Thoughts on “Proud Tension”
The question is: “Why this passion for boats?” I am often asked and I will try to answer, knowing that I fail to wrap my words around the entire issue. The easiest reply, the one that satisfies most people, is a short discourse on my childhood days on Cape Cod. Everyone relates to nostalgia, but the source of my passion is much deeper and more complex.
From an intellectual point of view I could say this: A boat for me is a perfect form for allegory. I have used the boat as metaphor for bed, coffin, flower pod, nest, cage, moon. These may be clever tricks, but the allegory is much larger. Ben Mitchell has suggested that they represent “the journey” of life. That’s worth careful consideration, but my personal connectedness feels more intimate.
It seems to me that boats are very nearly a distinct life-form all their own. You have seen them nodding to each other as they crest a wave or lie harnessed in rows. Perhaps they even have their own god: Bo’t. I have, on occasion, prayed fervently to my God for safe return to shore. Through the seat of my pants and the tiller in my hand, it felt like the boat was praying too. That was a real comfort. We place our faith, our very lives in boats; how could this not be intimacy?
For years I have been trying to discuss the human experience through the symbolic forms of sculpture. I tend to avoid the human figure when possible, preferring to use other life-forms or to breathe life into inanimate objects. What more obvious object to choose than boats, those products of our hands that have for centuries been given names and called “she?” But that is still based in intellect and does not answer the question.
The passionate link to boats that many of us feel is not mental but visceral. It is as basic and as complex as our human response to “beauty”—a (thankfully) undefinable term. I believe something in this life-form, “boat,” resonates with the very fluids that pulsate within us. It is musical. I have never been a formalist or abstractionist, but seeing and touching the unfinished hull of a boat—just the sweep, the flex, the flow, the curve of it—fills me with an unnamed joy. For sheer beauty, choose a boat. (Nautical types will recognize the pun.)
Perhaps the most direct response to the question would be, “Touch one.” But beware, for I would argue against the notion that “she” is only female. Visit a boatyard in autumn and you’ll find them up where you can see them—in their cradles. Yet they are not sleeping nor are they dead. They don’t need water to live. They are as swift in their stillness as in their unfettered days of summer. (Why is that? Hope? Promise?)
Choose a hull; walk amid ships. Place both palms and a cheek against it. Listen. Now your lips; hum and you will feel the harmonics. Thump it soundly with your fist; there’s a satisfying female ripeness, a male tumescence. There’s something fluid and sexual about a boat even when high and dry.
Now you know: boats are hermaphrodites—self-contained lovers of themselves. That is their secret. They call out to the deep, private, androgynous seed in each of us and we respond. They are male in their long, thrusting sweep—the way they cleave the waters. They are female in their round fullness, in their protective containment. They are vessels.
Back to allegory: As hermaphrodites, boats are ideal symbols for relationships and for life. The liveliness and strength of a boat is derived from its internal conflicts. Its vibrancy endures only as long as there is tension between individual parts—the tension of equal and opposite forces—in perfect balance. When this balance is lost, the boat decays. Theirs is proud tension, useful tension, and (if a boat is alive) perhaps even useful pain.
Boats are functional only when they recognize and adapt to conflicting external forces as well. Balance is paramount in action as well as in structure. Storm and tide aside, buoyancy itself is a terrible tension. There are tremendous forces at work between hull and water. It interests me that buoyancy exists only through conflict, stress and balance yet the result is such refined delicacy. A child can spin a one-ton boat with a simple thrust of its hand.
There again is that visceral childhood joy and wonder! Empowerment—and innocent sensuality!
Tension, conflict, balance, life. Boats inspire me to consider these things.
c. David Greenwood – 1989/2009