Much can be said of a phenomenology of the flood and to say it opens the breast. An outpouring, a good thing taken to excess, a superabundance in the field of feeling clears the ground of thought like ammonia to the fagged brain. I find it strange that wiping the ground clean of reflection unburdens the tongue so the simple things can again be spoken. That is why the flood is so happily grasped as the beginning. It is a return to words of origin; body buoyant at being carried away by creation. By ‘return,’ I mean submission. A true submission occurs when our stiff-necked logic bows before the magnificent tide of intelligence that sweeps away the old rigid order. I do not take the gesture of prostration lightly. Sailors know the fear of the act. Such a sea can close in at any moment, without warning, or can be seen rising inexorably, irresistibly, from afar. Of such a phenomenology, there is the gradient of feeling one during the rise of waters, another at flood stage, and the third after the receding. They are different tempos and melodies, vastly different accents and resolutions, different histories, and can be confused only by looking away from the issue. One fears loss and prays, one surrenders anxiety to wonder, and one searches for exchange, respectively. Early studies of the phenomenon show that in the case of an individual, a flood is a baptism, and that one feels need of a sacred immersion in the mother solvent. If one is not frightened by loss of the totality, it is either by innocence (trace memories of the uterine element), naivete (assuming water can do no harm), or attainment. The Buddha spoke of being extinguished as drowning in a great sea. Nirvana, which is the finality of baptism of course is not dying to a death but to a reliving. And this is what a flood is, the drawing of the curtains of life over that which has outlived its time so that germs of a new generation grow active.
The breaking of the waters, which is what the Buddha was referring to, recalls the ancient flooding of the Nile. Even earlier was the flooding of the Tigris and Euphrates, but Babylon is lost to us in an antediluvian mist. In both cases, the sac is burst in its time, but before the young body is given to the earth, that in which it bathed overruns its banks. The result is an impressive explosion of meaning. Inventing astronomy and astrology (one and the same), the Egyptians grew attuned to the sun and stars in order to predict the annual advent of flooding. They invented space, a geometry to realign the boundaries of inundated fields. And they invented time, a way of marking the passage from one flood to the next. The world was redefined in a way as great as when some humanoid ancestor rose from a four-legged gait and became erect. Suddenly, gods were not only chthonic, and the sky their destroyer. Now sky gods themselves ruled as they measured out fields of human perception and value. Some say that philosophy begins with the quest for measurement. Then the Egyptians, whose gods were neters or measures, were the first philosophers. Combining a study of regularity — moon, menses, and monsoon — they came to ask after the compass of immensity. How wide were the heavens? How long was the gateway to the next life? In what virtue did the ultimate judgment of a life depend? They devised a commodious existence around their devoutness. We, who proceed more recklessly and without rule, have yet to unearth their living temple, but awe of their statuary in waters of sand still stops our blood cold.
Stand near the stream during the spring melt. Must not the water’s perception be like a dismemberment? Raging over the still-frozen marsh, icy rock, and petrified stump, the limbs of its body are rent apart. Contours erased, lines effaced. So the swelling, a pregnancy of sorts, is also cause for tears, and a flood like a well of them. Here we meet Lewis Carroll’s Alice. Falling down the rabbit hole (a tear duct), she confirms for us the identity of the underground world with that of water. The drop into the netherword wets the eyes, whether by alarm, surprise, joy, or sorrow. It is a drop into feeling, from the heady sky-world, that we undergo. And feeling moves us just as water does. By a short leap, it must have seemed that the river’s excess was due to the grief of a maiden goddess, Isis weeping over the murder of her brother Osiris. Osiris, who may not have made the world but ruled it justly, had an envious brother in Set. He first murdered Osiris by tricking him into lying in a coffin, which he nailed shut. After Osiris came to life, he then killed him again, carved the body up into thirteen pieces, and distributed them along the river. Isis wept as she gathered the parts and the weeping was a floodtide. Because she found all but one, and never the last, his phallus, her tears return periodically to inundate the riverbanks. This connection between the flood and a silent, nagging grief is real and deep in us. The effacement of the land recalls us to a lost, regenerative aspect of ourselves. Remembering water in this phase, we remember a meaning encoded in our cells that Egypt inscribed in its myth of rebirth. In it we are told that our wholeness, like water’s, is not guaranteed, even by arduous search. But with that and the grace of providence will the tear flood of grief abate, and we regain the missing aspect, ourselves.
In flood, undercurrent and riptide abound. These are streams that move counter to the visible swells, pushed by wind and moon. It is here we find water’s body of mystery, a pressure that flows backward, against the irresistible volume. Water flowing through water; water in two bodies. The second, subtle one, or Orisis’ second life, is extremely important, perhaps more so than the gross liquid body. Subtlety itself tells a story. Its source is the same as that of textile and means ‘the thread passing under the warp.’ As the flooded river moves from source to mouth, a reverse stream retraces the route. Lacking in size, the small thread must lack nothing in force to effect a return, even if it is a single molecule. Its perception concerns the exceptional and utter. Its ethics defies convention and its science is of secret ways. Similarly, in language, which is text (that shares the same root) is woven both the apparent and the hidden, the subtext. Thus there is the supreme lesson in the way water speaks to us in the flood and the prime lesson of its phenomenology, namely, that the more words deluge us, the more concealed its subtle meaning grows. This is not a new lesson, for Homer too appreciated the quiet lapping of the sea, for then things spoke of how they were in themselves. Odysseus first lay on the shores of Ithaca, listening in this way. We who live in a flood of words find some peace in the image. That the audible sound of water speaks from the enigmatic body gives us great hope. Just to listen.
I do not mean to be speaking of things that cannot be said. Or if they cannot, it is due to their being too obvious. Think of how a wave stretches across the strand, sending its spray before it, racing to the high tide mark, and then retracts itself and rejoins its body. It leaves a trace behind, in the form of taking form back with it. No sand castles, ditches, towers, or draw bridges remain for us to describe. Just a smooth, fresh, damp sheet on which to construct the next image or tale. To write on water is more difficult than to walk on it. To begin, one must dilute to infinity the impulse to leave something behind. The flood teaches that nothing is left that is not God-given. Noah is the hero of that discovery but there have been unnamed others. The ocean wave, cresting yards or miles out, is scion of the flood. To write on water requires an implement as nimble as a wave. Such pure energy does not belong to the body, at least the visible one, but circulates (as Oceanus once did Tethys) within it. It articulates itself as easily as wine to the tongue or words to the lover, which is the same. Only we must not be too intoxicated to write, or if we are, the danger lies in forsaking the world. And that is a mighty danger since all exigency of language speaks of this world, this time, this place as most dearly in need of our presence. Without it, a great parched desert stretches between the two infinities. One no one can cross.
Of the flood, much more needs to be said about punishment. It is often the fists beating on the breast that open the floodgates of the eyes and free rivers of tears. The image of Odysseus is in that. From accounts of tradition, is it to a human crime that the gods respond with the deluge by such beating on the breast? The vales and cloves of earth filling with the plenitude of divine sorrow. Rivers drowning and meadows ponding with tears. Old sin washed clean. By law we cry when wronged by a lover. For before, we had been defenseless, the walls of the city taken down brick by brick. Then we had to lie to cover our nakedness. So it is that betrayal is the first act of enslavement. Love which has set us free is cast out. For this exile, the gods cried and sent a flood before Deucalion. Deucalion was perhaps a little less faithless than the rest, but monly, love, as barefoot as a beggar, needs to find its way back. It is born and dies a hundred times before the sun sets. So it was with Deucalion, a first hero, hero of a race of faithless lovers or lovers of a faithfulness. By magic he became progenitor of a new race. Picking pebbles from the still-wet earth, he sowed them over his shoulder as he walked and then became men and women. The hardest thing — rock — was made to feel a flood of passion.
We have Noah. Noah stood on the deck while the storm clouds gathered. He must have had concerns about his own construction but reasoned enough about the phenomenon to pin his hopes on the unknown. Thus it is that the flood brings forth a future. In his case, germ seeds of the past,, its many species, were preserved, although we are not told of irretrievable losses. This too belongs to a phenomenology of hope, which is what the flood entails. Noah knew the inevitability of loss, between the two shores, and did not concern himself with what was left behind. The future does not remake the past: the flood teaches us that much. The physics of water is not the unbroken line, straight or curved. That belongs to earth. The way water leaps the precipice to begin anew at another level demonstrates an enigmatic discontinuity. In its simplest form, the spring gushes from an invisible fissure of rock. All around the land is dry. Where has it come from? Thus, what appears after the flood totally effaces past accomplishments and restores virginity to thought and feeling. What could be more restorative than a new passion and what could wipe the slate cleaner of old resentments than the anxiety of a divine command? We owe our own uncertain future to Noah’s heroism in the face of water, that he did not forsake the flood too soon but waited for a sign that the earth was again fructifying and generous.
It is that way with the infant and for that reason, the flood returns us to our infancy. Flood upon flood of impressions wash over her. Nothing is dammed up and the influx pours out as quickly as it fills up. The lack of reserve does not mitigate the condition of flood but defines it. Infancy is the time of excess. Tears and laughter, rage and contemplation, devotion and rebellion, each intermingles with the other, with definition. Thus the language of the infant is babble, which is a flood of sound and meaning with no regard for proper boundaries. Babble mixes sorrow with joy with no apology and speaks unceasingly of how one thing moves through all things. Its unguarded focus sees no special value in deed, possession, and accomplishment since these require a fixity of purpose foreign to the floods of experience. The flooded river still seeks the ocean and the infant, in time, will learn propriety and civility, which together add up to the ethic of work. But in its beginning, the delicious and painful deluge that the world brings is eternal delight, for it is food, nutrient, and energy all rolled into one. That is why the pain men felt when returned to a state of babble is paradoxical. In the story, the deity punished humans for erecting a tower to rival the heavens. Suddenly they could no longer speak of doing things but were cast back onto an infancy of language. Then each babbled, giving voice to the flood of forms that the moment wrought. O dismay, the return to the watery condition of their perceptions! Perhaps we never have gotten over that loss and never do, whenever we try to rival divine knowledge with our own. But the embrace of an undefined sensibility brings its own joy of being as soon as we again feel reconciled to our human state. That state, I would say, floats on an infancy the way debris floats on the flood waters.
This is to say that I imagine our perception is subject to a period inundation that swamps the receptors and sets the dials back to zero. The floods of the Nile of our experience may not so obvious. Dreams, for one, have the quality of overloading the circuits and causing a new genesis; not any dream, but one that brings a symbol of the other. The other admonishes our ego about its illusory powers and perforce reminds it of a vast, impartial cosmos. All remembrance bears the token of the other, whose faces effaces our human constructions and returns us to babble. The babbling brook, ever gleeful, ever mischievous, is also to be feared, the way the lord is. And so, it is there that wisdom is said to begin. Do we know whether the infant has need of symbols or whether all is remembrance in the coin of the other? Such knowledge again lies beneath us, below flood level, and if my dreams raise my anxiety level, I approach the summons with reproach, for I desire my illusions. The flood that washes away my desire does not leave me desireless, for infancy knows desire too. But desire is purified and made angelic as the ego is permeated by remembrance. I am not speaking of a blessed state. That belongs to saints and sages. Instead, I am recalling a beginning both more subtle and more commonplace, that humility of finiteness. This includes, of course, the shadow of death that stalks us at every breath, for a venerable, heart-stopping costume of the other is, death. Invisibly, persuasively, the other remembers us in life’s reverie. It summons us to a remembrance which alone can regenerate the human to an actual presence. Let us not wake with fear.
There is passion too that floods the sensorium and drowns us in treacle. Not all passion is the same. We know the rote physiology that sets us steaming in wrath or dripping with greed or leaves us heavy in sloth or frozen in fear. There is this kind of drowning, from which we must be resuscitated in order to live again. That undercurrents pulls at our bodies and takes a presence of mind first to navigate in, and later, to avoid. Plato also warns of the lower desires. They are not in themselves evil but lead to a stagnation in spirit if not moved beyond — though for Plato, the underworld was not a place for reparation (as for Dante) but one for regaining fluidity. It was watery. Then there is feeling that increases us by subtraction. In a wondrous way, hope lightens the body, uplifting us to the flood of a presence, a liquid condition, less dammed up then despair. Whether graceful feeling or a feeling of grace, we are restored to an infancy of language, when truth speaks and is heard. Strangely, it seems the same speech that Plato has Diotima report when she tells Socrates of the higher mysteries of desire. Her whispers, like kisses, thaw ponds frozen with senseless brooding and unblocked debris from the streams of his life. She lets the logos warm and circulate around his old veins so that he can consummate a deep, hidden desire of his own. This has to do with mixing spirit with blood, blood with spirit, and becoming a particle of divinity. There is no finer purpose of human words. To neglect it, or one for the other, either way, is our sin.
To forsake passion’s flood in order to embrace the passion of the flood; these are Hamlet’s words to Horatio. The latter passion, Noah’s, washes all stains of slavery from the body. He must have looked over the endless face of water, no longer marked by firmament, and experienced a vertigo. Sight was no longer bounded by treeline, escarpment, peak, or even shoreline. That vision of the infinite, vouchsafed to each of us, frees us momentarily from the pull of gravity and sends dizzy, unsolved messages to the brain. The terror of that deep lurks in any watery surface; the starless night sky, a cave, a black shadow. Since terror and rapture are adjacent points on the scale of human feeling, often a trance state transports its subject to the realms of Diotima’s priesthood. Yet Noah saw the earth as both infinite and bounded since he refused to give over to an unearthly transport. Instead, he stood squarely at the helm, perhaps bound to it as Odysseus was before the terror of the Sirens. For that he is a hero since he mastered the passion of the infinite (that submerges all other feelings) and showed that a certain precarious balance is essential in order to ride out the flood. His weather eye performed a synthesis of preparedness and spontaneity since he left it to the winds of the gods which way the ark rode.
For us, though, a flood disrupts life, and conversely, a disruption floods the organism with reactions to the sudden arrest. Thus is water (like pansy) for remembrance. Thwarted desires and aborted projects float like debris on that tide. We are enabled to reflect on what has been hidden from view and invited to draw impartial conclusions. Are we on course to the shores of humanity? Is it time to send forth the dove, harbinger of another god? In a way, any disruption is flood-send and flood-bent. Any serves to perk a memory of the other and thus bind our two human parts together with a third, self-created portion. If there is perfect fluidity, it is there and we are most often given back the reflection of our coagulation. Striving for remembrance, by virtue of the law of water, necessarily meets with suffering. The alliance between tears and memory is not sentimental; it is in fact the absence of sentiment. No sentiment arises when we bend an ear to the source and catch its gurgling ascent from the rocks. Awe is no sentiment. Awe rested like a bird on Noah’s head and stilled him in his work. He had come for that. So too for us when we are stopped before the flood of creation and hear again the spring hid in our lives. Praise be to Noah.