We see many instances of cities going down like sinking ships to their destruction. There have been such wrecks in the past and there surely will be others in the future, caused by the wickedness of captains and crews alike. For these are guilty men, whose sin is supreme ignorance of what matters most. — Plato, Statesman 302a, trans. J. S. Skemp
Now, just as a ship at sea must have a perpetual watch set, day and night, so also a state, tossed, as it is, on the billows of interstate affairs and in peril of being trapped by plots of every sort. — Plato, Laws 758a, trans. A. E. Taylor
Il te ressemble; il est terrible et pacifique.
Il est sous l'infini le niveau magnifique;
Il a le mouvement, il a l'immensité.
Apaise d'un rayon et d'un souffle agite,
Tantot c'est l'harmonie et tantot le cri rauque.
Les monstres sont a l'aise en sa profondeur glauque;
La trombe y germe; il a des gouffres inconnus
D'ou ceux qui l'ont brave ne sont pas revenus;
Sur son enormité le colosse chavire;
Comme toi le despote, il brise le navire. — Victor Hugo, "Au Peuple"
[It resembles you; it is terrible and pacific.
It is the spirit-level of the infinite;
It has movement, it has immensity.
Calmed by a ray of light and agitated by a breeze,
At one time it is harmony, at another the raucous cry.
Monsters are comfortable in its blind depths;
The waterspout germinates there; it has unknown abysses
From which those who brave them do not return;
The colossus capsizes on its enormity;
Like you a despot, it breaks the ship. — "The People"]
n addition to conveying the modern sense of spiritual isolation, the situation of the shipwreck and castaway has often been used to present the political plight of modern man. Just as in spiritual terms the traditional figure of the journey of life has been replaced frequently by the shipwreck, so in political terms the image of the Ship of State, which dates back to Plato, now becomes replaced by the wreck of that ship and the situation of the hapless mariner.1 Essentially, this political version of the castaway takes two forms, which we may term the liberal and the conservative, right wing and left: whereas the man concerned with the problems of the individual worker sees him cast away in the middle of the hostile ocean of an industrial age, the conservative sees himself being inundated by the impoverished, uncultured, raging masses.
Thus when the hero of William Hale White's Revolution in Tanner's Lane continually fails to obtain a job, he wanders in London and thinks of "the vast waste of the city all around him; its miles of houses; and he has a more vivid sense of abandonment than if he were on a plank in the middle of the Atlantic" (ch. 10). Similarly, Friedrich Engels's Condition of the Working Classes in England frequently emphasizes that "nobody troubles about the poor as they struggle helplessly in the whirlpool of modern industrial life." The worker "sinks" into degradation "owing to the introduction of steam power," and once "engulfed" by his surroundings, he soon perishes. No matter how hard he works, no matter how virtuously he lives, the worker may perish "through no fault of his own and despite all his efforts to keep his head above water." Thus the worker exists in a state of dreadful insecurity, knowing full well "that employment and food today do not mean employment and food tomorrow.... He knows that if he sinks into unemployment it will be difficult, and indeed, often, impossible, to survive."2 As Marx, Engels, Carlyle, and countless advocates of the medieval ideal of social order frequently emphasized, the death of feudal relations between master and worker, the decline of cottage industry and the destruction, in England, of yeomanry meant that all human connections between employers and labourers became replaced by the cash nexus. The worker felt himself cast adrift, unsupported, and without connection.
The bourgeois version of this experience of the world is bankruptcy, which figures so importantly in many Victorian novels — Reade's Hard Cash, Dickens's Little Dorrit, Thackeray's Vanity Fair, among so many others. In this last novel, for example, the image appears during the sale of Sedley's effects where some kindly young stockbrokers purchased several dozen silver spoons and "sent this little spar out of the wreck with their love to good Mrs. Sedley" (ch. 17). As Thackeray points out, the condition of the bankrupt is that of a person desperately trying to keep himself afloat by any means — and his very struggles threaten those who have avoided similar disaster:
As a general rule, which may make all creditors who are inclined to be severe, pretty comfortable in their minds, no men embarrassed are altogether honest, very likely. They conceal something; they exaggerate chances of good-luck; hide away the real state of affairs; say that things are flourishing when they are hopeless; keep a smiling face (a dreary smile it is) upon the verge of bankruptcy. . . . "Down with such dishonesty," says the creditor in triumph, and reviles his sinking enemy. "You fool, why do you catch at a straw?" calm good sense says to the man that is drowning. "You villain, why do you shrink from plunging into the irretrievable Gazette?" says prosperity to the poor devil battling in that black gulf. [ch. 18]
Similarly, near the close of the novel after Becky has experienced "the Curzon Street catastrophe" between her husband and Lord Steyne, she slips into poverty and despair, at the last not even taking care of her appearance.
This abatement and degradation did not take place all at once: it was brought about by degrees, after her calamity, and after many struggles to keep up — as a man who goes overboard hangs on to a spar when any hope is left, and then flings it away and goes down when he finds that struggling is vain. [ch. 64]
But even this disaster is not complete, and Becky Sharpe survives to fasten herself to Jos Sedley, destroying him in the process. And Becky, who has played so many roles in the course of this exploration of Vanity Fair, finally presents herself to Dobbin as a helpless "poor castaway, scorned for being miserable, and insulted because I am alone" (ch. 66). For Mrs Rawdon Cawley, as for so many characters in Victorian fiction, it is economic shipwreck that is the most fearful.
The Black, whether slave or freeman, found himself in a situation similar to that of the industrial proletariat, and one therefore encounters the image of shipwrecks and castaways used to convey the plight of the Black in a hostile society. Thus, Winslow Homer's Gulf Stream and After the Hurricane, like Gericault's Raft of the "Medusa" , create pictorial analogues to the sense of being in the world presented by Prosper Merimée's "Tamango." This tale of rebellion aboard a slave-ship tells how Tamango, "a well-known warrior and slavedealer" on the coast of Guinea, is himself captured and made slave after he swims out to Captain Ledoux's ship, ironically named the "Hope," to obtain the return of his wife whom he had given away in a fit of drunken anger. Whatever other qualities Tamango may have, he remains warrior enough to inspire the others to revolt, and after a particularly savage combat with the captain who had betrayed him, he and his followers take over the ship. But when the conquerors' thirst for vengeance has been satiated, they realize to their horror that little has been achieved which will benefit them: they "looked up at the ship's sails, which were swollen by the fresh breeze and seemed still to be obeying their oppressors and taking the victors, in spite of their triumph, towards the land of slavery." Never having seen, much less sailed, in an ocean-going ship, they despair. Tamango tries to turn the ship about, but unskilled as he is, he makes the ship heel over
so violently that it looked as if she were going to founder. Her long yards plunged into the sea; several men were thrown off their balance and some fell overboard. Soon the ship righted herself and stood proudly against the swell, as if to fight once again against destruction. But the wind increased its efforts and suddenly, with a deafening crash, the two masts fell, snapped off a few feet above the deck which was covered with wreckage and a tangled network of ropes [trans. Jean Kimber]
The slave-ship, which immediately becomes a fitting emblem of the Black man's existence in a slave society, continues to bear the Africans towards destruction: even when they destroy their particular oppressors, they cannot destroy the mechanism that supported their oppression. With the crippled ship now drifting helplessly, Tamango convinces his equally ignorant followers to abandon it and attempt to row towards home, but the boats are swamped and almost all are lost. Tamango, however, makes it safely back to the brig with his wife as the drifting vessel becomes the scene of new tortures.
About a score of human beings, crowded together in a narrow space, now tossed about on a stormy sea, now scorched by the burning sun, fought daily over the scanty remains of their provisions. Every piece of biscuit was the object of a fight, and the weaker died, not because the stronger killed him, but because he let hirn expire.
After a few days only Tamango, who had originally sold his fellows into slavery and had then led the rebellion that seemed to set them free, survives. He is saved, if one can employ that word, by a British frigate, restored to health, and
treated in the same way as the blacks who are found on board a captured slave-trader. They set him free, that is to say they made him work for the government; but he was given threepence a day beside his keep. One day the colonel of the 75th caught sight of this fine figure of a man and made him a drummer in his regimental band. Tamango learned a little English, but hardly ever spoke. On the other hand, he was always drinking rum and tafia. He died in hospital of congestion of the lungs.
So this tale of agony and suffering which began with the heavy irony of a Captain Gentle and his slave-ship Hope ends with equally acid irony: Tamango, the slave-dealer, fierce warrior, great chieftain, and leader of revolts, destroys both those he loves and those he hates; and yet he still ends up a castaway, a hopeless, isolated, diminished fragment of his former self, perishing finally not by violence but in hospital, not from rough seas but from rum.
In contrast to these images of the oppressed member of society as shipwrecked and cast away, there is a conservative version that implicitly suggests that the upper classes, the forces of order, are being inundated by the mob. Whereas the left-wing castaway overtly presents the worker or slave in this situation, the right-wing version concentrates instead on presenting the lower orders as a wild, raging sea about to engulf all. The comparison of the representative of order to a castaway thus remains implicit. Perhaps it is slightly unfair to call such imagery necessarily "conservative" since Carlyle's French Revolution, its major source at least in English literature, uses it primarily to indicate that the outraged, oppressed lower classes have become as a natural force, blind, overwhelming, and essentially just. But when the image of the sea is used again in Carlyle's later works once he has become reactionary, or when it appears in George Eliot's Felix Holt, Dickens's Tale of Two Cities, or Mrs Gaskell's North and South, then it embodies nothing more than fear of the workers.
Participants in the French Revolution, and not nineteenth-century authors, invented this representation of the masses as a raging ocean that sweeps all before it. As Hannah Arendt points out in On Revolution, the cataclysm in France introduced an entirely new vocabulary into political language.
When we think of revolution, we almost automatically still think in terms of this imagery born in those years — in terms of Desmoulins' torrent revolutionnaire on whose rushing waves the actors of the revolution were borne and carried away until its undertow sucked them from the surface and they perished together with their foes. [On Revolution (1965) New York: 42. ]
These metaphors of men plunged into raging waters allowed the revolutionaries to link their personal fates to a more general destiny — but only at the major cost of sacrificing their sense of individual freedom.
The various metaphors in which the revolution is seen not as the work of men but as an irresistible process, metaphors of stream and torrent and current, were still coined by the actors themselves, who, however drunk they might have become with the wine of freedom in the abstract, dearly no longer believed that they were free agents. [p. 105]
Arendt convincingly argues that such a conception of man's relation to the world in which he finds himself arose when the Revolution "turned from the foundation of freedom to the liberation of man from suffering," for then it removed socially inculcated "barriers of endurance and liberated, as it were, the devastating forces of misfortune and misery instead" (p. 107). Once the masses recognized that a constitution would not end poverty, they turned against the Constituent Assembly as they had turned against the monarchy. The only leaders who could survive were those willing to sacrifice "artificial," man-made laws
to the "natural" laws which the masses obeyed, to the forces by which they were driven, and which indeed were the forces of nature herself, the force of elemental necessity. When this force was let loose, when everybody had become convinced that only naked need and interest were without hypocrisy, the malheureux changed into the enragés. . . . Thus, after hypocrisy had been unmasked and suffering had been exposed, it was rage and not virtue that appeared. [p. 106]
One of the more important conservative intonations of this image occurs when the man of culture embodies in it his fear of the masses. As one might expect, the aesthetes and decadents of the late nineteenth century felt themselves buffeted and threatened by the increasingly democratic society that surrounded them. For example, Max Beerbohm characteristically employs this imagery and mocks it in "Diminuendo," the mock farewell to life he wrote at twenty-four. He tells how after leaving Oxford he "came to London. Around me seethed swirls, eddies, torrents, violent crosscurrents of human activity. What uproar! Surely I could have no part in modern life." Beerbohm is here echoing the way des Esseintes experienced contemporary French society. In A Rebours Huysmans wrote a textbook for the decadence by relating how his protagonist's contempt for humanity led him to withdraw from the world into a Palace of Art. In the novel's opening pages we learn that des Esseintes had from his early years been "dreaming of a . . . snugly heated ark on dry land in which he might take refuge from the incessant deluge of human stupidity" ("Prologue") which so threatened him. Like the allegorical figure in Tennyson's "The Palace of Art," des Esseintes builds himself a pleasure dome; and like Tennyson's character he at last finds himself driven back into the sea of his fellow men by his own neuroses, by his own mind: in each case psychological, rather than moral, forces convince the protagonist of the impossibility of surviving in isolation. At the novel's close des Esseintes mournfully considers the state of contemporary culture:
in painting, the result was a deluge of lifeless inanities; in literature, a torrent of hackneyed phrases and conventional ideas — honesty to flatter the shady speculator, integrity to please the swindler who hunted for a dowry for his son while refusing to pay his daughter's, and chastity to satisfy the anticlerical who . . . was forever haunting the local brothel. [ch. 16]
America, the home of democracy, is of course the source of all these corruptions for the hollow-cheeked, high-strung, anaemic last scion of a once great family. While he rages inwardly at the bourgeois, the door to his study bursts open and des Esseintes catches sight of the moving men. He collapses into a chair as the novel ends with the castaway's recognition:
"In two days' time I shall be in Paris," he told himself. "Well, it is all over now. Like a tide-race, the waves of human mediocrity are rising to the heavens and will engulf this refuge, for I am opening the flood-gates myself, against my will. Ah! but my courage fails me, and my heart is sick within me! Lord, take pity on the Christian who doubts, on the unbeliever who would fain believe, on the galley slave of life who puts out to sea alone, in the night, beneath a firmament no longer lit by the consoling beacon-fires of the ancient hope!"
When using the age-old topos of the Ship of State, Carlyle similarly combines perspectives, creating a complex effect, but once again the chief effect is to convey a sense of external forces impinging upon individual men. When Plato and Cicero employ this topos they do so to emphasize the need for hierarchical political organization and obedience to authority in times of crisis. The threat of crisis is always present to a ship, and this is what makes it such an effective image of potential disaster: men rely upon comparatively thin, weak bulwarks to keep away the drowning ocean as they float on the surface of waters that may rise several miles from any bottom. Perched on this surface, like bubbles on a stream, they are at the mercy of all the forces of storm and sea. At the same time that the ship thus provides a fitting image of the insecurity of human life, it also serves as a microcosm and can represent larger sections of human society. Writers about the sea have often taken advantage of the intrinsic capacities of a shipboard narrative to present these broader views. Traven's Death Ship for example, superbly addresses itself to the problem of all workers in an industrial society. Carlyle, of course, is not writing a history about ships, but rather using the ship, and particularly the ship in peril, as an effective analogy. Where he differs from most other authors who make use of such analogies is that he carries them to great lengths, making these topoi part of the texture of his work.
His handling of the image of the Ship of State thus characteristically stresses crisis and imminent disaster; for as he explains once the revolution gets under way and the king has lost power, there is no longer any captain at the wheel; and the
National Assembly, like a ship water-logged, helmless, lies tumbling . . . and waits where the waves of chance may please to strand it; suspicious, nay on the Left-side, conscious, what submarine Explosion is meanwhile acharging!
With the titular commander, Louis XVI, now in irons, the former galley slaves and common seamen want to pitch him overboard. Petitions demanding his abdication arrive from Paris and the provinces, and against the power of Danton the legislators, "with their Legislature water-logged" ("At Dinner," bk V, ch. 5), can do nothing. How can they? Since the Assembly derives "its authority from the Old, how can it have authority when the Old is exploded by insurrection? As floating piece of wreck, certain things, persons, and interests may still cleave to it" ("The Improvised Commune," pt 3, bk I, ch . 1 ) - and in fact do - but these can hardly steer France away from coming disasters.
Next, the nation becomes "a kindled Fireship"
as all hands ran raging, and the flames lashed high over the shrouds and topmast.... The Fireship is old France, the old French Form of Life; her crew a Generation of men. Wild are their cries and their ragings there, like spirits tormented in that flame. ["Cause and Effect," pt 3, bk III, ch. 1]
The Reign of Terror arrives putting everything — all men and all ideas — to the test of fire and water: "Catholicism, Classicism, Sentimentalism, Cannibalism: all isms that make up Man in France, are rushing and roaring in that gulf . . ." ("Rushing Down," pt 3, bkV, ch. 1). Institutions, beliefs, allegiances, and finally men are cast into the rushing torrent. The Terror demands more and more lives until, at last, revulsion sets in, and the Assembly, having grown fatigued and disgusted by the guillotining, revolts. Robespierre, "discerning that it is mutiny," desperately tries to reinforce his authority, for he realizes that
mutiny is a thing of the fatallest nature in all enterprises whatsoever. . . . But mutiny in a Robespierre Convention, above all, — it is like fire seen sputtering in the ship's powderroom! One death-defiant plunge at it, this moment, and you may still tread it out: hesitate till the next moment, - ship and ship's captain, crew and cargo are shivered far; the ship's voyage had ended between sea and sky. ["To Finish the Terror," pt 3, bk V. ch. 6]
Though Robespierre does not hesitate, he cannot quell the mutiny and is destroyed. Now with Robespierre gone, Danton gone, the forces of the Middle and not the tempest of patriots batter the drifting, damaged vessel, for now
there is no Pilot, there is not even a Danton, who could undertake to steer you anywhither, in such a press of weather. The utmost a bewildered Convention can do, is to veer, and trim, and try to keep itself steady; and rush, undrowned, before the wind. Needless to struggle; to fling helm a-lee, and make "bout ship." A bewildered Convention sails not in the teeth of the wind; but is rapidly blown round again. So strong is the wind, we say; and so changed; blowing fresher and fresher, as from the sweet Southwest; your devastating Northeasters, and wild Tornado-gusts of Terror, blown utterly out! ["La Cabarus," pt 3, bk Vll, ch. 2]
The winds have changed. The perilous voyage duringwhich so many were lost is nearly over.
But first the much fatigued convention must make safe harbour, passing through new dangers. The people now "spoiled by long right of insurrection" will not accept the new "Aristocracy of the Moneybag" ("The Whiff of Grapeshot," pt 3, bk Vll ch. 7) which has replaced the old feudal one. Having hurled a royal family and nobility into the deeps, the people do not want to take orders from the captains of industry; having pushed the Church over the side, they do not willingly accept what Ruskin called the Goddess-of-Getting-On. Enraged at the way the new aristocracy of wealth has gained command, the Lepelletier Section arms and marches upon Paris. The soldiers sent to quell these insurgents go over to the people, and once more chaos threatens the Ship of State.
Our poor Convention, after such voyaging, just entering the harbour . . . has struck on the bar; — and labours there frightfully, with breakers roaring round it, Forty-thousand of them, like to wash it, and its Sieyes Cargo and whole future of France into the deep! Yet one last time it struggles, ready to perish.
The convention chooses "Citizen Buonaparte, unemployed artillery officer, who took Toulon," as commandant of military forces, and he takes the wheel in this new crisis. The Ship of State, caught once again in danger, struggles to survive. "It is an imminence of shipwreck, for the whole world to gaze at. Frightfully she labours, that poor ship, within cable-length of port. . . . However, she has a man at the helm." Four October 1795: a roar of artillery, some two hundred men of Lepelletier dead, and the last tempest dissipates itself.
The miraculous Convention Ship has got to land; — and is there, shall we figuratively say, changed as Epic Ships are wont, into a kind of Sea Nymph, never to sail more; to roam the waste azure, a Miracle in History!
After enduring great dangers the "Convention Ship" thus arrives in port. Many of its crew have perished, others will never recover from the voyage, but the voyage, for all its pain and peril, had to be made; it was essential, for otherwise France and her people would have perished from the quackery and "gigamanty" of the Old Regime. Even though new quackery and "gigamanty" will attempt to replace the old, the perilous journey was worth its toll in lives. The spectators of this voyage, who have been making their own way through Carlyle's history, have learned that falsehood and oppression inevitably lead to shipwreck and death. But from this sight of shipwrecks and near-shipwreck comes cause for hope.
The one thing that immediately strikes the reader of The French Revolution is the way Carlyle can immerse him in crisis after crisis, continually conveying a feeling of the power of events. Carlyle's adept manipulation of the metaphor of ships and shipwrecks plays an important role in his success. For example, he uses the topos of the Ship of State, not as an analogy to support an argument, but as a means of conveying what it feels like to be caught and carried along by forces that threaten total destruction. Even when apparently employing this topos to make us realize how chaos threatens the structure of government, Carlyle in fact always brings the threats home to his readers — they are made to take their place on the Fireship, on the drifting vessel. Perhaps this is one inevitable result of elaborating upon such metaphors: it comes alive and makes us feel that the events are happening to us and not to those others. At any rate, Carlyle's use of the paradigm of the Ship of State, like his handling of the individual shipwrecked mariner, emphasizes man alone, abandoned, at the mercy of massive forces beyond his control.
Closely related to these images of political and cultural crisis are Richard Hughes's depictions of what happens when a society based upon the machine finds that the machines have broken down. In Hazard, his superb novel about a freighter caught in a hurricane, shows the perils of becoming completely dependent upon machines. Battered by the storm, the Archimedes finds itself "totally dead."
Everything about her worked by steam or by electricity — so little, on a modern ship, is left to man-power. There being no steam there was also no electricity. She was dark everywhere, but for the pinpoints of a few electric torches and oil lamps. Water still poured down her gaping fore-hatch — but the pumps were perforce idle. The wireless apparatus, being dependent on main electricity, was dumb. Her propeller was still; her rudder immovable. She was dead, as a log is dead, rolling in the sea; she was not a ship any more. She was full of men, of course; but there was no work for them to do, because ships, having once discarded man's strength, cannot fall back on that strength in an emergency. [ch. 4]
In the days of wooden sailing ships, avessel, no matter how battered, had a better chance of survival once the worst was over. Men worked the pumps and would have kept working them; and though a storm might carry away the masts, the carpenter could jury-rig something that would enable the ship to limp home. The modern steam ship, in contrast, becomes a "mere lifeless log" once its machines have failed. Hughes's novel, which is first and foremost a sea story, none the less tells a parable that encompasses all of modern society, all civilization based on the machine.
Before closing this brief examination of the social and political uses of this imagery, we should glance at its relation to the modern experience of the city. Since the beginning of the nineteenth century there have been many like the hero of White's industrial novel who have felt the modern city as a waste ocean. Thus, whereas Camus perceives Oran as desert, and Balzac sees Paris similarly, others look upon the cities in which they find themselves as threatening oceans. Like White, Shelley described London as a dangerous ocean that wrecks and makes castaways of men. As he wrote in his "Letter to Maria Gisborne,"
You are now
In London, that great sea, whose ebb and flow
At once is deaf and loud, and on the shore
Vomits its wrecks, and still howls for more. [ll. 192-5]
The hero of Charles Kingsley's Alton Locke similarly experiences the "dark, noisy, thunderous" London life as "a troubled sea that cannot rest, casting up mire and dirt." In the last decade of the nineteenth century William Sharp similarly wrote in "A Paris Nocturne" of
the sea of the city
With all its shoals and its terrors,
Its perilous straits and its breakers.
Clearly, the scale of the modern city, its population so much greater than that of village or town, and its assertion of the cash nexus as the essential human relation, made many feel as though they were about to be submerged by a hostile element.
Last modified 14 July 2007