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The Waterless Sea

A Curious History of Mirages

Mirages have long astonished travelers of the sea and beguiled thirsty desert voyagers. Traditional Chinese and Japanese poetry and art depict the above-horizon, superior mirage, or fata morgana, as exhalations of clam-monsters. Indian sources relate mirages to the “thirst of gazelles,” a metaphor for the futility of desire. Starting in the late eighteenth century, mirages became a symbol in the West of Oriental despotism—a negative, but also enchanted, emblem. But the mirage motif is rarely simply condemnatory. More often, our obsession with mirages conveys a sense of escape, of fascination, of a desire to be deceived. The Waterless Sea is the first book devoted to the theories and history of mirages. Christopher Pinney navigates a sinuous pathway through a mysterious and evanescent terrain, showing how mirages have impacted politics, culture, science, and religion—and how we can continue to learn from their sublimity.

184 pages | 14 color plates, 26 halftones | 5 3/4 x 8 1/4 | © 2018

Biological Sciences: Ecology

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“[A] highbrow meditation. . . . Pinney examines mirages as cause of frustration and disappointment, as religious metaphor for falsehood or a society on the brink, and as depiction of mythological places. . . . Readers curious about the natural world will find this rumination of interest.”

Publishers Weekly

“Alluring. . . . Pinney ranges from the old Japanese belief that these ‘phantom paradises’ were exhaled by clam monsters, to an 1898 Nature report detailing mirage effects on flagstone pavements. A paean to a sublime apparition, ‘real, but not true.’”

Barbara Kiser | Nature

"Pinney has emerged with perhaps the finest homage to evanescence yet written. . . . Ultimately The Waterless Sea reveals its author to be as spiritually refracted as the ­ elusive and translucent occlusion he seeks to own; the richness of his sensibility is every bit as compelling as his subject. As Pinney shows, the mirage is primarily a phenomenon of spiritual resonance, ungovernable and in that, unimaginably potent. Fueled by the tangible in its creation of the fantastic, the mirage exists to turn the human eye inward."


"Pinney's fascinating new book . . . traces the illusions of mirages through many eras and cultures and environments. . . . Throughout history, from China to Persia to India, . . . he's a shrewd reader of the patterns underlying all such visions."

Steve Donoghue | Christian Science Monitor

“Through the words of generations of desert travelers, Pinney paints the shimmering heat, the dazzling sand, and the strange visions hanging in the sky. He reproduces fascinating postcards, engravings, and photos of floating ships and castles, palm trees and palaces that ‘possess every possible stability,’ including one alleged photograph of a skyscraper city emerging from the Muir Glacier in Alaska. For ice, too, makes mirages, as light refracts through the different temperatures and densities of air. . . . Pinney concludes with Plato’s thought that nothing made or seen on this Earth can be more than a poor representation of the beautiful Ideal. Might a mirage be that elusive original?”


"Anyone who has driven down a hot asphalt country road will have seen in the distance what appears to be a pool of standing water that remains perpetually out of reach. In The Waterless Sea, anthropologist Pinney delves into the many accounts of fantastic mirages that have been reported over the centuries. No mere optical illusions, he says, mirages are real and are produced by atmospheric optics. Their interpretations, however, have been shaped by culture, politics, religion, and science. Their illusory qualities drive Pinney’s philosophical discussion, which touches on a number of topics, such as their use as metaphor and moral lesson. Historical photos, prints, lithographs, and paintings illustrate Pinney’s erudite narrative."

Physics Today

"It is better for a book to have too much in it than too little, and nobody could say that Pinney sells his readers short. His cultural overview of mirage hurtles around the globe, around history, around political systems, and around religious faiths, in a hailstorm of quotation and citation, reference and reverie.There are many pleasures in the breathless progress. Terms and metaphors for different types of mirage in different places are a delight in themselves. . . . It is beautifully produced, almost every page displaying a fascinating picture to illuminate the text; the text itself is beautiful too, evocative and often valuably informative."


“Under the rubric of ‘real but not true,’ Pinney explores the enchanting enigma of fata morgana, or mirages, visions of cities in the sky or stately mansions floating on fantastic oceans in deserts and polar wastes. . . . Through accounts such as the sfumato of Japanese representations of the fabulous island of Horai, bathed in the breath of a giant clam, Pinney provides an extraordinary tour of the union of refraction and the imagination.”

Jonathan Lamb, Vanderbilt University

“This is both a study of the mirage as a subject of scholarship and a profound meditation on its paradoxical form as a true illusion. . . . Itself written as if in the style of a mirage, this is a beautifully conceived work that philosophizes the visible.”

Faisal Devji, University of Oxford

"Pinney’s erudite and highly readable account of the mirage is a scintillating journey through more than just an ephemeral intangibility. It is a substantial history of the sublime as it is refracted on the surface of what remains enchanted, mysterious, and strange."

Omar W. Nasim, University of Regensburg

Table of Contents

Prologue: Chasing Mirage
1. Strange Visions Under a Cliff in Central India, October 1829
2. A World History of Mirages: The Thirst of the Gazelle
3. ‘Fallacious Evidence of the Senses’
4. ‘Mocking Our Distress’
5. Cold and Hot: The Geography of Mirage
6. Mirage and Crisis
7. Oriental Mirages and ‘Spectatorial Democracy’
8. From Clam-monsters to Representative Democracy
9. The Halted Viewer and Sfumato
10. Memory and Modernity
11. Theatrical Mirages
12. The ‘Mirage Medium of Fancy’
13. Mirage and Oriental Despotism
14. Keeping Mecca and Medina Invisible
15. Inside Abdul Hamid II’s Head
16. Mirage Pharmakon: Wild and Domestic
Epilogue: Real, But Not True

Photo Acknowledgements


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