O ne intonation of the Journey-of-Life topos increasingly characterizes Western culture from the late eighteenth century to the present day: the man shipwrecked and cast away. For Augustine, for Dante, for Chaucer, the journey of life was primarily a movement towards God, a voyage to the second Eden and City that has foundations. Renaissance authors retain this idea, yet add as their favorite variations the Ship of State and the Ship of Fools. But by the last years of the eighteenth century shipwrecks and castaways enter poetry, fiction, and painting with increasing frequency until at last the disaster in midvoyage compels more than the voyage itself.

Clearly, this intonation of the cultural code answered to the needs of many in the age to figure forth the new universe in which they found themselves. These images and situations are born of a sense of crisis, the sense, in particular, that one has seen the old guides, the old destinations, the old truths vanish. In contrast, when the shipwreck topos appears in earlier work, it functions as a metaphor for (1) punishment; (2) test or trial; or (3) means of spiritual education. Thus, when Dante threatens Florence, all Italy, and the Church with shipwreck, he is using this commonplace to suggest that they deserve divine punishment.

The Slave Ship

Turner's Slaveship [Click on the thumbnail for a larger image.]

Such traditional Christian uses of course do not disappear from Western culture, and, for example, when Turner paints a typhoon about to destroy the evil vessel depicted in The Slave Ship (1840, Boston Museum of Fine Arts) he is applying the situation in a traditional manner. Drawing upon the stories of the Flood and Jonah, the Christian tradition has long used this situation to provide an image of punishment. Frequently, however, one comes across more complex earlier uses of shipwreck as code. Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, for example, clearly exemplifies a work in which all three basic uses of the situation coincide, for after this most famous of castaways is wrecked on his desert island as punishment for his sins, he proves himself worthy through his trials — and, finally, he becomes a true Christian.

One might say, therefore, that whereas the traditional shipwreck takes place in the presence of God, it is precisely the point of the modern one that it occurs in His absence. This radical difference between the two versions of the shipwreck, which also exists in other situations of crisis, such as the end of Pompeii, arises out of the way that the shipwreck transforms the journey-of-life metaphor. According to St Augustine, who provides the classical statement of this metaphor, Adam's fall exiled all his descendants from their proper home, which is with God, and their task — our task — is to strive to return to Him. Much like Swinburne and Stevens, St. Augustine first presents his vision of life in terms of a hypothetical analogy:

Suppose, then, we were wanderers in a strange country, and could not live happily away from our fatherland, and that we felt wretched in our wanderings, and wishing to put an end to our misery, determined to return home. We find, however, that we must make use of some mode of conveyance, either by land or water, in order to reach that fatherland where our enjoyment is to commence. But the beauty of the country through which we pass, and the very pleasure of the motion, charm our hearts, and turning these things which we ought to use into objects of enjoyment, we become unwilling to hasten the end of the journey, and becoming engrossed in a factitious delight, our thoughts are diverted from that home whose delights would make us truly happy. Such is a picture of our condition in this life of mortality.2

Comparing St. Augustine's metaphor of the life journey with that of the shipwreck in its modern intonation, one perceives a series of diametrical oppositions. First of all, according to this classic Christian statement of the topos, if we fail to survive the journey, the cause must lie entirely with us. In contrast, what I have termed the modern or post-Christian version of the shipwreck situation makes the situation of sea disaster the responsibility of external forces. Furthermore, although the journey of life presents man exiled from God and his heavenly home, he yet voyages with some sort of divine sponsorship, if he can only recognize that fact. At the very least, man is driven by the needs of his human nature to return to God. The shipwreck, however, presents man deprived of such a nurturing, if unseen divine presence, for he is completely isolated, and, as Wallace Stevens states in "sunday Morning," "unsponsored, free." Moreover, whereas the Christian voyage topos obviously possesses a clear goal or teleology, the shipwreck is unmotivated and unmeaning. In part, its very randomness makes it so terrifying and disorienting. Similarly, whereas the Christian conception of life as a journey consists in movement towards that clear goal, the shipwreck consists in the interruption of movement, the breaking of a progress. Consequently, whereas the Christian life journey emphasizes meaningful continuity, connection, and duration, the shipwreck communicates an experience of discontinuity, for the shipwrecked voyager, like the inhabitant of Pompeii or that Alpine cottage, is suddenly cut off from his past and thrust into a terrifying new existence. Finally, whereas the Christian voyager belongs to the community of fellow believers, a community of which God is the centre, the shipwrecked voyager finds himself in a condition of essential isolation and helplessness.

Before examining the situation of shipwreck in more detail, one should recognize that it is very commonly employed as a structural device. The tale of adventure, the romance, and the satire all frequently use shipwrecks — or in more recent years, aircrashes — to remove a character from his or her social, political, and moral context and insert him or her into an alien world. Sidney's Arcadia and Shakespeare's The Tempest both use shipwreck as a way of thus introducing characters into a new setting, and Gulliver's Travels, in which the poor protagonist finds himself at various times abandoned, wrecked, and cast away, exemplifies the atirist's manipulation of this device. When a shipwreck is used for such narrative purposes, however, it rarely also functions to create that sense of being in the world that is here our main concern. A major exception, of course, is Robinson Crusoe, a work that manages to combine the devices of the adventure story with its much emphasized theological import. But such combinations are the exception and not the rule.

The Shipwreck Image and Situation as Paradigm

B oth the Christian conception of a journey of life and the post-Christian one of shipwreck function much in the manner of what Thomas S. Kuhn calls scientific paradigms. [The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 2nd edn (1970) Chicago.] Like these paradigms, they impose a sense of order upon the formlessness and sheer multiplicity of existence in this world. Furthermore, like such paradigms, such images or metaphors have major cultural values for those who accept them, since they become the "ordinary" or dominant way of considering reality. They also become, of course, a chief means of communicating that way of considering reality. A scientific paradigm has the important function of sealing off certain areas of dispute and thus allowing scientists to go about their main endeavor, which, says Kuhn, is solving problems of a particular sort. Both the journey of life and the shipwreck again work in the same way, for by proffering a ready-made interpretation of the human condition, they effectively seal off areas of dispute to permit other kinds of thought and action to flourish.

If both the Christian conception of the journey of life and the modern vision of shipwreck function so efficiently and satisfyingly, one wonders how one could have developed from the other. In particular, since Christian uses of the shipwreck take it to be test, education, or punishment, one wonders how the modern intonation of the ancient topos could have acquired this very different structure and significance. Erwin Panofsky's explanation of how medieval artists developed new types, motifs, and images from classical ones provides us with a valuable clue. According to him,

As a rule such re-interpretations were facilitated or even suggested by a certain iconsographical affinity, for instance when the figure of Orpheus was employed for the representation of David, or when the type of Hercules dragging Cerberus out of Hades was used to depict Christ pulling Adam out of Limbo. But there are cases in which the relationship between the classical prototype and its Christian adaptation is a purely compositional one.3

In other words, when a certain visual structure created for a certain purpose fulfills requirements for another application, medieval artists adapted it to their own ends. Sometimes obvious intellectual or symbolic affinities prompted such transference of visual patterns from one application to another, but in other instances the presence of an available image was enough to prompt such adaptation. Such a process has much in common with Darwinian conceptions of biological adaptation and natural selection, for in each case a structure (physical or visual) develops, and once developed proves to have a function. Since it thus has a function, it becomes reproduced and hence more prevalent. Of course, whereas biological structures evolve through genetic variation, these artistic and intellectual ones first develop for one purpose or within one context which then disappears. None the less, considered from the vantage-point of the application of an existing structure and not its genesis, the processes are strikingly similar.

Returning to the question of how one paradigm or cultural code could have evolved into another, we can now suggest a mechanism. As St. Augustine's eloquent presentation of the Christian vision of the life journey makes clear, this paradigm always allows for the possibility that the voyager will fail. The human being traveling back to his heavenly home can become so enthralled by the pleasures of the journey that he may lose sight of his eventual goal. Moreover, as the stories of Jonah and the Deluge, as well as countless later hymns, also make clear, God can punish man with shipwreck and death by water. These failed voyages and shipwrecks, unlike what I have termed the post-Christian ones, are presented from a divine perspective — from the vantage-point, that is, of a present God. In fact, however terrifying earlier shipwreck images may have been, they always come assimilated to the basic structure of the divinely sponsored, continuous, meaningful pilgrimage to God. None the less, like many other situations and structures originally formulated within a religious context, such as the Pisgah sight, this one of shipwreck possessed an entire range of potentially ironic or ultimately subversive features.4 As long as this situation was only associated closely with the journey-of-life topos, none of these features could develop, but once the shipwreck moved out of the shadow of the previously dominant structure, authors and artists began to make use of those elements of it that are diametrically opposed to the original paradigm. Thus, a structure first arises within a particular context, and from the vantage-point of those who no longer accept that context it appears empty and ready to be filled with new ideas and feelings, or else unemployed and ready to be used in some new way. Such a mechanism not only permits the student of iconology and culture to observe the gradual changes that lead eventually to radical departures from a point of origin or oppositions to it, it also has the crucial virtue of necessarily avoiding any sort of teleology or smuggled-in hindsight that would turn history into a prerecorded tale known only to the critic.


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Last modified 15 July 2007