CHAPTER 9 Dana’s Two Years Before The Mast
You can’t idealize brute labour. That is to say, you can’t idealize brute labour, without coming undone, as an idealist.
The soil! The great ideal of the soil. Novels like Thomas Hardy’s and pictures like the Frenchman Millet’s. The soil. What happens when you idealize the soil, the mother-earth, and really go back to it ? Then with overwhelming conviction it is borne in upon you, as it was upon Thomas Hardy, that the whole scheme of things is against you. The whole massive rolling of natural fate is coming down on you like a slow glacier, to crush you to extinction. As an idealist.
Thomas Hardy’s pessimism is an absolutely true finding. It is the absolutely true statement of the idealist’s last realization, as he wrestles with the bitter soil of beloved mother-earth. He loves her, loves her, loves her. And she just entangles and crushes him like a slow Laocoon snake. The idealist must perish, says mother-earth. Then let him perish.
The great imaginative love of the soil itself! Tolstoy had it, and Thomas Hardy. And both are driven to a kind of fanatic denial of life, as a result.
You can’t idealize mother-earth. You can try. You can even succeed. But succeeding, you succumb. She will have no pure idealist sons. None.
If you are a child of mother-earth, you must learn to discard your ideal self, in season, as you discard your clothes at night.
Americans have never loved the soil of America as Europeans have loved the soil of Europe. America has never been a blood-home-land. Only an ideal home-land. The home-land of the idea, of the spirit. And of the pocket. Not of the blood.
That has yet to come, when the idea and the spirit have collapsed from their false tyranny.
Europe has been loved with a blood love. That has made it beautiful.
In America, you have Fenimore Cooper’s beautiful landscape: but that is wish-fulfilment, done from a distance. And you have Thoreau in Concord. But Thoreau sort of isolated his own bit of locality and put it under a lens, to examine it. He almost anatomized it, with his admiration.
America isn’t a blood-home-land. For every American, the blood-home-land is Europe. The spirit-home-land is America.
Transcendentalism. Transcend this home-land business, exalt the idea of These States till you have made it a universal idea, says the true American. The oversoul is a world-soul, not a local thing.
So, in the next great move of imaginative conquest, Americans turned to the sea. Not to the land. Earth is too specific, too particular. Besides, the blood of white men is wine of no American soil. No, no.
But the blood of all men is ocean-born. We have our material universality, our blood-oneness, in the sea. The salt water.
You can’t idealize the soil. But you’ve got to try. And trying, you reap a great imaginative reward. And the greatest reward is failure. To know you have failed, that you must fail. That is the greatest comfort of all, at last.
Tolstoi failed with the soil: Thomas Hardy too: and Gio- vanni Verga; the three greatest.
The further extreme, the greatest mother, is the sea. Love the great mother of the sea, the Magna Mater. And see how bitter it is. And see how you must fail to win her to your ideal: forever fail. Absolutely fail.
Swinburne tried in England. But the Americans made the greatest trial. The most vivid failure.
At a certain point, human life becomes uninteresting to men. What then? They turn to some universal.
The greatest material mother of us all is the sea.
Dana’s eyes failed him when he was studying at Harvard. And suddenly, he turned to the sea, the naked Mother. He went to sea as a common sailor before the mast.
You can’t idealize brute labour. Yet you can. You can go through with brute labour, and know what it means. You can even meet and match the sea, and KNOW her.
This is what Dana wanted: a naked fighting experience with the sea.
KNOW THYSELF. That means, know the earth that is in your blood. Know the sea that is in your blood. The great elementals.
But we must repeat: KNOWING and BEING are opposite, antagonistic states. The more you know, exactly, the less you are. The more you are, in being, the less you know.
This is the great cross of man, his dualism. The blood-self, and the nerve-brain self.
Knowing, then, is the slow death of being. Man has his epochs of being, his epochs of knowing. It will always be a great oscillation. The goal is to know how not-to- know.
Dana took another great step in knowing: knowing the mother sea. But it was a step also in his own undoing. It was a new phase of dissolution of his own being. Afterwards, he would be a less human thing. He would be a knower: but more near to mechanism than before. That is our cross, our doom.
And so he writes, in his first days at sea, in winter, on the Atlantic:
Nothing will compare with the early breaking of the day upon the wide ocean. There is something in the first grey streaks stretching along the eastern horizon, and throwing an indistinct light upon the face of the deep, which creates . . . a feeling of loneliness, of dread, and of melancholy foreboding, which nothing else in nature can give.
So he ventures wakeful and alone into the great naked watery universe of the end of life, the twilight place where integral being lapses, and warm life begins to give out. It is man moving on into the face of death, the great adventure, the great undoing, the strange extension of the consciousness. The same in his vision of the albatross. ‘But one of the finest sights that I have ever seen was an albatross asleep upon the water, during a calm off Cape Horn, when a heavy sea was running. There being no breeze, the surface of the water was unbroken, but a long, heavy swell was rolling, and we saw the fellow, all white, directly ahead of us, asleep upon the waves, with his head under his wing; now rising on the top of a huge billow, and then falling slowly until he was lost in the hollow between. He was undisturbed for some time, until the noise of our bows, gradually approaching, roused him, when, lifting his head, he stared upon us for a moment, and then spread his wide wings, and took his flight.’
We must give Dana credit for a profound mystic vision. The best Americans are mystics by instinct. Simple and bare as his narrative is, it is deep with profound emotion and stark comprehension. He sees the last light-loving incarnation of life exposed upon the eternal waters: a speck, solitary upon the verge of the two naked principles, aerial and watery. And his own soul is as the soul of the albatross.
It is a storm-bird. And so is Dana. He has gone down to fight with the sea. It is a metaphysical, actual struggle of an integral soul with the vast, non-living, yet potent element. Dana never forgets, never ceases to watch. If Hawthorne was a spectre on the land, how much more is Dana a spectre at sea. But he must watch, he must know, he must conquer the sea in his consciousness. This is the poignant difference between him and the common sailor. The common sailor lapses from consciousness, becomes elemental like a seal, a creature. Tiny and alone, Dana watches the great seas mount round his own small body. If he is swept away, some other man will have to take up what he has begun. For the sea must be mastered by the human consciousness, in the great hght of the human soul for mastery over life and death, in KNOWLEDGE. It is the last bitter necessity of the Tree. The Cross. Impartial, Dana beholds himself among the elements, calm and fatal. His style is great and hopeless, the style of a perfect tragic recorder.
Between five and six the cry of ‘All starbowlines ahoyl’ summoned our watch on deck, and immediately all hands were called. A great cloud of a dark slate-colour was driving on us from the south-west; and we did our best to take in sail before we were in the midst of it. We had got the light-sails furled, the courses hauled up, and the top-sail reef-tackles hauled out, and were just mounting the forerigging when the storm struck us. In an instant the sea, which had been comparatively quiet, was running higher and higher; and it became almost as dark as night. The hail and sleet were harder than I had yet felt them, seeming almost to pin us down to the rigging.
It is in the dispassionate statement of plain material facts that Dana achieves his greatness. Dana writes from the remoter, non-emotional centres of being – not from thc passional emotional self.
So the ship battles on, round Cape Horn, then into quieter seas. The island of Juan Fernandez, Crusoe’s island, rises like a dream from the sea, like a green cloud, and like a ghost Dana watches it, feeling only a faint, ghostly pang of regret for the life that was.
But the strain of the long sea-voyage begins to tell. The sea is a great disintegrative force. Its tonic quality is its disintegra- tive quality. It burns down the tissue, liberates energy. And after a long time, this burning-down is destructive. The psyche becomes destroyed, irritable, frayed, almost dehumanized.
So there is trouble on board the ship, irritating discontent, friction unbearable, and at last a flogging. This flogging rouses Dana for the first and last time to human and ideal passion.
Sam by this time was seized up – that is, placed against the shrouds, with his wrists made fast to the shrouds, his jacket off, and his back exposed. The captain stood on the break of the deck, a few feet from him, and a little raised, so as to have a good swing at him, and held in his hand the bight of a thick, strong rope. Thc officers stood round, and the crew grouped together in the waist. All these preparations made me feel sick and almost faint, angry and excited as I was. A man – a human being made in God’s likeness – fastened up and flogged like a beast! The first and almost uncontrollable impulse was resistance. But what was to be done ? – The time for it had gone by –
So Mr Dana couldn’t act. He could only lean over the side of the ship and spew.
Whatever made him vomit?
Why shall man not be whipped?
As long as man has a bottom, he must surely be whipped. It is as if the Lord intended it so.
Why? For lots of reasons.
Man doth not live by bread alone, to absorb it and to evacuate it.
What is the breath of life ? My dear, it is the strange current of interchange that flows between men and men, and men and women, and men and things. A constant current of interflow, a constant vibrating interchange. That is the breath of life.
And this interflow, this electric vibration is polarized. There is a positive and a negative polarity. This is a law of life, of vitalism.
Only ideas are final, finite, static, and single.
All life-interchange is a polarized communication. A circuit.
There are lots of circuits. Male and female, for example, and master and servant. The idea, the IDEA, that fixed gorgon monster, and the IDEAL, that great stationary engine, these two gods-of-the-machine have been busy destroying all natural reciprocity and natural circuits, for centuries. IDEAS have played the very old Harry with sex relationship, that is, with the great circuit of man and woman. Turned the thing into a wheel on which the human being in both is broken. And the IDEAL has mangled the blood-reciprocity of master and servant into an abstract horror.
Master and servant – or master and man relationship is, essentially, a polarized flow, like love. It is a circuit of vitalism which flows between master and man and forms a very precious nourishment to each, and keeps both in a state of subtle, quivering, vital equilibrium. Deny it as you like, it is so. But once you abstract both master and man, and make them both serve an idea: production, wage, efficiency, and so on: so that each looks on himself as an instrument performing a certain repeated evolution, then you have changed the vital. quivering circuit of master and man into a mechanical machine unison. Just another way of life: or anti-life.
You could never quite do this on a sailing ship. A master had to be master, or it was hell. That is, there had to be this strange interflow of master-and-man, the strange reciprocity of comand and obedience.
The reciprocity of command and obedience is a state of unstable vital equilibrium. Everything vital, or natural, is unstable, thank God.
The ship had been at sea many weeks. A great strain on master and men. An increasing callous indiflerence in the men, an increasing irritability in the master.
And then what?
Don’t expect me to say why storms must be. They just are. Storms in the air, storms in the water, storms of thunder, storms of anger. Storms just are.
Storms are a sort of violent readjustment in some polarized flow. You have a polarized circuit, a circuit of unstable equilibrium. The instability increases till there is a crash. Everything seems to break down. Thunder roars, lightning flashes. The master roars, the whip whizzes. The sky sends down sweet rain. The ship knows a new strange stillness, a readjustment, a refinding of equilibrium.
Ask the Lord Almighty why it is so. I don’t know. I know it is so.
But flogging? Why flogging? Why not use reason or take away jam for tea?
Why not? Why not ask the thunder please to abstain from this physical violence of crashing and thumping, please to swale away like thawing snow.
Sometimes the thunder does swale away like thawing snow, and then you hate it. Muggy, sluggish, inert, dreary sky.
You have a Sam, a fat slow fellow, who has got slower and more slovenly as the weeks wear on. You have a master who has grown more irritable in his authority. Till Sam becomes simply wallowing in his slackness, makes your gorge rise. And the master is on red hot iron.
Now these two men, Captain and Sam, are there in a very unsteady equilibrium of command and obedience. A polarized flow. Definitely polarized.
The poles of will are the great ganglia of the voluntary nerve system, located beside the spinal column, in the back. From the poles of will in the backbone of the Captain, to the ganglia of will in the back of the sloucher Sam, runs a frazzled, jagged current, a staggering circuit of vital electricity. This circuit gets one jolt too many, and there is an explosion.
‘Tie up that lousy swine!’ roars the enraged Captain.
And whack! whack! down on the bare back of that sloucher Sam comes the cat.
What does it do? By Jove, it goes like ice-cold water into his spine. Down those lashes runs the current of the Captain’s rage, right into the blood and into the toneless ganglia of Sam’s voluntary system. Crash! Crash! runs the lightning flame, right into the cores of the living nerves.
And the living nerves respond. They start to vibrate. They brace up. The blood begins to go quicker. The nerves begin to recover their vividness. It is their tonic. The man Sam has a new clear day of intelligence, and a smarty back. The Captain has a new relief, a new ease in his authority, and a sore heart.
There is a new equilibrium, and a fresh start. The physical intelligence of a Sam is restored, the turgidity is relieved from the veins of the Captain.
It is a natural form of human coition, interchange.
It is good for Sam to be flogged. It is good, on this occasion, for the Captain to have Sam flogged. I say so. Because they were both in that physical condition.
Spare the rod and spoil the physical child.
Use the rod and spoil the ideal child.
There you are.
Dana, as an idealist, refusing the blood-contact of life, leaned over the side of the ship powerless, and vomited: or wanted to. His solar plexus was getting a bit of its own back. To him, Sam was an ‘ideal’ being, who should have been approached through the mind, the reason, and the spirit. That lump of a Sam!
But there was another idealist on board, the seaman John, a Swede. He wasn’t named John for nothing, this Jack-tar of the Logos. John felt himself called upon to play Mediator, Interceder, Saviour, on this occasion. The popular Paraclete.
‘Why are you whipping this man, sir?’
But the Captain had got his dander up. He wasn’t going to have his natural passion judged and interfered with by these long-nosed salvationists Johannuses. So he had nosy John hauled up and whipped as well.
For which I am very glad.
Alas, however, the Captain got the worst of it in the end. He smirks longest who smirks last. The Captain wasn’t wary enough. Natural anger, natural passion has its unremitting enemy in the idealist. And the ship was already tainted with idealism. A good deal more so, apparently, than Herman Melville’s ships were.
Which reminds us that Melville was once going to be flogged. In White Jacket. And he, too, would have taken it as the last insult.
In my opinion there are worse insults than floggings. I would rather be flogged than have most people ‘like’ me.
Melville too had an Interceder: a quiet, self-respecting man, not a saviour. The man spoke in the name of Justice. Melville was to be unjustly whipped. The man spoke honestly and quietly. Not in any salvationist spirit. And the whipping did not take place.
Justice is a great and manly thing. Saviourism is a despicable thing.
Sam was justly whipped. It was a passional justice. But Melville’s whipping would have been a cold, disciplinary injustice. A foul thing. Mechanical justice even is a foul thing. For true justice makes the heart’s fibres quiver. You can’t be cold in a matter of real justice.
Already in those days it was no fun to be a captain. You had to learn already to abstract yourself into a machine-part, exerting machine-control. And it is a good deal bitterer to exert machine-control, selfless, ideal control, than it is to have to obey, mechanically. Because the idealists who mechanically obey almost always hate the man who must give the orders. Their idealism rarely allows them to exonerate the man for the office.
Dana’s captain was one of the real old-fashioned sort. He gave himself away terribly. He should have been more wary, knowing he confronted a shipful of enemies and at least two cold and deadly idealists, who hated all ‘masters’ on principle.
As he went on, his passion increased, and he danced about the deck, calling out as he swung the rope, ‘If you want to know what I flog you for, I’ll tell you. It’s because I like to do it! – Because I like to do it! – It suits me. That’s what I do it for!’
The man writhed under the pain. My blood ran cold, I could look on no longer. Disgusted, sick and horror-stricken, I turned away and leaned over the rail and looked down in the water. A few rapid thoughts of my own situation, and of the prospect of future revenge, crossed my mind, but the falling of the blows, and the cries of the man called me back at once. At length they ceased, and, turning round, I found that the Mate, at a signal from the captain, had cut him down.
After all, it was not so terrible. The captain evidently did not exceed the ordinary measure. Sam got no more than he asked for. It was a natural event. All would have been well, save for the moral verdict. And this came from theoretic idealists like Dana and the seaman John, rather than from the sailors themselves. The sailors understood spontaneous passional morality, not the artificial ethical. They respected the violent readjustments of the naked force, in man as in nature.
The flogging was seldom, if ever, alluded to by us in the fore- castle. If any one was inclined to talk about it, the others, with a delicacy which I hardly expected to find among them, always stop- ped him, or turned the subject.
Two men had been flogged: the second and the elder, John, for interfering and asking the captain why he flogged Sam. It is while flogging John that the captain shouts, ‘If you want to know what I flog you for, I’ll tell you -‘
‘But the behaviour of the two men who were flogged,’ Dana continues,
toward one another, showed a delicacy and a sense of honour which would have been worthy of admiration in the highest walks of life. Sam knew that the other had suffered solely on his account, and in all his complaints he said that if he alone had been flogged it would have been nothing, but that he never could see that man without thinking what had been the means of bringing that disgrace upon him; and John never, by word or deed, let anything escape him to remind the other that it was by interfering to save his shipmate that he had suffered.
As a matter of fact, it was John who ought to have been ashamed for bringing confusion and false feeling into a clear issue. Conventional morality apart, John is the reprehensible party, not Sam or the captain. The case was one of passional readjustment, nothing abnormal And who was the sententious Johannus, that he should interfere in this? And if Mr Dana had a weak stomach as well as weak eyes, let him have it. But let this pair of idealists abstain from making all the other men feel uncomfortable and fuzzy about a thing they would have left to its natural course, if they had been allowed. No, your Johannuses and your Danas have to be creating ‘public opinion’, and mugging up the life-issues with their sententiousness. O idealism!
The vessel arrives at the Pacific coast, and the swell of the rollers falls in our blood – the weary coast stretches wonderful, on the brink of the unknown.
Not a human being but ourselves for miles the steep hill rising like a wall, and cutting us off from all the world – but the ‘world of waters’ I separated myself from the rest, and sat down on a rock, just where the sea ran in and formed a fine spouting-horn. Compared with the dull, plain sand-beach of the rest of the coast, this grandeur was as refreshing as a great rock in a weary land. It was almost the first time I had been positively alone…. My better nature returned strong upon me. I experienced a glow of pleasure at finding that what of poetry and romance I had ever had in me had not been entirely deadened in the laborious life I had been lately leading. Nearly an hour did I sit, almost lost in the luxury of this entire new scene of the play in which I was acting, when I was aroused by the distant shouts of my companions.
So Dana sits and Hamletizes by the Pacific – chief actor in the play of his own existence. But in him, self-consciousness is almost nearing the mark of scientific indifference to self.
He gives us a pretty picture of the then wild, unknown bay of San Francisco. – ‘The tide leaving us, we came to anchor near the mouth of the bay, under a high and beautifully sloping hill, upon which herds of hundreds of red deer and the stag with his high-branching antlers were bounding about, looking at us for a moment, and then starting offaffrighted at the noises we made for the purpose of seeing the variety of their beautiful attitudes and motions -‘
Think of it now, and the Presidio! The idiotic guns.
Two moments of strong human emotion Dana experiences: one moment of strong but impotent hate for the captain, one strong impulse of pitying love for the Kanaka boy, Hope – a beautiful South Sea Islander sick of a white man’s disease, phthisis or syphilis. Of him Dana writes – but the other, who was my friend, and Aikane – Hope – was the most dreadful object I had ever seen in my life; his hands looking like claws, a dreadful cough, which seemed to rack his whole shattered system; a hollow, whispering voice, and an entire in- ability to move himself. There he lay, upon a mat on the ground, which was the only floor of the oven, with no medicine, no com- forts, and no one to care for or help him but a few Kanakas, who were willing enough, but could do nothing. The sight of him made me sick and faint. Poor fellow! During the four months that I lived upon the beach we were continually together, both in work and in our excursions in the woods and upon the water. I really felt a strong affection for him, and preferred him to any of my own countrymen there. When I came into the oven he looked at mc, held out his hand and said in a low voice, but with a delightful smile, ‘Aloha, Aikane! Aloha nui!’ I comforted him as wcll as I could, and promised to ask the captain to help him from thc medicine chest.
We have felt the pulse of hate for the captain – now the pulse of Saviour-like love for the bright-eyed man of the Pacific, a real child of the ocean, full of the mystery-being of that great sea. Hope is for a moment to Dana what Chingachgook is to Cooper – the heart’s brother, the answerer. But only for an ephemeral moment. And even then his love was largely pity, tinged with philanthropy. The inevitable saviourism. The ideal being.
Dana was mad to leave the California coast, to be back in the civilized east. Yet he feels the poignancy of departure when at last the ship draws off. The Pacific is his glamour- world: the eastern States his world of actuality, scientific, materially real. He is a servant of civilization, an idealist, a democrat, a hater of masters, a KNOWER. Conscious and self- conscious, without ever forgetting.
When all sail had been set and the decks cleared up, the California was a speck in the horizon. and the coast lay like a low cloud along the north-east. At sunset they were both out of sight, and we were once more upon the ocean, where sky and water meet.
The description of the voyage home is wonderful. It is as if the sea rose up to prevent the escape of this subtle explorer. Dana seems to pass into another world, another life, not of this earth. There is first the sense of apprehension, then the passing right into the black deeps. Then the waters almost swallow him up, with his triumphant consciousness.
The days became shorter and shorter, the sun running lower in its course each day, and giving less and less heat, and the nights so cold as to prevent our sleeping on deck; the Magellan Clouds in sight of a clear night; the skies looking cold and angry; and at times a long, heavy, ugly sea, setting in from the Southward, told us what we were coming to.
They were approaching Cape Horn, in the southern winter, passing into the strange, dread regions of the violent waters.
And there lay, floating in the ocean, several miles off, an immense irregular mass, its top and points covered with snow, its centre a deep indigo. This was an iceberg, and of the largest size. As far as the eye could reach, the sea in every direction was of a deep;blue colour, the waves running high and fresh, and sparkling in the light; and in the midst lay this immense mountain-island, its cavities and valleys thrown into deep shade, and its points and pinnacles glittering in the sun. But no description can give any idea of the strangeness, splendour, and, really, the sublimity of the sight. Its great size – for it must have been two or three miles in circum- ference, and several hundred feet in height; its slow motion, as its base rose and sank in the water and its points nodded against the clouds; the high dashing of the waves upon it, which, breaking high with foam, lined its base with a white crust; and the thundering sound of the cracking of the mass, and the breaking and tumbling down of hugh pieces; together with its nearness and approach, which added a slight element of fear – all combined to give it the character of true sublimity –
But as the ship ran further and further into trouble, Dana became ill. First it is a slight toothache. Ice and exposure cause the pains to take hold of all his head and face. And then the face so swelled, that he could not open his mouth to eat, and was in danger of lock-jaw. In this state he was forced to keep his bunk for three or four days.
At the end of the third day, the ice was very thick; a complete fogbank covered the ship. It blew a tremendous gale from the east ward, with sleet and snow, and there was every promise of a dangerous and fatiguing night. At dark, the captain called the hands aft, and told them that not a man was to leave the deck that night; that the ship was in the greatest danger; any cake of ice might knock a hole in her, or she might run on an island and go to pieces. The look-outs were then set and every man was put in his station. When I heard what was the state of things, I began to put on my things, to stand it out with the rest of them, when the mate came below, and looking at my face ordered me back to my berth, saying if we went down we should all go down together, but if I went on deck I might lay myself up for life. In obedience to the mate’s orders, I went back to my berth; but a more miserable night I never wish to spend.
It is the story of a man pitted in conflict against the sea, the vast, almost omnipotent element. In contest with this cosmic enemy, man finds his further ratification, his further ideal vindication. He comes out victorious, but not till the sea has tortured his living, integral body, and made him pay some- thing for his triumph in consciousness.
The horrific struggle round Cape Hom, homewards, is the crisis of the Dana history. It is an entry into chaos, a heaven of sleet and black ice-rain, a sea of ice and iron-like water. Man fights the element in all its roused, mystic hostility to conscious life. This fight is the inward crisis and triumph of Dana’s soul. He goes through it all consciously, enduring, knowing. It is not a mere overcoming of obstacles. It is a pitting of the deliberate consciousness against all the roused, hostile, anti-life water of the Pole.
After this fight, Dana has achieved his success. He knows. He knows what the sea is. He knows what the Cape Horn is. He knows what work is, work before the mast. He knows, he knows a great deal. He has carried his consciousness open- eyed through it all. He has won through. The ideal being.
And from his book, we know too. He has lived this great experience for us; we owe him homage.
The ship passes through the strait, strikes the polar death- mystery, and turns northward, home. She seems to fly with new strong plumage, free. ‘Every rope-yarn seemed stretched to the utmost, and every thread of the canvas; and with this sail added to her the ship sprang through the water like a thing possessed. The sail being nearly all forward, it lifted her out of the water, and she seemed actually to jump from sea to sea.’
Beautifully the sailing-ship nodalizes the forces of sea and w ind, converting them to her purpose. There is no violation, as in a steam-ship, only a winged centrality. It is this perfect adjusting of ourselves to the elements, the perfect equipoise between them and us, which gives us a great part of our life joy. The more we intervene machinery between us and the naked forces the more we numb and atrophy our own senses. Every time we turn on a tap to have water, every time we turn a handle to have a fire or light, we deny ourselves and annul our being. The great elements, the earth, air, fire, water, are there like some great mistress whom we woo and struggle with, whom we heave and wrestle with. And all our appliances do but deny us these fine embraces, take the miracle of life away from us. The machine is the great neuter. It is the eunuch of eunuchs. In the end it emasculates us all. When we balance the sticks and kindle a fire, we partake of the mysteries. But when we turn on an electric tap there is, as it were, a wad between us and the dynamic universe. We do not know what we lose by all our labour-saving appliances. Of the two evils it would be much the lesser to lose all machinery, every bit, rather than to have, as we have, hopelessly too much.
When we study the pagan gods, we find they have now one meaning, now another. Now they belong to the creative essence, and now to the material-dynamic world. First they have one aspect, then another. The greatest god has both aspects. First he is the source of life. Then he is mystic dynamic lord of the elemental physical forces. So Zeus is Father, and Thunderer.
Nations that worship the material-dynamic world, as all nations do in their decadence, seem to come inevitably to worship the Thunderer. He is Ammon, Zeus, Wotan and Thor, Shango of the West Africans. As the creator of man himself, the Father is greatest in the creative world, the Thunderer is greatest in the material world. He is the god of force and of earthly blessing, the god of the bolt and of sweet rain.
So that electricity seems to be the first intrinsic principle among the Forces. It has a mystic power of readjustment. It seems to be the overlord of the two naked elements, fire and water, capable of mysteriously enchaining them, and of mysteriously sundering them from their connections. When the two great elements become hopelessly clogged, entangled, the sword of the lightning can separate them. The crash of thunder is really not the clapping together of waves of air. Thunder is the noise of the explosion which takes place when the waters are loosed from the elemental fire, when old vapours are suddenly decomposed in the upper air by the electric force. Then fire flies fluid, and the waters roll off in purity. It is the liberation of the elements from hopeless conjunction. Thunder, the electric force, is the counterpart in the material-dynamic world of the life-force, the creative mystery, itself, in the creative world.
Dana gives a wonderful description of a tropical thunderstorm.
When our watch came on deck at twelve o’clock it was as black as Erebus; not a breath stirring; the sails hung heavy and motionless from the yards; and the perfect stillness, and the darkness, which was almost palpable, were truly appalling. Not a word was spoken, but everyone stood as though waiting for something to happen. In a few minutes the mate came forward, and in a low tone which was almost a whisper, gave the command to haul down the jib. When we got down we found all hands looking aloft, and then, directly over where we had been standing, upon the main top- gallant mast-head, was a ball of light, which the sailors name a corposant (corpus sancti). They were all watching it carefully, for sailors have a notion that if the corposant rises in the rigging, it is a sign of fair weather; but if it comes lower down, there will be a storm. Unfortunately, as an omen, it came down and showed itself on the top-gallant yard-arm.
In a few minutes it disappeared and showed itself again on the fore top-gallant yard, and, after playing about for some time, disappeared again, when the man on the fore-castle pointed to it upon the flying-jib-boom-end. But our attention was drawn from watching this by the falling of some drops of rain. In a few minutes low growling thunder was heard, and some random flashes of lightning came from the south-west. Every sail was taken in but the top-sail. A few puffs lifted the top-sails, but they fell again to the mast, and all was as still as ever. A minute more, and a terrific flash and peal broke simultaneously upon us, and a cloud appeared to open directly over our heads and let down the water in one body like a falling ocean. We stood motionless and almost stupefied, yet nothing had been struck. Peal after peal rattled over our heads with a sound which actually seemed to stop the breath in the body. The violent fall of the rain lasted but a few minutes, and was succeeded by occasional drops and showers; but the lightning continued incessant for several hours, breaking the midnight darkness with irregular and blinding flashes.
During all this time hardly a word was spoken, no bell was struck, and the wheel was silently relieved. The rain fell at intervals in heavy showers, and we stood drenched through, and blinded by the flashes, which broke the Egyptian darkness with a brightness which seemed almost malignant, while the thunder rolled in peals, the concussion of which appeared to shake the very ocean. A ship is not often injured by lightning, for the electricity is separated by the great number of points she presents, and the quality of iron which she has scattered in various parts. The electric fluid ran over our anchors, top sail-sheets and ties; yet no harm was done to us. We went below at four o’clock, leaving things in the same state.
Dana is wonderful at relating these mechanical, or dynamic- physical events. He could not tell about the being of men: only about the forces. He gives another curious instance of the process of recreation, as it takes place within the very corpuscles of the blood. It is salt this time which arrests the life-activity, causing a static arrest in Matter, after a certain sundering of water from the Ere of the warm-substantial body.
The scurvy had begun to show itself on board. One man had it so badly as to be disabled and off duty; and the English lad, Ben, was in a dreadful state, and was gradually growing worse. His legs swelled and pained him so that he could not walk; his flesh lost its elasticity, so that if it were pressed in, it would not return to its shape; and his gums swelled until he could not open his mouth. His breath, too, became very offensive; he lost all strength and spirit; could eat nothing; grew worse every day; and, in fact, unless something was done for him, would be a dead man in a week at the rate at which he was sinking. The medicines were all gone, or nearly all gone; and if we had had a chest-full, they would have been of no use; for nothing but fresh provisions and terra firma has any effect upon the scurvy.
However, a boat-load of potatoes and onions was obtained from a passing ship. These the men ate raw.
The freshness and crispness of the raw onion, with the earthy state, give it a great relish to one who has been a long time on salt provisions. We were perfectly ravenous after them. We ate them at every meal, by the dozen; and filled our pockets with them, to eat on the watch on deck. The chief use, however, of the fresh provisions was for the men with the scurvy. One was able to eat and he soon brought himself to by gnawing upon raw potatoes, but the other, by this time, was hardly able to open his mouth; and the cook took the potatoes raw, pounded them in a mortar, and gave him the juice to suck. The strong earthy taste and smell of this extract of the raw potatoes at first produced a shuddering through his whole frame, and after drinking it, an acute pain, which ran through all parts of his body; but knowing by this that it was taking strong hold, he persevered, drinking a spoonful every hour or so, until, by the effect of this drink, and of his own restored hope, he became so well as to be able to move about, and open his mouth enough to eat the raw potatoes and onions pounded into a soft pulp. This course soon restored his appetite and strength, and ten days after we spoke the Solon, so rapid was his recovery that, from Iying helpless and almost hopeless in his berth, he was at the mast- head, furling a royal.
This is the strange result of the disintegrating effect of the sea, and of salt food. We are all sea born, science tells us. The moon, and the sea, and salt, and phosphorus, and us: it is a long chain of connection. And then the earth: mother- earth. Dana talks of the relish which the earthy taste of the onion gives. The taste of created juice, the living milk of Gea. And limes, which taste of the sun.
How much stranger is the interplay of life among the elements, than any chemical interplay among the elements themselves. Life – and salt – and phosphorus – and the sea – and the moon. Life – and sulphur – and carbon – and volcanoes – and the sun. The way up, and the way down. The strange ways of life.
But Dana went home, to be a lawyer, and a rather dull and distinguished citizen. He was once almost an ambassador. And pre-eminently respectable.
He had been. He KNEW. He had even told us. It is a great achievement.
And then what? – Why, nothing. The old vulgar humdrum. That’s the worst of knowledge. It leaves one only the more lifeless. Dana lived his bit in two years, and knew, and drummed out the rest. Dreary lawyer’s years, afterwards.
We know enough. We know too much. We know nothing.
Let us smash something. Ourselves included. But the machine above all.
Dana’s small book is a very great book: contains a great extreme of knowledge, knowledge of the great element.
And after all, we have to know all before we can know that knowing is nothing.
Imaginatively, we have to know all: even the elemental waters. And know and know on, until knowledge suddenly shrivels and we know that forever we don’t know.
Then there is a sort of peace, and we can start afresh, knowing we don’t know.Share It