On Leviathan, Or Why We Need Monsters

There’s a certain nightmare so prevalent and extreme that it might be hardwired into our brains

So here’s me, with my children, ten and twelve, going out to gambol the sharks.

It’s before dawn and we’re on the coast of Natal. Behind us is Africa, enormous, hilly, full of flowering trees, and silent. Before us a cartwheel sun is coming out of limitless ocean. Everything is enormous. The mid-blue vault is hundreds of miles wide; the beach three miles long; three-mile breakers roll in, crags and vanish, crash and vanish. We are going through those breakers in a big rubber motor-launch. It’s a matter of timing; catch the crest full on and we’ll be flung out. But our pilot’s clever, he takes us through athwart, and we’re out on the open sea, which moves with a swell not much rougher than a pond.

A few kilometers, and we anchor above a reef. With the engine off the silence is almost terrible, even in the sunshine. Africa is now just a long strip of gold to the west. Our host starts chucking buckets of sardines into the swell. We wait for the killer fishes.

Not that the ones we’re likely to see, a variety of requiem shark called the oceanic black-tip, actually kill people. Hardly ever. And anyway, not meaning to. In our wet-suits and flippers we look like seals, but seals too big to eat. It’s only dangling human fingers that lead to mistakes, so we’re to snorkel with hands tucked into our armpits.

And here they are already. The sea, suddenly churning and bubbling, breaks about a smooth, smooth, wet swift grey peak. It’s the infamous triangular fin, just as ominous close-up and mobile as it is in photos. Very soon a score of these fins are cutting and whirling through the waters in a feeding-frenzy. A mild sardine feeding-frenzy.

Our friends lower a shark-cage into the sea, so we can, if we want, observe the critters through bars. But cages are for wimps. Real shark-tourism means open water. In we go.


There’s a certain nightmare so prevalent and extreme that I think it might be hardwired into our brains. I mean the nightmare of the gigantic monster coming up for us, swimming or stomping out of the darkness – darkness of forest or space or sea. The dark is immeasurable, impenetrable, unthinkably deep, unknowable; it naturally (so we think) breeds open-jawed brutes eager to devour us. The Alien franchise of gothic-sci-fi films plays on this fear; so does Jurassic Park; but the scariest of all is Jaws – DUH-duh DUH-duh DUH-duh and the streamlined creature, which is nothing but ginormous teeth and insatiable belly, tears up through the murk toward our innocent flailing legs.

This particular horror wasn’t invented by Spielberg or Ridley Scott. It was old twenty-six centuries ago, when an ancient Hebrew wrote about the sea-beast.

The flakes of his flesh are joined together:

they are firm in themselves; they cannot be moved.

His heart is as firm as a stone;

yea, as hard as a piece of the nether millstone.

When he raiseth up himself, the mighty are afraid:

by reason of breakings they purify themselves

which means that when the shark surges out of the water serious people shit themselves.

He maketh the deep to boil like a pot:

he maketh the sea like a pot of ointment.

We know Leviathan, as the monster is called, fills us dread: Shall not one be cast down even at the sight of him? But the Hebrew poem also admits that he is beautiful:

None is so fierce that dare stir him up:

who then is able to stand before me?

I will not conceal his parts, nor his power,

nor his comely proportion.

It’s clear enough why Leviathan the sea-monster is a horror: He isn’t just this shark or that, he is Nature itself. He proves that the non-human world is bigger and fiercer than we are. The natural world is solid; it only pretends to be at our mercy; whenever it wants to, it will devour us with pandemic or asteroid hit, and we cannot stand before it.

Why, then, is Leviathan “comely?”

Who can open the doors of his face?

his teeth are terrible round about.

They are joined one to another,

they stick together, that they cannot be sundered.

In his neck remaineth strength,

and sorrow is turned into joy before him.

Why joy?


This is why. The thought struck me as I was flailing around awkwardly ten kilometers out at sea, and a meter beneath; and here it is, for what it’s worth.

There’s a much worse nightmare haunting us. I mean the nightmare that nature really is small and trifling; that it’s really at our mercy; that it might go away and leave us to manage without.

Perhaps we really are becoming virtual. That’s what it feels like, anyway. More and more time spent beyond the screen, more and more of our thrills are virtual thrills, generated by C.G.I. and video games, more and more of friendships constructed from tweets. More and more politics constructed of bots posting on Facebook and becoming public opinion. More and more porn, more and more digital spectacle, less and less flesh.

That (or so it seemed to seemed to me as the black-tips swarmed about) is why we seek out these monsters to enjoy them, as we seek out volcanoes, or bungee jump off bridges. Such things are real. Such sublime violence assures us that, after all, we still exist. We want nature to touch us, even if it is only to bite.


Not of course that the sharks of the Aliwal Shoal bit us. They just came very close, swimming between our legs, brushing against our carefully-tucked-in hands – the feel of them was as rasping as coarse sandpaper. They swam past close enough for our eyes to meet.

The shark’s eye, glowing and silver-brown, has bad press. It is generally described as cold and cruel, or as beady and hungry. But perhaps it’s simply old. Sharks evolved four hundred and fifty million years back, when the first plants were experimenting with dry land, and there were no land vertebrates like us to despise or chew. I can’t imagine they look on us very seriously; indeed, our hosts told us that the shark politely takes divers as an inferior sort of shark, and is therefore happy to school with us. Anyway, we were happy to school with him.

Sorrow is turned into joy before him.