The Nemo Syndrome

I have occasionally written about Jules Verne’s epic novel Vingt Mille Lieues sous les Mers (Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea). Seeing the 1954 Walt Disney film with James Mason and Paul Luka was perhaps the greatest turning point in my life in the late 1960’s, a theme with many variations in my self-knowledge and relationship with the world of which I am an insignificant part. I was obsessed with this story for a few years, until I came to terms with the reality that building a submarine is an ambitious undertaking (English understatement). Also, did I really want to ram ships and kill people?

The late nineteenth century was a time of great optimism in human progress through technology and invention. The theme of the balance between this prowess and the quality of the human soul was one of the great themes of the Romantics and those who saw the storm clouds coming – which would lead to the hecatomb of World War I. As far as I see things, world war never ended. It simply metamorphosed into the dictatorships of the 1920’s and 30’s and finally the hidden and dark hearts of America, England and other countries with vast amounts of money owned by a small number of oligarchs. Oscar Wilde wrote on the Soul of Man under Socialism, socialism having been manipulated into another form of capitalism in the hands of the richest and most powerful.

It is very easy to blame everything and everyone else for one’s own feeling of alienation from the world. As the years passed by, my view of Nemo turned from seeing him as a hero to a fanatic contributing to the very forces that alienated him. He built the submarine Nautilus with one purpose: that of destroying warships and killing their crews. Secondarily, the ship was equipped with a luxury dwelling for Nemo and unrevealed conditions of life for his officers and crew. Arronax, Conseil and Ned Land seemed to have been reasonably housed in the 1954 film. Nemo’s crew would have been men who would have escaped from the “Gulag” with him. Verne seems to make his character appeal to the Romanticism in ourselves, our deepest yearnings, and then show the ugliness of human nature in anger, revenge and hatred. As Nemo influenced my own life, I have had to fight with these opposing forces of love of nature and the temptation to hate a world that represented something else, another interest, another view of life and the world. It is my “archetype” as Jung would have put it.

In my first contact with Verne’s novel, in the form (the 1954 film) to which I could relate as a small boy, I contrasted the dullness of conventional society, family and school, with their norms to observe and frequently absurd usages against the Sturm und Drang of the wild and unfettered human soul. Nemo had carved something pleasant for himself with the use of immense wealth and technology, the saloon with the pipe organ, the steam punk furnishings and the spirit of the age. Through the window in the side of the submarine, he would observe sea life without getting his feet wet!

The sea does not belong to dictators“, yet he was claiming it. “Only there is independence! There I pay homage to no masters! There I am free!” There is but a thin dividing line between the aspiration to transcendence and the selfishness of the psychopath. Did not Hitler have a love for art, nature and beauty? Yet he slaughtered millions. Our freedom ends with the beginning of the freedom and the rights of others – therefore conventions, laws, authorities, constraints. Freedom is spiritual as so beautifully expressed by Berdyaev.

In reality, freedom is aristocratic, not democratic. With sorrow we must recognize the fact that freedom is dear only to those men who think creatively. It is not very necessary to those who do not value thinking. In the so-called democracies, based on the principle of popular sovereignty, a considerable proportion of the people are those who have not yet become conscious of themselves as free beings, bearing within themselves the dignity of freedom. Education to freedom is something still ahead of us, and this will not be achieved in a hurry.

It would seem that our spiritual aspiration to transcendence is possible, but within certain conditions of our self-knowledge and our relationship with the Other that confers on us the quality of Person in the image of the Trinity. Captain Nemo could have built or bought a ship or even the submarine with the new type of propulsion system (electricity processed out of the sea, nuclear reactor, etc.). He had simply to turn his way of life into a philosophy for the betterment of mankind, no killing or judgement of the world beyond his own life and that of his companions. As the Gospel and fundamental human decency has always taught us, we don’t have the right to kill or render evil for evil – simply recognise evil for what it is, walk away from it and construct a new life built on good. Imagine if Verne would have built his character thus, but we all have our demons and shadows. This is part of both divinity and humanity. Like Frankenstein much earlier in the century, Verne’s novel is a parable, a warning.

I have struggled all my life between the desire for stability and being marginal and aloof from the absurdities. For many years, I have sought to live this balance by living in the countryside. I married with two conditions being made explicit: I would continue in my priestly calling in whatever form possible and I would not live in town. Finally, marriage with a woman with other expectations and values in this perspective is not possible, especially if she represents the values I have always eschewed, and obtains them through aggression and abuse. Had we had children, her way would have been the only way, and I would have had to accept life as a drone in the consumer society where money reigns supreme. There is something very strange about a world that favours psychopathy and the “dark side”.

Returning to the Nemo theme, there are people in this world who fear the consequences of unlimited human population growth, industrial exploitation and pollution, the spectre of societal collapse and the theme of the post-apocalypse film, nuclear war, pandemics. These threats are very real and have happened before. Society reflects the individual psychopath, the downward spiral to hell. We can’t fight all that, so the natural reaction is to flee and seek something beautiful and which confers meaning to our consciousness.

Some have been known to retreat to the woods to live off-grid life in yurts and micro-houses or caravans. Others collect guns, believing that they will be able to defend themselves when the chips are down against police forces of some kind of totalitarian regime, marauders or pirates. If that hypothesis became a reality, there would be a lot of desperate people around, like the thousands of young men pouring into Europe from the shit-holes of the world. Prepping has become an industry in America (to a lesser extent in Europe) and it seems to overrate man’s ability to survive the unsurvivable (nuclear holocaust for example). We will all die one day, and everything will depend on what we believe continues to subsist after the dissolution of the physical body. On the other hand, we have the survival instinct which is very powerful in us, as in all animals. In all conditions of life, we compete. In the Darwinian paradigm, might is right and only the strongest survive. Unfortunately, the strong are not the philosophers, Romantics and contemplatives, but psychopaths and those who have no qualms about killing and eliminating others for power and wealth.

Verne’s Nemo took to the sea, and this is an archetype that has attracted many of us. There are blogs written by men who live in boats, wandering the oceans or hunkering down in a port during the winter to earn a living in whatever way possible. It’s not difficult with an internet connection and a marketable skill. That pays the port rent, food and the maintenance of the boat. After that, we just have to ask ourselves what our purpose is, why we’re here, what God is calling us to be and do.

It is very easy for us to justify ourselves by blaming others, whilst we remain a part of the web of sin. Nemo sank ships, and the rest of us need money and something from the world that tires us increasingly. I have been reading an interesting blog by someone who has taken to living on a sailing yacht and is quite shocking in his judgement of the world, a real Nemo. He is obviously not sinking ships by ramming them with a solid iron bow spike but the judgements are quite hard, almost as if he needs something to justify himself. I wonder.

That we can decide on a life of self-reliance is a matter of our choice. There are always consequences of choices, and advantages and disadvantages to weigh up, so many questions to ask. Some of us are repulsed by many of the things of the modern world that pushed away the Romantics two hundred years ago: violence, injustice, ugliness, shallowness. The cris de coeur of Blake’s Jerusalem and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. If you are reading this, I wrote it on a computer and I have often expressed my fascination with science and technology. The important thing is humanity and our consciousness which must be able to use machines as tools to improve life, not obey them when they find ways to dominate us. It seems obvious to say that if mankind destroys this planet or renders it uninhabitable, a man at sea may have little chance to escape. Perhaps gaining a little time is everything.

Apocalyptic thinking can become the stuff of cults like the ones in which the guru and adepts killed each other or committed suicide – or Palmar de Troya, an ersatz Roman Catholicism à la sauce espagnol which I discussed a few days ago. The essential when reading people’s ideas is to keep one’s critical sense and self-reliance. How do we clean our minds of delusions? How do we attain reality, the reality of ourselves and the reality of the world with which we have to relate?

Will society collapse leaving only the “prepared” in their remote dwellings and boats? There are signs, but nothing is certain. However, I agree that some of us are not made for living in the matrix, a certain illusory form of modern society caricatured by the sight of commuters in a train totally absorbed by their smart phones. I find it impossible to deny that infinite human population growth is possible in a world of finite resources. We may yet be far from the limits. I know practically zilch about economics and banking, but I find it hard to refuse some highly cogent accounts of the possibility of a total breakdown of our system of money and what money is (value of human work, gold, whatever).

Our greatest fear is being enslaved, and this is confirmed when we compare current events with Orwell’s 1984 or Huxley’s Brave New World together with other books and films on similar dystopian themes. Dystopias have happened, Nazism and Communism to give two known examples. Logically, they can come about in the future, and elements of this tyranny are already with us. Globalism is ushering in some very sinister things like the possibility of a new form of “Nazism” using mega-cities with “comfortable” conditions as “concentration camps”. Is that really impossible? I have kept out of towns for years because I am afraid of being trapped – but living in the country in the mainstream system of banks, buying things, paying bills, etc. is the same thing. Being marginal is becoming illegal in more and more places. One has the feeling that the pincers are closing.

Paranoia or wakeful lucidity? It’s the choice of each one of us.

I don’t know what to believe about global warming of human origin. One batch of scientific evidence contradicts another batch of equally scientific evidence. One hypothesis shows melting ice caps, and another shows the opposite. If I go to those places myself, I will look for the wrong thing in the wrong place – and get cold in the process! It is obvious that chopping down the Amazonian rain forests are changing the climate, quite apart from greenhouse gases. We humans have made our continents and oceans into a shit-hole, a dustbin and a garbage dump – for money. What happens if the Yellowstone super-volcano goes off? Apart from the real possibility of World War III, have any of us a chance of surviving in some way? We need to have that hope. The blog to which I refer above says:

… there is a wise old sailors’ adage that goes like this: “Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst!”

Too right! It is possible that earth will end up like Mars, with not a word from the Almighty, or could there be a tiny remnant of those who are ready and trained for “post-technology” life, a return to the Middle Ages or the revival from the ashes of the Roman Empire?

I have often shown interest in intentional communities, of which monasticism is a type. It’s something you are called to or not. Those communities are not always religious. Some are quite “hippy” or inspired by modern forms of Romanticism and Transcendentalism. I have a great amount of sympathy. However, if the chips are down, those communities will be gutted by marauders and pirates from the cities, starving and ready to kill for something to eat. That is the one limit of communities of “Catholic Amish” or low-tech communities of lovely and innocent people.

Putting to sea, being ready to sail away at a moment’s notice is appealing. Even in our “peace” time, we can adapt to living in boats. Perhaps it might be harder for couples with children, but they are the future. Boats can be attacked and sunk, but perhaps one has a better chance than in a land-based community. Personally, it appeals to me, and learning to sail a big boat is made much easier when you have experience in dinghy sailing and cruising as I have. Big boats react more slowly and are heavier to handle, but they handle big seas better than small boats. As a human being, I am interested in survival, even though faith takes away my fear of death.

Many tribes of humans were able to survive because they were nomads, mobile and able to go where life would treat them better. In Christianity, we have the stability of monks, but also the itinerant mendicant brethren of St Francis. Christ and the Apostles were itinerants as is obvious from reading the Gospel. It can be done on land or by sea.

There are many fanatics out there working on the idea of “prepping”, but I am not inclined to read their stuff about “bug-out” bags and ways to abandon one’s house and set off to the hills in a car. But, they may have a point for many things. I prefer a more gentle and contemplative approach, based on self-reliance, a contemplative life and love of those we can trust.

Can we live long-term like that. It depends on what we expect in life. As things are, we can compromise: work a small business, put money in the bank, avoid debts, spend as little as possible and have what is necessary to maintain the boat, pay port rent and live. With the “system” not working, one can live on dry provision, some types of seaweed and fish caught from the sea. It would be a return to a pre-agricultural world. One can drink rainwater as long as it isn’t polluted with radioactivity or poisonous chemicals. Maybe a tall order in a post-apocalyptic scenario.

There are probably more people living in boats than we think. The boat has to be big enough to live in but small enough to handle safely. I once had the brief joy of being the only one on deck on a 34-foot Dufour, mainsail sheeted in and cleated, genoa well trimmed and steering to the wind. The others were below, but rapidly came out of the companionway when we needed to tack or gybe ship. Dinghy sailing is the best way to learn, and I am confident about graduating to a yacht once I no longer have a house and car to pay for.

The Sea Gypsy blog has some very seductive ideas, but the crunch comes when he starts talking of setting up some kind of community. Obviously, some intentional communities work and are founded on principles involving the freedom of all and a minimum of authority and discipline. Many others fail or become like totalitarian cults. On the other hand, the main purpose of a blog, mine or his, is to share ideas and modify them as others come up with great ideas. I founded this blog on the notion of the old Goliards, marginal priests and monks who mocked the system but continued to be believing Christians and lived their self-reliance to the full. Life at sea can hardly be a way for bums and good-for-nothings, since survival depends on a sense of routine and discipline. How else can we handle a crisis like something on the boat getting broken – and we have to find a solution with what we’ve got? In nine years of sailing, I have never had to be rescued beyond capsizes at sailing school as a beginner. However, our friend Ray Jason does make the point of being there to inspire rather than lead.

Ecology has been seriously perverted and “taken over” by globalism. Anything becomes possible on the pretext of saving the planet. It’s a good idea to sort our rubbish and use low powder light bulbs, to protest against pollution and waste, but we have to ask ourselves what kind of life we are living. How can a vegetarian or vegan use leather for shoes and other animal products we take for granted? What seems to me primordial is to love nature, live near nature and cease to see ourselves as masters of it. We can kill animals for food – and so can they kill us for food! There are plenty of species who will eat humans if given a chance… We don’t have to put our head in the lion’s mouth, but take a somewhat humbler attitude. Apparently, lions can be very nice animals if treated kindly. I would be wary to meet a lion without some protection, but it is the same with many people!

I also agree that we need to see the earth as our partner and our friend rather than something to enslave and exploit. How able are we to live without technology or with less technology? It is interesting to see that indigenous tribes in their native habitats are in much better physical and mental health than we are. Self-knowledge, self-reliance, individuation – call it what you will, keeps us off the drugs against anxiety. I have had to take some of those horrible chemicals myself this year, but am much better without them. I came off Sertraline with a 3-week reduction schedule, to prevent withdrawal symptoms. It is essential for all of us to live without addictions. I still have the same marriage problems, but my philosophy of life is stronger through suffering and self-knowledge.

In the perfect utopia, there are no rich and poor, ruled and rulers, no discrimination against women and people of different races. Our present society favours psychopathy, ruthlessness and brute force, not wisdom and experience of life. Nothing good can come out of it. More and more of us are completed disillusioned with party politics. Some communities come near to the ancient idea of the tribe, but we have to understand ourselves and the essential principles. The smaller the community, the more it might have the chance to remain tribal and not become a system or hierarchy.

Churches and organised religion are not without blame and nor are atheism and other systems that seek to suppress spirituality and transcendence. The redundancy of the “mainstream” churches is a great opportunity for small churches like the Continuing Anglicans – just as long as we don’t imitate the evil we have been brought to denounce. My experience in the Church has brought me to a way of thinking that prevailed in the 1960’s, not of deconstructing and making the liturgy and community life into an imitation of the technocratic system of our globalist society – but rather of building up human goodness in small groups and individuals through return to nature and renunciation of authority. I believe this to be the core of the Gospel message and a new vehicle of grace, not the bureaucratic institution that emulates states and empires. It is the Romantic vision that turns away from latitudinarian civic religion, and its empty moralism. There is something about the motorcycle priest Guy Gilbert and the worker priests of post-war France, at least until they begin to emulate oppressive state socialist systems and half-baked ideologies. Like with Fr Guy Gilbert, there are ways of spreading the Christian ideal to those who are far from churches, whether they are people who have gone wrong in life or people with higher ideals than they would find in the local parish. Various things bring people together, like motorcycles and boats. I only rode a motorcycle briefly during my student life in London, and was never a part of the “set”, but I fit in very nicely in the world of boats, not the toffee-nosed crowd and the Commodore with the big moustache, but the ordinary guys who spend much less money on their craft and do more work.

I prefer to leave the apocalyptic talk behind. I do have my fears about the modern world, but we can keep it at arm’s length. My life has done much to equip me for graduating to a boat in which I could live, and not live in one place but everywhere and anywhere a boat can be moored. My “Nemo theme” was put on a very remote back burner for a long time as I went to work in organ building, and then to seminary and theological faculty. A few events in 2008 re-kindled the fire and I went to to the local sailing school to get lessons, a week on catamarans and some Saturday afternoons over a year or so (spring to autumn) in sports dinghies. A week at the Glénans in 2009 did a lot of good as did a regatta over several days in 34-foot yachts in August 2011 with French Roman Catholic priests and seminarians, even the Bishop of Quimper. It gave me an introduction to large and heavy yachts. Learning to sail does cost some money but less than learning to drive.

Then comes the world of cruising, either in a dinghy or a yacht. It is something liken the spirit of scouting: learning to fend for yourself, yet developing a sense of solidarity and human decency with other persons. I learned many things from Roger Barnes, an English architect who sails a small open fishing boat type vessel. He has written a book and I have sailed with (or near) him several times at large gatherings in France like the Semaine du Golfe. He can teach you all the practical aspects like trailers, launching and recovering the boat, installing a tent to be able to sleep on board, storing and preparing food, the right kind of clothing, safety at sea, repairing the boat and “jury” rigging, navigation, in short – everything the usual sailing schools don’t teach because they prepare people for regattas. Each practical chapter is bordered by a reflection of the sailor whose experience will do nothing other than turn him into a Romantic. Beyond tacking and gybing, righting a capsized boat, the real learning happens this way between friends.

I have occasionally met people who live in boats, in particular a Merchant Navy man with a large ketch tied up and dried out at Plouër-sur-Rance. His wife and two small children were in the boat with him. The openness and friendliness is quite breathtaking. After the nastiness of people driving cars on the road and the uncaring zombies of city life, the man of the sea has simplicity about him, a love of everything good and beautiful, an appreciation of life and every one of God’s blessings. Verne’s Nemo was full of hatred, but there was an aspiration to the divinity of the sea too, an appealing aspect of the black-bearded character. Most men of the sea are modest, friendly and helpful, and above all peaceful. As with humanity in general, not all people of the sea are nice. I have come across some very cantankerous fishermen who despise leisure sailors, and then there are pirates. Modern pirates in the waters of the Persian Gulf and off the coast of Somalia among other areas, quite unlike Long John Silver, are very nasty and desperate pieces of work! They hold merchant ships to ransom, but those ships are much better protected nowadays. Fishermen and pirates can be avoided.

Going sailing for weekends or even for a week as I have done is one thing. Living aboard is another. I couldn’t do that on my present boat. I would need a vessel three times its size. You can find a good Westerly or Hurley in England from the many people who find it more and more difficult to pay for a house, a car and a boat. It’s a buyer’s market. A couple of years ago, I looked over a couple of yachts at Hoo in Kent. It’s an impressive world, laden with many traps for the unwary. Still, boat brokers and surveyors tend to be more honest than second-hand car dealers. It’s a project for the future necessitating certain prior conditions for me.

How long can someone stay at sea? Bernard Moitessier was the first to circumnavigate the globe by the Southern Ocean without any stop-offs or resupplies. That was an incredible feat and he was an incredible man. After so long at sea, he settled on a Pacific island and lived a very simple life. There are three main limits to our ability to stay at sea: physical, mental and the boat. Physically, we need fresh water and food, and an on-board pharmacy to deal with common illnesses and infections. Even in my dinghy, I have ibuprofen and colchinine (gout) and a simple first aid kit. Mentally, we have to be able to deal with loneliness and sheer distance from our origins. It is the ascetic discipline of the Carthusian monk, otherwise you go crazy as did Donald Crowhurst. The sea brings you into contact with yourself, and there is only reality to face. The super-ego counts for nothing. It is advisable to go by stages in this way of self-knowledge and healing. I hope this year to do a sea passage in my boat at about two nautical miles from the coast, perhaps Fécamp to Dieppe and back with a stopover in the port of Dieppe. A twelve-foot dinghy can only do so much! The third is the boat. In spite of the greatest care, there can be horrible incidents – like a yacht in the Pacific Ocean striking a metal container that had fallen off a ship and was just under the surface. Lose your boat and you lose your home, and possibly also your life. Everything must be meticulously maintained from the hull to the spars and standing rigging, the sails and the engine. It is daunting, but a challenge to our attitude in life and the state of our relationship with God.

There are considerations for having to survive a catastrophe in the world. Even in my cruising dinghy, I am equipped with VHF, transistor radio with LW as well as MW and FM and a mobile phone. On a yacht, it would certainly be a good idea also to have a HAM radio and a good transmitter – and learn how to use it. If the mobile phone and GPS go down, radio is essential, as is traditional sextant and chronometer navigation. I still do my coastal navigation in my dinghy with a bearing compass, portland plotter and a chart. For very small areas and small format charts, one can use a 360° protractor and / or an orienteering compass. I would use GPS on a yacht, anything modern for as long as it works. You just have to able to avoid depending on it absolutely. Anything can happen in the Pit.

The catastrophe hasn’t happened, at least in full, and life in Europe and England might remain tolerable for some time yet. But the Nemo Syndrome is not merely an extreme precaution for some extreme event. It is a way of life some of us choose because we are alienated from a world that stifles humanity, freedom and creativity. I have been in a toxic marriage for too long, and the fundamental choice stares me in the face. ‘Nuff said

I don’t know what is going to happen in the western world. I can guess, as can everyone else, but the problems remain. Europe is set to become a Muslim caliphate. It might take fifty or a hundred years, but there is no sign of any reversal. They produce the babies and we don’t. Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans smashing up churches will be nothing compared with what is to come and what has happened in Syria. I am not a prophet and cannot predict anything else. Conspiracy theory or facing up to reality? We face death or a new life. The Pilgrim Fathers put to sea to seek a new world. We might find new worlds in those parts of the earth forgotten by both Islam and globalism. Who knows?

One day I will join the growing flotilla and take with me the Gospel and the gift of the Priesthood…

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