Over Christmas I finally got round to re-reading Will Buckingham’s Finding Our Sea Legs, a rather unusual book of ethical philosophy which I first read in 2016, and which has been knocking about in the back of my head ever since. I’ve enjoyed Will’s writing for several years now, first through his (now archived) blog thinkBuddha.org, which is well worth a browse. His work moves deftly between philosophy, fiction, travel, and children’s writing, and I am particularly enamoured with a book of his which deserves a much wider audience in my opinion, a collection of short stories entitled Sixty-Four Chance Pieces. Taking the ancient Chinese divinatory text, the I Ching as a basis, he transforms and elaborates each of its sixty-four hexagrams into a short story, by turns surprising and hilarious, and often very moving. For more recent work, visit Will’s personal website. What follows is more of a summary of Sea Legs than a review, as I’m partly attempting to work out for myself what the book means.
In Finding Our Sea Legs, Buckingham starts from the premise that the goal of most Western philosophy has been to use reason to find a place of solid ground – a set of definite propositions about the world – which might supply a basis for our lives, and in particular our ethical lives. He suggests that this project has demonstrably failed – that we are hopelessly lost navigators in the ocean of ethical quandaries, forever dreaming of dry land (and sometimes believing we’re on the way there), but never quite finding it. He takes this powerful metaphor, originally made by Aristotle, and combines it with another from the 10th century Indian text, the Kathāsaritsāgara, that of the ‘Sea of Stories’. Fans of Salman Rushdie may recall the ‘Ocean of the Sea of Stories’ from Haroun and the Sea of Stories, a beautiful (and partly allegorical) book written in the wake of the fatwa against Rushdie.
These metaphors remain as undercurrents throughout the book, in which Buckingham nests his own stories within stories, as well as drawing on the work of Walter Benjamin, Franz Rosenzweig, Immanuel Kant, Søren Kierkegaard and Emmanuel Levinas, always gently ribbing the often rather dour canon of ethical philosophy. Suggesting that we renounce the possibility of finding dry land, at least for the duration of reading, he casts off into the world of storytelling, investigating the rich seam of writing about everyday experience in Benjamin and Rosenzweig. From the premise that experience is inherently liquid and unstable, Buckingham weaves the notion of ethics itself as a kind of experience, felt in the body rather than reasoned through by the mind. For Buckingham, even speech and writing are best construed as physical acts, with a particularity and individuality to their expression. He goes on to explore the work of the twentieth century phenomenologists, and in particular that of Levinas, whose internment in a Nazi prison camp during the Second World War may have heightened his sensitivity to the underlying strangeness that belies an encounter with an ‘other’. Levinas concludes that we are infinitely responsible for others, a slightly alarming thought, but that this responsibility ultimately creates a kind of freedom, at least from self-concern. However, Buckingham points out that despite the philosopher’s avowed anti-storytelling stance when it comes to writing phenomenology, his notion of the ‘other’ seems (ironically) bound up with a sort of ‘tragic hero’ narrative, in which the demand to help others becomes a constantly receding horizon. But the kernel of Levinas’ ethical thought remains immensely useful: namely, the call to investigate the ‘what is it like?’ of ethics.
The rest of the book attempts to sketch out some further avenues for exploring this ‘what is it like’. Via a discussion of the sort of stories that create a physical ‘shudder’, and remain with us long after the telling (borrowing Kierkegaard’s example of Abraham and Isaac), Buckingham suggests that this same shudder can often be found in our response to the world, particularly when we are faced with the sort of choices that seem to intersect with ethics. The next few chapters consider how we can deal with this shudder, first by a consideration of the multiple frames that often surround stories, and how these might create a particular sense of space or time, with the understanding that these can often be multiple and overlapping. He then returns to Levinas’ notion of otherness with this new toolkit, concluding that stories are indispensible for thinking through our relationship with others – be they human beings, or mysterious talking fish with profound messages from other worlds. In the last chapter he quotes Calvino’s ‘Invisible Cities’, on the city of Euphemia, where stories are told and exchanged, so that whatever stories you enter with, ‘your wolf will have become another wolf, your sister a different sister, your battle other battles’. For Buckingham this illustrates the patchwork and multiple nature of stories and ourselves – that we change the world and each other through the telling of stories. It is tempting to try fix these stories, with either a positive or negative transcendence of the ethical mire we find ourselves in, but this is a false hope. Nevertheless, he concludes that the tools we have at our disposable are adequate for the task at hand – ‘moving within and between stories, moving between and within uncertainties, with all the kindness, patience and care that we can muster’.