The Appeal of the Sea

On this topic, seamen always repeat the same thing.  Thus, in one of his last essays, Conrad confessed: “The monotony of the sea is easier to bear than the boredom of the shore.”  And earlier on, in a short story (which, paradoxically, is a masterpiece of disturbing and suspenseful ambiguity), he described the feeling of peace and relief experienced by a sea captain who, after a long stay ashore, finds himself again with a good ship under his feet: “And suddenly I rejoiced in the great security of the sea, as compared with the unrest of the land, in my choice of that untempted life presenting no disquieting problems, invested with an elementary moral beauty by the absolute straightforwardness of its appeal and the singleness of its purpose.”

Leys, The Hall of Uselessness, 439

Patrick O’Brian on the same:

“Never mind the disappointment.  Salt water will wash it away. You will be amazed how unimportant it will seem in a week’s time — how everything will fall into place.”

It was the true word: once the Surprise had turned south about Ceylon to head for the Java Sea, the daily order seized upon them all.  The grind of holystones, the sound of swabs and water on the decks at first light; hammocks piped up, breakfast and its pleasant smells; the unvarying succession of the watches; noon and the altitude of the sun, dinner, grog; Roast Beef of Old England on the drum for the officers; moderate feast; quarters, the beating of the retreat, the evening roar of guns, topsails reefed, the setting of the watch; and then the long warm starlight, moonlit evenings, often spent on the quarterdeck, with Jack leading his two bright midshipmen through the intricate delights of astral navigation.  This life, with its rigid pattern punctuated by the sharp imperative sound of bells, seemed to take on something of the nature of eternity as they slanted down towards the line, crossing it in ninety-one degrees of latitude east of Greenwich.  The higher ceremonies of divisions, of mustering by the open list, church, the Articles of War, marked the due order of time rather than its passage; and before they had been repeated twice most of the frigate’s people felt both past and future blur, dwindling almost into insignificance: an impression all the stronger since the Surprise was once more in a lonely sea, two thousand miles of dark blue water with never an island to break its perfect round: not the fainest smell of land even on the strongest breeze — the ship was a world self-contained, swimming between two perpetually-renewed horizons.

O’Brian, H.M.S. Surprise, 260

Despite having never truly been to sea, aside from a few (too few) days spent on the schooner Bowdoin during a high school summer, I feel this pull.  It’s the same that calls me into the woods and should be given more heed.

I’ve been working on some more substantive posts.  Unfortunately, my ambition often outstrips my time and my talent, and thus these tend to languish incomplete in various notebooks scattered around my office. Often the cause is an insidious perfectionism that causes me to reject ideas when they’ve been half-expressed, neglecting the fact that it is the precisely the willingness to say things haltingly and poorly that will allow me to one day say them well.

True Philistines

At that moment the realization hit me-and has never left me since: true Philistines are not people who are incapable of recognizing beauty; they recognise it all too well; they detect its presence any where, immediately, and with a flair as infallible as that of the most sensitive aesthete-but for them, it is in order to be able better to pounce upon it at once and to destroy it before it can gain a foothold in their universal empire of ugliness.  Ignorance is not simply the absence of knowledge, obscurantism does not result from a dearth of light, base taste is not merely a lack of good taste, stupidity is not a simple want of intelligence: all these are fiercely active forces, that angrily assert themselves on every occasion; they tolerate no challenge to their omnipresent rule.  In every department of human endeavour, inspired talent is an intolerable insult to mediocrity.  If this is true in the realm of aesthetics, it is even more true in the world of ethics.  More than artistic beauty, moral beauty seems to exasperate our sorry species.  The need to bring down to our own wretched level, to deface, to deride and debunk any splendour that is towering above us, is probably the saddest urge of human nature.

Simon Leys, The Hall of Uselessness, 42

This is a wonderful book, with an even more wonderful title.