Her place discovered by the rules of art,
Unusual terrors shook the master's heart;
When Falconera's rugged isle he found,
Within her drift, with shelves and breakers bound;
For, if on those destructive shallows tost,
The helpless bark with all her crew are lost....
Dire was the scene, with whirlwind, hail and shower;
Black Melancholy rul'd the fearful hour!

— William Falconer, The Shipwreck, canto II.ll, 581-6, 599-600

"The brig was a mere log, rolling about at the mercy of every wave; the gale was upon the increase, if any thing, blowing indeed a complete hurricane, and there appeared to us no earthly prospect of deliverance. For several hours we held on in silence, expecting every moment our lashings would give way, that the remains of the windlass would go by the board, or that some of the huge seas, which roared in every direction around us and above us, would drive the hulk so far beneath the water that we shouId be drowned before it could regain the surface." — Edgar Allan Poe, Narrative of A. Gordorn Pim, ch. 9

When the stars by which one navigates go out or disappear into the mist, when God withdraws or seems to have died to man, the voyager finds himself drifting lost and alone. St Augustine described human life as a voyage towards God, and he warned that man had to take care lest the journey so fascinate him that he forget his final destination, and dally so long in the pleasures of tourism and exploration that he would, at last, lose all chance of making port. But once the way of reaching this port vanishes, and with it the safe haven as well, those embarked on the journey of life drift aimlessly, unsure of their bearings, unsure where to head, unsure indeed if there is anywhere to head. In one version this situation merges with those in which the voyager realizes that the destination and guiding stars have disappeared; this is the moment when one feels lost, alone, and helpless. In another version, however, the mariner finds himself drifting helplessly on a damaged vessel; this is the moment, exemplified by the epigraphs to this section, when one feels lost, helpless, alone — and in immediate danger of death. This is the situation, we recall, faced by Poe's narrator in 'MS. Found in a Bottle', who, having survived the initial disaster that left his ship a battered hulk, now realizes that he is helplessly drifting to his destruction. The drifting topos, therefore, presents a situation of extreme crisis in which the final moments, the final agonies, are tantalizingly deferred.

A series of political and intellectual cataclysms from the late eighteenth century until the present day have left many feeling thus cast adrift, and this situation has struck many who believed either they or their cultures were in crisis as paradigmatic. According to Albert Hancock's The French Revolution and the English Poets (1899), such perilous drifting was the fate of all in the aftermath of that catastrophic event:

Cut loose from the contemplation of heaven and hell, divorced from faith in a beneficent supernatural being, and convinced, too, that the divinely appointed delegates, those priests and kings, were imposters and tyrants, men were flung back upon themselves.... They felt like a shipwrecked crew, adrift amid the winds and waves and threatened with instant destruction.

The Abandoned

Clarkson Stanfield, The Abandoned. 1856.
Oil on canvas. 35 x 59 inches. Present location
unknown. [Click on the thumbnail for a larger
image.]

Such, warned Lamennais, the great nineteenth-century Catholic apologist, such must be the fate of man without God, for 'when the faith which once united man with God and raised him to God's heights begins to fail, something terrible happens': no longer able to anchor himself, man therefore 'drifts without rest amid the whole of creation like a battered vessel tossed hither and thither by the waves on a deserted ocean.'1 What makes Lamennais such a representative man of the nineteenth century is notjust that, like so many others, he should conceive the situation of man without God as that of a drifting, endangered vessel. No, what makes him most characteristic of his age is that after writing these lines, he should have abandoned his faith and left the Church, therebyjoining the ranks of those whose condition he had so well described.

Lamennais became, in other words, like the hero of Charles Kingsley's Alton Locke, a man who confesses that after abandoning his mother's Evangelical Protestantism he finds himself drifting 'rudderless' (ch. 2). Or like Arthur Hugh Clough, one of the most famous Victorian victims of spiritual crisis, who described himself in 'Blank Misgivings' with

    sails rent,
And rudder broken, — reason impotent, —
Affections all unfixed.

These images of drifting well convey the imaginative world which the end of Christian belief revealed to many.

In the late eighteenth century, long before such widespread religious crisis in the West, Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France had accurately warned that 'when ancient opinions and rules of life are taken away, the loss cannot possibly be estimated. From that moment we have no compass to govern us; nor can we know distinctly to what port we steer.' Many, like Burke, who have sensed that disaster threatens once we lose our bearings, blame what Locke in another context termed the busy, meddling mind of man. For those who had experienced the gradual dissolution of Christianity and with it the gradual disappearance of God, it often seems that the search for truth, itself such an apparently noble enterprise, would bring man to shipwreck. The protagonist of James Anthony Froude' The Nemesis of Faith, one of many nineteenth-century novels of religious crisis, thus explains how the worthy effort to removf absurd belief and foolish superstition led him to spiritual disaster

The notion of inspiration was no more satisfactory than that of the Church's infallibility; and if the power of the keys, and sacramental grace, and apostolic succession, were absurdities, the Devil was at least equally so. And with the Devil fell sin, and the atonement fell, and all revelation fell; and we were drifting on the current of a wide ocean, we knew not where, with neither oar nor compass. ['Confessions of a Sceptic']

In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche had similarly pointed to the dangers of what he called 'Alexandrian culture' with its ideal of 'theoretical man equipped with the greatest forces of knowledge and laboring in the service of science, whose archetype and progenitor is Socrates. ' Having observed the inability of most men to live in doubt, Nietzsche claimed that 'Modern man is beginning to divine the limits of this Socratic love of knowledge and yearns for a coast in the wide waste of the ocean of knowledge.' Necessarily, the contradictions implicit in a society based upon this quest for knowledge will lead it towards horrifying destruction. The basic flaw of nineteenth-century political structure, according to Nietzsche, is that this

Alexandrian culture, to be able to exist permanently, requires a slave class, but with its optimistic view of life it denies the necessity of such a class, and consequently, when its beautifully seductive and tranquillizing utterances about the 'dignity of man' and the 'dignity of labor' are no longer effective, it gradually drifts toward a dreadful destruction.

Further aggravating the problem is that 'in the face of such threatening storms, who dares to appeal with any confidence to our pale and exhausted religions?' (sec. 18, trans. Walter Kaufman). The extent to which Western society is already drifting surely appears in Nietzsche's reference not to religion but to religions.

A. C. Swinburne, who frequently uses the destruction of late pagan belief by a young, vital Christianity as an analogy for Christianity's own death throes after contact with modern secular thought, none the less rejoices in the loss of what Nietzsche terms 'our pale and exhausted religions'. In the 'Prelude' to Songs before Sunrise, his volume of political poems, Swinburne expresses his belief that man necessarily drifts to disaster if he looks heavenward for guidance. The poet, however, does not find unnerving the idea that religious beliefs which had long supported man no longer can aid him in life's journey. Calmly dismissing the older faiths, he urges self-reliance:

Save his own soul's light overhead,
None leads him, and none ever led,
Across birth's hidden harbour-bar,
Past youth where shoreward shallows are,
Through age that drives on toward the red
Vast void of sunset hailed from far,
To the equal waters of the dead;
Save his own soul he hath no star,
And sinks, except his own soul guide,
Helmless in the middle turn of tide.

Although Swinburne often seems obsessed with the notions of being shipwrecked and cast away (they are among his most common images), he here appears to have reached that state of acceptance which comes after the initial shock of recognition. Believing that 'manss soul is man's God', he emphasizes that man has no other deity and that man can expect no other guide: all becomes a matter of personal responsibility. Of course, for Swinburne, who considered himself a disciple of Mazzini, such acceptance of responsibility meant that he had to work for the causes of Italian freedom and unification. He therefore devoted considerable energy to winning support for the Risorgimento and for his own notions of humanistic democracy with his political poetry.

Bracing and attractive as Swinburne's challenge might be, it had struck many, like Nietzsche, as a recipe for disaster. For example, in his last days, N. S. Rubashov, the protagonist of Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon, recognizes that precisely such a programme had led him and the masses to their destruction . As he waits in his cell for the arrival of his executioners, he thinks to himself that perhaps the mistake

lay in the precept which until now he had held to be uncontestable: whole name he had sacrificed others andwas himself being sacrificed: in the precept, that the end justifies the means. It was this sentence which had killed the great fraternity of the Revolution and made them all run amuck. What had he once written in his diary? 'We have thrown overboard all conventions, our sole guiding principle is that of consequent logic; we are sailing without ethical ballast.' Perhaps the heart of the evil lay there. Perhaps it did not suit mankind to sail without ballast. And perhaps reason alone was a defective compass, which led one on such a winding, twisted course that the goal finally disappeared in the mist. ['The Grammatical Fiction', pt 2, trans. Daphne Hardy]

As he gropes his way down the dark steps towards the prison depths where he will be shot, Rubashov, 'now nearly blind' after his pincenez accidently breaks, still wonders about the fate of 'these masses . . . this people', which for 'forty years had been driven through the desert, with threats and promises, with imaginary terrors and imaginary rewards. But where was the Promised Land?' Wondering if any 'such goal' in fact exists for 'this wandering mankind', Rubashov desperately wants an answer but knows he has not received one and never will.

Having employed the paradigmatic situations of the wandering vessel and the desert wanderings of the Hebrews after the Exodus, Rubashov, who naturally considers himself a Moses-figure, compares his Pisgah sight to that of his predecessor:

Moses had not been allowed to enter the land of promise either. But he had been allowed to see it, from the top of the mountain, spread at his feet. Thus, it was easy to die, with the visible certainty of one's goal before one's eyes. He, Nicolas Salmanovitch Rubashov, had not been taken tO the top of a mountain; and wherever his eye looked, he saw nothing but desert and the darkness of night. ['The Grammatical Fiction' pt 3]

The Pisgah sight, which marks the coming together of human and divine, serves in older Christian terms as a type either of heaven or a truly Christian deathbed.[See my Victorian Types, Victorian Shadows: 205-16.] Here, in contrast, this inverted Pisgah sight serves as an analogue to the disappearance of the pole-star and communicates the bitterness of dying in this new post-Christian 'faith'.

Fittingly, Koestler closes the novel withthe situation of drifting, for immediately after Rubashov thus compares himself to Moses on Mount Pisgah, he is shot and finds himself drifting, passively allowing himself to be carried toward death:

A dull blow struck the back of his head. He had long expected it and yet it took him unawares.... He lay crumpled up on the ground, with his cheek on the cool flagstones. It got dark, the sea carried him rocking on its nocturnal surface. . . . A second, smashing blow hit him on the ear. Then all became quiet. There was the sea again with its sounds. A wave slowly lifted him up. It came from afar and travelled sedately on, a shrug of eternity.

Thus, Nicolas Salmanovitch Rubashov, who would lead the people to their Promised Land by depending on his own inner chart, finds himself at last groping through darkness until he is shot and drifts to eternity.

Koestler's compact, skilful manipulations of several commonplace Christian paradigms do more than implicitly contradict Swinburne and secular humanists like him. These effective intonations demonstrate, of course, how modern writers use older cultural codes ironically, and they also show how much of the ideological and ideational drama of this novel takes the form of juxtaposing these codes or paradigms with modern life. In particular, the pretensions of Russian communism to create a better life for the masses are subverted by placing them within the context — or against the background — of traditional Christian ways of speaking about such desires for attaining paradise. As Koestler demonstrates, the Christian solutions may no longer pertain, but the search for drastic new ones, such as that found in Soviet Marxism, still leaves man adrift.

Rockwell Kent, wood-engraving, illustration to Rockwell Kent, N by E. 1930, p. 137. (This
illustrated edition was later reissued by Wesleyan University Press in 1978.)


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