August 05, 2010
On board s/y Bushido. “ Trimming the Jib” is a short story by Ernest Hemingway and it has to do with the sea. And love. And passion. He wrote it shortly before “The Old Man and the Sea,” which helped land him the Nobel Prize for literature. Here it is in its entirety: “He ran aground on the same reef as before. Pablo was drunk and dreaming of Conchita. He was always dreaming of Conchita. When he wasn’t dreaming of her he would avoid the reef. But he was always dreaming. And drinking.
“The reef was hard, not made of mud or sand, but rock. Pablo was old, and his legs were heavy in the thighs. Pablo was also lazy, but he knew the coast like Conchita’s breasts, powerful and beautiful and taut at his touch. But he was drunk and dreaming of her and was stuck on the hard reef.
“Once aground you will want to refloat as quickly as possible,” he told himself. He took another swig. And thought of Conchita. And the boat did not move. Pablo thought how the earth had moved that morning with Conchita, and took another swig.
“He waited for the tide to come. When the tide rises you can sit and wait to float off. But when it’s ebbing, it means Conchita will be alone. The tide was ebbing. He took another swig. He thought of Conchita alone. He jumped in the water and swam for it. But Pablo was old and the tide was ebbing fast. His last thought was of her as the tide swept him out to sea.”
Ok, ok, so he didn’t write it, I did, and there was no Nobel, so what? I had six guests on board last week, all much smarter than me, and none of them had won it either. Tom Fleming is a classics scholar, as is his wife Gail. He runs the Rockford Institute and edits Chronicles magazine. Mark Brennan is a history PhD and teaches capitalism and world war two, while Chris Myers is a Marine major who fought in Iraq and knows politics and history like no other, and knows how to hit a target with an RPG to boot. All three men and their wives also can kill a bottle of wine quicker than you can say Henry Fairlie, which is saying something. We sailed to Nafplion, Greece’s first capital, then back to Porto Heli and then Spetses, never getting off the boat, talking late into the night about Sophocles, Aeschylous and my old buddy, “you ripi dese trousers you will have to pay for them.”
According to Dr. Fleming, Sophocles was the Haydn and Mozart of playwrights, a man of universal perfection. He presented man the way he should be, whereas Aeschylous was weird and wild, incomprehensible to critics because of his language, and who showed his heroes to be the way man really is. The trouser man, Euripides, was the least divine and most human, the most popular of the three and the easiest to understand. Medea shocks today, but back then getting rid of her children because of her rage at Jason’s betrayal was considered par for the course. Some course.
Still, Greek revivals of classic tragedies do not paraphrase them. Back in 1962, when Joseph Papp, who was Jewish, produced The Merchant of Venice, a bunch of crazed rabbis went after him, calling the play “an amalgam of vindictiveness, cruelty and avarice.” They also accused him of being a self-hating Jew. He told them to buzz off and ran the play the way it was written. 48 years later, things ain’t what they used to be. Last week in the Bagel, Shylock’s yarmulke is torn off by a bunch of Christian priests who push him into the water and baptize him by force while making the sign of the cross. Shylock is played by Al Pacino. Portia, one of Shakespeare’s more brilliant heroines, presents herself as tied to a bisexual, disloyal drunk who is after her money. There is no happy ending in the Merchant of 2010. It’s like if we Greeks had Medea not kill her children but send them off to camp instead. Or to my boat for a spin around the Aegean. Go figure.
There is nothing more American than the cold-eyed distrust of politicians, and my six American guests sure were very American. I don’t think I’ve had a more pleasant, if extremely liquid six days of cruising. Mind you, there was great cultural pessimism among us. The world seems to really be going to hell. America is a blundering giant, its foreign policy determined by neo-cons out to wage non-stop war. Israeli Fifth Columnists are calling the tune. After the colossal blunders of Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran is next on the line. There are even religious nuts in Israel who speak openly of nuking Rome and Berlin in case Uncle Sam does not take care of the Iranian case. And we think that crazed mullahs are the problem. The present malaise plays much the same role that World War I and the Great Depression had played 80 years ago in weakening public confidence in modern Western society and its values.
But not to worry. There is always Bushido and good friends and, most important, lotsa booze on board. I only hope I don’t end up like Pablo, abandoning ship and trying to swim back to a warm bed with Conchita. See you next week, I hope.