It was early in my trip but already I was curious about English people in their cars staring seawards, and elderly people in deck chairs all over the south coast watching waves, and now Mr Bowles, the old railwayman, saying, “I like this…the open sea.” What was going on here? There was an answer in Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power, an unusual and brilliant – come critics have said eccentric – analysis of the world of men in terms of crowds. There are crowd symbols in nature, Canetti says – fire is one, and rain is another, and the sea is a distinct one. “The sea is multiple, it moves, and it is dense and cohesive” – like a crowd – “its multiplicity lies in its waves” – the waves are like men. The sea is strong, it has a voice, it is constant, it never sleeps, “it can soothe or threaten or break out in storms. But it is always there”. Its mystery lies in what it covers: “Its sublimity is enhanced by the thought of what it contains, the multitudes of plants and animals hidden within it.” It is universal and all-embracing, “it is an image of stilled humanity; all life flows into it and it contains all life.”
Later in his book, when he is dealing with nations, Canetti describes the crowd symbol of the English. It is the sea: all the triumphs and disasters of English history are bound up with the sea, and the sea has offered the Englishman transformation and danger. “His life at home is complementary to life at sea: security and monotony are its essential characteristics.” “The Englishman sees himself as a captain,” Canetti says: this is how his individualism relates to the sea.
So I came to see Mr. Bowles, and all those old south coast folk staring seawards, as sad captains fixing their attention upon the waves. The sea murmured back at them. The sea was a solace. It contained all life, of course, but it was also the way out of England – and it was the way to the grave, seawards, out there, offshore. The sea had the voice and embrace of a crowd,, but for this peculiar nation it was not only a comfort, representing vigour and strength. It was an end, too. Those people were looking in the direction of death.
(Paul Theroux, The Kingdom by the Sea)