EP-125 WHY MAN EXPLORES

 

photo of James Michener

 

[29] James Michener

 

James A. Michener, world-renowned novelist and travel writer, has led a life of adventure and exploration since his teens, when he began to travel across the United States, visiting all but 3 states before he was 20.

Born in New York City in 1907, he moved to Doylestown, Pennsylvania, at the age of 10. He was graduated from Swarthmore College with highest honors, and went to St. Andrew's University in Scotland. He then taught at the George School in Pennsylvania, Colorado State Teachers College and, as Assistant Visiting Professor of History, at Harvard University. He later became a textbook editor for a New York publisher, a position interrupted by World War II, when Michener joined the Navy.

[30] The Navy introduced him to the Pacific Ocean. He mailed his first book Tales of the South Pacific anonymously to his former employer. Published in 1947, the book won a Pulitzer Prize, Michener won back his job as a textbook editor, and the stories were adapted into the musical play South Pacific, which ran for many seasons on Broadway and still enjoys frequent revivals.

Michener later crossed the Pacific many times, gathering material for the novels Sayonara, Return to Paradise, and The Bridges at Toko-Ri. He moved to Honolulu in 1949 and became active in Hawaiian civic affairs. His novel Hawaii was completed 10 years later, on the day the U.S. Congress voted Hawaii into the Union.

Michener has visited most countries of the world, finding material for his imagination wherever he goes. Afghanistan provided the background for the novel Caravans (1963). The Bridge at Andau (1957) is a nonfiction account of the 1956 Hungarian uprising. The Source, a novel of Israel as the birthplace of the three great world religions, was published in 1965.

His most recent novels are The Drifters (1971), Iberia (1973), and Centennial (1974). A nonfiction book, Sports: A Program for America, was published in June 1976.

 

[31] Mr. Michener

I have always believed that an event has not happened until it has passed through the mind of a creative artist able to explain its significance. I suppose that is why from the earliest times we have had the narrators who sat around campfires at night to recount the heroic adventures of that day. Because those adventures really did not happen until they were crystallized into words and comprehensions.

It is therefore understandable that our first great epic, the Homeric dual poem, dealt primarily with man's earliest adventure in exploring. There is no figure in literature more heroic and permanent than Ulysses. He epitomizes the adventuring characteristic in all of us: the ever searching, the onward probing, the grappling with ancient myths, converting them into present reality, the quest for lands that have been mentioned but never seen. It is not by accident that our opening epic deals with the explorer in mankind, because exploring is one of his permanent and attractive characteristics.

I also find the Bible, one of our second or third epics, essentially a story of a tribe [32] motivated by different goals and different gods, moving to explore the area into which they had been called. True, their exploration is as much moral and spiritual as it is physical, but it is always that forward thrusting into Syria, into Egypt, into the Mediterranean, that characterized the second great work.

But it seems to me that if one wants to look at the supreme epic dealing with exploration and come to grips with it, there is no better place to start than the poem of Luis de Camoes, the Portuguese master (usually pronounced Camoens in English). His great work, "The Lusiads," extols the explorations done by the men of Lusitania. The poem deals with Vasco da Gama, setting out to explore the hidden corners of the world, a man of extraordinary quality. The book is a paean to the glory of the explorer. It is the noblest statement I know of about why men go forth and what they accomplish when they do so. But the highlight of the book, and I commend this to you above everything else I will say, comes in Book

4, verses 94 to 104, in which, as the great caravels set forth on this immortal exploration, the old man of Belem appears, sitting by the side of the bay to [33] watch as the ships go down. He utters a most marvelous lament for the insatiable appetite of all who are lured to the horizon. He predicts that this great expedition can come to no good end. The Portuguese will explore new lands but they will give those lands no new light. The ships will go forth but they will not carry any goodness with them to the new lands. The expedition must end in futility and folly and he continues for 10 wonderful verses, summarizing the arguments that will later be thrown at space exploration: that explorers always take on more problems than they solve.

But at the end, even this old man who is so pessimistic, so against the grain of all Portugal, is forced to concede:

 

"There is no high or fateful enterprise
By fire, steel, flood, heat, cold though it may be
That sons of man have ever left untried.
Desperate condition, fate unsanctified."

 

There is no way to halt this exploration. Portugal will not gain from it, but the knowledge of the world will be extended, the implacable onward thrust of mankind will have been continued. So, with the old man's implicit, though grudging, blessing the great enterprise goes forward.

[34] I cherish these 11 verses of Camoes because they epitomize the problem of exploration: We never gain as much from it as the wild enthusiasts promise; we invariably gain more than the frightened old men predict. And regardless of predictions, the exploration must go on because it is in man's nature to explore. These verses are a corrective to either kind of excess in talking about exploration, and I particularly must keep them in mind because I have spent the bulk of my life in exploring and have often put my conclusions in writing.

When I was a little boy in a small town in Pennsylvania, past my door ran a remarkable road. To the east it went a quarter of a mile and stopped dead. To the west it was limitless. It went all the way to the Pacific, and from there to Asia and the entire world. As a child I looked at that road and understood its two directions-limited and unlimited-and thought how craven it would be for a human being to devote his life to the exploration of the eastern portion, which could be exhausted in an afternoon, and how commendable to turn westward and thus enter upon a road and a complexity of roads that would lead to the very ends [35] of the Earth. I chose the western road.

Four years ago, when I was 65, I drew up a memorandum of work still to be done and I remarked upon the fact that I had been fortunate in being able to visit every place on Earth that I had wanted to see except three. I had never been to Peking, which my fellow Asian experts told me was the greatest city of the world, particularly in the old days when it captivated the imagination. Nor had I ever seen the Amazon River. Nor had I been to the South Pole. And I reflected then that perhaps it was proper for a man who hadd seen so much to leave three unsatisfied targets.

And then, within 2 weeks of my having written that memorandum, I was by the sheerest accident possible at the Amazon, and a week later in Peking. That leaves the South Pole. I still feel as I did. It is proper that there should always remain one target over the horizon.

I was in Christchurch 2 weeks ago and went to pay my homage to that marvelous monument to Robert Falcon Scott, the great explorer who raced Amundsen to the South Pole. Amundsen went south to the Pole almost as if he were on a [36] weekend picnic. Everything went right; he got there first; he left his flag; he returned without incident.

But Scott and his crew struggled south with everything conceivable going wrong, and on the way back, as you remember, they perished one by one. Scott, by some miracle, was the last left alive-certainly not because he shied away from the ultimate tests, but maybe because he was in superb psychological condition. And as he lay freezing to death, he wrote that remarkable letter to James Barrie in which he recounts what it is like to be an explorer at the moment of defeat, when everything has gone against you and the other man has got there first and you watch your companions die off one by one. Again, there is no finer statement concerning the nature of exploration than Scott's letter to Barrie. I commend it most highly.

I think, however, that when one deals with exploration, one has got to be aware that in every generation one field of exploration ends. We have done it. We have exhausted the possible. With Darwin we explored the beginning of life and the characteristics which modify it.

[37] As that epoch ends, we start something new. We are always at the end of something, always at the beginning of something else. This is true not only of societies, not only of total culture, but also of individuals. If we have no accomplishment, if we never know success, we lead embittered lives. But if we stop with one success and do not recognize that it stands merely as a threshold to something greater, more complex, more infinite, then I think we do only half our job. Tonight, as we contemplate Mars, I feel as if I were standing on a threshold of immense dimension. All my life I have followed the explorations of Mars intellectually, philosophically, imaginatively. It is a planet which has special connotations. I cannot recall anyone ever having been as interested as we are in Jupiter or Saturn or Pluto. Mars has played a special role in our lives, because of the literary and philosophical speculations that have centered upon it. I have always known Mars.

But to be here tonight, to have seen that remarkable series of photographs which has come from that remote planet, and to realize what a weight of information they [38] are bringing, what a freight of imagination and possible solution, is a moment of such excitement for me that I can hardly describe it. If the photographs

I have seen do indeed show riverine action-I mean those marks which look like possible river terracing or the benchmarks customarily made by rivers-then I, for one, will have to admit that a major segment of my inherited knowledge has been shattered. Much of what I have believed about space will have to be revised, for we will now have in Mars a planet which once had a liquid component, which means that it had a substantial atmosphere, which means that it once had illimitable possibilities. Imagine living the days when a discovery of such fundamental significance is possible!

The Moon never caused me much trouble. I had to revise few of my concepts. After all, getting there was merely a technical problem. Scientists had already taught me as much about the Moon as I needed to know. It was a minor appendage attached to Earth; it was egocentric. But when you move out to a planet which is a creation comparable to our own and which has similar propensities and [39] possibilities, then you are moving into a whole new orbit of speculation. The realization that in these very days, we are getting information from the threshold of our particular galaxy, an information which we can then apply to the billionth galaxy in farthest space, is to me an overwhelming experience. If subsequent photographs do produce evidences of riverine action, then we are faced with the question: Why did the water leave? What caused the great change? Is such change inevitable in all such successions? What does such evidence mean concerning life on other comparable planets, the billions upon billions of other stars that are in this galaxy alone and the billions of galaxies beyond them?

It is this kind of threshold that has always made the explorer's life exciting. And it is only one of the small number of thresholds that we live on right now: What are the ultimate capacities of the mind? How do cells operate? Which organizations of society are better than the ones we sponsor? I am much like the old man of Belem, apprehensive about the explorations, yet absolutely certain that they will go forward and that the triumphs and defeats that go with them [40] will form a basic characteristic of man, and one of the best characteristics. As a onetime explorer I wish I could conform to Tennyson's statement in his poem "Ulysses." He was an older man when he wrote this, and he spoke of Ulysses, an older explorer:

 

"COME, MY FRIENDS,
'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down;
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Mowed earth and heaven, that which we are, we
are-
One equal temper of heroic hearts.
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."

 

Mr. Cousins

Jim, there was excitement in your voice and manner when you spoke about the way your mind was affected by the landing on Mars, but I must say that there was even more excitement in your voice when you spoke about the human spirit. I just wondered whether, when you [41] described the old man of Belem, you also thought of Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea.

 

Mr. Michener

I think that the human spirit, as it manifests itself in some six or eight billion people, will always have that capacity to explore. To kill that off at any point would be disastrous . . . disastrous.

 

[42] Mr. Cousins

It has been my privilege for at least 6 months now to be associated with the gentleman at my right, Captain Cousteau, in the sense that we both work for the same magazine. And I would hope, Captain Cousteau, that we can come to you in your role as an explorer. Why do you do it? What leads you to these vast watery wastes? What is it in your soul that makes you want to do things that have never been done before?


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