When I was faced with the prospect of taking a cruise with my family recently, I was not enthusiastic. Spending a week on a floating Marriott Hotel seemed absurd. Cruising, a term unsavory in itself, seemed to me to reflect the worst attributes of late capitalism.
But the experience proved better than I originally thought. In part, this was because I got along so well with my daughter with whom I shared a cabin (an outcome that I attribute to the back-to the womb effect of ocean waves). In part, it was because of something more ineffable.
I began to understand better what I felt about the experience after reading the obituary last week of Gerry Davis, the leading proponent of the One-World Movement. In 1948, Davis, following a harrowing tour as a bomber pilot in World War II, entered the American Embassy in Paris and declared himself a “citizen of the world.” He continued to espouse the idea for the rest of his life (he died on July 29 at the age of 91), traveling with self-created documentation and without a formal passport, and being arrested, again and again. His cause was championed by intellectuals in the 1950s and 60s, including Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. This was a time when various forms of social idealism were being propounded. UNESCO recognized Esperanto, the universal language developed in the late 19th century, as a legitimate language in 1954. The United Nations, founded in 1945, reached the high point of its popularity — its seeming promise — in the late 1950s and ‘60s. I was in grade school in the 1960s and my teachers spoke about the UN and Esperanto in reverential tones. Despite the Cold War — or because of it — people truly believed that the world could be changed, unified under one flag or many. Everyone was serious about the “global village”(the term coined by Marshall McLuhan in 1962).
The modern cruise industry was born during this period and, in its earliest form, had an explicit affinity with this sort of idealism. The first cruise entrepreneurs, Tod Arison and Knut Kloster, founded the Norwegian Cruise Lines in 1966, and they originally conceived of their cruise ships as floating embassies. Passengers would visit remote locales in order to learn more about other cultures and peoples; they would promote world peace. The concept fit well with the One-World Movement, the United Nations, Esperanto, and the many sociological and anthropological projects that were circulating at the same time.
Admittedly, the idea of a cruise couldn’t emerge until capitalism had achieved a certain level of technological development. The transportation of products and people across large bodies of water had to evolve from cargo ships and ocean liners to airplanes. As early as the mid-19th century, certain ships had begun to offer special services and amenities to its richest passengers, and in the 20th century, this practice became well-known as such lines as Cunard and White Star offered opulent accommodations and entertainment for those who could pay. Even so, these boats remained necessary forms of transport until after World War II when air travel became cheaper and faster. At this juncture, the great ocean liners were either retired or retooled as the new cruise industry began to take shape.
One can understand how Arison and Kloster’s idealistic mission made promotional sense as passenger ships were re-conceptualized in the wake of air travel. But in economic terms, world peace, let’s face it, wasn’t going to hold water. Idealism was soon eclipsed by more practical, commercial interests. Cruise ships became controlled environments, devoted to leisure. They didn’t have to take people anywhere in particular (hence the popular “cruise to nowhere” in which the boat leaves its dock, goes out to sea, and comes back again). They were designed like gated communities, their services tailored to specific income groups. The industry, in short, became — and continues to be — a well-oiled machine, one that now rakes in $30 billion a year.
I knew all this, and yet, to my surprise, I found that vestiges of the original idealistic conceit still managed to cling to my recent cruise experience. Although life on the boat in many ways resembled any resort or spa, the presence of the ocean through the window made a difference — it was a constant reminder of the sublime. The ocean was vast, and our behemoth of a vessel with its 2000 passengers (not, even so, the largest of the fleet, but large enough to feel like a small municipality) was floating like a buoy on it. It made me realize, trite as this may sound, not only my own insignificance but the relativity of place and the arbitrariness with which we draw the boundaries for our lives. As soon as we were out to sea, the casino on board began to operate. The existence of a casino on a ship may seem emblematic of the crassly economic nature of the enterprise, and yet the rules for the casino’s operation underlined the fact that, once at sea, we were no longer subject to national laws or restrictions. We were citizens of the world. It was an exhilarating thought.
In the original concept of the cruise proposed by Arison and Kloster in the mid-1960s, the ship was supposed to expose its passengers to remote peoples at its various destinations. This aspect of cruising has mostly been eliminated, as the visits to ports are now highly regulated and the only people one sees have been vetted for the purpose. Still, the idea lives on if you consider that instead of bringing the passengers to remote peoples, remote peoples are now being brought to the passengers in the form of the ship’s staff. Our cruise had employees from more than 50 countries, most of them quite remote.
There are two ways of looking at this fact. One is to see the ship as a site of colonial-style oppression and hierarchy. The other is to see it as an opportunity for democratic commingling. There was a distinct racial divide between staff and passengers on our boat — most of the former being people of color and most of the latter being people without. But Americans (the passengers were largely citizens of the United States, though, informal canvassing suggested that many were born in other places) want to be egalitarian. Though they like good service, they don’t like feeling they are being served. This contradiction can be boiled down to their wanting people to be happy doing their jobs (a euphemism for serving them).
The ship’s administration complied with this mindset. Every effort was made to make the staff seem appreciated. There was a table for those being awarded for their work that week; there was a parade through the dining room on the last day in which the servers were applauded vigorously; and there were lots of opportunities for good-natured chitchat between staff and guests. Generous tips were suggested. I have no idea how well the staff gets paid (I am told, not well) and how they feel about being separated from their families for 3-6-month gigs. But I sense there are worse jobs to be had — some of our privileged children are even doing them.
In other ways the cruise is an effort to democratize what was once a very privileged sort of experience. Only the very rich could have fun on a boat until the late 20th century. Think of the dinners and dancing on the Titanic, and the huddled masses down below — distinctions that made the sinking of that boat such a dramatic event (the moral: nature does not discriminate). But cruises are relatively cheap vacations; indeed, if you are willing to do without a porthole and be located in an unglamorous corner of the vessel, it is amazing how little you can pay (though drinks and sundries like Yoga classes, not to mention certain shore excursions, generally charged as extras, can mount up, if you’re not careful).
The late literary and social critic Paul Fussell in his book Travel expressed nostalgia for the ocean liners of the bad old days. Fussell made a point of comparing the ship with the airplane, and finding the latter wanting. He saw the one as associated with “travel,” independent and serendipitous; and the other with “tourism,” predictable and standardized. Fussell might not have been a fan of the modern cruise ship, which in many ways bowdlerizes the early ocean liner, making it more a site of tourism than travel — but this may be missing a larger point. When you are on a cruise ship, you are, after all, at sea. You realize, as Fussell noted of old-style travel, that going somewhere can be as much or more fun than getting there — a reversal of conventional thinking that, if you are receptive, can widen your horizons.
Unfortunately, as Fussell noted in his book, much of what we do nowadays is mediated and packaged. When you are entertained non-stop from morning until night, fed continuously from all-you-can-eat buffets, and seduced by Mai Tais and Jamaica Slammers everywhere you turn, it can be hard to remember that you are on a boat in the middle of the ocean. Even the effect of the waves can be eased if you apply one of those seasickness patches behind your ear before you embark, as the cruise website suggests you do. The boat itself does a good job disguising what it is: It looks like a large midtown hotel, part of a chain that aims at different “price points.” During our recent cruise, my father-in-law was convinced that he’d been on the boat before: “Look,” he said, “the dining room, the pool, the library are all in the same place as on our trip to the Bahamas five years ago.” It had to be explained to him that all these boats are designed according to a scientifically determined template for maximum efficiency and ease of use, akin to a Frankfurt kitchen. Such design, it goes without saying, is not conducive to deep thoughts about the meaning of life, the puniness of humanity, or the desirability of world peace.
Still, there remains the ocean as an inescapable, enduring reality. You can’t disguise or sugar-coat that. It will change color and be rough or gentle as it pleases — even a seasickness patch can’t entirely obliterate that. And if there is a sameness to the ocean, it’s not a packaged sameness. It’s the vast and uninflected face of nature in its most imposing aspect. It dwarfs us in our vanity and presumption, and makes us feel, if only fleetingly, that we are citizens of the world, whether we like it or not. • 5 August 2012