I was thinking about what happens when trying to argue a point…
You’re setting out upon an argument. Your idea is located somewhere ahead, but there is an uncertain sea between you and it that your argument needs to breach for you to be able to clasp the idea to your bosom. So you set off, armed with your trusty compass of logic. You feel no need to warn your passengers that it might be a bumpy ride. But then one of them pipes up. They’ve spotted something ahead. They might have to drag you by the hair to the viewing deck, but eventually it appears before you: a major objection to your point that you are on course to hit head-on.
But you haven’t come so close that you can’t change direction. A tweak of the steering wheel and you’re out of danger. What you don’t realise is that that tweak has put you straight on track to hit the Kraken of another big problem that you could have avoided, had you taken a different way round the first obstacle.
Another change of direction, but the back of your ship takes a hit this time. Shattered bits of wood can be seen in the ship’s wake, floating on the surf. You’ll have to leave them behind. But your argument now has a gaping hole.
Are you doomed? No! You knew potential casualties of this nature were possible, so you brought along some spare timber. Reinforcements made, you’re captaining a slightly different ship to the one you began with, but you’re better able to deal with future obstacles. Like the logical fallacy pirates you spot hovering in the distance. You press on, confident you can withstand their dubious cannonballs.
Eventually you reach the shore. You swing yourself down, wade through the shallows and drop relieved onto the beach, kissing the sand and thanking the heavens.
End of story? Still no! Emerging from the woods, out comes the welcome committee.
They eye up the ship and its repairs. From the front, it looks like a reasonable ensemble. But – tut tut – looks like you’ve lost some panelling round the starboard side and have been taking on water for some time, leaving you with what looks like irreparable damage to the hull.
Now they inspect the wake, tracing the path you took through the waves. Hmm. You know you could have made shorter shrift of it if you had just turned the wheel a little less violently? You know you could have hit the Kraken head-on and weathered it with minimal damage, which would have got you here faster? You know you’d have had a much easier journey if the ship had had a reinforced hull from the off? You know you’d have made better time if you’d started from that other island that sits just a little closer? You know Captain Famous set off on the same journey and landed three days ago in a far snazzier vessel?
This is what attempting to exercise reason (read: write my essay) feels like: a long, thankless slog through a perilous mire of objections to be countered and sceptical conclusions not to be drawn, where the straight and narrow is no wider than a tightrope. And that’s on a good day. Other days, you can barely see your ideas in front of you, let alone work out how to get close to them. Fog everywhere. The possibility of shipwreck is at every corner. And in the end, whatever you do, you will have done some things wrong and many things not optimally right, and someone will have done it better.
‘Lord, grant me a shipwreck’, said Giuseppe Ungaretti at the end of his first collection of poetry (harking back to my first-year reading list). He was happy to accept a poetic crisis in order to come back bigger and better for his next collection. Shipwreck is discouraging, but perhaps only when all the pieces are on the floor can we see how we managed to err and learn how to do better. I’m often tempted to retire in despair, but it might be better to take a lesson from him, and keep resolving to set off again with an upgraded ship and a better-tuned compass.
Not forgetting the one essential ingredient: