Jacques-Yves Cousteau The Times Literary Supplement - Essay

The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Although the trumpetings of jacket blurbs should not be taken too seriously there is one phrase that never fails to arouse the reviewer's suspicions: scientific accuracy. Rarely is this claim made for a scientifically accurate book and it is disappointing to find that The Shark is no exception. First in a series of studies on underwater life by Jacques Cousteau and his son [Philippe Cousteau], it is said by the publishers to set "an incredibly high standard for those that will follow", not least in its "scientific accuracy" and "whole mood of scientific enquiry".

What the reader actually receives is a series of anecdotes of a type now standard in shark books, and a series of quite preposterous "scientific" statements for which the term codswallop is the mildest warning that can be given to an unsuspecting public. Sharks are said to possess, inter alia, an "obscure millenary instinct", "a superior reproduction organism", "sensorial canals" of the "lateral system" that contain "finely lidded nerve cells" which release "a nervous influx … instantly communicated to the brain" but they lack a "swimming bladder". It is quite wrong to press such garbled language upon the layman but these absurdities are interspersed with statements that are either misleading or quite incorrect….

Throughout, there is a tendency to attribute qualities to the shark, an unspecified and evidently highly resourceful representative of its two hundred and fifty fellow species.

It may seem unfair, in view of the deserved success of the Cousteau formula in underwater films, to belabour what is clearly a popular account of an adventure voyage. The object of the voyage was to produce twelve films for television, of which that on sharks was to be the first, and it is in this sphere that the Cousteaus can continue to make a valuable contribution (provided that the commentary rises to some degree of scientific accuracy).

A great part of the failure of the book lies with the inadequacy of the translation which appears to have been done by the authors themselves. They ignore the fact that neither scientific terminology nor French lyrical descriptions can be merely transcribed.

"Submarine but Superficial," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 3584, November 6, 1970, p. 1308.