We are astoundingly, sumptuously, radiantly ignorant of life beneath the seas.
—Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything
I originally wrote down this quote because it was an excellent illustration of Bryson’s excellent prose.
Style manuals often tell us to focus on nouns and verbs. Such is the advice of E.B. White in The Elements of Style, where he says that “it is nouns and verbs, not their assistants, that give writings its toughness and color.” (The sentence is perhaps intentionally ironic, since the adjectives “toughness and color” are what make the sentence memorable.) Stephen King, in On Writing, even advises writers to avoid adverbs altogether: “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.”
Bryson shows how effective adjectives and adverbs can be in the hands of a master. First, the chain of three-syllable words with “ly” endings gives the sentence a rolling rhythm, each adverb tumbling off the tongue. He has also chosen his adverbs well. Saying the word “sumptuous” makes me feel sumptuous; and the word “radiant” almost glows. The comedic twist is when he connects his chain of adverbs with the adjective “ignorant.” I understanding being astoundingly ignorant, but what does it mean to be sumptuously and radiantly ignorant?
I also like this sentence because it reminds me of my childhood. One of my first obsessions was with whales. As often as I could, I would go to the Museum of Natural History and stare in awe at the gargantuan blue whale hanging from the ceiling of the Hall of Ocean Life.
My favorite was always the sperm whale. These leviathans, the largest toothed predators on earth, dive thousands of feet down into the dark deep to do battle with giant squids. The display in the Museum of Natural History pictures this battle mid-scene, the whale’s jaw clamped around the squid’s tentacles, both of their massive forms emerging from the shadows.
Something about this scene fascinated me, and still does. I drew the diorama over and over again, until I had hundreds of copies. The sperm whale seemed heroic to me: it descended into the depths and fought a monster, just to have lunch. And if a creature as big and terrifying as the giant squid could be lurking down there, what else might?
This wonder was reignited when, several years later, I heard of “Bloop,” a powerful underwater sound detected in 1997. The sound is now believed to have been caused by an icequake, but originally it drew attention because its sonic profile was similar to a noise made by an animal. This was noteworthy because the sound was much too loud to be made by even a whale, which led to a lot of speculation on the internet about giant monsters. There’s a whole Wikipedia page dedicated to these unexplained, underwater sounds, which I’m sure has provided valuable ammunition to pseudo-scientists and conspiracy theorists.
To me, the ocean’s depths exert a primal fascination. We still know relatively little about the deep, and what we do know has been consistently surprising. With no sunlight, freezing temperatures, and immense pressure, life has still eked out an existence, taking on many bizarre forms in the process. Maybe “radiant” is the best way to describe our ignorance of a place so devoid of light.