Mottos for adventure

February 23, 2013

Although Karen Blixen used the pseudonym Isak Dinesen mostly to publish short stories, my favorite piece of writing under that name is her essay “On Mottoes of My Life”, in the collection Daguerreotypes.

Here she reveals that she kept mottos in her heart that she had forgotten in the Latin original (like “still I am unconquered” and “often in difficulties, never afraid”), and she shares the legend behind Navigare necesse est, vivere non necesse est! (“This audacious order was flung from the lips of Pompey to his timid Sicilian crew when they refused to set out against the gale and the high seas to bring provisions of grain to Rome.”)


Montaigne was just as much of a fangirl about quotable Latin. He relates in a great hurry how Bias said to shipmates during a tempest while calling to the gods for help, in keeping with traditions that it is unlucky to go to sea with those who are “dissolute, blasphemous, or wicked” but humorously: “Be quiet, so they may not realize that you are here with me.”

She gives another nautical motto in the story of a French scientific expedition lost at sea. The boat “had gone down below Iceland with her flag flying. And the boat had been named Pourquoi pas? – ‘Why not?’”

The Endurance expedition to the Antarctic, an adventure chronicled in Craig Parker’s Shackleton’s Captain, named their ship by brave words and sent her to a similar fate. The ship rechristened in honor of Shackleton’s family motto, “by endurance we conquer” was abandoned in pack ice, but the journey earned its epithet. Through the courage to endure brutal conditions and much waiting on a distant thread of hope in their own rescue expedition on the last serviceable boat hauled over ice from where the ship was lost, all men survived.

The film has its own motto, from Napoleon’s memorable saying: “it takes more courage to live than to die.” Napoleon is said to have hoped, above all, that his own life would be remembered like a motto, as an inspirational story.

I used to think being blown away by Master and Commander at the Far Side of the World made me a Peter Weir fan. Then I saw his toilet repair man movie. It’s diabolically clever, but I’m definitely just another Russell Crowe fan, and a genre fan of epic adventure. You need a lead actor the whole cast can hook on to for an ensemble performance that strong. And at sea (beyond the cinema’s massive tank for ocean adventure staging), some of the same rules apply.

In an essay on tragic drama, Maxwell Anderson conveys this hope for the role of theater in the modern world: “The theater is much older than the doctrine of evolution, but its one faith … is a faith in evolution, in the reaching and the climb of man toward distant goals, glimpsed but never seen, perhaps never achieved, or achieved only to be passed impatiently on the way to a more distant horizon.”

“Thow of foaming seas, dost still the tumultuous outcries
thow their high swelling, dose coole with lowly residing”
(Pembroke, Psalm 89).

On winds, it is easy to dwell with unease on a thought that the weather has seemed to answer before you had finished the question as a thought itself. This is for actors to see, but not because the wind is not indifferent, all phenomena that make up spectacles of convergence are, they whisper deja vu and are no less unpredictable than if they had said nothing. What you read into it you know, but the world is resoundingly silent before you have spoken.

The weirdness was from finding yourself the only one present who seemed to notice what you just came to think, as if those all around you should have heard the same passage of wind through the nearby treetops tell them the same thing, because you fear it is urgent and yet obscure. It is obscure, but you’re an actor so you noticed.

Theater helps us risk a glimpse at ourselves at the very worst, distancing the specter of our darker nature from ourselves just far enough to make a bit more honesty about the way we live our lives feel palatable. Only after such a glimpse does serious thinking about making the world any better become possible.

Literature and history could do no better, though the one is easily distracted with experiments in style, and the other with experiments in politics. The Babylonians encountered by Herodotus began (and never completed) a tower of Babel, and the traveling historian climbed its scaffolding.

But for the Greek this anecdote was only one among many, and it shrinks in perspective, one of volumes of stories engagingly told. Any story with a motto transcends the distance and time.

In the first lines of “Australia”, a sonnet by Bernard O’Dowd, kingfishers misplace the large, habitable island and all its marsupials in another salt body of water:

Last sea-thing dredged by sailor Time from Space,
Are you a drift Sargasso, where the West
In halcyon calm rebuilds her fatal nest?

The halcyon myth is the kingfisher’s origin story, about a couple mercifully transformed into water birds, after a god tried to drown the husband at sea. The bride’s father, a god of winds, yearly gives the lovers seven cold days of calm at solstice to tend their floating seaweed nest. The root syllables in Greek mean ‘salt’ and ‘to conceive’.


Halcyon painted by Australia’s Sidney Nolan

The Euripides Hyppolytos quoted in The Spirit of Tragedy uses the same stranded-at-sea image, as a metaphor for the human condition:

I have a secret hope
of someone, a god, who is wise and plans;
but my hopes grow dim …
Unpiloted we’re helplessly adrift
upon a sea of legends, lies and fantasy.

Of course, to be forgiven and begin again may not prevent us from repeating our mistakes. But there is repetition of mistakes in any life of adventure. Isak Dinesen’s essay ends with lines from The Tempest better than the saying a great hardship “shall pass.”

Nothing of him that doth fade,
but doth suffer a sea-change
into something rich and strange.

She concludes, “We may make use of the words – even when we are speaking about ourselves – without vainglory. Each one amongst us will feel in his heart the inherent richness and strangeness of this one thing: his life.”

Being only about as seaworthy as a hobbit, I’ve never dared colder water than a glacier lake, and then only because I had to dive for binoculars dumped when I overturned a kayak at the pier, after a kite-drawn expedition manned by an intractable tinkerer who has likely still not finished building his own plane. But that was cold.

The captain played by Craig Parker (Frank Worsley) was an actor himself, in the sense that what seemed to have saved the crew (beyond not dropping the sextant in the choppy waters) was keeping up morale by example. This was in his nature, we are told, as if his spirit of adventure “keeps on the windy side of care” and had always been infectious and inexhaustible.

But then George Bernard Shaw would have us see Caesar as a comedian. They’re not the open books, they say.

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