Even in its absence, water is a signifier. So much so that some say thirst, the desire for water, was the first thing. It then begat its object and drank bringing our cosmos to pass. I do not wish to argue against primordial design, but the desert, geographic counterpart to thirst, seems to imply a beginning without cause. From nothing, only nothing comes whereas from a substance, much follows. Even if drought is an afterward, still its phenomenology reveals many things. Far from being lifeless, waterless intervals show life’s closest approach to spirit. For the desert — place of chronic drought — abounds in spirit and calls souls who are in search of meaning. Hermits and anchorites flock to its austerity. That is what the desert represents, the imagination’s ascetic home. After mist and devotion to enchantment, the imagination is in danger of becoming inflated and narcissistic. Anyone who has felt the bloat breaks, as Prospero does, his or her magic wand, frees the sprite, and turns toward a practice of humble humanity.
Drought humbles because it demonstrates the contingency of satisfaction. We thirst and feel ill at ease. Since gratification is not in our control, since we cannot make it rain, some have taken the contingent nature as a refutation of Epicurus. Epicurus, Aristotle’s younger contemporary, said that pleasure is the sole good. His was a serious thought not that of a libertine or dissolute. The communities of like-minded individuals who practiced his thought noticed that pleasure occurs only in the present. Seeking pleasure is, therefore, an effective way of remembering the identity of water, its changeful movement and its willingness to adapt to forms — that is to say, a human presence. But the exercise is called into question, his critics insisted, if goodness is not necessary but only contingent. What kind of deity would leave matters of origin to chance? The fact that life is no liquid pleasure gives us this much to ponder.
Drought leaves an imprint of deprivation on whatever it touches. This power belongs to it and is alien to water. Which of us has not been so touched? Thus drought is the ordeal, the trial. For deprivation leads to resentment and resentment leaves us slavish. We repeatedly try to avenge the wounds of life by turning on our enemies. We shoot arrows in the direction of injustice rather than attending to our own condition. Nietzsche the philosopher spent time investigating drought and came to the conclusion that at some hapless turn in history we refused to drink from the stream of life and became drought-ridden. The trial is self-imposed. Remaining slavish, we try to enslave others and find some relief in domination. Remaining slavish, we build an ethics of self-control — which is our legacy. How does one meet the ordeal?
One thing should be said first: if the way were known, maps would have appeared long ago. Every library would have one. But truth is a present value, the value of presence, and as quicksilver as water. Only when the glimmerings of intelligence stir the imagination to perception are we ready to take a step. For only the innocence of water can undo so solid a dam, and only in its own manner and time. Given this craveat, another thing may be said. While drought is a natural condition, one’s attitude toward it is not. It is imposed by imitation or education, and its unnaturalness lies in its being unexamined and without purpose. A certain view of one’s character — the part allotted to an individual in the play of life — can help liberate. The kind of glimpse I have in mind is quick, synoptic, and impartial. It does not evaluate or criticize, but through the eye of imagination, takes in the character as well as the necessity with which it acts. This experience frees us from feeling stung by injustice, deprivation, I mean. Then we are clear about what follows from playing that character and that our essence is different from that. Knowing it, Spinoza, I suppose, mediated on life, not death, and was a happy man.
What occasions drought is immaterial. Forecasters speak of weather cycles, impeded winds, volcanic action, or sunspots. A cause can be found for anything, but what deprives us of partaking of the stream of life is no part of a phenomenology of drought. In this regard, drought shares with water the ability to overtake us. All at once we notice we are doing without. Something is missing, we are lacking the essential, an emptiness pervades us. The sudden discovery does not belie the gradual onset, for deprivation is the opposite of deluge. We are dried out, desiccated, drop by drop, without tallying the loss. Thus is drought the great teacher. Civilizations who recognized the phenomenon made certain provisions. Irrigation ditches were dug, dams built, cisterns filled, wells extended. Besides technology, there was science since the future had to become calculable. The magnificent spate of conquest of the high cultures of the Levant is a paean on scarcity. In adversity, we learn to provide for ourselves. If this were as far as the lesson goes, all would be fine. But liking the accomplishments provoked by deprivation, the mind enthrones drought as king. We adapt the illusory goal of self-sufficiency and have the sun revolve around our earth.
We can remembered how the icon of drought is given in the story of Helius’ son, Phaethon. Phaethon begged his father to drive the flaming chariot of the sun across the way of the heavens for a day. Finally his father weakened and gave into to the importuning. But the youth could not control the horses, and the vehicle plunged to the earth’s surface, making deserts of lush meadowland and drying up bodies of water. Zeus in the end had to dispatch him with a thunderbolt. One can read the image in different ways, but it is difficult to ignore how the imagination sees a particular kind of arrogance bound up in the drought condition. Phaethon assumed himself able to do as he wished, without anyone’s help. He is an emblem of us. It might be that touting self-sufficiency, we fail to sacrifice to the deities; in fact, forget them altogether, since sacrifice is an essential part of communicating with them. Instead, we deify scarcity. But in itself nature is abundance. It provides for each thing according to the requirements of the whole. What appears as scarcity for a particular thing is not that from the standpoint of providence. That precisely is the ordeal that drought challenges us with: to see our allotment as providential. When we humanize the god Deprivation, we discover flowers in the desert.
Drought is a great moving force, of this there is no doubt. I do not call doubt an emotion (those large forces that move human life) but the void of emotions. It is an abyss that calls forth streams of feeling. We never feel water’s absence, but since nature abhors a vacuum, emotions quickly fill the gap. But like vinegar, they are feelings that do not appease the thirst. We continue to know drought by deprivation. Anxiety, fear, and self-pity rush through us like turgid creeks after a cloudburst. They are a captivating energy that leaves a strong impression, but unless we are able to brave the torrent and drink, drought prevails. This helps explain the great paradox of making drought the origin of all things: it is not drought that brings the world into being but the right response to its ordeal. Thus the importance of the desert for all forms of monotheism, religions that worship a single deity.
I speak of drought in an absolute sense, when it is connected with famine, death, and the avenging angels. There is also drought closer to home, in a relative sense. Even in the lush meadow, criss-crossed with springs and marshy undergrowth, drought abides. Within its waterproof pod, the seed lives in its semi-arid climate. In its private desert, shielded from deluge and ice, that germ has successfully negated the urgency of water. The call to be, to live, to extend, has been muted until the proper season. Many peoples have respected the preservative power of drought. Stuff that water would eat away live millennia in the desert. Desert burial reflects an image of the body’s eternity that other forms of burial (earth, water, fire) lack. This is why desert peoples believe in the resurrection of the body. In this milieu, drought conveys an image of timelessness, for ordinary processes of growth and decay are suspended. Look at the face preserved on an Egyptian sarcophagus; it beholds the eternal. Drought is a perpetual hope of water, for water is life and change that is in quest of immortality.
At the same time, drought is famine and death. There is a season in which the roots of plants are bathed in abundance, growth and fructification. Then there is the opposite, where plants wither and produce seeds of an early death. Animal bellies swell in the false pregnancy of malnutrition. Drought expresses the paradox of reversal better than any other form of water. One thing is signature for its contradictory. Because of how drought hides its opposite in the folds of its dress, hell is imagined as a dry place. Sans eyes, sans ears, sans mouth, the shades of Dante’s inferno lack means of further increase. Their fear in Hades is what in life they desired. What they thirst after makes them more parched. The enigmatic property belongs to the workings of imagination, by whose skill one thing is turned into its opposition. Productive of arid conditions, drought in itself lies close at hand to the source, in fact is a few millimeters away. It is as near to water as the unmanifest is to the splendor of existence.
Yet when drought affects human speech, as it must, its parched throat and swollen tongue make for a language that is formal, scientific, distant, and dry. Facts are conveyed, objects identified, and recipes made, but no moving substance offered. Uninhabited buildings, magnificent cities, a vast technology may result from its application, but not real essence. This is a shame because without the water of life, there is action without awareness, thought without heart, and promise without intention. When drought afflicts a philosophy, nominalism arises. This has happened. As the philosopher Locke saw it, the reality of a name is replaced by the convenience of a label, conventionally affixed. Language, the womb of things, is sacrificed in favor of civility. Thus, essences no longer are nourished by what we say or how we think. Real images, emanating from divine intelligence and contained in the essence of things, are irrevocably lost. They wither on the vine like other fruit in drought. Words are more used with less meaning. The imagination grows weak and arid.
We all know the summer drought. With the relentless sun beating down, we disdain the celebration of light. Forsaking intelligence, we grow fanciful (which is not to say imaginative) and fantasize a cloud burst or at least a moment’s shower. What the bright skies obscure is the special loss in drought. We lose remembrance of the ever-present origin. Though what we touch may turn to gold, the amnesic state does not nourish our gratitude. Dante describes the glutton’s ordeal in the inferno; they are perpetually putting food into their mouths without being satisfied or fed. That is the state of drought. Falling under the influence of Lethe, river of forgetting, we have no taste for thanksgiving. In the meadow the brook bubbles inventively whenever we listen. Likewise, providence provides. The conundrum of our human nature is thus repeated through drought. What is the cause of refusal?
5. The olive branch
Rain had been the unremitting condition. It is said that dry land, remembering the first flood, had given way and rejoiced in the firmament of water. There, water sought its own level. Therefore, depth ceased to exist since everything was submerged beneath a uniform cover. Wind and the currents were at play; the sea god’s vagary. There was nowhere to go, no destination or terminus. The superabundance of water had swallowed both source and mouth. This was Noah’s world. Only he of humans had escaped being engulfed by water and life in the underworld of dreams. Only he could witness creation’s sleep, Vishnu’s sleep.
Into the aquatic world came a branch from an olive tree. The olive tree, whose blonde wood is much prized among sculptors, favors the sun and dry, well-drained soil. Its fruit is bitter and oily. It sweetens when preserved in brine and its oil can preserve any food. This proves it is a tree of the desert. For both reasons, Jesus was crucified on a cross of olive wood which he carried the way to Golgotha. His crucifixion required a bitter condition of drought and the tree was indigenous to Jerusalem. But for Noah, the tree was utterly alien, utterly opposite to the deluge his ark rode. It was as alien as a horizon of hope. Hence at the extreme end of the water was hope itself. Noah thus knew that rebirth was possible.
It was at this time that he was told that God’s spirit is in the blood. Blood is water specifically adapted to the body.
How does one locate the extreme end of water? Pour a pitcher of water into an infinite trough and it runs out only when the pool stretches to the thinness of a single water molecule. The trough looks wet, no more. Where is the limit of water? Pour the water onto desert sand and it will trickle down a few inches, if that.
Where is the limit? Pour it into the ocean and it mixes completely with sea water. The limit? Yet the olive branch shows a limit to water and that limit is hope, and so Noah was able to see the reconciliation of the finite with the infinite, and be reborn with his imagination — that part able to remember the Word-God in whose image he was created. Counseling himself, he grew patient and awaited dry land. He had learned the changefulness of all things watery.
The story of water, in its natural state, is the story of love. Shepherd, flute, lyric, and the curvature of the body combine in eros, a high and mighty spirit. Born in Plato’s tale of Need and Resource, eros unifies all earthly desire by making it shadow the desire for immortality. Each want then serves to remind us of the search for self and the magnificence of this desirous life. Like eros, water is amorous and seeks unity with whatever it comes into contact with, as solvent or as wetting agent. Like eros, water was born out of the neediness of hydrogen and oxygen’s ability to supply what was needed, under the given conditions. Like eros, water serves a love of life in order to let emerge the life within life.
This service of water is never more clear than in the sister-symbol in Noah’s story, the rainbow. In the rainbow, water joins with light and makes explicit reference to what comes from above. All that is given as present and future is provided in this way. The rainbow signifies continuity. Present and future will continue to be provided and Noah’s race, ourselves, can be assured that no mass destruction will be the gods’ objective. We can see the contrast with the olive branch. The olive branch comes from the soil of the earth. It has been cultivated by caring hands and carries no promise of a future unless it be through the application of effort. It implies fecundity by means of proper maintenance which includes adequate irrigation. Water enters into the tree through the roots. It enters the rainbow through the air, where it lurks in an invisible, vaporous phase.
There is special significance that Noah learns of the significant of blood in the presence of a branch of a tree. For until that time, though in the midst of a deluge, he lived with his hope deferred. In surfeit, water creates a new condition or reverts to an old. Water on top of water describes the origin of things, the story of the first flood. In superabundance (or divine abundance), the waters of life were drowned — just as when the ocean drowns a river, it ceases to be a river. The lack in the heart of over-sufficiency calls the olive branch forth, as the shepherd’s flute calls forth love. Seeing it, Noah’s heart leaped forward and his desire rekindled. He who despaired once again felt his veins fill with the love of life. With his blood circulated the subtle body of water. It had always circulated but now that he had been told he felt it as the spirit within him. The second flood had given birth to knowledge of the tree of life.