Jerk on One End

Robert Hughes, Australian art critic, is also an angler. His little book A Jerk on One End (1999) is subtitled "Reflections of a Mediocre Fisherman". It combines sharp prose and commentary with delightful self-deprecating humor. In Part I, for instance, Hughes muses about seeing:

... To fish at all, even on a humble level, you must notice things: the movement of the water and its patterns, the rocks, the seaweed, the quiver of tiny scattering fish that betrays a bigger predator under them. Time on the pier taught me to concentrate on the visual, for fishing is intensely visual even—perhaps especially—when nothing is happening. It is easy to look, but learning to see is a more gradual business, and it sneaks up on you unconsciously, by stealth. The sign that it is happening is the fact that you are not bored by the absence of the spectacular. ...

... and a little later, a parallel between fishing and writing:

... The fundamental experience of fishing consists of dropping a line into the unknown. You can guess at what is down there; you can make your best estimates based on tide, habitat, feeding patterns, and so forth; but you do not really know. Whatever takes your hook therefore has a character of revelation, even if it's only a flounder. It may be edible or not; thorny, spiny, or beautifully sleek; equipped with gnashing jaws or relatively passive; but there is always, assuming that you aren't sight-fishing, the magic moment when the thing struggling on your line down there could be anything. The similarities between the writer's work and the angler's need not be labored, but they exist: The writer lets down his or her hook into the deposit of memory and experience, the semiconscious fluid—not the dark, abyssal unconscious, which is out of reach, but the tidal zone where word, phrase, idea, and memory circulate in a kind of half-light, forming their unpredicted patterns. With luck, you bring something up. If it is undersize, you toss it back.

... and in Part III, a whimsical-shocking turn of the tables:

Fishing is a cruel sport. All blood sports are, though that is not necessarily a reason for abolishing them. How would you like it if fish and angler were reversed? It is a bright, breezy May day and you are strolling along one of the piers at Malibu. You stop at a vendor's cart and buy a hot dog with mustard and relish. You lean on the railing and take a first bite. Suddenly your gullet is convulsed with a choking pain and a sharp pull snaps your head forward and down. Something hard, sharp, and metallic is stuck in your throat. The shock is completely outside your experience. In an effort to resist it, you run frantically back and forth on the pier, but the pressure is inexorable, and your lungs have begun to fill with blood. Over the side you go, and hit the watr wildly struggling. The unidentifiable force drags you down. On the bed of the bay, something enormous and unknown grabs you and, if you are lucky, kills you with a blow to the back of the head. If you are not so lucky, death comes more slowly by drowning. Either way, perhaps mercifully, you cannot hear or understand the Thing on the seabed chatting to its fellow Things about how well you fought.

Shocking and debatable, yes. Hughes admits that we can't really know what it feels like to be a fish. And Nature in our absence is cruel. But nevertheless, even putting aside an individual fish's potential suffering, there's the larger question of overfishing, extinction of entire species, pollution of waterways and the oceans, etc. Big issues, worth pondering. Hughes addresses them thoughfully.

(cf. SeeingAndForgetting (1999-07-15), ArtNewspaper (2001-08-04), Omnivore's Dilemma (2009-05-16), ...) - ^z- 2009-12-24