End Notes: Writer on Board

Many writers have been afloat, on one liquid or another; some have gone to sea, but now we have entered the age of the cruise. Writers who once wandered robed and slippered about their studies, shuttling from coffeepot to desk, now stride the decks of luxury liners in snow-white sneakers and a pensive look, lecturing to fellow passengers on the intricacies of their craft.

Waugh’s Caesarian sectioning of writers into three kinds must now be revised. There are some who know how to write but have nothing to say; there are those who have something to say but do not know how to write, and the rest are on Caribbean cruises talking about the agony of creation.

The redoubtable Kathryn Kennison, whose annual conference, Magna Cum Murder, has taken its place in the front ranks of get-togethers of writers and readers, has organized a cruise called Mystery at Sea for next June 14-21, and your humble servant in his capacity of writer of novels but also as cofounder of Crisis and editor of Catholic Dossier has been pressed into service. The fertile mind of Deal Hudson is exploring such an outing exclusively for Crisis in February 1998, so I shall consider the June event a shakedown cruise, a label I would hesitate to apply to Deal’s plan.

Many years ago, in 1959, my family and I went to Europe for the first time on the good ship Statendam of the Holland-America Line, the very line now cruising the Carribean. I had been named a Fulbright scholar and we were in first class, courtesy of our fellow taxpayers, with a nurse assigned to look after our three children and the company of the well-to-do in the lounge and dining room. Connie had a birthday en route and sat through the equivocal pleasure of having violins played in her ear as we sat at table. In those days, almost everyone went to Europe by sea; now only sailors do, or freighter passengers in search of an offbeat adventure. The great liners are docked in ports like ancient naval ships or plying the lesser azure seas on cruises of the kind of which I speak.

In albums I can find photographs of us on board. How dressed up we look. My daughters wear their best frocks, my wife is elegant in longish skirts and high heels, I stand slouched on deck, in suit and tie and lifejacket, a cigarette in hand, contemplating the contingency for which we are drilling. But it might have been the vast future I was peering into. There is something poignant about such photographs when you know what lies ahead for their subjects.

The last time we tried to go to Europe by boat we sailed from New York and started up the eastern coast. My daughter Beth fell ill; it turned out to be appendicitis, and the ship’s doctor, who obviously had not signed on to practice medicine, arranged for the operation in Halifax. We got off, our luggage was unloaded, and for ten days after a successful operation we waited while Beth mended. To make up for lost time, we continued by air; a Volkswagen van was awaiting us in Le Havre. Perhaps we were being punished for the time we boarded ship in Southhamptom, concealing the fact that one of the kids had mumps until we were well on our way. But enough. These are not my memoirs. These are the musings of a man who lived into the time when the useful has become entertaining. And why not? Most of the boating done in this country has no aim beyond itself. People set sail, are blown about a bit, and then head back to port. And ships that once had destinations now describe great circles on the cerulean waters. From A to B has become from A to A.

Sofarforth, the activity shares features with contemplation. The practical has an end beyond itself, but theoria is absorbed into its object, a self-validating activity. I shall remember this as I lie in dark glasses and daring dishabille, exposing myself to the sun. It is a far, far better thing I do . . .

Of course you can come along. Great Destinations in Muncie would love to hear from you. 1-800-338-1720. Tell them Sinbad sent you. Thales, who is accused of being the first philosopher, left no writings, save in hearsay. He is said to have written a book on celestial navigation, not as you might think a handbook on how to get to heaven, but a manual for negotiating voyages among the Greek isles. I will take him as the pagan patron of my cruise. Philosopher On Board. Perhaps you have seen the bumper sticker.

My Christian patron will be, of course, St. Brendan. Like so many Irishmen, he had a passion for getting away from home. His thwarted crossing of the ocean may stand for the first pleasure cruise, and it is only fitting that a book came out of it. All aboard!


Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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