Reading Blumenberg’s Shipwreck and Spectator, on which I recently posted, got me thinking about stuff I’ve written that invoked the metaphor of life as a sea voyage. Doing this is helpful as I think about trying to write a new novel, which I hope to do in draft form next month. No need to comment on the writing, or at all for that matter. It’s the seafaring that interests me here, the juxtaposition of the sensual and the transcendent that the sea conjures in the imagination. I include a bit more context than perhaps is necessary as an act of self-indulgence.
The first excerpt appears early in the first novel I wrote. The narrator is remembering a trip he’d taken two years before:
The train to Barcelona. I’d been in Paris for reasons that even at the time no longer seemed to matter. Paris: through the ages many a pilgrim had encountered this unexpectedly amiable city at the beginning or end of their trail. The trail to Barcelona channeled down to the Mediterranean and into the Catalan Surrealismo of Dali, Miro, Picasso, and before them the fevered distortions of Gaudi. As the train rocked me to sleep I wondered how many of my fellow dreamriders were practicing their Dadaist automatic writing technique on picture postcards addressed to friends back in Kansas City and Frankfurt.
I didn’t see Miguel when I stepped off the train at the Barcelona station, but I didn’t really look for him either. As soon as I reached the local office of the Salon I called Miguel’s number and left him a message telling him I was quitting, as of right now. I hung up the phone and walked out the door. From that time forward I hadn’t set foot in the Salon Postisme. I rode the subway to the funicular, which hauled me up to the top of Mont Juic. Far below the city spread itself before me. Even Gaudi’s improbable and dominant cathedral looked insignificant from up there, lost in the vastness of Barcelona. To the right, stretching out of sight, the sea lay brooding.
I was prepared to spend forty days and forty nights in this aggressively otherworldly city. It was a pilgrimage of my own design, or perhaps an anti-pilgrimage. Eat well, drink copiously, go to late-night jazz clubs, lay with whores if I could figure out how to find any: these were the temptations to which I would expose myself. And then, I hoped, a path would be revealed to me: backward, forward, some other way. I knew I had no endurance for this kind of extended debauchery: by temperament I’m more suited to fasting. I’d brought several old English novels along to keep my spirits up. I hoped I could summon the strength. Realistically, I expected that within a week and a half I’d be spending most of my time in a short-term rental flat, drinking strong coffee, reading and thinking. I’d go back to work recharged, ready to steer the Salon along some other tangent that would keep me stimulated for another few months even if it did slow the flow of customers coming through the doors.
I had been wrong. Four days in Barcelona was enough. I knew already, probably even before I got off the train, that I’d reached the end. Barcelona turns its back on the Mediterranean and its dangers, but there the sea has always lain, luring the fisherman and the trader, the hero and the prophet. The sea exists before time, beyond limit, depthless. It is present at the Beginning, when the Breath moves across the face of the waters, summoning forth the light and extending the firmament. Even the gods need light to see and air to breathe.
When the gods finished their work, when they had gotten tired and disillusioned and apathetic – what had they done then? Where had they gone? Those who presided over the Beginning – what Pilgrimage could they possibly undertake? I thought: they’ve gone back under. No more would breath pass across the divine vocal chords, speaking the words that called the very world into existence. Perhaps, if the words stopped, the world too would stop.
On the morning of the third day in Barcelona, the traffic below my window hissed with the slick sound of rain. I stepped outside – the sidewalks and streets were coated in a thin film of reddish-brown mud. Not until I returned to the apartment, coffee and newspaper in hand, did the strangeness of it confront me. Separating the yellowed lace curtains to survey the street below, I realized that my third-floor windows, like the streets, were smeared with mud. I opened the window and streaked my finger across the outside surface. The mud was fine but gritty, like powdered brick. This wasn’t ordinary big-city dust stirred up by the rain. I looked up into the bruised clouds and then I knew. The earth was falling from the sky.
I knew but I didn’t understand. I rushed down the stairs and approached the very short and totally bald man who was polishing the brass fixtures of the entryway. Perdóname, señor, I said to him, but can you tell me what is happening? The guardián looked up from his work; I pointed out the door. He shrugged – It is Africa, señor. The wind picks up the desert and lifts it into the sky. It lands here, in the rain. But, I stammered, has this ever happened before? When the guardián looked up at me I knew what he was looking for. One day each year it rains the African rain, he said to me. Perhaps two days. Last year I think no days. You are a very lucky man to be here on such a day. Or, con permiso, señor, perhaps a very unlucky man. Lowering his gaze, the guardián resumed the task of polishing the already-gleaming brass, as one who performs a meaningless but essential and eternal rite.
Two chapters later we listen in on an after-dinner speech made by a wealthy seeker after truth — or perhaps it’s heroism that he’s really after:
By our lights we get closer and closer to truth. We excavate ruins and fossils and know just where to line them up on the shelves. We decipher ancient glyphs whose meaning seemed lost forever. Telescopes reach back nearly to the beginning of the universe. We hold the bones of the past in our hands, and still the truth of the past stays just out of reach. Maybe that’s why we don’t believe in gods and heroes any more. They hide in the past with our ancestors, and we can’t face the disappointment of never meeting them face to face.
Maybe now, as we make our stand in a world stripped of myth, armed only with science and self-awareness, we’re ready to become more truly heroic than we ever seemed before. We might even become more godlike. We’ll live for hundreds of years, maybe forever. We’ll domesticate the other planets. We’ll communicate telepathically our discoveries – we’ll keep our losses to ourselves. This is the trajectory into the future.
But we’re skeptical. We can’t help suspecting that the future is going to turn out looking a lot like the past. Both of them, past and future, live only in legends. You can face in either direction and start running, but the faster you go, the farther back the horizon seems to recede. You can never catch up to it, future or past. You’re stuck in the now.
Most of us in this room had long since reconciled ourselves to this fate. We were existentialists, Buddhists, voluptuaries, dilettantes of the present. We lived in the eternal moment, or at least we pretended to. But no matter how hard we tried to ignore the past, there it was, ramming us from behind. It assailed us in memory and loss and regret; it held us in the tedium and frustration of endless repetition. Meanwhile, the future was there too, pulling on us from the front. Goals and dreads. Expectations. In spite of the sophisticated brands of asceticism we learned to practice, the intrusions of the past and the future proved irresistible. They forced us to realize just how vulnerable we are. We tried to live in the present only to discover, to our amazement, that it was impossible.
Old habits die hard. Maybe if we can just stick with it we can learn to ignore these intrusions. But what if we’ve got it wrong? What if man isn’t meant to live in the moment, like some brute animal? Our species is blessed – or cursed – with the kind of brain that forces us to see the past and the future. Overlapping and oscillating, flowing into one another, current and crosscurrent, vortex and deadly calm – the beginning and the end, the alpha and the omega. It’s no smooth and glassy sea we’re sailing on; it’s a perpetual hurricane. Either we cast off, set our sails as best we can, or we’ll find ourselves swamped without ever leaving port.
With bare hands and primitive tools our ancestors carved themselves a livable present out of a horizonless eternity. The gods too wanted to escape. They too decided to invest their hopes in the present. And so there began the great collaboration, a joint venture between gods and men. It was an incredibly ambitious undertaking. Slide forward a thin sliver of the recent past, drag backward a thin slice of the near future, lock them in place, call it the present. Clinging together for dear life, the men and the gods began to ride this small and shaky platform across the surface of the Deep. They seemed to hover in midair, just above the waves of eternity that threatened to drag them under. If they could just extend the platform – a little bit back, a little forward, a little higher into the sky – maybe entire lifetimes could be lived out on the platform of the present.
But we, their descendants: we’re doomed anyway. Riding this ingenious platform, we climb the riggings all the way up to the crow’s nest, and we have a look around. From up here we can see even farther back into the past; ever farther ahead into the future. We have to look. It’s our fate to look. The present is rocking under our feet. Can’t you feel the platform being dismantled from underneath?
And then there’s this little fantasy from near the end of my second novel:
Through the porthole she saw the boat floating on a diamond sea, like an ice cube in a glass of bourbon. That’s how they serve drinks to Americans over here, isn’t it – just one cube? My God, are we so raw that we have to numb our senses even before the alcohol starts doing its job? Perhaps here they still find pleasure in the taste of things – at least that’s what the guidebooks say. Maybe they’re already too cold.
Later she would join her girlfriends for lunch on the terrace. After a nap and perhaps a massage the driver would take them through the hill country; then there would be cocktails under the Norman arches of a decommissioned abbey, followed by dinner in the city at the only restaurant within five hundred miles to earn its second star – of course it’s all arranged. As she watched the sailboat she wondered what sort of life the sailor went home to at the end of a voyage. She wondered what it would take to convert the abbey back into an abbey again, to close its doors on the world again, to decommission its bar. She wondered if the great chef cooked reverently, for the sheer beauty of the food itself. She wondered what would happen if one of the little plane’s engines stopped working.