The elder Barzun likens identity to a path and then to a rudder. Life is a journey. That's a very widely used metaphor. All these people who think of life as a journey: What are they picturing? Do they see a wilderness where you can find — or break — a path? Or do they see a map where you can mark a path? Or is it a journey over the ocean, in which your body is a ship, and what you want is a rudder?
The seafaring image implicit in Barzun's "rudder" made me think of that popular old poem that ends "I am the master of my fate/I am the captain of my soul." I haven't heard that poem — "Invictus" — quoted in a long time, perhaps because it was overquoted to the point of triteness and nowadays people don't read poetry — other than in children's books. They'll listen to poetry, including the endless doggerel of rap (which is, perhaps, inspired by many childhood readings of Dr. Seuss books). But there was a time when lots of ordinary people knew the last verse of "Invictus" by heart.
I'm reading the Wikipedia page for "Invictus," scanning the long list of items under the heading "Influence." It begins with "Casablanca" (where "I am the master of my fate" is used ironically). The next item features Ronald Reagan:
In the 1945 film Kings Row, Parris Mitchell, a psychiatrist played by Robert Cummings, recites the first two stanzas of "Invictus" to his friend Drake McHugh, played by Ronald Reagan, before revealing to Drake that his legs were unnecessarily amputated by a cruel doctor.Next, another President, FDR, at least the FDR of the 1958 play Sunrise at Campobello. Further down we encounter Nelson Mandela, who recited the poem to hearten his fellow prisoners. There's also Aung San Suu Kyi. And then... it's chilling to encounter this after beginning this post with the crisis of identity brought on by 9/11:
The Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh quoted the poem in its entirety as his final (written) statement.The terrorists are out and about on their own ships in the seafaring journey of life, and they've got their rudders. Emergency inspiration available here.