Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

Clever Monster

In Octopus, Richard Schweid considers the cephalopod

A quick trip to Richard Schweid’s website reveals a writer with eclectic interests. The oeuvre of this Nashville native (now a resident of Barcelona) includes books on catfish farming in the Mississippi Delta, life in contemporary Cuba, and beliefs about immortality around the world. Schweid writes about nature, too, with a distinct preference for things not warm and fuzzy. He has previously written books on eels and cockroaches, and now his latest, Octopus, considers that eight-armed sea beast as food, myth, symbol, and simply one of the wonders of the natural world.

“When you watch an octopus, an octopus watches you back,” writes Schweid in the book’s opening paragraph, and that image of the otherworldly creature as an intelligent being with a mind and will of its own is the one he clearly hopes readers will take away from Octopus. He devotes two chapters in this brief book to the animal’s cognitive gifts, and the information he relays is likely to startle anyone not already familiar with the subject. For example, the octopus’s brain is larger than many vertebrate brains, and it has folded lobes and brain-wave patterns that are similar to those in mammals. One experiment has suggested that octopuses are capable of “observational learning”; i.e., they can learn new behaviors, such as how to obtain food or avoid a shock simply by observing the behavior of other octopuses. Even scientists who question that assertion concede that the octopus has a capacity for learning that is unusual in invertebrates, and some see evidence that octopuses engage in play and even have distinct personalities.

Most people around the world, though, value the octopus for its flavor, not its intellect. It has always been a source of food for seafaring people, and Schweid surveys the business of octopus fishing from the Mediterranean to Mexico. The ancient Greeks were avid consumers of octopus, and much of the early lore about the animal comes from them. Schweid quotes Oppian of Corycus, who wrote in 170 CE of the octopus’s supposed devotion to olive trees, so strong that it would emerge from the water at night to commune with them. The octopus, writes Oppian, “joyfully embraces the sleek branches of the olive and seems to kiss them. But when he has relieved his desire, he crawls back again to the bosom of the sea, having satisfied his love and longing for the olive.” In Oppian’s account, fishermen would exploit the octopus’s weakness by dragging olive branches behind their boats as bait. Contemporary octopus fishing involves less whimsy; industry concerns, according to Schweid, include overfishing and climate change.

The most entertaining chapter in the book (for those not already in the cephalopod fan club, at least) is drably titled “Octopus Iconography.” It might just as well have been called “Octopus and Eros.” Schweid writes at length about the octopus as a sexual symbol, especially in Japan. He discusses Hokusai’s famous erotic woodcut, The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, and its cultural connection to the sadomasochism of Japanese tentacle porn. He also takes a look at the Western image of the octopus as an implacable monster in such works as Victor Hugo’s Les Travailleurs de la Mer.

Schweid delivers the abundance of information in Octopus in a clear and concise style, and his text is accompanied by dozens of color illustrations, including beautiful photographs of the animals and an array of images from art and folklore. The book is an enjoyable and compact guide to one of nature’s more peculiar creations.