shipwrecked (飛花落葉)

by Leanne Ogasawara

“‎Life is a shipwreck, but we must not forget to sing in the lifeboats.” –Voltaire

ScreenHunter_1060 Mar. 09 10.30In heaven, there will be no more sea journeys, says Virgil. For much of human history, to journey by ship across open waters was thought of almost as an act of transgression. It was something requiring great temerity and audacity. It was therefore something not to be taken lightly.

Crossing boundaries, such journeys often ended in ruin.


German philosopher Hans Blumenberg explored the seafaring metaphor in his dazzling essay Shipwreck with Spectator. Utterly exquisite in its historical details; the writing is incredibly evocative.

Metaphors are Blumenberg's main philosophical project. According to Blumenberg, so fundamental to philosophy are they that they stand in for truth. He says:

The relevance of absolute metaphors, their historical truth . . . is pragmatic in a very broad sense. By providing a point of orientation, the content of absolute metaphors determines a particular attitude or conduct [Verhalten]; they give structure to a world, representing the nonexperienceable, nonapprehensible totality of the real. (Paradigms, 14)

That is to say, metaphors light up for us an irreducible and untranslatable truth about the “totality of the real.”

What about shipwrecks then? What is it about the metaphor of being shipwrecked that lights up our understanding of being? Or putting it another way, what essential elements of being human are being illuminated by this metaphor according to Blumenberg?

Vous êtes embarqués, says Pascal.

This is the epithet of Blumenbeg's essay. Life is a journey; indeed, we are already embarked. This is akin to Heidegger saying we are born into thrown-ness. Our human condition cannot be grasped outside of our everyday projects and situatedness. Everything we know is dependent on our environment (umwelt) and is a necessary reflection of these temporal and cultural limits. But we are also on personal voyages of discovery.

Well, that is maybe the rub. Many people turn their back on the sea and journeys. Our culture now is particularly risk-averse and so maybe this above is all more about the hero's journey…? For maybe heroes alone are brave enough to risk storms and drowning? Montaigne, for example, following Horace strongly recommended NOT going to sea–not ever. Since the rational choice for man is to stay on shore.

Heroes risk everything by setting out to sea.

No, I don't think that's true. For the winds of fate are arbitrary and storms and disaster might find us no matter what–which is why this metaphor was so popular with the Stoic philosophers. For them, the goal was to cultivate one's character so that no matter what disaster strike, the philosopher will be capable of coming out of the catastrophe unharmed by the strength his own self-possession alone. Thus, Montaigne wrote:

The mariner of old said to Neptune in a great tempest, “O God! thou mayest save me if thou wilt, and if thou wilt thou mayest destroy me; but whether or no, I will steer my rudder true.”

Man is shipwrecked in his own existence, says Blumenberg. I love that. My mom would call it a blessing in disguise. I would call it just the way the cookie crumbles.

It’s like Candide, if he hadn't been kicked out of his homeland, if he hadn't met with a shipwreck and washed unto Lisbon shores only there to be almost killed in a mega-earthquake; if he gone up against the Inquisition, if he hadn't traveled across America on foot, if he hadn't killed a baron, if he hadn't lost all his sheep in Eldorado, well, then he wouldn't have ended up sitting there in Constantinople eating some nice candied citron and pistachios where he would dream of spending his days cultivating his garden…

For only after all that catastrophe could Montaigne say: I want death to find me planting my cabbages… or perhaps as Tao Yuanming would have it, plucking chrysanthemums under the eastern fence (採菊東籬下)

飲酒詩     陶淵明
結盧在人境 而無車馬喧
問君何能爾 心遠地自偏
採菊東籬下 悠然見南山
山氣日夕佳 飛鳥相與還
此還有真意 欲辨已忘言

Drinking Wine (#5)–Tao Yuanming
I’ve built my house where others dwell
And yet there is no clamor of carriages and horses
You ask me how this is possible– (And so I say):
When the heart is far, one is transported
I pluck chrysanthemums under the eastern fence
And serenely I gaze at the southern mountains
At dusk, the mountain air is good
Flocks of flying birds are returning home
In this, there is a great truth
But wanting to explain it, I forget the words (牡丹訳)

Tao Yuanming#39;s poem is perhaps only interesting because the poet had previously passed the highest level of the examination system (科挙) and had lived the dazzling life of a scholar–but only then, after achieving a high level of accomplishment and cultivation in the world had left it to live in seclusion. That is, it would not have been as interesting if the poet had been born and never left that hut–for this poem is infused with the journey that came before it. It reminds one of something the Japanese monk Yoshida Kenko had written– that the goal of Zen is to swim out into deep waters with the only real purpose to be finding oneself back up in the shallows again. Back in the shallows but with new vision.

Scattering blossoms, fallen leaves 飛花落葉– life is a “sea of change” but this idea of gaining new vision is something universally embraced in many cultures as part of the hero's journey. Everything being a matter of the heart → 心持次第.

This is where Nietzsche's brilliance really shines, I think. For it was Nietzsche who insisted (no he delighted!!) that not only are we already embarked but that we are already shipwrecked…. shipwrecked in the existence of our own lives. Happiness, says Nietzsche is the liberation of the shipwrecked man, rolling back onto firm shore–for this is the New World.

In the horizon of the infinite.—We have left the land and have embarked. We have burned our bridges behind us—indeed, we have gone farther and destroyed the land behind us. Now, little ship, look out! Beside you is the ocean: to be sure, it does not always roar, and at times it lies spread out like silk and gold and reveries of graciousness. But hours will come when you will realize that it is infinite and that there is nothing more awesome than infinity. Oh, the poor bird that felt free and now strikes the walls of this cage! Woe, when you feel homesick for the land as if it had offered more freedom—and there is no longer any “land.”

He says–evoking Columbus– “the moral earth too is round…. there is another world to be discovered–and more than one. Embark, philosophers!”

When I first read this above as a young lady of 18, I was so happy I almost cried.

Odysseus in exile. The ultimate reluctant hero– all he ever really wanted to do was return home. But as everyone knows, an odyssey is ultimately about the arbitrariness of fate. And exile never a matter of location –but rather is a matter of meaning; for as the Poet Cavafy says, “the Lestrygonians, the Cyclopes and the fierce Poseidon: these are all things we carry within our souls.

Robert Harrison, in an old Entitled Opinions show about Heidegger, talked about Odysseus' Second Journey. The one that occurred after he finally arrived back to Ithaka. Made to set out one more time; this time he was to carry an oar and walk as far as he could go until reaching a land where people didn't know salt or seafaring ships, and there, he was to plant his oar deeply into the ground and perform a sacrifice to Poseidon.

It's interesting, isn't it? The way a shipwrecked Hero must wander into exile/meaninglessness– that is, he is required to go to a “place” where he is world-less, ground-less, and sight-less. To walk to a place where the meaning of an “oar” is no longer meaningful, and there, to plant it in the ground to make new meaning.

Is this not the existential journey par excellance? For as Harrison explains, those that do not undergo these journeys into foreign lands and instead stay at home without undergoing this kind of “estrangement” will forever remain estranged–estranged right there in their own homelands.