Another Look at the Jellyfish

30 June 2021
By Rachel Murray

Figure 1. Jellyfish washed ashore in Italy. Wikimedia Commons

Towards the end of H. G. Wells’s science fiction novella ‘The Time Machine’ (1895), a Victorian scientist travels thirty million years into the future, where he is confronted with a dying world: ‘All the sounds of man, the bleating of sheep, the cries of birds, the hum of insects, the stir that makes the background of our lives—all that was over.’ Standing on an empty beach beneath a fading sun, he detects a final sign of movement:

It was a round thing, the size of a football perhaps, or, it may be, bigger, and tentacles trailed down from it; it seemed black against the weltering blood-red water, and it was hopping fitfully about.[1]

The world’s last survivor resembles a jellyfish-like creature, with its trailing tentacles and dome-like body pulsating sinisterly against the crimson backdrop of the tide. Faced with this unnerving spectacle, the time traveller experiences a ‘terrible dread of lying helpless in that remote and awful twilight,’ as though recognising in the creature’s fitful movements a terrifying vision of evolutionary reversal – a return to gelatinous origins.

As Rebecca Stott notes, Wells’s narrative exemplifies the ‘primeval slime degeneration narrative’ of fin-de-siècle literature and science (Wells was influenced by the work of the marine zoologist and evolutionary biologist E. Ray Lankester, who developed a theory of human devolution based on the lifecycle of the sea squirt).[2] It also bears striking similarities to a vision of the future put forward by scientists in recent years.

Over the past few decades, there have been growing warnings of an impending ‘Jellyfish Apocalypse!,’ or ‘Jellygeddon,’ with many speculating that a combination of marine pollution and acidification, rising sea temperatures, and overfishing have created the ideal circumstances for jellyfish numbers to soar. As Stacy Alaimo notes, the narrative is one of a ‘gelatinous future’ comprised of ‘largely empty or monocultural seas, teeming with resilient jellyfish and little else.’[3]

Scientific reports of the jellyfish apocalypse are, of course, greatly exaggerated: though there is some evidence to suggest that their numbers are increasing, the foundations on which the ocean jellification theory rests are decidedly wobbly. Yet the uncanny resemblance between this vision of the future and Wells’s premonition, more than 100 years earlier, suggests evidence of a regression of a sort. Indeed, what is striking is just how undifferentiated these visions of the future appear, both in their imagining of a sort of an environment stripped of its diversity, as well as how their consistency undermines any sense of intellectual or scientific progress in the intervening century.[4]

Such samey-ness, I think, tells us more about ourselves than it does about the jellyfish, in that it is suggestive of a tendency to slip back into fearful and irrational ways of thinking about animals – particularly creatures that appear distant or alien to us. It also suggests a tendency to pattern our own harmful behaviours (and fantasies) onto the lives of other organisms: perhaps we can only imagine a future ocean in which one life form achieves total domination over all others because this is, in essence, what our own interference in the ocean, in many respects, has sought to achieve.

Yet while literary texts such as ‘The Time Machine’ can help us to recognise the persistence of certain attitudes towards the jellyfish in the Western cultural and scientific imagination, they also suggest that these life forms are capable of prompting a richly varied imaginative response. To pick just one example: early on in Marcel Proust’s Sodom and Gomorrah (1921), the narrator likens himself to a ‘sterile jellyfish that must perish upon the sand.’ The analogy is based on a childhood memory of encountering a dead jellyfish on the beach at Balbec, and here it becomes a fitting reflection of the protagonist’s sense of loneliness and self-disgust as a result of his homosexuality (he has spent the day unsuccessfully cruising the beach). Moments later, however, the image of the sterile jellyfish blooms into something more fertile:

When I was following only my own instinct, the jellyfish repelled me at Balbec; but had I known how to look at it, like Michelet, from the point of view of natural history and of aesthetics, I would have seen a delectable girandole of azure. Are they not, with the transparent velvet of their petals, like the mauve orchids of the sea?[5]

In its strange outlandishness, the figure of the jellyfish seems to offer a way of coming to terms with sexual difference – both the horror of feeling aberrant, as well as the pleasures of being otherwise. The two levels of response that Proust is describing here – the initial revulsion, followed by the aesthetic appreciation – also suggests that science and literature, as well as reinforcing instinctively negative responses to creatures such as the jellyfish, can also work together to offer a different point of view.

Figure 2. ‘A delectable girandole of azure.’ Sea nettle, Wikimedia Commons

In scientific and literary accounts of the jellyfish, we encounter an array of exuberant metaphors: the American natural historian Louis Agassiz, for instance, likens their movement to an ‘umbrella alternately opened and shut’; in the eyes of Marianne Moore, the jellyfish resembles ‘a fluctuating charm,’ while to Sylvia Plath it recalls an ‘overexposed X-Ray.’ In the face of their formal and taxonomic fluidity, the imagination becomes more pliable: in Mark Doty’s poem ‘Difference,’ for instance, the speaker likens a floating mass of jellyfish to balloons, parasols, flowers, even condoms. At the beginning of the poem, the jellyfish resemble little more than a homogenous mass (‘a dozen identical … sacks of nothing’), but over time, the speaker becomes attuned to their individual differences, noting: ‘each one does something unlike.’

The same could be said of all of these writers, who find in the jellyfish something surprising and unexpected. In doing so, they remind us not to lump these creatures in with the deathly ooze and the slime, and to recognise the capacity of the jellyfish – a term which comprises thousands of individual species (from wind-sailors to mauve stingers) – of generating a distinct and lively imaginative response.

[1] H. G. Wells, The Time Machine: An Invention (New York: Henry Holt, 1922), 210-11.

[2] Rebecca Stott, ‘Through a Glass Darkly: Aquarium Colonies and Nineteenth-Century Narratives of Marine Monstrosity,’ Gothic Studies, 2.3, 305-327 (325).

[3] Stacy Alaimo, ‘Adequate Imaginaries for Anthropocene Seas,’ Blue Legalities: The Life and Laws of the Seas, eds. Irus Braverman and Elizabeth Johnson (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2020), 311-326 (314).

[4] As Killian Quigley observes in a recent talk, such visions also suggest the resurfacing of an older pre-Enlightenment trope of the sea as a horror vacui, or empty void, ‘Deforming the Ocean: Extinctions, Aesthetics, and Future Seas,’ Blue Extinction: Biodiversity Loss in Aquatic Environments, ASLE-UKI Online Seminar Series, 27 May 2021.

[5] Marcel Proust, Sodom and Gomorrah, trans. John Sturrock(New York: Viking, 2004), 30; see also Simon Porzack, Inverts and Invertebrates: Darwin, Proust, and Nature’s Queer Heterosexuality, diacritics, 41.4 (2013), 6-34.