Do you mind if I talk for a while about something I love; about water and the ocean? Ever since I can remember anything at all, the light, the smell, the sound and motion of the sea has been pure magic. Even the mere intimation of its presence: gulls flying a little way inland, the quality of light in the sky beyond hills which screen it from view, the lowing of foghorns in the night. If ever I have to get away from it all and, in the words of a Chinese poet, “wash all the wrongs of life from my pores,” there’s simply nothing better than to climb out onto a rock and sit for hours with nothing in sight but sea and sky.
Although the rhythm of the waves beats a kind of time, it’s not clock or calendar time. It has no urgency. It’s timeless time. Because I know I’m listening to a rhythm which has been just the same for millions of years. And it takes you out of the world of relentlessly ticking clocks. Clocks, for some reason or other, always seem to be marching, and armies never march to anything but doom. But there’s no marching rhythm in the motion of waves. It harmonizes with the breath. It does not count our days. Its pulse is not in the stingy spirit of measuring, of marking out how much still remains. It’s the breathing of eternity, like the Brahmā of Indian mythology, who inhales and exhales, manifests and dissolves the worlds endlessly, for ever. As a mere conception, that sounds appalling and monotonous—until you listen to the breaking and washing of waves.
Just in the past few weeks I’ve come to live right on the edge of the water. I have a studio, library, and place for writing in an old ferryboat tied up on the waterfront of Sausalito, north of San Francisco—I suppose the nearest thing in America to a Mediterranean fishing village: steep hills clustered with little houses, and below, along the rim of the bay, the forest of masts rocking almost imperceptibly against a background of water and wooded promontories. In some ways it’s rather a messy waterfront: not just piers and boats, but junkyards, industrial buildings, and all the inevitable litter-ature of our culture. But somehow, the land and seascape absorbs and pacifies the mess. Sheds and shacks thrown together out of old timbers and plywood, heaps of disused lumber, rusted machinery, and rotting hulls. All of this is transformed in the beneficent presence of the sea.
Perhaps it’s the quality of the light, especially early in the morning and towards the evening, when the distinction of sky and water becomes uncertain, when the whole of space becomes opalescent; the sort of pearly, luminous grey, and the rising or setting moon is straw yellow. In this light, all the rambling mess of sheds and junkyards is magical, blessed with the white cries of gulls, and with the patterns of masts and ropes and boats at anchor which put me in mind of landfalls a long way away, and of all the voyages of which one has dreamed.
I look out now as I talk to you across a wide space of nothing but water and birds ending in a line of green slopes with clumps of trees. Right over the edge of the boat the water contains, seemingly, just under the surface, a ceaselessly moving network of reflected sunlight through which a school of very tiny fish passes delightfully uncaught. And yet, only a few yards from where we are moored, tackle shops sell the marvelous salmon and crabs with which this particular area abounds.
This is the paradox of the ocean. Sand, flying spray, pebbles and shells, driftwood, sparkling water, space incredibly luminous, with cloud banks along horizons underlying skies into which one’s imagination can reach forever. But under the surface of both sky and water there’s the grim business of preying. Men and birds against fish, fish against fish. The torturous process of life continuing by the painful transformation of one form into another. To creatures who don’t anticipate and reflect imaginatively upon this holocaust of eating and being eaten, it’s perhaps not so terrible. But poor man. Skillful beyond all other animals by being able to think in time and knowing the future, he dies before he’s dead, he shrinks from the shark’s teeth before they bite him, he dreads the alien germ long, long before it’s banquet begins.
Here is a gull that has picked a crab from a tide pool. Sprawled now upon the sand, the crab shrinks from the walls of its shell, resounding to the tap-tap-tap of the gull’s beak. Who’s that knocking at my door? I suppose the shell of the crab, the clam, or the mussel is the boundary of its universe. To put ourselves in their position we should have to imagine a knocking sound, louder and louder, that doesn’t come from anywhere in particular—from the door, or the walls, or the ceiling, or the floor. Think of a knocking that comes from everywhere, that beats against the boundaries of space and consciousness, that comes as the intrusion of an utterly unknown dimension into our own familiar world. Let me in! Let me in! I love you so much I could eat you! I love you to the very core—especially the soft, juicy parts; the vitals most tender and alive. Surrender to this agony and you will be transformed into me. Dying to yourself, you will become alive as me. We shall all be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, on the morning when the last trumpet sounds. For behold, I am he that stands at the door and knocks.
There’s no way of getting around it, is there? The gull isn’t rapacious or greedy. It’s just that his being alive at all is the same thing as eating crabs. Sea birds are transformations of fish. Men are transformations of wheat, chickens, and steers. And a love for the food is the agony of the food. To object to this inseparability of pleasure and pain, life and death, is simply to object to existence. But, of course, we cannot help objecting when the time comes. Objecting to pain is pain. So far as we know, the gull and the fish don’t philosophize. They enjoy life when they’re eating it and hate it when being eaten. They don’t reflect on the process as a whole and say: “How rough it is that we have to work so hard for a living,” or, “It’s just hell having to watch out all the time for those gulls!” I’m sure that, in their world, this is something that just goes along with life, like having eyes or feet.
But man, with his astonishing ability to stand aside from himself and think about himself—in short, to comment on life—man has done something which confuses his own existence down to its roots. For the more sensitive he is, the more man finds the very act of living in conflict with his moral conscience. Upon reflection, a universe so arranged that there is no way of living except by destroying other lives seems to be a hideous mistake; not a divine, but a devilish creation. Of course, there’s the myth that once upon a time things were quite otherwise, that there was no death, that the lion lay down with the lamb. But that, since then, there’s been a fall, a vast error, which has corrupted the whole of nature. All that must’ve been eons ago, perhaps in some other galaxy, where the conditions of life were quite different.
Or perhaps the ghastly mistake was just that step in man’s evolution which made it possible for him to comment, to reflect upon life as a whole. In being able to stand aside from life and think about it, he put himself outside it and found it alien. Perhaps thinking about the world and objecting to its whole principle are simply two aspects of the same mechanism. The very words suggest, don’t they: perhaps we must object to everything that becomes an object. But aren’t there also times when we speak of something that we know as a subject—the subject of this book, the subject I am now studying? Would it be possible to subject to life instead of objecting to it? Is this playing with words, or does it possibly mean something? Now, if the gulls and the fish don’t philosophize, they have no consciousness of life being either good as a whole or bad as a whole. So when we philosophize and pity the poor fish, that’s just our problem. From its own standpoint, the world of animals and insects doesn’t find itself problematic at all. There’s not the slightest evidence to suggest it. On the contrary. I’m inclined to feel that all these creatures really swing and go on living up to the very moment when the game is no longer worth the candle. I’m quite sure they don’t lecture each other about their duties or worry about where they’re going when they’re dead.
Isn’t it, then, rather an enormous relief for us men to see that the plant and animal world is no problem to itself, and that we are wasting intellectual energy in making moral judgments about it? But of course we can’t return to the unreflective consciousness of the animal world without becoming animals. To be human is precisely to have that extra circuit of consciousness which enables us to know that we know, and thus to take an attitude to all that we experience. The mistake that we’ve made—and this, if anything, is the fall of man—is to suppose that that extra circuit, that ability to take an attitude to life as a whole, is the same as actually standing aside and being separate from what we see. We seem to feel that the thing which knows that it knows is one’s essential self. That, in other words, our personal identity is entirely on the side of the commentator. We forget that self-consciousness is simply a subordinate part and instrument of our being; a sort of mental counterpart to the finger-thumb opposition of the human hand.
And which is you, the finger or the thumb? Look at the stages of differentiation. First: the organism from its environment—and with this, knowledge of the environment. Second: the distinction of knowing knowledge from knowledge itself. But all this, like the finger-thumb opposition, is a difference which does not divide. The thumb isn’t floating in the air alongside the rest of the hand. At their roots they’re joined. And at our roots we are joined to the whole subject of nature. Of course, you may say that nature or the universe is just a big abstraction. But tell me: is an orange just an abstraction from its component molecules?
I think our difficulty is that our consciousness is too superficial, as if all our sensation were in the tips of the fingers and not in the palm. Our comments on life are insufficiently balanced by the clear sensation that what we are talking about as ourselves, and ourselves in a sense far more basic and real than that extra circuit which knows knowing. Are we misled by the fact that we move freely on the Earth and aren’t rooted to it in the same way as trees to the ground and fingers to the hand? Were we as spatially distant from the Earth as one atom of an orange from another, I suppose we should be somewhere out by the Moon.
Now, we know that the atom, molecule, cell, or subordinate organ of any particular organism is what it is by virtue of its place and its membership in the pattern of the whole. Blood in a test tube is rapidly ceasing to be the same thing as blood in veins. In the same way, man must beware, lest in cutting himself off psychically from the world that he sees, and so isolating the subject from the object, lest in doing this he rapidly ceases to be man.
So I think this is why I love the ocean. It’s the most difficult part of nature to mess up with emblems and symptoms of man’s dissociated consciousness. It’s an environment in which the awareness of our roots can awaken, in which space (so real because of the light and color) can be seen to be joining things instead of separating them. Yes. And I’ve just discovered that that knocking on the wall of space and consciousness was my own heart beating.