Part 02, Chapters 01-10


Part Two:

On Leave from Harvard — East Africa

Part 2, Chapter 1

He knew a good country when he saw one.
–Hemingway
Green Hills of Africa

For David, traveling to East Africa was like visiting another galaxy. It was a voyage of discovery, an escape into an environment exotic beyond any of his expectations.

It was also a step across a threshold, on the other side of which he was certain he would find a world with an added dimension, the dimension of his own freedom — as he thought of freedom then — and he believed he would be changed by that freedom, altered to the very ground of his being.

The aircraft screamed eastward across the Atlantic from New York. From Rome they began the long flight south: across the Mediterranean to Benghazi, where they landed briefly, and then they continued on over the Sahara to East Africa. They arrived in Nairobi during one of those periods of tension that seemed to recur with cyclical regularity in Kenya then, before independence, but the airport was stylishly and expensively furnished, with its displays of Masai spears, elephant tusks, and zebra skins. Most of the Africans, though, appeared sullen and depressed, at least in contrast to the strange group of energetic Americans.

Nairobi itself was a study in somewhat alien elegance, certainly in those areas occupied by whites and by the few Africans who had achieved a European standard of living. David had never seen such a city before: spacious buildings lying open to the cooling winds and the pure sky of an endless summer, green lawns stretching out in all directions, set off on all sides by profusions of almost garish flowers. It was a city with an atmosphere unlike the deep gloom of most of the cities he had known until then. It was at once stately and informal, strange and familiar, secure and vaguely uneasy.

Oddest of all, he imagined he had the feeling that when he arrived in Nairobi, he was somehow coming home.

He felt free — as he had expected to — but he also felt within him a growing strength, an awareness of dimly understood new abilities, and the expectation that he had perhaps started to become the kind of person he had always idealized: good and strong and wise, and with a thousand unusual experiences behind him. He would be a whole person, he thought, with much to contribute, able to better the world in so many ways.

David had so many dreams.

Long afterward, he used to think that if he could have remained in East Africa forever, he might actually have fulfilled those dreams. He didn’t understand that even terms like goodness, strength, wisdom, and the capacity to build and create did not really describe what he should have been striving for. He didn’t understand then that the purpose of his life was something quite different. Or perhaps it would be truer to say that he had forgotten what the purpose of his life really was.

The ancient question and response about the transcendent reason for our existence had been drowned out by all the noise and hectic activity and distractions of his life at Harvard — and by his struggle to free himself from the heartrending oddness of his mother and stepfather. He really had quite forgotten the ultimate reason for his existence. He had forgotten even to keep in mind any hint at all of what that reason might be, though he was no skeptic and still actively engaged in the outward expressions of the faith he had been taught as a child. He was, though, the center of his own life. Without realizing exactly what he was doing, he quite innocently and stupidly assumed, as any child does, that everything in the word revolved around him.

Naturally, if such thinking had been willful and deliberate, it would have been seriously wrong. But David was like some dumb, young animal whose eyes have not yet opened and who lives in a world of dreams. Later, David came to think that God perhaps didn’t fault him for such a condition, or at least David hoped God doesn’t. David thought that God allows everyone time to open their eyes in their own way, gradually, until they reach the point where they can begin to comprehend, in some dim fashion, the answer to the question of who God is. David thought that God gives everyone all the time in the world to understand who he is, and that he is there, at the center of everyone’s existence, at the very ground of their being, closer to all human beings — as Augustine said — than they are to themselves.

And so at that time and in that place — in Africa — David wanted, in a sense, to become something that he never could become. Without realizing it, David wanted to become an illusion, an intellectual and spiritual illusion of goodness and wisdom.

Those first tentative steps toward freedom and responsibility that David did eventually make in Africa would be blocked in the end, and for a period of many years.

During all that time, he would often be close to despair, thinking that he was failing to achieve his ambitions, ambitions which were for the most part empty, even though they might be characterized as intellectual or spiritual.

Ultimately, David came to hope and believe in a paradox. In his possibly self-deceptive way, he came to think that by not achieving any of his ambitions, he could somehow accomplish more than he could otherwise have ever dreamed of.

He was captivated by the idea that in the light of eternity, individual failure could be more powerful than the mightiest success.



Part 2, Chapter 2

“Ist das äußere Schicksal über mich hingegangen wie über alle, unabwendbar und von den Göttern verhängt, so ist mein inneres Geschick doch mein eigenes Werk gewesen, dessen Süße oder Bitterkeit mir zukommt und für das ich die Verantwortung allein auf mich zu nehmen denke“.
–Hermann Hesse
Gertrud

“If fate has passed over my external life, as it passes over everyone’s, ineluctable and determined by the gods, it is I myself who have determined my interior destiny. Whether it is bitter or sweet for me, I know that I alone am responsible for it.”
–Hermann Hesse
Gertrude

After a few days in the lush surroundings of Nairobi, the group split up and members of the project began their various journeys toward the places they would be working in Tanganyika. For three of them, it was the start of a long, tiring move south toward the arid, central plateau of Tanganyika, where they had been assigned to a famine relief program. They flew first to Moshi, a town on the lower slopes of Kilimanjaro.

The name itself conjured up in his mind legendary events, the almost mystical experience of the Hemingway novella, and the trivia of history: the story of Queen Victoria redrawing the border between Kenya and what was then German East Africa, so that Kilimanjaro could be presented to Kaiser Wilhelm as a birthday gift.

In Moshi, just across the border from Kenya, they had their first encounter with the sights, sounds, and smells of rural Africa. If Nairobi was wonderful and strange in its familiarity, Moshi was a little frightening for David in the way it differed so much from any human community he had ever known.

Here for the first time he found himself in an environment completely dominated by people of another race. No matter how much he’d tried to prepare himself for the experience, the reality was still something of a shock. It didn’t matter that his white skin immediately conferred on him a certain political and social status in Africa then. The mere fact of suddenly finding that he was racially so different from almost all of the people around him was at first more than a little disturbing. Not being able to communicate with anyone very easily added to the sense of living in a new world that really was very strange.

And yet, all of this of course only increased his sense of adventure. While Moshi projected the raw, bleak image of a frontier settlement, there was always, behind that image, the inescapable grandeur of Kilimanjaro. The mountain had been a gift that neither the queen who gave it, nor the emperor who received it, ever saw. It also once more kept occurring to David that the mountain had been for the hero of Hemingway’s story — and perhaps for Hemingway himself — a symbol of transcendence.

Now, for him, it would be a reminder — sometimes obscured by mist but always present nevertheless — that there had to be something more to his existence, some opening into another world, another life, another dimension, a way out of the limitations that seemed at times to confine him. This opening, he believed, was always there, always available, if only he had the wit to see it and the courage to seize it.

Of course he was not consciously aware then, that this probably was part of the real reason he had come to Africa. He was there to help the Africans, he thought. And even though he felt shy, awkward, and hopelessly inadequate, he tried in those first few days in Moshi to communicate with the Africans as best he could in Swahili. The only thing he could manage then was a few simple greetings, and so the responses to his first attempts at communication were not very encouraging.

It was not only his shyness and feelings of ignorance, though, that prevented him from speaking easily to other people, either Africans or Americans. What prevented him was also a kind of hidden but very powerful sense of pride, a feeling that there were very few people to whom he could make himself understood. He wasn’t really aware of being influenced by such an idea, but it was there in his mind nevertheless. What he was aware of was only a painful shyness, and he struggled against that.

Three members of the project had been assigned to work in Dodoma, then a small town high on the bleak, windswept central plateau. The trip there from Moshi was long, hot, dusty, and exhausting. They traveled by bus, leaving the cool green uplands around the base of Kilimanjaro and moving south into a land that baked in the dry heat of near-desert conditions.

As they moved closer to their destination, the land and everything growing on it became covered with a layer of dust so fine it gleamed in the sun like moisture. There was dust everywhere: dust on the roads, dust on the thin emaciated cattle, dust on the faces of the people.

Dust was piled like a finely ground powder; dust covered every sparse blade of grass, it coated the leaves and branches of every isolated and stunted tree, the only kind of tree in sight.

All the plant life of the land looked desiccated and unreal, as though everything were made of papier-mâché.

Still, in spite of all that, the land seemed to him to have a fierce kind of beauty. Perhaps he felt an odd sense of familiarity, perhaps he found he had something in common with this empty, arid place. Whatever the reason, he saw beauty there in the midst of a desolation that sometimes, he later discovered, often seemed quite frightening to other Westerners.

However, perhaps it was only the sense of adventure that excited him, together with an intuition that here was a place he could at last experience at least a kind of freedom. He looked around at the rolling, dry countryside, dotted here and there with tufts of dead grass, a land oddly decorated with baobab trees that seemed so comic in the way they looked as if they’d been planted upside-down. He felt he was progressing into something new, something he’d never known before, something that would be so much better than anything he ever had known.

The trip to Dodoma continued for an entire day, from early morning until late afternoon. They rode in an ancient bus, one that had practically no springs, and they felt every jolt in the unpaved road. The windows were wide open, but nothing diminished the heat of the sun, blazing relentlessly across the empty blue sky. The heat intensified the whole range of odors accumulating around them: the stench of goats, chickens, human beings, and spoiled food — all mixed with the fumes of the vehicle’s exhaust and the ever-present dust hanging in the air.

But he was young and full of ideals then, and if all of Africa was an adventure for him, it was also the kind of endurance test that most young men love. All of the discomfort and difficulties were a source of happiness for him. He was happy to be alive, happy to find himself in such a richly exotic milieu, and happy to feel that his life had some purpose at last.

Most of all, he was happy to be free of all the mental pain and confusion that seemed to be an inevitable part of having to deal with his mother and stepfather. He was happy to be free of their ambiguities, their double messages and their contradictory signals, free of the double binds they always seemed to be trying to impose. He was glad to be free of their strange, confusing demands, free of their endlessly repeated attempts to treat him — and define him — as a little boy.

At last, he thought, he was free to grow up.

Or at least he was free to try to.



Part 2, Chapter 3

“The geographical position and the height of the land combined to create a landscape that had not its like in all the world.”
–Karen Blixen
Out of Africa

Even though the bus ride to Dodoma was long and uncomfortable, the landscape he had suddenly become part of was too strange and wild to be anything but beautiful in his eyes. He was perhaps unconsciously preparing to consider it home.

He looked at Africa from a point of view that many will consider quite adolescent. He felt he was making a kind of rediscovery, that he was becoming aware of an ancient claim East Africa may have on every member of our species, because, as far as we know, it was the birth place of our species.

Sometimes he almost thought he could hear the voice of the continent itself, whispering in his mind, “Look around you and see how oddly familiar all of this is: that dusty hill, the way the light is falling across the baobab tree, the vast sweep of the noonday sky overhead, holding the invisible stars. Don’t you recognize this place? This was what your kind called home, uncountable millennia ago.”

Everything, though, that transcends what we ordinarily know as reality is conveyed to us through that reality. On the day they arrived in Dodoma, reality was the small provincial town at dusk, a town so isolated as to be practically unknown to the outside world.

As they climbed off the bus, tired, aching, and grimy after the twelve-hour journey, they were surrounded by a crowd of Africans standing there in the ubiquitous dust. Beyond them they could see the low, monotonous brick buildings of an African town, seeming to hunker down beneath roofs of corrugated iron. The noises and smells, the poverty and beauty, the texture and weave of Africa coalesced into images that canceled out his exhaustion. They were images that transformed his pain into a feeling that he was perhaps about to find what he had come for, find something greater than what he had known before, something more, something that might outlast the ordinary experiences of life.

The world at that moment resonated with the sense of timeless adventure that has always seized the minds of young men, that keeps men young, the adventure of searching what we feel our hearts are made for, what our hearts look for and sometimes find in the most unexpected places.

The three Americans stood there in the teeming crowd, unable to communicate, and for the moment, tired and lost. Suddenly a figure in the crowd came up to them and said, “Police?” They looked at one another. David said, “Yes, take us to the police.” And they followed their guide through the crowd, down alleyways where naked African children were playing. Chickens scurried away in all directions, as though affronted by their presence.

In the police station, a Sikh sergeant looked at them beneath a majestic turban, his eyes calm and attentive above the flow of his enormous mustache and beard.

They said they’d been told to ask for the provincial commissioner.

“I will take you to him,” said the sergeant.

They were put into the back of a Landrover and taken not merely to the other side of the town, they were virtually transported into another world. Here there were no low dwellings crowded together along unpaved alleys. In this part of Dodoma the streets were paved, they were wide and smooth, they were planned and laid out in tidy rectangles. The houses and semi-detached villas — as they would later learn to call them — were ranged behind tall hedges composed of a desert shrub that had thousands of tiny branches. Every house was set on its own neat square of land.

Except for the occasional African woman walking along in the fading light, wrapped in a multi-colored toga with a large bundle balanced easily on her head, the entire European quarter of the of town, together with the landscape beyond it, could almost have been mistaken for an oddly austere housing development in Arizona.

The largest houses had been built at the edge of the quarter and at the edge of the town, far away from any unpleasant sounds or sights or smells. Beyond these dwellings the arid plateau raised itself up into a large outcropping of rock that towered high over the town and the surrounding bush. This was the area where the provincial commissioner lived, in a substantial, two-storey home reached by a long, curving drive, a magnificent example of British colonial architecture, with its light-beige stucco walls and red-tile roof gleaming in the moonlight. An enormous flowering plant — the first he had seen since leaving Moshi — presided over the front yard, its brilliant red blossoms holding sway over an impeccably manicured lawn. An African servant in a long, white tunic, broad red belt, and red fez was waiting at the open door. As soon as he saw the Americans he turned and spoke to someone inside.

They climbed out of the Landrover, sending up little puffs of dust every time they moved, their faces and hands covered with grime. As they were unloading their crumpled bags, David turned and saw another figure at the door of the house. A tall, middle-aged man was walking toward them, immaculate in the standard uniform of a British colonial officer: starched white shirt and shorts and long white knee socks. He was smiling broadly, and he stretched out his hand in welcome. “Good evening,” he said in a deep, richly accented voice, “I’m Jim Harrison.”

When the Americans had introduced themselves, Harrison told them to come inside. “You’ll want to get cleaned up,” he said. “Then we can have a drink and —” He interrupted himself and added dryly, “I take it you haven’t eaten?”

They told him the last food they’d seen had consisted of stale Indian chapatis washed down with what the English called orange squash, around noon in a village somewhere to the north.

They were taken into a home that was spotlessly clean, and he was again struck by a sense of being in a place that was at once familiar and strange, because every European aspect of the house was altered by some touch of Africa or Asia. There were gorgeous Indian carpets laid across the polished tile floors. On the walls hung a few paintings of African landscapes, together with handsomely mounted African artifacts: Masai spears, ceremonial masks, elephant-hair jewelry, ornate fly-whisks, and a strange and lovely harp, of a kind he had never seen anywhere before. As he looked at it, he could almost have sworn that a kind of silent music began to fill the room.

They were shown up to their own sleeping quarters. After the bus ride from Moshi, everything looked so clean it seemed a little unreal. The beds had already been made up, the mosquito nets lowered and tucked in carefully around the mattress. Later, after they’d bathed and absorbed some of the comfort and cleanliness of a world David thought he’d been looking forward to leaving behind, they went back downstairs.

Harrison and his wife were waiting for them in a living room that had been designed so that all of its spaces contributed to a sense of warmth and humanity. The evening had turned chilly, and there was a fire in the fireplace. The Harrisons were seated on either side of it, on large comfortable sofas. Sounds of a Mozart sonata danced from a short-wave radio receiver in one corner of the room. Harrison, smiling, stood up as they entered.

The Harrisons were a handsome, intelligent, middle-aged couple, and David would in later years often think that he and the other two Harvard students must have seemed like inexperienced children to them. After all, he and the others were simply three American university students, just arrived from the States, who knew nothing about Africa. To David’s surprise, though, the way the Harrisons greeted them showed respect for them as adults, as people whose lives and experience, though not as broad as theirs, were just as valid. This sort of attitude on the part of someone like the provincial commissioner, who was after all the symbol and instrument of British authority in an area the size of a Midwestern American state, was for David something new, something that seemed to free him from the narrow, cramped mind-set his parents had tried to build around him.

Perhaps the Harrisons were one reason he became as attached to East Africa as he did. He and they all came to mean something to one another; the Harrisons seemed at times to consider him almost like a son, they treated him as he’d always wanted to be treated by his parents. They were closer, certainly, to his idea of what parents should be like.

David wanted to be like James Harrison, with his strength, intelligence, sensitivity, and apparently inexhaustible calm. David thought he found in Harrison a potential self that he’d never known could exist, one he wanted to emulate, one he was sure he could emulate.

He hardly understood any of that at the time, of course, certainly not consciously. He would later realize, though, that this self he knew he could one day be was one of the first things he found in Africa, something that remained with him all his life, at least as an ideal.

Harrison exuded the kind strength and self-confidence that would probably be impossible, even dangerous, for any man to display today. It would almost certainly invite destruction. At that time and in that place, however, Harrison embodied what David came to think of as the single most distinctive characteristic of the best in British overseas civil servants: the ability to make others feel that no matter what situation might arise, they could deal with it. Harrison made everyone feel that no matter what catastrophe might occur, no matter how great a disaster might take place, he was prepared for it and had a plan for coping with it.

Of course much of this impression was created by David’s own idealistic imagination. David’s ability to invest those he liked with all sorts of admirable qualities was practically limitless, and at times, probably, it was barely confined to reality. If the people he knew had known what he was doing, how he was idealizing them, the burden would have been too great for them to bear.



Part 2, Chapter 4

„Es liegt in meiner Natur, das Große und Schöne willig und mit Freuden zu verehren, und diese Anlage an so herrichen Gegenständen Tag für Tag, Stunde für Stunde auszubilden ist das seligste aller Gefühle“.
–Goethe
Italienische Reise

“It is in my nature willingly, and with joy, to venerate whatever is great and beautiful, and the happiest of all feelings is to develop this tendency day by day hour by hour, in the presence of such glorious things.”
–Goethe
Italian Journey

After their arrival in Dodoma, there was little time to go on observing the splendor of the African landscape. David would return to that later. In the meantime, he had all he could do just learning how to live in Africa and how to do the job he’d been sent there to carry out. Learning how to help organize relief safaris into the bush around Dodoma was ultimately not a very complex operation, but in Africa the huge social, cultural, linguistic, and other differences often made even the simplest tasks very difficult to complete.

The British district officers David worked with supplied him with advice and information, of course, but it was up to him to put together all of the gear and supplies he would need for a prolonged stay in the bush. During the first few months he accompanied two or three of the other district officers on safari. They themselves, of course, were in the process of setting up a relief program that they’d had hardly any experience with, so in a sense everyone was learning at the same time.

Eventually, when the famine reached its peak, they would be feeding over a hundred thousand people in the central part of the country. The first step the government had to take was simply to plan a system of food distribution, and the first safaris David participated in with the district officers were part of the planning process.

Though he didn’t think much about it at the time, those safaris represented something more in his own life than he’d ever experienced before. They were the first time he’d ever been accepted as a member of a group of men who were working together toward some common goal: in this case, preserving the lives of a very great number of people. Because of that, his life seemed suddenly to acquire a dimension it had never had before. It was probably this dimension that became the second important reason — after the Harrisons’ confirmation of his self-worth — that Africa would become a kind of obsession for David in all the long years that were to come. In Africa, he was beginning to lead a life that had meaning for him, a greater meaning than he had seen in the lives of his parents and teachers and friends in the States. Everything had a purpose now, everything was worthwhile.

He never thought about the future — unfortunately — because at Harvard in those days the idea was widespread that everyone should look at life as an adventure; no one should ever close off options; everyone should be ready to take advantage of any opportunity that might present itself. So David never thought about what would happen when he returned to the States. He never thought about what he would feel when his poor benighted parents again were able to treat him like a child, when they were again able to try to impose their values and their way of life and their own cramped worldview on him.

David in the end would no more be able to accept what his parents wanted to do to him, than he could have accepted a lobotomy, although it is to be feared that in the end their efforts may have had something like that effect.

At any rate, he never thought about the way he would feel when his life was again deprived of the sense of purpose it had in Africa. He never thought about the searing sense of longing and loss that would fill his heart and mind for years to come.

The delight in life that he now felt — in Africa — must surely continue forever, he thought. Wouldn’t he always be able to feel this happiness in an existence that was arduous and exciting and that seemed to fill him with larger aims than the everyday concerns that apparently preoccupied everyone he’d known in the States?

Now, in the present, there was only the adventure of Africa — for him, stunning, bold, inexhaustibly exciting — an adventure that was probably no adventure at all to the Englishmen he went on safari with, an “adventure” that must have seemed rather dull and irksome to them, though he could not understand that at the time.

The English he knew in Africa, however, were all unusual. For one thing, they had all for one reason or another decided to join the Colonial Service in what they must have known were its final days. And they were hard-working, efficient, good at planning and executing quite complicated tasks, good at dealing with the Africans around them and at speaking to Africans in their own language, and not in English.

David’s English colleagues were not, of course, motivated by the same need for adventure and sense of purpose that drove him. They would have no doubt preferred an eight-hour working day in their offices and evenings spent with their wives at home or at “the club” in Dodoma.

David used to talk with them all the time in the evenings on safari. They laughed and joked around the dinner table, their faces lit by the hissing pressure lamp, under the limitless canopy of the stars that can be seen in a night time sky in Africa. David found so much delight in what was for him a new life that it never occurred t him than anyone else could not. Perhaps though, after all, at least some of the English did feel some of the happiness he felt. Perhaps David was able to communicate it to them.

By the time he’d been in Dodoma for a few weeks, the British district officers had put together a simple, effective plan for distributing the famine relief, which consisted of grain sent from the United States. Each officer would be assigned an area of two or three hundred square miles that he would be responsible for. He would go into this area once a week with a Landrover and make a tour of some of the important villages. He would visit a different group of villages each week in rotation, going to the same ones on a regular basis every month or two, repeatedly, until the famine had ended and people were able to provide themselves with their own food. During each visit by the district officer, people from the surrounding area would come to register, under the supervision of their village headman. They would be given coupons that they could take to shops in their village and exchange or food.

As David became accustomed to the work, his mind was free to take in more of the new world around him, this world he had so hungrily looked for. He’d never imagined that in the end the sheer beauty of this world would astonish and sustain him — and in a sense seduce him — to the degree it did, but something like that in fact happened.

They would leave on safari early on Monday mornings, when the air was chill over the East African plateau and the last traces of the riot of night time stars were disappearing from the sky. The land then was a world of silhouettes against the growing light in the east. Africans wrapped in their dark togas moved off silently toward unknown destinations. The vague, mysterious outlines of the thorn trees seemed to whisper something just beyond the limits of understanding. The flat, square shapes of the traditional African houses appeared against the horizon, and then, suddenly and quickly — as it does everywhere near the equator — the dawn would break.

They would be setting off then in the Landrover, rattling over the corrugations on the main, unpaved road out of Dodoma. Each morning was filled with every sort of promise he could imagine, everything that had been missing for him in America: meaning for his life, companionship, a sense of confronting the unknown, a feeling of discovery, and always, of course, reminders for him of all that lies beyond the existence that human beings experience in the here and now.

The greatest sense of promise seemed to arise simply from the fact that he was there at all, in Africa, this Eden with its broad silent vistas beneath the billowing clouds overhead. There were also reminders of this promise that he brought with him, in the things he read — the texts of the Mass being said each day everywhere in the world, including Africa, where the Latin words he read seemed oddly suited to the landscape around him. He thought, however, that the inflections of the language were somehow primitive, at least compared to modern languages like English where the earlier inflections had been almost completely worn away. For David, this primitiveness oddly matched the landscape around him in Africa, inflected as it was by geography, and by the ever-altering patterns of the sky and land that were constantly expressing something new in what was familiar.

David felt too that everywhere around him there were also reminders of someone most people can no longer speak about without a sense of embarrassment, someone who is not merely “someone,” but one who David believed forms the ground of human existence, one who is invisible but essential to life, like the air he breathed but hardly ever thought about.

David would later think that in those days it was possible — at least for him — to feel that presence more strongly in Africa than anywhere else: in the long-suffering goodness on the faces of the people, in the burst and flutter of color in the wings of birds taking flight in the morning. He thought it could also be seen somehow in the little mud churches in the bush, miles from anywhere, where the red lamp shone on the altar and God waited behind the veil of the tabernacle. David thought it was possible to see that and think of the way God waits just at the limits of human understanding, human imperfections, and human sins.

David thought God could be seen too in the old Italian missionary priest that the district officers had to speak to in Swahili, because it was the only common language they had. For David, the old priest was a desert father in the wastes of Africa that came out to greet his visitors with a weary smile on his worn, unshaven face. He would offer them coffee and speak to them of life.

David saw the old priest as a man similar to the house he lived in: slowly growing old and beginning to disappear into the heart of Africa — a heart that for David was light and gleaming. David knew, though, that unlike the house the priest would go on forever, would ripen to immortality, and David felt somehow that the old man was aware of this. David felt that this was the source of the old man’s sense of joy, the reason for the smile on his face as he looked out over the unchanging hills in the landscape all around, that landscape with its subtly muted colors, the feeling of endless space it conveyed, the promise of eternity to those who listened.

David had never expected to find such things in Africa.

He found other things as well.



Part 2, Chapter 5

„…(D)ein Amt ist es, darauf hinzuweisen, wie das natürliche, naive Leben, ohne geistige Zucht zum Sumpf werden und ins Tierische und noch weiter zurückführen muss“.
–Hermann Hesse
Das Glasperlenspiel

“…(Y)our duty is to point out that a natural, innocent life, without any intellectual breeding or discipline will descend into the mire and must lead to savagery, or worse.”
–Hermann Hesse
The Glass Bead Game: Magister Ludi

Mwaluko was the only African district officer in Dodoma, and one of the sadder results of the colonial system. He was tall and perhaps good-looking, but his face seemed somehow scarred with bitterness. There were moments when he looked as though he were capable of much cruelty, at least toward himself. He was a man who seemed, in fact, to be almost consumed with self-hatred, and he was one who appeared to see and hate that self everywhere. He saw himself in the slow and sleepy behavior of the Africans living in the bush, and he hated them for being what they were, for reminding him that he too was an African, when he wanted so much not to be.

David was sent out on safari with Mwaluko when the famine relief was in full operation, and it was then that he started to become a little afraid of him. Mwaluko’s sense of self-hatred seemed to threaten everything around him, even David. Almost everything Mwaluko did either frightened or irritated him, and the more he tried to ignore those feelings, the more a sense of tension increased between the two of them.

One evening when they were on one of the weekly safaris to register people for famine relief, Mwaluko went off somewhere and left David alone in the cinderblock rest house they were staying in the bush, where the silence was broken only by the sound of the great seedpods of a baobab tree dropping onto the corrugated roof. David was too young then to really be able to appreciate that kind of solitude and isolation as a sort of gift, although he had often imagined that in another setting he might find it acceptable.

Mwaluko’s disappearance that day was not unusual. Mwaluko was constantly disappearing, and he always came back late from these disappearances, while David was asleep. David never knew where he went: some secret political meeting perhaps — it was the time of world-power politics in Africa — or maybe a drinking bout or an evening with friends, although it was hard to imagine where Mwaluko would find friends. David even imagined him at some atavistic rite that drew him back into the African past, far away from what seemed his natural milieu: heated discussions — of politics perhaps — in London, where he’d gone to university.

On this particular evening, Mwaluko left some pamphlets behind. One of them was a crudely illustrated kind of comic book that purported to show the evils of colonialism in East Africa. It graphically and luridly showed what Africans had suffered at the hands of their “white oppressors.”

After having grown up during the worst part of the cold war, Communism had for David — as for most Americans — almost the dimensions of metaphysical evil. To see it illustrated in Mwaluko’s pamphlet amounted almost to a kind of political pornography in David’s eyes. And to see it here, where so many of his ideals seemed to be in the process of being realized — at least in himself and in his own life — made him feel shocked and revolted. What made these feelings even stronger was that they were mixed with a new — but still mostly unconscious — awareness of his own capacity for doing wrong.

When we returned to Dodoma, he went to see the provincial commissioner in his office in the immense, stolid, old German fort that served as government headquarters. Harrison greeted him warmly and motioned him to a chair. David sat down, embarrassed and uneasy.

David looked at Harrison, then looked away. “There’s something I’d like to talk to you about, sir.”

Harrison smiled, leaned forward, folded his hands on top of his desk. “All right,” he said, “what can I do for you?”

“It’s about Mwaluko, sir.” There was a long silence.

He smiled again. “If it’s all the same to you, let me say that I think I already know what you’re going to tell me.”

David looked at him. “You do?”

Harrison nodded.

“You mean you know he carries around all that Communist propaganda?”

A faint look of surprise passed over Harrison’s face, but he quickly recovered. “Oh yes,” he said, “we’ve known about that for some time. Country’s being flooded with the stuff. But we’re keeping tabs on it.”

“Then there’s nothing for me to worry about?” David asked.

“Nothing at all.”

David was not, however, assigned to go out on safari with Mwaluko anymore. A few weeks later David heard that the man had been sent on a training course to London.

After that, David began going out on the weekly safaris with the other district officers in turn, and the weeks of the East African “summer” continued to go by. What David did and what he learned during that time were perhaps not as important as the ideals and hopes for the future that continued to be instilled in him almost every moment. The desire to become a certain kind of man was being strengthened, together with the dawning awareness that this desire and all the possibilities it implied could in fact someday be realized.

The British district officers, oddly enough, but perhaps not surprisingly, served as part of the ideal he had in mind. They all worked and acted much the same way that Harrison did. They were especially like him in the way they showed an astonishing competence in everything they said and did, and in the way they seemed capable of resolving any difficulty that might arise.

Thus, it may be that the first thing David learned that summer — although he didn’t really know it then — was that a man who is in a position of authority is successful not because of the orders he gives or the systems and plans he creates or even because of what he finally accomplishes. He is successful to the degree that he can imbue his subordinates with an awareness of certain ideal qualities of action and behavior, with a desire to possess those qualities, and finally with the actual realization of them in their own personalities.

This, at any rate, is the kind of leadership Harrison exerted over his subordinates, and it is of course why they all were somewhat like him — or at least wanted to be. David often thought there was something almost miraculous — if that embarrassing word can be used — about such leadership. It seemed to David that people are rarely aware of its operations — or of its importance — until it is absent, until they need it, until things have gone so terribly wrong in a society — or in the whole world, for that matter — that there seems to be nothing that can save it, except perhaps that kind of miracle.



Part 2, Chapter 6

“The views were immensely wide. Everything that you saw made for greatness and freedom, and unequalled nobility.”
–Karen Blixen
Out of Africa

David admired all the British he worked with. He admired them for their competence at whatever job they had to do, for their ability with Swahili, and for the sense of inner strength they always seemed able to display. The more he admired these men, of course, the more he wanted to be like them. And the more he wanted to be like them, the more he knew that he could in fact be like them. He knew he had their abilities.

This is perhaps the third reason why Africa was one of the turning points of his life.

The first reason had been the chance to work with a group of men for a common purpose, the second had been his superior’s confirmation of his self-worth.

Now David felt that what he was learning from Harrison and the others was becoming so much a part of him that he could not have fully reflected on it then if he’d tried to. And though in the end the whole process perhaps took much longer than anyone expected, in the end he finally learned most of what those men were unknowingly teaching him that summer. Much later in life, he would want to think that they wouldn’t be disappointed with the results of those efforts.

As the summer progressed, he became gradually more independent and able to work alone in the bush. As he did so, Tanganyika became even more of an adventure than it had been at first. He began to feel more self confident, and his knowledge of Swahili increased.

He started to feel at home on the clear, free expanses of the central plateau. The dry dusty environment continued to appear more and more beautiful with every passing day.

When David was happy, he saw beauty everywhere.

He used to look out over the rolling hills and uplands as he went jolting over the dirt roads in the Landrover, and he used to think about his life and about the beauty of Africa. And if Africa had spoken to him in whispers at first, after a time its beauty began to sing to him as well.

It was a song of freedom, of being able to think and move and act without fear of arousing resentment or envy in anyone. It was a song about reaching for great heights, a song of what he thought of as the endless, upward movement of his life, a song spun out of the bright, rarefied air that reached across the vast plateau, a song that seemed to rise from some deep center of a young man’s consciousness and alter the very perception he had of the world and of himself.

Everything in life seemed to take on new meaning for him, and yet he thought it would be misleading to attribute that to Africa alone, or to his own youthful outlook on life. The fact is that these changes in behavior and perception were almost inseparable from what for David was the as yet inchoate awareness of the existence of God, and the dim understanding of the implications that that awareness led to, at least for him.

He had never given much thought to what many people would refer to as a relationship to God, because the idea of God’s existence had always been so much a part of his own existence that thinking about it would have made as much sense as thinking about breathing. Yet there was something rather stupid in that kind of attitude. He later came to believe that to feel happy in so many aspects of one’s life, and then to fail to connect that happiness with its ultimate source was certainly not a very intelligent thing to do.

He should perhaps have discovered earlier that whatever Africa contributed to his life and well-being, it would have been impossible without the belief he had in God, without the ordinary encounters offered by that most ridiculed of society’s institutions.

That institution was — he hardly understood this then — the original source of the freedom he found in Africa, because it was really the freedom of evil and wrong that he had found — however temporarily. Naturally he dimly understood that that kind of freedom would sound strange in the world we live in now. He knew it was meaningless for many people. There would even be times in his life when it was even meaningless for him as well, and he would have to learn over and over again that there is no real freedom or happiness anywhere else.

Whatever he may have come to understand since that first time in Africa, there was a great deal that he did not understand then. He was, it seems to him later, terribly benighted. He didn’t understand that his freedom and happiness imposed certain obligations on him, obligations that arose not from certain beliefs or only from a certain religion, but from a transcendent love. He didn’t really comprehend then what he would come later to believe more firmly than ever: that if the world had become more beautiful than he could ever have imagined, it was not really because of his presence in Africa, it was because of the presence within him of the reality of love, a reality he believed came to him in a poor, dark, African church, hidden under the form of a small round wafer of bread.

If his own place in the world was more secure and more comfortable than ever before, it was not only because he was surrounded by the wonders of Africa, but because he was grounded in a reality he was barely conscious of.

If he was free now of his parents, free of what seemed their continual attempts to undermine his confidence and sense of self-worth, he also felt free to try to be good. He came to think that this freedom of goodness had shaped him and brought him to Africa.

If he couldn’t clearly articulate all of that to himself then, however, one day he would. It would be only after many years, though, after he’d experienced life in a way that was much different from Africa. From the aspect of eternity, those years were only a moment, and so they seemed to him later in life. Whether they extended over a long period of time or not, they did teach him a great deal.

They taught him that in order to keep what he’d found in Africa, he didn’t necessarily have to stay in Africa. Paradoxically, he didn’t have to keep it all. In fact he could keep it only by giving it away.

He would later have to remind himself again and again that what he’d found in Africa was certainly not in Africa at all. It was in him, as an old priest once explained in a story he told David about being confronted once by the anger and scorn of someone who sneered at him, “If you can tell me where heaven is, then I’ll believe in your god.” And the priest, responding to the anger with an immense compassion, replied, “Heaven is where God is, and God is in you.”

Since David understood almost nothing of that then, however, he became more and more determined to stay in Africa, determined not to give up what he thought he’d won, determined to keep what he thought he’d struggled to find, what few others whom he knew ever dreamed of. He didn’t understand that it would have been much more reasonable to instead be determined to stay on the side of one whose existence is beyond any idea that we can have of winning or finding or keeping — or of dreaming too, for that matter.

How could he have known then that there was even more to the universe than he had ever dreamed of?

Later, though, he would wonder how he could not have known.



Part 2, Chapter 7

„Ach! Jenes Land der Wonne,
Das seh ich oft im Traum….“
–Heinrich Heine
Lyrisches Intermezzo, XLIII

“I see that land of pure delight
so often when I dream….”
–Heinrich Heine
Lyrisches Intermezzo, XLIII

David decided to leave Harvard for a year and stay in Africa. Once that decision was made, however, he had to find work to do.

He thought he could find some kind of job in Dar es Salaam, Tanganyika’s largest city and main port. So in August he took the very slow but very comfortable overnight train to Dar. The British had seen to it that East African Railways services equaled that of trains in Britain at their peak. The food was excellent and the sleeping compartments roomy and comfortable, with clean, crisp sheets. In the morning tea was served by a porter in a smart white uniform and a red fez.

David felt a little guilty about enjoying that kind of comfort — which no longer exists — but like most adolescent idealists, his ideals were either forgotten or compromised whenever he had a chance not to make a sacrifice.

However, after arriving at the train station in Dar on an August morning, the situation was quite different. There was no question of avoiding a sacrifice, and his ideals in that regard could easily be realized. The weather was hot and steamy. Occasionally there were downpours. The physical surroundings were squalid, and the living conditions of most Africans were very bad. In Dar, as in most large cities in Africa and Asia during the colonial period, there was an extreme contrast between European wealth and African poverty.

Squalor and poverty, though, were romantic and colorful for David in those days, because he was young and privileged and certain he was doing so much good in Africa. He used to look with a kind of childish wonder and curiosity, for example, at the dark, crowded Indian shops always smelling of strange spices. These centers of commerce seemed always to be presided over by a sleek-haired proprietor who barked at his children in Gujarati while his plump wife, wrapped in a sari, silently observed the world’s vanities from behind a counter piled high with everything from bolts of cloth to blocks of unrefined sugar and shiny new pressure lamps.

Everything in places like that made David want to see and remember every detail of this strange, new world, perhaps because he sensed that in a few years as the colonial empires finally came to an end, Dar es Salaam, like everything else, would be changed into something quite different.

The poverty of the African quarter was a delight for him, and somehow, incredibly, he didn’t realize just how perverse that delight was. It was grounded in the fact that whenever he went there — always with another American — they were treated like young princes. They would sit on reed mats in little mud-brick houses with corrugated roofs where polite Moslem Africans in long white garments served them spiced and broiled chicken, mutton with rice and vegetables, and strange fruits, the names of which he would never learn. The Africans in this part of Dar spoke a mellifluous Swahili, and the sound of their voices was deeper and richer than that of the Africans in the interior. Every word seemed to be not simply spoken, but caressed lovingly as it was uttered.

Even though there was a kind of social perversity in the delight he felt, it was also true that he found a sense of humanity and friendship in those small houses in the back streets of Dar that ultimately became one more element in Africa that left its mark on him. Later this would puzzle him, for it took him some time to comprehend that those small circles of companionship that he entered there in the dirt back streets of Dar es Salaam were — like so much else in Africa — giving him something he had never had before, something so fine and rare that he would long for it the rest of his life and search for it in all the wrong places. What he found there in Dar made the clean opulence of the Western lifestyle sterile and cold by comparison. If he loved the comfort of European life in Africa, it was the warm soul of African life that really spoke to him and that would keep a part of him in Africa forever.

It may just be possible that he responded to that deep human warmth not simply because he was a privileged white Westerner welcomed into homes that were more than poor. It’s possible that what he was perceiving was the same call that others have heard in similar circumstances. Perhaps in some way he was dimly aware of something that has drawn others to see a certain beauty in that kind of poverty. If that is so, he would have to admit that he was too weak or confused or selfish to respond as they did.

He would also have to admit that the upscale area of Dar attracted him as well — the long curving drive along Oyster Bay where the homes of the wealthy had been set like jewels at the edge of the Indian Ocean, where every morning the brilliant colors of the eastern sky seemed to stir and gather momentum, like the crescendo in a symphony, until the sun rose as he had never seen it rise anywhere else, with a sort of triumphant majesty, out of a rolling sea of liquid platinum and gold.



Part 2, Chapter 8

“To ascend this great river, and tempt the hazards of its intricate navigation….”
–Francis Parkman
France and England in North America

So David began to look for work in Dar es Salaam, the first of all the many cities where he would look for — and find — work in later years, from Johannesburg to Vancouver, from Honolulu to Tel Aviv.

In Dar he visited the offices of a few American organizations, full of apprehension and a feeling of real worthlessness. With that kind of attitude, of course, he didn’t find anything. He might have felt a little better, though, if he’d known his name was going out along the grapevine in the small, close-knit foreign community in Tanganyika.

Or perhaps somehow he did know that, for as he returned to Dodoma, he felt some small sense of hope, just enough to extinguish any feeling of dread over returning to the United States, to his parents, and to the difficulties his parents’ interference had already started to create for him at Harvard.

Some time in after the middle of August, he was in the Provincial Commissioner’s office as part of his duties as a district officer. The subject of his future plans came up — afterward David couldn’t have said exactly how it came up — and he told Harrison he wanted to stay in Tanganyika and work for a year. Without missing a beat — he’d had perhaps planned that the conversation would go the way it did — Harrison said to him, “You could stay here in Dodoma and work for us. We could get you an appointment as a temporary district officer. Our own men have more than enough of their own work to do in the office. These weekly safaris for famine relief take them away from their regular duties, and from their families.”

David had never planned on staying in Dodoma for a year. He had always — for some reason — imagined working somewhere else, doing something that he could consider more intellectually demanding somehow. Adam Roth, the other freshman in the group, the one who was going to work on the newspaper in Harare, had made David want to do something similar, something that would allow him to earn his living by writing. Spending a year in Dodoma, even with all the appeal the area and the people held for him, was not at first really a very attractive prospect. He thought he’d exhausted all of Dodoma’s possibilities.

But, he hadn’t been able to find work anywhere else, so if he wanted to stay in Africa, it began to seem more and more that he really had little choice. Harrison’s offer was the only one he had, and in the end he decided to accept it.

Almost immediately after that a period of time began that for him was intensely exciting. Nearly every day he woke up with an exhilarating sense of fear and anticipation. Sometimes he felt afraid he was making a mistake by remaining in Dodoma, that he would be wasting an entire year of his life — as though any part of our lives can ever really be wasted.

David didn’t understand such things at his age, though. He didn’t understand that even though there might be times in life when he wanted to cry to heaven in the deepest anguish because he could not find meaning, even though there were times when meaning seemed completely absent, even though there were many times when he could see only what he thought of as the absurdity of the cross in his life, even though there might be a succession of such absurdities stretching back into the past and out into the future, no part of his life would ever really be wasted.

As he turned the decision about staying in Dodoma over and over in his mind, there were times when he thought to himself that no matter how difficult his parents might make things at Harvard, it might be better to return there at the end of the summer. Why postpone his studies for a year? Why stay behind while all his friends moved a year ahead in their academic work?

In the end, perhaps, the decision to remain in Africa through the winter was based on the fact that he didn’t know what would happen to him there, whereas events at Harvard were entirely predictable and — with his parents haunting the background — not very pleasant to contemplate. It was the irresistible attraction of the unknown that decided him, what he thought of as adventure, the appeal of the road less traveled.

Besides, he was still an idealist, with a very large number of his illusions still intact. In this area too, though, as in so many others, he felt a sense of conflict. He knew that if he didn’t help with the famine relief, if he didn’t help feed those people, someone else would. But at the same time he also felt that something Adam had once said was true: despite the fact that perhaps anyone could do it, it was good to know that he was the one who was helping.

So, without any certainty at all about the future, with only the perhaps illogical feeling that he was doing the right thing, he made his decision.

Could it really be a wasted year, he asked himself, in such a land, free, under skies radiant with colors he seemed never to have noticed before? In this splendid country there would be nothing to remind him of the endless difficulties his parents seemed so effortlessly to generate out of the pathetic narrowness of their sad world. It was that world that he wanted more than anything to escape from. His parents could inflict their world on him even at Harvard. It might be more difficult for them to do that when he was in Africa.

The letter he wrote them was as cheerful and enthusiastic as he could make it. He wrote as simply and as naturally as he could, in a way that he thought would make his parents understand how important it was for him to stay in East Africa. He thought naively that he could make them see that he had an opportunity that few people his age had at that time. Surely they could understand that he would be able to see and learn things, that he could experience life in a way that would be impossible if he returned to the United States and to Harvard then. He explained to his parents that being in Africa then, at the age of twenty, allowed him to step into another world, to prepare himself for living a life that he hoped would be significant, not only for himself, but also for them and for others as well.

Everything he wanted to do and everything he believed seemed of course so clear and so self-evident to him — and he was still so young — that it never occurred to him that his parents would never understand what he was trying to tell them and that they would see things in quite a different way.



Part 2, Chapter 9

“I can’t listen to that much Wagner, you know.
I start getting the urge to conquer Poland.”
–Woody Allen
Manhattan Murder Mystery

David still had a great deal to learn about other people. He was stunned by the letter he received from his stepfather. David eventually realized, though, that he couldn’t blame his stepfather for what he wrote, for like most American men he was almost completely dominated by his wife.

David’s stepfather, at any rate, was certainly dominated by David’s mother in matters that related to David. She appeared to believe that David was her property, and his stepfather had no rights over him whatsoever, even though David had been legally adopted and even taken his stepfather’s name. If David’s mother told his stepfather to tell David something, then he had to say exactly that to David, and nothing else, no matter what he might have wanted to say if he’d been free to act independently.

When David first met his stepfather, the man had always acted in an encouraging and friendly way toward David, he always seemed to support anything David wanted to do or say — he’d always tried to give David confidence. David’s poor, wounded mother, though, discouraged any close relationship between David and his stepfather, just as she’d always interfered with any close relationship between David’s real father and David.

His mother seemed obsessed and driven by a need to dominate her family. She could not understand that she could have had complete power over her family by simply loving them. She could have been an influence for good on generations yet unborn. However, instead of wanting to instill wisdom and love in her husbands and sons, this sad woman knew only how to encourage division among them.

The poor woman hungered so very much for what she thought of as love, but she didn’t seem to know any way of trying to be loved except by dominating her family, by accumulating as much power as possible within the small world of her family.

In doing that, she made that world even more narrow and cramped than it already was. At the same time she practically destroyed the lives of those around her.

However, human beings are, perhaps, in the end preserved from the consequences of even the most mindless actions of other people. David even believed that God, who created everything we see around us, prevents our destruction, and out of the most terrible evil he draws so much that is good. David believed that evil may be inexplicable in human terms, but not in God’s, because in the end everything can be explained simply by what God is. David was convinced Deus caritas est.

When David’s stepfather answered his letter, its impact was not as great as it might otherwise have been, because it was not the first such letter he’d received from him. Still, in his enthusiasm over Africa and the exciting prospect of spending a year there, the letter left David with a sick, empty feeling. “Congratulations,” he began, “your letter arrived on your mother’s birthday. You couldn’t have timed it better even if you’d wanted to hurt her more. I’ve had to give her tranquilizers, and she’s spent the last two days in bed. You certainly know how to help people, don’t you?”

He continued: “Don’t you ever think about anybody but yourself? You’re ridiculous — you and your selfish reasons for staying in that ‘wonderful’ country. I suppose that’s the country that’s fed and clothed and sheltered you all these years; I suppose it’s given you an education as well. Go ahead, stay there if you want to. Stay there for good. Why even bother coming back? That wonderful country can no doubt complete your education, give you a start in life, help you build a career. It will no doubt reward you handsomely for all the fine work you’re doing there.”

He concluded the letter in the same tone: “Some people might say that by staying there you’re showing everyone how stupid, ungrateful, and thoughtless you are. But your mother and I would never say that.”

David was starting to get used to that kind of attitude on the part of his stepfather, so that sort of letter didn’t hurt him as much as it might have. Still, just for a moment, he wondered if he would ever really be able to read a letter like that from his mother or stepfather without being affected by it. He even fleetingly wondered if, in the long run, he could survive many more years at Harvard, since he would have to be financially dependent on people like that.

David’s problem was that while he was growing up, he’d acquired the unrealistic idea that his parents would always support him in his eagerness for experiences that would broaden and deepen his thinking about life and that would allow him to contribute something to the world. His teachers always seemed to do that — and perhaps it’s through them that he found the strength and the grace to go on at least trying to make something of his life. His mother and stepfather, though, always seemed to look at things differently. Certainly their thinking was different from that of the parents of his high school friends — who encouraged him to go to Harvard — and the parents of his friends at Harvard, who encouraged him to go to Africa. When he first told his parents, though, that he wanted to go to Harvard, his stepfather sneered, “Do you think you can ever graduate?”

Others too may laugh at David, but he came to doubt later that he could have survived everything his parents did and said to him, if he had not found strength in something beyond himself — in God, or his idea of God anyway, or his ideals. Without that, David believed, he would have been crushed.

Instead, David was able — perhaps not in Africa, but ultimately, in the end — to look at his mother and stepfather as if they had nothing to do with him, as if they were caught in their own separate world, as if they were visible to everyone else but cut off from everyone nonetheless, like two miserable scorpions trapped in a bottle.

The response of David’s parents, for example, to his desire to stay in Africa appeared so bluntly cruel and cynical that at the core of his being he could hardly take them seriously, even then. And he certainly couldn’t take them seriously when he compared their reaction to that of his teachers and the other significant adults in his life.

These others seemed to confirm the quiet sense of reason that was like a voice at the heart of him, a voice that might be drowned out, repeatedly and often, by the noise of what his parents said, but a voice that could never be silenced completely.

That whisper of what David always thought of as grace preserved him in the long years that would begin after Africa, years when his parents were in fact able to have more of an effect on him than he was willing to admit. Perhaps they were bound to have some impact eventually, though. After all, he was financially dependent on them, and he was so incredibly innocent. And he simply did not know how to prevent his mother and stepfather from exercising their destructive power over his life, at least not when he was at Harvard.

Really, though, he would later ask himself, what could he have done? Nothing short of an ability to transform his mother and stepfather into completely different people would have saved him, nothing other than the power to alter their thinking and behavior so thoroughly that they would have been almost unrecognizable. Where could he have acquired that ability or power?

In Africa, the only thing he could do was to look for consolation in the adventure there, and later, when that wasn’t possible, in the other places he had always found hope: in the Mass and the other elements of the life of the Church — which of course most people find very quaint, and even absurd today — or in the kind of literature that had always spoken to him with its quiet, insistent, and almost overwhelmingly powerful voice. More than anything else, it was perhaps literature that kept alive in him the hope that he would find the grace of survival lying in wait for him, somewhere, in a kind of secret ambush of the heart.

David used sometimes to think of one of the poems that spoke to him out of our civilization’s youth, that spoke to his own youth, that sang a song of hope and promise. In that time, in antiquity, when our world was very young, ideals did not appear as ridiculous as they are now, and there were many more like him who could find encouragement in the story of the young Aeneas, alone and friendless in the universe, wanting to realize the dreams within him, and yet thwarted at every turn by the relentless and unreasoning spite of beings more powerful than he was.

Aeneas survived, though, and in the same way that Aeneas survived — David used to dream this — perhaps David too could someday live successfully through the disasters inflicted on him by his mother and stepfather.

Later, after Africa, he felt those disasters looming everywhere, like a curse, wreaking havoc in his life, with the odor about them, not of malice, but of nothing so much as the consequences of the Fall of Man itself, the simple and barely explicable mystery of evil in the world.



Part 2, Chapter 10

“Thérèse, beaucoup diront que tu n’existe pas. Mais je sais que tu existes, moi qui depuis des années, t’épie et souvent t’arrête au passage, te démasque….une créature plus odieuse encore que tous ,mes autres héros.”
–François Mauriac
Thérèse Desqueyroux

“Thérèse, there are many who will say that you do not exist, but I know you do, and I reveal your face. I am the one who for years caught glimpses of you and often stopped you in passing….a creature more odious than all my other characters.”
—-François Mauriac
Thérèse Desqueyroux

If that year in Africa represented an interruption in David’s life, it was an interruption only in the flow of unhappiness that he had until then thought he could not stop.

There were difficult moments in Africa, naturally, but there was not that great seemingly limitless expanse of unhappiness that had characterized so much of his life before. His mother and stepfather were half a world away, and even though their letters could reach him, those two people could not themselves have quite as strong an impact as before. Their letters seemed like messages from another world, addressed to someone he no longer knew.

When David considered that year in Africa many years later, he often wondered what his life would have been like if he had not stayed there for a year, or had not gone there at all. Would he have followed some ordinary career path and become an academic or a bureaucrat somewhere? He could only have done that if he’d somehow learned to deal with his parents blundering interference, and he doubted that would have been possible.

His poor mother’s neurotic need for attention forced her to find an almost infinite number of ways of making him give her the attention she craved, and she did that by nurturing his sense of insecurity. There were the constant threats to withhold or decrease the already small amounts of money she and his stepfather gave him, money that was meant to augment whatever he was able to earn by himself. At the same time, there were the constant descriptions of things they had bought for themselves, the enormous new house, the new car, new furniture, expensive clothes. There were the unexpected “bills” they sent him. There were his mother’s life-long, repeated suggestions that she had some vague terminal illness. There were an endless number of other sad attempts to keep his attention focused on her, and away from his studies.

It did not matter to David’s mother and stepfather that all of the things they did interfered with his efforts to get good grades and to do all the work required for his courses. That seemed to be of no importance to them. What was of importance was simply to keep his attention focused on them — or at least on his mother — and on the dark little world she and his stepfather lived in.

Whatever other kind of interruption Africa produced in his life, it certainly interrupted the encroachment of the dark world that his mother and stepfather generated. If he hadn’t stayed in Africa that year, if he’d returned to Harvard, it’s very likely not only that he would never have accomplished anything at all with his life, but that he would have been drawn irrevocably into his parents narrow, frightening world, and that he would have been forced to abandon Harvard altogether.

It’s also quite likely his mother and stepfather would simply have driven him insane.

When David thought of their world, he remembered someone he once encountered when he was still in high school, before he even went to Harvard. David’s stepfather had found him a summer job as an orderly in the psychiatric ward of a hospital. There were two patients there who were twin brothers in their late thirties. They were both diagnosed as schizophrenic, but they were kept so heavily sedated that the only unusual aspect of their behavior was that they were extremely withdrawn. They rarely spoke, and when they did, it was only one or two syllables. They moved slowly and mechanically, when they moved at all. For a naïve and sheltered teen-age boy like David, they’d been dark and frightening characters, especially when the nurses used to tell him about their brilliant early academic careers as near geniuses, when they were students at the University of Chicago. It was their mother, the nurses whispered, who had managed to reduce them to their present pitiful condition.

That was an idea that even then David found frightening, but it was almost nothing compared to the fear that the mother herself could instill even in him, much less in her sons. David saw her nearly every time she came to visit the twins: a cold, calculating woman, the embodiment of iciness and control. She might have been coming to oversee the raising of two bizarre plants she was keeping in some weird, horrific hothouse.

David used to think to himself that if it was true that she was the one responsible for her sons’ condition, what could have compelled her to do such a thing? What could have forced her to commit what really amounted to murder of the spirit and the intellect? Was it a monstrous possessiveness that was out of control, a possessiveness resulting from a warped, overpowering need for attention and affection, a possessiveness that drove her to destroy two human beings that she could not absolutely control?

He often had the terrible thought that if he hadn’t been able to stay in Africa for that year, his unhappy mother, with all her twisted thinking, might in the end have managed to do to him what that miserable woman had done to her sons. For even though David did eventually go back to Harvard from Africa, and back to the control of his mother and stepfather, that taste of freedom, for even one year, marked and changed him forever.

He had discovered there was a way out, the way of his own strength and independence, and that that way would always be there for him, whenever he needed it.

Log in