Part 04, Chapters 81-90
Part 4, Chapter 81
“Sermo obscurus in vacuum non ibit, os autem quod mentitur occidit animam.“
“Think not that the secret word goes for nought; lying lips were ever the soul’s destroying.”
–Book of Wisdom
The last thing Jim said to David that night before he left the island was, “When you go back to Harvard, tell them I’m here.”
Poor young man — David had filled him with the same illusions about Harvard that David himself had. David still believed, in spite of everything, that Harvard was a place like Plato’s academy, an intellectual Arcadia, where intelligence and learning and the life of the mind were valued above everything else. David still believed that all professors and administrators at Harvard, without exception, would recognize and understand anyone who shares those values and would do everything they could to help and encourage such an individual.
Poor benighted young men that they both were – Jim and David – they could not see that they were living in a society where many young men who genuinely and passionately cared about things like the life of the mind were considered fools and marked for destruction. Few ever survived.
If David had known then what society or the world was really like, though, he might never have survived at all, might never have been able to bear that kind of reality. He might never have returned to Harvard.
And if he hadn’t returned to Harvard, where else would he have gone? “Where else is there?” a professor had once asked him, with what David at the time considered a kind of supreme arrogance.
And so he left the island that freezing day near the end of January, with the wind sweeping the thick, almost blinding snow through the air. He wasn’t sure if he would ever be back. He knew the second term was just starting at Harvard; he wanted to try to get permission to register for it and start studying again. He knew there were a number of problems to be worked out, and the main one — as far as he was concerned — was to return there without having his parents pay anything for his education. He wanted to get a scholarship or a loan, or both, so that he could be financially independent of his mother and stepfather.
There was, however, an even greater problem he’d forgotten about, or perhaps one he’d never really been aware of. When he’d been given “permission to withdraw” three years earlier, Dr. Bradley had made sure that he could not be re-admitted to the university without first taking a series of psychiatric tests. Perhaps if David had known that, he might have been more worried about going back. Or perhaps not, since at that time he didn’t know exactly how Bradley had labeled him, or what that label meant in the minds of other people.
He thought that Bradley believed he was a little unstable, in the way adolescents often are, and that even that diagnosis he would keep confidential. David thought he’d simply been having problems with his parents and had been going through a fairly normal adolescent crisis. Even if he’d understood that he’d be expected to take some psychiatric tests, he probably wouldn’t have worried very much about them, because he was confident he’d pass them, since nobody had told him just how sick he was supposed to be.
When he arrived in Cambridge, he was sure that Harvard would be different from what it had been before, and that he would be different too. He was sure that this time he’d be free of his parents’ meddling and harassment. He’d be able to achieve things that had been impossible for him in the past.
He took a cab from Logan Airport to Don and Sarah’s place.
It seemed a very long time since he’d been in Cambridge, and for the moment he could hardly remember what it had been like there before. He could hardly remember the fear and terror of the day he left; he certainly couldn’t feel that fear and terror any longer. The only idea in his mind now was the absurd and of course mistaken idea that if he came back to Harvard, Harvard would somehow help him salvage his life, redeem everything that had been lost. So much was gone, so much had been wasted, but surely there people at Harvard who would recognize that there was something he could still do. Surely there were people who would help him do whatever he could to contribute at least in some small way to Harvard, and perhaps to the rest of the world as well.
And the more he thought this way, the more his mind was filled with a kind of slow explosion of optimism. He looked at Boston and Cambridge, all the familiar places: the golden dome of the Statehouse under the incandescently blue winter sky; the streets where Henry Adams had walked; the splendor of the Charles, that American river still named after an English king; the white-domed towers of the Harvard houses, in one of which he’d lived and suffered and known not only unhappiness but also something like joy.
All these sights seemed to bring him back to life, and the excitement of it all made him feel the intellectual fire stirring in his mind again, running through his veins. Yes, he thought, in words he’d once heard applied to Africa, “Here I am, where I ought to be.”
Some people, of course, would say that such emotions simply confirmed what Bradley, the Harvard psychiatrist, had said about David: that he was hopelessly, dangerously ill in his mind.
As might be expected, things in Cambridge did not turn out quite the way David had expected or hoped. How could they? His expectations, as always, don’t seem to have been based on reality.
When he went to see the Dean of the College the next day, the latter was as friendly as he’d been on the telephone, and he told David he did not see any reason why he couldn’t register for the second term, which was to begin in about two weeks. The Dean told him that the next step might be for him to telephone the Head Tutor in English, the faculty member who was responsible for all of the undergraduates studying in the department. David could work out all the details with him — what academic requirements he still had to fulfill and which courses he should take in order to get his degree in June of the following year.
He spent the evening with Don and Sarah, talking with them and listening to some new records they’d bought. It was good to be with educated, articulate people again, especially people he knew, people he felt he could trust. The neat graduate-student apartment made him feel safe, made him feel he was back in familiar surroundings, surroundings he thought he belonged in.
It was also good to feel that there was no obstacle to his returning to Harvard and that his life would soon be the way it “ought to be.” It was good to feel that all the broken years were finally over.
Harvard would be a new beginning, he thought, or at least a return to the ongoing struggle to realize the oldest dream he’d ever had: to live the intellectual life, the life of the mind, where he could explore worlds of literature and thought that no one had ever seen before, where he could be alive again, in the fullest sense: alive in his mind.
It was definitely good, even very good, to feel these things.
At least for a while.
Part 4, Chapter 82
“My theme is memory.”
The next morning, after Don and Sarah had left for their classes, David telephoned the office of the Head Tutor in the English department. When the secretary answered the phone, he felt a rush of excitement. He was actually doing it, he was going back to Harvard now, in a couple of weeks. Everything would be different from now on, and the misery would be ended.
“My name is David Austin,” he said. “I’m returning to Harvard after a leave of absence, and I’d like to make an appointment to see the head tutor. I have to plan my courses for the coming semester.”
“Fine,” the secretary answered coolly. “Dr. Radnor will be able to see you this afternoon at two o’clock. Will that be all right?”
Then everything suddenly became very dark. He felt the old sense of panic rising. His mind spun back into the past.
Later, he wouldn’t remember what he answered, or if he even answered at all, though he must have said something. At that moment, all he could think of was that Jim was the Head Tutor, Jim, one of the people who figured in such a crucial way in all of the dark fears he’d had at Harvard before. All those fears of evil in the world – and in himself – came pouring back over him in a flood of memory.
Along with that, there came an even more childish reaction: the sense of some monstrous injustice. He believed he’d run away from Harvard to escape evil and to try to be good; he felt he’d suffered and been punished for trying to do the right thing. Years of what he regarded as suffering had gone by. He felt he’d been tortured and mutilated, while all he’d wanted — or so he thought — was to be good, to do what was good and right. In the meantime, one of the people whom he, in his adolescent way, saw as responsible for his suffering had suffered not at all, had even advanced in his career and reached a position of responsibility. God, he thought to himself, nothing at all makes any sense. God, if there is a God, isn’t there any justice?
Any thought at all that we might give to someone like David has to be accompanied by a certain amount of laughter and ridicule. He of course had no idea exactly how absurd, puerile, and out of touch with reality his thinking was. Naturally his reaction and his thinking prove that Dr. Bradley was right: David was seriously mentally ill. No sane person would have thought or acted as he did.
In later life, David would again believe that justice can in fact be found, but not necessarily the kind of justice he was looking for or was expecting.
To many people this will seem like an illusion on David’s part, but he would eventually come to believe that there is a better kind of justice than the one we normally experience.
He was incapable of recognizing that at Harvard, however.
In the end, David would apparently see that he’d always been incapable of really believing in those truths that he thought he believed in when he was very young.
He would come to the conclusion that if he’d believed in those truths, he would have seen that there was rarely any justice at all in the world — not from a human perspective at any rate.
David would find some consolation in the idea that in the story that many consider central to our civilization, there certainly was no justice. For him – in his naiveté or innocence – it was the familiar story of the good man — in one particular case, perhaps the only really good man who had ever lived — a man who cared about other people and helped them. What happened to him, though?
In the paradigm, this man – like many others – was tortured and mutilated and then killed, while the people responsible for his suffering apparently did not suffer at all. Where was the justice in that, at least in human terms?
David may have been naive or even rather stupid for considering such ideas, but without them, he might never have survived. He might have eventually destroyed himself without a belief that somewhere, if only in some other dimension or parallel universe, there had to be the one thing he hungered for: justice.
If he’d really had the sort of beliefs he thought he did, he would have thought about the sort of “justice” to be found in the lives of people who were better and greater than he was, Maximilian Kolbe, for example, and Edith Stein. Christoph Probst as well. David wouldn’t have expected much justice in his own life then. He would have tried to follow the example of those others, even if it meant making mistakes, getting up again, making more mistakes, and still getting up, over and over again if necessary, while never expecting any more justice from the world than those he admired had received.
Dr. Bradley would probably have pointed out that such ideas were an additional proof — if any more proof were needed — that David was just as schizophrenic as Bradley said he was. And surely no one could disagree with such a diagnosis. After all, Bradley represented authority, he represented the psychiatric profession. He represented the truth about David, certainly. And what would David have represented, if he’d written or spoken about his life? Without a doubt merely an inarticulate cry, an appeal for trust, an appeal for belief in a story that he couldn’t have even told properly, a story he was actually afraid to tell, a story that he was for the most part afraid even to remember.
David sometimes tried to tell his story, of course, but because of weakness or confusion he seemed never able to make himself understood. So, after a while, because he was always easily discouraged, he gave up trying. Who would believe his story if all he could do was to tell it in his usual inarticulate, disjointed, confused, and incomplete way? Anyway, he thought to himself, who in the world would ever believe such a story even if he could tell it as it should be told?
No one. And yet what else could he do but go on telling the story in whatever way he was capable of? What happened to him at Harvard affected his whole life. It went on affecting it forever. There was nothing he ever did, nothing in his everyday experiences, that did not bring his mind back to those years at Harvard, and all he went through there, and all he lost.
Bradley of course would say all that was simply an obsession. And probably it was, but when a young man suffers such a loss, suffers what seems to him a gross injustice, it is unfortunately not surprising that he should become obsessed with it, until it is corrected, or until it is at least acknowledged by the people who are significant in his life. Bradley of course would say even that was not normal, and Bradley’s judgment must be deferred to. He was after all a Harvard authority, and while Harvard people may call other authorities into question, they can never question the diagnosis of a Harvard psychiatrist.
And so David went on, all his life, with nothing except this small, weak hope that somewhere there might exist someone who would think otherwise. He went on haltingly, painfully, in that stuttering, incomplete, and disorganized way.
Normal people would find that painful, of course, but David had been diagnosed as being abnormal, insane. And no one should forget that people who are insane, as David must have been, feel no pain, even if they claim they do.
Part 4, Chapter 83
“You think I’ll weep
No, I’ll not weep:
I have full cause of weeping; but this heart
Shall break into a hundred thousand flaws,
Or ere I’ll weep.
In Cambridge on that winter day, after the trip from Mackinac Island, after David had talked to the Senior Tutor’s secretary and then put down the phone, he knew there was only one thing he could do.
There was no point in staying there in Cambridge. All of the old fears had come back. Harvard, he was convinced, was still a place where evil was rewarded and good was punished and destroyed.
Bradley, the Harvard psychiatrist, of course would say that such thinking was only one more proof of David’s insanity. On the other hand, it was perhaps possible that David was simply long way from understanding that it was not Harvard, but the world itself that is a place where evil is very often rewarded and good destroyed. On those occasions where the reverse is true, it may be true only because in the long run – some will say “the very long run” – the universe appears to favor the good. Others will say it’s not the universe, but God.
Whether he was insane or not, what helped David to survive was Aquinas’ idea that, over time, the destruction of good is only apparent, and out of that seeming destruction something good and something better will always come to exist. In fact, for David, this was more than just idea, it was practically a self-evident fact. The apparent victory of evil will always produce a greater good than would have otherwise existed. David thought that if that were not true, human beings would have destroyed themselves long ago. He would have destroyed himself long ago.
It was only later, though, that these ideas really helped him to survive. In his early twenties, they were still forming in his mind. If he eventually came to believe in the idea that the universe or fate or God works to favor what is good, he still understood very little of that when he was struggling with the thought of going back to Harvard. Even for a long time afterwards, he couldn’t understand the idea completely. Perhaps in a way he never would, but at least he would in the end be able to keep it alive somehow, and firmly anchored in his mind.
On that cold winter morning in Cambridge, after his first attempt to return to Harvard, he put down the phone, packed up his things, left a note for Don and Sarah, took a cab out to the airport, and boarded the first plane to Detroit. From there he made his way by bus back to Mackinac Island. To anyone who might have thought about it — but there was surely no one who thought about it then, except for David himself — it would have seemed that he’d given up Harvard again for a way of life that was essentially meaningless.
Such a person would probably have found an explanation for David’s action by remembering that Dr. Bradley had said he was schizophrenic, he was crazy, he was sick. That of course really explained everything.
Again, such an explanation would have continued to reassure anyone that David could feel no pain. No person as crazy as David feels pain. This perhaps cannot be emphasized too often and should always be kept in mind. No one need be troubled with any thoughts of any sort of pain that David might have been feeling.
Or if he did feel pain, it wasn’t anything that anyone else should be concerned with.
And that is that. There’s just no need to consider the question any further.
Except if you’re David. He, unfortunately, couldn’t stop considering the puzzle his life had become. If he’d known that Dr. Bradley had diagnosed him as hopelessly insane, there of course would have been no puzzle. He would have had an explanation for what was such an enigma for him: the fact that no one seemed to be willing to help him, at least a little, in the area that mattered to him most. For by himself, he seemed powerless to find a way to achieve the only goals that had ever really been important to him: an active participation in the academic life and the life of the mind.
He also didn’t know that he wasn’t supposed to be experiencing any pain, since crazy people feel no pain. The pain he did feel was more intense now than anything he’d ever felt. It was unremitting, constant pain, pain over the fact that he believed some kind of injustice had occurred in his life and this injustice was somehow connected to Harvard, and to the fact that he wasn’t able to go back there. He couldn’t figure out exactly what that connection was, though.
Still, he did feel what he thought of as the pain of not being able to live the life of the mind. He felt what he thought of as the pain of wasting himself and all he had so far learned about literature and about life. He felt what he thought of as the pain of having nothing in himself being put to any use. He felt what he thought of as the pain of not being permitted to continue to grow. He felt what he thought of as the pain of becoming duller and more obtuse. He felt what he thought of as the pain of forgetting more and more about literature and the intellectual life. He felt what he thought of as simply pain, pain, and more pain that he couldn’t communicate to anyone. He felt what he thought of as pain that no one else could be aware of, pain that was constant and unremitting.
Of course Dr. Bradley and others who know better than David what he was experiencing would have said he felt no pain at all. If he couldn’t communicate that pain, then obviously it was all simply an illusion.
Part 4, Chapter 84
“Ah, there is something here
Unfathomed by the cynic’s sneer….”
–James Russell Lowell
Ode Recited at the Harvard Commemoration, July 21, 1865
Even though David could not communicate his pain to anyone, he somehow expected other people to be aware of what he was suffering. Bradley would probably have said such an expectation was simply one more expression of David’s insanity.
That explanation is certainly attractive. It makes everything so much simpler, to some extent anyway. Other people will perhaps argue that the real cause of David’s pain was completely different, and that it may have lain much deeper than the simple fact that he apparently was as insane as Bradley said he was.
He’d always tried to be open and honest with everyone. As with many adolescents, that had always been one of his ideals. Because of this sense of openness, he expected everyone to be able to understand him perfectly. He assumed that everything he did and thought was completely transparent.
In addition, since David’s mother and stepfather repeatedly claimed to understand him perfectly, to understand everything about him, David assumed anyone could and did. If his mother and stepfather, who were so different from him, could understand him, David thought, then all his thoughts, his feelings, his ideas must be completely visible to everyone he met. To try to explain anything at all would have been superfluous. (David of course learned too late that his mother and stepfather were the last people in the world who could have understood him.)
When it did finally begin to dawn on him, around the time he returned to Mackinac Island, that there was no one who really understood anything at all about him, not even at Harvard, he started to become more and more cynical, because it seemed to him that everyone had been lying to him when they said they understood him.
This preoccupation – even this obsession – with being understood, instead of trying to understand other people, shows just how immature David still was.
He should have accepted the fact that people like his poor mother and stepfather wouldn’t understand him. After all, they lived in another world. The realization, though, that people at Harvard couldn’t understand him was a shock. These were people he thought respected and valued the life of the mind as much as he did. He thought Harvard was the only place he could ever expect to be understood. If he couldn’t be understood there, if people there lied and only pretended to understand him, he thought, then the whole world really was senseless and meaningless.
One of the things he couldn’t comprehend was that “the life of the mind” meant something quite different for most Harvard people than it meant for him.
Later, he gradually came to believe that for most professors and academics the life of the mind was no more than a kind of commodity they handled, not much different from dealing with grain futures, automobiles or petroleum. He felt that very few of those people had any real love for the intellectual life, or any passionate commitment to it. Such an attitude, of course, shows what an embittered cynic David was, at least at a certain time in his life. Everyone understands that such ideas cannot be taken seriously.
He was supposedly the only person in the world who really understood what the life of the mind meant. This attitude deepened his cynicism, of course, and he became preoccupied with thinking that no one really cared very deeply about the life of the mind – or at least no one but himself. This idea was in turn gradually transformed into the thought that perhaps there really was no such thing as the life of the mind. After all, a devotion to the intellectual life hadn’t helped him avoid the misery and pain he’d suffered during the years away from Harvard. Therefore, the intellectual life must be what so many of his teachers at Harvard had seemed to suggest it was: a meaningless game and nothing more.
That idea came to David as an end to his illusions and, in some respects, an end to his innocence as well. He’d once believed so very strongly in what he thought of as intellectual values, more strongly than in anything else. He’d been convinced they were the most important and most valuable things in life, except for his poor spiritual values and beliefs. What he’d learned of the life of the mind may not have helped him in the darkest moments, but it had once brought him more happiness than any pleasure or luxury. Now, though, he saw it as an illusory happiness.
Even that happiness, though, was gone, and as the horrors of the Mackinac winter ground on, he was tempted to think that it really made very little difference whether or not he went back to Harvard. The horror was everywhere, in one form or another.
Going back to Harvard might mean simply that he would have to struggle against the ideas that Bradley – and David himself – called crazy, bizarre ideas he had only at Harvard and nowhere else. These were the old ideas he’d had so often at Harvard: that people around him were trying to manipulate him in some way, that professors were aiming parts of their lectures at him and only at him, telling him things he didn’t want to hear, telling him he had unusual gifts, and telling him that there was no need to struggle against the evil in himself or the world around him, no need to try to be good, or no need even to worry about what was good or evil. Worries like that involved “value judgments,” and value judgments were irrelevant; they made no sense at all.
If he had to struggle against all that again, he thought to himself, then it would be better not to go back.
And so, a few hours after leaving Boston, he was on the frozen, snowy fastness of Mackinac Island again. It was still January, and when he looked around at the icy white landscape, spring seemed like an illusion, an impossible dream of an event so far in the future it was pointless to think it would ever be realized.
Part 4, Chapter 85
“Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.”
Many years after David left Harvard, there were reports in the media about a student at Harvard Medical School who committed suicide as a result of the incompetent treatment he received from a Harvard psychiatrist.
The story brought to mind many things. First, of course, David began to think how easy it would have been for the same thing to have happened to him. Of course even David understood that the treatment he’d received from Bradley was not as dramatically bizarre as the treatment given by the psychiatrist in the news reports. He believed, though, that Bradley’s treatment was in its own way just as incompetent and could have driven him to suicide, except for one thing. David was convinced he’d survived, because he’d been able to cling to those spiritual beliefs he’d had when he was very young, because somehow, in spite of everything, he’d been able to believe that in the end “all will be well and all manner of thing will be well.”
Surely, however, anyone who examines David’s situation objectively has to admit that the mere fact of David’s survival, in whatever way it came about, does nothing to contradict Bradley’s insistence that David really was hopelessly insane. Certainly no one can deny that.
Bradley never believed what David tried to tell him about his parents or about the way he was experiencing Harvard, and it has to be admitted that David did try to convince himself that everything he told Bradley couldn’t possibly be true. That attempt, though, was not – probably could not be – successful, given David’s state of mind, and this failure only increased his distress. Bradley, unfortunately, may not have fully understood that; he saw only that David was “not responding to treatment” as he ought to have done.
When David had left Harvard, and in effect committed academic and intellectual suicide, destroying any hope of a career or a stable life, Bradley –quite rightly, of course – refused to take any responsibility. It’s true that it was Bradley who’d suggested that David “go home early” for the spring vacation from which he didn’t return for three years, but it was David who’d made the decision not to return, not Bradley.
Of course Bradley had to put the blame where it belonged, on David. He had to be sure that any possible criticism would be directed away from himself. That was only right, and what better way to do it than to point out that everything was really David’s fault, because he did “not respond to treatment”? And naturally Bradley had to make as many people as possible understand that David was hopelessly insane.
It seems quite reasonable to acknowledge that Bradley did these things. After all, he had his career to protect; he had to go on practicing psychiatry so that he could help other students like David.
There may be some who doubt that this description of the situation is completely accurate, but in the end it will prove to be true. The truth does almost always become evident in the end.
David’s situation was made even worse – as he at least would think many years later – by the fact that he knew nothing of what Bradley was saying about him. That was how cases like David’s were handled at Harvard when he was there, and that is certainly as it should be. People like David should never be told what their diagnosis is.
It could perhaps be argued that they ought to be told so that they can defend themselves. Defend themselves? Is a psychiatric diagnosis something that should be defended against? Psychiatrists like Bradley never make mistakes, and if someone like David were to dispute any diagnosis such a psychiatrist made, it would only prove that the psychiatrist was right.
Beyond this, Bradley had to make sure that all the teachers and administrators at Harvard who had any contact with David knew about this diagnosis. By doing that, Bradley was not only trying to counter any possible criticism of the way he’d treated David, he was also making sure that after Harvard almost every time David ever tried to get a job with a future, a job that was commensurate with what he believed his talents and education were, the prospective employer would almost certainly be warned about his condition. All that employer had to do was talk to any of the teachers or administrators who’d received information about David from Bradley.
Of course David would never know why he’d been rejected for all the really interesting and responsible positions he ever applied for, and the resulting hopelessness would very often drive him to thoughts of suicide, but people like David can at least in theory be dangerous, and society has every right to be protected from them. As for David himself, he may have been extremely unhappy, but it cannot be repeated too often: crazy people feel no pain. Or if they do, their pain can safely be ignored by everyone else. That kind of pain is after all irrational.
The story of the Harvard medical student made David think of something else. During the last tortured years of his life, the student kept a diary containing a record of the treatment he’d been receiving, a diary discovered after his death and used to bring out the truth of what happened to him. And so, when David was tempted to despair, when he thought that if he too wrote such a book, it would have no purpose, he told himself it was just possible that someone, somewhere, someday might find his book and read it, and in that way the truth about his life would be known. He knew it would be too late, of course, for such a book to be of any help to him, but the record of what he’d lived through, he thought, might save others. Perhaps if he’d been able to write his book years earlier, it might even have had an impact great enough to prevent the suicide of the Harvard medical student.
Of such stuff dreams are made of, and it could perhaps be said that all David ever did with his life was dream. Unfortunately, the story of the medical student made David think that the kind of thinking that prevailed when he was at Harvard went on for years after he was there. David thought the story indicated that there remained psychiatrists at Harvard who believed that if “treatment” fails, if something goes wrong, it’s not the psychiatrist’s responsibility. It’s the fault of the patient.
Shortly after the story of the medical student’s suicide became widely known, David saw a television interview with a Harvard psychiatrist and his journalist son. They had collaborated on a book defending the psychiatrist whose patient the medical student had been. What seemed to David to be the cold smugness of these men frightened him. As David saw it, their attempts to distort the circumstances of the treatment given to the young man, and their evident desire to blame him for “destroying” the doctor who was supposed to be treating him were simply bizarre.
Despite these men and the book they wrote, the truth seemed to be clear in David’s mind: in his little world, it was important for him to believe that this truth was supported by psychiatrist agreeing to give up her license to practice medicine; her insurance company reportedly paid the boy’s family a million dollars in an out-of-court settlement. And because David connected this case with his own experience of a Harvard psychiatrist, he was shocked and disgusted that the journalist and his father, another Harvard psychiatrist, complained that the medical student’s psychiatrist had never had a fair hearing in court. They seemed to have forgotten the fact that it was the psychiatrist herself who had given up her right to such a hearing when she agreed to have the lawsuit settled out of court.
David found the entire story sad, but sad as it was, David, in his bizarre way, came to believe the young man had not suffered and been driven to suicide for nothing. The story gave David the courage to go on, the courage to believe that perhaps the truth of what had also happened to him at Harvard – or what he thought had happened to him at Harvard – might be known one day as well. All through his life he would go on trying to tell the truth about that time – or what he believed to be the truth – as best he could. He continued to have the hope, which he repeated endlessly to himself, that someone someday might read his poor scribbling about himself, someone who would believe him, someone who would believe that he wasn’t crazy and was telling the truth.
Of course those are foolish goals, and anyone who would live with such aims in mind probably deserves to be pitied, but David went on trying to tell his story, for the sake of the young man he was once, and for the sake of that other tragic young man at the medical school. He believed he had to write everything in order to prevent other young people from suffering at the hands of psychiatrists at Harvard and elsewhere.
Naturally such thinking was completely misguided, but he felt compelled to write, even if no one in the world ever read a single word of his poor story.
Part 4, Chapter 86
“I saw new stars in the subterrene sky:
A Cross, a Rose in bloom….”
Returning to Mackinac Island was not a complete loss for him. Even though the construction job he had to do on the island was boring, at least the people there were not. There seemed to be a limitless collection of individuals whose background or personality could be infinitely fascinating for the kind of young man he was then. One of these was Bill Hanson, the ex-navy diver he’d met before he went to Cambridge, but who became a closer friend after he returned.
Bill lived with his wife in a small, neat apartment. He worked part-time as a policeman and part-time as a welder at the construction site where David worked, and that’s how David came to know him. Bill was about David’s age, but he was a huge man, with an ox-like frame, whose personality was bright, cheerful, and tough — and he had a canny, innate intelligence. He also had a kind of psychological solidity and stability that he’d apparently inherited from his father and mother, for when David eventually met them, he found that they were same sort of people as Bill was.
Bill was an older brother for David, and even though David had experienced a great deal in life, he felt there was still more he could experience, and Bill seemed to be someone who could teach him. For Bill, David was a young companion, a sidekick, someone who could validate the importance of events in Bill’s life that no one else around him cared to try to appreciate or understand. They became almost instant friends.
The scuba diving experiences with Bill and his friends came about this way: one day in February when Bill and David were talking, David started describing some of his experiences scuba diving in the Pacific when he was in high school; it was then that Bill told him that he and some of his friends liked to go diving in the Great Lakes.
“If I’m here in the summer,” David told him, “I’d really like to go with you.”
“You don’t have to wait until the summer,” Bill said. “A group of us are going next weekend if you want to come along.”
“Now, in February? You mean under the ice or something?”
“Sure, we can rent some scuba gear for you and a wetsuit. A wetsuit will keep you warm. You won’t feel the cold at all, except on your face.”
The next weekend they drove across the border into Canada to the home of one of Bill’s friends, a young Canadian in his early twenties who was about to go off to start training in the Canadian Mounted Police. David envied him and wished him well. He seemed like an intelligent and decent young man, whose life was just beginning, while David felt his own had come to an end. David was around twenty-five, and he already felt that everything was finished for him, that his life was over.
There were about eight or ten other guys at the home of Bill’s friend, and they all planned to go diving in the St. Mary’s River, between Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and southern Ontario. They planned to explore the wreck of a tugboat sunk in the river. It was shallow water, only thirty feet deep, but of course to David it was a great adventure.
They rented some equipment and then changed into their wetsuits. When everybody was ready, they drove over to the river. The air temperature was three degrees below zero Fahrenheit (about eighteen degrees below zero Centigrade), but there was no ice on the surface of the river because of the current. They tied themselves together, two by two, with long ropes, pairing the more experienced divers with the beginners. David was paired with Bill.
“We’ll stay under anywhere from twenty to forty minutes, depending on how fast we use up the oxygen in our cylinders. In cold weather it doesn’t last very long. Stay close to me. The current’s pretty strong, and it could be a problem if the water starts to carry you away.” He gave a short laugh. “Another thing you have to be careful of is coming to the surface. There’s a valve on the breathing apparatus that will freeze solid almost instantly in this weather, when everything’s wet and the air temperature is as low as it is today. Once that happens, you won’t be able to breathe any more through the scuba gear. The valve won’t thaw out quickly enough to be of any use, even if you go back into the water, because the water temperature is so close to freezing.”
David was scared, not of the water, but of the cold. In spite of Bill’s assurances, he could not really believe that the thin, spongy layer of rubber that was now covering his bare skin would keep him warm in the icy water.
Bill helped him turn on the breathing apparatus. David put the mouthpiece in place, and then began to hear the strangely reassuring sound of his own breathing. When he stepped into the water, he felt nothing but a very faint, cold sensation around his legs. He was surprised, and relieved, and he continued to ease the rest of his body below the surface of the water. When he put the unprotected part of his face below the surface, though, the sensation of cold was so powerful and so sudden that he felt almost as if he’d slammed his face against a cement wall. He shut his eyes and took huge gulps of air. Gradually, the icy pain seemed to go away.
When he opened his eyes underwater behind his diving mask, he saw Bill coolly examining him. Bill made the “okay” signal with his thumb and forefinger, and David responded with the same sign. From that moment on, despite the cold, the underwater exploration was nearly as exciting for him as it had been in the warm, bright waters of the Pacific, off Mexico, when he’d gone diving with his brother. Now, Bill and he swam down to the wreck, and again he found himself in that strange, magical world with its breathtaking sense of freedom and soaring flight. He could have stayed there forever, slowly exploring the wreck, as if he were inside his own mind, slowly circling and examining the wreckage of his life.
Soon, though, it became more difficult to breathe, and he knew the air in his scuba tank was almost exhausted. He tugged at the rope that he was tied to Bill with and motioned that he wanted to go to the surface. Bill led him back to the place where they’d entered the water. Bill untied the rope that connected them, and David let himself rise to the surface.
When he stepped out into the frigid air, he looked around and saw that some of the others were out of the water as well, and he was startled by the way they looked. Otherworldly, transfigured, their bodies were covered by the shining, whitish gloss of millions of ice crystals that glittered in the sunlight when they moved. He looked down and saw that his own wet suit appeared the same. The air had instantly frozen the thin film of water covering it.
The dive had been an adventure for him, but it was an adventure he didn’t know how to sustain. When he returned to his daily routine of work on the island, he also returned to a kind of boredom and depression that he tried to relieve in all the old impossible ways, because he’d temporarily abandoned what he used to think of as the one possible way.
Those who are more rational and more intelligent than David was will perhaps smile at his later conviction – years later – that he did not then even understand what really was the one possible way: the belief in something or someone beyond this present world.
Those who know better, of course, might be able to survive without such a belief, but eventually, for David, life had no meaning without it, no center, no purpose, nothing at all to give his life a solid basis on which he could build something that was significant, at least to him.
At that time, on Mackinac Island, he had nothing in his life that could be a source of real joy to him. Everywhere he turned he faced what he called “contradiction,” something that contradicted his desires, his goals, his purposes.
Much later, he would be convinced that without a real belief in some more permanent, transcendent reality, he would never be able to understand that such “contradictions” can ultimately be the only possible source of joy.
To rational, enlightened individuals, of course, all that is nonsense.
Part 4, Chapter 87
“The universe in a sense guides us toward truths, because those truths are the things that govern what we see.”
The Future of String Theory, Scientific American.com, October 13, 2003
David tried very hard to run away from those contradictions. All he really wanted to do was follow what he later would call “his own selfish desires,” though of course they were no different than the desires that most people have today. And it was probably because he condemned himself for what every person knows are normal – if selfish – aims and wishes, he suffered pain, emotional, spiritual, psychological pain that was deeper, sharper, and more intense than anything he could have imagined when he was younger. And it seemed to him that the more he looked for relief in the things around him, and in acting out desires that he had always been taught were wrong, the worse the pain became. Of course most people today would say that the real cause of his pain was simply the fact that he continued to think in terms that most people discarded long ago: terms like guilt and sin.
There would come a time when David would look back on that terrible period of his life and be amazed that he didn’t destroy himself. He would be astonished that he could have ever escaped. He could have so easily been drawn into the mad circle of people like Jerry and Ann, a young married couple living on the island who spent most of their time smoking marijuana and drinking beer. That was apparently their way of dealing with the pain of life, or the pain of their lives anyway.
Jerry and Ann were reasonably intelligent; they had both graduated from college somewhere, but their lives seemed empty and without purpose, not only to David, but apparently to themselves as well. Ann did somehow manage to hold down a job as a secretary at the college, and Jerry more or less worked on the construction crew, but they seemed to spend all of their free time in activities that involved drugs, alcohol, and sex.
Once — when he was living at the edge of the abyss that all their lives seemed to be — he passed out at one of the crazy parties that Jerry and Ann used to give. Before he went under, though, David heard Bob Dylan wailing in the background, “Oh Mama, can this really be the end, to be stuck down here in Mobile with the Memphis blues again?” At times it seemed that song was the only one they ever played.
That party and that song perhaps represented the depths, the worst part of those long, dark winter months that David spent on the island. Hours later that same night, when he woke up, the wretched apartment was stinking of beer and cigarettes. It was dark, and all he could hear were muffled sounds coming from some other room. With pain surging through him — the pain of loneliness and futility and despair — he managed to get to his feet and somehow stagger out of the apartment.
After that, the ache of emptiness and the unbearable feeling of loss became his constant, faithful companion, never leaving him for a moment. It was with him day after day, week after week, month after monotonous month as winter turned into spring and spring into summer. He had still not learned that monotony and pain are the inevitable elements of a life lived without a belief in something beyond this world, or so it would seem to him later. He tried to get rid of the pain by spending time with other people on the island, some of them intellectuals – more or less – others simply average people. Then the pain would seem to be gone for a while, but it never really left him. He was never really free of it, because it was he himself who was causing it.
Part 4, Chapter 88
“…and this gives life to thee….”
Of course he would often later ask himself how he could have continued to waste so much of his mind and his education, so much of his time and energy. Every time he asked that question, though, the answer was always the same: he believed he had no choice; he was convinced he had no choice but to go on as he was, suffering the loneliness and the waste and the desolation. He had no choice, he believed, but to tolerate the intellectual pain of knowing that so much of his life was going by, and he was learning nothing and using his mind for nothing more complicated than digging in a ditch with a shovel. The greater this pain became, the deeper he sank into a kind of despair.
Certainly others can ridicule that feeling of despair as a kind of maudlin self-pity, and they will say he deserved whatever pain and punishment he was suffering, because he had brought it on himself. Whatever the circumstances, though, for him the pain was real.
All around him at the college on Mackinac Island there were students using their minds and learning, while all the knowledge he felt he had so painfully acquired at Harvard, and his love – or at any rate his supposed love – of literature, was being slowly and inexorably dissipated and wasted.
The only thing that made his situation at all bearable was the few good friends he’d made. He would always speak of them in later life, whenever he could. Every time he did that, though, he would have the feeling of wanting to go on forever saying something more about them, in his crippled way, because of the love he continued to feel for them, because of his desire that their lives should at least in some small way be remembered. Cynics, however, will point out that he didn’t seem to understand his real, underlying desire, which was that his own life should at least in some small way be remembered.
When he was very young, he was never surprised when he heard someone say to another person, “I’ll always love you.” Later, he became more cynical, and whenever he heard that kind of statement, he thought, “How can anyone be so stupid? Don’t they know such a thing is impossible?” Later, however, he would be able to see from his own experience, that it really was possible, after all, to say such a thing. Later, when he thought of the people he’d loved, he couldn’t say he’d ever really stopped loving them. He may have ceased for a time to feel that he loved them, but the love itself never stopped. And when he was older, David began to feel once again how much he loved all of them, and how much he went on loving them.
Jeanette Clausen was on the island that winter: a bright, sometimes wild teacher of German, with a passion for literature and for life that took the form of an almost visible fire. Somehow, though, she managed to contain all the elements of her personality in the thin, angular body of what many Americans think of as a “typical intellectual”. Her soul itself seemed to be staring out through her large rounded eyes and the absurdly large spectacles she wore. She was for a time a sort of compassionate mentor to David, even though they were practically the same chronological age.
Jeanette was having an affair with Mike Camden, a tall, thin, middle-aged electrician with a surprisingly broad intelligence and a lively awareness of the world around him. He was married to Stella, a bright, extremely good-looking woman from New York.
David’s relations with all of these people showed – at least as far as he was concerned – that he felt a sense of love for them. They also indicate, once again, just how benighted he was in those days, a fact that perhaps cannot be emphasized too much. One evening at a party, when he’d really had too much to drink, in his simplicity and idiocy he began a discussion with Stella about the affair her husband was having with Jeanette. For some incomprehensible reason – probably because it was the swinging sixties – David assumed Stella knew about the affair and was simply ignoring it out of a kind of admirable maturity. As he stood there in his alcohol-fogged state, talking to her, she listened with an appearance of tremendous calm. Only later did he realize what an outrageous thing he’d done, when Mike came to see him the next, looking like a wounded animal might look gazing at the man who had shot it. Not long after that, he and Stella left the island, and the little circle of intellectuals dissolved.
The information about Mike and Jeanette had come to David from another one of that circle, an improbable woman named Kristin Sondergaard, who taught physical education at the college and claimed to be, of all things, an impoverished Danish countess in exile. Why she should be in exile, like some White Russian aristocrat, was never very clear, but who knows? Perhaps her story was true. She was Danish, after all, and she certainly looked the part of a countess. She was a lean and handsome woman in early middle age who used to enjoy relating events of her childhood and youth in northern Europe – or what she claimed were events of her childhood and youth. David didn’t like to doubt her, though. He had repeatedly experienced other people’s doubts about events in his own life that he knew to be true. He knew what that felt like.
Perhaps Kristin had not only told him about Mike and Jeanette, maybe she had also given him the idea that Mike’s wife knew about the affair and that everything was all right. She used to tell David a lot of things, anyway. When she discovered how much he admired Isak Dinesen — Karen Blixen — she began telling him about her own visits with the writer, the woman who seemed to David aging and ageless, mysterious, and elusive, surrounded by the kind of glow he saw around everyone he admired, and he had admired Isak Dinesen for a very long time.
He would never know if Kristin’s stories were true, or if they were only an expression of her own dreams. He believed them, though, because he wanted to, and in that belief he found one more temporary refuge from the bewildering pain, and the pain of bewilderment.
However, it should never be forgotten that he had only himself to blame for that pain.
Part 4, Chapter 89
At any rate, instead of going to war he went to Harvard….
–Carl Van Doren
The American Novel: Henry James
David’s circle of friends also included a few students from the local college — students who were intellectually more mature than the average, or more adventurous, or both. One of them that David came to know best was Alan Johnson, a serious, dark-haired young Kentuckian, thoughtful and intelligent — it seemed to David — beyond his years. He had large brown eyes that appeared always to be taking in every possible movement and color and suggestion of meaning in the words and actions of the people around him. He formed an attachment to David that later seemed surprising, because he was younger and at the same time somehow wiser and more mature than David. Out of the weeks and months of their friendship came one of those brief, almost imperceptible events that may alter the course of a life, though of course it is never possible to be sure of such things.
Alan and he often talked together, and these conversations became a powerful force for good in David’s life. They used to play chess in the evening, and years later David would still see Alan’s left hand moving across the chessboard, a gold signet ring glittering in the warm light of the room. Alan’s head would lift sometimes in a moment of laughter, and to David he seemed at such moments almost surrounded by a haze of light.
One Saturday afternoon in late spring the two of them were standing on a long wooden platform that overlooked the construction site. The cold, gray waters of the Straits of Mackinac lay beyond the shore of the island. David was sad, feeling more lost than ever, unable to find any alternative to his present situation.
“Sometimes I don’t know what to do with myself,” he said.
Alan gave what later seemed to David to be the only possible reply: “But what do you want to do?”
“I don’t know. That doesn’t seem to matter. It never has. What I’ve wanted to do was never as important as what other people wanted me to do.” He looked out at a ship moving with infinite slowness across the water in the far distance. “I think I’ve always done what I thought I should do,” he said. “But if I were free to choose now, all I’d do would be to go back to Harvard.”
“Because you want to?” he asked. “Or because you think you should?”
“Both, I guess. But the thing is —.” David paused and squinted at something very far away that I could hardly make out. “The thing is, going back to Harvard will be so hard.”
And then it was that everything seemed to stand still for David, as – in the usual overly dramatic way – he felt his life seemed foever altered. Alan turned and looked calmly and steadily into my eyes. “But anything else,” he said, “will be just as hard.”
In a moment David saw once again, in his mind, all of the difficult, exhausting, boring things he’d done for the previous three years. And he knew Alan was right. He had a feeling of intense exhilaration for a moment, a feeling that he long ago used to imagine — in his childish, exaggerated way — was something like what Bach might have felt when he resolved all the interweaving lines of the music of a fugue into one final, satisfying chord.
David knew, though, that the first thing he’d have to do would be to face the problem of Jim Radnor, or face his problem with Jim. For Jim was now the head tutor in English, and one of the people David would have to talk to about resuming his studies at Harvard. David decided to telephone him that evening.
Jim’s voice sounded odd – or perhaps simply cautious – when David told him who was calling and that he wanted to come back to Harvard. “I talked to the Dean in January, and he said if I wanted to major in English again, I’d have to talk to you.”
“When will you be in Cambridge?” Jim asked.
“Soon. Next month. Maybe the beginning of the summer. I’d like to work in Cambridge for the summer.”
“I’m — uh — married now, you know. If you need someplace to stay for a few days when you get here, you can always stay with us. There’s plenty of room. Let us know when you’re coming.”
“All right,” David said. “Thank you. It’s good of you.” And he meant it.
It had been so simple after all, he thought to himself.
Part 4, Chapter 90
I had no time to hate, because
The grave would hinder me,
And life was not so ample I
Could finish enmity.
Summer arrived slowly on the island, and he watched it come and felt the world being transformed. The icy air became gentle and mild, the warmth of the sun caressed the deepest and most sheltered recesses of the island and the minds of all who lived there. The land seemed to stir and then alter and come alive with the lush green hue of trees and lawns and with a blue color in the smiling reaches of the sky that was so blissfully different from the wintry greys that had just passed.
And as the island changed, it seemed that David did too, and he began to feel that everything and anything was possible.
That brief period before his return to Cambridge became the happiest time he’d known for many years. He began looking forward to Harvard again. He knew he’d be there for only a year, but that year seemed to him alive with possibilities. Surely his life would take a new course, he thought. Surely everything that had been lost could be recovered now at Harvard.
He seems almost to have expected that Harvard would save him somehow. Save him from what, though? That was something he wasn’t sure of.