It can be quite an experience to go on a boat trip which lasts from sunrise
to sundown, especially when the passengers are a motley crew and, on top of
that, the crew a mixed bag.
That day there could hardly have been a greater variety of human beings on
board: young, middle-aged and old; male and female, or with some
androgynous combination of the two; brown, yellow, black and white and all
colors or shades in between.
And there could hardly have been a greater variety of people on board:
persons inclined to the left, to the center or to the right in politics;
anarchists, totalitarians and proponents of more moderate views; pacifists
and militarists and those who may be peaceful at one moment and defend
themselves or aggress against fellow-humans at another.
In the denominational field, too, all were represented: those believing in
several, if not many, gods and demons, or in only one god, with or without
a devil, and those doubting or denying the existence of any god or demon,
besides those believing in, first of all, a multitude of norms and values,
or in a limited number of fundamental norms and values, not forgetting
those professing to believe in nothing at all.
The trip began in a
very green, wet area with natural lakes, wide rivers and winding creeks.
There were birds and fishes everywhere to be seen, and woods nearby and
forests with wild animals on the distant higher grounds. It continued thru
a drier area with smaller rivers connected by straight canals with polders
on the sides, where there used to be lakes. There were still woods at the
horizon and hedges between the nearby fields grazed by sheep and cattle.
The trip ended in a completely built-up area with only human-made waterways
crossed by steel bridges that connected stone and asphalt roads and
streets lined with cars which led to majestic skyscrapers, the one even
taller than the other. There was the occasional park, but there were no
woods, let alone forests anymore. And the clear waters of the beginning of
the day gradually made way for dirty ditches, full of the plastics and
rubbers of human civilization.
I traveled with a couple of friends, a man and a woman who had
two children with them, a girl and a boy. As the sun was shining during a
prolonged period of time, we were sitting on deck, like most other
people. The scenery was pleasant and we had some food and drinks. Not
far from us there was a family with something like ten to twenty
children. One of the adult members, a man with a long beard, a mustache and
a pair of glasses was sitting only two chairs away from me. It was not
clear whether the children were his or whether he shared them with another
man, who was probably his brother. It was not impossible that all the
children belonged only to the other man in his group. They were undoubtedly a
well-to-do family, the ladies bejeweled and wearing fashionable dresses,
the men in tailored suits with shiny black shoes and glittering watches
around their wrists.
Not long after
i sat down on deck, i noticed
that the bearded man was reading from a large, heavy book on his lap. I
also heard him mumbling something. It sounded like
Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the Earth, and subdue it,
but it could also have been Increase and multiply, and fill the Earth,
and subdue it.
And i saw that the man marked the page with a dog-ear. "Don't forget, he
mumbled, "these words were offered to the world at this place".
I realized that the man could so find the words back easily and point them
out to his relatives and friends —or were they members of his flock?
Whether the bearded man had an official position in some temple
organization or not, i started looking upon him as an ordained
Within an hour or so my warlock called one of the older daughters before
him. He asked her something about a boyfriend or young man, but she was shy
and answered evasively. Yes, Father, No, Father were the
clearest answers the others in her vicinity could hear. Was she betrothed
already and going to marry? Or was it about time that she, at her age, got
the fiancé she did not yet have? The warlock was obviously thinking
ahead, beyond marriage, for he talked with her about her future duty to
bear a child or, rather, her future duty to bear as many children as
With his left hand he held the tome on his lap and with his right hand he
searched for the page with the dog-ear. Here, the Holy Book says "Be
fruitful, and multiply and replenish the Earth" or was it "Increase
and multiply and fill the Earth", but words to this effect he spoke.
And the young woman nodded "Yes, Father, yes Father, yes Father". After so
much mutual understanding, he let her go back to her sisters and
For a while nothing special happened on the boat, but the scenery was
changing and not always for the better. Bit by bit sheds and factories were
taking over from trees, rubbish in the water from fish and dirty smells
from clean air. Yet, there were still a great deal of nice things to see
and hear: beautifully landscaped gardens on the shores, interesting houses
and imposing public buildings and if not the singing of birds, reasonable
music from the speakers on the boat. Nobody paid much attention to the
group with the many children. The only one of them, besides the mumbling
warlock, who drew, perhaps, some attention was a youth who seemed
to be showing off a precious gold watch.
'E took the watch off, looked
at it attentively, pushed some buttons, looked at it again and put it back
on. This process was repeated several times. Meanwhile the youth walked
nonchalantly up and down the deck, while leaning against the ironclad
wooden railing of the boat now and then.
At a moment everyone had forgotten about the youth, the passengers on deck
were suddenly shaken by a loud yell. A woman who was probably the youth's
mother shouted: "Jim, your watch, your expensive watch!"
Almost the whole family — or was it flock? — ran towards
the part of the railing where Jim had obviously dropped the gold watch,
while shouting out loud: "Jim, your watch fell into the water!"
The warlock, too, stopped reading and joined them. "Jim, how on
earth, can you be so clumsy and stupid!".
To everyone's surprise Jim did not seem to be shocked at all. While all
were staring at
'im, 'e pulled out a small
knife from a back pocket and carved a mark on the wooden part of the
railing exactly at the spot where 'e had dropped the watch overboard.
After having finished this 'e turned around and calmly said:
"This is the place where my watch went overboard. When we arrive I'll find
it back here, for sure".
Totally puzzled everyone gazed at the little notch on the railing.
"Why don't you dive into the water and get your watch back before it's too
late?" Jim's mother asked, or rather ordered, with a great sense of
urgency. "What good will that mark you carved do you", the warlock asked
in what seemed to be much more of a statement than a question.
But unperturbed, still as nonchalantly as before 'e dropped the watch, Jim
replied: "Why panic, what's the rush? My watch went over at this spot. Why
should I dive in now and keep everybody waiting? I'll just wait till we
get to our destination and dive in at where I made this mark. Then I'm
sure I'll find my watch back. It's made of gold, it won't rust. My watch
is waterproof for at least 50 meters. And these waters are much shallower;
they're not deep at all. So it'll keep on ticking."
The woman who was supposedly Jim's mother yelled: "But Jim, that mark ...".
The man who was supposedly Jim's father interrupted her: "Jim, get
that watch back or ...". The warlock who was supposedly a priest
interrupted him: "Jim, after your watch fell into the river, the boat kept
on moving and your watch stayed where you dropped it. You don't believe
your watch follows the boat, do you? The boat is getting further and
further away from the place where you dropped your watch. How could you
possibly find it back by a mark made on the side of this moving boat?"
All the deck passengers had now gathered around Jim and the warlock and
many of them — the kind who have little respect for others —
started laughing aloud and some of them — the kind who have even less
respect for others — started saying nasty things which Jim could
overhear: "This one is crazy. He's perhaps 16 years old and still
doesn't understand a simple thing like that!" With so much unexpected
aggression Jim's posture was, maybe, a little bit less self-confident than
before, yet 'e was not at all unsettled and stood firm: "Here, here, at
this point on the railing I lost my watch. Therefore, this
mark will guide me to the place where I can find it back. There's no need
to worry, there's no need to worry ...".
After this final proclamation Jim's parents took 'im to one of the cabins
below decks and the warlock returned to the formidable tome where 'e
started mumbling again.
"It's typically a case of notching the boat to seek the sword", i said to
my friends, "except that it's not a sword this time but a watch".
"How do you mean?" my friends asked.
"Kè zhōu qiú jiàn", i said slowly and
drew the characters on a piece of paper: 刻舟求剑.
"Notch the boat to seek the sword", i translated. "It's the story of a man
who went on a long journey. Out of carelessness he dropped his sword in the
middle of a wide river while crossing it in a boat.
He then did almost precisely what the youth did now: made a small cut
in the side of the boat below the railing, thought that he could find the
sword back at his destination near the mark carved and — you guessed
already — never found it.
Today Kè zhōu qiú jiàn is a short
saying to remind people that they must do things in accordance with
reality. That reality is that the boat we're in is moving. If the
boat didn't keep on moving, the youth would be right. But the position
of the boat does not remain the same, and therefore 'e's wrong. In a
similar way some viewpoints, policies or customs may not be outrageous if
circumstances never change, whereas they are outrageous at a
different time and place, because circumstances have changed and usually
"Take that man, for example," i said, pointing at my warlock,
"presumably he's a priest or something. He marks the
page where it teaches that human beings should increase and multiply, and
duty-mad as a hatter he interprets it as a commandment that all human
beings are obliged to increase and multiply, and increase and multiply, ad
infinitum, regardless of the consequences. At the time of the story he was
probably reading, there were only two human beings, which you may call "a
shortage of humans"; and a little bit later two sons as well, which you may
call "a shortage of daughters".
And at the time the story was written, there may
still have been a shortage of human beings or, perhaps, in a type of
culture in which they fancied killing one another, a shortage of men.
In those days the human race could easily increase by, say, 100, 1,000 or
10,000 %, without repercussions, let alone great repercussions."
"At present, however, we find ourselves in completely different
circumstances. An incessant increase of the human population with its
equally incessant growth of human needs will now slowly but surely destroy
what is left of nature, and the human environment and eventually the human
That priest dog-ears a page in an ancient book and 'e thinks 'e
can still find contemporary goodness or contemporary justice from its
time- and place-dependent commandments or rules. Men of his sort and their
ribs, who take religious fiction literally and swallow it hook, line and
sinker, with all its extremism and exclusivism, couldn't care less about
the accumulated consequences for this planet, nor about the individual
preferences of people.
There's no need to worry, there's no need to worry ..."
"But", my friends asked, "doesn't the same apply to any rule laid down in
any book which was not recently published in your own region of the world?"
"It depends", i replied. "It applies to
rules which make use of concrete place- and/or time-dependent, factual or
modal, conditions. If the priest had realized that it can never be a norm
for humanity to grow in number forever, but that it can be and is a norm
for humanity to a keep a balance, whatever that may mean in detail, with
the rest of nature, he would never have marked that particular page. He
would have understood that we need more humans or more male humans or more
female humans at one place and time and fewer humans or fewer male humans
or fewer female humans at another place and time or under other
"That priest is as crazy as the youth.
The youth notches the boat in which we travel; the priest the boat in which
we live, and he is therefore almost infinitely more dangerous.
Because of the youth a watch has been lost, but because of warlocks
thinking and acting like that priest the human species is going to be lost,
after so many others.
You may diagnose it as a case of notching the boat to seek the word,
kè zhōu qiú yán."
And, again, i wrote the characters on a piece of paper:
I wanted to show them to my friends, but a sudden blast of wind took me by
surprise and the paper was pulled out of my left hand. First it fell on the
deck and i ran after it, but a second gust soon blew it further away thru
the railing into the water.
I leaned over the railing. The white spot on the water was rapidly becoming
smaller, before disappearing completely.
The boat tossed wildly over the waves, and not until then did i realize how
much it was accelerating.
APPENDIX TO TALE THREE|
The central part of this tale is based on an ancient story.
Here is that story as related by Chen Jin-an
Zhezhong Yuyan and as
translated as literally as possible by M. Vincent van Mechelen into
Marking the Boat to Seek the Sword
[Once] there was a person from the [ancient Chinese] State of Chuu
[pronounced |TSHU| with a falling and rising tone] who went on a long
journey. When he crossed a river by boat (he was) careless and dropped a
sword which he was taking along with him in the middle of the river, where
it went away in a torrent. (All) the people on the boat shouted (out) loud:
"Your sword fell into the water!"
The man from Chuu immediately carved a mark on the side of the boat with a
pocket knife and then turned around and said to everyone: "This is the
place where my sword fell down".
(Looking) puzzled and lacking any explanation everyone was gazing at this
mark carved by the knife. There was a person who urged him on by saying:
"Quick, get into the water and look for your sword!"
The man from Chuu said: "What (reason is there to) panic, i have (cut) the
The boat continued to travel forward, and again there were people who urged
him on and said: "Once again, if you don’t go down to look for your sword
[now], the boat will go further and further and (the opportunity) to look
for it won’t come back".
The man from Chuu said as confidently as before: "(There’s) no need to
worry, the mark i carved is here".
Not until the boat had reached the shore and stopped did the man from Chuu
go down into the water to seek his sword at the place where he had carved
the mark. However, how could he find it(?) The mark carved on the boat
showed the actual location in the middle of the river at the moment the
sword of the man from Chuu fell into the water. The sword which was dropped
into the river was not capable of walking along with the boat, but the boat
with the mark on its side moved on without stopping. By waiting until the
boat had traveled to the shore, the location of the mark on the side of the
boat and that of the sword in the middle of the (river) water had had
nothing to do with each other anymore for a long time (i.e., in the way
that horses and oxen do not 'reach' one another). The man from Chuu used
the above method to go looking for his sword. Wasn’t he very silly?
His going down from the boat into the water at the shore was a big waste of
effort and as a result he did not gain anything; he even incurred
everyone’s sneering at him.
This, then, the fable tell us: that looking with a static vision at things
which develop and change unceasingly, a subjective idealism which will
inevitably offend against reality and be divorced from the facts[,] is