The Gospel of the Eels by Patrik Svensson (2019) translated by Agnes Broome (2020) Assessment 9 out of 10

“Metaphysics is what exists beyond the objective; there is something metaphysical about the eel; living at the intersection between knowledge and faith”.

Eels present a metaphor for the questions, “Who am I? Where do I come from? Where am I going?”

The Eel Question arises as the eel is ”uncommonly difficult to observe, due to their strange life cycle, their shyness, their metamorphoses and their roundabout attitude to reproduction.”

“The eel is a fish that transcends the piscine condition. Perhaps it doesn’t even realize it’s a fish.”

“When an eel is denied …its main purpose in life, procreation, it seems able to live forever. As though it could wait until the end of time.”

“Bats flitted back & forth above the stream silent like black punctuation marks.”

Like the eel itself The Gospel of Eels is difficult to categorise. It is at the same time History, Natural History, Literature and Autobiography.

There are four Metamorphoses in the eel’s lifecycle from Larvae, to Glass Eels (Elver), to Yellow Eel to Silver Eel. Aristotle thought it was born out the mud. The idea of spontaneous generation seemed more possible in a world believing in creationism.

In 1876 Freud, aged 19, at Trieste cut up 400 eels without finding the male organ. It was not then known that the eel only develops sexual organs when it is ready to breed. Freud moved onto penis envy; the male child fears castration and aged four or five desires his mother, until yearning for their mother is replaced by identification with their father. A boy discovers he has a penis. A girl has penis envy. Both turn from the mother to the father at this age.

Petersen in the 1890s demonstrated how a Silver Eel’s digestive systems shrank, it stopped eating, its fins and eyes change and its reproductive organs develop before returning to the sea.

The Carlsberg Brewery took up pasteurisation and inspired by Pasteur set up its own laboratory, where Johanes Schmidt trained. He tracked larvae by their deceasing size back to the Sargasso Sea, the source of both European and American eels, which differ only in European eels having more vertebrae. Apparently American eels develop more quickly, becoming Elver after one year, not two , so able to break out of the Atlantic Drift, which European Eel Larvae can’t, thus sorting out the two species with the same origin but different destinations.

Fishing on the Eel Coast

In 1906 Ernst Jentsch wrote “Zur Psychologie des Unheimliche”, concerned with insecurity when faced with the unfamiliar. In 1919 Freud in response wrote “Das Unheimliche”. “Heimlich” he took as homely or familiar but it also has a meaning of secret, private and hidden and so reflects its own opposite. This makes an understanding of Unheimliche still more difficult. He describes it as our unease when “what we recognise contains an element of strangeness [so] we become unsure of what we’re really looking at”. Svensson sees in Freud’s experiences with eels in Trieste, that he felt “the eel’s hidden existence just below the surface [as] uncanny….Unheimliche”.

The chapter, “The People who Fish For Eel” is superb.  Glass Eels were and are fished on the Basque River Oria. In Northern Ireland eel are fished on Lough Neagh. On Skania’s Eel Coast there are 140 surviving “Aldratter” rights.  On 30 of them are fishermens’ “Eel Huts”.  The Swedish word “ratter” means pull referring to the fishing method employed. Redistributed after 1659 when Scania became Swedish, the rights have seafronts 150 to 300 m wide. This resonates with the position in Medieval Jersey, where the Seigneur had the Droit d’’Esperquerie, a monopoly of conger eels caught at sea and landed on the foreshore of seigneurial fiefs and of drying and salting conger above the high water level[1].  On the Eel Coast fishing of Silver Eels going back to sea takes place from boats with a trap to which was fitted a long tapering bag, during the “Eel Darkness”, the three months from the end of July. The season finishes with an Eel Feast when eel specialities are eaten.  The feast was traditionally provided by the fisherman to the holders of the rights, arrangements which may be very ancient indeed[2].

 The chapter, “Under the Sea”, is deeply philosophical, considering the meaning of consciousness and awareness. Anthropomorphic stories were told by Rachel Carson to explain the (non-anthropomorphic) life cycles of eels and other sea creatures. Does an eel remember what it was before a metamorphosis?

Uncertainty remains; no one has seen eels procreate nor found a Silver Eel dead or alive in the Sargasso Sea. They have been doing it so long, does eel migration date back to before tectonic plates moved, extending the distance they travelled? 

Eel migration was tracked. 700 Eels were tagged, only 206 provided information, of these only 87 went far enough into the sea to provide information on their journey before the tags disappeared. Journeys appeared random not directed. They seem to journey to the Azores and from there more directly west. How do they navigate, by smell, the earth’s magnetism, water salinity?  The further they go, the more focused the journey becomes, ending in “Perfect Front Regions” where different waters with different temperatures meet which may be ideal for procreation.

Salmon live in the sea but go to fresh water to breed. The eel life cycle is the reverse. They live in fresh water but breed in the sea. The salmon returns to the river where it was spawned. The eel originating deep in the sea, is apparently neutral about which river or stream it goes up.

Japanese Silver Eels have been traced to their spawning ground to the west of the Mariana Islands deep in the Pacific. (It’s funny that we mark ocean locations by islands within the ocean, rather than by oceanic features themselves.) The Japanese have pursued artificial breeding of eel, so far unsuccessfully.

The ageing of an eel is tied to something other than our time. A clam has been found, which is 500 years old off Iceland, an Ocean Quahog.  In the Pacific Glass Sponges apparently can be 11,000 years old.  Svensson has seen apparently dead Eels, which come back to life. Is this resurrection and hence the derivation of the book’s title, “The Gospel of Eels”?

Significant brain activity, the modern measure of life, has been recorded at the time of death in patients in deep unconsciousness; is this the source of near death experiences?

Eels are becoming extinct. Rachel Carson, who had written about eels and sea life, wrote “The Silent Spring” in 1962. There are only 5% of the Glass Eels there were in the 1970s. This may be due to parasites, toxins, pollution and Japanese demand for eels as a highly prized food. Locks, sluices and HEP plants are provided with salmon ladders, but provision is not for made the deeper swimming eel.  Climate change is resulting in changing currents, so it is more difficult for the eel to return to the Sargasso Sea. All are the results of human activity.  Is it possible to erase an animal in existence for 40m years? Five mass extinction events have occurred.  We are now part of, and causing, the sixth.

[1]  Richard Falle and John Kelleher (2008 and 2010) “The Customary Law in relation to the Foreshore (1) and (2)” Jersey & Guernsey Law Review 

[2] In pre-feudal Anglo Saxon England freemen provided hospitality “feorm” to the lord. See  Rosalind Faith (2020) “The Moral Economy of the Countryside; Anglo-Saxon to Anglo-Norman England”

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