“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 starting 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.]