Those whom an excess of prosperity has rendered sluggish may justly be called unfortunate; a dead calm holds them fast, as it were, on a motionless sea. . . . All excesses are injurious, but immoderate prosperity is the most dangerous of all. It affects the brain.... What is the duty of the good man? To offer himself to Fate. . . . He must be wave-tossed and steer his craft through troubled waters, he must maintain his course in the face of Forrune. Much that is hard and rough will befall him, but he will himself soften it and smooth it down. Gold is tried by fire, brave men by misfortune. — Seneca, On Providence. Why any Misfortunes Befall Good Men When a Providence Exists, trans. Moses Hadas

From this the poem springs: that we live in a place
That is not our own and, much more, not ourselves
And hard it is in spite of blazoned days. — Wallace Stevens, "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction"

but he had a beautiful daughter
and the young sailor
distracted him
as the wreckage rocked
in the swell. — Rosemarie Waldrop, "No Horizon"

hether appearing in a political or metaphysical context, the iconsography of shipwreck conveys the experience of crisis and frequently of final disaster as well. None the less, that complete despair which colours James Thomson's City of Dreadful Night is rare. In explaining why he writes so darkly of the human condition, he finds himself forced to admit in his "Proem" that he does so only because "a cold rage seizes one . . ./ To show the bitter old and wrinkled truth/ Stripped of all vesture that beguiles" and "because it gives some sense of power and passion/ In helpless impotence to try to fashion/ Our woe in living words." In contrast, many who use the figure of man shipwrecked and cast away try, often desperately, to find some advantage, however limited, to their recognitions. For example, near the close of Bernard Malamud's The Fixer, Yakov Bok, who has been imprisoned unjustly in Tsarist Russia for ritual murder of a Christian child, thinks:

So I learned a little . . . but what good will it do me? Will it open the prison doors? . . . Will it free me a little once I am free? Or have I only learned to know what my condition is that the ocean is salty as you are drowning, and though you knew it you are drowned? Still, it was better than not knowing. A man had to learn, it was his nature. [ch. 4, pt 4]

Yakov Bok's insight, then, provides some consolation, though only of the bleakest, bitterest kind: man, the animal who can understand, at least is able to know the truth, even if it is about his destruction.

Similarly, in Servitude et grandeur militaires (The Military Condition), Alfred de Vigny, like Tennyson's In Memoriam, asks

In the universal shipwreck of belief what flotsam is there to which noble hands may still cling? Save for the love of comfort and ephemeral luxury, not a vestige shows on the surface of the deep. It is as if egotism had submerged all; even those who, seeking to save souls, plunge courageously into the waters feel themselves on the point of being engulfed.

Adopting a very different solution from that of Tennyson, de Vigny tells how he

described in the midst of these dark waters one apparently solid and immobile point. . . . I drew near to it and looked all around it and above and below it, and I laid my hand on it and found it strong enough to bear a man up in the midst of the storm.

What, then, is this life-raft fit for the nineteenth-century deluge?

It is no new creed, no newly invented cult, no vague concept; it is a sentiment born in us, independent of time, place, and even religion.... This faith, which I think we all still possess, and which reigns supreme in the army, is called HONOUR, [ch. 10, trans. Marguerite Barnett]

Apparently unable to believe that man in the nineteenth century can still found a life on Christian belief, de Vigny accepts that honour is an idea innate to man. While such a decision strikes one as curiously naive and even desperate, it does serve as a kind of protoexistentialism in which each human being must create himself.

Although he calls his life-raft "heroism" rather than "honour," Norman Mailer arrives at a very similar solution to the problem of man's shipwrecked condition. Of a Fire on the Moon, Mailer's search for heroism in a technological world, explains that in the twentieth century one can no longer ignore man's dangerous relationship to nature and society.

In the Nineteenth Century, they had ignored Kierkegaard. A middle-class White man, living on the rise of Nineteenth Century technology was able to feel his society as an eminence from which he could make expeditions, if he wished, into the depths. He would know all the while that his security was still up on the surface, a ship — if you will — to which he was attached by a line. In the Twentieth Century, the White man had suddenly learned what the Black man might have told him — that there was no ship unless it was a slave ship. There was no security. Everybody was underwater, and even the good sons of the middle class could panic in those depths, for if there was no surface, there was no guide. Anyone could lose his soul. That recognition offered a sensation best described as bottomless. [pt 1, ch. 5, ii]

Mailer begins his examination of the first moon landing with the death of Hemingway eight years before, since for him "Hemingway constituted the walls of the fort: Hemingway had given the power to believe you could still shout down the corridor of the hospital, live next to the breath of the beast, accept your portion of dread each day. Now the greatest living romantic was dead." Mailer's great fear is that "technology would fill the pause" (pt 1, ch. 1, i), driving out life and imagination and heroism. He therefore seeks to experience the events that make up the moon voyage so that he can enable us to re-experience them, at each step of the way probing for possibilities of heroism. Twice he leads us through the launch, flight, landing and return. The first time we perceive these events from outside, from the vantage-point of the reporter, noting size and expense, and the climax here comes when, borrowing Mailer's sensibilities, we experience the Lift-Off, discovering the twentieth-century sublime in technology, in the sheer quantity of a man-made thing, in the noise and thunder that shakes every nerve, muscle, and bone. Mailer's second time through these events takes the form of a voyage of understanding. It moves towards the dimactic drama of "The Ride Down," making us understand — and experience — the last four minutes of the moon landing when men at computer consoles, men coupled to technology, make heroic decisions, as Mailer discovers that Hemingway's brand of heroism is not the only form, that perhaps the heroism of the apparently unromantic young men in white short-sleeved shirts and crew-cut hair is ultimately more relevant and more life-giving. At any rate, it exists — and right in the bosom of the machine itself. Mailer finally, we recognize, turns out to be much closer to Whitman than his description of our shipwrecked condition might at first permit one to realize. Like Whitman's large-hearted captain, he too would hold up a chalkboard bearing the message — "Do not despair."

To the life-rafts of honour and heroism, Virginia Woolf's Clarissa Dalloway adds that of service to others. Peter Walsh, another character in Mrs Dalloway, thinks that

she was one of the most thorough-going sceptics he had ever met, and possibly . . . she said to herself, As we are a doomed race, chained to a sinking ship (her favourite reading as a girl was Huxley and Tyndall, and they were fond of these nautical metaphors), as the whole thing is a bad joke, let us, at any rate, do our part; mitigate the sufferings of our fellow prisoners.

In closing this study's cursory examination of the way the past two centuries have employed the situation and metaphor of shipwreck, I would like to look at three very different men to see some cause, however slight, for consolation in man's situation as one shipwrecked and cast away — Thomas Carlyle, Jose Ortega y Gasset, and Jean-Paul Sartre. Each believes the human condition is epitomized by that instant after shipwreck when man is hurled into the cold, alien sea; and each emphasizes this instant not as cause to despair, but as cause to act, to choose, to create oneself.

In the Carlylean version of this perilous situation, the castaway chokes, coughs up the stinging cold water, and, flailing his arms, discovers to his surprise, nay, to his joy, that he can keep his head above water — by struggling against this fearful element, he can make it support him. It is difficult; "it is like swimming with a millstone round your neck" (p. 198), he tells Emerson, but it is not impossible. Thus the major discovery enunciated in Past and Present: work will save the man who finds himself immersed in the waste ocean of life:

All work is as the swimmer's: a waste ocean threatens to devour him; if he front it not bravely, it will keep its word. By incessant wise defiance of it, lusty rebuke and buffet of it, behold how loyally it supports him, bears him as its conqueror along. "It is so," says Goethe, "with all things that man undertakes in this world." ['Labour', bk III, ch. 11]

Goethe says so, true, but with a very different emphasis, with a markedly different sense of the world. His swimmers, to begin with, are hardly Carlylean castaways, abandoned in mid-ocean. In Carlyle's own translation of Wilhelm Meister's Travels, the Overseer of the young in Goethe's educational Utopia tells Wilhelm:

We look upon our scholars as so many swimmers, who, in the element which threatened to swallow them, feel with astonishment that they are lighter, that it bears and carries them forward: and so is with everything that man undertakes. [ch. 14]

Goethe's description of education and human activity conveys little of the sense of crisis and danger, and none of the sense of isolation, we feel in Carlyle. The context of Goethe's similitude makes it apparent that the education of the young boys which Wilhelm has come to observe is a common effort: all head cooperatively in the same direction, the older helping younger. When these young boys find themselves in the situation of the swimmer, they feel little danger because there is always someone near to give assistance. But when Carlyle uses this situation to convey his sense of being in the world, he shows us a swimmer who struggles alone, far from help in the midst of an ocean that has already dragged many to watery deaths. Carlyle, who described himself to Emerson as a "Castaway" (p. 457), frequently returns to this paradigm in public and private writings throughout his life. Quite characteristically, he described the style of Sartor Resartus to Sterling in terms of the castaway: "This is not Art, I know well. It is Robinson Crusoe, and not the Master of Woolwich, building a ship."1 In other words, the Carlylean style and method which convey Teufelsdraöckh's "mad pilgrimings" must conform to the experience of the castaway, producing not a finely balanced work — some stately ship of literature — but a raft, a lifeboat rigged during an emergency.

Sartre, like Carlyle, conceived — better, feels — human life in terms of the situation of the man shipwrecked and cast away; and though he rarely uses this figure overtly to express his sense of being in the world, it informs his descriptions of it. In Existentialism he presents us, for instance, with man abandoned, with the swimming castaway, when he emphasizes that "everything is permissible if God doesn't exist, and as a result man is forlorn, because neither within him nor without does he find anything to cling to." Man has no "fixed and given human nature" which would simultaneously limit, define, and support him in his alien surroundings. Thus, man is condemned to be free. "Condemned, because he did not create himself, yet in other respects he is free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does." [Trans. Frechtman, Bernard (1957) New York: 22-3.]

Sartre expands upon this mode of being in the world in Being and Nothingness where he once again presents man as man overboard, as Robinson Crusoe. Emphasizing man's responsibility and freedom, now in relation to the "for-itself," his term for consciousness, he asserts

it is precisely thus that the for-itself apprehends itselt in anguish; that is, as a being which is neither the foundation of its own being nor of the Other's being nor of the in-itselfs which form the world, but a being which is compelled to decide the meaning of being — within it and everywhere outside of it. The one who realizes in anguish his condition being thrown into a responsibility which extends to his very abandonment has no longer any remorse or regret or excuse; he is no longer anything but a freedom. [pt 4, ch. 1, iii]

Sartre, like Carlyle and Ortega y Gasset, tries to convince us that this perilous situation is not only inevitable but preferable:

I am responsible for everything, in fact, except for my own responsibility, for I am not the foundation of my own being. Therefore everything takes place as if I were compelled to be responsible. I am abandoned in the world, not in the sense that I might remain abandoned and passive in a hostile universe like a board floating on the water, rather in the sense that I find myself suddenly alone and without help. [pt 4, ch. 1, iii]

One can, of course, refuse to move one's arms. One can sink beneath the waves. But one cannot refuse to make a choice, for "to make myself passive in the world, to refuse to act upon things and upon Others is still to choose myself, and suicide is one mode among others of being-in-the-world" (pt 4, ch. 1, iii). Granted this situation, the fact that one must choose, Sartre, like Carlyle, offers us the grimly complimentary opportunity to bestir ourselves and keep our heads above the waste ocean.

Like Sartre, Ortega y Gasset both sees man's abandoned situation as inevitable and finds cause in it for consolation. Indeed, far more than either Carlyle or Sartre, the Spanish philosopher looks cheerfully upon our condition as men shipwrecked and cast away. According to "The Self and the Other," since the human condition 'is essential uncertainty' and since 'no human acquisition is stable',

This thing we call "civilization" — all these physical and moral comforts, all these conveniences, all these shelters, all these virtues and disciplines which have become habit now, on, which we count, and which in effect constitute a repertory or svstem of securities which man has made for himself like a raft in the initial shipwreck which living always is — all these securities are insecure securities which in the twinkling of an eye, at the least carelessness, escape from man's hands and vanish like phantoms. [trans. Willard R. Trask]

And then man drowns. The present peril, says Ortega y Gasset, writing in 1939, is that having lost our sense of risk, we have also lost our sense of responsibility which is our means of preserving ourselves amid great danger; since we are unaware of the peril, we do not try for solutions - we do not try to fit out lifeboats or learn to swim. When shipwreck comes, as it must, we find ourselves taken by surprise. This dangerous complacency is the result of a "progressivist" theory of history which assumes that humanity necessarily improves, becoming ever more secure and comfortable. Not only does the idea of "humanity" — itself "an abstract, irresponsible, non existent entity" — tend to hide from us our rather terrifying freedom but the equally misleading notion of progress anaesthetizes us as well. The progressivist view of things makes human history lose all "sinew of drama," reducing it "to a peaceful tourist trip, organized by some transcendent 'Cook's.' Travelling thus securely toward its fulfillment, the civilization in which we are embarked would be like that Phaecian ship in Homer which sailed straight to port without a pilot." Unfortunately, such pipe dreams, which assure us that we do not have to exert ourselves since some force of historywill bring us to the millennium, do nothing to ready us for the shipwreck that both individual men and civilizations have always encountered eventually. To believe in such conceptions of humanity is to hold that man is a fixed essence, that he is what he is — and hence bears no responsibiliy. Whatever its short-term advantages, such security is dearly purchased.

It is dearly bought because for it one must give one's responsibility, that which makes one human. In describing that "unique drama, which constitutes the very condition of man," Ortega y Gasset like other existentialists, seems instinctively to describe man in terms of the castaway. According to him, man finds himself "a prisoner of the world" surrounded by things that terrify, attract, and engage him, but unlike the animal, who shares these basic conditions, he can detach himself from his surroundings, turn his back on them, concern himself with himself. Man's mind provides that extra dimension which enables him to survive.

It is clear, then, that man does not exercise his thought because he finds it amusing, but because, obliged as he is to live submerged in the world and to force his way among things, he finds himself under the necessity of organizing his activities . . . which is what an animal does not do.

Man's thinking allows him to construct a raft in his continual and essential emergency — or, rather, man's thinking is that raft itself. To save ourselves in the crisis of modern times Ortega y Gasset suggests that we should do what each individual does in his own life: "simply suspend action, withdraw into ourselves, review our idea of the circumstances, and work out a strategy."

This movement into the self which thus enables the individual man to prosper is repeated necessarily on a broader scale by entire civilizations. We find "three different moments . . . repeated cyclically throughout the course of human history." First, "Man feels himself lost, shipwrecked upon things; this is alteracion [alteration, otherness, or state-of-tumult]." Second, man retires into himself to consider things and his possible command of them; this is the contemplative life. Third, man again "submerges himself in the world," acting according to a preconceived plan; this is the active life. Thus, unlike Nietzsche, who railed that man's quest for knowledge was speeding him towards shipwreck, the Spanish philosopher sees this shipwrecked existence as necessary and inevitable and, as such, perhaps no longer so terrifying as it had seemed before.

"In Search of Goethe from within," an essay written for the centenary of the poet's death, takes this characterization of human life even further, claiming, in fact, that cultural shipwreck is itself good for man. Pointing to the twentieth-century crisis of knowledge, of universities, of culture in general, he argues that a gulf separates us from our past and holds further that however terrifying the isolated situation in which we find ourselves may seem at first, it is a good thing, for it makes us strip down and rid ourselves of clutter:

Life is, in itself and forever, shipwreck. To be shipwrecked is not to drown. The poor human being, feeling himself sinking into the abyss, moves his arms to keep afloat. This movement of the arms which is his reaction against his own destruction, is culture — a swimming stroke.... But ten centuries of cultural continuity brings with it — among many advantages the great disadvantage that man believes himself safe, loses the feeling of shipwreck, and his culture proceeds to burden itself with parasitic and lymphatic matter. Some discontinuity must therefore intervene, in order that man may renew his feeling of peril, the substance of his life. All his life-saving equipment must fail, then his arms will once again move redeemingly. [trans. Willard R. Trask]

One of the great advantages to us that appears in the crisis of our particular culture is that by making us live without the old supports, it forces us to see that essentially man always lives in crisis. This recognition prevents us from treating ourselves as essence, as fully created beings, forcing us to choose, to be responsible, to be — once more — men.

Thus, with Ortega y Gasset, as with Carlyle and Sartre, the instant of shipwreck conveys a fearful recognition of freedom. This recognition, this consciousness of shipwreck, remains at the centre of their thought, but though they, like so many others since the eighteenth century, find the metaphor of shipwreck more relevant than that of life's journey, they do not find this cause to despair. Rather, they believe, once man recognizes his true situation, "then," in the words of Ortega y Gasset, "his arms will once again move redeemingly."


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Last modified 15 July 2007