In an iconic Seinfeld episode, “The Marine Biologist,” George Costanza becomes the unlikely salvation of a whale whose blowhole is obstructed by a golf ball. As George famously says, “The sea was angry that day, my friends – like an old man trying to send back soup in a deli. I got about fifty feet out and suddenly, the great beast appeared before me. I tell you he was ten stories high if he was a foot. As if sensing my presence, he let out a great bellow. I said, “Easy, big fella!” And then, as I watched him struggling, I realized that something was obstructing its breathing. From where I was standing, I could see directly into the eye of the great fish.”
We visited Barabados once in the middle of a cold Canadian winter that had seen record low temperatures and snow fall. Stunned out of his good sense by the tropical breezes and generous temperatures, I convinced my non-swimming husband to just step into the ocean. For a few minutes we relished our victory – no more would our freedom be dictated by the seasons – no longer would I wear hats or boots for any reason other than fashion or desire. In those few minutes we planned what our life would like when we moved to Barbados. And then, some god touched the water, and a wave of Olympian force and speed came crashing down over us and we went down. Fortunately, we were able to claw our way to the shore with the only casualties being some skinned shins, a pair of favourite jean shorts that I left on the beach, and our two iPhones that my husband had tucked into the pocket in his shorts. The sea was angry that day, my friends.
Like George Costanza and me, Homer’s Odyssey (or Ulysses) also learned what it meant to face the gods of the sea. Having been proven victorious in the ten year long Trojan war, the Greeks, with Odysseus among them, turn their ships homeward, eager to see the families that they left behind a decade before. Odysseus imagines himself to be a clever sod. After all, he has defeated death and thus nature for the past ten years, and so why should he worry now? There is nothing, Odysseus imagines, that with little ingenuity he can’t overcome. (Because, if you have your iPhone with you, you should be able to figure out in adavance exactly when that wave is going to hit the beach, shouldn’t you?) And in his cleverness, Odysseus manages to save his crew (well most of them) from being gobbled by the cyclops by blinding the one-eyed, Ployphemus. Now, Polyphemus, not a nice guy himself, nonetheless turns out to be the son of Poseidon – god of the natural realm and particularly the sea. And, losing his number one son, Poseidon is ticked. So ticked that he makes sure that it takes Odysseus another 10 years before he makes it home to his beleaguered wife and own now adult son. So Odysseus wasn’t really all that clever after all. He imagined that as a particularly smart mammal, he could go toe to toe with the forces of nature and win. (Imagine George Constanza in the role of Odysseus…)
J.M.W. Turner, my favourite painter, captures Odysseus perfectly in “Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus.” If you zoom in on the ship, you’ll see stupid little Odysseus, arms up in exhalation, imagining (like Leo and Kate) that he is king of world. Now pull back and look at at the clouds to the left of the painting. Those are the horses of Apollo, god of the heavens, thundering across the sky. Next look to the water just below the ship and see the sea nymphs, more children of Poseidon. Odysseus thinks he can conquer nature, but the true sovereigns of the natural world are actually all around him, and they are getting ready to squish him like a little bug. Now imagine smug little Odysseus’s face. King of the world, indeed.
M. Ward, a singer-songwriter from Portland, Oregan, also takes up this theme in the song “To Save Me.”
Unlike Odysseus, the character in Ward’s song, recognizes that with just the shrug of a shoulder, the forces of nature can devastate us. We could have as easily been pulled by the undertow into the ocean that day, just as (had the writers of Seinfeld been a little darker) Costanza could have been swallowed by that whale. However technologically advanced we might become (those IPhones were super fancy), death still proves that with respect to our finite lives, nature wins. Odysseus may have survived Troy and even made it back to Ithaca, but he is eventually overcome by the same mortal nature that he shares with everyone else and descends into Hades. In this, whatever Odysseus thinks, we are all equal. And nature, as a real sovereign, demands our respect.
Further, Ward, recognizing the awesome power of nature, reflects that a power that great, might as easily save him as destroy him. In other words, reflecting on the tremendous beauty and force of nature, Ward suggests we might be moved to know its source, a source, however we might think about it, that might also be inclined overcome the nature of our deaths. And while he notes in some supplication, “what difference could it possible make,” to save such an insignificant worm such as myself, to said worm, it would make all of the difference in the world.