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Aquatic Attraction : Poets, Pragmatists and Scholars Ponder the Inexplicable Appeal of Being Near Water

April 07, 1989|ALLAN PARACHINI | Times Staff Writer

Dr. Tom Rusk, a San Diego psychiatrist and author of self-help books, has never met Billy Al Bengston, the acclaimed Venice painter whose work is identified with the "L.A. Look" or "Cool School" that established Los Angeles as a major art center in the early 1960s.

But Rusk, a clinical associate professor at UC San Diego School of Medicine who deals in the logic of science, and Bengston, a motorcycle aficionado and renounced surfer whose major frame of reference is presumably visual and unstructured, both find themselves drawn to the sea.

In describing this aspect of their personalities, the psychiatrist and the artist speak different languages. But they are talking about the same thing.

From somewhere within the psyches of Bengston, Rusk and an undetermined--but, some researchers agree, very large--number of other people emanates a need to live near water.

Somewhere between an attraction and a compulsion, the feeling of being drawn to water has been noted by observers of the human condition down through the ages. Surprisingly, the phenomenon seems not to have inspired so much as a shred of scientific research.

Indeed, a problem with all of these assumptions, Rusk conceded, is that there has never been a research study that explored the attraction--primal or not--of water or bodies of water to the human psyche. Neither a database search of the literature of mental health research, conducted by Claremont Graduate School psychology professor Robert Gable, nor three such searches conducted by The Times could find evidence of any study ever appearing in a scientific journal.

"The most ignored area of human psychology is the study of human feelings," Rusk said. "It is so ignored that the bastions of science in our country almost totally ignore the study of feelings. So feelings are left to psychoanalytic theory, which everyone decries as non-scientific--and I'm not arguing to the contrary. Science doesn't tend to study things having to do with feelings because feelings are, by definition, subjective."

To get at the innate feelings humans have about water, he concludes, "you're going to have a lot more interesting and edifying conversations with poets than you're going to have with scientists."

In the absence of hard data, then, there is disagreement over whether oceans alone fill this need. Many observers believe that other large bodies of water, like the Great Lakes, and even major rivers suffice.

An Evolutionary Throwback?

There are other disagreements. One of them is over whether this is a primal attraction somehow organically imprinted in people--perhaps a throwback to the evolutionary origins of human beings as water creatures or even, in a more Freudian sense, a latent effect of being snugly afloat in the womb.

Observers who agree that many humans share an inner need to be near water, but who don't accept such primal explanations, suggest that it is an acquired taste, motivated by economic and other pragmatic considerations.

Betty Graham, manager of two Jon Douglas Co. realty offices in Malibu, for instance, said that in the economic climate there, the price of property more than doubles on the ocean side of Pacific Coast Highway compared to the inland exposure yards away. But whether this is because of the primal draw of the water, or the urge to cash in on it, is open to question.

To Bengston, 54, the first clues to his own primal attraction to the sea came when he was 15 and his parents decided to leave the home of Bengston's birth in Dodge City, Kan., and head west. They didn't stop until they got to California. The son they raised says now that he cannot imagine ever existing more than a short distance from the ocean.

Meeting of Land and Sea

The ocean has been a consistent subject in Bengston's work for 20 years. Starting in about 1970, he began treating underwater subjects after he became fascinated by skin diving. Beginning in 1974, he turned his attention to the surface and, specifically, to the meeting of land, sea and air--an artistic direction that appears to emanate from preoccupation with what Rusk calls interfaces.

In a telephone interview from Hawaii, where Bengston maintains a second residence, the artist reflected on the necessity he feels to live near the ocean.

"The way I've always thought about it is of the ocean being a terminal situation," he said. "You go as far as you can go on land and the ocean is the end of it, a stopping point . . . usually with a clear vista.

"There's something that's comforting about it. I have been inland on various occasions. I never feel very comfortable. Palm Springs gives me the hives. I like the desert, but I never feel comfortable with that unless (the desert) is right up against the ocean, like in Baja California."

An Expert's Theory

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