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Joel Sumner Smith

Product Manager @Gatsby focused on cloud native platform.
Analogical thinker in an analytical world.


Finding Consolation

On the Nobel Prize website, one can find an enchanting, one-minute video of the St. Lucian poet laureate, Derek Walcott, reading a poem, “Sea Grapes”, in his gravelly, Caribbean accent. The poem exemplifies the style and tone of Walcott’s lyric poetry: heavily metaphoric vision of classical themes mixed with Caribbean landscapes as well as a tone paradoxically tragic and humanistic.

In this particular poem, Walcott turns over a long-standing human problem, namely “The ancient war / between obsession and responsibility…” This tension, between the thing desired (“obsession”) and the thing demanded (“responsibility”), plays out in the poem’s opening stanzas for two characters who fall into Walcott’s characteristic double-vision. The main actor of the lyric’s dramatic situation is an unnamed Caribbean fisherman who Walcott directly refers to in terms familial — father and husband — and somewhat occupational — a “sea-wanderer.” In a gesture that will come full circle in his later epic Omeros, Walcott envelopes this prototypical Caribbean fisherman in a Homeric metaphor, here a metaphor of Odysseus whose own ship might be “home-bound on the Aegean.” Even more, the Caribbean man is drawn into a comparison of Odysseus’ familial drama:

“that father and husband’s

longing, under gnarled sour grapes, is like the adulterer hearing Nausicaa’s name in every gull’s outcry.” ¹

But to this comparison, though drawn through his own poetic vision, Walcott’s dramatic narrator can only respond with hesitation and unrest: “This brings nobody peace.” From this admission, the poem continues on, first naming this “ancient war” as the dichotomy of “obsession and responsibility” and then drawing out the comparison of the two men while cataloging the difficulties of Odysseus’ journey home. Throughout, the tone of the lyric rings with a sense of weariness: “Troy sighed its last flame”, “the conclusions of exhausted surf.” This tone makes sense, especially for readers of Homer’s Odyssey; after all, it does take Odysseus ten years to return to Ithaca after the Trojan war.

The exhaustion, though, seems to stem from the sense of tension that was the arguable cause of the length of Odysseus’ journey home. Like the Caribbean man, Odysseus was identifiable as a husband and father, a man with responsibilities not only to his family but also to his city, Ithaca. Walcott, a self-admitted poor reader of Homer, creates a false drama for us though, pinning Odysseus’ adulterous feelings onto the Phaeacian maiden, Nausicaa; however, in the Odyssey it is Calypso, the sea nymph, who seduces Odysseus into near infidelity. In his misreading, Walcott interestingly locates the term “obsession” in the desire for infidelity rather than in the acts themselves. The lyric’s primary tension, then, for Odysseus as with the Caribbean fisherman is subjunctive and imaginative rather than explicit and corporeal. The inner drama of Odysseus’ longings appeals more to the poet than any of his acts themselves; it is the Caribbean’s inner drama as the sea-wanderer that interests him.²

Just the same, the poetic term “obsession,” does seem to generously include a variety of antitheses to responsibility: the rejection of family through physical adultery, the wandering of the mind in fantasies, the political commitments of war, and even the economic responsibilities of the sea-wandering fisherman. Any or all of these stand between the individual, here explicitly a man, and his responsibilities, which in the poem seem to stand more clearly for the familial situation and the home. But, as the tone of the poem as well as its conclusion convey: there is no likely solution to such an age-old problem. The fisherman, like Walcott’s version of Odysseus and by extension all human kind, must figure out which he will choose to follow: his “obsession” or his “responsibility.” ³

While we can locate such a division in both Walcott’s lyric and the Homeric epic itself, the tension between the home and the sea — as a symbol for the wandering-ness of human life — is indeed an “ancient war” that “will never finish.” Take, for example, the following advice from St. Paul to the early Christian community in Corinth:

“Now concerning virgins, I have no command of the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. I think that, in view of the impending crisis, it is well for you to remain as you are. … Yet those who marry will experience distress in this life, and I would spare you that … I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord…” ⁴

Writing, as St. Paul often does, from an eschatological perspective, he can offer only the advice to remain, in his words “free,” though he does concede that to marry is not a sin within their community. What I think Paul, and earlier in the Gospel writings, Jesus, means to convey to the community at Corinth is that should they choose to marry, they must be willing to enter into the spiritual tension of commitment to the family and the demands of their (likely new-found) Christian faith and practice. This tension is the “distress in this life” to which St. Paul is referring.

The shape of St. Paul’s “distress” is of course similar to that of Walcott’s “ancient war,” but in his vision of a world about to end, the substance is categorically different. They take on a similar shape because both are interested in the tension that familial ties create with meaning-making endeavors, whether they be religious or vocational. For St. Paul, as well as Walcott’s Odyssean Caribbean fisherman, to take on family is to invite teleological tensions, creating competing end-markers for the good of one’s life.

Interestingly, such a tension comes to life, albeit briefly, in a passage of Freud’s later writings. In Civilization and Its Discontents(published in 1922), Freud broadened his typically personal and familial fascinations to talk about the underlying mechanism by which society had been constructed, mainly as a way of making personal sense of the first World War. Famously, Freud makes first mention of his “death” principle, a drive which fights against the pleasure principle he explored for most his career. While grossly reductive, we might usefully summarize much of Freud’s work as describing the tension between opposing inner forces.

In the fourth chapter of Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud draws a similar tension between what he calls Ananke (a Greek word meaning necessity) and Eros (another Greek word meaning sexual love). For Freud, the tension lies between the two forces which initially bound human beings together: the economic necessity of working together and the erotic needs bound up in the familial unit. In his sociological sketch, these initially worked well in tandem, leading to domestication and agricultural success. However, as he argues:

But in its course of development the relation of love to civilization loses it unambiguity. On the one hand love comes into opposition to the interests of civilization; on the other, civilization threatens love with substantial restrictions… We have already perceived that one of the main endeavors of civilization is to bring people together into large unities. But the family will not give the individual ⁵

As he fleshes out this tension, he explicitly names the “work of civilization” which causes such tension. He goes as far as describing the individual, here explicitly a male (such is Freud’s worldview), as vacillating between the necessity of the civilized world and the family which will not give him up:

What he employs for cultural aims he to a great extent withdraws from women and sexual life. His constant association with men, and his dependence on his relations with them, even estrange him from his duties as a husband and a father. ⁶

In this sense, Freud is abstracting out the tension that was explored by St. Paul and Walcott respectively, generalizing the “work of civilization” whether in terms vocational and economic or civic and religious. All subliminal work falls into tension with other psychical work such as the love of the family unit (both erotic and affectionate, in Freud’s terms). ⁷

But why should such tensions exist? If humans are bound to both the economic necessity of community and the love of the family, should there not be some space for the two to coexist? In Freud’s argument, which is admittedly inductive, the tension proves a certain truth about the economy of our psyches: “Since a man does not have unlimited quantities of psychical energy at his disposal, he has to accomplish his tasks by making an expedient distribution of his libido.” ⁸ There is a lack of raw material, then, in our attempt to make meaning of the world. We can only do so much and are, therefore, asked to make decisions about where we invest that material.

As Walcott has already concluded, however, the fact that we can elucidate such a problem with the aid of the classics brings us some consolation but never enough for peace. In particular, I want to suggest, we must actually work through the human problem by living. Our lives are the predication of this and all human problems. We answer them by living, whether we do so intentionally or unconsciously.

It’s here that I’m reminded of the wisdom that David Foster Wallace passed on to the graduating class of Kenyon College in 2005, just two years before he would take his own life. In that address, Wallace attempted to prepare his audience for the “hard-wired default setting” of life, especially as an American adult. As he draws toward his conclusion, Wallace points at how we start getting past that default setting and start choosing our lives:

The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it. This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship…Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. ⁹

There’s a sense here that Wallace is poking at this tension that we’ve been turning over throughout this essay: namely, that something will become the object of our worship, our sublimations. Wallace, though, rightly names what these passages we’ve examined have ignored, that alongside the tension of family/responsibility/eros and culture/vocation/religion is the default setting of self-worship. This point of tension, perhaps an unspoken motivating factor in Walcott’s poem as well as Homer’s epic, is that destructive force of self-worship which happens in our most unconscious moments. This is, Wallace argues, the worst kind of tension that we can experience as humans.

There is hope, however, and for Wallace it feels like a slim one. What he sees as hopeful is that, through hard work and consciousness, we do actually get a choice in the matter. We get to choose what we worship. We are not sociologically or economically or psychologically “hosed,” so long as we learn to practice “attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.” 10

In Wallace’s conclusion, this kind of choice, about where we lean in the tension of subliminal opposition is the ultimate human freedom:

That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing. ¹¹

What that infinite thing might be is probably indeterminate. It’s the thing that keeps us asking really hard questions so that our lives can matter, so they can have meaning. In my best estimation, though, living through the tension that these questions create and paying attention to ourselves and others as we do so is the best way to at least survive. This might not bring anyone peace, but it does feel like some kind of consolation. And maybe that’s enough.

  1. “Sea Grapes” Sea Grapes New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976. Full text available here:
  2. In Divine Purpose and Heroic Response in Homer and Virgil: The Political Plan of Zeus, John Alvis explores the actual Homeric situation of Odysseus with an interesting insight into his home-life and commitments (128). Interestingly, he notes that Odysseus, as soon as he arrives home from his ten year journey, tells Penelope a shade of the truth he learned from the seer Teiresias. The dead and blind seer Teiresias originally tells Odysseus that in order to appease Poseidon, he must walk with an oar on his shoulder until he meets someone who asks what the oar is. But to Penelope, Odysseus instead leaves the quest open-ended, claiming to not know when it must end. Alvis observes that “The later version would then be a refinement of a fantasy, an imaginary creation illustrative of Odysseus’s understanding of what he has been and continues to be. At any rate, Odysseus now ‘recalls’ what he had never been told because his unacknowledged motives cause him to mix desire with memory. He remembers what Teiresias ‘ought’ to have said because his own dearest purpose in the expectation of later voyages consists not in placating the sea god but in satisfying a desire to define himself by confronting novel challenges.” (128). Divine Purpose and Heroic Response in Homer and Virgil: The Political Plan of Zeus Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefied Publishers, 1995.
  3. It’s important to note that the poem is likely a personal one for Walcott, the Caribbean fisherman standing in for himself, his sea-wandering a metaphor for Walcott’s unflinching devotion to his craft. A brief perusal of Walcott’s biography shows how that “sea-wandering” was likely a source of tension for him between the obsession of poetic craft and the family he had created.
  4. 1. Corinthians 8:25–32 (NRSV)
  5. p. 58 Civilization and Its Discontents Tr.James Strachey. New York: W.W. Norton, 1961.
  6. p. 59 Ibid.
  7. I am using the term “subliminal” here in Freud’s more technical sense when he means the translation of one psychical energy into another form. One example of this is taking the libidinal forces typically associated with sexual drive and turning them instead into culture building or meaning-making endeavors. I tend to see sublimation as more of the latter, namely the energies that we invest in meaning-making as a whole, whether the outlet of such energy is sexual, religious, vocational, or civic.
  8. p. 59 Ibid.
  9. “David Foster Wallace on Life and Work”: Adapted from a commencement speech given by David Foster Wallace to the 2005 graduating class at Kenyon College.”
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
© 2021, Joel Sumner Smith