. . . And my shining men no more alone
As I sail out to die.
-- Dylan Thomas, “Poem on His Birthday”
The Celts sang of Blessed Isles, where there was no disease or death: but it’s hard to tell in the legends and songs whether those islands were a geographic place or a heaven. Could a brave navigator like Brendan find them by sailing after the sun, and by disembarking live forever? Or did one have to die to get there?
When I was a child ships were transportation, and I crossed the Atlantic twice in Cunard liners. Though my tourist-class family were barred from the ballroom where freds and gingers danced and dined, we ate from the same kitchen as the upper crusties, and the same thirty-knot breezes blew us off course as we shuffleboarded on the open deck. For a boy of nine it was a great romance, but the romance ended in a real place where time resumed. We knew the day, the time and place of disembarkation.
Long before fred and ginger, when ships had to drive bargains with the wind, sailing out of harbor was an aweful project with no firm timetable – and no ballrooms. The voyage was an eternal poem of life itself, its danger and uncertainty. It’s not a bad figure of speech. We’re all sailing out: we leave the marked-out channel for a wilderness without roads or buoys, and for a succession of other harbors, until one day we drop over the horizon.
I travel a part of the way with people who are sailing out. I learn – that is, I knew before but now know it feelingly – that many have sailed out before me, and some shall go today. I am in good company. I learn to be grateful.
I haven’t made my recent deadlines, but this is still the time of year when light begins its return, having repented its abandonment on a day called solstice. In this still dark time our hope is all before us.
I am grateful to have been set afloat in this sort of a body, with its desires and disgusts, lusts and longings. Outside of Kant’s categories the world might seem very different, but I am happy that I could hear and see, touch and taste and think this side of the wall. Here I can taste bitter beer and stinky cheese, and feel the pressure of the kitty’s feet against my thigh as he lies on the couch. This side of the wall I get to hear the music of Bach, and Shakespeare and Gershwin. I’m proud that I belong to the same species and lived on the same planet as Mandela, Voltaire, Yeshua and Leonardo, whose names and exploits are visible from my location, and who project the transcendent within our categories, speaking what cannot be spoken. Wittgenstein said that we should pass over in silence what we cannot speak. But silence can be very loud, as the poets and bards and prophets have taught us.
In the beginning there was void, and only when certain distinctions were made did form appear. “Where were you,” said the voice from the whirlwind, “when I laid the earth’s foundation?” I wasn’t there at creation, when the dimensions were marked off, “while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy.” So the real question is not, why is it thus? but, why is there something rather than nothing? I find that I’m invested in the something. The voyage is not a bad figure of speech for the something. Both Tennyson and Kazantzakis sent Ulysses away from Ithaca again to “sail beyond the sunset.”
In order to get home, Ulysses had to stuff his sailors’ ears with wax to block the siren song, a song that words can only disappoint, but that we keep talking about. He allowed only himself to hear, relying on others to protect him from his inspired self. “Tie me to the mast and don’t let me go,” he said to his sailors, “no matter what I say. Really. I mean it.” And they took him at his word. At his first word.
But no one seems able to imagine his subsequent domestic life in Ithaca. After all, he had heard the sirens, and was ruined. His son, “centered in the sphere/of common duties, decent not to fail,” could be left in charge. Perhaps that is the privilege of old age, if one is lucky – to leave the spiral of prudence and ambition, and steer a straight course toward voices once heard and rejected. Captain Picard would say, “Engage!”