Paddle Your Own Canoe Transcript

By Mark Sundaram

When you hear the term “Metaphor”, you may think of high school English classes and the many literary terms you had to memorise. But metaphor, the implied comparison of one thing with another, is a fundamental way of thinking about the world. We often make sense of the world around us by using metaphor. This is something we begin in infancy. When a baby spends hours putting a block in a box, taking it out, and repeating these actions endlessly, she is constructing a mental schema of “inside” and “outside”, of a container – a schema we later apply to the world around us. When we say we are “in trouble”,  we are conceiving of “trouble” as a container. This is a metaphor, a way of understanding some new, more complicated thing by comparing it to something we already know.

Large-scale cultural metaphors such as “the journey of life”, affect and are affected by our whole world view. Over time, the use of this metaphor in the Western world has changed, mirroring our changing cultural attitudes to our place in the world. What I want to explore in this video is the intriguing parallel between the literature of travel and exploration and the world views it reflects, and the development of sailing technology in Europe. Because the narrative metaphor of travel and exploration reflects cultural change from the ancient world to the modern, it often describes man’s relation to the world in which he lives— and I’m afraid that for most of the authors I’ll be speaking about it really is MAN’s relation to HIS world, so that’s the language I’ll use here. This narrative is symbolic of man’s place in the universe, and the use of this narrative metaphor changes over time to reflect different beliefs about man’s place in the world, as well as practical changes in the way we move through that world.

In the Odyssey, one of the oldest recorded travel narratives in western literature, we see human beings at the mercy of the elements and the gods. Odysseus and his crew are constantly driven about against their will by the elements. This reflects a common idea in Greek mythology that humans are at the mercy of capricious gods, which in turn reflected the usual Greek view of humanity’s place in the universe. And, crucially, this is entirely consistent with ancient sailing technology, because the ancients had square sails.

Now, the important thing about ships with square sails is that they are not very manoeuvrable. Essentially you go in the direction that the wind blows you. If the wind is blowing the wrong way, you’re out of luck, and you have to wait for a favourable wind. Sure, you have oars so that you can row, but that won’t take you very fast or very far. If a storm blows up, you use the oars to row quickly to shore if you can; and this in fact happens at one point in the Odyssey. Thus in ancient Greece sailors were at the mercy of the wind, and so we see a sense of helplessness in the Odyssey.

This connection between world view and the narrative of travel stands out when we look at what later writers did with the Homeric story of Odysseus. The same story has three different meanings for Homer, Dante, and Tennyson. Homer’s Odysseus is simply at the mercy of the gods. While he does take some interest in the things he sees along the way, his journey is not a product of his own will — in fact he’s very unhappy about it. His journey and his life are both determined by the Fates and the prophecies about what will happen to him. In the Greek mythological world, man can’t control his own fate. In the medieval text the Divine Comedy, in contrast, the great Italian poet Dante places Ulysses in hell, being punished for his arrogant exploration of the world beyond the boundaries of Greece. For Dante, Ulysses’ journey was an act of will — Dante hadn’t actually read Homer himself. From Dante’s Christian viewpoint willfulness was sinfulness, because man shouldn’t try to control his own fate, as that was up to God. And finally, for the 19th century English poet Tennyson, in his poem “Ulysses”, the hero’s journey is also an act of will, but it is more positive. Tennyson exalts his purposefulness and striving. In the poet’s view, Man should try to control his own fate. Thus for Homer, sailing out into the ocean is an action entirely subject to the capriciousness of the gods, for Dante, sailing out into the ocean is bad and Ulysses is placed in hell for it, but for Tennyson it is good and he is lionised for it.

Back-tracking to the middle ages for a moment, there was relatively little advance in sailing technology from the ancient world, and so we can see a similar metaphor used to describe the journey of life; however, the characterisation is different in the Christian world view. For instance, in the Old English elegies “The Wanderer” and “The Seafarer”, harsh exile is pictured in terms of a lonely journey in a boat, and the moral and religious implication of this exile/pilgrimage is that the Christian soul’s ultimate destination is back to God. God is the only goal to steer towards. Similarly, in the later middle ages, in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the Man of Law tells the story of Custance, who is set adrift at sea by her antagonists to get rid of her. She puts her faith in God: “In hym triste I, and in his mooder deere, / That is to me my seyl and eek my steere”. God is her sail and her rudder, her means of propulsion and steering. Again, this is a metaphor of the relationship between the Christian soul and God, and therefore of man’s place in the world. Though as in the ancient world, man does not control his fate, it is not a capricious god to whom he is subject, but one who is the best steersman because he alone can actually guide the ship correctly.

[In a parallel but slightly different culture of the time, the Vikings, known as great sailors in the earlier part of the middle ages, who really only had the square sail, cheated a bit by lowering one end of the sail to allow for greater manoeuverability. But for the most part they made do with very simple means and no sophisticated navigational equipment. They were often blown off course, and as described in the Vinland Sagas, it was often due to accident that they made discoveries such as Greenland and Vinland, in other words North America. Interestingly, there’s quite the mix of chance, fate, luck both good and bad, pagan  and Christian world view in the Vinland Sagas.

Things started to change in sailing technology in the late middle ages or early renaissance when the triangular lateen sail began to be used in Europe. The triangular sail works like a wing — high pressure on one side and low pressure on the other — and it allows a ship to sail almost directly into a headwind. By tacking in a zigzag pattern, ships can go in any direction and are no longer at the mercy of the wind, as long as there is at least some wind.

Ships also started using sternpost rudders rather than steering with an oar hanging off the right side (starboard, literally the steering side, as opposed to the left side called port which was the side towards the dock, also known as larboard or loading side). The stern mounted rudder made it possible to steer larger ships, and larger ships could carry more provisions, including most importantly fresh water. These combined with the old square sail (to take efficient advantage of favourable winds), as well as improvements to navigational technology allowed for real exploration to begin at the end of the middle ages and throughout the renaissance, kicking off the European age of discovery.

These advances are reflected in the imaginative literature of the period. This is the age of humanism, when the cultural focus shifted from the purely religious to the world of man. People began to define their place in the world in terms other than solely spiritual ones. The eighteenth century, for instance, is full of travel literature, like Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Gulliver goes out into the world ostensibly to discover things about other people and places, but in fact reveals to the reader much about his own country in the process. Mankind now defines itself through its exploration of the outside world, and especially through its ability to direct its own course in the world, though shipwreck is still a danger. This is a radical shift from the medieval seagoing metaphor as demonstrated most clearly in Chaucer’s Custance, who is really only defined by her relationship to God, and is completely unable to control her own journey. The humanist shift in cultural focus goes hand in hand with the seagoing technological shift.

With the 19th century we enter the modern era, in which the biggest technological advance in seafaring was the steam engine. Suddenly ships were no longer dependent on wind at all. Even if there wasn’t any wind, a steamship could still go. The technological progression of the square sail to the triangular sail is completed with the advent of the steam engine. This is dramatically demonstrated in Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, in which just such an incident happens. When the winds die down, the steam engines are fired up, and at one point Phileas Fogg nearly burns up the ship itself in an attempt to win his race against time. This is the ultimate expression of man’s desire to control his own fate. Fogg overcomes all obstacles thrown in his way in order to win the bet, and that includes the obstacles of the natural world and the elements. This reflects the Victorian elevation of man’s ability to control his world. In this world-view man has a special place in the world, he is at its pinnacle. He even seeks mastery over nature — nature is now something to be tamed or controlled. And it is in the late 19th century that science is really beginning to challenge religion, with the realisation that the geological age of the earth is vastly longer than the Bible accounts for, and Darwin’s evolutionary theory challenging the Biblical creation story. Victorian man did not adapt to his surroundings, he adapted the surroundings to suit himself, and this is subtly commented upon in Verne’s novel with the description of the British Empire which sought to impose its customs and organization (often unsuccessfully) upon the world. Furthermore, there is a shift from the age of exploration to the age of tourism. The world has been largely explored by Europeans, and Fogg is really more of a tourist than an explorer. Because the world is now a much smaller place, man’s stature seems the larger. Instead of defining himself in relation to the world, man redefines the world in his own image.

At the dawn of the 20th century, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness stands out as the most striking example of the travel and exploration metaphor. Now, instead of a journey outwards, it is a journey inwards. Instead of defining his place in the world, man is defining himself. Man’s relationship with his world becomes his relationship with his own inner psyche. Since sailing technology is no longer a limiting factor, the metaphor takes a new direction. Man’s attempt to control nature and the world around him becomes his attempt to control human nature and the world within him. But his sense of control is an illusion since he has no real self-control. Now well into the 21st century, we continue to grapple with abstract concepts using concrete metaphors, but yet again the metaphor is in the process of being redefined for a new era which is notably self-referential and solipsistic.

The story I’ve just summarized follows the transformation of the travel metaphor as enacted in the literature and lives of mostly men, only through the European world, and only into the 20th century. I’d love to find examples of this connection in women’s lives, in other cultures – how is life like a canoe trip? – or from more recent times – do we now write stories in which life is like a transatlantic flight, or an actual flight into space? Let me know what you think in the comments, or tweet me at @alliterative.

And so I leave you with this little bit of obscure though apropos verse:

Leave to Heaven, in humble trust,
All you will to do:
But if succeed, you must
Paddle your own canoe.
(Paddle Your Own Canoe - Sarah Bolton, 1853)