Part 03, Chapters 21-30
Part 3, Chapter 21
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.
Still, when summer school did start, David found he was looking forward to the classes and the academic work, just as he’d always looked forward to the prospect of experiencing anything new. He planned to take two history courses, because he had to fulfill certain departmental requirements if he wanted to get his degree the following year, as his parents expected. But even under those circumstances, the prospect of taking those courses made him feel curious and excited.
Despite the fact that the courses were required, the courses began to engage his mind. One of them — Islamic history — was given by a professor whose lectures were organized with such precision and were filled with ideas that seemed so new and profound that David again had the feeling he’d had in George Wald’s lectures his freshman year: he wanted sometimes to stand up and cheer. He became so fascinated by the course, and so absorbed by it, that he performed very well, better than any of the other students in the class and actually received the highest possible grade.
He could not be completely happy about that, because his other grade that summer was not outstanding. Like all his grades at Harvard, it was just a little better than the average. If he hadn’t had his parents to worry about, he thought to himself, if he hadn’t felt he had to constantly protect himself against them, he would have done much better. He might not have done as well as he thought he should have done, though. In his secret estimate of himself, he still sometimes thought he was absolutely brilliant, a pattern of thinking which Bradley was just beginning to make him see can be fairly typical of students whose abilities are really quite mediocre, or worse.
Outwardly such a student, as Bradley indicated to David in one not so very non-directive session, may accept the judgments that are made about him, but inwardly he rebels against them and believes they are false.
Students like that — and of course David understood that Bradley was really referring to him — construct a kind of fantasy image of themselves. They imagine they have some secret germ of greatness that is invisible to everyone else. Naturally they can never bring themselves to test that sense of greatness, and that of course proves it is only an illusion. So this “greatness” remains hidden inside him — a mental construct and a fantasy — and they have to use more and more psychic energy in order to protect it.
Bradley encouraged David to see himself in this way, to see that that was the sort of young man he really was, and since Bradley was the expert, David tried to tell himself Bradley must be right.
Bradley believed that so much of David’s intellectual energy was used both to maintain the fantasies he had about himself and to repress what he saw as his negative qualities, that he had little energy left for real intellectual work. David, on the other hand, believed he was using all his strength and energy to try to maintain the reality of what he felt himself to be, while at the same time weirdly trying to carry out the contradictory task of conforming to the limitations that other people — his mother and stepfather, his teachers, Bradley — were telling him he had. They were the authority, and obedience to authority, David had been taught in catechism class before his first communion, was a cardinal virtue.
Whatever the truth might have been, however, he could at least not escape the feeling that if his mind had been really free of conflict, he might actually have been able achieve something significant even while he was at Harvard. Unfortunately, he thought, that kind of achievement was impossible, because to have made it a reality he would have had to change in ways that were unthinkable for him. Or else Harvard — at least in the person of Bradley — would have had to change, and that was just as unthinkable.
Whether he was repressing negative or positive qualities or both, however, maintaining the repression naturally required tremendous amounts of mental energy.
David, however, managed to go even one step further. he combined the repression with a limitless lack of self-confidence, with shyness, and with a sense of inadequacy and general frustration, so that most of the time he created for himself a sense that he was practically drowning in an ocean of misery.
And that sense was only magnified by his tendency to feel sorry for himself.
It seemed to David that everyone else at Harvard was happy and well-adjusted in comparison to himself, and he was the only one who was seriously maladjusted. And he was able to use that comparison to inflict even more misery on himself, and, in turn, by doing that he punished himself even more. If he’d been able to think about the whole question rationallly, he wouldn’t have been exactly sure what he’d done to deserve such punishment, but he no doubt would have been certain that he must have done something.
To add to the bizarre psychological mix, his misery was compounded by the conviction that if he was so miserable, then that in itself must prove that there was something seriously wrong with him. He had absolutely no idea what he could do about it, though. Bradley had certainly been of no help.
Locked in a struggle with himself, a struggle he was bound to lose, it would seem incredible to him in later years that he was able to enjoy doing any academic work at all that summer. The reason he was able to may have been that he managed to cling to the old ideals he’d been raised with — or rather, raised himself with. That was were he found the strength he needed in order to survive, although even he didn’t understand that very clearly at the time.
One Sunday morning he went to a Harvard student center, a tidy, neatly furnished suite of rooms on the second floor of one of those old red-brick Cambridge buildings with a quaint nineteenth-century façade and a twentieth-century interior. He poured himself a cup of coffee, turned around, and found himself staring into the face of a graduate student he’d seen before at the center but never spoken to. The student looked as though he were just a few years older than David was.
The young man had struck David as someone who was extremely serious, but he looked at David now with that kind of happy expression of suppressed knowledge you often see on the faces of intelligent people. “Hello,” he said, “I’m James Radnor.”
“I’m David Austin.”
“I’ve seen you around. Are you in summer school here?”
All the inner defenses went up immediately, but he managed to answer cautiously, “Well, yes, I am. And you?”
“I’m working on my dissertation. I’m a tutor in Winthrop House.”
“In what field?”
“English,” and he smiled.
The conversation continued that day and then evolved into many other conversations, or perhaps it could be said that the following weeks became one long conversation, occasionally interrupted by the demands of their studies.
At that age, such conversations can sometimes be filled with what seems to be a kind of intellectual magic. For David, it was the first time in a very long time — perhaps the first time ever — that he felt he was speaking with someone who understood not only everything he had to say, but everything behind what he had to say. He told Jim about Africa, and he relived Africa in the telling of it. JIm talked to him of literature, of his peers and professors, of the way literature for them meant the literature of England, and the way he said “England,” David had the impression he was talking about some shining place that transcended the ordinary limits of space and time. For Jim and people like him, David began to realize, “England” meant an inexhaustible universe of thought and experience, extending for centuries, from the time of the Saxons down to the present.
“When you study literature,” Jim told him one day, “you need only one book at a time, and you can carry that book around with you. If you study history, you really need a lot of books all the time.” Of course David knew that wasn’t quite true, but the idea for some reason made a deep, even a life-altering impression on him.
Jim probably saw David as very naive and very innocent, even though Jim wasn’t much older than David was. David may even have seemed unspoiled or uncorrupted, though David thought of himself, of course, as a great sinner. If David thought of Jim, he thought of someone he admired, someone he wanted to emulate, someone he even idolized in many respects.
Paradoxically, the longer they knew each other, the greater the distance between them became, in a way, because Jim became a hero for David, and the pedestal David put him on gradually became higher and higher and Jim moved farther and farther away.
In some respects, that had happened before in David’s life. Familiarity often bred in him a tendency toward hero-worship. In relating to someone he admired, he exaggerated that person’s good qualities and minimized his own, and he did this, it seems clear, for reasons that were basically quite selfish: David simply hoped that he would develop the qualities he admired in other people. And because it would confirm the fact that the ideas he had about himself were not illusions, the quality that he selfishly wanted to acquire most was what he thought of as greatness.
At the time he met Jim, David was on the verge of imagining that practically everyone he knew had that quality. He used to think he saw greatness everywhere, in everyone.
Self-centered as he was, even for an adolescent, David never even considered the possibility that this kind of thinking on his part could be a strain for other people. They didn’t necessarily feel they had to try to live up to the expectations David had for them, but they certainly had the problem of dealing with those expectations, one way or another. A lot of people may have felt they had to avoid letting David know that they thought these expectations were impossible and silly. They thought he should try to figure that out for himself. A few of the people David admired may actually have tried to acquire the qualities he saw in them, while still other may in fact have possessed those qualities.
During the most adolescent period of his friendship with Jim, David could have almost sworn that he saw Jim — and each person he liked — as if surrounded by a kind of light. He felt there was a kind of real brightness in them. In Jim’s case, the situation was even more intense, because for an undergraduate like David, Jim was one of those exalted Harvard individuals who belonged to the ranks of the tutors and graduate students.
What also made this situation startling for David was that these people had always seemed to be unapproachable and inaccessible, and now one of them was being kind to him. Without a trace of condescension, he was sharing with David the intelligence and even wisdom he had. More than that, he was even treating David with respect.
All of this behavior only served to confirm for David that Jim must have elements of greatness in his character. David thought that only a truly great person could treat others not simply with kindness, but with what David perceived as a kind of nobility.
Of course life would eventually teach him that it was ridiculous to think in such terms. At the time, though, he was young, and no one wanted to be the one to disillusion him, though perhaps they should have tried. If they didn’t, it was probably because they found it too difficult. What was worse, though, for David, was that some of the people he knew at that time appeared to treat him as if those elements that he was always looking for in other people actually existed in his own character. Naturally he knew that was an illusion. Bradley had said as much. Later it would seem to David that the whole basis of his relationship with many people at Harvard must have been a kind of mutually sustained illusion.
How much of Jim was an illusion, David would never be sure, even later in life. Jim related to David with what could perhaps be called a kind of remarkable stoicism. Jim probably did regard David’s thinking mostly as adolescent fantasy, but he did try to encourage David to discover reality for himself. This stoicism, however, only made Jim harder for David to understand, while at the same time it allowed David to attribute to Jim an even greater degree of greatness.
Perhaps one of the main reasons for this odd habit of perceiving greatness in the people he knew may have been that it offered a way of putting distance between them and him. David was afraid of getting too close to anyone. Like many overly sensitive adolescents, he thought there were too many possibilities of being hurt. On the other hand, it may also have been true that David really did long for some contact with greatness, some contact with the freedom and enlightenment he imagined greatness would bring. David certainly did tend to see greatness everywhere, even in those people who didn’t possess it at all, because he longed for it so much.
He would understand in later life — life eventually taught him this much — how very strange that was.
What is perhaps even stranger is that young people in the state of mind David was in then are also afraid of whatever it is they mean by greatness, and they are confused by it. At some level of their thinking they still, in spite of everything, unconsciously believe in or sense or dream of some capacity for greatness in themselves, the capacity for great achievement, although they have no idea what it might be. The fact they have no idea what it might be, though, only demonstrates they are suffering from an illusion. Certainly David was. He must have been.
At the time, though, in his case, much of all this only partly registered in his consciousness. The idea of greatness, or the awareness of it, or the illusion, or whatever it may have been for him, was at that time embedded so deep in his adolescent unconscious, that no matter how much it may have influenced his thought and behavior, it remained to a large extent hidden even from him.
If there were ever moments when he became more or less consciously aware of such ideas, he did his best to rid himself of them. They frightened him, they were too strange, because he knew no other living soul who thought such things. Such ideas belonged in books, not in real life. Not in his real life, anyway. In his life such thoughts would make him feel lost, with nothing to guide him, with no patterns to follow. Such ideas could mean the freedom to lead a life utterly different from the kind of life most people led. This was a kind of freedom he often thought he did not want. It was too frightening.
In his confusion, though, at other times, if he did give any conscious thought to these questions, he did want what he thought this freedom could bring: the feeling that he was using all of his abilities, exhausting all the possibilities of creating something or doing something important.
Like many adolescents, though, if he ever did think in those terms, a short time later he would be unsure of himself, and he would be convinced he was suffering from a delusion.
This whole question — the question of what greatness really meant, the question of what he could do with his abilities and with his life — tended to preoccupy him more and more that summer and into the following year, his third year at Harvard. It was a problem that not only increased his sense of loneliness, it made him feel that loneliness more acutely.
His situation was hardly improved by his tendency to put distance between himself and anyone who might be in a position to help him find a way out of his bewilderment.
When the confusion eventually threatened to become intolerable, David was able to resolve the whole situation — at least temporarily — by telling himself that he would simply force himself to be one of the ordinary people, one of those whose lives he considered safe and predictable.
With logic that seemed impregnable, at least to him, he decided that whatever he thought he was or whatever he might really be, if he could succeed in forcing himself to be like ordinary people, then that would really prove he was quite ordinary. If he couldn’t do that, well, then in the end it would be clear that he wasn’t so ordinary, and he would just have to deal with that situation if and when it arose.
But he certainly did not have to deal with it now.
Part 3, Chapter 22
Eppur si muove!
— Giordano Bruno
And yet it moves!
— Giordano Bruno
(Erroneously attributed to Galileo)
David’s junior year at Harvard began with an experience that’s not easy to describe accurately, because it lies outside the limits of the kind of reality he normally had to deal with.
By the middle of September that year, just before classes for the winter semester started, he experienced alternating feelings of great exhaustion and extreme excitement. He often felt on edge, filled with nervous tension, with huge amounts of energy to burn.
He’d gone back to stay with his mother and stepfather for a few weeks after summer school. He spent most of that time working on a draft of an honors thesis, which he planned to try to complete in the coming months so that he could graduate the following June, as his mother and stepfather wanted.
After he returned to Cambridge, he continued to work on the draft, typing and retyping the manuscript, still full of nervous energy and sustained by a surprising sense of well-being that was very pleasant, but also very hard account for. Perhaps much of the reason for it lay simply in his having resigned himself to the thought of finishing his undergraduate work and getting his degree the following year — and at last being free of his mother and stepfather.
That autumn was a particularly spectacular one in New England. The normally gorgeous foliage seemed almost to explode into an uncontrolled riot of color. The days were nearly always clear and filled with sunshine. The glowing color of the trees in Boston and Cambridge sometimes burned like fire against the incandescent blue of the sky.
The effect these things produced in his mind was heightened by the exhaustion he was feeling and the tension he was under. This in turn increased the bright sense of expectation he in his mind, and the pleasant feeling of occasional vague fatigue that didn’t seem really to be fatigue at all.
The weather that autumn and his reaction to it seemed to enhance the loveliness of those areas of Cambridge that can be irresistibly beautiful under almost any circumstances. The Charles flowed in its smooth course along the elegant, curving tree-lined bank on the university side of the river. The Georgian façades of Eliot and Winthrop appeared to dominate the scene with something that made him think of nothing so much as a kind of brilliant, gentle smile, straight out of the Enlightenment.
He continued to talk often with Jim, with much enthusiasm, sometimes about his undergraduate thesis and sometimes about something he’d seen or read. It had always been a delight for him to be able to describe these things to anyone, but now especially to Jim, who was always receptive, always ready to listen.
Jim always seemed to display a sort of suppressed enthusiasm that David never quite understood the cause of, because he himself may have been the cause. Jim seemed to him to listen and smile almost the way Cambridge itself was smiling that autumn. And the more Jim listened, the more David poured himself out, and the more he found there was to pour out.
The feeling of constant tension and excitement lasted for a few weeks and resulted in something he can only call a kind of interior event, for want of a better term, one that he would never forget, one that in one way or another would remain with him for the rest of his life.
It was — and he would never have believed this was possible — an event that made him feel — for a time — happier at Harvard than he’d ever felt anywhere, even in Africa.
Happier at Harvard. Happiness at Harvard.
Happiness is something everyone made so much of in that odd and often horrific century he grew up in — and of course we still do. Someone else, perhaps far in the future — if anyone reads this — will have a different idea of life, or a different idea of happiness.
When people of David’s generation were young — and this would probably be true for many generations after that — life was not worth living unless they could be happy, as they thought of happiness. Of course this idea of life was quite different from the idea that people of other civilizations or other times have had. For the ancient Greeks, it was the unexamined life that was not worth living. For people of some cultures, a life without work and struggle and striving is not worth living. For us now in the West, though, it is the unhappy life that is not worth living.
David sometimes thought that the people he knew might have been the first human beings anywhere to think in these terms. Americans in particular, at least since the founding of the Republic, have believed in an “inalienable right” to the “pursuit of happiness.”
Unfortunately, in the minds of many individuals, the idea that human beings have a right to pursue happiness appears to have been altered to mean a right to satisfy every conceivable selfish desire. It sometimes seemed to David that people apparently believed they had a right not simply to pursue the satisfaction of these desires but to enjoy that satisfaction whatever the cost. Anyone or anything that interfered with that satisfaction represented an unjust obstacle to the fulfillment of the legitimate purpose of their lives.
This satisfaction becomes the important thing many people seem to live for. Not work seems to count for them, or family or ideals or a sense of achievement or the possibility of creating or building something new. Only the satisfaction of their every desire counts.
Many human beings have apparently forgotten that happiness cannot really be pursued for its own sake. If it is, then people become trapped by selfishness and egotism. Many individuals no longer seem to understand that happiness can ultimately be pursued and attained only as a result of work and sacrifice for some greater purpose beyond themselves.
However, there also sometimes seems to be a kind of happiness for which there is apparently no cause at all — or if it is the result of work and sacrifice, then it may not always be clear when the work and sacrifice was carried out.
At Harvard, in that autumn of his third year, it was that kind of happiness that David experienced. It may have been the sort of gift that life or the universe or perhaps God presents some people with at various times. Or it may simply have been an aberration. David would never be able to say for sure.
He would only be able to say what happened.
He’d moved into a different room in Adams House, a single room that he had all to himself, and one afternoon he was sitting in that room, in his armchair, reading. All at once and for no reason he would ever be able to think of, he began to feel afraid. He started to feel a growing, overwhelming sense of fear and panic, with no object at all, a sense of simple, raw, naked fear.
He looked up from the book in his hands and saw only that the room was quite still. The afternoon breeze was moving the long beige curtains on the windows, causing them to swing inward, but the room at that moment looked the same as it always had: the same desk, the same trim furniture and quiet carpeting, the same books and fireplace. Everywhere around him there appeared to be the same atmosphere of calm that he was familiar with, but inside he felt fear and panic building — and threatening at any moment to go out of control.
He didn’t know what he was so afraid of, he knew only that he was afraid and that the panic seemed to be feeding on itself and increasing in a sort of geometric progression. Then he began to feel that he was menaced by something, but this something was within himself and he could not understand it or even begin to think of defining it.
As the pitch of fear increased beyond the point of panic and started to verge on sheer terror, he felt his mind trying to gather all its energies in an effort to understand exactly what the source of this terror was. There was a sort of darkness within and the more he looked into it, the less he could see, as though an inner blindness were overtaking him, and this blindness raised the fear and terror to an even higher pitch.
Then all at once, within a fraction of a second, a kind of chain reaction was triggered in his mind: the less he understood the terror’s cause, the greater it became, and the greater it became, the less he was capable of understanding it and then it became greater still and this sequence raged and spiraled upward second by second from one unbearably high pitch to another. Suddenly, without any kind of warning or preparation, the thought appeared quite calmly in his mind, “So this is what it means to go insane. This is what it’s like to lose my mind.”
He sat hanging onto the arms of the chair he was sitting in, staring at nothing in the room, all vision concentrated on his inner world. He was overpowered by a sense of awesome, unspeakable terror, and he wanted to call to someone for help, but he felt completely paralyzed. He could not move. He lost all sense of the passing of time. He didn’t know how long he sat there thinking, “I’m going insane, and there’s nothing I can do about it.”
This utterly pure terror was now so menacing that it was almost palpable. He tried to resist it, tried to convince himself there was nothing for him to be afraid of, but this attempt seemed to make the terror even worse. “There’s nothing I can do,” he thought. “I’m being destroyed, and there’s nothing he can do about it.”
At that point, finally, from somewhere out of what seemed to be the depths within him, the thought came, like a small source of light, “All right, I’m going insane. I’m losing his mind, but what difference does it really make? If I die now or go insane, it doesn’t matter. Nothing here matters. There is another world besides this one, and I will see that world one day. I will be happy there forever.”
He would be happy forever.
That thought struck him like a quiet breath of air, and he seemed to grasp some deeper level of meaning he could not yet quite see. It was as though a wonderfully slow, gentle, almost palpable explosion of light unfolded in his mind. At the same moment, he had the sensation of something else collapsing somewhere, while the extraordinary light continued to grow, until it filled the limits of his mind.
The fear and terror collapsed.
Then, the moment he yielded to that sensation of light, the clarity of everything in the room startled him. He had in some way been aware of every object in the room during the whole experience, but now, after the stunning burst of light, each thing around him had altered in a subtle but unmistakable way. Every object had all at once acquired a beauty he hadn’t seen before and somehow couldn’t comprehend.
At other times in his life, whenever he’d been taken unawares by some beautiful object, it had seemed only to glow, in a way, with a kind of inner light, like the figures in a Rembrandt painting. Colors had had a depth and a kind of internal fire that he’d sometimes seen when he looked into the center of a gem. Now, however, even though objects around him still had this quality, their beauty appeared at the same time to be enhanced, to be deeper, more profound. It was as though they’d acquired a completely new dimension. Or perhaps, he thought to himself, they had always had this dimension and it was he who was perceiving it for the first time.
He felt as though all his life he’d seen the world only in terms of height and width and depth and color. Now, in some way, the whole frame of things had shifted. He perceived another kind of depth as well. And with this new perception of depth, the world had taken on a loveliness that seemed of nearly limitless intensity.
It was as though each thing around him had been given a voice.
He knew how crazy it would sound if he said that to anyone.
Each object seemed to sing, as it were, to draw him to itself, hold his attention, and make him a fascinated observer of its new beauty.
Everything was the same, but everything was more different than he could have imagined.
He felt so at ease in this new world that it almost took his breath away. Everything seemed to welcome him. Everything seemed to be just the way it should be, himself most of all.
He stood up and looked around the room, surprised that he could perceive everything so differently and yet feel so at ease with it all. He moved across the room. He touched the desk, the chair — and he found that, yes, everything was exactly as it should be. At the same time, he’d never felt so alive, even in Africa. He’d never felt such intense awareness of things.
As he should have expected, Dr. Bradley saw evidence of pathology in this experience when David told him about it. David didn’t argue with Bradley, because he knew Bradley would see argument or disagreement, too, as evidence of pathology. Bradley apparently thought David had had a kind of psychotic break, and if David were to deny that conclusion, then his denial would be an even clearer indication of psychosis, as far as Bradley was concerned. The experience may have been pleasant, Bradley seemed to suggest, but it was psychotic nevertheless.
Bradley was the authority in such things, and in the face of that authority, all David thought he could do was to agree that Bradley must be right.
David did wonder, though, if perhaps the experience might be seen in other terms, but of course he never said anything like that to Bradley. Would it be possible, David thought, to regard it simply as a different way of perceiving reality, new for him but perhaps not so new for some other people? Who these other people might be, he couldn’t imagine of course. He only asked himself if some other conclusion about the entire experience might be possible. He wondered, for example, if the fear he’d felt was perhaps apprehension at something unusual that was happening, unusual for him at least, but not so unusual for other people in another place and time. Again, however, who these people were, or when or where they lived, of that David had no idea.
He asked himself many of these questions even before he talked to Bradley, but in the end he came to the conclusion that he really couldn’t know the truth about what he’d experienced, and since he couldn’t know what had happened, there seemed to be little point in spending time trying to figure it out.
On that afternoon, he wanted to see if the rest of the world had changed too, not merely the objects in his room. He felt almost as though he’d acquired some new ability, some new means of perception, as it were, and he was anxious to use it, for as long as it lasted, anyway. He knew somehow it wouldn’t last forever.
David left his room and stepped out of the side door of Adams House and onto Plimpton Street. He looked around and had to smile, for everything really had changed. Everywhere he looked, ordinary objects had taken on a stunning, rich beauty. The term “beauty in abundance” came to mind. “But of course,” he thought, “this is the way everything should be seen. This is the way everything really is. Anything else is not in the nature of things.”
So he was confronted by a kind of paradox. Everything he looked at had become extraordinarily beautiful, but weren’t they ordinarily that way perhaps? There seemed no reason not to think so. It was just that he could not always perceive them this way.
As he walked up Plimpton Street and on to Massachusetts Avenue, it occurred to him that the trees he glimpsed in the courtyard of Adams House, just as they were, bright with their emerald color, were existing not only in the dimension we think of as time; they were also, in a sense that was almost palpable to him then, existing beyond time as well.
David knew of course how odd such ideas would seem to most other people. Perhaps to many people ideas like that would seem just as pathological as they did to Bradley.
He would always be happy to admit that anyone who reached that conclusion could be right, of course. But debating that question, with himself or with anyone else, never really interested him. If he was the one who was right, he thought he would know that one day, one way or another. If he was not right, it wouldn’t really make any difference, to anyone or to anyone else.
Everything looked so beautiful that afternoon that he could not believe such beauty would ever really die, not for him, anyway, not in his own mind. At least the memory would always be there.
No matter what people like Bradley might say, and no matter how much he might feel forced to agree with them, he would always think to himself: “É, si muove”.
The leaves on the trees of course would change color, fade, and fall away. Night would come, and winter too, and storms might seem to darken and dull everything, but such beauty would not really die. He knew then — he was convinced — that beauty like that must be waiting in another dimension, another world. He was absolutely certain that such beauty is a hint of all that exists beyond what we see of space and time. It seemed self-evident. He understood that not everything will cease to exist.
Then, that afternoon, he took the subway into Boston, to Park Street, and when he came out of the station, he turned and started walking across the Common. Just then, right in front of him, a huge flock of ordinary pigeons exploded into flight, and he felt a pleasant dizziness. Hundreds of beating wings swam upward through the air in front of him, and he nearly felt that he was being carried with them.
The flight of the birds resonated powerfully in David’s own mind with this new kind of vision, this new way of seeing things, this new sense of freedom. It resonated too with his idealistic nature, that nature that still longed as it always had to soar upward, to move in what he thought of as rarefied regions of spirit and intellect.
Everything symbolized by the flight of the birds appealed to what he thought of as his finer instincts. He was — in a childish way — entranced by the fusion of an interior yearning and an outer reality that he saw displayed in front of him.
He would reflect on that experience years later, when it would seem very far in the past, and even then it would occur to him that in some ways there may have been some truth in what he thought and felt that day. It is true that those ideas were the ideas of a young man, and so were the ideals, but even in later life David would still believe that those ideas were true, even though he would not experience them quite the same way again. There would be times when he went so far as to think that those ideas and those ideals were truer for him in later life than he could have known when he was at Harvard.
David would later learn something he could not really have understood then: that the only way to really enter “rarefied regions of spirit and intellect” is to lead a life that seems to be very ordinary, not filled with remarkable experiences at all, but rather with quite mundane and ordinary events. He would never, of course, always be able to keep that idea in mind, and he certainly wouldn’t act on it very often. Still, at some deep level of his mind, he knew it to be true. It was an idea that would always seem, one way or another, to be present and real.
Those at Harvard who thought that what he experienced that afternoon was delusional apparently did not believe it was harmful in itself. They did think, though, that it could become harmful if he dwelled on it and tried to cultivate it. It could produce a sense of isolation from other people and from what is considered the real world. Besides, they thought, when such an experience was exposed as an illusion, he would suffer if he tried to hold on to it.
David would probably have been quite happy to admit that people who thought such things might be quite right. That afternoon, however, he didn’t think about such things. He simply walked across the Common in Boston as though it were a place of real — for want of a better word — enchantment. That will probably seem funny, especially to anyone who knows what the Common can be like at other times, on a cold, bleak, rainy evening, for example, at the end of winter, when the universe itself can seem dark and gray.
That afternoon, though, as the birds were in dazzling flight around trees that for David swayed and danced in the sunlight, as they swooped down among geraniums that had a color that was deeper and more intense than any he had ever seen, a kind of laughter arose in his mind. The flowers, it appeared, had become capable of expression, and what they expressed was a sort of irony, because they looked solemn, full, and heavy. Yet their colors were so hypnotically suggestive of the half-hidden sense of playfulness he thought could be found, for example, in any great work of art, something he’d come to associate with a certain kind of greatness. “For the roses had the look of flowers that are looked at.”
Later, for a long time after that experience, he didn’t speak of it very often. Whenever he did happen to talk about it to anyone, though, what many of them found more striking than anything else was the fact that his description of what had occurred lacked any reference to other people. It was as if he was the only person in Boston or Cambridge that afternoon, or perhaps it would be truer to say that the odd beauty he saw in natural and man-made objects was apparently the only thing he was aware of. Did he really find other people so intimidating, or perhaps so meaningless?
It’s possible that he did, which might not be very surprising. Because his mother and stepfather had managed to become more significant than his professors and teachers, more significant than the friends he had at Harvard, he felt — perhaps this can’t be emphasized too often — threatened, afraid, and insecure. He unconsciously assumed other people were going to treat him exactly the same way. Without realizing it, he developed the idea that he had to be very cautious and selective in choosing people to be friends with. He actually did find other people so intimidating that on that strange afternoon he was hardly aware of anyone else and later hardly ever spoke to anyone else of what he’d experienced.
Among the people who knew him best, people he did speak to about that day, there were, as has been said, a number of different reactions to what had happened. No one really understood very well exactly what he’d gone through, of course, but some reactions perhaps indicated more insight than others. Jim, for example, listened with his usual intense expression, one where joy and sadness seemed always to be mixed, and when David had finished telling him about that afternoon, Jim said simply, “Well, what are you going to do now?”
Jim didn’t pass judgment on what David had gone through; he didn’t try to decide if what David experienced was real or delusional. Jim didn’t try to make him believe he understood it. Jim simply accepted the account of David’s experience as something he thought was significant. Then he tried to encourage him to go on and do something with that experience.
David’s response was ambiguous, because he was so unsure of himself. He indicated that he would continue doing what he’d always done, at least for the time being. He’d simply continue with his academic work, and he’d try to give expression to all his experience through that work. That seemed reasonable to him; it was all he thought he could do.
Dr. Bradley, as already indicated, had a somewhat different reaction to David’s account of his experience, and no matter how much David submitted to Bradley’s judgment, he did find Bradley’s reaction a little odd. When David told him about the experience he’d had on that unusual afternoon, Bradley looked at him slyly, smiled, and said, “But you enjoyed it, didn’t you?” David was bewildered more by the expression on Bradley’s face than he was by his remark, but because there was so much in life that was bewildering then, one more such element didn’t seem to matter very much. David simply looked at Bradley and said, “Yes, I enjoyed it very much,” and the subject never came up between them again.
Ann and Clay’s reaction was much the same as Jim’s. They listened to David and accepted the experience as something that was important for him, even if they themselves couldn’t understand it very well.
From that time on, though, he had the impression that many of the people he knew had begun looking at him as if they were seeing him somehow in a different light. It was as if he’d become someone who was unusual for them, someone who’d suddenly displayed a side of himself they’d been unaware of until then.
Part of the problem was not just what David had experienced on that bright autumn afternoon, but the way he began talking about everything, about the impression ordinary objects made on him, for example. He was so innocent that he thought he could say anything to anyone and be understood. When that didn’t happen, he became depressed. Sometimes he even felt irritated, which perhaps indicates the degree to which selfishness played a role in what he thought and what he did.
He was — and it’s hardly necessary to repeat this — very immature.
He couldn’t seem to comprehend the fact that he would never find very many people who understood him, and those who did would inevitably begin to see him as someone very different from his classmates and contemporaries.
This was true not only with regard to the way he saw things, but also with regard to religion. The role religion played in David’s life is not easy to describe, because it eventually generated a conflict in his life that very nearly destroyed him. Some attempt has to be made, though, to discuss the question.
David only rarely spoke about religion to anyone at Harvard, so the people he knew there hardly suspected the potential problems that would arise.
Clay and Ann Wise were among those who tried to draw him out on this subject. One evening after dinner in their home, for example, they began asking him about religion, and even though he’d always been rather reluctant to speak about it before, with the new sense of freedom he was feeling, he was almost eager to answer their questions.
At one point in the conversation, Clay asked him, with an odd circumlocution, “But what do you really think about when you think about anything that has to do with this topic?”
It was very late, the curtains in their living room and not been drawn, and David sat looking out the window for a moment into the dark night. He could see Clay’s image in the glass, palely reflected by the low fire in the fireplace. David turned toward him. “What do I think about? It all depends.” He paused and lowered his eyes. He was a little surprised at the directness of the question, and he knew he was being inarticulate, in spite of any new “freedom” he might feel.
“I think about a lot of things. Some of them would sound pretty weird or sentimental to you, I know. But I guess the main thing I think about — if I’m not too distracted by other ideas — the main thing I think about is, well, that there exists something beyond time as we know it.”
He stopped again, knowing there was no hope of making himself understood, but feeling he ought at least to try to answer the question. “I know it’s impossible really to grasp, but there are people who believe that. I mean, Aquinas wrote about that. About that and the Catholic Mass.”
Good grief, he thought to himself. What sense would a medieval philosopher’s ideas make to anyone at all now? Then it occurred to him that if he really believed everything as strongly as he thought he did, he should be able to explain it all clearly.
Clay looked at him. David could hear Ann clearing the dinner table and taking everything into the kitchen so that the maid could do the washing-up in the morning. “I’m sorry, but I really don’t understand that, David.”
He shrugged and tried to smile. “I know. But what I’m talking about is an old scholastic idea, something Aquinas incorporated into his philosophy from some idea the ancient Greeks had, I think. Aquinas believed that every Mass is literally a sacrifice. Like the lamb sacrificed at Passover in the Old Testament. The sacrifice isn’t just a representation, according to Aquinas, or a symbolic repetition, because it can never be repeated. Aquinas wrote that the Mass is that sacrifice.”
Clay didn’t say anything, but just kept on looking at him. David took that as an indication he should continue. He knew, though, that he could not possibly be making any sense to him, or to Ann, if she could hear him. Still, he went on, “Where there’s no time, there’s no succession of events, of course. How could there be? There’s no past or future. There’s only the present, an eternal now. And in that ‘now’ of eternity, there’s only one real sacrifice, but we have access to it, access to an event that is eternally present. I think someone once wrote, and I suppose this sounds really weird or really poetic — but I guess all poetry is weird in a way — that the Catholic Mass is a kind of translation of the terms of eternity into time.”
David looked at Clay as calmly as he could, thinking that at least he’d done his best, trying to explain what he thought. Then he added, “Anyway, I guess that’s one way of answering your question.”
It was impossible for him to tell what Clay was thinking, and because he always tried to prepare for the worst, he tried to accept the fact that Clay must think he was really crazy. All Clay said, though, was, “Your beliefs seem to be very strong.”
“Well, in a way, they’re the only thing I’ve got,” he said, and even he didn’t completely understand then how profoundly true that would eventually prove to be. “These beliefs are the only thing that’s ever given meaning to my life, practically since I was a child. I’d be lost if I didn’t have them.”
“But you’d be free,” Clay responded.
David studied Clay’s face. “Would I really? I don’t know.”
What he could not say, or what even he seems not to have quite grasped was that whether or not he would be “free” was really an irrelevant question for him. He felt he couldn’t have given up those beliefs even if he’d wanted to. He’d internalized them to such a degree that there was no aspect of his life that was not affected by them. That was something no one seemed to understand. If they had, his life would probably have turned out to be quite different.
Most young people who come to Harvard as undergraduates shed their adolescent thinking as easily as they change their clothes. They are encouraged to call that thinking into question, and when they do, they almost always — or at least very often — discard it.
David couldn’t do that, though. The ideas he’d acquired during his adolescence were ideas he’d organized his life around. There had been nothing else. They were the ideas that had given him a sense of stability for so long that he could not function without them. He would have felt lost and disoriented without them.
At the same time that people encouraged David to get rid of his “illusions” and “face reality”, they couldn’t grasp that they might perhaps make him think for a time that his ideas were illusions, but ultimately he would never be convinced of that.
He could never be convinced that the ideas that gave meaning to his life were meaningless. Or if that did happen, he would be destroyed. He knew that. That was something no one seemed able to understand. Nor did they understand that if those ideas ever came under too much of a threat from Harvard — if he ever had to choose between them and Harvard — he would sacrifice Harvard, and everything it meant to him. And it meant the world.
In a way, it almost seems that events were being configured to resemble something like a Greek tragedy, and his friends and his teachers and he — everyone — had their part to play.
Like a character out of Sophocles, he seemed to be moving inexorably toward his fate, and everything he did to avoid that fate only brought him closer to it. That may seem overly dramatic, but if it does, it may not so much be a result of any exaggeration on David’s part. It may be simply that it hasn’t been possible really to convey the reality of the boy he was, and all the dilemmas that hapless boy found himself confronted with.
Part 3, Chapter 23
Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
Listen! We have heard in days long sped
of the prowess of kings, spear-armed Danes,
and of what honor the Athelings won!
Among the courses he took at the start of that second year at Harvard was one that surveyed the entire range of English literature, from Beowulf to T.S. Eliot. Jim Radnor was teaching one of the sections of the course, and this as much as anything else made David want to take it. Jim was so quietly enthusiastic about literature that David thought he must be a good teacher. Anyway, David had always liked literature, and he thought a survey course couldn’t hurt, even if he still was majoring in history.
Jim and he had already spent many hours that summer talking about literature, after David had somehow managed, finally, to exhaust the subject of Africa. Jim told him about Alfred Williams, the professor who was giving the lectures in the course. David was curious about him, because even though he was still relatively young, he was already one of those legendary professors Harvard seems to create in every generation.
When David first heard Williams lecture, what struck him was his unpretentiousness: he was a man in very early middle age, of medium height, bald, and with an oval face and bright, cheerful eyes. He was an Anglo-Saxon scholar, a Catholic, and everything in his manner reminded David of what he imagined an English priest of the early Middle Ages might have been like: he was kind, generous, and wise. Williams was also in one respect admirably — it seemed to him — child-like: whenever he lectured, he spoke quite extemporaneously about a piece of literature he must have already discussed many times before, but he gave you the impression he was discovering it, with a great sense of excitement, for the very first time.
David began going to Williams’ lectures the same way he attended all his other courses at Harvard: seriously, somewhat mechanically, and with that indifference that many of his fellow students couldn’t help but having, since they’d parked — so to speak — a part of the mind somewhere else before entering the lecture hall.
David had fallen into a common undergraduate routine, despite all the dreams of intellectual glory he’d once had.
One day, though, as he sat in Burr Hall, routinely taking notes along with three hundred other students, he was shaken out of his waking sleep by a kind of chilling jolt, a sudden realization that something very different was going on in the enormous room. All at once he felt as though someone were speaking to him from an enormous distance. He felt as though he were hearing a voice from farther away than he’d ever dreamed of, a voice from the “deep well of the past,” a voice that was being carried across the centuries that separated David from its source.
He could not understand the words, but he knew he was hearing the epic song. He knew the voice was speaking of heroes, of ancient wisdom, and of greatness itself. He heard these things in the depths of his being, more intimately than he heard most of the things spoken to him every day.
He raised his eyes from the notebook he was writing in. Williams was looking out over the audience of students as though he were speaking to an infinite number of them, extending far into the future. The words were the opening lines of Beowulf, recited in the original. The accent echoed through the room and beyond: flawless, rough, rich with the sounds of the Nordic languages. Williams’ voice seemed to tremble, like that of an aged Merlin; it was so different from his usual voice that it was hard to believe it was his voice at all.
From that moment on, David hung on every syllable Williams ever uttered in his lectures.
Part 3, Chapter 24
„Tief ist der Brunnen der Vergangenheit. Sollte man ihn nicht unergründlich nennen?”
Joseph und seine Brüder
“Deep is the well of the past. Should we not say it is unfathomable?“
Joseph and His Brothers
Given the state of mind David was in, as the semester progressed, the words he would sometimes use to describe the pattern of Williams’ ideas were words like “enchanted, almost timeless.”
He spent hours talking about these things with Jim.
He used to make statements that were hopelessly sophomoric, statements such as “I never understood before that literature is something so alive.” David said this to Jim one brilliant autumn afternoon, as they walked along the Charles. “Every time Williams speaks,” he went on, “you can feel what a living thing literature is; you feel the way it possesses a force and power all its own.” He stared hard for a moment at the soaring flight of a bird over the trees that stood along the river. “I never understood that before. The English course I took as a freshman made literature so incredibly boring — at least it seemed that way to me then.”
They continued walking for a time without saying anything. They left the river and headed toward the Square. Before they reached it, they turned down Mount Auburn Street and walked past the eccentrically designed Lampoon building, that little medieval structure on its own patch of land, like something out of a time warp. They stood there for a moment looking at that odd specimen of Harvard history. Then they turned around and started back the way they’d come.
Finally Jim spoke. “Some people here, though, think that a professor like Williams gives a completely wrong idea of what it’s like to study literature,” he said. “They think he’s not a scholar.”
David had begun to admire Williams so much that he hardly knew what to make of that remark. He responded with his usual rush of adolescent enthusiasm: “But everything he says has so much meaning. When he talks, he seems to know so much about life — and literature. He makes me see things in literature that were invisible to me before.”
“What sort of things?” Jim asked.
“Everything — it’s hard to explain sometimes. I mean everything about people who’ve done extraordinary things, written extraordinary things.”
They were approaching the corner of Mount Auburn and Boylston again.
“But what does ‘extraordinary’ mean?” asked Jim, his hands thrust deep into his pockets. “In a way, isn’t everybody extraordinary?”
The sky was filled with rolling, steel-gray clouds now and the wind blew in their faces in those fierce gusts of coastal New England. When they reached Boylston Street, they turned left and started walking back toward the river.
“For me, an extraordinary person is one who has a mind that, well, sort of soars. You know that anything you say to them they’ll understand. Nothing is outside their range. You feel that instinctively. Most people, though, when you talk to them, can’t seem to go beyond a certain level of thought, or outside certain areas of thinking. They’re somehow constrained.”
They were both silent for a moment. David went on, “Or else there are areas that they don’t want to explore. Or with some people, if they’re able to talk about any subject that comes up, they talk about it in a way that seems so narrow — and sometimes so pretentious. They don’t seem to really care at all about ideas or about the real life of the mind.”
They were walking past the long rows of windows that seemed to stare down at them from Eliot House. Jim thought David was, like many adolescents, being overly critical of people, but he didn’t say anything. He probably knew David wouldn’t understand what he was talking about – or else he would feel crushed. David was one of those adolescents who could quickly and articulately criticize others, cutting to the heart of what he saw as their faults, but he shrank from the pain of being criticized himself. Naturally he was unaware of this contradiction.
All Jim did was ask him, “Okay, but what do you think all this has to do with literature or with Williams’ approach to it?”
David looked up at the sky in a way that would have struck Jim as terribly melodramatic, if he’d understood David less well than he did. “I think literature is like the mind of a great man,” he said, perhaps a little too solemnly. “I think in a way it is the mind of all great men, the mind of civilization itself. Nothing is foreign to it, nothing is irrelevant, except of course what is banal and common.” David looked at Jim with an expression that sometimes struck other people as a little too intense. They thought it almost fierce. Perhaps it was the expression David reserved for some of his more pompous statements — statements he nevertheless believed completely: “Literature allows us to explore the most elevated regions of thought, and the most exotic.”
Jim looked at the water of the Charles up ahead of them, churned by the force of the wind. Then he looked at David. “That’s an easy thing to say,” he said, smiling. “I think I’ve heard it before. What do you mean by it?”
“I think you can have a kind of conversation with literature,” David said with adolescent earnestness, “and it will never fail you, never disappoint you. You’re free to go in any direction, as far as you want.”
Jim seemed a little sad. “Perhaps. But I’ve known people who manage to make literature into something extremely narrow.”
Hopelessly innocent, David answered, “But surely not here. Surely not at Harvard.”
He looked away, and for a while neither of them said anything.
Part 3, Chapter 25
“Thus an incessant stream of ‘self-reference’ flows through my thoughts….It seems impossible that this should be an individual peculiarity of my own person; it must, on the contrary, point to the way we grasp outside matters in general. I have reasons to assume that other individuals meet with experiences quite similar to mine.”
Psychopathology of Everyday Life
The next day there was another of Williams’ lectures. David sat down, opened his notebook, and started taking notes as usual. He wrote quickly, trying — in his perhaps compulsive way — to get down every word that Williams spoke. After a few moments, though, he had to stop.
“Not all the tests of greatness apply to the Canterbury Tales,” Williams was saying. “There is nothing in them that soars, for example, into the same regions of thought one finds in Paradise Lost. Yet there is greatness in Chaucer’s work, and it can be found in the breadth of what he explores, rather than in the heights. It can be found in the richness and the earthiness of the human personality that forms a basis for all of Chaucer’s poetry.”
David could barely continue writing. The more he listened to Williams, it seemed to him that everything Williams was saying was in some way connected to the discussion he’d with Jim. Even more than that, as the lecture continued, Williams seemed to be elaborating on all sorts of other ideas David had talked about during that discussion.
He was startled. And puzzled. What a coincidence, he thought, that Williams should be thinking about exactly those subjects that he’d told Jim about, and all at once he felt embarrassed by some of the things he’d said and the way he said them.
When the lecture was over, though, David closed his notebook, left the lecture hall, and let the whole matter slip from his mind as a really weird idea that he wouldn’t allow to bother him.
However, the coincidence occurred in Williams’ next lecture too. In fact, during the weeks that followed, it happened again and again. Often David would mention some idea to Jim, or write about it in a paper for Jim’s class, and then within a day or two, in Williams’ lecture, the same coincidence would take place again.
There must be a reason for such a thing, David thought to himself, but he could not understand what that reason might be. At first, he had to admit, there was nothing really unpleasant about it, except for its being so incomprehensible, and weird. “How can I think anything so stupid?” he wondered. The only explanation that was possible for him — that it was a matter of coincidence — began to seem less plausible as time passed.
He kept trying to convince himself of just that, though, but after a time, he found it almost impossible to go on believing it. At that point he started to worry: if it was not a coincidence, then what was it? His imagination? Of course. That was it. It had to be his imagination. A professor like Williams could hardly be directing his lectures to a single individual in a class of three hundred students, anyway certainly not to an individual like him. He must be imagining it. But why? What was happening to him? Was he going crazy?
The coincidences at first had seemed so ridiculous that he didn’t think they were worth mentioning to Jim. As they continued, however, and as he worried more about them, he couldn’t mention them to Jim because they seemed so insane, and he certainly didn’t want Jim to think he was losing his mind.
The “problem,” however, became worse. Soon it was happening not only in Williams’ lectures, but in the lectures of other professors as well.
He became increasingly frightened. Ideas that he’d discussed with Jim or with other students seemed to appear without fail in the lectures of one or another of his professors. The absurd idea occurred to him that maybe if he were to sit down at random in the Adams House dining hall and express his ideas on some literary question, he’d be sure to find those same ideas referred to or elaborated on the next day in a lecture.
He became more and more convinced he really was going crazy.
What made the situation worse was the fact that at first he couldn’t discuss it with anyone at all. No matter how much he might have wanted to, he just could not discuss it with Jim. Their conversations, however enthusiastic and full of excitement, were almost always on literary topics, and it would have seemed strange to David to discuss any personal matters with Jim. Of course indirectly they were always talking about their personal lives and ideas when they discussed literature. However, the ideas David was having about the lectures of his professors were so frightening to him that he could not talk about them even indirectly.
Of course he did have a confessor in those days, a kind and intelligent old man, an auxiliary bishop of Boston living in a parish not far from the university, but David didn’t know how he could ever make his fears comprehensible to him. The one time he tried to, the bishop simply said to him, “You’re no different from anyone else.”
Eventually David did manage to talk about these things with Bradley, even though he was convinced Bradley was just about the last person who would ever understand him or be able to help.
“I keep having all these crazy ideas,” he told the psychiatrist one bleak afternoon not long before Christmas vacation. “Is it possible for somebody to think they’re going insane — when they really are going insane?”
Bradley puffed on his pipe for a moment, calmly. He was always so calm. “Yes, it’s possible,” he said, more calmly than ever.
David leaned forward and put his head in his hands. “Then I must be going insane. I keep having these crazy ideas, and I don’t know what to do about them.”
“What sort of ideas?” Bradley asked, taking his pipe out of his mouth and starting to clean the bowl.
David sat up in the chair. “I keep thinking sometimes that one of my professors is talking to me in the lectures he’s giving.”
Bradley stopped cleaning his pipe and looked at him sharply. “What do you mean, talking to you?”
“He keeps mentioning things I’m interested in, things I’ve been talking about to other people.”
“And that bothers you?” asked Bradley.
This time David looked up at him sharply. “Of course it does,” he said. “How could it not bother me, it’s such a crazy idea.”
“Because if I believed it, I would also have to believe that people I’ve been talking to have themselves been talking — to professor about me. And that’s a preposterous idea. It’s also pretty preposterous to think that a professor like Alfred Williams would aim things in his lectures at me, when there are three or four hundred other students in the course.” David looked Bradley in the eyes. “Don’t you think that’s crazy?”
The man shifted in his chair. “What I think,” he said, “is that if you spent more time with other people, these things wouldn’t bother you so much.”
David looked down and shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe they wouldn’t — but then again, maybe they would.”
Bradley sat and looked at him for a moment, stared at him actually, without saying anything, and David would later think that should have been a warning to him, somehow, of what was going to happen eventually. He was too young and naïve, though, to understand that a psychiatrist who feels he’s making no progress with a patient will never blame himself. He will blame the patient, of course, and sometimes with a vengeance.
David certainly should have understood that. He should have been more interested in the “progress” he was making with Bradley. Instead, all David was concerned about was having the psychiatrist — or anyone — either confirm or refute the ideas he’d been talking about, but that was the one thing Bradley could not do. So even as David sat there, he became more and more uncertain, afraid, and even confused in his attitude toward life, while Bradley seemed to become more hostile in his attitude toward David, though of course Bradley would say David was only imagining that. Psychiatrists never develop feelings of hostility toward their patients.
Finally David said to him, “What bothers me is that I’m afraid I’m going to start believing these things.”
“That people are talking to me.”
“Why shouldn’t people talk to you?”
David put his hands over his face. There seemed to be so much he just couldn’t say, or at least he couldn’t say it in a way Bradley would understand. “I mean,” he said, “teachers who talk to me through the lectures and classes they give.”
“Who else has been talking to you in this way?”
“James Radnor, one of the assistants in Williams’ course. He teaches the section I’m in, and I talk to him outside of class, but it’s the things he says in class that bother me.” David stared for a moment at the deep blue curtains covering the window behind Bradley.
Bradley sighed, the way someone would sigh who had to deal with a particularly stupid child. “All right,” the psychiatrist said as he dismissed David, “as I said, why don’t you try to see if you can spend a little more time with other people?”
David almost cringed — and made the mistake of not only becoming irritated with Bradley, but actually showing his irritation. It would be tempting to say that David would live to regret that, but of course the idea that Bradley would ever retaliate for something David had said to him, well, that idea too is surely only a product of an overheated imagination.
“Spend more time with other people?” David said a little too loudly, before turning and walking out. “What do you mean? ‘Spend time with other people.’ I can’t get away from other people — in class, in the library, in the dining hall. I’d just like to be alone once in a while.”
When David left the office, Bradley was still just staring at him.
Part 3, Chapter 26
“O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there.”
–Gerard Manley Hopkins
[No Worst, There is None]
David left the Health Center and went back to Adams House for lunch. It was winter in Cambridge now. The world looked quite different from the way it had on that splendid day in September, when it appeared to him transformed. As he walked to the dining hall, Harvard’s stone buildings looked cold and bleak, the sky was gray and empty, the trees barren and dead.
He dreaded lunch. The painful ritual of meals in the dining hall repeated itself every day, and he could find no way of altering it. He walked down the steps and into ‘C’ entry of Adams House, through the foyer with the gold leaf ceiling. Just ahead were the great, dark wooden doors of the dining hall, grim and forbidding.
Almost every time he walked through those doors at lunch or dinner, he was afraid. In the morning he could eat as early as possible, when the dining hall was nearly empty. He could eat alone, reading his New York Times, without having to feel afraid of anyone.
At lunch and dinner, though, he was always afraid. He was afraid he would have to sit alone in a room full of strangers, listening to them talk to each other. If he did sit with people he knew, he was afraid they would ignore him or make him feel ridiculous somehow.
He could not break out of the enclosed world he had been raised in. It seemed impossible for him not to feel cut off from other people.
He used to walk into the dining hall and give his student number to the woman seated at the table near the door. Then he would usually glance apprehensively around the room as he picked up his tray and began to move through the serving line. The room was often nearly full, and he tried to see if there was anyone there he knew. The heavy dark paneling on the walls weighed down on him with an almost palpable force, and even more so in the black depths of the seemingly endless Cambridge winter.
One of the only things that gave him support in those days — and this shows how distant he was from any deep understanding of all his famous beliefs — was the row of aristocratic portraits around the room. The portraits may have been quite mediocre as works of art, but he imagined that if their subjects were alive, they would understand him, support him, and smile on what he did and thought. They represented the mentors he would like to have had but never found.
They also seemed to encourage him to go on trying to survive the pain that he at times felt was filling his life completely.
He moved through the serving line in the dining hall more or less automatically, without giving much thought to what he was doing. He felt numb, except for the cold knot of fear inside. He felt as if something he was afraid of were struggling for life inside him.
He reached the end of the serving line, and this was the point where he was confronted with that question that for most people was quite simple, but which for him was the source of tremendous anxiety, the question of whether there would be anyone he could sit with, anyone he could talk to. If there was no one in the dining hall that he knew, then he would have to sit at a table full of strangers. He dreaded that. He never knew what to say.
On this particular day, though, when he turned around with his usual sense of desperation, he saw Don Rider, his old roommate, sitting with a few other people. He went over to them, working his way through the maze of crowded tables, and when he had sat down, Don said to him with a smile, “Hi, David, do you know Elizabeth Smythe?”
He was so deep in his private world that he could not at first even comprehend what Don was saying. He looked at the girl who was sitting next to him. She was smiling at him with an open, confident expression, as if she wanted to tell him he looked like one of the most interesting people she’d ever seen, as if she surely could expect great things from him.
Perhaps he wondered vaguely what she would think if she could see into the depths of fear and confusion clouding his mind, but he smiled back at her. “Hi, I’m David Austin,” he said.
“Dave and I were roommates last year,” Don said to Elizabeth. “Then he decided he was too good for us and got a room of his own.” Then Don laughed in his intelligent, innocent way.
Everyone laughed with him, and Elizabeth said to David, “I’m sure you did the right thing. I think a year with Don would make anyone want to live alone.”
Years later, when David thought of it, it would be a little hard for him to believe that in those days people really did joke and talk to each other in exactly that way.
“Now that hurt,” said Don, still smiling. “I think I’ll go somewhere and have these wounds dressed. Anyway, I think you two are probably going to start talking about Africa, and I’d feel left out. I’ll see you later.”
Elizabeth put her hand on Don’s arm. “Call me tomorrow about that report,” she said.
When Don had gone, Elizabeth and he looked at each other for a moment. David thought she was probably the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen. Margaret, from the past Christmas vacation, was gone now, at least for the time being. Then it occurred to him that Elizabeth was not simply the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen, she was the most beautiful girl who’d ever paid this much attention to him. She had bright, intelligent blue eyes and soft blonde hair that was radiant even in the pale winter sun streaming in through the windows. She seemed to be sitting there in a bright field of light.
As he looked at her, though, he could still feel — just at the edge of his consciousness — the heavy weight of everything he had to worry about. All that confusion, all those strange questions — even Margaret couldn’t block them out. His mother and stepfather’s disapproval of everything he did and everything he was. The consuming puzzle of why he thought Williams and Jim Radnor and his other teachers were directing their lectures at him.
Still, Elizabeth’s smile was very beautiful, and he could almost feel there was in it a kind of safety from his nightmares. He was vaguely conscious of hoping that she might not try exploiting all his weaknesses as his mother had. There was still, somewhere in his mind, at least a trace of the memory of Margaret, and the longing for someone who could do for him what she had done.
Years later he would remember such ideas, and he would see how selfish they really were, because he thought only about what Elizabeth and Margaret might have been able to do for him, instead of what he could have done for them. He was attracted by Elizabeth’s charm and intelligence, by her beauty and by her obvious happiness with life, but the attraction was what was important to him. He didn’t think about what he could give her or how he could contribute to her life.
As the semester continued, though, they saw a great deal of each other. Elizabeth took time off to fly to Nairobi to do research for her honors thesis. He almost envied her for that, except that she seemed so free and happy and good that she did discourage some of the pettiness in him, including envy. Besides, he was often preoccupied with the astonishing idea that she felt about him the same way he felt about her.
Ultimately, though, the demons that were pursuing him were more powerful than Elizabeth was, and she was helpless against their onslaught; she didn’t of course even know they existed. He tried to ignore them, thinking they would eventually stop, telling himself again and again that the ideas were simply crazy and that eventually a solution for such craziness would be found.
“If these strange ideas keep occurring to me,” he used to say to Bradley, “if I keep imagining that Professor Williams and my other teachers are directing their lectures at me, then there must be something wrong with me. That’s it. I must be crazy. And I don’t know what to do except continue trying to live in the normal world and hoping the crazy one will disappear.”
And Bradley would nod sleepily, puff on his pipe, and glance at his watch.
David went on moving through the routine of his days, trying to think and act in a world he was familiar with, trying to ignore anything that seemed to be in conflict with that familiar world. If he sat in one of Williams’ lectures — or in the classes of any of his other teachers — and they seemed to be directing their remarks at him, he used to try to distance himself mentally from the situation. He would sit there and go on taking notes, pretending that what he was writing and what the professor was saying had no significance for him. He knew no professor could possibly be directing his lectures at him. He told himself that the ideas the professor was discussing were important to most of the other students as well, not just to him. He could use his considerable will power, he told himself. He could force himself to see how preposterous it was to think that a full professor, or any faculty member at Harvard for that matter, might be aiming his lectures at a single undergraduate.
He knew that even to allow such an idea to occur to him was ridiculous. He tried to treat the idea as some kind of quirk that he was suffering from, one that really was not very important.
He did the reading for all his courses, carefully took notes in the lectures. Sometimes he was so absorbed by what the professors said that he seemed to forget everything else. If what they talked about often appeared in some uncanny way to touch on ideas that he felt passionately involved with, he went on trying to ignore that and sat there scribbling out his notes.
He did admit one thing to himself, though.
He admitted that he sometimes felt a kind of secret happiness about what professors like Williams said in their lectures, in those remarks that seemed directed at him.
At first, what they were saying did not seem particularly threatening, what bothered him and terrified him was simply the fact of his thinking they were saying it. What made him afraid was simply the sheer craziness of the idea that they were all publicly talking about things that were of intimate interest and vital importance. To him.
Part 3, Chapter 27
“Who would not sing for Lycidas? He knew
Himself to sing, and build the lofty rhyme.
He must not float upon his watery bier
Unwept, and welter to the parching wind
Without the meed of some melodious tear.”
Normally, public events play no role in the telling of one individual’s life.
About this time, however, an event occurred that David would come to believe — rightly or wrongly — did affect the whole remaining portion of his life, as well as the lives of millions of other people as well.
The assassination of President Kennedy seemed to nearly everyone awful beyond words. At the same time, even though it affected people deeply, it appeared somehow remote, precisely because it was an event so monstrous no one could really grasp it. It touched everyone, but at the time it seemed not to affect most people’s lives in any deep way, because many of them were remained numbed by it for a time and nearly in a state of shock.
David would live long enough to think that no one could have foreseen how it would change the lives of each of everyone, so that no individual remained untouched by it.
It was perhaps the single most momentous event of that generation, but David would feel that its affects were subtle and would last for years, even for decades.
With the perhaps somewhat adolescent strain of thinking that he never lost, David would write the following to a friend many years later:
“It was an event that in many ways brought a kind of blight to the land, perhaps even to the world. Or perhaps it could be said that Kennedy’s murder — no matter what we have learned about his life since then — brought on a kind of bleakness that we became so accustomed to in the years that followed that we ceased to notice it after a while, except when some occurrence, great or small, reminded us of the enormity of our loss.
“Many will say that the greatness we saw in Kennedy — the eloquence, the intelligence, the energy — was merely an illusion. We could not judge him objectively, because we were too close to him in time.
“That may be true, certainly, and of course only the future will really be able to judge him. Still, it is difficult to forget that for thousands of us, and for millions of people around the globe, Kennedy’s presidency was a kind of springtime, a rebirth of hope, and a renewal of the impulse to real accomplishment.
“And for those of us who were young and at Harvard then, it was even more than that; the Kennedy years represented the threshold of a new world that we could enter, one where we could think and act to the fullness of our abilities and our intelligence without anything or anyone holding us back. It would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that for many of us alive at that time those years were another Renaissance.
“When it ended so suddenly for us, in such an incomprehensible way, there began a period of confusion and disorientation that has still not ended for some members of that generation. I suppose one of the reasons for such a reaction was a kind of tragic flaw we all carried, a kind of collective hubris that made us think we could accomplish everything ourselves. We thought only in human terms, and if some of us had any awareness at all of some greater dimension in our lives, it was only a kind of intellectual awareness, unconnected with our emotions or our actions or the thinking and planning that went on in our everyday lives.
“When Kennedy was killed, some of us eventually even lost faith in our ideals. Many lost faith in a world, in a country, where such a thing could happen. Others had what might be described as the opposite reaction: they saw Kennedy’s assassination as an indication that human striving alone is not enough in the effort to reach whatever ultimate goals human beings may see for themselves.”
The day of the assassination began like any other at Harvard; it was only the afternoon that was different.
David went to the dining hall in Adams House around one o’clock or so. He moved through the serving line quickly, because most of the other students had already eaten and the hall was practically deserted. As he reached the milk machine that stood at the end of the food counter, one of the kindly, white-haired ladies who worked there — one he’d often spoken to before — suddenly came up to him, her eyes brimming with tears, and said, “They’ve shot our president.”
David looked at her, listened to her words, heard them distinctly, but the sentence simply carried no meaning that he could understand.
He stood there and continued to stare at her for a time, until she added, “We’ve just heard it on the radio in the kitchen. He was in Texas.”
“Texas?” was the first thing he thought to himself, and an image of Nathan Pusey came into his mind. “What was the president of Harvard doing in Texas? And why would anyone shoot him?”
The idea that she could be talking about President Kennedy being shot was beyond reality, wasn’t it? If that’s what she meant, then it was bizarre — and yet she was so convincing. He felt the way an ox must feel when it’s been bludgeoned between the eyes. He mumbled a reply, answered something — he never would remember exactly what — but everything she’d just told him was so embarrassingly weird, that he felt almost as if he was expected to respond to a crazy woman.
He ate his lunch alone, trying to make sense of what she’d said. There were only a few other people in the dining hall, and they seemed not to have heard anything unusual.
“She couldn’t have been talking about Kennedy,” David thought to himself. “She’s an old woman and probably hadn’t heard the news right.” His low tolerance for uncertainty, though, made him want to try to make sure. When he left the dining hall and was about to go outside, the Adams House secretary was coming through the door. He wanted to ask her if it was true that Kennedy had been shot, but the idea was so preposterous, so unthinkable, that it seemed absurd even to ask such a thing.
When he saw she had tears in her eyes, though, he said to her, “Have you heard what I’ve heard?” She looked at him, startled. “Yes,” she said, “Kennedy’s been shot.”
He went back to his room. “All right,” he thought, “He’s been shot. But he couldn’t be dead. Nobody could kill him. He’s probably just wounded.” He turned on the radio. It was on every station, the subject of every broadcast. And it was true. The worst was true.
Suddenly it seemed to him the world was empty. All at once the way into the future had been cut off. The future had ended before it had begun. Everything that might have been would never be. The course of everyone’s life, it seemed to David, had now been rerouted into a narrower, darker universe.
He had an English literature class that afternoon. On his way across campus, he saw people crying in the street.
Everyone he was seemed to have tears in their eyes. They were at Harvard. They were Harvard as long as they were there, and they considered Kennedy their president, and now he’d been killed, and no one seemed able to keep the grief hidden inside.
David realized that things would change now, in ways people could not even imagine. Usually unacceptable norms of thought and social behavior that had been sublimated or suppressed would, in the coming years and decades, be unleashed by that shock to the general consciousness, that shock of seeing death come so suddenly, so publicly, to someone who had been — at least for most people — the very embodiment of life and vitality.
American society, it seemed, changed forever on the day Kennedy was killed. Something like a decline set in — or was exposed — on that dismal November afternoon. It was something that began with a nation’s experience of seeing a man like Kennedy cut down without warning and without any reason anyone could understand. Kennedy was the symbol of so many hopes, the symbol of nearly everyone’s future, a symbol even of the people themselves or what they aspired to.
David came to believe that Kennedy’s death must have made many people — especially young Americans — believe that since this life can end suddenly, and at any time, the only thing to do is wrench all the pleasure and enjoyment you can from it, because you never know when it will all be over. Life now seemed irrational to many young people of that generation, and there were no rules that mattered. It made no difference how you got what you wanted, many seemed to think, as long as you got it.
Right or wrong, it seemed to David that at first, in the craziness of the sixties, that kind of thinking was overlaid with an emphasis on what people wanted to think of as love. That idea of love, though, was hardly based on any solid foundation, in most cases not based on much of anything beyond the physical. It had little connection, David thought, with any concept of the human spirit, or with anything beyond the human spirit.
That period seemed to disappear relatively quickly, though, and to be replaced by thought and behavior that was more nakedly characterized by greed and selfishness. In time, this greed and selfishness took on newer, more refined, more subtle forms. Greed and selfishness were eventually raised to the level of a kind of sophisticated behavior that any reasonable person ought to admire and that only the dull-witted and foolish would reject.
David came to believe that if people wanted to see the effects of this kind of thinking, they had only to look around them — and perhaps inside themselves as well.
Probably few people of that generation — or succeeding generations — escaped the influence of that sort of thinking. In fact, David thought, too much of the world — and too much of American society — started to share in the general atmosphere of selfishness. David believed that perhaps everyone, including himself, had been, to one degree or another, unconsciously shaped — or warped — by the ideal of selfishness that became so widespread after Kennedy’s death.
Certainly, David thought, many people became quite comfortable with the idea, so widespread in our time, that not simply religion but even morality were mere illusions. Or perhaps, it seemed to him, it would be truer to say that many people knew only the morality of their own desires, so that whatever each person wanted was moral. Many people seemed to David to wonder why they should consider the question of morality at all, or why they should think about the consequences of their actions. After all, they had learned from the trauma of Kennedy’s death, the future may never come. Only the present was important.
Once that kind of attitude began taking hold, David thought, then increasing numbers of people who were members of the very institutions that hold society will came to believe that those institutions were there not for the common good, but for their own personal advantage and enrichment.
When that happened, and went on happening, those institutions will be regarded with growing suspicion and distrust by most people, even with contempt.
David once wrote to a friend:
“Something similar, perhaps, has often happened in human history, and sometimes the result has been that society has collapsed into disorganization and chaos. At other times, however, before the point of complete collapse was reached, people became aware of what their community and their world were becoming, and they took steps to correct the situation.
“In our time, though, we may be at a disadvantage few other periods in history have known. Too many of those members of society that have traditionally fostered morality and goodness in every sphere may themselves have become greedy, selfish, deceitful, and corrupt. Among too many individuals, there may no longer be a sense of gentleness or self-sacrifice, and key elements in our society may no longer be able to instill those qualities in others.
“When those key elements in a society are no longer good, the whole of that society may be lost.
“Fortunately, though, the future of human kind has never depended on one single society continuing to cohere in any particular place, for any particular length of time.”
Part 3, Chapter 28
“At the Samburu station on the line, I got out of the train while the engine was taking in water, and walked with Farah on the platform. From there, to the south-west; I saw the Ngong Hills. The noble wave of the mountain rose above the surrounding flat land, all air-blue. But it was so far away that the four peaks looked trifling, hardly distinguishable, and different from the way they looked from the farm. The outline of the mountain was slowly smoothed and levelled out by the hand of distance.”
Out of Africa
Williams’ course was the only English course David was taking that fall term of his junior year, and he thought more about it, devoted more time to it, and felt more excited and absorbed by it than by any other class he had.
By the time Christmas vacation started, his interest in Africa had begun to disappear.
Certainly he had almost no interest anymore in studying something like African history. He couldn’t have remained happy with just a memory of Africa, when he was finding so much excitement in literature.
He almost felt he’d found the new world of the mind he’d been looking for at Harvard, even before he arrived at Harvard. He knew such a world had to exist somewhere, though he knew others considered that idea sentimental and unrealistic. Such a belief was not scholarly. It was unprofessional.
Literature, though, was a sort of living entity for David, the voice of people who were still alive, at least in a way. He began listening to that voice as though it were speaking directly to him:
My spirit is too weak. Mortality
Weighs heavily on me like unwilling sleep,
And each imagined pinnacle and steep
Of godlike hardship tells me I must die,
Like a sick eagle looking at the sky . . . .
Yet do thou strive, as thou art capable,
As thou canst move about . . . . I am but a voice,
My life is but the life of winds and tides,
No more than winds and tides can I avail —
But thou canst.
More and more often, and for longer periods of time, he would walk around Cambridge with his head filled not with any spiritual ideals, as it often had been in the past, but with lines of poetry. He began to live in a world that he knew people like Bradley would ridicule as an absurd, grandiose dream world, for very soon it seemed that almost all the great writers of the past had something important to say to him. Not only Keats, but Shakespeare, though the meaning for David was different from what most people saw in the words:
So long as men do breathe and eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee,
With thee conversing I forget all time,
All seasons, and their change; all please alike.
But if he found encouragement in Keats, life in Shakespeare, and companionship in Milton, those writers perhaps created even more confusion in him than there had been before, though perhaps that’s not so surprising. At a later point in his life, a hermit would tell him that moving to a higher level of existence often results in feelings of bewilderment.
If he really was moving to a “higher level of existence.”
Confused or not, though, he felt he could not get enough of English literature, and as the academic year went on, he was longing to spend all his time studying it, even though he still had memories of Africa. He even sometimes wondered — perhaps rather stupidly — if giving those memories up would mean giving up all hope of happiness in life as well. Of course that does seem like a very unintelligent question now, even a somewhat idiotic one, but East Africa had been the only place he’d ever really been happy, and he really couldn’t imagine how he could possibly be happy anywhere else. He still hadn’t really learned something that he was aware of intellectually, but couldn’t completely grasp. He still hadn’t learned that happiness is not to be found in a place, or even with certain people. The source of happiness is everywhere. The Four Quartets echoed in his mind: “Here, the intersection of the timeless moment is England and nowhere. Never and always.”
In an ironic, and — for him — bittersweet way, however, literature spoke of Africa as well:
Spicy grove, cinnamon tree,
What is Africa to me?
And even though he was often inclined to answer, “Everything,” Africa was slipping away from him and becoming more and more of a dream. All of the significant people in his life now were involved in literature, and with what he thought of as literature’s limitless expanses. These people were gradually making literature more real for him than Africa was.
He had to really wonder, though, why he should become involved with literature. What use was it? Could he be happy in such a field? In a way, though, literature addressed even those questions. At the same time, the answers might have been irrelevant. He would do what he really wanted to do, or what he was driven to do.
He used to read Karen Blixen’s farewell to Kenya in Out of Africa, and without realizing it, he was learning to take his own leave of Africa. He was learning how to leave behind a part of his life he could never return to. When he read of the journey to Mombasa at the end of Blixen’s book, and the way Mount Kenya seemed to be “leveled out by the hand of distance” as it receded farther away into the landscape and into the past, his own memories of Africa were disappearing as well, although he may not have fully understood that at the time.
On the other hand, he may have been simply exchanging one dream for another — the dream of Africa for the dream of literature. What he perhaps should have been doing was trying to find some more substantial reality to live in and for.
The problem was that he did not really know where reality lay. All the words he’d ever read, all the shining passages in Augustine and Aquinas, even in writers like Evelyn Waugh and François Mauriac, still had a dream-like quality for him. David really knew nothing about life and could make no connection between that kind of literature and life. He might be thrilled at times with the beauty of ideas and with the words that expressed them, but it was all simply literature for him, no matter how much he might have thought he could see a connection with real life.
Perhaps, in some dimwitted way, he expected to find God in what he read. He couldn’t grasp the fact that God can be found only by going beyond literature, beyond words.
When David finally began to think seriously about studying literature at Harvard, instead of history, it involved a struggle that lasted until the winter exam period of his junior year was over. Finally, though, he made his decision, and when he took his last history exams, he did so with the quite ridiculous idea that once they were over, he could simply rest in the luxurious delight of literature.
He really believed, absurdly, that he would never have to endure any kind of intellectual pain or boredom again.
If he’d only known.
Part 3, Chapter 29
„Die einschneidendsten Wahrheiten werden endlich gehört und anerkannt, nachdem die durch sie verletzten Interessen und die durch sie geweckten Affekte sich ausgetobt haben. Es ist bisher noch immer so gegangen….“
Die zukünftigen Chancen der psychologischen Therapie
“The deepest truths will in the end be heard and recognized, after the interests they have wounded and the emotions they have aroused have finished raging against them. It has always been like that….”
The Future Prospects of Psychoanalytic Therapy
As soon as the semester started, however, with three new English courses, the strange ideas he’d discussed with Bradley started again, and this time they came on with a vengeance.
Now, every day, in all his courses — and again, all his courses were now courses in English literature — every one of the professors and teachers he had seemed to be speaking to him, speaking to his ideas and to his interests in significant ways, in ways and that made him feel uncomfortable, because he had the uncanny impression the remarks were somehow probing, even manipulative.
At first he could hardly believe what was happening. He was stunned at first, then afraid. He was certain — with an adolescent kind of certainty — that he really was going crazy. He was going crazy and he didn’t know what to do about it. He didn’t know how to react or what to say — to Bradley, to Jim, or to anyone. What he was confronted with seemed literally unspeakable, because it was the weirdest thing he had ever experienced.
Since he didn’t know how to react, he did his best not to react at all.
He simply continued his conversations with Jim, wrote his weekly tutorial papers for him, and continued to express — in his enthusiastic and sophomoric way, all his ideas about literature.
But he was sure it would be crazy to talk about what he thought was happening in the lectures he was going to.
He found, though, that this approach to the problem did not work very well at all. In fact, it seemed only to make things worse.
As soon as he spoke of any of his ideas to Jim, these same ideas seemed to reappear, in a hundred different ways, in the lectures he attended every day. In Professor Bateson’s lectures on Samuel Johnson, for example, David heard about the striking similarities between the young Dr. Johnson and himself. Then immediately afterward, in Professor Levine’s Shakespeare lectures, he would be instructed about the connections between his life and the universe of themes in Shakespeare. In Professor Skelton’s course on Tudor and Stuart drama, he heard comments on himself and on his life that were strident and unpleasant.
As the days and weeks went by, his sense of panic began to increase, at least partly because he didn’t understand that the only really sane thing to have done was to laugh at the whole situation. He was too serious and too earnest to do that. Life seemed to him to be such a serious and earnest business that he couldn’t find anything funny at all in what was happening around him. It seemed wrong not to take everything seriously. Perhaps laughing at what he thought was happening to him would have meant laughing at himself, and that would have required more humility than David was capable of. It’s sometimes very difficult for an adolescent to be humble, and perhaps for David it was harder than for most.
His mental and psychological struggles continued to consume more and more of his time and energy. One day in early February he went for a walk along the Charles; it was snowing heavily, an almost blinding blizzard. The snow, though, brought happy associations: that explosion of butterflies into flight on a dirt track in the African bush, the crowded upward flight of the birds on the Boston Common, with the light glittering from their wings. The snow brought a sense of freedom, of escape, perhaps even a sense of annihilation. He wanted the nothingness it seemed to offer. He walked past Eliot House, then Winthrop and Dunster, trying to puzzle out the questions that crowded his mind.
He knew it was impossible that the professors in his classes were deliberately aiming ideas and references in their lectures directly at him. Reason told him such an idea was just crazy. He’d already read somewhere about mentally ill people who thought that radio and television broadcasts were being directed at them personally, and he knew that that kind of thinking was a sign of derangement. He reminded himself that psychiatrists called such thinking “ideas of self-reference,” and he told himself it was considered pathological.
He also kept telling himself that those professors had much more important things to concern themselves with than a discussion of the ideas of a single undergraduate like him.
No matter how hard he tried to convince himself, though, no matter how many logical arguments he used, in the end he simply could not get rid of the idea that all of his professors were aiming practically all of their lectures at him. He didn’t know what to do. Telling Bradley about it did no good. Bradley responded in the same way that he responded to everything else David said, which was hardly at all, or if he did respond, it was not in a way that was intelligible to David. Once when he had brought up the whole question of what the professors were saying in their lectures, Bradley said, “Well, why don’t you simply act as though it were true?”
Act as though it were true? The words kept ringing in his head like an echo that wouldn’t die, and they seemed as crazy as everything else he was thinking. After a while David told himself that surely Bradley couldn’t have said that. He must have misunderstood Bradley’s words somehow. David knew quite well that it would only make matters worse if he acted as though something like that were true. It so obviously could not be true.
But. Suppose it were true. Suppose it were true? But how could that be? How could he act on what he heard the professors saying? He was certain that if he did act on it, he would have to give up all of the ideas, all the ideals, all of the beliefs — even the morals — that seemed central to his whole identity. He would no longer be himself, he thought. He would become some other person, someone who did not believe in God, someone whose only morality was the fulfillment of his own desires.
Then one other impossible idea also occurred to him — seemingly out of nowhere — he would also become someone who had to accept the idea that greatness meant a kind of spiritual and intellectual isolation from other people, a life of unbearable loneliness. He wondered where that idea came from.
He knew it was all preposterous. He himself was preposterous to think like that. It would be preposterous to live like that. David only wanted to be good and remain faithful to all of the ideals and beliefs he’d been taught were the only things that were really true in life. He wanted a life of the mind that he could share with other people around him. He didn’t want to be the kind of person he heard these professors suggesting he should be, the kind of person who seemed to resemble the professors themselves.
He knew, though, that if he didn’t do something soon, not only would he start believing his teachers actually were directing their lectures at him, he certainly would become the sort of person they seemed to be saying he should be. Perhaps, he thought, he already was that sort of person, and if he was, what could he do about it. Or what in fact could he really do about the whole situation?
He had to act. He had to take action. He had to take drastic action. If he didn’t, he knew there was absolutely no way he could remain sane. If he didn’t do something, and soon, he told himself, then he would go irrevocably, irreversibly, irredeemably insane.
Part 3, Chapter 30
“The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.”
–T. S. Eliot
Murder in the Cathedral
He continued walking on that day in early February, in the second semester of his junior year at Harvard. The falling snow, driven by the wind and so thick that it was hard to see anything at all, blew into his face and covered his clothing. All at once he thought of a short story by Conrad Aiken that he’d read in high school. His English teacher had said the story was about a young boy who was losing his mind. The snow in the story, he said, was really a symbol of the onset of madness. David was more certain than ever that he too must be going insane.
A moment later, though, he wasn’t so sure. But how could he find out what was true and what he was only imagining? It was bad enough trying to find out by talking to Bradley; discussing it with anyone else was impossible. It was all too preposterous.
Still, he could not stop thinking about it.
He was alone with the questions. They writhed in his mind like living things, and since he could find no answer to them, he thought to himself: “All right, I’ll make my own answer.” He would admit to himself he was going insane, and since he couldn’t find help anywhere else, he would have to help himself.
And how would he do that? He told himself that since the daily assault on his sanity was getting harder and harder to endure, and if Harvard was the only place he had ever experienced such crazy ideas, the answer was obvious. If the problem continued, he would have to leave Harvard, no matter how much psychic pain that would cause him.
Leaving Harvard would mean giving up all his dreams. It would mean giving up any hope of a career as an intellectual. It would mean leaving a place where he’d actually started to find the kind of intellectual excitement he’d always wanted. It would mean the end of everything. It would be a kind of suicide.
No, he thought, not quite suicide. It would be a sacrifice, a sacrifice that would result in his ultimately receiving something in exchange, something finer than what he was sacrificing. Of that he was convinced. In his idealism the words seemed to repeat themselves in his mind: what use is it for a man to gain the whole world if he loses his very self? And he believed that remaining at Harvard would mean the loss of his own self, the loss of everything that was important to him; it would mean the loss of everything that was even more important than the good things he’d found at Harvard.
Of course these ideas will almost certainly seem ridiculous to others, he thought to himself, but they were what he believed. What use was it to gain the whole world, if he lost himself, lost his soul? But David was convinced that if he sacrificed what was for him the world, he would gain more than himself or more than his soul. He had absolutely no doubt about that whatsoever, although in later years he would realize that he should perhaps have had at least some doubts.
The ancient truths had been planted deep, some will say too deep. He believed, though, that he was free to choose those truths, the old ideals, or he could try to forget them. He was free to choose Harvard if he wanted to, or not choose Harvard. He could choose something else.
One thing that could not be avoided, though, was the need to make a choice at some point. It might not be absolutely necessary just yet, because the whole situation was not yet completely unbearable. He was prepared, though, for it to come to that.
“For the time being, I’ll just go on doing what I’ve done up to now,” he thought once again. “I’ll just continue to ignore these crazy ideas, and behave as if they don’t exist. It they go away, fine. If they don’t, I’ll leave Harvard. If the pain gets worse, if all of this confusion persists, then I’ll leave. If the pain increases to a certain point — and I know what that point is — if the conflict is raised to a certain pitch, and if I feel myself being destroyed by it, then I’ll leave. I’ll react automatically, unthinkingly, blindly. I won’t think about it or stop to consider the decision any more. There won’t be any need for that. A kind of mental safety mechanism will begin to operate, automatically, and I will take myself away from here.”
In later life he would wonder if any of his friends could have done anything to help him, even if they’d known about these ideas. Perhaps simply talking to someone might have helped. But Bradley hadn’t helped, David thought to himself, and that was supposed to be Bradley’s job, wasn’t it? If Bradley couldn’t help, how could anyone else give him any advice? Besides, how could he ask anyone for advice? If would be too much of a risk. The ideas of self-reference, the ideas about the professors and their lectures were all so ridiculous that he thought he couldn’t take the risk of discussing them with anyone, because the ideas were just too crazy. And he certainly didn’t want anyone to think he was crazy. Better to leave Harvard than to let that happen.
Naturally, the more he suppressed these ideas, the more absurd they seemed to him. He seemed very quickly to be caught in a vicious circle: the more intense and ridiculous the ideas became, the less able he was to discuss them, and the less able he was to discuss them, the more ridiculous they became. This downward spiral, once set in motion, continued to operate according to its own peculiar dynamic.
Many people have said that David got only what he deserved, in the end, because if he couldn’t speak about these things, then he in fact deserved to be destroyed by them.
Perhaps they’re right, but for other people, it’s difficult to make that judgment. At any rate, it may not be possible to argue with the idea that David deserved what he got. It is, in the last analysis, very logical, as logical as other similar ideas our age has produced, for the benefit of one person or another, or for the benefit of all human beings.
It represents such a reasonable position.