July 28, 2016

Mankind's boat-shaped soul

MANY AUTHORS have tried to describe the intriguing bond between boats and mankind, but few have done it as well as John Steinbeck. When Steinbeck was still a comparatively young man he sailed with his great friend, Ed Ricketts, to Mexico to collect samples of marine invertebrates from the beaches of the Gulf of California. Ricketts was a biologist and had a laboratory in Monterey. When Steinbeck wrote his charming and well-known work, Cannery Row, Ricketts became the eccentric "Doc," so beloved of the Flophouse Boys and millions of devoted readers.

But there is another Steinbeck book which, although not as well-known as Cannery Row, probably reveals more about the author himself and, interestingly, about his love of boats. That book is The Log from The Sea of Cortez, the day-to-day story of the expedition. Simply put, it is a wonderful book for people who like to read beautiful English from the mind of a deep-thinking philosopher with a rare gift for explaining things simply and humorously.

Steinbeck died in 1968 at the age of 66 but his books are still in print and I doubt they will ever go out of print. Here is a small excerpt from The Log from the Sea of Cortez in which he illustrates the strange identification of Man (and Woman) with Boat:   

"A man builds the best of himself into a boat — builds many of the unconscious memories of his ancestors. Once, passing the boat department of Macy's in New York, where there are duck-boats and skiffs and little cruisers, one of the authors discovered that as he passed each hull he knocked on it sharply with his knuckles. He wondered why he did it, and as wondered, he heard a knocking behind him, and another man was rapping the hulls with his knuckles, the same tempo — three sharp knocks on each hull. During an hour's observation there, no man or boy, and few women, passed who did not do the same thing. Can this have been unconscious testing of the hulls? Many who passed could not have been in a boat, perhaps some of the little boys had never seen a boat, and yet everyone tested the hulls, knocked to see if they were sound, and did not even know he was doing it.

"How deep this thing must be . . . the boat designed through millenniums of trial and error by the human consciousness, the boat which has no counterpart in nature unless it be a dry leaf fallen by accident in a stream.  And Man receiving back from Boat a warping of his psyche so that the sight of a boat riding in the water clenches a fist of emotion in his chest. A horse, a beautiful dog, arouses sometimes a quick emotion, but of inanimate things only a boat can do it  . . . man, building this greatest and most personal of all tools, has in turn received a boat-shaped mind, and the boat, a man-shaped soul. His spirit and the tendrils of his feeling are so deep in a boat that the identification is complete. It is very easy to see why the Viking wished his body to sail away in an unmanned ship, for neither could exist without the other; or, failing that, how it was necessary that the things he loved most, his women and his ship, lie with him and thus keep closed the circle. In the great fire on the shore, all three started at least in the same direction, and in the gathered ashes who could say where man or woman stopped and ship began?"

Today's Thought
Four hoarse blasts of a ship's whistle still raise the hair on my neck and set my feet to tapping.
— John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley.

"Hey, didn't I see you at the shrink's the other day?"
"Yeah, I'm having treatment for thinking I'm a racehorse."
"So what's the treatment?"
"Oh, he gave me a big bottle of medicine."
"How much do you take?"
"Depends whether I want to win or just run a place."

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

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