The Beethoven Conspiracy

The crows have the runs. They drop an astonishing amount of blackberry-colored crap onto Old Hand’s deck from their perch in the spreaders. Ah, late Summer.

In Admiral Smythe’s  Sailor’s Word Book,  I see a familiar term: Plot: 1. To plan a chart of a ships course. 2. To plan the action of a story. 3. A conspiracy.  All these definitions are relevant to our theme.

I go over logs from past voyages and listen to music in the wheelhouse.  I hear, in Beethoven’s dramatic strains, diagonal sheets of sound driven by the cymbal-crash of lightening before they subside into the ominous roiling calm of deep, umber bass tones.

Course plotting is an arcane, hierophanic science mariner’s employ to secure a favorable a passage through the bewildering eddies of chance.  Hardheaded pragmatists as well as the most mercurial romantics have long practiced this art in their attempt to weather shoaling capes, negotiate vertiginous maelstroms of myth and meaning or navigate the harrowing straits between literal and figurative truth.

Shorebirds flute over Beethoven’s sibilant stream on bright updraughts of yellow horns.   Shades  of tympanic gloom rumble on the blood-red horizon.  These are the same tortured, lyric phrasings of Conradian darkness; of swelling narratives built up in the long fetch from imaginal, Austral seas. They are stories of death, resurrection and inspired vision.  

    I turn back to the Canadian current atlas.                Let’s see, if I set out from Port Townsend midway through the ebb I should make Cattle Pass by…

“Have ye reckoned for the easterly set of flood beyond Smith Island?”

The voice carries over the anchorage as if down from the dark, oaken halls of time; as if it’s rich baritone had been seasoned by long watches over Arctic wastes.  I squint through the wheelhouse windows to see, outlined against the dusky red glare, the shadowy form of a man in a long, black watch-coat and tattered top hat clutching a lee shroud in one hand and a smoldering pipe in the other.   He seems a vestige of the age of working sail, as if all the hard-won wisdom gained in man’s endless toil on the sea were pithily encoded in his melancholy aspect and stern admonitions.

“Have ye checked through-hull fittings? Ye don’t want to invite the whole Salish Sea aboard do ye?”

“Well I’ve been busy trying to…”

“Avast ye greenhorn! Jettison all the hackneyed claptrap of useless words and get to the point!”

I resent these rude intrusions upon my peaceful moorings and, in less charitable hours, wonder how McWhirr’s “gaunt form” would look hanging from Old Hand’s yard arm. He would probably make a good scarecrow.

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George Lakoff

George Lakoff has retired as Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. He is now Director of the Center for the Neural Mind & Society (cnms.berkeley.edu).

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