“at sea,” “from on high”


“Monday my host came to the hotel to tape an interview. For two hours I answered fourteen carefully prepared questions. The tape was lost. Tuesday morning I agreed to retape the interview. To the same fourteen questions I gave new answers. Both sets of answers were honest, but on Tuesday I was a different person. I was a different person less by being a day older than by having exhausted a viewpoint, or at least my examples of viewpoint.” Composer and diarist, Ned Rorem

Exhausting a viewpoint that makes room for other, newer connections and viewpoints, and to do so again and again, is one way of locating what is there but missed up to this point.


Here’s a demonstration of how this works for me. Start with a sample of excerpts I’ve collected on what it means to find “ourselves being at sea.” Apologies: There are fifteen excerpts and it’s a pretty hefty read before I get to my point. That said, please look for anything that surprises you along the way:

Rene Descartes, philosopher: “The Meditation of yesterday filled my mind with so many doubts that it is no longer in my power to forget them. And yet I do not see in what manner I can resolve them; and, just as if I had all of a sudden fallen into very deep water, I am so disconcerted that I can neither make certain of setting my feet on the bottom, nor can I swim and so support myself on the surface. I shall nevertheless make an effort . . .until I have met with something which is certain, or at least, if I can do nothing else, until I have learned for certain that there is nothing in the world that is certain.”

Charles Sanders Peirce, philosopher: “the solid ground of fact fails [science]. It feels from that moment that its position is only provisional. It must then find confirmations or else shift its footing. Even if it does find confirmations, they are only partial. It still is not standing upon the bedrock of fact. It is walking upon a bog, and can only say, this ground seems to hold for the present.”

Blaise Pascal, philosopher: “On a vast ocean we are drifting, ever uncertain and bobbing about, blown this way or that. Whenever we think we have some point to which we can cling in order to strengthen ourselves, it shakes free and leaves us behind; and if we chase after it, it eludes our grasp, slips away and flees off for ever. Nothing halts for us.”

Immanuel Kant, philosopher: “This land [of true understanding], however, is an island, …surrounded by a broad and stormy ocean, the true seat of illusion, where many a fog bank and rapidly melting iceberg pretend to be new lands and, ceaselessly deceiving with empty hopes the voyager looking around for new discoveries, entwine him in adventures from which he can never escape and yet also never bring to an end. But before we venture out on this sea, to search through all its breadth and become certain of whether there is anything to hope for in it, it will be useful first to cast yet another glance at the map of the land that we would now leave, and to ask, first, whether we could not be satisfied with what it contains, or even must be satisfied with it out of necessity, if there is no other ground on which we could build; and, second, by what title we occupy even this land, and can hold it securely against all hostile claims.”

Michael Oakeshott, political philosopher: “In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination. The enterprise is to keep afloat on an even keel; the sea is both friend and enemy; and the seamanship consists in using the resources of a traditional manner of behaviour in order to make a friend of every hostile occasion.”

F.S. Oliver, historian of politics: “The question, therefore, was not which of these two rivals deserved to be rewarded with the highest post, but which of them might be less likely to show himself the less dangerous pilot in a very ticklish bit of navigation. [One rival] was the sort of man who would drift past opportunity on the tide; while [the other rival] might be apt to run his boat upon the rocks without waiting for a landing-place. On the whole, however, the general disposition appeared to be in favour of [the latter], who had this to recommend him, that he was obviously in a run of luck.”

Alexis de Tocqueville, historian and political scientist: “The legislator is like a navigator on the high seas. He can steer the vessel on which he sails, but he cannot alter its construction, raise the wind, or stop the ocean from swelling beneath his feet”.

Leo Tolstoy, novelist: “While the sea of history remains calm the ruler-administrator in his frail bark, holding on with a boat hook to the ship of the people and himself moving, naturally imagines that his efforts move the ship he is holding on to. But as soon as a storm arises and the sea begins to heave and the ship to move, such a delusion is no longer possible.”

Otto Neurath, philosopher of social science: “Imagine sailors who, far out at sea, transform the shape of their vessel…They make use of some drifting timber, besides the timber of the old structure, to modify the skeleton and the hull of their vessel. But they cannot put the ship in dock in order to start from scratch. During the work they stay on the old structure and deal with heavy gales and thundering waves. . . A new ship grows out of the old one, step by step—and while they are still building, the sailors may already be thinking of a new structure, and they will not always agree with one another. The whole business will go on in a way we cannot even anticipate today. . . .That is our fate.”

Hans Magnus Enzensberger, author and critic: “The question whether it’s best to swim with the current or against it seems to me out of date…. The method of the yachtsman who tacks with the wind as well as against it seems more fruitful. Such a procedure applied to society demands stoic disbelief and the greatest attentiveness. Anyone who wants to reach even the nearest goal must expect, step by step, a thousand unpredictable variables and cannot put his trust in any of them.”

Andre Gide, author and diarist: “I am reproached for my oblique gait. . .but who does not know that when the wind is contrary, one is obliged to tack? It is easy to criticize for you who let yourselves be carried by the wind. I take my bearing on the rudder”.

Isaiah Berlin, historian of ideas: “. . .they pretend that all that need be known is known, that they are working with open eyes in a transparent medium, with facts and laws accurately laid out before them, instead of groping, as in fact they are doing, in a half-light where some may see a little further than others but where none sees beyond a certain point, and, like pilots in a mist, must rely upon a general sense of where they are and how to navigate in such weather and in such waters, with such help as they may derive from maps drawn at other dates by men employing different conventions, and by the aid of such instruments as give nothing but the most general information about their situation.”

Joseph Conrad, novelist: “He would reason about people’s conduct as though a man were as simple a figure as, say, two sticks laid across each other; whereas a man is much more like the sea whose movements are too complicated to explain, and whose depths may bring up God only knows what at any moment.”

G.L.S. Shackle, economist: “[We] are like a ship’s crew who have been wrecked in a swirling tide-race. Often a man will hear nothing but the roar of the waters in his ears, see nothing but the dim green light. But as he strikes out, his head will come sometimes well above the water, where for the moment he can see clear about him. At that moment he has the right to shout directions to his fellows, to point the way to safety, even though he may feel sure that next moment he will be again submerged and may then doubt whether after all he has his bearings.”

Ernst von Glasersfeld, philosopher: “This means that the real world only manifests itself when our constructions fail. . . .Somewhat more metaphorical would be the following analogy: the captain of a ship has to cross straits he does not know and does not have a chart for nor navigational help such as a beacon, etc. on a stormy, dark night. In the circumstances only two things are possible: Either he sails into a cliff and loses his ship and his life; in the last moment of his life he realizes that the reality of the straits was not as he imagined and his course did not correspond with the actuality of the straits. Or he reaches the open sea; then he knows only that his course was accurate but no more. He does not know whether there could have been easier, shorter crossings than the one he blindly chose. And he does not know what the real condition of the straits was.”

Let me arbitrarily stop here, just as a wider selection of excerpts would also have been arbitrary. What follows is my line of thought in drawing out connections that I hadn’t thought about before from the quotes—again for the purposes of discovering what I have missed, in this case about “being at sea”.


What sticks out by way of a surprise to me is that Tocqueville says the navigator cannot alter the ship’s construction while at sea, while Neurath’s point is that the ship has to be rebuilt while at sea. By the way, Neurath appears to be restating the older Theseus’s paradox, where (in the first century) “Plutarch asked whether a ship that had been restored by replacing every single wooden part remained the same ship”. 

This digression, in turn, reminds me—definitely off tangent—that I often confuse Plutarch for Petrarch, and it was famously Petrarch whose climbing of Mount Ventoux in 1336 “began the Renaissance by being the first learned man ever to climb a mountain only for a view.” But, when I think about it, being at the top of a mountain for the view is about as orthogonal as you can get to “being at sea with no view in sight” as in many of the above excerpts.

Anything to be found in that comparison? This question returns me to another view of Mt. Ventoux:

On 26 September 1988, all day long, the world before my eyes remained still, in the greatest serenity that I have ever seen. Whenever a breadth of wind rose, it seemed only for refreshing the heart. Mount Ventoux appeared to be a distant sphinx sitting on our threshold, protecting it from the slightest stir. Philippe Jaccottet, Swiss-born French poet

Jaccottet implies—I liked to think when I first read the passage—that the only thing unique about any event is its date and only for now—for want of any metaphor or simile (his sphinx) that lasts longer. As in, which analogy lasts longer: the view from on high or being at sea. . .

All such stream of conscious stringing-together-and-bringing-around is, to repeat, arbitrary when the pursuit is of missing resonances as a way of making room for new viewpoints to be held (for however long). What I am doing in the above list of assembled quotes is inverting the notion that new insights arise out of persisting anomalies in current ways of thinking. I am, instead, creating anomalies—formally, anomalous connections—where none were before through the haphazard juxtaposition of quotations, as a way of extending my own thinking. (It’s as if having assembled a series of arbitrary quotes serves then to pluck the first quote in line—thereby setting the others in motion with no need of further plucking—such that I end in the presence of something independent of me.)


There must always be a sense in which such connections-through-quotes are forced and since forced, they are compelling in their own right, at least for me. This is a high-stakes wager that any line of thinking is an alternative version of what I could have been thought instead.

The upshot is: When the subject is as complicated as “being at sea,” I can—you can—start and end anywhere in making a new connection, which is probably a good enough way to think about pushing my (your) thinking further than before.

Let Proust have the last word (if that can be asked ever of him):

At most I noticed cursorily that the differences which exist between every one of our real impressions— differences which explain why a uniform depiction of life cannot bear much resemblance to the reality— derive probably from the following cause: the slightest word that we have said, the most insignificant action that we have performed at any one epoch of our life was surrounded by, and coloured by the reflexion of, things which logically had no connexion with it and which later have been separated from it by our intellect which could make nothing of them for its own rational purposes….

Yes: if, owing to the work of oblivion, the returning memory can throw no bridge, form no connecting link between itself and the present minute, if it remains in the context of its own place and date, if it keeps its distance, its isolation in the hollow of a valley or upon the highest peak of a mountain summit, for this very reason it causes us suddenly to breathe a new air, an air which is new precisely because we have breathed it in the past, that purer air which the poets have vainly tried to situate in paradise and which could induce so profound a sensation of renewal only if it had been breathed before, since the true paradises are the paradises that we have lost…

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