This question, What do I want? lays just beneath the surface always. I’m aware of it, but it remains an inchoate, ineffable pressure, building, but for the most part, unable to break through to the surface. I maintain a certain patience regarding it. Its immanence feels like a good quality, its inexorable build-up seems a good way to filter out “random” desire, to purify what might be of utmost importance.
Import. Is it a blend of the desired with the feasible that culminates in importance? Is that true? That seems to be the way I deal with it. When something truly butts up against necessity it jumps in importance – a next breath to a drowning person comes to mind. In that classic triage of desires from basic issues of survival on up the graduation from dire to “nice to have,” there seems to be an easy rule to judge importance.
Is it so simple? I have a sense that it falls apart many times. Is dire necessity always the trump? Are what is often relegated to “the nice” really always at the feeble end of the list?
While in the growth and spread of humanity there has been an increase in ease – for some – there’s also been a steep rise in responsibility, mostly ignored. What is a mere whim of little import to an individual in a small band immersed in a robust natural world becomes a horrible transgression when repeated a million times, a billion times, six billion times on an Earth already reeling under past insults.
Our complicity, once recognized, cannot be pushed aside. The notion of sin as a transgression of what is right, our shame, and the power of taboo it raises are, I’m convinced, distilled from lessons gained through half a billion years of evolution. What may be new is but this instinct’s collision with consciousness, with our self-awareness, and our ability to reflect knowingly on a mechanism ingrained in our bodies.
* * *
I’ve always been drawn to boats, small boats; and then I’ve been motivated to draw them , and build them myself. There are two things about the experience of a boat that together give me most of what I enjoy about them. First, is simply the sensation of floating, buoyancy, effortless movement while under sail – hundred-league-boots while rowing or paddling as each stroke generates a long glide. There is a magic in this beyond the space I want to give it right now. Secondly, there is the way a boat “tells” us what it needs. When we give ourselves over to the situation there is never a need to question why, the answer is always self-evident.
I find this the reason why we, those of us who care about boats, tend to offer them so much. They give so much in return and this “economy” is based on our giving of ourselves to their needs wholeheartedly. Dogs are like this, inspiring love and care by simply being who they are. Perhaps there are other things and beings that inspire this in people. Some might say their children, I don’t know. I doubt it, there’s far too much of ourselves tied up in that relationship.
So, one thing I’ve long been telling myself that I want is time on the water. That’s clear, but why is it the source of such conflict for me? Childhood dramas play a part. A generally conflicted predisposition to question myself? Of course. But I find less and less reason to find that a fault as time goes on. My conviction has been growing that it’s the encounter with what’s already been lost that poisons this clean desire in me. The evidence of our destruction of the natural world is thrown in my face repeatedly every time I go on the water, from the verge of plastic to the lifelessness of sea and sky.
I’m not surprised when young people fail to be aware of this, they’ve lived within the time when this has been the case. I am ashamed when those my age and older who should know better, who lived when this was not already blatantly the way things were, seem oblivious. I can remember the first time I saw the smudge of orange, a rusty sky horizon, replace the fragile blues and greens and violets, as the fires of consumption spread from the cities to engulf the sea horizon. I can remember the first time the little treasures of cast-away litter, shells and wood and glass, along our shores was defiled by the first scraps of plastic. These were distinct moments where I lived, not some hypothetical slippery slope inhabited by frogs in a warming pan. I can remember frogs, and toads too, can you?
* * *
There’s a scene in Fellini’s Satyricon that takes place on a ship at sea. It’s the Mediterranean, it’s calm quiet and bathed in dazzling light. Rising from the smooth undulations, tied in two places like a crude sausage; a dead whale is hauled from the sea by a tackle rigged over the side. The carcass is black, reflecting no light, a hole in the day. It’s been dead a while and suspended, it’s hard to tell what it is. There’s the shock of the unexpected, and the shock of the un-idealized that follows, and may be even stronger, once we realize what it is and how little it looks like what we “know” whales to look like.
We see it through the eyes of Romans. We’re led to sharply identify ourselves with these ancients, whether the sincere and devout citizen-soldiers in cuirass and plumed helmets or the flagrantly decadent patricians and their silly and inconsequential playthings, human and material. Confronted with this “monster” not in “action,” but simply dead; we, and they, have no points of reference, no affinity or connection with this prodigy. Yes, a prodigy. It’s large, and comes from the hidden realm below that glistening reflective surface. Its life, implied in this corpse, as well as its death and the corruption of what it once was, strike us as facts; only later modulated by the symbolism – whether about Rome or us – this image carries as part of the film, and now in memory.
There’s shame in our reaction, an unease that lingers. The image strikes the eye with the power of taboo almost. There’s flesh in bondage, a long, fleshy living thing pulled out of its native moisture, tied coarsely and with violence cutting into its skin, distorting its shape. There’s death. Power brought low through death and eaten by corruption and decay. There’s the unknown, the hidden fearful objects of desire that course unseen yet are vivid in our imaginations. There’s the unexpected breaking of a lush and languorous moment of repose. All of these are disturbing to us. Many of these touch on primal taboos.
It happens “at sea.” We are left disoriented, Its affect is vertiginous. We are “sea-sick.” In a strange way this makes it less surprising in after-thought. We expect these affects when we leave the shore, at least we know they are possible. Not just the discomfort of mal-de-mer, but the possibilities of encounters with mysteries, marvels, prodigies, monsters, frights. The very act of removing ourselves from the sensed stability of life on land and placing ourselves out-of-balance on a mercurial medium that may reveal what is hidden or even swallow us up; is a bold statement of a desire to find encounters, search them out, and pit ourselves against their powers.
* * *
There’s a slippery perversion in Systems Theory. It purports to “see through” the modernist dead-end; but, it is in practice a part of the last-ditch attempt to hold onto the power modernism has given its acolytes, a power they find slipping away, and that a few think can be regained if they play this latest game. It attempts to add a new expertise to supplant the old, and while paying lip service to the impossibility of control, that is its purpose – to regain control, to establish a new cadre of agents, with ever-more sophisticated models, who will then be able to out-finesse Fate.
This is a supreme misunderstanding of our moment. The allure of a superficial misapprehension of Whole Sight is not an abandonment of modernist hubris, but an attempt to take it to another level of audacity. The pursuit of meta-understanding and meta-control does nothing to address our underlying predicaments. It becomes yet another tool in a “fight” for supremacy over the wreckage.
It’s hard to jettison our sureties. It’s never easy, but especially when they all seem to be falling away. It’s difficult to see the gains in doing so. That difficulty only masks the value of letting them go. We have such a desire to be “doing something!” Especially when we see hard times ahead, or around us, ready to engulf us. We have a strong instinct to bail, even if the leak is too great to be won-over. Abstractly, we know that such efforts are futile, and may actually distract us from finding another way to deal with the underlying cause.
A rough and ready inventory of sureties I’ve worked to abandon now include Authority; expecting someone else to “know better” and wield their power “wisely” on my behalf. Progress, that following linear trajectories from bad situations through a series of ameliorating actions to achieve an idealized result can work, that it can do anything but create monstrosities in “the name of the good.” This is my latest jettison, that sophisticated “meta-management” can finesse its way through complexity and restore the control we desire with such a fierceness of will that it blinds us to the futility of the effort.