Letting in water

Durer-ill-ShipFools

(Albrecht Dürer, illustration to The Ship of Fools)

There was a piece in The Guardian a few days back, which rounded up some foreign views of the state the United Kingdom is in, reminding us, if we needed reminding, that to many people outside this country, such a spectacle must seem extraordinary.

The Washington Post had a piece called ‘Brexit will mark the end of Britain’s role as a great power’, which observed that the UK, ‘famous for its prudence, propriety and punctuality, is suddenly looking like a banana republic’. Here was a country ‘determined to commit economic suicide but unable even to agree on how to kill itself’, led by ‘a ship of fools’ unwilling to ‘compromise with one another and with reality’. The result was an ‘epic failure of political leadership’, Friedman said: scary stuff, but ‘you can’t fix stupid’.

‘Ship of fools.’ That was an adaptation (1509) by the poet Alexander Barclay of a 1494 allegory by the German satirist Sebastian Brant; also the title of an allegorical novel by Katherine Anne Porter, published in 1962. The nautical theme recurs, not only in the header illustration by the Guardian design team, showing the HMS Britain steeply angled in an unfriendly-looking sea, but in one or two other comments. Sreeram Chaulia, dean of the Jindal School of International Affairs, said many Indians saw Brexit as the latest chapter in a ‘sharp decline in the place Britain commands as a great power’. The UK ‘is not a gold standard to look up to’, he said. ‘We get a feeling of a sinking ship, and everybody wants to leave a sinking ship.’

https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/apr/06/a-shambles-on-which-the-sun-never-sets-how-the-world-sees-brexit

I was reminded of that stout phrase, ‘the Ship of State’, which I see is traced back to Book Six of Plato’s The Republic. In the old Jowett translation, one section caught my eye: ‘The sailors are quarrelling with one another about the steering—every one is of opinion that he has a right to steer, though he has never learned the art of navigation and cannot tell who taught him or when he learned, and will further assert that it cannot be taught, and they are ready to cut in pieces any one who says the contrary.’

No contemporary parallel there, obviously. Precisely in the middle of the nineteenth century, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow waxed optimistic:

‘Thou, too, sail on, O Ship of State!
Sail on, O UNION, strong and great!’

And:

‘In spite of rock and tempest’s roar,
In spite of false lights on the shore,
Sail on, nor fear to breast the sea!’[1]

Traffic-Hole-Shoe

That of course, was another Union, which, eleven years later, didn’t seem so solid; while ours is certainly lower-case and seems to be letting in water. In another lifetime, Traffic had a hit with a Dave Mason song, ‘Hole in My Shoe’ (‘And all that I knew/ The hole in my shoe/ Was letting in water’) – only a shoe then, so the situation’s clearly deteriorated.

I’ve never been in a shipwreck before—certainly not one caused by the crew and passengers together scuttling the ship—so, while the joy is hardly unconfined, there is at least an element of novelty.

I remembered poor Owen Chase, first mate of the Essex, sunk by a sperm whale in 1820.[2] The survivors in their small boats were finally reduced to eating the bodies of the dead; the next stage, once those supplies were exhausted, was the drawing of lots and the shooting of those who lost. In Captain Pollard’s boat, the man shot was the captain’s own nephew, named Owen Coffin. In later life, Chase apparently developed an obsessive fear of starvation, ‘never wasting a morsel at the dinner table, and frequenting the market to buy supplies that he larded [stuffed] in his attic.’[3] We can perhaps glimpse certain elements of his story in our own too likely future—but not, we hope, all of them.

Turner, Joseph Mallord William, 1775-1851; The Shipwreck

(J. M. W. Turner, The Shipwreck: Tate Britain)

More relevant, perhaps, is Declan Kiberd’s comment on Homer’s epic: ‘The logic of the Odyssey is that of many tales involving shipwreck – the answers to problems will be found only after the act of destruction. The catastrophe must precede clarification.’

And he adds a little later that resurgences, such as modern Ireland’s, ‘often come after a period of trauma – what Gaelic poets called longbhriseadh (shipwreck), a terrible but challenging disaster which becomes the precondition of a change to a new future.’[4] ‘Resurgence’: rising again, basically resurrection which, as I recall, requires death as a precondition. So that’s another cheering thought.

Thoreau queried the sort of impulses that have been driving a number of political developments lately: ‘Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed, and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away. It is not important that he should mature as soon as an apple-tree or an oak. Shall he turn his spring into summer? If the condition of things which we were made for is not yet, what were any reality which we can substitute? We will not be shipwrecked on a vain reality. Shall we with pains erect a heaven of blue glass over ourselves, though when it is done we shall be sure to gaze still at the true ethereal heavens far above, as if the former were not?’[5]

Walden_1854_cover_image

Elsewhere, he suggests that ‘A book should contain pure discoveries, glimpses of terra firma, though by shipwrecked mariners, and not the art of navigation by those who have never been out of sight of land.’[6]

‘In our time’, Guy Davenport’s Dutch philosopher Adriaan van Hovendaal writes in his notebook, ‘we long not for a lost past but for a lost future.’[7] Thirty-five years on, that is true of some of us—but clearly not of others, which at least partly explains how we got here. Wherever here might be.

 
References

[1] ‘The Building of the Ship’, The Poetical Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (London: Ward, Lock: n.d.), 103.

[2] His account was published in 1821. Herman Melville saw him, though not to speak to, in 1841; he did meet Chase’s son, who gave him a copy of his father’s Narrative: Melville, Moby Dick (1851; edited by Harold Beaver, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1972), 17; and ‘Appendix: The Earliest Sources’, 971-979.

[3] Paul Lyons, introduction to Owen Chase, Shipwreck of the Whaleship Essex (London: Pimlico, 2000), xxvii.

[4] Declan Kiberd, Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Living (London: Faber and Faber, 2009), 283, 307.

[5] Henry David Thoreau, Walden, edited by J. Lyndon Shanley (Princeton University Press: Princeton and London, 1974), 326.

[6] Henry David Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (New York: Library of America, 1985), 80.

[7] Guy Davenport, Apples and Pears (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1984), 63.

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