Monday, November 15, 2010

Mind boggles

Curiously, it was only relatively late in life that I discovered the verb "boggle", generally applied to minds, and I imagined immediately that it was some kind of American neologism. Today, I learn that it is an old term, probably derived from "bogey" (scarecrow). So, the mind boggles when we encounter something that awes us greatly, to the point of causing us to lose our everyday grip on reality.

As a child, I knew the word "woggle" (ring used to fasten the scarf of a Wolf Cub). Later, in computing, I discovered the word "toggle" (two-state switch that goes from zero to one, or back, every time it is hit). But only later did I learn how to say that I was so overwhelmed that I didn't know what to say. Meanwhile, my mind had been constantly boggling, every now and again, for ages…

One should not, however, exaggerate. Simply being impressed is not sufficient for boggling to occur. When you come upon a trivial political statement, say, with which you disagree, you're not going to claim seriously that the opinion of that individual makes your mind boggle! It's like the adjective "awesome". When a lady blogger describes the insipid website of such-and-such a friendly hockey mom as "awesome", this is simply a nonsensical abuse of language. This happens all the time, of course. In French, a few decades ago, the powerful adjective "formidable" came to be used as a synonym for weak words such as "good", "pleasant", "nice" and "attractive". If we don't force ourselves systematically to tone down our use of superlative language, and refrain from using excessive terms to designate mediocre situations and happenings, then we're in danger of running out of appropriate words when they're really needed.

When I was a youth, the things that made my mind boggle most were the concepts of eternity and infinity. Trying to contemplate these disturbing notions made me nauseous, and I quickly had to force myself to think of something else, otherwise I felt that I might be physically sick, or go crazy. Curiously, I had two sure-fire techniques for getting back to normal, even when my mind started to boggle in the darkness and solitude of the night. More precisely, I had a pair of marvelous images stored away in a readily-accessible corner of mind, and I only had to fetch one or other of these two images, or both (in the same way that a computer programmer might link to an error-handling subroutine), in order to halt the boggling, and cause the nausea to disappear. You might say that those two images were unexpected. Even today, I don't know where they came from. I still don't understand why these images used to "work" (I gave up using them when I became a science student) in the sense of attenuating my anguish. In any case, the first image was that of a campfire with children.

Was this some kind of romantic allusion to the Wolf Cub paradigm, which had stirred my imagination for as long as I could remember?

The second image, totally unrelated to the first, was that of a giant ocean liner about to set sail for the other side of the globe. Incidentally, my choice of the image on the left is anachronistic, since the original Queen Mary (of which I had seen images when I was a child) was a far more modest vessel than her recently-built young sister (shown here). But the curves of a massive dark hull were part of my childhood vision. As things turned out, this image of a giant vessel presaged my real future. On the final day of the year in which I turned 21, I stepped aboard a Greek ocean liner with a French name, the Bretagne (built in 1951 at St-Nazaire with a sister ship, the Provence, for a Marseille-based shipping company), which took me to the Old World of my dreams.

A few months later, in May 1962, the Chandris shipping company decided to change the name of their liner to Brittany. Greek observers might claim retrospectively that this was an omen of bad luck. Be that as it may, the vessel was destroyed by fire in Piraeus less than a year later, in April 1963. As for me, after an exceptionally harsh winter holed up in London (and working for IBM, Wigmore Street), I arrived at the East London docks on 28 August 1963 to meet up with a Greek cargo vessel, the Persian Cyrus, on which I was to be employed as a deck boy. I've still got the UK immigration officer's document that authorized me to board the old tramp steamer.

For the first week or so, I greased steel cables, painted anything and everything that could be painted, and helped the cook to prepare and serve meals. After leaving Marseille, the first officer (learning that I had studied mathematics) invited me to take the helm. This was an utterly fabulous activity. Acting upon navigational orders expressed in Modern Greek, I edged the vessel manually through rough seas between Corsica and Sardinia, then around the west coast of Sicily and into the eastern waters of the Mediterranean. A day or so later, commanded by an Egyptian pilot, I steered the ship cautiously through the Suez Canal. Then we entered the Red Sea, with its hordes of dolphins and flying fish. By that time, the giant steel carcass had become my toy. Learning how to turn the wheel in order to change course by a precise number of degrees was quite an art. If you simply tried to aim the vessel in the desired direction, its huge momentum, combined with the effects of the swells and the wind, would cause you to overshoot the mark. Fortunately, I soon developed tricks that enabled me to perform this task optimally. Basically, the general idea was to aim the ship in such a way that it would rapidly overshoot the mark by a few degrees, while attempting to dip the bow into a big swell that would twist the ship abruptly back into the right direction. It's easier said than done… but it was an immense physical pleasure to master this technique. Finally, I left the Persian Cyrus in Kuwait, because it was bound for India, whereas I was keen to get back to France. Here's my pay slip (which you can click to enlarge a little):

I don't know much about the state of the Kuwaiti economy today, but you couldn't get far on ten quid back in those days. Fortunately, I was able to camp in the port zone of Mina-al-Ahmadi for three or four days before getting hired on a British Petroleum tanker, the British Glory, that enabled me to reach Rotterdam three weeks later.

By that time, I no longer needed to calm down my metaphysical anguishes by imagining stirring images of campfires and big ships, because I had discovered, in the interim, that scientific awareness was a far more efficient solution for boggled minds. The campfire is probably still burning, but I no longer need to sit down there. The big ships are still sailing, but I'm no longer obsessed with the idea of boarding them.

For years now, I've found myself face-to-face with visions of amazing entities such as quantum theory, modern cosmology and genetics. Certainly, there are many awesome phenomena that we cannot really comprehend in the same way that I mastered the task of pointing the big ship in the right direction. The truth of the matter is that our human brains, senses and muscles are fairly good for challenges such as getting a machine—such as a vessel or an automobile or a bicycle—to move from one place to another. But we're unfortunately not very good at all, in fact utterly lousy, at trying to get a gut feeling for stuff such as quantum events, the space/time scales of cosmology and the tricks played by DNA in the course of a few billion years. But we succeed in giving ourselves the impression that we understand such things by making an effort to assimilate their scientific explanations.

Little or nothing anguishes me any more, and yet everything amazes me, and commands my respect. I'm enraptured with Nature, which I imagine as an eternally youthful nymph, who seduces me constantly and endlessly. Now that my mind has ceased boggling, I need a new word to designate the rapture in my regard when I look upon the existence of life in the Cosmos.


  1. My partner, Jim, insists that the only thing that is awesome is a supernova!

  2. Yes, they're indeed awesome. Ah, if only I could observe a few of them of a morning, from my bathroom window, when I look out over the Bourne Valley in the direction of Italy! The trouble with all these phenomena that cause minds to boggle is that they're rarely within reach. So, maybe I shouldn't complain about people who use the adjective "awesome" to describe a friend's blog. At least blogs are nice homely tangible entities, within the reach of everybody who's prepared to browse through them. So, please, somebody: Reassure me that the Antipodes blog is indeed awesome... just short of a supernova!

  3. A fascinating entry -- but how do I get back to the Durrell story ? I too was an avid reader of Durrell in my misspent youth.


    PS You never actually met Durrell -- though you tried -- one of those lessons I've learnt over my 70+ years is that one never should miss an opportunity to meet the great -- and even more important -- the potentially Great

  4. Harvey: I'm pleased you reacted positively to this blog post of almost a year ago. The curious business about the calming effect of mental evocations of campfires and big ships remained in force for ages.

    My numerous blog posts concerning Lawrence Durrell—whom I did in fact meet personally, twice, in Nîmes (1963) and in Paris (circa 1971)—can be found easily by typing durrell in the search box in the top lefthand corner of my blog page, followed by RETURN (or whatever it's called these days).