Aloof

Reading Simon Winchester‘s Atlantic, I came across an etymology for the term, aloof, deriving from a-luff, the order to maintain a course with sufficient distance for safety off a lee shore. Let’s unpack that. A lee shore is a danger that is downwind, a-lee, of our position. If we lose way, we are in danger of drifting down the scend-of-the-sea and striking that shore. A luff refers to the edge of a sail. Luffing is the act of de-powering a sail by stalling it, this causes the luff to tremble and the boat loses way. To keep a-luff of a lee shore then is to keep in mind that a luff could lose us a certain ground to leeward that might be enough to put us in danger. Therefore, to maintain a-luff of a lee shore is to give that danger a wide enough berth.

I’m fascinated by nautical language, not for the “pirate” thing that’s all the rage, but for the depth and expressiveness of the language, a language forged within a context where clarity and precision have always been recognized as elusive goals that require great discipline to approximate, if never to quite achieve.

Combine this “discovery” with Dwight Tower’s latest post, Bohica Syndrome, and I’ve arrived at the impetus behind this post. It’s interesting that the derivation of “Bend Over, Here It Comes Again!” might also refer to sailing, as a gybing boom or a crashing wave might require us to take notice and “assume a position.”

The “other” reference this acronym brings to mind is also connected to the subject of this post, at least in its connection with all-male societies like the military from which this phrase arose.

I think it was in Dark Mountain I that I read an account of an exercise at the beginning of the industrial revolution in Britain when the new masters were “acclimating” their charges to the new meaning of work. They put men in trenches and ran water into them. They had to work to pump out the water for hours on end to keep from drowning. In this they learned that work wasn’t what you did to accomplish necessary tasks as they arose in the course of a normal day filled with other activities and moments of rest and contemplation, but that work was doing what was demanded of you no matter how futile and damaging, just to keep those who held you in their power from destroying you.

Slaves have always had to learn this lesson. There is something poignant in this example since it’s tied in with the origins of so much of what we’ve been “taught” to revere as the foundations of our beloved modernity. Here were the “yeomen free” being yoked to the Industrial Revolution at the birth of “Progress.” It joins the taints on our “founding fathers” in the limits of who constituted a free “man” and the whole Hamiltonian counter-revolution that set the course back on track for the rule of money instead of an inconvenient rule of law. Dissenters, Luddites, the Whiskey Rebellion, Abolition, and Freedom Riders and Fuckin’ Hippies all fall to one side of this great divide in a curious consortium of unlikely “bed-fellows.”

I’ve also been entranced by the “Reality Show,” The Deadliest Catch. In part, the part I’ve used as cover for my fascination, it’s the chance to view the sea at its wildest, watching boats interact with waves and seeing the different plays of light and atmosphere. But I’m also taken by the drama of self-inflicted pain and enforced purgatory these fishermen go through.

I’ve been looking at Fisheries since I was a little kid standing on MacMillan Wharf in Provincetown looking down at the draggers and their glistening catches of the bounty of the sea. Since then I’ve watched the catch and the bounty itself dwindle away as the boats declined deeper into a decadence of design and a disgusting dance flirting with the edges of “economic” viability and bankruptcy on the one hand and irreversible extinction and immediate disaster on the other as “investment” dwindled along with the returns and inertia has kept fisheries in a model that can do nothing but destroy themselves as they kill off everything they purport to “value.” This isn’t limited to my poor old hometown, whose remaining fishermen attempt to hold onto whatever they can of what they once had while those who should “know better” conspire to use them up just like those early barons of industry standing on the rim of those trenches in the English countryside.

This brings us to the purpose of remaining aloof. In this culture where meaning is tortured and made to stand on its head just like the rest of us, this term has carried a connotation of a certain “noblesse oblige.” We expect aloofness to be a characteristic of one of those barons, or Hamilton. It is tied to the privilege of standing apart from the concerns of the “lesser folk.” What I’ve found in the hint this discovery of its roots has given me is that it may have only taken on this meaning as part of the pathology of work, domination, and subservience that has twisted so much of our lives away from any true meaning.

The baron on the verge of the trench wasn’t aloof – neither were the generals and Field Marshalls overlooking the trenches of Flanders that descend directly from these prototypes! They were mired by their complicity, by their submission to a tyranny of fear that pushed them to view everyone and everything outside their group as an enemy to be dominated to “guarantee” their own “security.” To have been aloof on that day would have been to have watched this from a distant ridge before ducking out of sight and steering clear of the whole mess.

Granted, that possibility was limited and has disappeared as the power driven by those fears has spread over the entire world. It also begs the question of justice, to watch in safety while others are in danger. But from a mariner’s perspective we cannot loose sight of the limits of what is possible, and the futility of “good intentions” when the means to carry them out is not available. Not to mention the tangles of any intentions with the cascades of consequences that they set off. This brings to mind the distinction between help and largesse. I can’t remember where I recently saw this… it points out the significance of ones relationship as a helper versus someone distributing largesse, and the harm the latter relationship causes to all involved.

Quixote. In Portuguese this term is used to describe a cranky old man full of complaints. I suspect Cervantes had a similar root in mind when he used this name for his character. Knocking against trying, striving; and now attempting to rehabilitate aloof! This could be the definition of a Quixotic endeavor! Resting on the foundations of cantankerous complaint and infected by what the Knowing would call futility; it may be a reflection of my Iberian nature….

There is an entire web of pathology and usage that holds us in the habits of mind and action that keep us to our “work.” This attitude, expressed in BOHICA, or in duty or honor, or bling, or pay-off; was learned, not inherent. The great lesson of those trenches was how hard it was, not to “break the spirit” of those men, but simply to get it into their heads that anyone would even contemplate “working” at anything straight through without break or thought for an entire day, let alone a lifetime. It was beyond their imagining. It had to be inculcated into their muscles and sinews and into their minds. Habits had to be twisted and deformed to fit this conception of how life “should” be lived. It’s now become nearly universal, inherent in the dreams “sold” in the farthest reaches of the edge of empire, but it was not inherent in us.

The good news is that as with any pathology, it can be undone. Not will be or even must be, certainly not easily, but it can be undone.

One of the clues to how this might happen lies in that old sailor’s term, a-luff.

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4 thoughts on “Aloof

  1. “This brings us to the purpose of remaining aloof. In this culture where meaning is tortured and made to stand on its head just like the rest of us, this term has carried a connotation of a certain “noblesse oblige.” Perhaps someone is missing the point here. Consider Hebrew “alluph” a title used extensively of Esau’s sons and translated in the AV as “duke” and also as “captain, governor and guide.”

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