"Half Fish, Half Woman": Annette Kellerman, Mermaids, and Eco-Aquatic Revisioning.
Kellerman's powerfully gendered and embodied mermaid performances and representations encompassed many different cultural genres, forms, and media. Writing, competing, and performing under names such as "the Australian mermaid," "the siren of the sea," "Neptune's daughter," and "the queen of the mermaids" (Cullen, Hackman, and McNeilly 618-20), Kellerman may have been the first major star to appear fully nude in a Hollywood film (A Daughter of the Gods ), and in 1907 she was arrested and accused (but not convicted) for wearing a form-fitting one-piece bathing suit on a public beach in Boston (Gibson 57-65). She fashioned a compelling amphibious fairytale persona (or "mersona") for herself, courting celebrity and some notoriety by sporting a custom-made scaly-fishtail costume (and little else) in print, on stage, and on film.
Some scholars have emphasized the element of sexual titillation in Kellerman's risque shows, performances, and films, which tested the limits of permissibility in the years preceding the Hollywood motion picture production code (Erdman 95-98; Parkinson; Soister and Nicolella 438). Others have ascribed greater seriousness to Kellerman's work of "gender transgression" (Woollacott 39), characterizing her as a "trailblazer for the 'new woman'" (Cox 61), whose "spectacular body" (Conor 152-54) "challenged the bounds of Anglo-American Victorianism" (Capatano 23). Regarded as an "emblem of modernity" (Zweiniger-Bargielowska 241), Kellerman has been contextualized amidst changing discourses of athletics, nationality, family, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, entertainment, and embodiment, but her interest in mermaiding as an environmental practice, linking humans to non-human beings, has remained unexplored. In this essay, I draw on fantasy criticism, monster studies, ecocriticism, and blue humanities scholarship (1) to explore how Kellerman used the mermaid in a process of eco-aquatic revisioning. In representing merpeople and other human-animal hybrids, I argue, Kellerman tapped into what ecocritics have begun (perhaps belatedly) to recognize as the power of fantasy and other speculative genres to estrange nature-denying mentalities and reimagine human being-in-the-world along more ecocentric lines. In the following, I first discuss how fantasy generally and mermaid fictions specifically can trouble anthropocentrism, which situates humanity outside (and above) the nonhuman biosphere, and geocentrism, which particularly disavows humanity's vital interdependence with aquatic creatures and oceanic environments. I then proceed to discuss mermaid figures appearing at three key moments in Kellerman's work--in the fitness manual How to Swim (1918), in the fantasy film Venus of the South Seas (1924), and in the short story collection Fairy Tales of the South Seas (1926)--that all dramatize different forms of "human-fish-water entanglement" (Probyn par. 6). Kellerman, I argue, performed, displayed, and wrote the fantastic mermaid body in ways that both vexed the definition of "proper" womanhood and made the "normal" human being appear strange to herself. As a symbol of creaturely connectedness breaching biological and territorial boundaries, the mermaid in Kellerman's work foments new ideas about what it means to be both a woman and a human being.
"Composite Creatures": Fantasy, Ecology, Mermaids
When the ecocritical movement first emerged approximately 25 years ago, participants in the fledgling movement particularly gravitated towards Romantic lyric poetry, pastoral fiction, and locodescriptive nature writing, but with few exceptions they tended to disregard more speculative and fantastic genres. Awareness of fantasy's ecocritical potential, however, dates back at least to Don Elgin's 1985 study The Comedy of the Fantastic: Ecological Perspectives on the Fantasy Novel. More recently, a steadily growing body of research has confirmed that speculative genres such as fantasy and SF have their own powerful strategies for critically engaging with the mentalities and practices that have brought our civilization to the brink of eco-disaster (see, for instance, Brawley, Canavan, Le Guin, and Ulstein). Contemporary critics mobilize a variety of concepts, including "enchantment," "estrangement," "the numinous," "apocalypse," and "utopia," to turn the tables on those who fault fantasists for failing to represent the world realistically. Thus, according to Chris Brawley, it is precisely "the departure from reality" (293) that lends non-mimetic literature its "subversive" power to "revision" human-nonhuman relations in ways not mandated by the dominant ideologies of modern industrial society: "Fantasy has the unique ability to subvert normal categories of thought, such as those between human and non-human, in order for a fusion of new possibilities which are not available in mimetic works" (294). Ursula K. Le Guin similarly refuses the standard maneuver of reading fantasy's outlandish plots, figures, and landscapes as symptoms of conservative nostalgia or childish escapism:
What fantasy generally does that the realistic novel cannot do is include the nonhuman as essential.... [R]ealistic fiction is drawn toward anthropocentrism, fantasy away from it. Although the green country of fantasy seems to be entirely the invention of human imaginations, it verges on and partakes of realms in which humanity is not lord and master, is not central, is not even important. (87)
While it may lack the cultural prestige and direct ecopolitical poignancy of certain other genres, fantasy here is valorized for "queering" normative conceptions of sexual difference, subjective wholeness, inviolable nature, mind-body dualism, and human exceptionalism. Fantasy readers' immersion in what Tolkien called "secondary worlds" creates feedback loops pushing them to critically assess the "primary world" (150) and their own place within it. For Brawley, Le Guin and others, fantasy at its best conveys the past and possible future existence of different (and better) ways of understanding human and more-than-human existence.
Mermaids manifest in different cultures under different names, and fantastic stories about seductive aquatic females stretch back through many centuries and spread out across many genres (Berman; Ellis 77-112). Many scholars view mermaids as products of "the heterosexual imagination" (Essig), and the figure's protean permutations often seem to illustrate the shifting gender norms and sexual ideologies of modern society. Sometimes, as in H. C. Andersen's influential late-romantic tale "The Little Mermaid" (1837), the mermaid appears frail, docile, and submissive, haunted by consciousness of her own lack and pining for male fulfillment. In works by late-nineteenth-century male symbolist and pre-Raphaelite painters, by contrast, mermaids, naiads and sirens reveal troubling agency and sexually voracious appetites (Cooper). In the twentieth- and twenty-first-century world of Esther Williams, Disney's Ariel, Miyazaki's Ponyo, the professional mermaids of Florida's Weeki-Wachee State Park, and the Animal Planet mockumentary Mermaids: The Body Found (2011), mermaids have been reimagined, reinterpreted, commodified, parodied, globalized, and Disneyfied. "[A]bsorbed into the kitsch of modern (and postmodern) culture" (Sax 53), mermaids have been used to market everything from bath salts to cigarettes, canned salmon and gourmet coffee, but they have also been appropriated as powerful symbols of body positivity, feminist emancipation, and LGBTQ empowerment (Mighetto; Kokai). Amidst currently burgeoning "mercommunities" of cosplayers, silicone tail crafters, and mermaid swimmers, the numbers of mermaids continue to increase and their meanings to proliferate (Mellins; Robertson).
The mermaid's power to fascinate, however, stems not only from her female gender but also from her uncertain species identity. A "composite creature" and "an uncanny, boundary-flouting being" that is "half woman-half fish," the mermaid occupies "a liminal space between the familiar and the foreign" (Robertson 307). Monster theorist Jeffrey J. Cohen asserts that "the monster of prohibition polices the borders of the possible, interdicting through its grotesque body some behaviors and actions, envaluing others" (13). This allows us to hypothesize that mermaids posit a radical alterity that helps circumscribe the limits and contours of the properly raced, classed, and gendered human subject. In their very hybrid multiplicity, that is, mermaids might be seen as affirming the world of closed categories and fixed boundaries. But monsters also "remind their audience of the fragility of the taboos and edicts upon which the moral order rests ... herald[ing] new possibilities" (Graham 54). By blurring human-animal distinctions, in other words, mermaids highlight the restrictiveness of anthropocentrist ideology and signal the possibility of critically revisioning human being-in-the-world. In their improper cross-species corporeality and ontological liminality, mermaids carry the implication that human beings are themselves "composite creatures," profoundly intertwined with other entities, despite the proud claims of autonomy made by the human race and each human self.
Unlike landlocked cyborgs, centaurs, sphinxes, lycanthropes, and ents, aquatic or amphibious mermaids can help us recall, in Arthur C. Clarke's words, "[h]ow inappropriate [it is] to call this planet Earth, when clearly it is Ocean" (qtd. in Lovelock 102). In "Sea Trash, Dark Pools, and the Tragedy of the Commons," Patricia Yaeger critiques the "geocentric" (524) forgetting of our biological, historical, cultural, and economic entanglements with oceans, which has allowed global capital to construct a "cyborg ocean" increasingly "made of algae and plastic debris" (533):
[W]e have grown myopic about the role that seas and oceans play in creating ordinary histories and cultures. Science explains that we emerged from the sea--our blood a tide of oceanic ions. The chemical formula for blood is very like the formula for seawater. Since cells evolved in oceans, when animals clambered out of the sea evolutionary processes took the simplest route--ensuring that the material outside cell walls resembled this creaturely environment ... And yet our general obliviousness to the gigantic bodies of water surrounding islands and continents is astonishing. (525)
Our species' prehistory straddles land and sea, but modern humans' physiology makes watery environments difficult to access physically and mentally. In addition, powerful cultural narratives, industrial technologies and (post)modern lifestyles have combined to conceal both the ocean's vital importance to human existence and the severity of anthropogenic degradation of marine habitats and species. Yet the ocean drives the global climate, and human lives and livelihoods continue to depend on oceanic ecosystem services in ways that we have only begun to fathom. Many voices therefore now stress the need to bring human-ocean relations forward as a topic of careful and conscious consideration. Within literary and cultural scholarship, concepts such as "the oceanic turn" (DeLoughrey 32), "blue cultural studies" (Mentz), and "blue ecocriticism" (Brayton 190) provide rallying points in the search for alternative intellectual and cultural templates that can resituate humans amidst "the watery relations without which we could not live" (Chen, MacLeod, and Neimanis 3).
"Monsters ... are things that should not be, but nevertheless are--and their existence therefore raises vexing questions about humanity's understanding of and place in the universe" (Weinstock 1). On the one hand, the fickle mermaid and her menacing sister, the siren, seem to embody the threatening powers of the vast, unfathomable ocean, a locus of chaos, horror, and danger where humans can never feel safe, comfortable, or at home. Stories of mermaids, sirens, and selkies luring unsuspecting sailors to their watery deaths can thus be seen to express the maritime fears and taboos that have played such a prominent part in western mythology, culture, and literature (Corbin 1-18). On the other hand, however, the mermaid in her confounding and alluring ambiguity can also help us imagine non-dichotomous "wet ontologies" (Steinberg and Peters) and perhaps inspire what Sylvia Earle calls the "sea change of attitude" (327) needed to establish a better relationship with aquatic creatures and environments. Mediators between land and sea, animality and humanity, mermaids may possess the monstrous power to evoke "a sense of transcorporeal connection between terrestrial humans and the seas" (Alaimo 477).
"The Mermaid Fever": How to Swim
Annette Kellerman first donned her signature mermaid costume in 1903, "swimming around with the eels and seals" (Gibson 18) in the Melbourne Aquarium and the Princes Court amusement park. Moving from Australia to London, New York, and Chicago, and establishing herself as a "water-feat artist" ("How" 82), she greatly expanded the popularity of aquatic vaudeville, fashioning a stage act that saw her perform swimming and diving stunts in a huge glass-fronted tank, often surrounded by fish, sea mammals, and amphibia (Cullen, Hackman, and McNeilly 618-20). Kellerman's athletic, literary, dramatic, and cinematic mermaidenry countered firmly established medical ideas that defined women as weak, dependent, and "eternally wounded" (Vertinsky). Her powerfully embodied performances signaled the emergence of a modern fit, active, and vigorous femininity at odds with Victorian domestic ideals (Capatano; Lucas; Woollacott). What is less well-known, however, is that Kellerman also used fantastic mermaid figures, stories, and personae to imaginatively imbricate human beings with the creaturely worlds of oceans, lakes, and rivers.
The swimming manual How to Swim (1918) lays out an aquatic training "system" (119) designed "particularly to the woman reader" (75). Kellerman frames the exposition of her exercise regimen with a personal testimonial of youthful suffering and recovery, when she relates how her crippling case of childhood rickets was cured by regular swimming exercises that straightened out her "weak and ill-formed legs" (14) and gave her a life-long passion for "the aquatic arts" (125). She then outlines a detailed step-by-step program that leads the reader from land-based beginner's exercises through assisted in-water movements to feats of free swimming and diving. Kellerman provides detailed verbal instructions of proper technique side-by-side with ample visual illustrations of herself floating, treading water, fancy diving, and performing of all the major swimming strokes. In addition, she delivers practical advice on protection against sunburn; recommends the use of rubber swimming caps and talcum powder; illustrates little-known lifesaving techniques; and assesses the best pools, lakes, and beaches where American women can swim in safety from "unsympathetic spectators" (57-58).
How to Swim politicizes swimming by connecting it to the campaign for women's rights and by representing it as an inherently "democratic" (36, 177) practice that ought to be enjoyed by all: "That point is as non-debatable to me as woman's suffrage. No question exists. 'Swimming for all! Suffrage for all!'" (177). Kellerman holds swimming "superior to any other gymnastic exercise" (52) when it comes to diminishing the power of "pseudo-moral restriction discourage [ing] physical activity in woman" (45). As the quintessential "woman's sport" (38), swimming counteracts widespread civilizational ailments like neurasthenia, acne, obesity, and constipation, "the universal foe to health and beauty" (51). Swimming lets women build musculature, flexibility, courage, and stamina, while still preserving feminine virtues such as "gracefulness" (58), "balance," and "poise" (42). "[S]wimming is a woman's art" (43), a "life-giving" (68) practice that charges the female body with "new confidence and power" (36) and activates a potential too often "restricted and impaired by social customs and costumes" (45).
Kellerman offers technical advice on all aspects of "aquatic sports" (212), but she also couches her program in imaginative, romantic, or fantastic terms. Writing as a "moving picture mermaid" (15), Kellerman refers to her lifelong passion for swimming as "the mermaid fever" (16), and she characterizes professional swimmer Dorothy Becker as "the Champion Mermaid of California" (53). "Though a professional mermaid for the movies," she professes, "I still wait to see my first real one sitting on a damp grey rock combing her long green hair" (37). Kellerman's ambition is to train more mermaids--female swimmers who will be able to join her in the water. To this end, she describes swimming with "the legs and feet ... encased in a mermaid's tail" (118) and establishes mermaid-style swimming, "with the feet tied," as "the most splendid chest developing exercise that has ever been or is likely ever to be, invented" (122). Several of the text's graphics resonate with this motif, displaying Kellerman as Venus emerging from the foam (24), in the company of "baby mermaids" (124), diving into the water wearing full mermaid regalia (196), and in the role of senior mermaid leading a bevy of attendant nymphs and naiads (118).
To become mermaid, for Kellerman, is not only to gain a stronger physique, but also to experience a new more-than-human connectedness:
[W]ho has not given himself completely to the sun and wind and cold sting of the waves will never know all meanings of life. Swimming is more deeply woven into the fabric of man than any other form of motion. [.] man swam before he was a man and he will swim till there is no more sea. [...] I have turned to the ocean when remembering only me and after I left the shore behind, I seemed to shrink and shrink till I was nothing but a flecky bubble and feared that the bubble would burst. And so I advise swimming as good to encourage the modesty of the soul. [...]. I am sure no adventurer nor discoverer ever lived who could not swim. Swimming cultivates imagination; the man with the most is he who can swim his solitary course night or day and forget a black earth full of people that push. (36-37)
With paragraphs such as this, Kellerman inscribes herself in the tradition of "romantic hydromania," where swimming is valued not only as healthy exercise but as a "transformative experience" that "troubles the boundaries between man and nature, human and animal, troubles our sense of self" (Jarvis 262-63). Kellerman evokes the mermaid-swimmer's experience of travelling beyond language and abstract thought, becoming personally and evolutionarily linked to nature, its energies and its wild creatures. Elsewhere in the text, Kellerman coaches prospective "mermaids" in "zoological imitations," cataloguing a "whole menagerie of swimming tricks" including "The Porpoise," "The Deep Water Porpoise," "The Muskrat," and "The Lobster":
To swim like a duck you will require a very strong sculling while swimming on the breast. The hands are held beneath the hips, thus playing the part of the duck's short webbed feet. Your own feet may be curled up behind to represent the duck's tail.To swim like a crab is to navigate sidewise. It is merely a matter of reaching out with the arm and leg at one side and stroking toward the body. The more "sprawly and crawly" you can get this motion the more realistic will be the imitation; especially when done under water in a clear pool.... To swim like a frog will not require very great alteration of the strokes that some of you already know, nor will I try to coach you in a closer imitation, as the frog itself will be a better teacher. (203)
Having spent her life in water, "with fish swimming all about me" (How 18), Kellerman represents swimming as fundamentally anti-anthropocentric, enmeshing humanity in animality. To view a female mermaid is "to see a woman make a fish out of herself" ("How I Swam" 33), she writes, adding that "[n]o one has mastered the aquatic element until he has learned to see as the fishes do" (How 71). Indeed, she argues, "the swimmer is for the time being a fish" ("The Girl").
"A Woman Fish on Screen": Venus of the South Seas
Beginning with The Siren of the Sea (1911) and The Mermaid (1911), Kellerman starred in, co-wrote, and in some cases co-directed a series of daring and expensive short and feature-length silent films with fantastic aquatic themes, narratives, and characters. Set on beaches, near rivers, or in lakes and oceans, Kellerman's "aquatic fantasies" (Soister and Nicolella 474) featured copious swimming and diving scenes in which Kellerman played what poet and critic Vachel Lindsay called "a child of the ocean, half fish, half woman" (35). These films' convoluted plots invariably centered on an aqueous, powerful and shapeshifting female figure, most often named Annette or some variant thereof, who becomes romantically involved with a high-ranking land-dwelling male and embroiled in conflicts that require her to cross back and forth between aquatic and terrestrial realms. (2) Most of Kellerman's "mermaid spectacles" (Kellerman, How 34) have been lost, but fortunately one feature-length film--Venus of the South Seas (1924)--remains complete (fig. 1).
Shot in New Zealand and co-written by Kellerman and her husband Jim Sullivan, Venus of the South Seas was billed as a "story of girls and pearls, love and adventures, mermaids and wonders of the South Seas."
In this film, Kellerman plays Shona Royal, the adult daughter of the American pearl merchant John Royal (Roland Purdie) living on the Polynesian island Manea. Shona has absorbed the influence of island life to make herself a quasi-amphibious creature, becoming the most gifted deep-sea pearl diver in her father's employ. The death of Shona's father triggers a melodramatic series of events pitting her and her lover, the wealthy young yacht owner Robert Quane (Robert Ramsey), against the villainous rival pearl trader John Drake (Norman French).
Among many swimming and diving scenes, Venus of the South Seas contains one particularly striking almost ten-minutes sequence recorded in prizma color, an experimental motion picture technology using two-color (blue-green and red-orange) filters (19:10-28:50). In this nested narrative, Shona entertains a group of island children with a fairy tale concerning the princess Gwytha, whose "prince of her dreams" has been physically chained with "chains of loneliness" and can only be released with "the flower of love," which grows at the bottom of the sea (20:15). There follows a remarkable series of underwater scenes that depict Gwytha's fantastic watery quest. Diving into the ocean, Gwytha (played by Kellerman herself) is first surrounded by fish and recoils in horror from an octopus-like monster (21:12). Chancing upon a walled garden that grows the desired flower, she requests entry from a fishtailed mermaid (also played by Kellerman) (21:30). When the mermaid discovers Gwytha to be a mortal, she swims away to perform a solo underwater ballet (25:20-26:15). Left to her own devices, Gwytha is briefly arrested by the mermaid's dressing table and marvels at her exotic mirrors, trinkets, and cosmetics (24:40-25:20). Then she explores the mermaid's garden, discovers the desired flower (27:45), and finally resurfaces to release her lover (28:20-28:30).
Eco-film scholar Anat Pick discusses the "creaturely" qualities of film, as a medium that deemphasizes hierarchical relations and foregrounds the interrelated corporeality of all living beings, including humans. Writing more specifically about underwater film, Elena Past claims that this cinematic submergence is correlated with a movement past solid divisions into a more inclusive region where a "vital rapport linking humans to the sea" is revealed and characters "embrace.a fish-like way of being" (61). In Venus of the South Seas, Kellerman and Sullivan use fantastic storytelling, elaborate costumes, prizma coloration, and underwater cinematography to construct a mermaid's vision of the world. The film shows fish, humans, and fish-like humanoids commingling in a "zoomorphic space--a space inhabited by more-than-human lives" (Pick 311).
In Kellerman's film-within-a-film, Shona undertakes a fantastic voyage reminiscent of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726), Charles Kingsley's The Water-Babies (1862-1863), Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865), and L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) and The Sea Fairies (1911). She leaves terra firma and plunges into the mermaid's world, a fluid and uncertain environment where dangers lurk, strange creatures abound, and stable and separate identities seem to wash away. To survive in this world, Shona must "deterritorialize" (Deleuze 232-33) her terrestrial identity and become like her mermaid doppelganger. First, we see Gwytha moving hesitantly through the seascape and taking fright at the sight of the sea monster. Later she acts with more confidence, takes the mermaid's place in the garden, and identifies the exotic flower needed to complete her quest. As she is about to depart the mermaid's garden, Gwytha pauses to peruse a large book whose pages are covered in fish-like images bent into shapes and arranged in lines to compose a mysterious aqueous writing (26:50-27:20). As a sign of her new-found assurance in the aquatic world, Gwytha is able to decipher these images as a reminder of her quest to rescue Robert.
Responding to Kellerman's popular films, Hollywood executive Carl Lemmle described her as "[a] woman fish on screen" (qtd. in Gibson 116). We can read the fantasy sequence co-scripted by Kellerman, Shona, Gwytha, and the mermaid as what Stacy Alaimo calls an "origin story" (478) stressing "physical relatedness" and "kinship" (480) between humans and aquatic creatures. Gwytha travels back to the aquatic origins of human life hypothesized by Charles Darwin and other theorists of evolution. Her mermaid's tale invites us to discern similarities and continuities, rather than insurmountable ontological differences, between humans and sea animals. When Gwytha first arrives in the underwater world, the film cuts from her now submerged body and interjects a short montage of orange-tinted close-up shots showing various types of fish swimming about amidst rocks and plants 20:45-21:00). Later in the sequence, we see the mermaid fondling and kissing "her pet fish" (21:55). This fish is used to deliver messages back and forth "as quick as by telephone" (22:20), and the camera traces its sinuous movements back and forth in another close-up (22:22-22:37). The camera then cuts back to Shona among the island children, reminding viewers of the frame-narrative, before showing us the fishtailed mermaid performing her own dance. This dance is the piece de resistance of the sequence, displaying Kellerman's fabled ability to move gracefully under water while holding her breath for up to four minutes on end (Cox 59). In showing Kellerman as "a child of the ocean, half fish, half woman," it epitomizes the categorical blurring and identity disturbance that take place throughout this entire section.
"Like a Fish in the Water": Fairy Tales of the South Seas (1926)
The filming of Venus of the South Seas also gave Kellerman inspiration for a collection of children's stories entitled Fairy Tales of the South Seas and Other Stories, which was published in London with illustrations by her sister Marcelle Wooster. With these tales set across Oceania and Polynesia, Kellerman taps into the vogue for primitivist, exoticist, and colonialist representations of non-European places, peoples, and customs (Woollacott 42-43). Fashioning herself as a connoisseur of the South Pacific, and claiming that she herself has been "like a fish in the water" (12) since the age of thirteen, she mixes realism and supernaturalism, addresses herself familiarly to her "dear little chums" (11), and borrows freely both from traditional fairy tales and from texts belonging to the golden age of children's literature in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. More importantly for my present argument, these mixed, inchoate, and often strange stories adumbrate an experimental oceanic discourse that continues to entangle humans ever more closely in aquatic environments.
Many of Kellerman's stories not surprisingly feature her trademark mermaid and mermen characters. In "Gnomes of the Coral Sea," for example, a young mermaid is injured when a fisherman mistakes her "for a large fish": "The only thing that saved me from being speared through was because the diver was so surprised at seeing a Mermaid instead of a fish, his spear glanced sideways and the wood struck me on the shoulder" (147). A similar mishap takes place in "How Neptune Rules the Sea," where the ocean monarch's "most beautiful daughter had been trapped in a fishing net with her tiny sister, and though the eldest daughter escaped, the baby was carried up in the net, and she died from want of air ... lying on the beach, gasping for the sea" (276). Sirens and sea witches appear in "The Beachcomber and the Princess," "The Sirens of the Southern Seas," "The Vampire of the Coral Seas," "Shipwreck Island," "The Enchanted Pearls," and "The Greenstone Hatchet." In the story "Inquisitive Mishna," the female title character is mesmerized by "one of her favourite fish" (183), falls into the sea, and enjoys an aquatic adventure in the company of a "Lady-Fish" (185) who wears jewelry but "swishe[s] her tail" and swims "as easily as any goldfish" (186).
Other stories focus on related though more realistic figures including sailors, pirates, yachters, shipwrecks victims, stowaways, lifeguards, and swimmers and bathers of many ages, genders, cultures, and nationalities. "The Beachcomber and the Princess," for example, centers on a "wonderful swimmer" who "[t]wo or three days each week ... swam completely round the island, which was seven miles" (28). "The Twin Brothers" and "The Monster of the Deep" in turn introduce us to groups of divers plying their trade on the bottom of the ocean. The ten-year-old Armand Kelly of "Young Australia" lives on the beach and swims "exactly like a porpoise" (192), while the heroine of "Christine the Courageous" is an expert swimmer and fancy diver, much like one of Kellerman's film heroines, whom "the sea.had taught to be fearless" (104).
At the same time, Fairy Tales of the South Seas teems with animal life. The stories introduce a great number of aquatic life forms including both harmless "Parrot Fish," "Butterfly Fish" (60), "Angel Fish" (61), "Beche de Mer" (147), "squid" (187), and "Dugong" (211) and less benign creatures such as "Swordfish, Sawfish and Spearfish" (27), "Eagle Ray Fish" (202), a "Giant Clam" (211), "giant Octopi" (248), and various types of shark including "the great White Shark, the Blue Shark, the Sand Shark, and Tiger Shark" (108). Kellerman delves beneath the surface to explore the rich diversity of species and to map their complex interactions. Combining fantastic storytelling with popularized oceanography, she seeks to convey the fascination of aquatic ecosystems and pays special attention to the rich biodiversity of tropical coral reefs:
Imagine bunches of coral, flower-shaped, of every tint and shade. Some were vivid scarlet or orange, others were the palest pink, blue, and mauve. It would have been impossible to count the many different forms of coral Blooms. Large coral rings called "Atolls" were clustered here and there giving the gardens wondrous patterns, making them appear as flower beds, but much more beautiful. Then the lovely "Animal Flowers" called anemones peeped out between branches of coral ferns. These flowers, half fish, and half blooms, fed on any tiny fish that came their way. At low tide there were hundreds of small crystal pools all over the reefs, and fish, the like of which are never seen in Northern Seas, swam hither and thither, while the sun's golden rays shone and played a game of sunbeams with these multi-coloured fish. The Wrasses, funny fish, heads tattooed like a man, but with gorgeous bodies of yellow and blue, gambolled with the Rainbow Fish, who were so proud of their scales of many colours. (45-46)
Kellerman's stories redefine humans as merfolk: members of an amphibious species, most at home in a littoral topography of islands, beaches, lakes, coasts, lagoons, inlets, waterfalls, atolls, reefs, and mangrove swamps, and immersed in complex relations with nonhuman aquatic creatures. Sometimes these involvements are contentious and violent, as in "The Twin Brothers," where a pair of pearl divers struggle against "a great Blue shark called a 'man eater'" (51). In "The Giant Clam's Revenge," the Australian Aboriginal "boy fisherman" Kuta spear-fishes giant clams and collects their shells as trophies. One day Kuta comes across two particularly large clams that seem to be swimming together:
One of the Clams seemed to be resting, but the other, who was curious, swam towards Kuta, and with great dexterity, the boy whammed his spear home into the poor Clam's body. The Shell Fish tried to get away. He clutched the spear stick, and his strength was so great, he broke the spear in two, but the weapon had done its work. The poor Clam died and sank in the shallow water. Kuta saw the other Clam coming towards him at a terrific speed. The native lad knew the Shell Fish wanted to see what had happened to his Mate, so Kuta rushed out of harm's way. From the upper beach, he saw the lonely Clam swim several times around his Mate, then disappear. (214)
After some time of anxious waiting, Kuta resumes his spear-fishing, only to be waylaid by the bereaved partner clam, which hides, attacks, and holds the boy's leg "in a vice-like grip" (216). With the aid of friends, Kuta is able to release himself and kill the clam, but "[i]t was many days before the native boy would walk again" and "[h]e never looked at the two tremendous Giant Clam shells outside his hut without shuddering" (218). This story demonizes the mollusk, lending it mobility, a monstrous agency, and a vindictive intelligence. Kuta's hard-fought victory at the end provides the story with a tenuous happy ending, but the story's main effect remains the collapse of boundaries between humans and nature. Kellerman uses anthropomorphism, a common trope in children's writing, as a "dis-anthropocentric stratagem meant to reveal similarities and symmetries existing between humans and nonhumans" (Iovino and Oppermann 8). Giant clams, she tells us, "weighed about 150-200 pounds," making them "almost as heavy as a large man" (212). When attacked, both giant clams and humans will defend themselves and try "to get away" (214). Kuta, however, "never once thought of the poor Clams, who had done him no harm," as kindred beings. He is shocked to recognize sea-creatures like "Mr. and Mrs. Giant Clam" (213) as sentient beings that have an interest in their own welfare, seem to understand their own situation, and are capable of planning and executing complex actions.
Other merpeople tales, by contrast, imagine human-fish relationality in terms of more harmonious and even affectionate interactions. In the lead story, "The Beachcomber and the Princess," we meet the beachcomber hero Gunta, who disdains "finery and wealth" (28) for "simplicity" (44) and devotes himself to elementary pleasures such as "sun basking" and "long distance swimming" (29). Gunta spends most of his time in the water cavorting with a group of swordfish, sawfish, and spearfish whom he has adopted and befriended "as his chums of the sea":
He was perfectly happy to let the days go by without ever doing much work [...] He had captured a number of Swordfish, Sawfish and Spearfish, when they were very small, then he had built a rock pool for them, and each day as they grew larger, he would feed, train and talk with them until the fish knew his voice [...] Even when some had attained the length of eighteen or twenty feet, with snouts of six or eight feet long, the huge fish never thought of hurting him. He allowed them to go free when they were full grown, but they came daily to visit and swim with him. (27)
Collaborating with his "little bank of fish, whom he had known since they were as small as river trout" (40), Gunta is able to vanquish a sea witch and liberate the princess Danie, who has been imprisoned on an enchanted rock guarded by a giant octopus. While many of Kellerman's other stories ascribe active roles to women and girls, this story adheres to more traditionally gendered narrative conventions. Yet by imagining fish and humans as "companion species" (Haraway), "The Beachcomber and the Princess" opens lines of communication, connectivity, and companionship between humans and non-humans. Gunta "loved the sun, the stars, the birds, who were his friends, and the fish, many of which he had trained to come to him in the water" (27). A "wonderful swimmer" (28) capable of astonishing physical feats, he inhabits a multispecies community and views fish not as alien cold-blooded creatures but as beings closely related to himself: "chums," "friends," and "mates" (40).
Conclusion: "The Swimming Intermixedness of Life"
In contemporary popular culture, the mermaid is said to be enjoying a revival and even to be eclipsing once-dominant rival monsters and chimeras like the vampire, the werewolf, and the zombie (Hughes). For some participants, mermaiding is a fashion statement, as fishtail producers ("mertailors") proliferate and as mermaid fashion can be "found across a number of popular clothing brands" (Mellins 128). For others, becoming-mermaid provides a trendy and demanding form of exercise, with mono-fluke swimming courses opening in swimming pools and aquaria across the Western world, or a profession, with more than 1000 professional mermaids and mermen registered in the United States alone (Rodionova). For others again, the mermaid promises "a source of personal re-enchantment" (Robertson 318) in a "mythmaking exercise that facilitates an alternative expression of self" (320).
The apparently apolitical, individualistic, and gimmicky phenomenon of contemporary mermaiding acquires strong environmental overtones, however, in films like Susan Rockefeller's Mission of Mermaids (2012) and Stephen Chow's Chinese blockbuster The Mermaid (2016). The best-known of several successful eco-mermaid activists, Hannah Fraser is a professional model, actress, swimmer, and dancer who promotes marine conservation by performing freediving performances, often wearing elaborate mermaid costumes, alongside dolphins, rays, whales, and sharks. Most powerfully, perhaps, the photographer Benjamin von Wong produces images in which seemingly dead mermaids are positioned atop tens of thousands of empty plastic bottles carefully arranged into color patterns. The photographs in von Wong's series "Mermaids Hate Plastic" (2016) combine beauty and horror to alert viewers to the gravity of the oceanic plastic pollution crisis. The dead mermaid's betwixt-and-between body here comes to symbolize different beings' shared vulnerability to plastic particles that contaminate the ocean, enter the food chain, and get distributed across human and nonhuman bodies.
If contemporary mermaid culture mixes aesthetics, fashion, commerce, celebrity, sexualized spectacle, and ocean ecology activism, a similar blend can be found in the work of Kellerman, who tailored her activities to the rapidly developing modern mass culture, designed her own successful product line of form-fitting bathing suits, and was widely touted (and touted herself) in the popular media as the "perfect woman" (Gibson 2). As the early twentieth-century's foremost "submersible star" ("A Kellerman Film"), Kellerman undoubtedly played a role in the creation of a modern commercial celebrity, fitness, beauty, and dieting culture. She starred semi-naked in a "cinema of attractions" (Gunning) that might seem to confirm Laura Mulvey's influential claim that "classic Hollywood" organized itself around the privileging of "the male gaze" and the eroticized "to-be-looked-at-ness" (11) of the female body.
In this essay, however, I have sought to balance awareness of popular texts' anthropocentric and/or ideological function with acknowledgment of the ways in which the imaginative resources of cultural forms such as fantasy might also be said to empower a popular environmentalism. Developments in the last decades have left us better able to understand both the political, technological, and economic drivers conspiring to threaten oceanic ecosystems with an imminent collapse and the historical, cultural, and psychological forces hindering a more responsible aqueous ecopolitics. "The monster notoriously appears at times of crisis" (Cohen 6), and among fantastic creatures mermaids are particularly good to think with at the current moment, I suggest, because they challenge the tendency to "imagine human history as beginning and ending on terra firma" (Gillis 7) and make it possible to feel "an embodied human kinship with the aqueous Earth" (Helmreich 50). Kellerman felt strongly connected to the Australian Great Barrier Reef, where she visited, filmed, and had her ashes spread after her death. "You can have your Colorado Canyon, or your Yosemite Valley, which are certainly very beautiful," she said in a 1934 newspaper interview, "but give me the Barrier Reef.it is stupendous ... the greatest thing in the world, bar nothing" ("'Give Me'"). While her activities long predated our current concern about overfishing, plastic pollution, ocean acidification, and sea level rise, Kellerman's mermaid fictions broke new ground in questioning geocentrism, performing more-than-human connectivity, and negotiating new relations to creatures that we tend to know little and care less about. To become mermaid, for Kellerman, was to confront a fundamental truth about the human condition: that we, too, are animals, sharing the impure, vulnerable, and joyful corporeal existence of other living creatures. Her fantastic human-fish hybrids embody what Tony Tanner, writing about Herman Melville's Moby-Dick (1851), calls "the swimming intermixedness of life" (77).
(1.) A shift in attention from land to sea is currently taking place in several intellectual fields. Literary and cultural critics who work in "the blue humanities" or "the maritime humanities" particularly draw on theoretical paradigms from new historicism and new materialism, seeking to foreground the presence of the ocean in cultural texts and re-establish a humanistic connection with it (See for example Alaimo, Mentz, and Gillis).
(2.) A number of stills and a few surviving clips from other films can be found at www. youtube.com. For plot summaries and other information about Kellerman's three most popular, expensive, and spectacular films, Neptune's Daughter (1914), A Daughter of the Gods (1916), and Queen of the Sea (1918), see Soister and Nicolella 126-29, 42731, 474-76.
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Caption: Figure 1. Venus of the South Seas. Film Poster, 1924, Morgan Litho Co.
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|Publication:||Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2019|
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