When the tide goes out on Sandymount Strand, it leaves a vast expanse of emptiness, a sudden urban desert from which the sea seems to have completely receded. Looking across from Dublin southeast to Howth Head, there seems, far out, to be just the thinnest stream of sea, through which one might almost wade to encounter without obstacle the cliffs ahead.The phrase from Joyce, "walking into eternity on Sandymount Strand," encapsulates the sense of vastness, infinity, as if this extraordinary city were to be reminded, with lunar regularity, of the way it obtrudes slightly out of space and time.
There I met a man one day. I had been out for a walk to clear my head from the cobwebs of discursive thought, to breathe the sea air and commune with the forsaken gulls. I saw him approach in the distance, as if he had just emerged from the sea. As he approached closer I was aware of the first faint stirrings of unease. It was not the approach of some mythical sea-creature, prepared to drag me into the deep, that I feared. The problem was more banal and yet, in an odd sense, as arcane: I didn't know whether to say hello to him or not.m
In country areas in Ireland, one always salutes a passer-by, whether a stranger or not. It would be considered boorish in the extreme to disregard this elementary courtesy. In an underpopulated country the slightest hint of human company is welcome, a touch of warmth and meaning to dispel for a moment the pervasive loneliness. things are different in the city. What is good manners in the country is eccentricity in the city. It is not that Dublin people are lacking in love, simply that the density of population means that love is spread a little more thinly, as it were.My dilemma was perplexing in the extreme. Sandymount Strand with the tide out, deserted for miles, is neither the country nor the city: it is, in a sense, the country inm the city.
For a fraction of a second, the carefully built-up conventions that structured my life were pulled apart, by a sudden intolerable tension for an intolerable moment in which I glimpsed something terrifying: the fundamental formlessness, homelessness, lostness that underlies our carefully-structured world.
As it turned out, my problem was resolved when he saluted me. I gratefully replied, and we passed on. With a surge of relief I knew that my fear had been groundless: the decision had not been mine to make. And yet as certainly, I knew that the strange terror had not been dispelled that it lurked in unconsciousness, only awaiting a propitious moment to reveal itself once more. And I meditated on its origin, and whether it would ever be possible to annul, to transcend, that fear.
Impatience, indifference, irritation, it seems to me, are not minor moral blemishes, flotsam on the human ocean -- they are raw hatred itself, which mixed with love, produces the greyness which many of us call life. We are lost among the branches of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, of love and hatred. It is on a rare occasion when the curtain slips that the depth of our predicament reveals itself. Saints, artists, mystics, have been aware of the peaks and chasms where, in our myopia, we see but a grey plain. A slight anxiety, unease in social relations (as when one is uncertain whether, or when, to greet a fellow human being in the street) are not what they appear, they are much more: identitylessness -- not knowing what one is, what one should be or do.
Are not our elaborate systems of conventions, our craving to define the world for self-definition, in fact the whole symbolic world itself, an incredibly clever and persistent attempt to construct a realm of meaning, to deceive ourselves that the chaotic nothingness at the base of human consciousness is not there? It is only when a fundamental incongruity rips the veil for a moment that our homelessness is revealed.
Because our true home is not here. Or rather, it is here, but we, in our inventiveness, have attempted to improve on it. The consequences have been disastrous. In looking for love in hatred, and hatred in love, we have brought about a state of things where the only way to keep out the blizzard of anomie is to snuggle, ever so tightly, into that vast overcoat we call "the world."
And it is only that bright, glorious sun of righteousness for which we yearn, and which will inevitably appear, that will force us eventually to discard our armour. when we have learnt truly to love, then the falsity of convention which disguises our lack of love will disappear, and we shall know ourselves to be inthat realm "where" in the words of the Old English poen "for us all security stands." And know that, in our true being, we never left that consciousness.