Contents—–THE END IS WHERE WE START FROM ——Part 01, Chapters 01-10

The End Is Where We Start From
A Novel
by Robert John Bennett.

Copyright 2006 by Robert John Bennett


“My dear friend,” he said, “there is no reason to be surprised, or to feel deceived. It often happens that the autobiographical element in a novel is not the narrator at all, but the character the narrator is describing.” – Nils Sondergaard

Part One:
Harvard — the First Year

Part Two:
On Leave from Harvard — East Africa

Part Three:
Harvard — the Second and Third Years

Part Four:
Absent from Harvard —
from the Arctic to the Middle East

Part Five:
Harvard — the Fourth Year

Part One:

Harvard — the First Year

Part 1, Chapter 1

Forsitan et haec olim meminisse juvabit….

One day even these things may be pleasant to remember….

He wouldn’t expect you to believe a story like this could really happen. Sometimes he couldn’t believe it himself. Much of it he had to force himself to remember; much of it he wasn’t very proud of. The thing is, though, he felt his life would really have no meaning if he didn’t at least try to leave some record of it, no matter how clumsy and awkward that record might be. And no matter how frightened he might be at the telling of it.

The story is about a boy, a young man at Harvard, one who had the face of an innocent — bright, open, but sometimes puzzled and hurt. He was full of energy and ideals and an adolescent love for everything he had learned about the life of the mind. Of course he thought he knew a little about the pain and ugliness of life too, but he was almost convinced all that was relatively unimportant. He believed he only had to push it out of his mind. Evil existed in the world — he knew that. But as far as he was concerned, evil was just something he could avoid, something he didn’t really have to worry about, something that would never affect him.

When he was first at Harvard, what he was most aware of was the kind of professor whose lectures seemed to resonate with greatness — at least for him. Those same professors, though, could cause him a strange kind of pain and embarrassment, because of the self-important, mocking, and condescending way some of them spoke about the great writers and poets of English literature. When they did that, they aroused in him an odd sense of humiliation on behalf of those long dead, those who were being so elegantly ridiculed.

So this young man, because he had a great deal of adolescent pride, swore to himself, at some deep level of his mind and without really understanding what he was doing, that no one would ever scrutinize his writings with that unsympathetic air of superiority. There would be, he promised himself, no writings to scrutinize.

Later, though, he came to understand that he had to write at least his own story, and hope that others would read it with as much sympathy and understanding as possible. He hoped they would be able to overlook the way he expressed himself, the only way he could express himself, with everything encoded in dullness and stupidity. He thought these qualities would protect him from the notice of anyone who might laugh at what he had to say. He was always so proud that he never stopped worrying about things like that.

He hoped that some would try to see beyond the code, that they would feel it was worth the trouble. If once in a while they couldn’t help laughing at him, though, he would understand. He was still proud, but he could at least laugh at himself.

Part 1, Chapter 2

“There are no dangerous thoughts, thinking itself is dangerous.”
–Hannah Arendt
The New Yorker, December 5, 1977

Going to Harvard was so important for David that he seemed to think life would really begin only when he finally got there. For a long time Harvard had been the center of the world for him. Harvard even was the world at times, because he could think of practically nothing else in the months before he went there.

He had a sense of the university as an endlessly mysterious place, with a thousand secret openings into infinitely spacious dimensions.

He expected to find at Harvard the kind of friends he’d been looking for all his life: gifted friends, who had a deep intuitive understanding of one another and of the intellectual and material world around them. They would be instinctively kind. They would engage in discussions of all the greatest truths and the highest ideals. Their ideas would be reflected and multiplied by one another’s minds and imaginations into a kind of angelic brilliance. Together they and David would explore distant and unknown regions of thought. Whatever they looked for and couldn’t find, they’d create for themselves. A whole universe of wisdom would be open to them, and they would move through its endless reaches as if they were at home there.

He knew there were many who’d say dreams like that were created by nothing more than his own overpowering loneliness, and he supposed that was true. His dreams, though, were also created by what he’d read about Harvard and the men who studied there.

Nearly every page of the history and literature of his own country seemed to confront him with reminders of those men and of that university. There seemed to be at least oblique references to them in practically everything he read, so that even before he arrived, Cambridge had become that “distant, shining city” in his mind.

Even he would probably agree now — life has surely convinced him of it — that these were all dangerous illusions, though at the time he certainly didn’t think they were illusions.

What made things even worse, though, was that when he finally did come to Cambridge, the reality of all he’d dreamed appeared to be confirmed by the way the physical and material environment resembled what he’d wanted and expected to see.

Everything was glowing with those soft colors of autumn in New England. The buildings around Harvard Yard were made only of brick and stone, but when he looked at them through his — some will say innocent, but certainly adolescent — eyes, they glowed like jewels. They became charged with light, and their reflections radiated through his mind. Harvard Yard itself was fired with the autumn color of trees arching and reaching to one another overhead, making the center of the university — in his eyes anyway — one vast cathedral of color.

Of course he talked to no one about these ideas, not at the beginning anyway. Why should he? At first he took it for granted that everyone else saw the world the same way he did.

As it began to dawn on him, however, that the world he perceived might be quite different from the one others saw, all of the new internal and external aspects of this world became more and more baffling. He looked for reassurance, but those around him could really offer none, except to say that he had to believe that they understood perfectly well what he was going through.

He was more than willing to trust them. He was quite happy, in fact, even to believe that others knew more about him than he did himself, because such a belief made it much easier for him to live in a world that was increasingly bewildering.

If at times he suspected that other people — despite what they said — were actually completely ignorant of the ideas that meant the most to him, he wasn’t surprised, whatever else he might have felt.

Why shouldn’t others be ignorant of these things? After all, his parents were. At times his parents even acted as though they were unaware he himself existed. They couldn’t know — they didn’t even seem to want to know — everything he believed was at the core of his being.

They went about their lives as if he were invisible, and so, he told himself, if his own parents were unaffected by anything he thought or did, then other people’s ignorance or indifference or pretended understanding shouldn’t seem unusual. Still, it did make him a little afraid.

Not everyone was indifferent, of course, but those who weren’t believed that he would ultimately be disappointed, even though they couldn’t or wouldn’t tell him that at the time.

Later, he supposed they’d often observed the pain of other freshmen who had unrealistic expectations of what Harvard would be.

There had always been the kind of Harvard freshman who discovered that he saw things differently from other people. When that happened, his reaction was to feel an almost irresistible desire to describe his world to everyone he cared about, as if he had a gift of incalculable value he wanted to give them.

Like David, this type of freshman would pour out a description of something he’d observed or experienced, while on his face there was an expression so open, so honest, so vulnerable, and yet so oddly aggressive that it appeared almost idiotic, as if he were some strangely innocent being accosting his friends purely for the sake of the love he had for them.

Everything this kind of young man saw and described, though, contained a sobering and poignant element: because the chances were so very great that he would never survive. He was at the mercy of forces within him, forces — they could hardly be called strengths — that impelled him to look at the world around him and report what he saw and what he felt, regardless of the consequences.

The problem for others was that what such a young man saw or felt couldn’t really be confirmed, and so they wondered whether it was worth helping him to survive. After all, couldn’t he be just another enthusiastic adolescent?

And if he wasn’t, then what was he really? In any case, they asked themselves, didn’t he represent a kind of threat to their existence, to the way they saw the world?

Nevertheless, such a young man could sometimes so occupy the attention of his friends and those around him that everything else in their eyes seemed diminished by comparison. Unfortunately for him they could never let him know that. And so it seemed to him that what he saw or thought must surely be of relatively little value.

Part 1, Chapter 3

“Schrecklich ist die Verführung zur Güte”.
–Berthold Brecht
Der Kaukasische Kreidekreis

“It is a terrible thing to be seduced into goodness.”
–Berthold Brecht
The Caucasian Chalk Circle

He looked no different from other freshmen hurrying across the Yard in a coat and tie, with that healthy, well-scrubbed appearance that was so peculiarly American then. In his own eyes, however, he was full of flaws and imperfections, and paralyzed by self-consciousness.

And yet he was very often happy in those first days at Harvard, partly with the thought that he was in fact really at Harvard. So many of the people whose lives he admired had been educated at Harvard, shaped by Harvard, and now he was there himself.

So many great minds had been formed at Harvard; surely he too had the potential for greatness, he thought, without realizing that hundreds of other Harvard undergraduates all around him were thinking exactly the same thing.

Nor did he have any real idea what form the expression of this potential would take, but he supposed that was in the nature of things. After all, he reasoned, a truly great life — like a truly great created work — is unique. Nothing like it has ever existed. So how, he asked himself, can anyone really know in advance what such a life will be like, what forces will shape it, and how it will respond to those forces?

At the same time that he dreamed of greatness, of course, he was very often tortured by an almost complete lack of self-confidence; he was even at times nearly overwhelmed by a sense of inadequacy. While it seemed natural to look to the great minds of the past as models and mentors, he nevertheless felt dull and incompetent when he compared himself to other Harvard freshmen — and again, it never occurred to him that a very large number of them might be feeling the same.

He used to go into the freshman dining hall for his meals and see those crowds of what he knew were bright, intelligent young men, who appeared very different from him. They looked so supremely untroubled and at ease. How could they possibly be afflicted by the same gnawing sense of apprehension that he was feeling? They were so confident with one another; they all spoke together so easily and fluently. He watched their self-assured movements, and he knew — in the very core of his being — that they all shared the nature of intelligent young kings, while he seemed to himself to be nothing at all.

When he was with them, of course, he was usually able to pretend for a while that he was as self-possessed as they, but he could not keep up the pretense for very long. He soon began to feel isolated and afraid. He asked himself how all those others could seem so relaxed, could speak so effortlessly.

How could they respond to one another so brilliantly? How could they have learned so much, and he so little? He wondered if he would ever stop feeling awkward in the presence of these contemporaries of his, who — he was sure of this — had reached a higher level of thought and behavior.

Years later, one of the people who knew him then said that he had really been no more shy or awkward than the average freshman at Harvard. Almost every one of them thinks of himself as a commoner among a race of princes, he was told. And each one usually hides his aching insecurity from the others in the same way he had.

If he could have seen himself among his peers, he would have recognized that he moved and spoke and thought as well as the best of them. From his appearance, he seemed to be — if anything — one of the golden youth himself, a half-disguised young king. It was hard for him to believe that later. It would have been even harder then.

However, if he were any kind of king at all, his land was made up of the reaches of his own mind: an inner territory where the first serious conflicts were already beginning to stir.

Part 1, Chapter 4

„Ach Harry, wir müssen durch so viel Dreck und Unsinn tappen, um nach Hause zu kommen! Und wir haben niemand, der uns führt, unser einziger Führer ist das Heimweh”.
–Hermann Hesse
Der Steppenwolf

“Ah Harry, we have to grope through so much nonsense and stupidity before we reach home. And we have no one to show us the way. Our longing for home is our only guide.”
–Hermann Hesse

Others would later say these conflicts were simply a sign of extreme instability. Although he had come to believe that his own opinion in such matters didn’t really mean very much, he would have said — if anyone had asked — that he did not think those conflicts were a sign of instability, extreme or otherwise.

He always thought of them as part of a young man’s struggle to remain good. Of course at the time he couldn’t be sure, because he’d always read — and believed — that self-deception is a tendency all human beings suffer from. The only way to compensate for this tendency, he thought, was to accept without question whatever devastating evaluation anyone made of him. He believed that the truth would come out in the end.

Other people — his mother, stepfather, teachers, priests, psychiatrists, friends — must always be right, he thought. Even if they weren’t right, he believed there was a kind of virtue in accepting without argument whatever they said about him.

Much later, of course, their opinion of him finally began to make no sense at all, even to him, because he could see how it so often contradicted itself. He began to feel that their opinion of him was really not connected to him at all, to his personality, or to his situation. It slowly dawned on him that perhaps the advice of others was aimed not so much at helping him but at gratifying some need of their own.

Of course, if he had ever told anyone that that’s what he was thinking, they would have said that such ideas were simply one more indication of an unbalanced mind, an opinion he — by way of exception — would not really have accepted, but one which he would never have argued with. He would have simply reminded himself that in the end, whatever the truth may be, it is the truth that will make itself so clearly known that people will have no choice but to accept it. He believed that no matter how passionately people may assert something that is untrue, believing they can make it true, their illusions and self-deceptions will be forgotten in the end, the way a man wakes and forgets a dream. Only the truth will remain.

That kind of thinking, though, really became fully developed only later. At the beginning of his freshman year at Harvard, it was hard for him to have such confidence. He was only able to understand that he lived in a world that others would have regarded as full of illusions, if they had known then what he was really thinking.

As already indicated, one of the principal elements in that world centered on the question of greatness. Not necessarily his own greatness of course, but at least on the idea of greatness in general. It seemed that everyone around him was always talking about greatness. It seemed to be a normal element of the world at Harvard. He heard it in the lectures of certain professors, lectures that seemed to betray a sense of that infinite dimension he had come to Harvard looking for, that broad expanse of the human mind.

Oddly enough — considering his aptitudes and interests, but perhaps not so odd, considering which area of the intellectual life exerts the most influence in our world now — it was in the lectures of one of the science professors that he first encountered this wholly new sense of life.

Part 1, Chapter 5

„Warum war denn dieses Sternbild dem jungen Werther so teuer? Weil er, so oft er es sah, immer wieder erkannte, dass er vor ihm durchaus kein Atom und kein Nichts war, dass diese ganze unermessliche Tiefe der geheimnisvollen Wunder Gottes durchaus nicht mehr bedeute als sein Denken, als seine Erkenntnis, nichts Höheres ist als das in seiner Seele enthaltene Schönheitsideal und folglich ihm gleich ist und ihn mit der Unendlichkeit des Seins verbindet…”
–Fiodor Dostojevski
Tagebuch eines Schriftstellers

“And why was that image of the heavens so important for young Werther? Because whenever he looked at it, he recognized that he was, in comparison with the heavens, not simply an atom, not simply nothing. He understood that those utterly immeasurable depths, representing God’s mysterious miracles, were not more significant than his own thoughts, his own knowledge. He realized that nothing was greater than the ideal of beauty contained in his own soul. And it followed that he was of equal value with all that, and that it bound him to the infinity of Being…”
–Fiodor Dostoevsky
Diary of a Writer

He walked into the back of the enormous lecture room in Burr Hall and looked down the steep and almost dizzying slope of seats to the lecture platform far below. There was a sense of exhilaration in the perspective. At the same time, there was something a little frightening, too. He felt lonely, he felt as though he were being confronted by an unknown world, certainly a world unknown to him at least. Whatever he may have thought about greatness, those ideas brought him no confidence at that moment.

He sat down somewhere in the middle of the room and watched his classmates enter: the young men in various moods, some serious and some laughing, the young women from Radcliffe, almost all very serious. Then at exactly eight minutes past the hour, George Wald entered, and his presence instantly became the focus of attention.

If any Harvard professor ever behaved like a member of an intellectual aristocracy, it was George Wald. At the same time, though, there was always a kind of genial self-mockery about him. The faint smile that was almost constantly on his face seemed to be directed mainly at himself. Yet sometimes that smile broadened and shone as if he also wanted to say to us, “What a sheer pleasure to see all of you here. Isn’t it a delight that all of us are here?” At such moments it seemed to David that Wald’s face reflected the kind of light you might find in a Rembrandt. The air itself fairly glittered with expectation.

George Wald was silent for a moment as he looked around the room, smiling as if he were savoring the attention that three hundred minds were giving him. “We are going to begin this morning,” he said, “with a thought that is something of a commonplace these days: the idea that we are all made of the stuff of dying stars.”

The idea wasn’t a commonplace to David then, and when Wald expressed the idea, David imagined he understood what one of the old explorers must have felt when he stepped into a country he knew no one like him had ever seen before. “Our solar system,” Wald explained, ” — with its planets and all of the creatures that inhabit a world like ours — is a by-product of the death of an earlier generation of stars.” He paused and, with his famous sense of the dramatic, let the implications sink in. “Even from a purely material point of view,” he went on, “we human beings are not without importance in the cosmos. We have a right to feel at home anywhere, we have a right to feel a kinship with the stars — and with everything they have ever meant to the human mind.”

There were, as one might expect at a place like Harvard, a few hisses of disapproval, and Wald — as he always did — acknowledged them with a slight, dismissive movement of his hand and a smile of delight. He knew he had now not simply captured the minds, he had also fired the imagination, of most of his audience.

When the lecture was over, David walked outside. His mind was filled with the sense of exhilaration that Wald’s lecture had created. At the same time, though, in one small, dark area of his mind he felt the kind of uneasiness and confusion that had been with him to one degree or another almost as long as he could remember.

Uneasiness, confusion, and fear — all three were a result of an ongoing, seemingly endless struggle: on the one hand he felt what some called the naive desire to be good; on the other, he was also subject to the inexorably growing awareness of the existence of evil in the world, and of the potential for evil in himself as well. He thought of what St. Augustine had written: that there is no evil that has ever been committed by any man that could not be committed by all men.

David also continued to believe, however, that he could simply ignore whatever evil he perceived, wherever he might perceive it. He could always, he was sure, simply turn his mind to something else. He was convinced that eventually, as the years went by, he could learn not to be disturbed by anything he had been taught was wrong. After all, wasn’t that what so many other people had done? Surely he could easily do the same.

Part 1, Chapter 6

„…Ehrgefühl …gegen einen, den es zu vernichten galt”.
–Thomas Mann
Joseph und Seine Brüder

“…pride…directed against one whom it was right to destroy.”
–Thomas Mann
Joseph and His Brothers

In the splendor of that autumn afternoon, the timeless seemed nearly perceptible. Everything was fresh, new, and mysterious: bright possibilities were suggested by whatever he looked at: the light falling across the red bricks surrounding a doorway, the shining white Georgian towers reaching into the soft Cambridge sky, the sudden curving of the wings of birds as they burst into flight. All this was a cause of surprise and confusion, too, because he didn’t understand why he was seeing things in that way, or what he ought to do about it.

What he thought of as this “new awareness” seemed to enhance the activities of everyday life and give increased significance to the continual struggle to be good, to love God, and to live up to the whole range of spiritual ideals that seemed to make no sense at all to almost everyone around him.

All of his really close friends, it seemed, he found in books, or among the saints he prayed to – and that was, of course, a clear sign of the problems that lay ahead of him. He did not understand how dangerous it was that he could not find in the people around him that intellectual companionship he’d been longing for. In literature and prayer, there seemed to exist something so much better. If he did not understand the danger, though, he at least used to wonder at times whether or not he was surrendering to an illusion. Of course, those around him were certain he was.

He thought, however, that even if it was an illusion to find one’s friends where he did, he wouldn’t give it up. Many would say that that was his fatal mistake.

He felt alone in a way, certainly. Yet at those times, when he entered the dark, quiet church near Harvard Square and sat in front of the tabernacle, looking at the veil behind which he knew there was an opening into eternity — at those times he felt alone with one he believed was in some sense always alone. He was alone with someone whose love made it necessary for him to try to live according to what he felt were the highest values. That was all he knew then, and it was all he knew later. Those values were — and are — the only ones he could possibly live by, no matter how clumsily he did it, and no matter how often he failed.

He’d acquired those values at a very early age, and they’d become a part of him. Without them his life would have no meaning, and he would have no purpose. As a child he’d learned in catechism class that God made him to know, love, and serve God in this life, and to be happy forever with him in the next.

Whatever else he might do or think or say – and however foolish it might seem to more reasonable people – that idea was the very basis of his existence. He wasn’t always aware of it, and he didn’t always live as though he understood all its implications, but this idea exercised a deep, hidden influence over all his actions. It’s probably not too much to say that it was an influence that was so much a part of him that he believed he could not escape it without destroying the whole basis of his identity.

Years after the crisis that he went through at Harvard, and which changed his life in ways he could never have foreseen, one of his professors said to him, “Something else must have been going on in your life when you first came here.” David denied it because it seemed to him the professor had something in mind that David wouldn’t have agreed with then. In a way though, that professor was right, because sometimes there did seem to be a wholly other reality pressing in on his existence, influencing it so intimately that he had to consider it an integral part of that existence, and not the “something else” his professor had in mind. This reality, he felt, was where his life, his existence, and his identity were ultimately grounded.

Later, as the years went by, he came to believe more and more strongly that this reality was simply the reality of God, perceived in the dim, inchoate, fragmentary way that certain people believe they perceive God in this life.

For him, God was the absurdly fragile object that looked like a wafer of bread locked in the tabernacle, with only a single red candle burning near the altar in St. Paul’s church near Harvard Square. It was this that was the “something else” that his life included. There, in front of him in the church, behind a thin veil: one he believed no human could ever grasp, and whose ways no human being could ever understand. There, at the still point — as he saw it — the beginning and end of the entire created universe.

He was drawn there, in that church, to what he thought he knew of God. He was drawn by the kind of instinct that leads most living organisms to orient themselves toward the light, even though later, and for a long time, when real adult choice was involved, he would think of himself as having turned to the darkness.

Part 1, Chapter 7

„Wenn man nicht macht, was man als notwendig, wenn auch nur mit persönlichen Unannehmlichkeiten behaftet, erkannt hat, dann kann man irgendwann auch nicht mehr erkennen, was zu machen ist”.
–Horst-Eberhard Richter
Bedenken gegen Anpassung

“If you don’t do what you think is the right thing, even when doing the right thing means you suffer for it, then eventually you won’t have any idea at all what the right thing to do is.”
–Horst-Eberhard Richter
Bedenken gegen Anpassung

On the evening of the first day of classes, after orientation week, he went to the freshman dining hall as usual to have dinner. It was the end of a bright, warm day in early autumn, and as he walked from his dorm and looked around him, he thought how much the old buildings themselves almost seemed like monuments to wisdom, with their “veritas” insignia and that aura of deep secret promise he was certain he would understand very soon.

The dining hall itself, though, was a less pleasant experience than the walk over there had been. The room was huge, it reminded him of the great hall used by the knights of some Nordic tribe in an Anglo-Saxon saga. It was filled with the noise and conversation of hundreds of young strangers. To someone as shy and self-conscious as he was, it was a frightening prospect, an ordeal he had to suffer through three times a day.

Of course, if possible, he always tried to sit with some of the few people he knew. On this particular evening he saw the senior resident of the freshman dorm he lived in, Eric Billings, an intelligent, extroverted student at the law school. Eric was sitting with some freshmen David had already seen in the dorm, and when he joined them, Eric did what he could to include him in the conversation. It was probably not easy for Eric to do that, because of David’s shyness, his naiveté, and his tendency to expect others to ignore him the way his mother and stepfather had always done when he’d sat down for meals in their home. David, as he often did in such situations, acted as though all he really wanted was to be invisible. He hardly glanced at anyone. Eric said hello and made introductions.

Then David heard someone ask him what he planned to major in. “I’m not sure yet,” he said, staring down into his plate, not looking at anyone, “but I think it’ll be English.” There seemed to be a sudden silence. He wondered if he was expected to continue. He glanced quickly around the table, then looked down again and continued speaking perhaps a little too loudly, and a little too fast. “I don’t know exactly why I’m majoring in English. It’s just that when he was in school I liked it — maybe because my teachers liked it. They seemed to think you could learn something about life from studying literature.”

Someone snorted. “God, are there still people who think they can learn about life from studying literature?” The sarcasm made him want to sink under the table. “I suppose,” the voice went on, “that we’re still in the age of American innocence.”

It was Eric who responded in his low, calm voice. “Or it could be, Parker, that we’re still only in the age of preppie pompousness.”

Eric’s remark was too late, though. David was sure he’d said something irredeemably and unforgivably foolish. An adolescent sense of shame and embarrassment swept over him. As always, criticism wounded him deeply. On the other hand, praise and encouragement never helped, because he knew he would forget them in a moment. Somehow he couldn’t really believe he deserved them.

It was probably true, he thought, maybe he really was an innocent. He wondered if that was something to be so ashamed of, though. He wondered why there seems to be, in the behavior of our species, a kind of instinct that seeks to destroy innocence and discourage idealism, especially in a bright young men, though at that moment he hardly thought of himself as a bright young man. It seemed to him sometimes that this instinct represented a desire for revenge, a desire — on the part of others — to compensate for the destruction of their own innocence. He asked himself if perhaps there didn’t exist in the human psyche a kind of primordial belief that the persistence of innocence, in even a single individual, endangers the survival of everyone. Perhaps an innocent man seemed too dull-witted to depend on, not crafty enough to survive?

Survival. As time passed, everything more and more often came down to a question of survival: “If I can survive this semester —” he would think, or “If I can just get through this exam period —” or “If I can survive until spring —” or even “If I can get through this day —”

He didn’t mean academic survival, of course. That was never a problem for him. But the survival of all those values he believed were the essential core of his identity, the survival of the ideals he’d acquired — that was what always seemed so threatened, that was where he always felt vulnerable.

At first though, when he came to Harvard, he hardly felt more than a vague sense of apprehension, a kind of bewilderment, at least in comparison with what he’d later feel.

Later, his fears would become so powerful that he’d experience them either in heart-stopping anxiety or else in anger and a sense of outrage. There would even come a time at Harvard when he’d feel nothing less than sheer terror at the sight of everyone and everything around him.

Part 1, Chapter 8

„Auch habe ich viel geträumt von dem Modell, wovon ich so lange rede, woran ich so gern anschaulich machen möchte, was in meinem Innern herumzieht….”
Italienische Reise

“And I have often dreamed of that pattern I have spoken of, through which I would like to bring to life everything that has been stirring in my heart….”
Italian Journey

The dorm he lived in was called Thayer and was one of the newer structures in Harvard Yard, built in the nineteenth century. He was assigned one of the two-man suites with its Spartan interior of exposed brick, white plaster, and wood.

For the first couple of weeks, he shared those rooms with one of the most disturbing of all the Harvard undergraduates he met during his four years at the University. His name was Bowers, and he and David could not have been more different if they’d tried. Bowers seemed to deny, almost by his very existence, everything David believed in, everything he felt he was. That may have been why they were assigned to the same room. Things like that often happen at Harvard. Or perhaps David and Bowers were both so odd — though in different ways — that no one knew where else to put them. Whatever the reason, the idea that two people like them could actually live together was doomed from the instant it was first conceived in the brain of some nameless university bureaucrat.

David didn’t even see Bowers for several days after he moved into Thayer, but one morning in registration week he walked into their rooms and there Bowers was. He was about a year older than David — although in some ways many years his senior. Bowers was stocky and tough-looking, with an eerie, wild element in his character.

The day David met him he was wearing faded blue jeans and a T-shirt — at a time when the uniform of a Harvard undergraduate was still a coat, a tie, and a pair of neatly-pressed slacks. Bowers looked as if he hadn’t shaved or combed his hair in at least forty-eight hours.

He was standing in front of his bureau, trying to arrange something in the top drawer. When he heard David, he turned around and grinned. “Hi. You Dave Austin?”

“That’s right.”

“Bill Bowers.” He held out his hand for David to shake: it was covered with moist earth, as if he’d been gardening.

“Have you been working outside?”

“No.” And he laughed. “Look.”

He pointed to the open bureau. David looked inside and saw that the bottom of the drawer was covered with a layer of soil, about an inch and a half deep. Small green seedlings had been neatly planted in rows. Above the drawer there was a lamp David recognized as the kind people used for growing plants in a greenhouse.

“Just a little grass,” Bowers said. “You don’t have any problem with that, do you?”

David was baffled. The slang meaning of that term wasn’t well known at Harvard then. He blinked, looked at the plants, then at Bowers, and then at the plants once more.

“Grass?” David said, looking at him again, “Why do you want to grow grass here? There’s plenty just outside in the Yard.”

Now it was Bowers turn to look stunned for an instant. “Where are you from?” he said.


“And they don’t have grass in Michigan?” He was starting to smile, as if something very funny had just happened.

“Of course they do,” David said, beginning to feel annoyed.

“You haven’t been around much, have you?” Bowers went on looking at him with an expression that seemed to David to be full of mockery, but not unfriendly. David was feeling more irritated than ever, though. “I don’t mean that kind of grass,” Bowers went on. “I mean, you know, grass — marijuana,” and he produced what to David looked like a lumpy, badly-rolled sort of cigarette, with the paper twisted at both ends. “Here,” he said, “want to get high?”

Just talking to Bowers now made everything seem a little unreal to David. “Marijuana?” he said, and thought, “Drugs? This guy uses drugs?”

“Sure,” and Bowers shrugged. “They kicked me out of West Point last year for smoking. Harvard’s different. Here you can do what you want.”

David could barely hear him now. The word “drugs” seemed to be echoing in his mind, louder and louder, until it was almost deafening. The room had suddenly become very small. He had to get out.

And where he went was straight to the proctor’s room — Eric’s room — and he told him about Bowers. David was shocked and angry and out of breath, and he must have appeared very young and naive to Eric, who sat there, puffing on his pipe and looking at David thoughtfully through the smoke. To David, Eric at twenty-three seemed many years older and wiser than he. “Here I am at Harvard,” David said, “at Harvard — and I find I have to live with someone who uses — produces, even — drugs so dangerous I’ve never heard their names before.”

He went on and on and when the rush of words was over and he had nothing more to say, he was silent for a moment, looking into Eric’s calm, brown eyes. “I’ll see what I can do,” he said. “I’ll take care of it.” He put his hand up to his pipe and looked out the window. “Do you want to move to another room?” he asked, “or do you want to wait a few days and see what develops?”

David didn’t know exactly what he meant, but he told Eric he would rather wait and see if there was any other solution. And that was all. David was grateful for the way Eric seemed to be taking control of the situation, but in a few years he was to encounter a very different kind of response from Harvard administrators. “When are you going to grow up?” became a more common attitude. “When are you going to start facing reality and accepting the world the way it really is?” With Eric it was different, though. For one thing, Eric seemed incapable of being angry or irritated with him, no matter how innocent he seemed.

Two days later, Bowers was gone, transferred to one of the houses for upperclassmen. David never saw him again. After that year, he didn’t see any more of Eric, either, and never knew what became of him.

In later years, David often thought that wherever Eric might be, it was hard to believe he eventually became just another corporate attorney who’d graduated from Harvard Law. Eric must have retained some sense of compassion, David thought, although he also reflected that in the world we live in now, it was perhaps impossible to take even something like that for granted.

Part 1, Chapter 9

„In welcher Schule ich auch war, in welcher Institution ich auch gearbeitet habe, ich paßte nie ganz zu meiner Umgebung”.
–Marcel Reich-Ranicki
Mein Leben

“Whatever school I attended, or wherever I worked, I never quite fit in.”
–Marcel Reich-Ranicki
Mein Leben

He was too immature at that time ever to become really close friends with anyone, at least not with anyone his own age. He was too insecure, too afraid that all his weak points might become known to the kind of person who would laugh at them or exploit them in some way.

Of course he still wanted close friends; they were what made life worthwhile for him. To be able to have deep discussions with someone, to share the new intellectual world that Harvard was opening up for him, to examine the excitement and newness of everything his mind was experiencing — he thought there was almost nothing more important.

What was even more important for him, though, was his clumsy, adolescent attempt to lead some kind of spiritual life, something that was considered quite idiotic at Harvard, certainly in those days. There was still no conflict for him between the spiritual and intellectual life. One complemented the other, and of course he thought they always would.

For him the ideal life was to pursue both of these elements. If he continued to dream dreams about the way he would really like to live, he dreamed of living an impossibly pure, rarefied, academic — even monastic — existence, the kind he had read existed once — but which probably never did — the kind of existence he imagined someone like Anselm had led, an existence that combined the search for God and the pursuit of wisdom. It was also often a dream filled with the desire for the idea of intellectual play he found in Hesse and Das Glasperlenspiel.

He had no idea that in our time greater and greater numbers of people — at every level of society — would come to believe that the most worthwhile kind of life consisted of somewhat different pursuits. Some of these people would eventually laugh and say that if he could not fulfill the ideals he had, it was because the ideals were meaningless. Others would say he didn’t really take those ideals seriously enough, and perhaps they were right. Perhaps he didn’t take them so seriously then, perhaps he didn’t even understand them.

He took them seriously later in life, though.

After living — you could almost say — so many different kinds of life, after living in so many different ways, those ideals are the only things that ever made any real sense to him in later years. Even though, at subsequent points in his life, he might have seemed no more capable of living up to them than he’d ever been, they remained what he still believed life was really about, and if he was sometimes near to despair at the bleakness of his life and the long vista of wasted time, he could at least find some refuge in the secrecy of pages that he wrote that no one would probably ever read.

There, at least in those pages, he could still make one final, desperate prayer, let out one more inarticulate cry, that in the end all might — after all — be well, “and all manner of thing . . . be well.” In writing those pages he knew that the young man who once hoped so blindly for God and for wisdom would always exist. He knew that someday — if he could somehow continue to survive — in the end, he would find what he was looking for, what he’d always been looking for.

Part 1, Chapter 10

„Niemand und nichts kann uns schaden, Kind, außer das, was wir fürchten und lieben“.
–Sigrid Undset
Kristin Lavranstochter

“No one and nothing can harm us, child, except what we’re afraid of, and what we love.”
–Sigrid Undset
Kristin Lavransdatter

Since it was almost impossible for him to have friends his own age at Harvard, his first close friends there were a couple named Clayton and Ann Wise, who were more like parents to him than simply friends.

As with all his friends then — as with practically everyone he met — he saw them not so much as they really were, but as he wanted them to be.

Later he would wonder if perhaps — during the time he knew them — they really did become as fine and intelligent as he expected them to be, and if possibly they remained that way for a time.

Later he came to think that was a preposterous idea, just one more of the illusions he had at that time. And yet even later he still wanted to believe that people can respond to the expectations he had for them, that they can actually be all they are capable of being, simply because someone else recognizes and appeals to the best in them.

Whatever the truth about Ann and Clayton may have been, he liked and admired them with all the force and energy a young man is capable of. For a very long time they were the most significant people he knew at Harvard, because they were the only people he was really close to. No matter what kind of people they really were, he continued to invest them with all sorts of extraordinary qualities, he saw in them all the ideals he was seeking when he came to Harvard; he saw them as the shining, almost luminous friends he had been looking for.

He could imagine how ridiculous that would have sounded, if he had told that to anyone, but he believed it to be true. In his shyness and loneliness Ann and Clayton were for a long time the only people he really shared his deepest thoughts and feelings with, so for him they had a kind of inner light.

Sometimes the thoughts and feelings in his mind would almost overflow with the happiness of knowing that people who seemed so wise and intelligent really existed, and at those moments he would daydream about the great things he would do for them to show his gratitude: the great books he would write and the volumes of poetry. Sometimes he even used to compose the dedication pages of these books in his mind as he walked over to their house for a visit or as he returned to Adams House through the silent streets of Cambridge.

If, in the end, he thought to himself in later years, they weren’t the sort of people he imagined them to be, who was really to blame for that? After all, he didn’t exactly turn out to be the kind of person they’d imagined or expected either.

David first met Ann in the small discussion class he was assigned to as part of a much larger introductory course in English literature. He hardly paid any attention to her at first, not until one of the other students in the group commented one day on “that strange middle-aged woman” in the class. Ann was all of twenty-nine at the time, and her supposed strangeness was really only an expression of that individuality that women students at Harvard often cultivate. Her strangeness was that she looked exceedingly plain, wearing no makeup and the most nondescript clothes. Only later did she start dressing in that understated and elegant way that set off the real beauty he always saw in her.

David and Ann never actually spoke to one another until one evening several weeks into the fall term. He’d gone into the Freshman Union for dinner and sat down with a couple of students from his dorm. There was an empty tray on the table in front of the seat next to him, and he noticed lipstick on the coffee cup. “Some Radcliffe girl’s left her tray,” he thought.

A few minutes later the “Radcliffe girl” came back and sat down. It was Ann.

By this time she had begun to show that glowing, half-hidden beauty that he would always remember her for and that made him eager to talk with her. For a while they discussed the English class they were in, and then she told him about her husband and three sons. “Would you like to meet them?” she asked. “Why don’t you come over to our place after dinner? Clayton’s going to pick me up in a few minutes.”

Their home was only a few blocks from Harvard Square, one of those large Cambridge houses that had been built in the nineteenth century, a house that always seemed warm and somehow timeless in the way it could welcome and hold you. It must still exist. It certainly will always exist in his mind, because very often in the evenings he spent there, in a burst of adolescent enthusiasm he would look around those rooms and think, “This splendid place, this light, these incomparable people — in return for all the happiness I feel I will make this room and these moments live forever, just as they are.”

But what poor existence did he actually ever give them? Very little, perhaps, but he did at least make the attempt. The man he later became went on trying, as long as he could, to fulfil the promise he made then as a boy. In order to really do that, though, he would have had to try to express absolutely everything, and who could ever do such a thing? All he was ever able to do was hope that his clumsy writing would offer some insight into the heart of the reality he had once known.

Even before he entered the main room in their house on that first evening, there was already a sense of wonder in his mind. Clayton and Ann were so different from all the other people he had known in that life lived within the limits of the American Midwest. Clayton had shaken his hand and looked into his eyes with intelligence, understanding, and interest. He was several years older than Ann, closer to the age of David’s parents, and to have someone of that generation even acknowledge his existence made him happy. To have someone acknowledge it the way Clayton did gave him a feeling of exhilaration, even a sense of freedom and strength. It was as if he and Ann were both looking at him and saying, “We know who you are, and we believe you are a thoroughly worthwhile person.”

Up to the time he met Clayton and Ann, all the self-doubt that his parents had managed so carefully to inculcate in him — as a way of binding him to them — had made him feel as if his life had little value or meaning at all to other people. What Clayton had said to him was the opposite of what his parents had always silently communicated: “We have no idea who you are, and even if we did, we suspect you would not be worth knowing. In one way or another, though, we will keep you with us. Forever.”

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