. The poet Franz Hellens owned a woodcut of a ravenous wolf, driven mad by its inability to get at a tortoise inside its shell. We have discussed elsewhere our fascination today for another tortoise who has a seen a world which did not include us. Pliny and Da Vinci wrote of mussels and oysters either in cahoots or antagonism with crabs, who plotted to use their shells as elaborate and deadly traps. And Bachelard thinks that whereas when flowers open, the effect is of a “sublime image of offering”, the emergence of a snail from its shell, horns first, always indicates a kind of violence. Certainly, in Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) in the scene where it is made clear that James Stewart cannot help but pursue the suicidal Kim Novak, who herself cannot help but pursue the painting of a dead woman, the hair of both women is arranged like a seashell. In the same year, in Ian Fleming’s novel Dr No Honeychile Rider emerges from the ocean not clad as Ursula Andress is, in a white bikini, but naked, with a broken nose. The woman and her shells put Bond is put in mind of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, but when surprised, this Honeychile “didn’t cover her body with the two classical gestures. One hand flew downwards, but the other, instead of hiding her breasts, went up to her face”. The beautiful woman hides the broken part at the centre of her face, just as the perfect curvature of the seashell conceals its own fleshy, wounded centre. Associated with death, the seashell is also the perfect image for desire, which in Jacques Lacan’s work is best visualised as an elaborate structure surrounding a monstrous void, an amorphous or broken ‘thing’ at its heart.

But we collect shells for life as well. After his martyrdom, the body of the apostle James the Greater was lost at sea, only to be washed ashore, intact and undecomposed, covered in cockles. Bachelard refers to the traditional belief that crushed seashells can reconstitute themselves in salt water, and to the old theory that the snail, entombing itself in the ground during the cold of winter (“as though in a coffin”), undergoes a resurrection – like a slimy, encased phoenix – every Spring. The unreadability of these shells has created its quietly contradictory associations for us. But there is something about them that invites us to associate them with three great human concerns: death, desire, and getting another chance.

Art by Nicola Aurie


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