Sunday, August 7, 2022

Karen Eva Carr's "Shifting Currents"

Karen Eva Carr is associate professor emerita in the Department of History at Portland State University. Her books include Vandals to Visigoths: Rural Settlement Patterns in Early Medieval Spain.

Carr applied the "Page 99 Test" to her new book, Shifting Currents: A World History of Swimming, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Shifting Currents: A World History of Swimming features the beginning of a major cultural split where Europeans identify as swimmers to separate themselves from non-swimming foreigners: “the Greeks and the Persians start to underscore their cultural differences and downplay their similarities.” This distinction accompanies others: “Greek men go naked while Persians cover up, they say. Greeks build temples, but Persians do not. Greeks have one wife, but Persians have many. And the Greeks can swim, but the Persians cannot.” And yet the Greeks have not always been swimmers. Page 99 explains that in earlier chapters, “we have been considering all these Central Asian northern non-swimmers and their descendants essentially as one group.”

This excerpt gives a fairly good sense of the tension at the center of this book. On the one hand, Europeans have not historically been among the world’s swimmers. Along with other northern Eurasian people, including the Persians, they didn’t know how to swim in the Stone Age or the Bronze Age. On the other hand, when Europeans began to learn to swim again in the Iron Age—one of the first indications is Odysseus’s swim to the island of the Phaeacians, about 700 BCE—they soon used their swimming skills as evidence of their own sophistication and intelligence, and put down their neighbors for not knowing how to swim. So we have this tension: Europeans never became very good swimmers. Africans and Americans, Australians and Southeast Asians were all much more at home in the water. But Europeans, proud of their swimming, used their skill to build a case for how much better they were than foreigners.

We can’t fully understand that tension from this page, though. While this chapter shows us Greek and Roman swimming, other chapters show the contrast by detailing how well people swam on the other continents: surfing in Hawaii, diving underneath warships to sink them in South China, swimming games among boys and girls in Suriname. We don’t get a sense of the class distinctions Europeans also drew, where rich, powerful people swam and poor people did not. And although this chapter is about classical antiquity, later chapters show how these same tensions are still with us, and still affect who swims and who doesn’t, even today.
Follow Karen Carr on Twitter.

--Marshal Zeringue