Education+: Summertime views

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The Independent Online
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'.