Winslow Homer

The Gulf Stream, 1899, Oil on canvas, 71.5 x 124.8cm (28.15” x 49.13”), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

The great themes are usually held to be Man vs Man, Man vs Himself, and Man vs Nature (or God). All fables, jokes, stories, sagas, myths, etc. are variations on these three themes. Of these three, the first two are more common, and have had changes wrung from them almost daily since long before that other Homer led us to Ilium. Because of our familiarity with these themes and their countless variations we modern folk are in some ways reduced in how we react to each other. People are more likely to talk in patterns and styles learned from television and movies, they are more likely to select a fictional character for role model than someone real who is perhaps more worthy. Whether this is good or bad is irrelevant. I bring it up only to point out that these first two themes have substantially changed over time, and have changed us in the bargain.

But the third theme remains as it has ever been. Somewhere in the dim distant past humanity declared a kind of contest against the earth or its creator, if you wish. Set us the impassable desert? We will find a way to cross. Unconquerable mountain? Just you wait. An eternity of seas? We will dare them, and live upon them.

I once served aboard the USS Vesole, a destroyer, what salts call a “tin can.” These are small ships that get tossed around pretty well in heavy seas. If you’ve never been in the pitch dark, on a bucking, surging ship with waves above your head, the ocean constantly overlapping the freeboard while you run up and down ladders with nothing between you and eternity but a slick cable less than half an inch thick that you have to hang on to because it is attached to the ship, not to you, and if you let go you will be swept away and that will be the end of that: well, if you haven’t done that then you may well not know what it is like to be terrified and exalted all at the same time. That is how so many sailors can love the thing which tries to kill them.

The sea attracted Homer the same way. As a New Englander, he was predisposed to love and respect her. Homer painted many, many scenes of ordinary life, but his sea pictures are my favorites by far. The Gulf Stream was painted toward the end of his life, at the peak of his maturity. He believed it his best work, and asked the astonishing (for the time) price of four grand for it. The market wasn’t having it. The picture was too grim for the modern sensibilities. So he went back into the painting and gave us the gauzy silhouette of the ship in the distance which implies at least a small measure of hope for our sailor.

After the Hurricane, 1899, Watercolor, 38 x 54cm (15” x 21.25”), Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago

Now, it is possible this second painting is connected in some way to the first. It is a watercolor rather than an oil, and Homer often experimented in watercolor for ideas he would pursue later in oils. Is this our same sailor, who has somehow miraculously survived his ordeal? Is he sleeping or is he dead? We only know for sure that he is from the water.

We are from the water. We are born in fluid, we are drawn to flow. Systems of rills to creeks to streams to rivers are the circulatory system of the earth. They permit our travel across great distances. We harness them for power. We exhaust them for sustenance. Water is the one thing on this planet which, without, we could not be. And when we are at sea, alert and astraddle of her back we sense the life of the earth itself for the sea moves and writhes and sparkles with lives we still, to this day, have never beheld. So vast is the life in the ocean we have a special word to suggest its infinity: the nekton. This sailor in the Gulf Stream has seen his boat destroyed, its mast snapped like straw and the sail and mast swept away. He is surrounded by waves surging with the menace of maddened sharks. In the distance we mark the awesome watery tread of the hurricane bearing down to add to his burden. Our sailor is alone, almost naked. He seems composed, unafraid. He has nothing except those stalks of sugar cane which have somehow survived when all else is gone.

“Bring it on,” he seems to say. “Is that all you got, God? Then bring it on. And I will sit here and wait, and I will chew the raw strong liquor from this cane while you work up to do your worst.”

The sea inspires that kind of reckless daring, that in-your-face gesture. Diana Nyad at the age of 61 just tried to swim from Cuba to Florida. She knows what our sailor feels. Yeah, she didn’t make it, but she gave it a hell of a try. The sea won; it always wins. Well, of course it does; look how big it is.

We forget, sometimes, that we have greatness in us. We accept the belittling which our cultures, our technologies, our leaders sell twenty-four hours a day in hope that we will sit quietly and consent to having life done to us.  We forget that we do not have to accept the ordinary just because someone somewhere decided that is all they want to offer. We can choose more. We can try to do more. And if we fail? How could we not? Look how big it all is.

It only took God and the entire ocean 29 hours to make a 61 year old woman with asthma give up. Get that lady some sugar cane.

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