July 11, 2007

Scip-gefere: Paddle your own canoe (part III)

(This is a continuation of these two posts.)

Though Gulliver can sail anywhere in the world, sailing is still a risky business and he is frequently stranded. Both Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and the outer frame narrative of Walton’s arctic exploration in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein sound a note of danger in unbridled exploration. This is perhaps somewhat comparable to Dante’s perspective of Ulysses. While mankind is more and more able to govern his own destiny, there are some things he shouldn’t meddle with. If the sea voyage is a metaphor for man’s place in the world and man’s relationship with God, then trying to control your own destiny rather than following God’s guidance is a problem.

With the 19th century we enter the modern era, and the biggest technological advance which changed seagoing 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 is reflected of 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 sought to have mastery over nature — nature was 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 challenges the Biblical creation story. The 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 an age of tourism. The world has been largely explored by Europeans, and Fogg is really more of a tourist than an explorer. The world is a much smaller place, and this makes man’s stature seem 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. But 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. 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. Yet again the metaphor is redefined for a new era which is so self-referential and solipsistic.

And so I leave you with this little bit of obscure though apropos verse which explains the post-colonic part of the title:

Leave to Heaven, in humble trust,
All you will to do:
But if you would succeed, you must
Paddle your own canoe.
Posted by Mark at July 11, 2007 07:28 PM | TrackBack

This discussion reminds me of something that I read by C.S. Lewis. He noted that SF essentially takes the travel narrative one step further—you can’t be an explorer on earth any more, but you can still go off-world.

Posted by: Andrew R. at July 14, 2007 11:55 AM