Maelström, the vortex of dialectical life

In our ordinary life we can recognise the motions which take us away, and to which we inevitably are subjected without our will.

Maelström, the vortex of dialectical life

In the short story “A Descent into the Maelström”, Alan Edgar Poe tells the story of a fisherman who saves himself from being sucked into a huge sea whirlpool and thus certain death. The story can be read as a suspenseful fast-paced sequence of events experienced by the hero, or as a psychological probe into the soul of a man who stands on the border between life and death. Or can this story reveal something profound about ourselves? Anyone who reads this story suspects that these things speak from the depths of their subconscious and emerge from time to time, perhaps as undefined feelings, or as insights and hopes that emerge with situations in which we are not fully in control of ourselves and experience separation from ordinary life.

Maelstrom is a vortex that is said to occur in a fishing area between several islands off the coast of Norway. The whirlpool appears and disappears periodically at high tide. However, anyone who gets a boat near the eddy at this time has no chance of escaping its attractive currents, no matter how good their boat is. The boat is pulled into the eddy until it eventually shatters against the jagged reefs at the bottom, with no hope of rescue.  Some brave fishermen take advantage of the lull between high and low tides, when the eddy disappears for a time, and sail across the strait to nearby bountiful fishing grounds in good weather. If the weather is favourable, they will again arrive safely back in port at a precise time. Our hero and his two brothers are very experienced sailors and have always managed to overcome the dangers. One day, however, while passing through, they encounter an unexpected huge storm which drives them into a newly forming whirlpool. The first brother is swept out to sea by the storm, along with the mast to which he was tied. The other two brothers are caught in the maelstrom. Slowly and gradually, their ship spirals down into the center of the vortex where certain death awaits them. The hero, after the initial shock and already resigned to death, watches this magnificent event. He notices the other objects that have been swallowed up by the vortex and discovers patterns he never knew before. The heavier and angular objects that offer great resistance to the vortex reach the centre of the vortex much faster than the oval, light objects that float down the vortex wall, but the centrifugal energy lightens them and they stay in the same place. The hero ties himself to the barrel floating in the water and still tries to indicate his knowledge and his intention to his brother, but he does not listen and holds on tightly to the ship. The hero resolutely leaves the boat, which soon ends up in the middle of a deep whirlpool, while after some time he finds himself in calm water and the waves carry him to safety.

In our ordinary life we can recognise the motions which take us away, and to which we inevitably are subjected without our will, without often being aware of it. And also the various dangers we may repeatedly enter. We can only look back on this when our soul has been quiet and we have given it time to rest. It is like the constant alternation of the tides, with a moment of calm in between, when the flows are not so strong and our ship of life can pass in peace. These periods, however, do not as a rule last for a long time. The author of the story, however, has found that when we enter the stream of life in this way, it is possible, as a silent observer, to remain calm and recognize the laws that control the whirlpool of life.

The moment we enter this flow, we find that our desire is firmly attached to our vessel, our material body. The hero is thus symbolically shown that if he is bound to his body, it will do him no good on his journey, for the first storm will wash him away with the mast to which he is thus bound. The situations in which we are placed are often intended to confront us with the harsh realities of our transient lives, and thus open up the space for the necessary knowledge of the next step. The man standing on this threshold is forced to abandon his ego, which holds fast to its supposed certainties even when it is already clear that it has no other choice. In the story, the situation where the hero leaves his other brother is symbolically indicated. The brother is still holding on tightly with the help of a bolt on the deck of the ship, which is inevitably heading towards its destruction.

Recognition of this stage of the journey brings great hope, because finally one is free to look at the situation that surrounds him. He finds that things that do not put up so much resistance to the whirlpool of life are easier to keep afloat.  It means not being afraid to let go of things that are too much of a burden on the life of our soul and consciously holding onto only those that are necessary. At the same time, it means letting go of everything that we have previously considered to be ourselves and our life. Now we are faced with an important decision in the whirlpool of life, and at the same time we know that we must make this decision before our ship sinks to a critical level and breaks up in the middle of the whirlpool.

Jan Amos Comenius therefore writes at the end of his book „Unum necessarium“:

I. Do not burden yourself with anything beyond that which is necessary for life; be satisfied with a few things that benefit you; praise God. II. If conveniences are lacking, be satisfied with only necessities. III. And if they are taken away, strive to save yourself. IV. If you are not able to save yourself, abandon yourself, only taking care that you do not lose God. For he who has God is able to lack all other things, since he will forever possess his highest good and eternal life with God, and in God. And this, of all desires, is

[i] John Amos Komensky, Unum necessarium, translated by Vernon Nelson,

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Date: August 14, 2022
Author: Tomáš Vlček (Czech Republic)
Photo: Ulrike Leone on Pixabay CCO

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