Thinking back on a great weekend in the van de Velde room, I’m going to report a version of my westbound flight ruminations and espirit d’avion. Trying to process the whole range of shipwreck representations we looked at, from early Buddhist images to post-modern narratives and contemporary art, I want to hazard a theory about two discursive modes in presenting shipwreck, the wet and the dry.
Wet narratives present disorder, disorientation, rupture, chaotic and variable experiences in which the usual ways of doing things get broken or fragmented. I think of the sailors in “The Wreck of the Amsterdam,” especially those in the water, and Emma’s “potentiality of failure” in her readings of Ader and Dean. Also a haunting sentence in Sarah’s talk on Buddhist narratives that I don’t have a good source for: “we don’t know the fruits of our deeds.” The lines from Verne that Stephen quoted, which I also have to track down, describe a “wet” revision of the old story of looking at a wreck. I also might add the instants of immersion in the early modern stories Joe & I each explored.
Against these immersion tales, we also heard about a powerful generic infrastructure of “dry narration,” which attempts to make sense and meaning out of shipwreck. Lucretius’s “shipwreck with spectator” paradigm, as several of us noted via Blumenberg, uses shipwreck to emphasize the stabilty created by watching (reading, viewing) wrecks. In Blumenberg’s words, which mesh nicely with my reading of Pet and Thacher, “shipwreck is a didactic drama staged by Providence.” Beyond the religious frames, Christian for the early modern panel & Buddhist for Sarah, this “drying out” of shipwreck and deriving of lasting meanings from it assumes a variety of other forms: literary canon-formation (Ranja), imperial or popular identities (Carl, Kirsty), American masculinity (Robin), Cold War nationalism (submarines), etc.
My take-away from this perhaps too schematic summary might be that the wet-dry tension works as continuum rather than binary, that even the most doctrinaire sermonized version of a shipwreck narrative has at its core the “wet’ experience of radical disorientation and exclusion, even if temporarily, from dry earth. I suppose that’s what I meant by thinking about shipwreck as a response to and representation of radical cultural change. Perhaps also we can trace a historical shift from narratives that cling to “dry” visions like so many spars, in the religious narratives that we explored, and those that revel in the wet for its own sake, like Ader’s conceptual art or perhaps some of the paintings (which have a different attitude toward narrative progress than stories do). Though I’d also say that even an avowed explorer of the fragmentary and incomplete like Ader (or Life of Pi, perhaps) still posits, at least on the imaginary or unreachable level, a “dry” or “miraculous” counterforce, a hoped-for order glimpsed through and also beyond immersion. And the more overtly religious narratives, even Herbert, also invoke the frisson of inhuman chaos.
I might have more to say about Life of Pi, since I like it more than Michael does (though this side of idolatry, still). I certainly take his point about the hash Martel makes out of his many acknowledged and unacknowledged sources. But I wonder — surely one challenge for any shipwreck writer in the past few millennia is that these tales are so thoroughly already-written? The Booker committee may have praised Pi, foolishly, for originality, but surely we needn’t judge by such criteria? I wonder if the awkward but emphatically open structure of the novel’s ending(s), for me the weakest parts of the book, might be attempts to keep the novel inside the “wet” world of shipwreck, rather than succumb to the drying out of narrative closure?