Sailing to the fictive past.

I’ve been reading The Age of Bede as part of my commitment to reading more books to feed my work. I am particularly interested by the voyage of st. Brendan (anonymous author) a partly historical but mostly fictional account of a sixth century monk’s voyage by boat to search for Eden.

I will no doubt write more on this in time, but for now I want to briefly record some thoughts.

St. Brendan was a real figure, who really made a boat and really sailed off to search for holy and undiscovered islands beyond the edge of the known world. Some like to imagine that he got as far as America. In the seventies someone even attempted and succeeded the voyage in a similar vessel to that described in the story (expect to see more about that popping up). But cooler heads think that though he probably reached Iceland and perhaps A little further, he probably spent most of that trip island hopping the outer Hebrides.

In the story however he found the edge of hell, talking animals, and landed on an island that turned out to be the back of a giant fish. The story is embellished like a Terry Gilliam movie. It is almost impossible to pull fact from fiction, and yet it is the fiction that makes the story so compelling. The fictional elements are also allegorical, they are an earnest attempt by an unknown author to use the voyage to tell us something true about ourselves.

I love that he was reaching for Eden. He was using a boat to try and reach back, back through time, to tame the chaos of the sea, to circumnavigate the abyss of humanness and find some imagined purity that lay at Eden. Eden is the past, it’s our past – at least it was for him.

I recognise that impulse; the desire to discover ourselves by reaching out and reaching back. It was the central point of my novel. Spoiler alert for vessel and the story of Noah in Genesis, skip to the next paragraph if you want to avoid them… In the story of Noah there is this underreported scene in which after the flood Noah gets drunk and ends up passed out naked in his tent, his son Ham walks in on him laughs, and doesn’t cover his father. It’s a really odd scene which results in Ham being cursed by Noah. For what, for laughing? It always seemed to me that there was more at play there, something else is going on. Perhaps the sight of his father’s equipment is about Ham seeing his origin. Here is this family in a newly cleaned world following the word of a divine spirit, and Ham is suddenly presented with an image of the world that is material and mechanical and makes mockery of the whole idea that they’ve left their past. What he sees is not just his fathers penis but a connection to the old world that cannot be escaped because it’s in us all. We are it’s boat. In the novel – at least – this realisation is a thread back to an imagined past he’d been searching for.

Brendan searched for Eden, Ham searched for his origin and a way back before the flood, in my boats I am also looking for a way back. I’ve been sure that I want to make reference to various traditional techniques, imagining that thereby I might be able to connect to some thread of human history and find truth or meaning in it. I’ve been looking at welsh coracles, Native American canoes, Polynesian dug outs. I’ve been seeing my boats as a way to reach back and embody some of our history as a species that has succeeded in part because we decided to build boats and spread. Surviving ice ages and populating the world because the technology of boats. But at the same time I’ve been worried that doing so would be an exercise in cultural appropriation, because can I really ever be reconnected with that past, can I claim to be? And the past I’m reaching to, I know it is as much imagined as real.

Is the whole endeavour meaningless? it’s got to be. It’s a folly as great as searching for paradise by sailing into the Atlantic. It’s a fiction, but then the fiction is driving me to make things, which in turn is generating meaning and a kind of truth.

It’s Like Noah, some religious folk are really invested in telling you that Noah’s ark really happened and it happened exactly like the bible tells it, which makes us all descendants of Noah’s sons. A rational mind would tell you there’s no way it could have happened, and if it did happen it couldn’t have been that way. And yet, what the story has to say about human endurance, about our origin and our nature; That is so true that I feel like a descendant of the story, it describes something about us that is true whether the events are fiction or not. The veracity of the history is second to truth generated in its telling.

When in my work I’m trying to make references to techiniques and practices past, when I am trying to embody a historical relationship to boats, I need to recognise and be comfortable that my attempts to reach back to the past may not be to a true past, but there is truth to be found there too. I make boats to attempt to know myself better, or illustrate something about who we are, yet maybe the most human and meaningful thing about the whole thing is the attempt itself.

It’s very late and I’m aware that last paragraph has drifted into a ramble. Are you still with me? My boats will be expressly for wandering, it is the truest and most human thing I know, and in the firm belief that in that wandering we will discover something true.

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