A SAILOR ON THE SEA OF THOUGHT
A Surreal Journey into Being
Herman Hesse, Steppenwolf
The sailor stood to the side of an old towering pine with its long, swooping, arm-like bough stretched out over the edge of the ravine. Below, a myriad of tiny sparks flashed along the snow-covered valley under the indescribably cold and luminous moon they reflected. He stood visibly motionless within a few steps from the incline dropping abruptly into the V gouged from the plain. This hollowed space formerly occupied by a glacier flowing from the northland under the force of its own weight startled him with its ghostly visions of antiquity.
Time flows without measure where nothing presses nor begs entry into senses absorbed in their own atmosphere. For him, time was a thing unraveling around the marrow, the core, the center of his being. He saw himself as a solitary man freed from the structure and the restrictions imposed by civilization.
Still, he thought himself a civil man. He thought himself a man with social cares those petty burdens that grow out of all proportion and comprehension until one suffers, or smothers helplessly, overwhelming even the desire to act out of social consciousness. The causes that saw him marching through the streets of protest were now beyond effective reach. And the decades, one into the other, grew vague and unrecognizable as they were absorbed into the millennium. All his heartfelt causes and his cries for social justice sank into the quicksand of oblivion without so much as a whimper of mourning from the silent majority gone mute in its struggle to preserve its declining status quo.
If midnight had given way to morning, he had no way of telling. Yet unknown to him, after what seemed an eternity of personal darkness, night was inching away in retreat while the coming dawn was gliding towards him not half a world away. The full globe of the moon spilled its ivory radiance into furrows along his forehead, cold sweating and ashen. With both hands reaching, the sailor turned the heavy collar of his pea coat down, gathered some tangled wet ribbons of hair at the nape of his neck and, with a cold shuddering shrug, wrung them into salty beads that fell from his fingertips into the starry winter's night.
Streaking wisps of dark cloud raced under the moon, leaving quickening shadows like impatient fingers, gray and ghostly, to touch the pine with a vacant caress before stealing into the valley below, gowned with the white purity of freshly fallen snow.
"Free," he said with a sigh upon the empty air as his arms flew heavenward and the palms of his hands opened wide and rigid against the bitter, cold and starry ceiling. Below, the valley plunged into shadow. The solitary man felt his life a cycle complete.
The four seasons gather themselves into a single year. One season alone could not be seen as the one beginning the cycle nor could it be seen as the one to complete it. For the sailor there were no words to describe the lifescape flowing through the senses with which he felt his journey through time; there was only the world he could see through the shadows of his veiled understanding and he absorbed it as it absorbed him.
There was a time when the man knew and recorded in the archives of history how years evolved and revolved upon years. There was a time when the man foresaw the season of his life when each season came round, in turn, with something more than vague moments of wistful reminiscence. One revolution and the wheel had stopped. There was only now to evolve in the dead calm of his being, and the moment just ahead was forever out of reach. Ah, winter! However elemental its nature, he thought, winter has its own kind of life that blossoms with a sharp and crystalline plumage.
Spring and summer were lost to recall. Autumn had come with unrecognized warning. Certainly, it had come too quickly. His distant and abstracted gaze reflected winter itself upon the air where brittle sabers of ice grew piercingly sharp in the glare of day and deadly hard in the chill of night. The sailor felt himself no longer resilient to the ongoing flux of life and far too cold to melt the hardened heart through any sort of human communion; a frozen fortress given to shatter into countless splinters of nonexistence. Surely, the approaching dawn would end his long night watch and brighten the breadth within his vision and give him something more to conjure than the fractured images of his own self-negation. Surely, dawn would come to transport him from out himself and into horizons unshackled by his own false impressions of reality.
There was a faint glimmer of hope as he wondered if spring would come round once more for him, or would it be another man with another name and without any memory of his ever having been? Oh, the thought of it! The transmigrating thought of it! Nothing remaining of an individual existence except a document or two, a contract, perhaps, bearing his signature and stored somewhere among the many mold and dust covered stacks overseen by the computerized arm of an incorporated society. There his signature may be found hastily scrawled upon a letter of agreement, or some other long forgotten transaction. Somewhere his name may yet survive though little or nothing more. And only for a time would his name remain until that too would vanish along with the memories one may have had, or only imagined, of him. What did it matter now? In an organic reality all transmutes and perishes.
A true and steady wind caught the sails of his Being and the sailor caught sight of the force that moves the great wheel as the eyes of his reason turned upon their own reflection. From out the dark waters of his mind memories began to surface. And then he was sailing across the infinite . . .
Something in his consciousness suddenly caught the sailors attention. It was the sound of his breathing. He quickly gulped and swallowed as much air as he possibly could before slowly exhaling into the world outside. He felt the warm plush grass beneath the palms of his hands and he raised his head heavenward and heard himself question: Is there God?
The sailor sat in New York's Central Park under a mulberry tree on the western knoll just off the Seventh Avenue entrance. The sound of a horse's gallop caught his attention. Looking up, he saw the horse, tan and speckled, pulling a red carriage driven by a handsome, blond, curly haired youth with a red bandanna tied closely around his neck. The young man passed through the space opened among the low-limbed branches bobbing in the breeze. The animal-scent of him heady and sensuous traveled on the dense perfumed air and found its way to the sailor as reminiscent of the fragrance of one long forgotten, while yet still the redolent ghost lingers bitter-sweetly in an empty space vacated by . . . whom a lover? Another sailor, perhaps, whose kiss is interred with his bones?
A quiet, plaintive, wistful moaning exploded and the morning burst into particles of arrested activity. There seemed a totality an absolute and organic unity to those moments of life for which he felt himself the connecting medium. He knew himself in those brief moments as the center and the pivot upon which the planes of his consciousness revolved and evolved. He perceived a serene and silent void as if in the eye of a phantom hurricane. He sat unmoved and vowed to remain thus, in that heightened state of inertia, for fear of unnecessarily risking his being hurled into the centrifugal pull of the world spinning without. A withdrawal into nothingness was, for him, a safe haven from chaos.
A woman moved now through the opened space that broke with the sway of the branches pushing a blue and white baby's carriage. There followed another horse and carriage closely behind. He remembered the young man with the red bandanna as moving to his left as he now watched the second carriage where an old man rode alone with his horse, bent forward as though leaning into himself, while holding loosely, almost carelessly, the worn leather reins as he moved to the right of the sailor, bringing once again the city into Central Park.
Auto sounds, street sounds, city sounds! Wheezing skateboards! Screaming rollerblades! A husky black-island voice. The taut shrill exchange of urgent information between two girls prancing by, scuffing clip-clap-dragging sounds of their wooden heels. Shrieking voices tearing at his consciousness! Children shouting! Demanding insistence! Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! Streams of child-like cries clutching and grabbing for somebody's attention anybody's goddamnit! I'm alone in here! Listen. Mothers whining. Whistles blowing. Boom box booming! Boomba! Boomba! Boomba! Tires grinding. A car's horn. Another, another, another! Sirens. More and more sirens! Closer and louder and louder and closer! An endless chain of intrusions. The song of restless urbanity. Then, the steady steps of galloping hoofs against black pavement. How sad to be a horse, the sailor said to himself, in the middle of New York City.
A leaf fell and the sailor felt himself fall with it. There came the sudden shock of insight into his falling from grace, as if lightning had struck the fortification of his will, leaving him open to forces beyond his conscious understanding. He knew in the instant of happening that there was in the air a presence blowing through him as wind through a crack in a wall.
"See it, sailor?"
He turned in all directions, searching, seeking out form to the sound of the presence, and finding no one. The voice rose on the air about him, "On that branch!" And as sure as the speed of thought he knew the branch.
Directed through instinct, the bidding of the ancients, or by God Himself, the sailor shot his attention precisely to where a white dove blinked its eyes two yellow sparks flashed out before diving into the cloudless blue.
"Now flow," was his understanding of the specter's wordless command.
The command and the quick snap of his neck twisting, throwing his attention outward along the line of a great arc, were joined in complete concurrence. Without audible instruction, he now continued to cast his attention from one spot to another. He did this with incredible speed and oftentimes twisted his neck to such a degree that his chin would touch the backside of either shoulder, causing a fearful snapping sound from tendons never before exercised. The sailor became an archer, shooting forth invisible fiber upon which was flung his attentive gaze. The gentle curve that bowed the unseen path led him every time into the eyes of passing strangers. It felt miraculous.
In the pause of watchful contact with unknown pedestrians something was traded. He knew not what nor did he think to question or to weigh the gain or the loss in the wordless bargaining. At that moment, the thrill of the exchange was enough. In that moment, he was eternal. It was a moment awake in sleep, sailing from out the dreamer upon the sea called Now; flowing with the tide no man could ever alter. He felt himself swept into the pulse of a great cosmic dance, changing partners with a glance and growing giddy from having drunk the wondrous wine of wide-eyed strangers.
A plump cinnamon-black girl giggled under the weight of her hulking ruddy-white lover at a nearby tree. How dare she interrupt the moment the magic! The sailor threw her a hateful look which she caught in a flash, then bounced a glaring reflection back at him from off the tired, ancient eyes of a derelict rummaging through the overflow around a green litter barrel. Several times she shifted his attention with a glance from him to the derelict old man and then back again to himself until, finally, she rolled from under the embracing bulk of her lover, snatched her sandals and a magazine from the ground in one clean swooping motion before running barefooted towards 59th Street with her lover, sexually aroused and fully erect, playfully teasing in lip-smacking pursuit while the derelict remained behind and continued his hunt.
The sagging suit that hung in filth-stiffened folds like the deflated skin of a dingy-gray balloon reflected an unbearable quality to the derelict's squalor. Ah, the scavenger! The hunter! The old man had found something! And, he quickly stuffed it into a shopping bag, already crammed full with unthinkable treasures, before anyone could see what it was he had found, he grunted then briskly disappeared into the morning shadows and the thick, green foliage of Central Park.
The sailor sprang to his feet and, with the deliberate manner of one determined with great urgency of stride set out from under the shroud of leaves and shadows. Something happened. Oh, the thought of it! The transmigrating thought of it!
A pine in the winter wilderness, in the solitude of his soul, watched in silent communion the unblinking disks of dilation darkening in the sailor's eyes as he passed into the clearing that was Columbus Circle. He moved with a strange, preposterous animation. From somewhere deep within the sailor came the savage beat of a drum and the primordial chant: Bring down the sun! Bring down the sun! Bring down the sun!
The force that had seized the sailor guided and moved him onwards beyond the sense of personage, beyond the common collective and into the event itself, elusive and nameless. The slightest attempt at bringing consciously to mind connections between himself and the event, succeeded only in an instantaneous collapse of the supporting medium: The cord that tied him to the presence formed without the presence itself having ever taken form. The sensations of here, now, this and that were non-existent. The advent of conscious thought dropped him into a petty awareness where he fell helplessly as at the end of a dream; falling as the weight of the world tumbled after him with threats of suffocation and absolute annihilation to the separate and unique point of view that he had struggled to possess. The world tumbled on and was now about to stake its claim and possess him to itself. Too much to accept! No, no, no! went the drum. Bring down the sun! came the chant.
The sailor emerged into a bath of yellow light flooding the crossroads joining Columbus Circle. Against the sounds of traffic, tourists, drug dealers "joints, nickel bags, blow" the rat-tat-tatting of the drummer-man beat out the rhythm of bygone days on cement while black hair dye streaked down his painted face. Among the growing rabble stood Christopher Columbus, sailor and Christ-bearer, frozen in time and in bronze, still and speechless, unable to rise above the din of concentrated humanity festering with the poison of decay, the body politic, an atom of Adam isolated in an organic universe.
These thoughts! These thoughts! The sailor cried against the towering skyscrapers, hovering, threatening to crash down upon him. And the sound of those thoughts so filled the sailor that he sank beneath the screaming towers crumbling around him and the chaos from the weight of their sound
. The drum began to pound and the drum was his heart. Bring down the sun! And the voice came from the sun itself.
The sailor ran down the steps leading into the dark tunnel that was the downtown express. The train squealed into the station and he was swept toward the twin towers of lower Manhattan. At the next stop a blind woman stepped into the subway car. As soon as the train began pulling away from the station she tapped the metal tip of her cane, rattled the few coins in her blue and white cardboard cup and moved down the aisle of the crowded train singing in a loud and brassy voice. First you say you will and then you won't. Again and again the refrain until she disappeared into the next car. Then you say you do and then you don't. Only the sardonic chuckle of the sailor remained on the train as he disembarked.
When he stepped back into the sun the universe evolved. The great wheel began to turn. Something took hold of every fiber of his being. Something poured into the V gouged from the plane of his soul his existence filling him until he became but a single entity of being with neither here nor there to separate the sailor from himself, nor himself from the universe. The seasons of time and space spun round and round within the fires of the sun held within his hands. It was a beautiful morning when the sailor died and was born, when the world came to an end and began and when God cried and laughed.