Metaphorical shipwreck

Through the glass darkly

According to Aristotle, “All men by nature desire to know.” There is in us an unquenchable urge to understand this world in which we live and move and have our being. And, correlatively, there is the human quest, the self-reflective journey to discover what part each of us plays in the drama of existence.

In seeking to answer these questions, mankind has devised methods of surveying and examining reality, the outer world investigated by the sciences, the inner world explored through philosophy and the arts. And one of the most important tools in this multi-faceted search for understanding is the humble metaphor.

Metaphor is a literary device in which one thing is compared with another. When a metaphor is effective, we have a kind of “aha!” response. We understand in a new and sometimes revelatory way. The poet Shelley wrote that “metaphorical language marks the before unapprehended relations of things”, while Aristotle said that “a good metaphor implies an intuitive perception of the similarity of dissimilars.” The important point is that an effective metaphor is an aid to understanding something we either did not understand before or understood only imperfectly.

And it is not really such a long way from “My love is like a red, red rose” to the provocative metaphor used increasingly from the 17th century by scientists like Sir Isaac Newton, in which the universe and everything in it – including ourselves – is compared to a large and complex machine. The gradual acceptance of this metaphor, originally just a useful comparison, not merely as a device of understanding but as the literal truth, has subsequently had an influence and an impact, for good or ill, impossible to underestimate, on the way we understand ourselves and the world.

Whether used to explore the world of time and space, or the more intimate world of the self, metaphors are among the most valuable means of illuminating the obscurity of experience and the list of generative metaphors is vast and their applications virtually limitless. One of the most illuminating of these metaphors, or at least I have always found it so, is that of shipwreck as used in a psychological or philosophical sense.

We must imagine it emerging as a metaphor in a world in which the threat of physical shipwreck was a common one, when travel was linked with danger, and when the consequences of shipwreck were death or the hopelessness of the castaway. Robinson Crusoe was so popular because it played on anxieties in a world where travel by sea was inherently perilous.

A poem by the 18th century poet William Cowper called The Cast-Away is one of the earliest to use the image as a metaphor for spiritual as well as literal shipwreck. Describing a crew member who has fallen overboard during a storm that prevented his shipmates from rescuing him, the poet concludes, “No voice divine the storm allay’d,/No light propitious shone,/When, snatch’d from all effectual aid,/We perished, each, alone;/ But I, beneath a rougher sea,/And whelm’d in deeper gulfs than he.”

Many examples could be cited but among the most profound I have come across comes from The Revolt of the Masses by the 20th century Spanish philosopher, Ortega y Gasset: “... life is at the start a chaos in which one is lost ... As this is the simple truth – that to live is to feel oneself lost – he who accepts it has already begun to find himself, to be on firm ground. Instinctively, as do the shipwrecked, he will look around for something to which to cling, and that tragic, ruthless glance, absolutely sincere, because it is a question of his salvation, will cause him to bring order into the chaos of his life. These are the only genuine ideas, the ideas of the shipwrecked ...”

Finally, Simone Weil: “Man is like a castaway, clinging to a spar and tossed by the waves. He has no control over the movement imposed on him by the water. From the highest heaven God throws a rope. The man either grasps it or not. If he does, he is still subject to the pressures imposed by the sea, but these pressures are combined with the new factor of the rope, so that the relations between man and the sea have changed. His hands bleed from the pressure of the rope, and he is sometimes so buffeted by the sea that he lets go, and then he catches it again. But if he voluntarily pushes it away, God withdraws it.”

It may be that the experience of metaphorical shipwreck is one of the best ways we can understand the mysteries that define human existence.

Barnaby ffrench


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