swimming


Last week the swimming season at the beach’s ocean baths began … and the sea water was  absolutely freezing, like melt-water from the alps. 16 degrees said the sign, but it felt like maybe 12 degrees. All the same, we plunged in, gasping and yelping. After about four laps, the tingling feeling goes, the extremities either retreat or become numb. About 15 minutes later we emerged, a deep shade of purple.

Yet every day, throughout winter, some old fogeys take their constitutional dip: half an hour or more, marching up and down, waist deep, or swimming their laps. How do they manage? I would suggest that at a certain age the nervous system simply packs it in, sensations disappear, and you can plunge into Antarctic waters as though in the tropics. The brain too slows down, since any normal person will find that basic functions are fatally affected if you swim in less than 16 degrees.

A lesser known aspect of the Russian Revolution is the flourishing of … nudism. After the revolution, the famous actress, Ida Rubenstein, played naked on stage. The poet Goldschmidt would appear naked on the streets. A movement called ‘Down with shame’ would walk the streets in Soviet cities, catch trams, go about their daily lives wearing nothing but a red sash over their shoulders. A White Army newspaper joked in 1919 that the price of suits must have skyrocketed, since so many people were going around naked. At international nudist conferences in the 1920s, the Soviet delegates far outnumbered those from other countries. Over the summers, rivers, beaches and lakes witnessed millions of old people, children, families, singles in the prime of their life gathered to play games, picnic or enjoy the sun – all naked.

How did it begin? It appears that during his long exile before the Revolution, Lenin visited a nudist beach in Austria and was favourably impressed. It was not so much the naked bodies everywhere, but the emphasis on healthy living. Given that Lenin was – as many noted – a muscular man with a love of outdoor activities, nudism was a natural extension of that passion. Soon enough both he and Krupskaya were regularly tossing their clothes in a corner and diving into the nearest river, lake or sea completely starkers. I’m not sure whether they also hiked and rode their bicycles naked (ice-skating might be a little tricky), but in this light one of Lenin’s favoured phrases, ‘tearing off the fig-leaf’, takes on a whole new meaning.

As do regular observations in the letters concerning swimming. For instance, Krupskaya writes about their stay at Pornic in France in the summer of 1910, ‘He went sea-bathing a lot, cycled a good deal – he loved the sea and the sea breezes – chatted gaily with the Kostitsins on everything under the sun’. Of course, one can enjoy the breeze much more when naked, even while chatting away with all and sundry. It mattered not where they were, for they would swim naked – in Longjumeau or in Pornic on the French coast, or in Stjernsund in Sweden, or in swimming pools in Munich, or in Poronino or in the Vistula River in Krakow. Nor were they alone, for other Bolsheviks were also given to stripping down whenever possible, among them Anatoly Lunacharsky, Nikolai Bukharin, Alexander Bogdanov.

After his return to Russia in 1917, Lenin bemoaned the fact that people still gathered in summer and swam in costumes, so he asked why they couldn’t do so without clothes: ‘We have much work to do for new forms of life, simplified and free’, he observed.

Why? As one of those early communist nudists observed, ‘In nudity class distinctions disappear. Workers, peasants, office workers are suddenly just people’. An image of a classless society, perhaps.

Lenin addressing a nudist convention in the Kremlin.

All sorts of rumour on this one – that he was an ascetic, that the relationship was purely convenient for party purposes, that he was gay, etc.

But when Nadya arrived in Shushenskoye in 1898, they set about swimming, ice-skating, hiking and … energetic bonking, as randy young couples do. So why didn’t she become pregnant? In reply to the discreet inquiries from Lenin’s mother, Maria Alexandrovna, as to when she might expect a grandchild, Nadya wrote:

As far as my health is concerned I am quite well but as far as concerns the arrival of a little bird – there the situation is, unfortunately, bad; somehow no little bird wants to come.

Krupskaya in Lenin’s Collected Works, Volume 37, p. 578.

Much speculation on whether this was a large shark leaping out of the water at Newcastle beach on the weekend:

I was actually in the water that day, about 100 metres away while all these super-fit people were competing for Ironman/woman. The waves were stunning, so I stayed in for quite a while. Too big for a dolphin, some suggest it was a pilot whale, others a shark. Mind you, it appeared a few days after the surfer was chomped down at Redhead beach, just south of here.

Looks like a bull shark or two are cruising up and down the coast, taking chunks out of people. A few days ago, a shark took a bite out of someone’s arm a little south of here. Yesterday, at Redhead beach (a spit from here) a bull shark rose from the deep and gnawed deep into a surfer’s thigh and torso. It also munched on his surfboard for a bit of desert. Bleeding heavily, the surfie called for help and a mate came to his aid (that takes guts) and helped him to shore. Grey from loss of blood, he was rushed to hospital and is now stable. But that raises a question: do I go to the beach today, especially since the weather is glorious? Yesterday the beaches were closed, but today they are open again, despite a few extra shark sightings. Is the same shark meandering about, has it called on its mates to join in, or are my chances of becoming shark bait the same as ever?

Probably not a bad idea to ask what surfies think?

Those that surf need to respect the reality that it is their landscape, it is their environment and we are mere custodians of their water and their living. So if we do get eaten or we do get bitten we can’t cry foul.

Update: exponential growth in shark numbers, especially white-pointers, along my beaches. Says the local aerial shark spotter:

Now it’s becoming exponential and I think the ones that have been bred have been breeding and they’ve been breeding. So we’re getting a lot more of them that’s the case.

I am in the midst of proof corrections for Criticism of Earth: On Marx, Engels and Theology, a hefty tome which is due out in March with Brill and later with Haymarket. So in yet another moment of shameless self-promotion, a section of the preface:

I have put off writing this book for too long, daunted by the endless volumes of Marx’s and Engels’s writings. At long last I opened the first volume of their collected works. Over the next eight months I read the whole lot, instead of the select pieces I had read until then, finishing the last volume on the evening before boarding a freighter-ship bound for New Zealand in June 2008. Vast, tiring and exhilarating, it was one of the great reading experiences I have ever had.

From the nooks and crannies of their youth, with bad poetry, love-letters, angry and worried parents, the story unwound in volume after volume. Marx soon showed up as an obsessive and brilliant writer who cared nothing for his health, even when there was a long history of unstable health on his side of the family. Engels, by contrast, obviously knew how to enjoy himself and unwind: good beer, fine wine, exquisite tobacco and women, mixed in with long-distance hiking and a love for swimming. We follow them through the obstacle course of early political journalism in the face of censorship, arrests and exile in Paris, Brussels and then London. I found myself enticed by Engels’s background, one that was so similar to my own, as well as his remarkable ability with languages (I have come across French, English, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Danish, Dutch, Frisian, Russian, Bulgarian, Romanian, Devanagari or Sanskrit, as well as classical Hebrew and Greek). While Engels passed through his hawkish phase and wrote some amazing pieces on battles, campaigns, and the histories of matters such as infantry, rifles and castles, Marx buried himself in piles of economic data and wrote endless notebooks working out his breakthrough-theories. As Marx peaked and burned himself out with the monumental first volume of Capital, Engels kept the whole show together, maintaining his partnership in the firm in Manchester, sending Marx endless pound notes in the post, until at last he could retire and set up both Marx and himself in relative comfort. The formality of intellectual work and the immediacy of journalism finally make way for the intensely personal correspondence. Here, Marx’s obsession with his declining health – especially the interminable reports on those famous carbuncles – shows up starkly (if before he disregarded his health now it is at the centre of his attention), as does Engels’s patience and irrepressibly jovial take on life. And this is how the story closes, with Engels dutifully ensuring Marx’s legacy through a mountain of editorial work on Marx’s unfinished manuscripts (not always understanding them) and yet utterly enthused by the strides taken by the working-class and socialist movement.

When I began writing, I became conscious of the fact that Marx and Engels too were primarily writers. I started to gain respect for Engels as a writer. At times, he may have been too categorical and doctrinaire, not quite shining as bright as Marx, but, at other times, his texts sparkle with insight and observation. Unlike Marx’s intense and obsessive prose, Engels could have a lightness of touch and way of turning a phrase that draws one in. I have read his accounts of the walk from Paris to Berne in Switzerland many times, the travel notes on Sweden and Denmark, his glorious description of the cotton-bale that passes through so many handlers and merchants (swindlers) before reaching Germany, or his letters full of comments on smoking, drinking and women, or indeed his continuous doodles, portraits and battle scenes. Only Engels could write, ‘… now I can shit in peace and then write to you in peace. … Damn, there’s somebody sitting in the lavatory and I am bursting’.[1] No wonder he lived to a good age. His motto, written in young Jenny’s notebook would have helped: ‘Your favourite virtue – jollity; Motto – take it easy’.[2]

Often, Engels had to remind Marx to get some fresh air and exercise instead of sitting on a broken chair at a worn desk in order to write. For Marx was driven by a demanding muse, one that allowed him three or four hours sleep a night, rushed breaks for meals and those endless cups of coffee and reams of tobacco. There are plenty of notes in the letters about working all night, or for thirty hours straight until his eyes were too sore to go further, or Jenny taking over letter-writing since he had dropped from sheer exhaustion. No wonder he became so ill – liver, carbuncles, sores, abscesses, rheumatism, lungs (the letters are full of them) – and no wonder he recovered when on the sea at Margate where he ate well, went for long walks (up to 27 kilometres to Canterbury), swam everyday and slept. He was already sick from overwork in his 30s, was alternating between periods of enforced rest and frenetic writing in his 40s, was spent after Capital appeared at the age of 49, and he could not write anything substantial after that. He was lucky to get to 65.

The image Marx’s father, Heinrich, had of his son in Berlin pretty much sums up the way Marx wrote: ‘God’s grief!!! Disorderliness, musty excursions into all departments of knowledge, musty brooding under a gloomy oil-lamp; running wild in a scholar’s dressing-gown and with unkempt hair instead of running wild over a glass of beer’.[3] Or, in Marx’s own words:

The writer does not look at all on his work as a means. It is an end in itself; it is so little a means for him himself and for others that, if need be, he sacrifices his existence to its existence. He is, in another way, like the preacher of religion who adopts the principle: ‘Obey God rather than man’.[4]

The result was that Marx’s texts are often rushed, dense, endless and written in that atrocious hand. Yet he could also rise from that tangle and produce extraordinarily brilliant stretches of text, such as the Eighteenth Brumaire and The Civil War in France, but it came less naturally to him. I find myself caught in between, preferring Engels as a writer over against Marx, but then taken up with Marx’s sheer originality. And I must confess that I too often succumb to that demanding muse.


[1] Engels 1839ff, p. 411; Engels 1839gg, p. 354.

[2] Engels 1868k, p. 541.

[3] Marx (Heinrich) 1837, p. 688.

[4] Marx 1842i, p. 175.

At Rügen, in the early 1930s. As Christina pointed out, it gives one a slightly different perspective on the Dialectic of Enlightenment. This one is perhaps a little more in character:

Never swam in the ocean in August before, at least in the southern hemisphere where August means winter, but I did so today. It was a little fresh (16 degrees) and I had a ‘Swedish’ swim – in and out – but the day is so glorious I couldn’t resist. The swimming season will last for another 9-10 months at this rate.

That beach is but 15 minutes from our front door.

Apart from looking forward to the moment I can put on my night shirt and snuggle up to Lenin for the evening, I also long for that late swim in the ocean baths down on the headland. But with the days beginning to shorten, the 8.00pm swim has become a night swim. So I usually have the 75 metre pool to myself, free to swim lengthwise, cut diagonals and so on. But can I see where I am swimming? Kind of: I have noticed that phosphorous micro-organisms trail past my face, that the bottom shows up in a different way, that strange creatures some out of their corners and flit along in the sand or the water beside me, that I need to watch out I don’t crash into a dark wall. But shit it feels good.

One of the legacies of the ‘workers’ paradise’ is that beaches in Australia must remain public land, so the century-old ocean baths here are free.

Third day in six over 40 degrees, in the midst of a week that is the hottest on record. The water in the cold tap is hot, even from pipes deep in the ground, the sea-breeze is hot, sweat pours off you from just sitting, you drink 6 litres of water a day and still are thirsty. Air conditioner, anyone? Not on your life. If I had a say-so, I’d ban air-conditioners everywhere in Australia, except for maybe the elderly and in hospitals.

Why? You simply lose any sense that it is a decent summer. You forget how fantastic a good sweat really is. Or what it is like to lie naked on bed, sweating lightly and sleeping deeply. And you simply cannot experience the utter pleasure of a simple cool drink, a splash of water on your face, or a swim in the ocean at 8 pm at the end of an absolute scorcher of a day.

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