“I grew up in the sea and poverty was sumptuous, then I lost the sea and found all luxuries grey and poverty unbearable.”
So begins one of the most lyrical and beautiful extended metaphors for the well lived life ever written. One long dream-like recollection of many journeys strung together, the passage captures an essential experience of travel: the disconnection from place and possessions caused by the inevitable surrender to elements greater than oneself.
“We sail across spaces so vast they seem unending. Sun and moon rise in turn, on the same thread of light and night. Days at sea, even and indistinguishable as happiness…”
Few stories show the aptitude of prose, in manipulating time and distance as much as conveying meaning, as Camus’s short descriptive essay. Camus’s capacity to travel a vast distance in a sentence – “Beyond, the Ocean lies everywhere, on one side we pass by the Horn and the Cape of Good Hope, the meridians wed the lattitudes, the Pacific drinks the Atlantic … Suddenly, one morning the seagulls disappear. We are far from any land, and alone, with our sails and our engines” – that capacity is equalled only by his ability to stall his prose and capture a single moment of unbridled natural pleasure: “Day breaks over a surging sea, full of steel spangles.”
The seemless shifting from fast to slow and back again transmits the dreamlike state of the traveller as he submits to the spacelessness of travel, the lack of confines, the disregard for direction that comes with constant movement: “Today, on the contrary, I have all the air I need, all our sails slap in the blue air, I am going to cry out with speed, we throw our sextants in the sea.”
His passion for the sea lies in stark contrast to his feelings for the land (“Without space there is neither innocence nor liberty!”). On the land he describes only indifference. The magic of the sea is absent, his attitude to life limp and disaffected (“It is at funerals that I excel myself”).
“Men praise me, I dream a little, they insult me, I scarcely show surprise. Then I forget, and smile at the man who insulted me, or am too courteous in greeting the one I love. What can I do if all I can remember is one image?”
But what is most striking, appealing, is the proximity of Camus’s most vivid passages – his most animate spirit expressing itself in words – when life is at its most proximate to death. The paradox of space and nature, transience and permanence lends Camus’s writing a special poignancy. “Rivers and streams pass by, the sea passes and remains. This is how we must love, faithful and fleeting. I wed the sea.” His funereal treatment of life on land, in community, shrouds the story in death, but in the rigid social structures that death is lent a futility that is abundantly absent from Camus’s life at sea.
“What man who cherishes the sea and loneliness will ever stop himself from loving the obstinate madmen who, clinging to planks and tossed by the mane of immense oceans, chase after islands long adrift.”
It is in death that Camus paints the happiness of this life, in the refusal to submit to structure, to conformity and instead to follow the winds and the seas, to pass by great continents in a sentence, to marvel at the gifts of the sea and to wish always to return to the sea’s cool grasp and ultimately in his acceptance of death and the sea as the forces of spiritual liberation from man’s own inadequacy of spirit: “If I were to die, in the midst of cold mountains, unknown to the world, cast off by my own people, my strength at last exhausted, the sea would at the final moment flood into my cells, come to raise me above myself and help me die without hatred.”