27 October 2009

I’m On A Boat!

Filed under: Culture, First Lines, Reflections — ktismatics @ 9:43 am

“Vous êtes embarqué.” Pascal

Following this evocative frontispiece quotation, Hans Blumenberg begins his extended essay Shipwreck and Spectator (1979) — recommended to me by Alexei — thusly:

“Humans live their lives and build their institutions on dry land. Nevertheless, they seek to grasp the movement of their existence above all through a metaphorics of a perilous sea voyage.” (p. 7)

Blumenberg then marshals plenty of great examples, dating back to the Greeks, in support of his thesis. As someone who never saw the sea until I was ten years old, I wonder what metaphor spoke to the landlocked peoples of the world down through history. Probably the road. But a road is there because others have already gone before. Biblically it’s the wilderness: that’s probably the canonical terranean analog to the sea.

“In this field of representation, shipwreck is something like the ‘legitimate’ result of seafaring, and a happily reached harbor or serene calm on the sea is only the deceptive face of something that is deeply problematic.” (p. 10)

Why is the safe harbor problematic? Because it’s too comfortable. Those who stay ashore remain uninvolved and dispassionate spectators of life. The embarked find themselves too involved in sheer survival to reflect on the experience. Only the shipwrecked, temporarily stranded in the midst of the perilous voyage, can speak from experience about what seafaring is really like.

“The next metaphorical step is that not only are we always already embarked and on the high seas butalso, as if this were inevitable, we are shipwrecked… It is the almost ‘natural’ permanent condition of life.” (p. 19)

Each of us is by turns at sea and shipwrecked, living and reflecting on life, simultaneously a member of the cast and a member of the audience (to invoke a related metaphor that Blumenberg also elucidates). Back to the landlocked: if wilderness corresponds to sea, then what corresponds to shipwreck? Turning again to the Biblical archetype, I’d say it’s captivity: the captive, forced to stay for an indefinite interval in a heterotopia, reflects on the voyage. Denizens of veld and prairie, of forest and mountains, of steppe and tundra: we are always wandering through the wilderness and always held captive.

“In the reception histories of metaphors, the more sharply defined and differentiated the imaginative stock becomes, the sooner the point is reached where there seems to be an extreme inducement to veer around, with the existing model, in the most decisive way and to try out the unsurpassable procedure of reversing it… A reversal in the strict sense would be present only if the helpless man borne along on his plank at sea were the initial situation, that is, if the construction of a ship were only the result of self-assertion proceeding from this situation.” (p. 75)

Is such a metaphoric reversal possible, where the always-already of both embarkation and shipwreck no longer serve as the lonely-island-t-pain-boatstarting point? Science and technology and commerce have continually made the ship more seaworthy, more comfortable for the privileged voyager — almost as if the ship were itself the safe harbor. But somebody must have made a start of it, at least once in history. Blumenberg cites Paul Lorenzen:

“‘If there is no attainable solid ground, then the ship must already have been built on the high seas; not by us, but by our ancestors. Our ancestors, then, were able to swim, and no doubt — using the scraps of wood floating around — they somehow initially put together a raft, and then continually improved it, until today it has become such a comfortable ship that we do not have the courage any more to jump into the water and start all over again from the beginning.'” (p. 77-78)

To make a fresh start — abandon ship, jump into the sea, grab hold of a plank — seems increasingly foolhardy. Even those who do plunge in keep the ship within hailing distance, waiting to be hauled back aboard when the seas get rough. Blumenberg concludes:

“Thus to think the beginning means, in the context of the comparison, to imagine the situation without the mother ship of natural language and, apart from its buoyancy, to ‘reperform,’ in a thought experiment, ‘the actions by means of which we — swimming in the middle of the sea of life — could build ourselves a raft or even a ship.’… But the sea evidently contains material other than what has already been used. Where can it come from, in order to give courage to the ones who are beginning anew? Perhaps from earlier shipwrecks?” (pp. 78-79)

[Tomorrow or the next day I’ll indulge myself in some self-quotation relevant to Blumenberg’s book, as I try to psych myself up for NaNoWRiMo.]



  1. Great post John — I’m happy to hear that you got something out of the essay.

    I wonder, though, whether there were ever people — until recently of course — who lived in landlocked areas. I remember hearing that the majority of the world’s population currently live near some sea or ocean. Moreover, it would seem that almost every culture has some myth, religious tale, concerning the flood/deluge, which might be an original form of shipwreck. Not to mention the fact that the evening sky (as well as the desert itself) has long been figured as a sea, and our fate somehow written therein.

    Anyway, it’s just t a thought. And I look forward to your next post!


    Comment by Alexei — 27 October 2009 @ 4:12 pm

  2. Certainly most early civilizations were centered around a metropolis located at or near the sea. And probably most philosophically-inclined thinkers were metropolitan. Still, few of the city-dwellers actually ventured out on sea voyages, which is what makes the life-as-perilous-sea-voyage metaphor sort of ironic. The sea has always been a source of fear: that’s why it works in the metaphor, but it’s also why people avoided going out onto it. Further, I venture to say that none of the propounders of the shipwreck metaphor ever found themselves literally shipwrecked. So here we have a metaphor for life “grounded” in an experience which few if any of the metaphorizers ever actually experienced in life.


    Comment by john doyle — 28 October 2009 @ 4:13 am

  3. Weirdly (or maybe not), I was at a dinner preceding a “Restorative Justice” conference (related to my wife’s job), and the people there were speaking informally about their experiences with RJ, usually as victims who later became advocates. The first person who spoke described the way in which becoming a victim changed her life using the metaphor of being dropped suddenly and from a great height into a raging river. I thought of this post immediately. The metaphor seemed a little corny at first, but it turns out to be very rich in terms of the inferences one can draw. Almost every subsequent speaker picked up and extended the metaphor, with stuff like “current” representing how one is pulled through the criminal justice system and away from former attachments, etc.

    Anyway – I think one of the most interesting differences between the land and sea metaphors is in the idea of how much control has over one’s fate.

    Also, I wonder if the sea metaphor is so attractive precisely because of the lack of experience. It allows us to be “looser” with the metaphor, but it also allows us to sort of idealize what’s involved.


    Comment by Asher Kay — 28 October 2009 @ 7:53 am

  4. Perfect timing, Asher. Agree that the river analogy captures more of the sea’s uncontrollability than does the wilderness, although the river is more like a road in charting a definite pathway. Do we encounter the metaphor of life as a river voyage? Sure: Heart of Darkness and Fitzcarraldo came immediately to mind.

    “the sea metaphor is so attractive precisely because of the lack of experience.”

    Blumenberg’s book concludes with a shorter essay entitled “Prospect for a Theory of Nonconceptuality.” The idea is that metaphor, rather than just being a sort of sloppy expression, captures aspects of experience that elude more precise concptualization. Metaphor thus combines the conceptual and the nonconceptual, the effable and the ineffable, in a particular way of using language. Blumenberg offers two intriguing quotes in support of his thesis:

    “Whatever is not ineffable has no importance” — Paul Valery
    “There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical.” — Wittgenstein, in the Tractatus. This is all the more telling juxtaposed with W’s injunction to pass over in silence whereof we cannot speak. Metaphor is a way of speaking of such things, and is a particularly apt choice when one is attempting to reach toward the ineffable, the mystical, maybe even the ideal of “that which is the case.”


    Comment by john doyle — 28 October 2009 @ 8:53 am

    • “Whatever is not ineffable has no importance” — Paul Valery

      INteresting to see this sort of thing, reminds me of someone’s quote on the ballet board recently, which makes sense only as a historical curiosity, deep in the heart of the ‘art-for-art’s-sake’ chrysalis. It’s from Theophile Gautier, who died 2 years before Valery was born. Despite how many times I’ve been thought ‘elitist’ and ‘faux-aristo’ by the charming bloggers, I too find this loathsome:

      ‘Nothing is really beautiful unless it is useless; everything useful is ugly, for it expresses a need, and the needs of man are ignoble and disgusting, like his poor and weak nature. The most useful place in the house is the lavatory.’

      It’s also stupid even for its time. The lavatory was never the MOST useful place in the house. The kitchen at least as much so. Also hateful in completely leaving behind the matter of the beauty of ordinary things, say the way the Japanese especially are refined that way, probably lived in SLOP himself–I just saw an old drawing, he looked a bit pungent, and not in an erotic way either. But naturally things begin in an extreme articulation–all the great poets of the 19th century had some of this, and all the aesthetes of Europe, whether Wilde or Proust or any of the others–but it’s interesting that Gautier, who’s of course very important, has written such shit. There’s still some of this ‘art-for-art’s-sake’ business, but it’s long been eclipsed as a movement of course, so is miniscule little curio as ancient effloresecence, much like The Communist Manifesto, also marvelously useless UNTIL THIS DAY.


      Comment by Ray Fuller — 28 October 2009 @ 9:46 am

      • Just remembered an old friend comparing the sea with mountains, the former as being maternal and soothing, the latter tougher, more rugged and masculine. But he was talking about when you are BY the sea or AT THE SEA, and I tend to agree with him. There is a difference in being ‘ON THE SEA’, which is when it’s terrifying. So it can work both ways. But I did find it interesting that I find the sea far more relaxing than the mountains as places to restore oneself.

        ‘I wonder, though, whether there were ever people — until recently of course — who lived in landlocked areas.’

        Well, of course there were. How recently do you mean? the last 10,000 years?


        Comment by Ray Fuller — 28 October 2009 @ 10:04 am

    • I think I need to read this Blumenberg thing. I totally agree with him that metaphor captures something that regular exposition can’t – my whole abortive stint at grad school was focused on alternative types of expression in philosophy, especially the use of metaphor and story – but I think the “non-conceptual” part is not right. I’d argue that metaphor is at the heart of conceptualization, even when we’re not acknowledging it (especially when we’re laying out formal conceptual systems like mathematics).

      As to Wittgenstein, I’ve got my own supporting quote — a poem by Diane Ackerman (coincidentally the wife of one of my grad-school professors):

      Wittgenstein was wrong: when lovers kiss
      they whistle into each other’s mouth
      a truth old and sayable as the sun,
      for flesh is palace, aurora borealis,
      and the world is all subtraction in the end.
      The world is all subtraction in the end,
      yet, in a small vaulted room at the azimuth
      of desire, even our awkward numbers sum.
      Love’s syllogism only love can test.
      But who would quarrel with its sprawling proof?
      The daftest logic brings such sweet unrest.
      Love speaks in tongues, its natural idiom.
      Tingling, your lips drift down the xylophone
      of my ribs, and I close my eyes and chime.


      Comment by Asher Kay — 28 October 2009 @ 10:26 am

      • Blumenberg is great, Asher. I think you’d really like him, although I tend to agree with you about the character of metaphor. It’s much more conceptual than Blumenberg tends to think, I think. This said, Blumenberg has a rather unique understanding of metaphor, and the non-conceptuality of metaphors pertains more to what he calls (in his early work) “Absolute Metaphors,” which function as basic congnitive orientations for further thinking, rather than scientific/conceptual identifications. His favourite examples of such metaphors come from theology where some notion of transcendence needs to be comprehended, but not conceptualized, and from the work of nicholas cusanus, who uses a stock of geometrical metaphors/contradictions to express the essence of god’s infinity. It’s really cool stuff actually. And I’d be really interested in what you think of him. He does have the habit of writing bricks for books, though…


        Comment by Alexei — 28 October 2009 @ 11:56 am

  5. Blumenberg doesn’t tell us, but Valery’s line pronouncement about the ineffable is actually a line in a play he wrote about Faust, which makes sense in that context.

    I may have overstated Blumenberg’s non-conceptualism even within the limited context of my exposure to him. Metaphor typically invokes the sensory register, which tends to evade and exceed thought/language. I don’t think it’s necessary, like Wittgenstein, to regard it as mystical: sensation is more tangible than language rather than less so. The poem you cite, Asher, points in this direction too. But then we’ve got Alexei referring to Blumengerg’s citing of theological metaphors, which move in the opposite direction toward the transcendent and non-material. Maybe both animals and angels speak in tongues.


    Comment by john doyle — 28 October 2009 @ 2:02 pm

  6. Maybe both animals and angels speak in tongues.

    Now you’re starting to sound like Walter Benjamin, John. All you need to do is include lamps, handkerchiefs, steel and glass in your list of things that speak.

    Anyway, Blumenberg does seem to have a rather strong commitment to the non-conceptual character of metaphor, I think. So I don’t think you’re overplaying this commitment. The basic idea being — so far as I understand him — that unlike concepts that identify or subsume entities according to a privileged characteristics, metaphors operate by emphasizing the difference or dissonance between themselves and the entities being expressed through them. Moreover (and this is certainly true for absolute metaphors), they begin with the sensuous and allow this register of experience to participate in the constitution of something that transcends mere sensuality (hence the claim to transcendence).


    Comment by Alexei — 29 October 2009 @ 3:51 am

  7. That’s a helpful navigation of the bridge from sensuality to transcendence, Alexei.

    Invoking the name of Walter Benjamin calls my easily-distractable attention to another shopfront on my flânerie of German thinkers. Perhaps we’ll even be graced by a reading from Ray Fuller’s latest work…


    Comment by john doyle — 29 October 2009 @ 5:34 am

    • Capital Idea! Ray Fuller says: “Sensuality IS transcendence” and is not the same as ‘sensuosity’, which does require transcendence and must be shot up into sensuality. YOu’ll know when you’re there. You just have to stay with it a lot longer than you’re ‘supposed to’.

      You can find a demonstration not in my new work, but in my old opus ‘Ballin’ with Ray’.


      Comment by Ray Fuller — 29 October 2009 @ 6:57 am

  8. I’ve not much idea about what you folks are discussing. John’s post actually brought to mind my own rather ancient voyages on a ship, once as a kid of 9 and then as a teenager. The feeling of being on a ship is absolutely without parallel. My mind was filled with the figures from my own reading of Stevenson, Rider Haggard, Verne, and Defoe. Exploration, adventure, the mystery of the unknown, dark shadowy islands seen in the distance across moonlit seas.

    Then there’s the ocean itself. A feeling of unplumbable depths covered with varying shades of opaque greens and undoubtedly filled with monstrous creatures and hungry man eater sharks…

    I do recall wondering what would actually happen if I jumped (or fell) overboard. I wondered till I was told by a wise sailor that it would take this liner about 4 or 5 hours to slow down, stop, turn around, and come back to try to find whatever remained of me. It was already a gloomy day with threatening clouds and a gusty wind. They might not even see me in the rising swell. Davy Jones locker? Fascinating, but not to be explored at that cost, at least not by me.


    Comment by sam carr — 3 November 2009 @ 7:17 am

  9. Nicely told, Sam.


    Comment by john doyle — 3 November 2009 @ 11:45 am

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