I learned to swim in a windowless indoor pool in the underground car park of an Ex-Servicemen’s Club. The smell of chlorine was rich and the water bath-warm. After swimming lessons, I was sometimes taken to the club for a counter meal: bangers and mash or a slice of meat pie with chips and gravy. Swimming was exhausting; it was unnatural to me then. I sank more quickly that the other children, the effort of staying afloat seemed to knock me out more than it should have.
But I did it anyway. I didn’t know then, exactly, that swimming was not a universal thing. One assumed that on Saturday mornings, every five-year-old in the world was dropped into a pool with floaties. In fact, not even my dad, who dropped me into the pool with floaties every Saturday, could really swim. He hadn’t grown up entirely in Australia, was not from an Australian family, and only now in his retirement is he taking adult learn-to-swim classes.
Easy to forget, in the arid, coastal south of Australia, that swimming education is not a neutral thing.
People who live in flood-prone regions round the world are more likely to survive if they can swim. For that reason, girls and women have a higher mortality rate due to gendered roles and taboos that make them less likely to learn. Drowning is the third leading cause of unintentional death globally; 96 per cent of drowning deaths happen in low and middle-income countries. 90 per cent of drowning victims are girls and women. Climate change is compounding this – it is taking poor lives, and killing girls and women disproportionately. Swimming education is not a neutral thing. Not at all.
Man-made pools have existed since antiquity, but the pools of modernity, the ‘blue ribbon’ of them dotted over Australian city suburbs and country towns inland are based on the ‘baths’ of industrialising England. These Victorian structures were built to bathe a rapidly growing urban populations, and to divert bathers from English riverways, where they were drowning in increasing numbers.
A pool is a sensible solution to the problem of water. Large enough to entice full submersion (it’s impossible to not jump in, no? ), small enough to control. Everything frightening about water – rips and tides and the erotic, cold, chasmic depths – is mediated and managed at the pool.
Everything frightening about water – rips and tides and the erotic, cold, chasmic depths – is mediated and managed at the pool.
The pool’s water goes nowhere, except through a large mechanical filter. Toxic chemicals sanitise the water. The water runs largely still. But even the stillness of the pool is not, as Shakespeare would have it, an indication of depth. The kiddie pool’s other name? Piss paradise. The risk of contracting E. coli at your local pool? Almost guaranteed. The pool is always a bit contaminated, yes, and a little bit gross. If the pool signifies anything at all, it signifies our faith in the state – or at least in the management team – to neutralise the shit particles before they curl their way into our mouths.
The blue, or turquoise, or aquamarine of the pool’s painted or tiled walls make reference to the platonic blue of unreal water. Out there, in the machine of nature, bodies of water are more likely to appear the colour of copper, or gunmetal, or ink, or sand. So that electric blue is the first clue that the swimming pool contains some important and unreal fantasies of health and inclusion and identity.
The metaphors of the modern pool, compared, at least, with other great bodies of water, are impoverished. Not like the sea; ‘wine-dark’ (Homer) or ‘snotgreen’ (James Joyce), with ‘white claws’ (Robert Penn Warren), and ‘pointed pines’ (Hilda Doolittle). Unlike the untamed brook, the pool does not ‘make the netted sunbeam dance’ (Tennyson). It could, I’m sure. But it doesn’t.
I am not a real swimmer. I own a single swimsuit, which I bought at an op-shop almost ten years ago. It’s black and covers most of the parts of my body that I don’t want the whole world to see. I splurged last year and bought the racer-level goggles, because they don’t leak, and my eyes are sensitive to water of all kinds. My face flushes red at the first threat of physical exertion. My thighs wobble as I walk to and from the change room. My skin is the colour of the skin of people who historically lived in burrows in the sides of hills and who should probably have stayed there, away from the torch of the sky.
When I swim, I thrash about in the water and I feel my lungs aflame. My legs are heavy and tend to sink. I struggle, really, from one end of the pool to the other. I can’t think of anything but my next gulp of air, and the ‘number’ lap I am on.
But I am stubborn about my laps, and often stay in the water much longer than I intend to. I clock my kay or two.
I started swimming in a count-the-number-of-laps way in late primary school, around the time that I developed the awareness that I was who I was, and would always be so if I didn’t do something about it. And that what I was was a lazy child, uninterested in doing anything that didn’t come naturally; a fun way to live, sure, but one that also makes people think you are both up yourself and frivolous. Which I found to be unfair.
When I swim, I thrash about in the water and I feel my lungs aflame. I can’t think of anything but my next gulp of air.
Who knows what psychic wound led me to believe that being perceived as ‘serious’ (pushing myself to do laps against my own will, exercising my potential to one day be disciplined) would make the days of my life any better. The usual wound, probably, of witnessing the punishment for ordinary life and ordinary pleasure. The governing wound, that internalised protestant belief that anything of value in this world should feel slightly unpleasant and always hard-won.
So. Swimming laps contains the threat of my dirty secret: that my base nature is lazy, in an ordinary way, and that my higher nature is a martyr, seeking approbation for all those dreadful laps.
Still, I am lazy. Still, I prefer to do what comes naturally, what feels right and good and not what is difficult. And still, I flay myself by doing the unpleasant thing, hoping that someone will notice, will confirm that, yes, I am a serious person and yes, okay, I am worthy.
The secret, that I am just like everyone else, locked in a battle with myself.
The classical urge: to destroy my worst nature, to aspire to perfection.
And the liberal urge: to see the flaw in the design and cherish it.
The tragic ambivalence that is being an individual body in the world. Or, as Simone de Beauvoir writes of the ‘rational animal’:
He escapes from his natural condition without, however, freeing himself from it. He is still a part of this world of which he is a consciousness. He asserts himself as a pure internality against which no external power can take hold, and he also experiences himself as a thing crushed by the dark weight of other things.
Years ago, I met up with a friend after my afternoon swim. I asked him if he’d like to come do laps with me next time.
‘No,’ he said. ‘I find pools fascist.’
I had to agree.
The obedient strips, the lap lanes, the swimming back and forth, mindlessly, in pursuit of self-control, or fitness, for heavens’ sake, stands in for some of the more frightening elements of our rule-by-consent-of-the-ruled society. There are the swimming pool rules! and no one breaks them, which is a comfort as much as it is a threat. I believe in my bones that we – you, me, all – should break small rules and taboos every day, so that we are prepared when it comes time to break the important ones.
In the history of pool rules, there have been, and remain, rules of non-admission, rules of active discrimination. Not to let Aboriginal people in. Not to let female people in. Not to let trans people in. Not to let people in who can’t afford to pay.
Rules can be worse than anything.
But also, and I cannot stress this enough: never slow-swim in the medium lane.
The obedient strips, the lap lanes, the swimming back and forth mindlessly, stands in for some of the more frightening elements of our rule-by-consent-of-the-ruled society.
The indoor public swimming pool is a heterotopia. A (distorted) microcosm (not all bodies are allowed entry, after all, and not everybody wants to go). It’s not a utopia – there’s too much urine in the water for that. Too many mixed feelings about what anyone is doing there. Utopias, Foucault writes, ‘present society itself in a perfected form,’ and are ‘fundamentally unreal spaces’. A utopia would not include the bodies that one encounters at the pool.
Heterotopias, on the other hand, incorporate – without flattening, without reconciling – the blunt facts of difference between people. They embody the reality that ‘we live inside a set of relations that delineates sites which are irreducible to one another and absolutely not superimposable on one another’. At the pool, one brushes up against the bodies that own the world (the able-bodied, waxed and ripped and tanned), and the bodies of the excised, too (the heavily pregnant, the very elderly, mothers of young children, people with illness and disability).
The pool is the only place in my (increasingly cauterised) life in which I exist, semi-naked, in close proximity to people with whom I share no intelligible connection. The fact of my difference is as numbingly boring as anyone else’s. The pool is a space where many ways of being, and knowing, are brought together, without any attempt to reconcile them. Nothing is flattened, nor idealised, either.
At the pool, my personal swimming abilities – squarely medium – are put in their place. Neither coddled nor pushed to improve. When I do my leisurely medium-paced laps in an empty fast lane, I fully expect to be returned to my rightful lane when a real swimmer jumps in. When the kids’ classes take over one half of the pool, and competitive swimmers train in the other, I know that the medium lanes will be squished together. My cue to get out.
No one at the pool has ever told me I’m a great swimmer, nor has anyone ever criticised my form. (Except for one time, when a trainer shouted a finger-placement tip across the lanes, which I was thankful for. )
In my real life, which I split between academia and writing, coddling and pushing live in tandem. Neither is healthy. Neither feels good.
For all its (highly specific, probably unrelatable) challenges, the writing world can feel coddling. In private of course there is the everyday grimness: the rejections, the closed doors, the ideas that go nowhere for lack of time or ability. But the public side of it is ego-puffing. We say we are ‘crushed’ by work that we are only mildly moved by. If someone doesn’t say they loved your latest piece, it is because they hated it. Feel ashamed! Feel puffed up! Feel anything but the grinding realness of the work. Instead of bolstering the ego, false praise weakens it, it conditions the heart to expect and demand praise – genuine or not – and to become desperate when it’s not forthcoming. It doesn’t adequately prepare the ego for the failures necessary to art. It turns the writer away from the rhythms and pleasures of the work itself.
The pool is the only place in which I exist, semi-naked, in close proximity to people with whom I share no intelligible connection. Nothing is flattened, nor idealised.
The academic world, which is founded on exclusion, is conditioned to troubling hierarchies of value. There is little false praise. Fine. There is the work, there are the rules, there is the ever-present threat of failure. Okay. There is the maxim ‘there are no jobs in academia,’ which serves mostly to confirm to anyone without a deep sense of entitlement that they should not bother. This constellation gives any accomplishment within academia a glow of genuine achievement. And this, too, does a disservice to the ego. Conditions it to constant external assessment, to martyrdom, and to a true belief in ‘merit’. Encourages, in small but vital ways, the conviction that institutionally-disciplined intelligence is a moral virtue.
At the pool, I am just a medium-paced swimmer with impressive finger form.
The pool I like best, which I frequented most of last year, is suspended in a hangar, half glass, overlooking the Maribyrnong River. It’s beautiful. When I dangled at the edge of the pool to catch my breath I would take in the sky, huge and grey. And the trees down the hill – gums and ashes and pines and oaks. The green floor expanding downward, and tiny people, insects, playing on the oval. I couldn’t believe it cost only a few dollars to be there.
Glass in modernist architecture has a particular objective: to make visible public life. To ‘dismantle,’ Herbert Muschamp writes, ‘the sham historical facades that screened the facts of industrial culture behind the elaborate pageantry of the nineteenth-century styles.’ He writes that ‘Modern architects, like Freud, sought to improve mental hygiene by eliminating illusions.’ Open, visible, glass structures might let in light and bring pleasure to a swimmer, but light is always a loaded metaphor. It suggests visibility, knowledge, democracy, openness. It suggests – wrongly, in my view – that nothing untoward can happen in its view. The ‘Glass Chain’, a chain letter exchanged between a group of post-World War I German expressionist architects, designed a utopian glass world in its letters and sketches. The speculation was, Matthew Mindrup writes, that the ‘crystalline structure of glass would be the material expression of a new living community in close contact with nature and industry unified by cosmic transcendental thoughts of the collective good’.
The glass walls that hold up so many gyms around the world pervert the Glass Chain ideal. Instead, the glass wall at the gym exposes the maintenance of the lie that labour and virtue are twinned. As if by exposing the work that goes into creating a ‘perfect’ body, the disciplined body itself is no longer the only object that’s fetishised. It’s also the sweat, the rigour, the discipline, the work. The voluntary, after-hours work of regulating the body. Glass walls at the gym show us that only through discipline does a human body become useful, or valuable, in capitalism. It shows us that capitalism needs individuals to be the entrepreneurs of their own selves.
The glass walls that hold up indoor municipal pools, however, are different. Softer. Kinder. In my city, at least, they open onto grassy ovals or parks or strips of nature. The illusion they grant is not one of self-punishment nor virtue, but a merging of nature and technology. Big light from the sky. Gumtrees overhead. At a stretch, the illusion of taking a dip in a wild pond. Some primordial memory flickers in the modern body, the body disciplined to this life, of a time outside work, outside making a living doing strange, inhuman things, a time outside of negotiating online personas. Almost as though somebody living a pre- or extra-modern life would think that doing laps in a chlorinated water box was a useful or enjoyable thing to do.