This is a follow-up to my extensive article about the influential history behind SpongeBob SquarePants.
Ocean Man is a song that Ween has described as something that formed together like magic falling into place. But like all magic, there are hidden mechanisms behind it that necessitate going beyond the scientific method. For a long time, this song has remained pleasurable but incomprehensible, yet I plan to decode it. The first life of “Ocean man, take me by the hand, lead me to the land that you understand”, while also being a reference to Echoes by Pink Floyd, is also an invitation to be taken to a world of wonder and whimsy. The world being referred to is what I call the ‘village under the sea.’ It was a term coined by Jacques Cousteau to describe his endeavors to build underwater habitats for humanity to experimentally live in, but it also applies as a general ontology of the ocean in respect to humanity’s place as a lifeform on Earth. It asks of us to view the sea in the ways that Indigenous Polynesians have, in that there is no separation of place by terrain: The sea is just as much habitable land as any continent or island.
In asking us to understand the land, we’re also being asked to understand the sea for ultimately there is no difference between land and sea other than that which comes from trying to objectify the oceans. “The voyage to the corner of the globe is a real trip” is contradictory because there are no corners to the ocean: It’s an entity with no boundaries except constructed ones. The trip you’ll go on is one that’ll take you into a worldview where you’ll be able to understand that you cannot objectify something as mighty and powerful as the ocean. Given the psychedelic context of this album, you will indeed ‘trip.’
“The crust of a tan man imbibed by the sand, soaking up the first of the land.” This is an indirect description of humanity, especially a man in the Western world in 1997. The human is imbibed by the sand, meaning the hot, dry sand is absorbing him, leading to him having crusty skin like someone who has tanned for too long. He’s soaking up the thirst of the land because man has become so familiarized with the essentialism of dry land that he forgets that life has managed to live successfully outside of it. It all reverts back to the desire to deconstruct these destructive Western terrain classifications that stopped us from appreciating the impossibly complex ecological harmony of the life that exists just below the surface of the ocean. The surface of the ocean has historically acted, to Westerners, as just inhospitable land that needed to be crossed. Cousteau radically challenged this view by using popular science as a medium to explore and document the ancient world that was right beneath us, introducing the technology of scuba to better aid the cause of inciting civilian interest in the oceans and thus a sentimental value to their preservation beyond the unforeseen economic ones.
“Can you see through the wonder of amazement at the overman?” This references the concept by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche of the Übermensch originally described in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, which simply defined is a man who rises above the dogmatic moralism of conventional Christianity to create his own values that, out of resistance, refuses to impose it upon others. In the context of this song, it can have two meanings: One, the ‘ocean man’ as a figure is fascinated by seeing this external overman figure and is being questioned as to whether not he can overcome their own illusionment for what they really are, positioning the ‘ocean man’ as a symbol of native marine life and the overman as the Western man who has historically not cared for or acknowledged them. The transcendence of Christian morality could, in this case, be an acceptance of a worldview that objectifies the ocean and marginalizes ocean life and leads to the indirect destruction of Cousteau’s ‘village under the sea.’
Two, the ‘ocean man’ is also the overman, and that seeing through the wonder of amazement is recognizing that, as a human being, the ocean man sees the overman as a picture of what he can become if he sheds his Western ontology of the ocean and embraces it as a sacred element to his existence. Literally, this is transcending centuries of what Christian moralism has made of the oceans as mere barriers in the path of evangelization: To become the overman, the ocean man must embrace a journey to transcend this dogmatism and find a new morality constructed on his terms and his relationship with the ocean.
“The crust is elusive when it casts forth to the childlike man.” We’ve established before that the crust refers to the residue of life adjusting to living entirely on land, and it becoming elusive means it’s hard to find. Reference to the ‘childlike man’ could be referring to a man who has shed these imposed ideas of how they should interact with the world, and thus become once again like a child with unbridled curiosity and earnestness about the world. The child doesn’t objectify the sea and obtains an ontology akin to Indigenous Polynesians, albeit in a much more microcosmic environment.
The childlike man is equivalent to a Western scientist, like Cousteau, who takes up a sudden and profound interest in the ocean and specifically the village that lies at the bottom of it. The crust is no longer there because the childlike man isn’t limiting his idea of home to just dry land, thereby minimizing the crust. It’s not a stretch to believe that, in some way, the character of SpongeBob functions as a cultural icon functions in this way: He’s extremely curious and earnest about the world in a way that differentiated him from most protagonists of ’90s cartoons loaded with postmodern cynicism. SpongeBob is also the highly relatable protagonist in which we’re exposed to the world of Bikini Bottom, another representation of the village under the sea.
“The sequence of a life form braised in the sand, soaking up the thirst of the land” Braising is a method of cooking which involves lightly frying something and then slowly stewing it in a closed container. The light frying is the intermediate period of moving away from that Western, landlocked crust and preparing to enter into the village under the sea. While the slow stewing is, like a sponge, absorbing the ecological order of everything around you. The goal of this is to reorganize your idea of ecosophy (philosophy of ecological order) away from what Western ways of life have traditionally concerned themselves with.
The thirst of the land you’re soaking up takes on a double meaning here, in that you’re now soaking up the subconscious desire man has to understand the world it has moved away from. It desires to understand the ocean as a simultaneously new and old frontier: One more mysterious than even our own star systems. The thirst of the land is now being quenched by the childlike man who sheds the crust of Western natural ontologies and pursues intimacy with that it has evolved out of so many eons ago.
The last part of the song I want to touch on is every verse beginning with directly addressing this figure known as the ‘ocean man.’ I’ve heard some analyses before say that he’s a mythological hydrophile who symbolizes liberty at sea away from the laws and restrictions imposed upon land, but I think it’s more specific than that. The ‘ocean man’ just refers to anyone who teaches you to rethink the oceans, whether that be Ween with the entire album, Jacques Cousteau and his series of pop science documentaries, or Stephen Hillenburg and his titanic cartoon series. All of these make the effort to try and change how Western society has historically thought of the ocean through some form of inquiry
In Ween’s case, I think it was some psychic force that influenced them on that night in Jersey Shore to write an album that pushed culture not only sonically but also subliminally like in the ways I’ve expressed in this analysis. All of it was made to make you understand that there’s a village under the sea as much as there are villages above the land, and it’s ironic how recognizing this is considered ‘alien’ when this worldview is far more ancient than what we’re used to.
With this understanding, it makes a lot of sense why this song was chosen to be the ending of the SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, as the show was a culmination of influences that stretched from Cousteau to Ween on Hillenburg’s life. And what does SpongeBob attempt to do at the end of the day but teach us to become overmen to the ontologies imposed upon us? To children, SpongeBob is a character who first fills his heart with love and then tries to be himself as a departure from media that previously told children to be themselves blindly. What if your self is corrupted? What if it’s crusted from being so used to something as great and magnificent as the ocean being objectified and desanctified? When you take the ocean man’s hand (Stephen Hillenburg’s), you become SpongeBob, and your heart fills with a familiar sense of earnestness that he felt when he studied marine biology.