Another essay, refining some of the thoughts from yesterday’s second.
As a side note: The essays I have sent you all are the outward form of an internal dialog. They are my own thoughts, expressed to myself using various forms of address in order to clarify them and see the logic played out. In my life I’ve found that nothing changes behavior more strongly than a clearly formulated thought. As if within there were a courthouse, and the two sides of our nature – higher and lower – were constantly arguing their case before the jury of the mind. It means that everything so far has been of the nature of a travelogue: some outward and telling of Europe, others inward and showing the effect of this time on my consciousness of it. I could not think of another way to address the world’s problems, if not by addressing those same problems in myself and then speaking in the language of our common humanity. In this way, a philosopher makes of himself a symbol for the whole, and unravels his own knots in public view so that others may draw inspiration from the effort.
The following essay means a great deal to me, more than those preceding. It brings into one perspective everything I have written so far.
“Noble I made thee; wherewith hast thou abased thyself?”
Man cannot but respect himself. At the core of his being, he knows who he is, what he can be. He loves his creation as the natural response of life discovering that it is alive.
His respect is founded in his values and in honoring those values. There is really only one prime value. Call it what you wish. Plato said we made from a spark of the divine. We know our own nature when we see it.
Somewhere, in childhood – whatever their reasons – we were asked to compromise that value. We would not. We faced punishment and all the claims of authority the world can offer. We were only children. We compromised. This was the beginning of sorrow.
After the first time it got easier, but our fundamental respect cannot be erased. It was a contradiction; we were a being torn in two. We knew who we were and loved it; we could not accept what we’d done and hated it. A moral being cannot forgive its own immorality except at the price of morality. He can only respond by correcting the error.
We also could not end the compromise and win back our harmony of being and action. We met with refusal, reprimand. The compromise was enforced and we had nowhere to go. We knew what it meant. It was the first time we had to ask, to combat this knowledge in our soul: “I’m good, aren’t it?” And when we heard the answer, like manna from heaven, finally offering a reprieve to our torture – “Yes, dear, you are” – the ego that lives through others was born. Our substitute self. The image we turn to when we cannot face ourselves with honesty.
It was buried, but not lost – that sorrow mollified by the ego. The conflict remained unaddressed. But we still could not right the wrong in our life. It grew deeper and more complicated as school, church and government all asked for compromises of their own. The pattern was set, the scheme outside our awareness. We were still too young to see it happening.
In youth and with the first gasp of freedom we fought, bravely, nobly. But we lacked a voice, a defender to show us the lines of battle. We fought, not the cause, but everything asked for by those authorities who had pushed us into compromise. We gained nothing but a pause, a breathing spell. Then academia, career, society, all put on the pressure again. Still we did not understand, and so it was easier to carry on in resignation than to hunt a foe we could not identify.
The rift only worsened; it never heals. It carries far into adult life, into our present. We seek anything to stave off the pain: alcohol, sex, entertainment – all wonderful anesthetics. The nobler the soul, the more its fury is aimed against itself for having been a party to all. Other direct their rage at the world. Still others strive not to care. We all want to end the heart of sorrow in some way. Some have taken their own life. Others go on denying themselves all respect – seeking to ruin whatever respect they have left – in righteous anger at the sacrifice of their values.
We depend on this world we’ve compromised with to convince us it was all worthwhile. To say it and show it in salaries, titles, awards. We fear what would happen if we were left by ourselves without it. The tie is like a cursed life-line that only sinks us deeper and keeps the wound from closing.
And yet to be by ourselves – in the truest sense – is exactly what we need. All scripture warns of the bond of ego; it places honesty, detachment and selflessness at the beginning of spirituality. Let us call “selfless” a man whose self is neither defined by nor sought in the world. Let us call “spirituality” the living of life in pursuit of the highest value.
Such a being has no defined “self”; he has only his being, his soul. That is all. He does not live in reference to the world, he does not compromise with the world. Religion asks man repeatedly to give up the world; perhaps this is what is means: To put off the vestment of self and stand naked, a bare soul with one function only: the love and worship the value it admires.
In doing so he is only himself, he lives only for himself. He pursues the highest value and that is all he cares about. By his morals he discovers whichever value can be approached by those morals – the highest morality leading to the highest value – and his virtue is the extent to which he embodies that morality. If he holds true to virtue, both by accepting punishment when he errs and approval when he does right, he is just.
This is the man who can know happiness: whose only companion in life is the value he seeks – everywhere he finds it. He does not care about the world. It does not exist for him. He knows only about the highest value he can conceive and worships it by his life, his actions. He creates a shrine to this value in every word and deed. This is how he serves his fellow men: by offering his life to the Highest and letting those who will come and see, even take part in the endeavor. Our achievements are the only gift we can offer to another being like ourselves. Any “service” that would substitute their own capacity to achieve would be the worst harm we could do.
The compromise, the sorrow, never needed to be. There has never been any reason to take it seriously. I can stop now. And then we may see that deep down, we’ve respected ourselves from the very beginning. That is the nature of the sorrow: that we knew what we were in the midst of who we were. Now we can forget it all, and pursue the value we’ve known is out there all along. To happiness.
Roger at sea
The following short story is a depiction in imagery of my time here in Europe.
The sun was still high enough to makes the waves a bright blue, changing to jewel green near the shore. Small darts of color moved in the current. The sand was pure white, still too glaring to look at. Laid out in the sand, with no towel, only his bare skin absorbing the heat, Roger reached his arm over his eyes for shade.
The skiff was a few steps away he’d come in; to sea, just beyond the coral reef, was his sailing boat, La Dolce Vita. It was a white line sprouting from blue at this distance. The skiff was made from polished wood, a warm brown in the light. Roger thought of moving, but the thought left him. A constant breeze flowed from the sea, leaving him warm and cool at the same moment. Individual grains of sand moved under his arms and legs. The sky was without clouds.
Roger turned his head toward the skiff. Between them a small crab walked up and down the ripples of sand. Its legs were little spasms of movement between rest. If found a patch of wet sand, ran quickly to a hole and disappeared. The sun was just a bit lower, but Roger did not notice. He closed his eyes.
In all this calm his thoughts were a storm. He considered life, death – all his usual preoccupations. Not one muscle moved along the length of his body. His fingers opened and closed once, but that was all. The wind kept touching him, caressing. He felt it all, parallel to his mind’s course.
Only with his body so empty could his mind be so full. No one knew the island but him, he supposed. He came here when the quiet of his city apartment was not quiet enough.
There were no clouds today. Everything was one color only, the anthem of the sea’s hue played in the symphony of the sky. He turned on his side when not turning was a greater effort. Dried sand trickled down. The sun was kissing his back, his hands, his legs; the wind and the sun together.
A new color came into the sky. He did not see it. It was the faintest green, impossible one moment, real the next. Had he measured, the sun would have seemed almost larger. It was fattening, gaining weight, slouching in the sky. Its cheeks were rosy. A jolly old sun, well past middle-age. Roger never saw the change. It did not ask to be seen.
The waves did not stop, but the receding tide made their sounds fainter. Only a whole day’s comparison could know the difference. He had spent a whole day. He did not compare or listen. The threads of his hair jumped about in the breeze: a flag to his state of mind. The stillness of his body was matched by the speed of his thought. Pressed, channeled, racing. He twitched a foot that itched for no reason.
The sun was only a flame now. The sea had the look of rippled glass. From shore to sun a red streak led into evening. The waves had left the skiff, drawing back. A single tooth had been added to the bite of the wind.
Roger turned again without realizing it. His body was aware; his mind spared no attention. The only sound was the sailboat’s main halyard, ringing on the mast. He had forgotten to tie it off. He had stopped hearing it hours ago.
The sun dipped and sank and the skies changed into night. Little points of stars winked into being one by one. The waves crept back up the shore. A sliver of the moon braved the horizon. There was still a shade of blue everywhere, but it was fading.
The sloop at rest was like a skeleton of some beast left to bleach in the sun. It did not drift. Nothing moved. Roger, his arm up, on his side, could not have said whether the sun had left. Its attentions were wasted. The wind kept up its embrace but slackened with the cooling of the day. Softly, gently, the night crept on without disturbing the placid figure. He may have moved even. It was too dark to tell.
At last his thoughts were complete and he took a deep breath as if remembering to breathe. He sat up and looked around for the colors now lost, for the sun now gone. It took a moment to name the vast darkness. Night. Night had fallen. He stood up and brushed the sand from his skin. Waves lapped lazily at his skiff as they had when he lay down. To a sailor, he knew what this lack of difference meant. Half a day under the sun.
Roger walked over to the skiff, its hull half wet, half dry, moored by its own weight. The world around him was like a revelation. So different from the day. He looked at the ripples of light on the waves, at the moon half-risen, as if his thoughts had conjured this place. Dapples of starlight played on the wet wood of the skiff. Light had left the world to become more precious, more poignant by its absence.
The wind was chiller now, though weak. The halyard had stopped slapping the mast. The waves and wind were a silence more profound than any lack of noise. Roger stopped in his walking, held fast by the tranquillity. When he could move again, he did.
The skiff was sluggish, in love with the sand. His whole back strained but it shifted only one inch toward the water. Then something gave way and its affections changed, reaching for the sea faster and faster until it was bobbing on the surf.
The moon was full, squat and huge on the horizon. Impossibly large. The night was a different world: a black sky and the sun’s ghost, the only cloud an arm of the galaxy. In this underworld the boat awaited him like Charon, to ferry the gap between life and the beyond. All the souls of heaven were waiting, points of light in the sky. The moon bore no crown, but was king.
Roger climbed into the skiff and set the oars, taking one last look at shore. It was empty, a single copse of trees only. It was also full of memories. A stage that fitted the theater of his mind. It had watched every act and its audience was the rarest kind: a reverent silence. How much he had seen where nothing was. Between the two, it was more bustling with energy than the cities he had left. Even a city, without its mind, would return to such stillness and void. He had made this place his city.
He pulled the oars, feeling a new resistance. The skiff did not like to move. His muscles bunched in his arms, straining against the weight and the water. Slowly the beach receded and a liquid form of sky collected around him. The oars dipped in and out, scattering pale lights in the near tranquil surface. Inside the reef, the waves were gentle, slight, breaking in thin lines on the sand. The moonlight streaked on the water, alive. It made the sea seem still and the lights in motion. He cut through it with his oars and watched the lights pass slowly by.
The sailboat was closer, enlarging as the moon shrank over time. There was an easy channel between the shore and the boat’s mooring. The reef could not be seen through the blackness of the water.
Soon the mainmast was high in the sky, the moon vaulting over. The wind had increased, from the shore. Or maybe it only seemed to change in relation to the island, submerged in vaster currents from the continent. It did not matter. While he was here all terms related to himself and his surroundings. The little island would have fit within a hug at this distance.
The sailboat was large and proud, a feline form relaxing but always ready. On the bowsprit the words “La Dolce Vita” were painted in blue letters. Along the waterline it was also blue. Or he knew it to be. In the moonlight everything was a shade of grey.
There was a cloud now from somewhere. It was small and brighter than seemed possible. The sense of its motion was supplied by the feeling of the wind. Otherwise everything was still, motionless. It was also all in movement – the cloud, the moon, the stars – but at its own pace. Roger reached to the boat and lashed the winch lines. He climbed the small rope ladder on the side.
The boat pulled tight at its anchor rode, straining as at a leash. From above it was only a slender white form in the void. It responded little to Roger’s weight. It was fifty feet in length and weighted for sea voyaging. The hull flared out with a generous tumblehome. The transom was slanted into the sea. The hull was a thick, white strip between the deck and the water. Roger covered the distance in four steps and stood aboard. He winched in the skiff, and it lay on deck slick with moonlight.
He turned on the arc-lights on the spreaders. The night was obliterated. As easily as a finger’s movement the stars were erased and the moon changed to a humble figure. The one cloud seemed darker now. It had not moved far.
Quickly, but with a practiced, neat efficiency, Roger awakened the boat from sleep. It was a sloop with jib and spinnaker available at a touch, electronically. The canvas was middle-weight, suitable for these latitudes. Roger untied the mainsail and latched the halyard, now banging again. His hand held the line with a sensual touch.
He hauled the main upright. Its weight resisted the call to duty, but it was willing. As the wind found it it became easier; the sail remembering its purpose and grew excited. The final pulls were both the hardest and the easiest. The canvas jumped playfully at the breeze; the leech slapped the wind in impatience.
Made fast, the luff taut, the boom shook from port to starboard and back. Roger tightened on the mainsheet and the sail filled. The only sense of motion was in the slackening of the rode. He steered over it, easing the anchor from the soil of the sea. He ran forward to haul it free and gathered the rode onto its drum. The links of the chain were cold and wet. The anchor held a few grains of sand that dripped to the deck. The boat was underway.
With a touch he unfurled the jib. It greedily drank in huge gulps of air and exhaled a fresh breeze into Roger’s face. The main took a firm, hard shape. The bow bit at the waves. Beyond the boat the night was calm, the waves low, but they gained speed in a close reach. The wind became stiff, ten knots increasing to twenty. The rudder responded like a waiting lover. The hull sang with inaudible music. The sail were full and proud, yearning into the distance with a palpable lust. She was alive and she was joyous, and Roger stroked her tiller’s curving shape with fondness. He could not imagine having left to visit the shore. This was his steed on which to ride the world – and he had left her waiting. It seemed unthinkable.
He killed the arc-lights and the night returned. The two were chasing the moon, making no headway at terrific speed. The one cloud watched them impassively, receding slowly. There were too many scales and measures of movement. He felt they were streaking through space on the wind itself; the wind did not notice their travel. The sea gave no clues, its distances intangible. The white spray at the bow seemed to come from nowhere: the wind brought low to the waves and fighting.
She kept on for hours without a course, preferring whichever direction kept the wind in his face. It was not the most efficient point of sail, but it was the most exciting. The boat seemed to deserve that after so much rest. He as well.
He steered with one foot on the tiller, leaning back, his eyes closed. Everything he needed to know his body told him – she told him through the tensions of her body. He listened to her song and adjusted whenever he heard a note of melancholy. She leapt at the loving caress, and the two fed each other’s soul until far in the night.
He did not know when the day came. They did not know. Exhausted, the wind spent, they merely lay still in the happiness of morning. When the day brought the winds back, they resumed. They were now as one, underway on the limitless reaches of the sea.