The Mystical Voyage of St. Brendan – Parts 20 and 21
The Semiotics of Fish
Semiotics is concerned with everything that can be taken as a sign. A sign is everything which can be taken as significantly substituting for something else. This something else does not necessarily have to exist or to actually be somewhere at the moment in which a sign stands for it. Thus, semiotics is in principle the discipline studying everything which can be used in order to lie.” – Umberto Eco
Our mystical voyage with St. Brendan the Navigator and his brother monks continues to sail the darkened horizon that lies between the very distant past and the sunrise of the eternal moment. Following the prophecy of the Paradise of Birds, and after returning to the Community of Ailbe for Christmas, St. Brendan and his seafaring monastics took to the great western sea, which has proven to be a place of dreadful learning.
Far out in the vast blue waters of the Atlantic, the men came upon a place where the clarity of the sea allowed them to catch a glimpse of the fish in their schools and other creatures of the sea swimming beneath the currach. Astonished by this otherworldly vision, the startled monks begged their abbot not to make a noise which might attract the wrath of the aquatic host, which they could see so plainly beneath their tiny craft. The men were deathly afraid that the bigger animals would lunge for them and capsize their leather boat.
The holy navigator was sorely disappointed in his monks’ lack of proper perspective, but said nothing, instead hiding his disdain deep in the recesses of his cowl. At the appointed hour, the sainted priest intoned his prayers loudly so that the masses of fish beneath the currach swirled in circles of darkness. When he finished his prayers and singing, the fish darted to and fro, leaving the boat and its crew in peace.
Brendan then asked his followers how they could be so frightened of the fish in the sea when they could ride the great monster Jasconius. How could they dread what they saw below them when they had been saved from monsters far more terrible? Why did they fear what they saw?
This part of the voyage illustrates the pride of clarity and certitude, that most wicked of semiotic lies in this world of forms. We are so sure of what we see when things are clear, and yet we fail to remember that even when we can see clearly, we cannot see everything with the eyes in our head. Material vision can only take us so far; what we see is at best a symbol, a distorted image, an incomplete sentence in the vast volumes of divinity and unity.
Technology has given us a great gift of sight and insight into the workings of language and literature, mathematics, the arts, philosophy, psychology, religious studies; the natural sciences and social sciences, and yet we still face the same human problems faced by our ancestors. Electric light has not extinguished darkness. Medicine has not made us materially immortal. Yes, we might live longer, healthier lives, but our faith and pride in seeing things as they truly are is a grievous error if that knowledge blocks us from apprehending the truth that is larger than the sum of its parts.
As Albert Einstein wrote, “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don't know.” This is the spirit with which we can better put our knowledge in context. This is the kernel of truth that should always remind us of our fundamental lack of vision and knowledge of the larger universe which resides invisibly within us. This humility of knowledge is the anchor that can keep us from running aground on the perilous shores of arrogance and materialism.
This is the semiotics of fish as they swim beneath us, whether in obscurity or clarity. The point is, the fish are always there whether we see them or not.