Jacket Image

Enlarge Image

210 × 148 × 25 mm
184 pages
42 illustrations, 16 in colour
14 May 2018

The Waterless Sea A Curious History of Mirages Christopher Pinney

Mirages have long astonished travellers and beguiled thirsty desert voyagers. Chinese and Japanese poetry and images depicted mirages as the exhalations of clam-monsters. Indian sources related them to the ‘thirst of gazelles’, a metaphor for the futility of desire. From the late eighteenth century to the present, mirages became a symbol of ‘Oriental despotism’, a malign, but also enchanted, emblem. But the mirage motif is rarely simply condemnatory. More commonly it conveys a sense of escape, of fascination, of a desire to be deceived.

The Waterless Sea is the first book devoted to the theories and history of mirages. Christopher Pinney navigates a sinuous pathway through a mysterious and evanescent terrain, showing how mirages have impacted politics, culture, science, and religion, and how we can continue to learn from their sublimity.

‘This is both a study of the mirage as a subject of scholarship and a profound meditation on its paradoxical form as a true illusion … Pinney explores the way in which the fata morgana has been deployed since the 19th century to think about the existential, aesthetic and political choices, as much as contradictions, between the evidence of the eyes and that of the mind …this is a global account of its vacillating form as a site of reflection. Itself written as if in the style of a mirage, this is a beautifully conceived work that philosophises the visible.’ — Faisal Devji, University of Oxford

‘Pinney’s erudite and highly readable account of the mirage is a scintillating journey through more than just an ephemeral intangibility. It is a substantial history of the sublime as it is refracted on the surface of what remains enchanted, mysterious and strange. What appears on the horizon, or just above it, thanks to Pinney’s delightful reflections, are a number of unique perspectives on a diverse range of topics, such as colonialism and empire, science and religion, democracy and despotism – and even photography. And just as we historically and collectively confront ourselves in the mirage, what results in this beautiful book are a number of subjective experiences that are, paradoxically, also collective.’ — Omar W. Nasim. University of Regensburg

‘Anyone who has driven down a hot asphalt country road will have seen in the distance what appears to be a pool of standing water that remains perpetually out of reach. In The Waterless Sea, anthropologist Pinney delves into the many accounts of fantastic mirages that have been reported over the centuries. No mere optical illusions, he says, mirages are real and are produced by atmospheric optics. Their interpretations, however, have been shaped by culture, politics, religion, and science. Their illusory qualities drive Pinney’s philosophical discussion, which touches on a number of topics, such as their use as metaphor and moral lesson. Historical photos, prints, lithographs, and paintings illustrate Pinney’s erudite narrative.’ — Physics Today

‘Pinney explores the enchanting enigma of fata morgana or mirages, visions of cities in the sky or stately mansions floating on fantastic oceans in deserts and polar wastes . . . Pinney provides an extraordinary tour of the union of refraction and the imagination.’ — Jonathan Lamb, Vanderbilt University

‘The illusory seas observed in sere deserts are not the only form of mirage, notes Christopher Pinney in this alluring tour of the phenomenon in science and culture. Created by light refracting as it moves through atmospheric regions with differing temperatures, mirages can also appear as imposing and mysterious “castles in the air”. Pinney ranges from the old Japanese belief that these “phantom paradises” were exhaled by clam monsters, to an 1898 Nature report detailing mirage effects on flagstone pavements. A paean to a sublime apparition, “real, but not true”.’ — Nature

‘Through the words of generations of desert travellers, Pinney paints the shimmering heat, the dazzling sand and the strange visions hanging in the sky. He reproduces fascinating postcards, engravings and photos of floating ships and castles, palm trees and palaces that “possess every possible stability”, including one alleged photograph of a skyscraper city emerging from the Muir Glacier in Alaska. For ice, too, makes mirages, as light refracts through the different temperatures and densities of air . . . Mr Pinney concludes with Plato’s thought that nothing made or seen on this Earth can be more than a poor representation of the beautiful Ideal. Might a mirage be that elusive original?’ — The Economist

‘Christopher Pinney has emerged with perhaps the finest homage to evanescence yet written: The Waterless Sea: A Curious History of Mirages . . . Ultimately The Waterless Sea reveals its author to be as spiritually refracted as the – elusive and translucent occlusion he seeks to own; the richness of his sensibility is every bit as compelling as his subject. As Pinney shows, the mirage is primarily a phenomenon of spiritual resonance, ungovernable and in that, unimaginably potent. Fuelled by the tangible in its creation of the fantastic, the mirage exists to turn the human eye inward.’ — The Australian

‘[A] highbrow meditation . . . Pinney examines mirages as cause of frustration and disappointment, as religious metaphor for falsehood or a society on the brink, and as depiction of mythological places . . . Readers curious about the natural world will find this rumination of interest.’ — Publishers Weekly

‘Pinney's fascinating new book . . . traces the illusions of mirages through many eras and cultures and environments . . . Throughout history, from China to Persia to India . . . he's a shrewd reader of the patterns underlying all such visions.’ — Christian Science Monitor

Show all

Christopher Pinney is Professor of Anthropology and Visual Culture at University College London. His publications include Camera Indica (1997), Photos of the Gods (2004) and Photography and Anthropology (2011), all published by Reaktion.

Prologue: Chasing Mirage

1. Strange Visions Under a Cliff in Central India, October 1829

2. A World History of Mirages: The Thirst of the Gazelle

3. ‘Fallacious Evidence of the Senses’

4. ‘Mocking Our Distress’

5. Cold and Hot: The Geography of Mirage

6. Mirage and Crisis

7. Oriental Mirages and ‘Spectatorial Democracy’

8. From Clam-monsters to Representative Democracy

9. The Halted Viewer and Sfumato

10. Memory and Modernity

11. Theatrical Mirages

12. The ‘Mirage Medium of Fancy’

13. Mirage and Oriental Despotism

14. Keeping Mecca and Medina Invisible

15. Inside Abdul Hamid II’s Head

16. Mirage Pharmakon: Wild and Domestic

Epilogue: Real, But Not True




Photo Acknowledgements