The ocean is a recurrent symbol in the writing of John Moriarty, invoking thoughts of immensity, voyaging, and evolutionary beginnings. More than mere surface level metaphor, Moriarty’s symbols often facilitate the attempt to diagnose and treat the problems inflicted on the world by humanity. Of the many contradictions that he asks us to hold, the notion of returning to our beginnings is dominant. In this we find echoed the invitation to ‘turn the ship around’.
One of the pleas Moriarty makes to his collective audience is to participate in the attempt to ‘heal’ the beginnings of our civilisation. At first glance, this seems impossible. We cannot go back, we cannot change the past, and one could observe Moriarty’s own reference to the notion that ‘the only way out is through’: progress may not be possible by retrospectively dissecting our species’ shared history.
However, we can balance this objection by reference to a quote of William Blake’s, oft-cited by Moriarty: ‘without contraries there can be no progression’. Forcing us to confront the consequences of our past as they manifest in the present, Moriarty wonders this: if it is possible for an individual to lie down on the psychiatrist’s couch and work through the layers of their past in order to integrate and overcome trauma, could it also be possible for a whole civilisation to work its way through the chaos, violence, and delusions of its past in order to heal culture? It seems a tall order, but the alternative is business as usual, and that will lead to a perpetuation of the mindset that put us, and the earth, in trouble in the first place.
In the spearing of the bison represented on the walls of Lascaux cave, in the heroic defeat of the minotaur by Theseus, in the unfortunate notion of the universe as ‘something made, as handiwork’, Moriarty bemoans how Western civilisation’s ‘attitude to the earth was all wrong from the beginning’. Using the language of the journey, he invites us to question, both literally and figuratively, where we are going as a species. We seem to be intent on a life of movement, of travel, of exploration, yet the pursuit of such a life has yielded conflict, commodification, and destruction. So, for all our journeying outward, be that the crossing of the Atlantic or the crossing of the divide between our home planet and the moon, Moriarty suggests that ‘Earth is the planet in space we should be journeying toward.’ Here again, we must embrace contradiction: physically, we are always already ‘here’ but we are not always ‘present’, and this attitude breeds an ignorance and indifference to the health and wellbeing of our world.
In One Evening in Eden, Moriarty asks the provocative and uncomfortable question: in our behaviour, are we AIDS virus to the Earth? We seem to do to the earth what the AIDS virus does to the human body; breaking down its immune system, reducing its ability to heal itself. As a body may be HIV- positive, is the earth HSS (homo-sapiens-sapiens) positive? Again invoking the imagery of the sea journey, Moriarty considers whether we are ‘the iceberg into which the earth has crashed’. An iceberg is a natural phenomenon which can destroy the vessel which makes a journey of discovery possible. So to it may be that we are a natural phenomenon which is destroying the vessel of earth this ‘beautiful blue jewel’, this ‘stupendous opportunity’, the ‘enlightened earth’.
To see the iceberg coming is a challenge. An even greater challenge is to change our collective behaviour in time for fatal destruction to be averted:
“What a turning round of ships, what a turning round of eyes and minds, what a turning around of recent history is in that.”
Reflection by Kevin J. Power