Philip Hoare at The New Statesman:
In The Soul of an Octopus (2015) Sy Montgomery’s love letter to the animal – the result of her long-time study of octopuses in the New England Aquarium in Boston – the author observed the apparent bonds these captive cephalopods established with some of their keepers and visitors, and how they expressed their literal distaste for others by squirting water at them. Montgomery noted that the animals used their arms to taste during interactions with humans, and took against visitors who smoked because they could sense it on their skin.
Inevitably, we project our characteristics on to these creatures (of which there are more than 300 species). Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner imagines the eerie deep where, “Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs/Upon the slimy sea”, while during an extended stay on Guernsey, Victor Hugo observed, “all ideals being admitted, if terror be the object, the octopus is a masterpiece. Its most terrible quality is its softness”, he declared in Toilers of the Sea (1866). “It draws you to it, and bound, ensnared, powerless, you slowly feel yourself emptied into that frightful pond, which is the monster itself.” Counterpoint that tactile terror with the octopus’s role in a celebrated erotic woodcut by Hokusai from 1814, depicting a female pearl diver being pleasured by those wandering arms.