Education+: Summertime views

In the second half of the 18th century, while Rousseau was inventing the noble savage in Europe, Captain Cook was stumbling upon surfing in Hawaii. It was an unfortunate coincidence. Ever since, surfers have been perceived as drop-out beach bums reliving a golden age of Dionysian frenzy. The truth is that surfing is an intellectual discipline that cries out for a place in the academic curriculum.

When Roland Barthes wrote about the Tour de France in Mythologies, no one expected to see him pedalling around Paris. When writing Death in the Afternoon, Ernest Hemingway made it clear that he didn't feel obliged to squeeze into a tight-fitting costume, step into the bullring and shout, "Ole! Toro!"

So why is it that, just because I wrote a book about surfing, my colleagues all assume that I am only waiting for the summer vacation to wax down my board and head for the beach?

This assumption is wrong on at least two counts. To begin with, I would far rather slope off in the middle of term than wait for the vacation. If there is one thing finer in all the world than dropping into a shimmering blue tube (the core, or inner sanctum of the wave), it is dropping into a shimmering blue tube in the full and culpable knowledge that everyone else is sweating in the library and the lecture hall.

Second, the equation of summer and surf is not only false but an inversion of the truth. Serious surfers sit it out, waiting for the big swells of winter. My own travel plans definitely include a return visit to Hawaii in December (when the waves hit 20ft to 30ft plus) to shoot a BBC documentary on the Homeric north shore surf culture.

I used to make the modest (not to say risible) boast that I was the best surfer in Cambridge. Now - ever since the foundation of the Cambridge University Surfriders Club, which numerous hard-core Californians, South Africans and Australians have flocked to join - I know that even that hollow claim can no longer be justified. Nevertheless, the case for what the anthropologists call "participatory observation" has become irresistible.

Whereas Claude Levi-Strauss in his classic Tristes Tropiques was content coolly to collect South American tribes like stamps and paste them into his global theories, Philippe Descola, more recently, becomes an honorary member of the Achuar in The Spears at Twilight, getting passionately involved in their fate and doing everything short of head-hunting itself. Levi- Strauss relied on interpreters, but Descola learns the language.

I haven't yet had the nerve to paddle out on a 30ft day at Waimea Bay. But to scorn the rudiments of the art would be akin to studying French literature and philosophy exclusively in translation. Once upon a time in Cambridge, none of the faculty even had to speak French; now oral proficiency if not native-speaker fluency is de rigueur.

But there is, of course, infinitely more to surfing than the merely magical and miraculous trick of balancing on top of one of the most powerful and precarious forces of nature. In Australia, I have visited the research headquarters (at Bells Beach, outside Melbourne) of Dr Brian Lowdon, who is funded by the Australian government to study the physiology of surfers.

Ricky Grigg, professor of oceanography at the University of Hawaii, sees surfing not only as grace under pressure, but as an opportunity to enact his more abstract equations of water, wind, and stars. The wave itself is an immense laboratory and testing-ground of scientific theory.

But surfing, immersed in meaning and mythology, is as much metaphysics as physics. We should expect water-based cultures such as the Polynesians and the Egyptians to hymn the wave in their petroglyphs and hieroglyphs. But the ability to walk on water is a potent if shadowy symbol in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. The very opening of the Book of Genesis states that "the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters", as if Yahweh were surfing the universe into existence, and suggesting that the wave would turn out to constitute the underlying structure of things.

From Captain Cook through the Romantics (Victor Hugo sang of its terror and ecstasy) to Jack London, wave-riding became the emblem of otherness, sexuality, neo-pagan hedonism. Nineteenth-century puritan evangelists suppressed it. Resurgent in the 20th century, it has become an all-purpose metaphor, immortalised in cyberspace. Gilles Deleuze classifies it among the "indeterminate sports" (Where are the goals? How do you score it?) that signify the post-modern condition. But no French philosopher paid surfing a higher phenomenological tribute than Jean-Paul Sartre when, in Being and Nothingness, he compared it favourably with skiing as being that trajectory "which leaves no trace" and therefore qualifies as the quintessential existentialist exercise.

Anthropology, theology, literature, philosophy, physiology: surfing is the interdisciplinary topic par excellence, the queen of sciences. Therefore what better place to study it than in Cambridge?

I'll be putting in a research application to the British Academy one of these days. Meanwhile, I await the endowment of the Rip Curl chair of surfingn

The writer is lecturer in French and surfing at the University of Cambridge and author of `Walking on Water' and `Waiting for Bardot'.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
football
Life and Style
health
Voices
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
News
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
news
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Advisor - OTE £30,000

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Advisor - OTE £30,000

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Administration Assistant / Apprenticeship Industry

£16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity for an e...

Recruitment Genius: NVQ Assessor

£17000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Private Training Provider off...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own