Ship of Dreams: How the Stuck Suez Canal Container Ship Embodied Life, the Universe, and Everything (Or Not)

Suez Canal Blocked After Giant Container Ship Gets Stuck - The New York  Times
Credit: NYT

Well, it was fun while it lasted.

After six days stuck in the Suez Canal, the enormous container ship Ever Given was freed by a combination of tugboat power and high tides. According to Egyptian officials, it’ll take at least three days – if not longer – to clear the vast backlog of ships waiting to transit the canal. For one shining moment, though, the ship that clogged a vital artery of global commerce came to stand for human futility in the face of our personal and collective problems – an exceptionally ephemeral myth of Sisyphus for the social media age.

Indeed, the fleeting saga of the Ever Given and the Suez Canal ascended into the loftiest of memes: simultaneously silly, preposterous, and ultimately a reflection of the world into which it was born. It didn’t just represent our incompetence and incapacity when faced with daunting physical obstacles, it offered a humorous way for many on social media to reveal and poke fun at their own faults. At a time when all our lives have been put on hold for over a year by the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s only natural to find an outlet in the travails of a mammoth container ship stuck sideways in a not-quite-wide-enough canal.

That starts with the very fact of the Ever Given’s predicament. It’s still unclear how exactly the ship ran aground in the first place; initial reports blamed it on a sandstorm that blew the vessel off course, but human error hasn’t been ruled out. Beyond the apparent ineptitude involved, though, there was the absurd spectacle of lone earthmovers and digging machines trying in vain to dislodge the massive container ship. Combined with a year of pandemic-imposed isolation, the Ever Given’s awkward situation provided ample fodder for memes that dwelled on our personal stagnation and collective inability to surmount formidable challenges.

The immobile container ship spawned two main sets of memes, one focused on the obstruction of the canal itself and the other on seemingly inadequate attempts to remove it. In the first category, the Ever Given itselfstood in for the large and typically self-imposed obstacles that block our paths. Twitter personality @darth, for instance, compared the ship to the social media platform itself, keeping users from a good night’s sleep – presumably because they scrolled their feeds instead of turning in for the night. Or as another Twitter user commented, “We are all, in our own little way, that ship.”

For other meme-makers, however, we were the lone excavators and earthmovers engaged in an apparently pointless effort to release the Ever Given and send it on its way. The size differentials between the hulking container ship and its erstwhile rescue parties only reinforced the shared sense of futility expressed by these memes. One reporter, for example, tweeted an image of a solitary excavator digging away at the ship’s bow with the caption, “me just trying my best.” Others labeled the vessel with a daunting personal problem and the excavator with an inadequate behavioral response, gesturing toward perceived Sisyphean struggles against insurmountable difficulties inherent in life.

Then there were the meta-memes, those attempting to discern the true meaning of the Ever Given memes themselves. As one commentator put it, “The Boat is of course only incidentally a boat, and primarily a manifestation of the online mind’s inability to quit take-making and be about anything other than itself.” Yet complaining about the online Discourse (always capitalized) remains an inextricable part of the Discourse itself; not even the fiercest critics of the take-industrial complex can hope to escape the self-referential event horizon of this intellectual black hole. Perhaps the only winning move here is not to play.

But sometimes all we can do is bow to the absurd. If a wide range of people project their own existential dread onto a big dumb boat stuck in the Suez Canal, that can in fact provide us with some insights into our shared state of mind. After four years of Trump and a year into a worldwide pandemic that’s kept many of us isolated from one another, collectively reveling in this moment of glorious and largely inconsequential absurdity probably represents an effective way to manage the stresses and strains of our own situations. 

Still, it’s best not to encumber this meme with any real meaning whatsoever. In the end, an enormous container ship run aground in a vital shipping artery was just an enormous containership run aground in a vital shipping artery. It’s undoubtedly a transient episode that will soon fade from public consciousness like the morning mist. All the same, it’s also given many of us a delightfully ludicrous if short-lived distraction from our pandemic-dominated lives – a release valve for the anxieties of our present moment.

For that, reality can provide no substitute.