It comes down to drift. Direction, velocity, the forces that impose both.
Just a few decades ago, a sea-going navigator could not plot an accurate course and distance ‘over the ground’ without understanding the effect of a local tidal stream or current and estimating its speed and direction in a given period. Then there was leeway, a mutable angle of downwind drift caused by the press of wind, and sometimes a heavy sea, on sails, rigging, superstructure, and hull. Set and drift, old mariner’s terminology. They could carry you miles from your intended track.
Drift was insidious even in apparent stillness. There are old names applied to vast windless tracts of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans: just five degrees of latitude north and south of the equator are the Doldrums; thirty degrees north and south are the Horse Latitudes. Above the Tropic of Cancer, in the north-west Atlantic, the Sargasso Sea is the eye of a gyre formed by four circulating ocean currents. It, too, is often windless.
Windless, but still fluid. In these places, sailing ships were often becalmed, at the mercy of almost imperceptible local eddies and random squalls. They might drift for weeks, first in one direction, then another, before finding a steady breeze to carry them away.
Drift is tedium, but rarely stasis.
I am in Berlin. It is a long way from any ocean, and if there is a rhumb line pencilled on some existential chart of my life, this city is nowhere along it. I have almost forgotten how I got here –the observations I made, the bearings I took, all obscured by cryptic notations and repeated erasures. By tradition, a voyage is never described as being ‘to’ a destination, only ‘towards’ it, as if anything more definite might tempt fate. I have never pretended the voyage I am on had any direction at all.
I have made an art out of the indefinite. When I was young, if you asked me what I did for a living, I might try to discourage your curiosity by telling you I was a a deckhand on a fishing boat or a small-time criminal, a standover man or a fence. And I might actually have been, then. Nowadays, I am retired. No-one is interested in what old people do.
I am not really retired. I can’t afford to be. There are few days in which I am idle. But little of what I do fits into the hold-all of a single occupation and none of it is shaped by conventional ambition. I might more easily tell you what I am not than what I am. But even then, probably, I’d be contradicted by my own history.
The Germans have an angular, multi-syllabic word for people like me. Lebenskünstler, life artist. The meaning is more nuanced and negotiable than its literal translation. While it usually describes an urban dilettante who adopts a creative (in the broadest sense) lifestyle without the burden of output – the lebenskünstler was a Berlin archetype even in the earliest years of Weimar culture – it has also been claimed by those of us whose accomplishments lack a narrative structure, what others might call a career arc. In a city of cultural shape-shifters, indisciplined polymaths and dodgy chancers – and I am all of these – government agencies list ‘lebenskünstler’ as a vocational category.
Die kunst, the art part, is careless and improvisatory. Intrinsic to it is a willingness to set aside the rational and surrender to drift. Dead reckoning – another navigational term, the diligent record of everything affecting a course steered from a specific point of departure – has no place in this.
Drift can be an amnesiac state, at once a process and a symptom of forgetting. I have led many different lives, in many different places, but there is rarely a confluence of them, no commonality of acquaintances. I keep few records or keepsakes. I stay off the grid. My gaze is fixed on the horizon– always alert to the stray tendrils of a current to take me somewhere else. Once I’m gone, I tend not to stay in touch.
In the old days, several weeks of oily calm in the Horse Latitudes or the Doldrums were sometimes enough to drive sailors mad. The drift is not for everyone. Uncertainty is pervasive. If you need to know where you are and what you’re doing there, you are probably in the wrong place. And yet it isn’t about self-negation but rather an imaginative form of self-reliance, an embrace of the uncharted and the relentless unexpected.
C.C. O’Hanlon is an inveterate traveler and diarist. He lives in Berlin.