landmark vs. buoy


What does the author refer to here by using the words "landmark" and "buoy"? I don't understand what he means by the line in red.

I have always envied those nineteenth-century characters who were able to look back and distinguish the landmarks of their lives, of their development. Some event would mark a point of transition, a different stage. I am talking about writers; but what I really have in mind is the capacity of certain types of people to rationalize their lives, to see things separately, if not clearly. <-----Excess quote removed by moderator (Florentia52)-----> Either because of some basic Haw of my mind or because of the fluid, amorphous nature of life itself, I have never been capable of distinguishing any landmark, let alone a buoy.

This is from Less Than One by Joseph Brodsky.
  • much_rice

    Senior Member
    English - American
    Brodsky is comparing the course of a life to a watercourse. Sailors can get a rough idea of where they are by the landmarks that they see, but they would be directed much better by a buoy (a floating marker that shows the direction of water traffic, or warns sailors off of rocks and other hazards, and may also have a functioning light).

    When he looks back on his life, he doesn't see any "landmarks" that give him an idea of how or why he's changed. He certainly doesn't see any "buoys" that would make the path he took in life more clear.

    Uncle Jack

    Senior Member
    British English
    The figurative use the writer mentions - about distinguishing the landmarks of their lives - is only ever "landmarks"; no one ever speaks of distinguishing the buoys of their lives. However, the writer then goes on to say that life has a fluid, amorphous nature. I have no idea whether he compares this to the sea in the missing part of the quote, but he is clearly thinking along those lines. Since navigation on the sea is more by buoys than landmarks (both are used, but perhaps the writer does not realise this), he introduces "buoys" as an alternative to "landmarks" in a sort of extended metaphor, and implies that buoys are more difficult to see than landmarks (which they usually are).
    Last edited:


    Senior Member
    British English
    I would add that whereas landmarks are naturally occurring features of the landscape or coastline, and can often be misleading or indistinct, buoys are deliberately placed by humans to guide seafarers.

    So, in a figurative sense, life incidents could be see differently as buoys (explicit guides/warnings) and landmarks (important events open to different interpretations).
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