“Perhaps there is nothing which offers to the eye and the mind a more complete and more sorrowful representation of the world than the sea. In the first place, it is a picture of force in its wildest and most unconquerable form; it is a display, a luxury of power, of which nothing else can give an idea; and it lives, moves, tosses, everlastingly without aim. Sometimes we might say that the sea is animated, that it palpitates and breathes, that it is an immense heart, whose powerful and tumultuous heaving we see; but what makes us despair here is that all this effort, this ardent life, is spent to no purpose. This heart of the world beats without hope; from all this rocking, all this collision of the waves, there results only a little foam stripped off by the wind.
I remember that, sitting on the beach once, I watched the serried waves rolling towards me. They came without interruption from the expanse of the sea, roaring and white. Behind the one dying at my feet I noticed another; and further behind that one, another; and further still, another and another – a multitude. At last, as far as I could see, the whole horizon seemed to rise and roll on towards me. There was a reservoir of infinite, inexhaustible forces there. How deeply I felt the impotency of man to arrest the effort of that whole ocean in movement! A dike might break one of these waves; it could break hundreds and thousands of them; but would not the immense and indefatigable ocean gain the victory?
The ocean neither works nor produces; it moves. It does not give life; it contains it, or rather it gives and takes it with the same indifference. It is the grand, eternal cradle rocking its creatures. If we look down into its fathoms, we see its swarming life. There is not one of its drops of water which does not hold living creatures, and all fight one another, persecute one another, avoid and devour one another… The ocean itself gives us the spectacle of a war, a struggle without truce… And yet this tempest of the water is but the continuation, the consequence, of the tempest of the air; is it not the shudder of the winds which communicates itself to the sea?
There is nothing which is not carried away by the whirlpool of cosmic existence. Earth itself, man, human intelligence, nothing can offer us anything fixed to which it would be possible to hold on – all these are swept away in slower, but not less irresistible, undulations…
* * * * *
Let us imagine a ship in a storm, rising and falling by a series of curves… If at one moment of the passage the descending curve bears the ship down, and she does not rise again, it would be a sign that she is sinking deeper and deeper, and beginning to founder. Even so is it with life, tossed about on waves of pleasure and of pain: if one marks these undulations with lines, and if the line of pain lengthens more than the other, it means that we are going down. Life, in order to exist, needs to be a perpetual victory of pleasure over pain.”
JEAN-MARIE GUYAU (1854-1888)
French philosopher and poet
Esquisse d’une morale
sans obligation ni sanction
Originally published in 1884.
Quoted from the English translation,
by Gertrude Kapteyn. London, 1898.
Chapter I. Pgs. 42 – 35.
“La Mer”, by Claude Debussy (1862-1918)