Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Wanderer

The second most boring part of teaching is reviewing material, for it catches the teacher in the doldrums between summarizing and examining. Said teacher always wants to teach something new, but the students would say such is not review. True, true. So alas we must say again what was said before. And say it again and again ad infinitum. The most boring of the teacher's tasks is proctoring. Here the teacher is caught between daydreaming and that unpleasant task of policing. The other day, though, all the students had finished their tests and in the fifteen minutes before we were permitted to leave, I picked in desperation a book off the shelf to stir my stilling mind.

What I picked up was Heart of Darkness, and what I found of course and in irony was the serene stillness of Conrad's opening with its pacific water, flat sails, and seamless sky. What caught my mind, though, that is before the school bell shattered it once more, was not the quiet grandeur of the Thames or the brilliance of its description as introduction, but  Conrad's characterization of Marlow as a wanderer.

The seaman, we learn, is always at home at sea, for the sea never changes and all boats are the same. The seamen's minds are sedentary, their stories singular.  These men may move about, but on the ocean his mind is ever at home. One might say of them what the narrator says of their stories: they have a direct simplicity. They're simple, perfected, self-contained. Later, Marlow comes upon a book, reflecting again on the type:
The simple old sailor, with his talk of chains and purchases, made me forget the jungle and the pilgrims in a delicious sensation of having come upon something unmistakably real.
There is something authentic and revealing in such simplicity. Conrad's brilliant touch, though, is adding that someone had written notes in the margins of the book, and in cipher at that. Some greater intellect had come along and contributed incomprehensible commentary, muddling the simplicity as Marlow himself muddled the luminous Thames, describing it amidst its brightness as, "one of the dark places of the earth."

Marlow, in contrast to the simple seaman, is a wanderer, not with respect to body for he sails about like his fellow seamen, but rather Marlow is a wanderer of the mind. His stories are not about a simple moral but an unfolding, enveloping meaning.

Now one could surely discuss the theme of simplicity in Heart of Darkness, but I hadn't read the book in a while and I only had fifteen minutes. What was on my mind, then, wasn't the rest of the novel but a piece of music, Schubert's Der Wanderer an den Mond.

Schubert's song of Johann Seidl's text shares Conrad's fascination with simplicity. Here, the moon is simple and perfected, at home everywhere just like the seaman, even though it ranges far and wide. Opposed is the poet or speaker, who is a stranger wherever he goes. We sense this isolation in Marlow as he recounts the life of the Thames throughout history, always an observer, and sits "like Budha."

Marlow and Seidl's speaker sit at that mediating, meditative point between simplicity and complexity which stirs, perplexes, even torments the observer. Seidl longs to be at home although he lacks the simplicity of the moon, and Marlow admires the simplicity of the simple seaman untouched by the "detestable incomprehensible."

Thinkers perhaps too often idolize intellect, insisting it is edifying and unifying and not isolating, but seeing the boundaries of the comprehensible makes, as Waugh wrote, "a tedious journey to the truth," a journey, "confused with knowledge and speculation." The faithful also too often, perhaps, pontificate about the joyful universality of the faith without emphasizing the peregrinate nature of the worldly journey. The invariable existential question–compare Seidl's moon to Camus' omnipresent, impotent sun in The Stranger–leads he who walks the path of perception or faith, to a tortuous, wandering journey through seeing and seeking the incomprehensible in the light of the simple.

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