Part 03, Chapters 11-20

Part 3, Chapter 11

“There was something in the very air of it that exhilarated, that gave one a sense of lightness and good happening and well being; there was something in the sight of it that made all its colour clean and perfect and subtly luminous. In the instant of coming into it one was exquisitely glad–as only in rare moments and when one is young and joyful one can be glad in this world. And everything was beautiful there….And there were many things and many people, some that still seem to stand out clearly and some that are a little vague, but all these people were beautiful and kind…filling me with gladness by their gestures, by the touch of their hands, by the welcome and love in their eyes.”
— H. G. Wells
The Door in the Wall

As the first days of David’s second year at Harvard went by, the longing for Africa did nothing but increase. All he wanted was to return to a world where everything had been somehow human in way that his present world was not. All he wanted was to go back to a place where everything had made sense.

He wanted that world for another reason too: it was a world where it had seemed so easy to maintain the kind of moral standards that were so important to him, as they are to many adolescents, standards that most people seem to compromise as they grow older. For David, there was so little that was corrupting in Africa then. He could simply lose himself in an absorbing and exhausting work environment, one that he thought demanded only what was best in him and in the people around him. It was an environment that allowed people to concentrate on what was best in themselves and to forget about everything else. At least, that was the way David saw it.

He wanted that world again as much as he wanted to go on living. Africa, he thought, meant being alive. He wanted almost nothing except to be in Africa again, and he began to want it more with each passing day.

As time went by, he became nearly obsessed with the idea of going back to Africa.

Later in that sophomore year, as the days and weeks passed, he even started to feel that he would do anything to go back to Africa. And once he was there, he told himself, he would never return.

He remembered a story he once read about a boy who discovers a small door in a wall along a street in the town where he lives. He goes through the door and finds himself in a landscape so different from the one he is familiar with that it could belong to another universe. It’s a landscape so beautiful he’s nearly overwhelmed by its beauty and by a sense of deep happiness. There are gently rolling fields where the soft colors are as haunting as gems and as delicate as flowers. The trees dance slowly in the breeze and the sunlight seems not merely to illuminate, but to fill every object from within, so that light and color have a depth and significance beyond anything he has ever known. The people in this land possess the same nobility and grace, the same abundant generosity, the same innocence, as the land itself. He finds animals there that are at once strong without being threatening, and gentle without being vulnerable.

What the boy has encounters matches descriptions of what the ancients sometimes thought heaven would be like, but unfortunately, according to the story, the boy has some other task he feels he has to carry out. He has to fulfill some prosaic obligation of everyday life.

He promises himself he will come back.

What was important for David in that story was that he believed that he too, in Africa, had found that low door in the wall, and that he had made the same mistake that others had made. He had not remained in the enchanted country.

His real mistake, though, was in not understanding that if he really had glimpsed an enchanted country in Africa, that country was not in Africa at all. It was everywhere, it lay all around him.

One other thing he didn’t grasp — and perhaps he would never fully grasp it — was that the enchanted country is something that better people than he was have discovered is always accessible. They know that the way there is through other people, the way to there lies in being able to embrace every individual as if he or she were the most loveable person in the world, the only other person in the world.

David almost certainly would never learn how to do that.

Better people than David have always understood something else that would always be largely incomprehensible to him: immense happiness lies in quietly and obscurely enduring difficulties and making sacrifices — for other people. Unfortunately, doing something like that would hardly remain an ideal for him in the future; it would not be something he felt he had to try to reach in later life.

An ideal is something like a rare and distant country that one sees — not necessarily through a door in a wall, but indistinctly, as if through a kind of haze — but the idea of reaching it eventually becomes so difficult that few people even go on wanting to.

But for most people, for people like David, there will perhaps always be times when they want to want to.

Even that is something.

Part 3, Chapter 12

“And take upon’s the mystery of things….”
King Lear

In that autumn of his second year at Harvard, David believed he had to try to return to Africa not only intellectually but physically as well, and he began looking for a way to do it.

The simplest thing to do, it seemed, was to go there again with another group of Harvard students. However, the only way he could go with such a group was as its director, since he’d already been to Africa as a group member. He applied for the job as soon as he could.

He of course had no idea what a disaster that would turn out to be.

It was a disaster that took some time to develop, though, or perhaps it would be truer to say that it was a disaster that took him some time, unconsciously, to create. First he was interviewed by the head of Harvard’s service organization, John Finchley, a plump and, he thought, somewhat pompous undergraduate in his senior year. Finchley wore a three-piece suit — which even in those days was a little unusual for a student to wear all the time on campus — and he struck David right away as somehow soft and weak. David was probably comparing him, without realizing it, with the men he’d worked with in East Africa.

In spite of his usual sense of apprehension and nervousness, David felt quite confident at the interview. He was certain his experience in East Africa would make him a good candidate, and he was right. John and the other interviewer liked the way he described his past activities in Tanganyika and seemed to believe he would make a good director for the project. A few days later he was accepted.

David was happy, of course, but his happiness was mixed with apprehension. He began to worry about having to organize the project and raise money as successfully as it had been done eighteen months before. He’d felt a certain sense of confidence at the interview, but his loss of self-esteem over the summer, combined with the deep sense of insecurity his poor, sad mother and stepfather had planted in him, made him feel in his heart that he could never really head the project.

The most difficult problem — one that required a personality quite different from David’s in order to resolve it — was the problem of raising money to finance the project. This was the most important part of the director’s job, and almost from the beginning David didn’t really believe he could deal with it. Still, the thought that he could be in Tanganyika again the following year, back in the place where he’d been happier than at practically any other time in his life — that thought made him ignore the small warning voice in his mind that told him it was all impossible.

The goal of returning to East Africa of course would naturally seem silly to him later, although he would remember why he wanted to. It would always seem incredible, though, that returning to Africa could have been so important to him. In a way, he was probably very blind or very stupid or very selfish — or probably all three — if he let that goal assume such huge proportions in his mind.

He could have had other, more reasonable goals — reasonable at least for him. He could have tried to find a deeper meaning to his existence; he could have tried to pursue the wisdom that had been so important to him when he was younger; he could have tried to express the ideals he felt were alive in him; he could even, perhaps, have done what many other young people did later in that decade: explore, somehow, alternative ways of living — but he did none of these things.

Of course, even later in life he would never really do any of those things with a strong sense of commitment. Still, in spite of everything, he would almost always remain idealistic enough to believe that he should at least be trying to do them. Perhaps even such a small victory could offer a kind of happiness. He would often even think that his weakness made him happy, strange as that will sound, because it gave him hope, and he would always be convinced that this hope would one day be realized.

At the beginning of that second autumn at Harvard, though, what continued to occupy much of his thinking was the question of a term-time job. The idea of working for a professor, the senior tutor of the house he was living in seemed safer to him, than almost anything else he could think of doing — he thought there was little danger that his already shattered self-esteem would be shattered any further by doing that kind of work. He was not sure what “that kind of work” would involve, but that question seemed to him to be of secondary importance. What was important to him, in the state of mind he was in, was that he would not have to deal directly with other people. He would only see Professor Jameston. The rest of the time he would spend in the library.

Jameston interviewed him in the large, dark library in his suite of rooms in Adams House. He sat — somewhat primly, it seemed to David — behind his desk, surrounded by walls of books that were arranged neatly on rich, dark wood shelves built around the entire room. The volumes stood there like trophies acquired during his academic career. The room itself was expensively furnished with heavy, dark sofas, chairs, and tables. It seemed to David at the time like a wonderful room, a place of refuge where Jameston must surely spend his days engaged in the mysterious business of advanced study. David couldn’t know then, of course, that places of refuge can sometimes turn into places of sheer terror.

Jameston looked at him with eyes that glittered behind horn-rimmed glasses. There was something David found excessively neat in his appearance, with his short haircut and his round, freshly scrubbed face. He was in his early thirties, but he seemed somehow very old to David. Jameston looked the way the Africa project interviewer, John Finchley, had looked to David — soft and weak — and vaguely repulsive, with his moist eyes and continual smile.

Jameston folded his hands in front of him. “So, I hear you’ve been in Africa for a year.”

“Yes, I have,” David said and then politely told him what he’d been doing in Tanganyika.

Jameston looked at him thoughtfully for a moment, before asking the question everyone always asked at Harvard in that kind of situation. “And what do you plan to do now?” When Jameston spoke, though, his voice was quiet, and he looked at David rather oddly, David thought. Was he imagining it, or was a sort of need or hunger in that look?

David looked away — it was difficult for him to look anyone in the eyes in those days. “Oh, I’d like to major in history, African history, and then perhaps teach or go to work for the government, in the Foreign Service or something.” As David talked with him, he realized that he didn’t really like Jameston very much at all. He was very different from the men he’d worked for in East Africa only a few months before. They’d all impressed him as having a deep strength of mind, a sense of purpose, and the ability to project confidence and competence.

David resigned himself, though, to the idea that he would be working for Jameston for a year, although his heart sank whenever he considered the prospect. He felt trapped somehow, and because he saw himself as really a rather weak person, he believed he was incapable of finding a way out of the trap. He believed he had no choice but to work for Jameston, no matter how much he might dislike the idea. There was simply nothing else he could do.

He would work at the job in a machine-like way, he told himself, and that was perhaps just about the only way he knew how to work then. After a year, he thought — and surely a year was not very long — he would return to Africa; he would be safe again, safe in the freedom and the beauty of a world where everything made sense and very little seemed frightening or threatening.

“I see,” Jameston was saying, “but why do you want to work for me? He smiled slightly and looked down, arranging some papers that were on the desk in front of him.

David paused before answering, trying to think of something reasonable to say. Finally he told him, “It’s because I think I’m more of a research-oriented person. I’m not sure exactly what my work for you would involve, but I have the feeling I’d be more suited to it than I would be to anything else I’ve been offered.”

Jameston looked up at him from the papers on his desk, he frowned slightly. “And what else have you been offered?”

David glanced out the window behind Jameston. He could just see part of the Georgian façade of Lowell House. “I was offered a job with a university administrator who deals with Africa, but I don’t think I want it. It doesn’t sound very interesting. I called him up, though, just to get some information about it. I think it would be a little too open-ended for me.”

Jameston’s eyes seemed to glitter again behind his glasses. He smiled and said, “And you told him you were coming to talk to me about this research position?”

David nodded. “Yes, I did.”

“And what did he say?”

“He said to me, ‘Don’t let Jameston seduce you away from us.’ ”

Jameston looked startled and glanced down again at the papers in front of him. “All right,” he said, “come and see me tonight around nine-thirty, and I’ll give you something to do. You can start tomorrow if you like.”

David left him. When anyone considers the young man David was then, again it seems almost impossible he could have been so ignorant or naive. David felt relief at having gotten a job, though. He was proud of himself, too, not only because he would be working for a professor, but he would be working for a professor who also held the second most important administrative position in the Harvard house he was living in. He had no idea what the work itself might turn out to be, but he was sure he could do it, whatever it was, and that idea too made him happy.

Late that evening, when he went back to Jameston’s rooms, as he had asked him to, Jameston met him at the door of his apartment in a robe and pajamas. “Come in,” he said, putting his hand on his shoulder and closing the door behind him. “Would you like something to eat? I was just making a sandwich for myself.”

“Yes, please,” he said, rather stupidly. “I’d like one too.”

“Come into the kitchen, then,” he said, smiling, and as he turned to lead the way, the lines from the old nursery rhyme came dancing absurdly into David’s head: “Come into my parlor,” said the spider to the fly.

Jameston took David through the living room, which he hadn’t seen before, because he’d entered the apartment through another door for the interview. The light in the room was dim, but he could see how richly furnished this room was as well. Just as in the library, where he’d been interviewed, there were books on shelves built into the walls; a large fireplace yawned open on one side of the room, its handsome mantelpiece darkened with age. An enormous Persian carpet covered most of the floor, so intricately woven and bright with color that it looked almost dazzling, even in the partial darkness. The furniture was covered in dark leather, and polished brass antiques glowed from almost every corner of the room.

The kitchen was small but almost seductively cozy. Jameston motioned him to a chair beside the table while he busied himself preparing the sandwiches. It seemed an odd way to begin work, but he supposed things were done that way at Harvard.

“Would you like a drink?” he asked, as he brought the sandwiches over to the table. David didn’t want to appear unsophisticated, so he asked for a scotch and water, thinking that that’s what any man of the world would ask for.

Jameston reached up, took a bottle of scotch out of a cabinet, poured an impressive dollop into a glass, and added some water.

“There you are,” he said, as he handed him the drink.

David didn’t know why, exactly, but he started to feel a strange, sickening feeling in the pit of his stomach. Jameston, though, kept on chatting happily, the scotch started to relax David, and his discomfort and apprehension gradually disappeared.

Jameston told him about the work he would be doing, and although it didn’t sound like anything really very interesting, David decided it was simply one more thing he would have to put up with until he could get back to Africa. That was all he really cared about.

It wasn’t just that David felt unhappy in his own country, he was obsessed with the idea that the whole society he was living in was concerned only with trivial problems, with things that weren’t really problems at all, at least compared to what he’d seen in Africa. The administrators he worked with there had seemed to him to be confronting questions and difficulties that affected the very survival of the individuals they all came into daily contact with. These were real matters of life and death, sometimes even for David himself.

He remembered the threats in the refugee camp, he remembered the time they had driven a man fifty miles out of the bush to a hospital, because he’d been gored by a rhino and was in danger of bleeding to death. He remembered the thousands of people around Dodoma and in the refugee camp who had practically nothing to live on and faced malnutrition and perhaps even death by starvation. Of course he recognized that his own individual efforts contributed only a very little to a solution of these people’s problems, but it was important for him to remember that his efforts had at least contributed something.

That memory helped him survive at Harvard, where much of the time he felt he was not only doing nothing, but was almost completely unable to do anything at all. The life he was leading, the lives that his parents and teachers were leading, all seemed somehow unreal compared to what he’d experienced in Africa, and this too affected his attitude toward his own life and his own potential.

After being in Africa, he simply could not rid himself of the idea that his parents and teachers seemed not to be confronting real questions and real problems. Their approach to everything seemed to him somehow superficial and maddeningly far from deeper levels of meaning. As far as the academic world was concerned, David didn’t expect it to have an immediate, visible effect on the larger society outside, but he did expect the intellectual life at Harvard to be more profound than it was, less concerned with issues that seemed to him to be peripheral and trivial.

Adolescents often feel this way, certainly, and most of the members of David’s generation definitely did, but at the time of course he didn’t know that.

Later he would come to believe that they may have been right in accusing the older generation of being superficial, but they should have shown more tolerance and understanding. Perhaps that just wasn’t possible, however. The young are impatient and full of energy. Their insights often cut straight to the heart of things and they can’t understand why older generations seem incapable of grasping what they feel and what they want to do.

David should have known perhaps that if what young people really do see is the truth about the world, and in complete clarity, then that truth, whatever it may be, will in the end be recognized and will prevail somehow. If what they see isn’t the truth, then clearly nothing will be lost if it isn’t recognized.

Obviously, though, even if David could have considered such an idea, he would have not been able easily to internalize it. He certainly couldn’t grasp an idea like that when he was at Harvard. All he knew then was that he was unhappy, and all he wanted was to run away. He saw falsity and hollowness everywhere and perhaps that was one of the things that made returning to Africa more and more his main goal. In Africa, he somehow believed, he’d found an aspect of truth that existed nowhere else in the world.

David was really too stupid to see where truth really lay. He couldn’t see it lay not in Africa, but in all the ideals he thought he believed in and found so hard to grasp. It lay in a belief that there may very well exist “a mystery of things”, a kind of divine mystery perhaps. David couldn’t see that the truth lay in everything that may follow from such a belief. He couldn’t see that the truth of things may in fact be found only there and nowhere else.

In spite of the triumphs and horrors of our time — the stupendous technological achievements, the monstrous death camps — truth may be that point where a belief in what is transcendent intersects with material reality as we know it.

That first evening talking to Jameston, though, David was very far indeed from such a point. He simply listened to what Jameston told him about the work he would have to do.

He finished the drink Jameston had given him. The scotch had made him feel sleepy and oddly depressed. He wanted only to go back to his room and dream of Africa.

He wanted only to go back to Africa.

He stood up, said good night to Jameston, and left.

Part 3, Chapter 13

“listen: there’s a hell
of a good universe next door; let’s go”
–e. e. cummings
pity this busy monster, manunkind

The more time David spent with Jameston in the next few weeks, the more he was able to observe his personality, and the more irritating — and, in a way, frightening — he found him. He had an oddly coy smile, as if he were constantly savoring some secret knowledge that he was waiting to have David figure out. His whole manner was ambiguous, and this perhaps more than anything else made David dislike him.

Of course David’s own thinking was full of conflict and ambiguity, and when he encountered people or situations that were confusing and unclear, he reacted with feelings of distrust and resentment, and even at times with something very close to hatred.

Naturally, the more he tried to suppress those feelings, the stronger they became, until he was engaged in a struggle with his own emotions that was so intense he was ultimately worn down by it. In the end, all he could do was admit that he could not stop disliking Jameston. He could not pretend that Jameston was the sort of person he would naturally look up to and admire. David had committed himself, though, to working for him for a year, and so he thought he would simply have to deal with him somehow, in whatever way possible.

That idea depressed him, it made him feel as if some great weight were pressing down on him and becoming heavier all the time. He didn’t know how he could carry such a burden, but he thought he had no choice but to try. No other possibility occurred to him. It was painful and uncomfortable, but he thought he had no other choice.

Besides, his moral and spiritual ideals had taught him that pain and discomfort were a part of life, and that they were things that should not only be tolerated, but regarded as valuable. That sounds laughable in today’s age, where anything that creates pain or discomfort is considered an evil, where for many people, pain and discomfort are the only evil.

David would always believe, though, that evil was something much worse than pain and discomfort. Evil, he thought, was something to struggle with in the effort to lead a good life. For him, leading a good life would also often involves a struggle between what he believed and what most other people appeared to believe. He would always remain convinced that if one result of this struggle was pain and discomfort for himself, that was inevitable. He had to accept that.

He knew there might not be — there might never be — very many people who take these ideas very seriously, or who take the even larger idea that these ideas imply very seriously. He would often wonder how seriously he took them himself, because if he really considered them important — together with everything that follows from them — wouldn’t he be doing more to try to be a better person? Wouldn’t he be living with the passionate intensity of Paul or Francis of Assisi or Maximilian Kolbe or all the others who have done what people like him only dream of doing?

He had always postponed even the attempt to do what they did. His whole life, it sometimes seemed, had consisted of such a postponement. He almost always placed such an attempt in the future, hardly ever in the present. If he did make such an attempt, even in a small way, he always turned back when there was too much opposition, when the inconvenience or difficulty that he encountered went beyond what he expected from simply trying to lead a good life.

Still, he would never be able to completely give up the desire to make the attempt, and in trying to understand the kind of young man he was at Harvard, this desire, too, has to be taken into account. This desire, and all the — in our age so antiquated — beliefs that it entails, in one way or another would always influence all his thoughts and actions, even when those thoughts and actions were not really very good at all, even when they were in fact really quite bad.

Oddly enough, though, at Harvard he somehow kept these beliefs separate from what he was learning, or at least he thought did. His spiritual ideals continued to govern his moral beliefs and his behavior with a kind of iron inflexibility, but it seemed to have hardly any connection at all with his intellectual life. So at first there seemed to be no potential for conflict between the two. His ideals and his academic work in two different mental compartments, with no connection at all between them.

Of course he did experience a sense of moral conflict at times, conflict that gradually, over a period of many months, became increasingly intense. His growing perception of the world as it really was struggled against his idea of the world as he wanted it to be, as he thought it should be. As happens in such situations, the result was often a sense of depression and apathy. As for Harvard, it sometimes became a place that felt more and more hateful to him, with the result that he clung not only to his spiritual and moral convictions, but also to the idea that he had to return to Africa in order to realize those convictions. Returning to Africa appeared to offer the only possibility of dealing with the problems and conflicts and sense of depression that were threatening to overwhelm him in that second year at Harvard.

Whenever he thought about Africa, he longed for it with an intensity that must also have been painful for his friends, when he talked to them about it. When he described Africa to his friends, it was an idealized Africa, with no trace of ugliness. It was an Africa of broad, clean landscapes, of brilliantly colored skies and exotic wildlife. It was a bright, free, shining land, a place in complete contrast to his view of Harvard and the rest of the entire United States, all of which he perceived as dull, confining, and dark.

His mind was continually exploring the seemingly inexhaustible memories of everything he’d done and seen in Africa. he remembered with a sense of tremendous loss the kind of person he’d been in Africa — or at least the kind of person he thought he’d been. He wasn’t always sure anymore.

He seemed unable to prevent himself from brooding on the fact that in Africa he’d felt strong and confident, while now at Harvard he felt weak and limited and insecure. In Africa he’d always felt he was doing work other people depended on, and now he felt that what he was doing was of absolutely no value to anyone. In Africa he could believe that maturity and a sense of responsibility were rewarded, while in his own country his parents seemed to be trying to teach him that these things were dangerous. In Africa all the world had made sense, while in America and at Harvard practically nothing at all seemed to make sense to him, except the moral values he was trying to live by — even desperately trying to live by at times.

The fact is, as the weeks and months passed, he probably thought less about spiritual realities and more about the world he’d lost. As if he had ever really possessed that African world: the beauty of the land — the rich, red, pungent soil; the new, fresh smell of the forest uplands on a cold morning in July; the sun rising out of the Indian Ocean in such splendor that it created a kind of music in his mind. He remembered the people — warm and friendly, so sure of themselves, eager to help and to offer a smile, living out their lives in an apparent contentment he felt he shared just by being close to them. Over everything blazed the timeless night time spectacle of stars in the East African sky — brighter, more numerous and dazzling, more arresting than any he had ever seen anywhere else on earth. All this he thought he’d lost, thought he’d exchanged for a dark, dismal, almost entirely miserable world in his own country and at Harvard.

Sometimes it seemed as if the stars represented what he had come to Harvard for and never found.

He’d found them in Africa, though.

Of course some would say that it was his fault he didn’t find them at Harvard. Some would say he simply never knew how to find them. He would have been quite willing to admit such people might be right, not because he really thought they were, but because what such ideas made little difference to him.

With all the difficulties he was having with Harvard and with life in general, his ideals, especially his spiritual ideals, might have provided some greater means of coping, if he’d been able to integrate them into his thinking and behavior. Unfortunately, he couldn’t do that. Those ideals seemed to exist in one sealed-off part of his mind, and everything else in another part.

It could perhaps be said that he had such high — and, many would say, unrealistic — spiritual and intellectual and moral goals that it was just not possible to reconcile them with all the other elements in his life. At times he had a desire for goodness that was so strong he thought it could only be satisfied if he devoted himself completely to those ideals, to those ideals and nothing else.

At times he was able to feel some sense of happiness, but only when he preoccupied himself with the thought that even in this life it may be possible to have access to an infinite being, the creator of the universe, the one who is the real object of all human longing, as Ausgustine expressed it. Such were the ideals this strange boy had.

Giving up those ideals was never an option for him, but if he had somehow been able to reconcile this thinking with the rest of his world — something that may have in the end been an impossibility — he probably would not have perceived Harvard as a dull and melancholy place. His anxiety over Jameston’s slightly bizarre personality and his own need to escape a world that seemed hopelessly wrong — a world he felt trapped in — would not have made him so depressed; he would have been able to work harder at his studies and care more about them; he would not have been so withdrawn or found it so difficult to relate to others. However, because it seemed impossible for him then to make his ideals any kind of practical reality at all in his everyday life, difficulties arose, and he could find no joy either in solving them or in accepting his own weakness and failings. He simply could not live and think in a way that might somehow to a realization of his ideals and their reconciliation with the rest of his world.

It could perhaps be said that in later life he began to discover how to do that, but even then only in a very small way.

In that second autumn at Harvard, he became more shy, lonely, and depressed, until he found it really impossible to manage either the work he was doing for Jameston or the work for the Africa project. This of course depressed him even more, so that he was even less able to work or live effectively. And the less he was able to do that, the more he thought of Africa. And the more he thought of Africa, the more depressed he became. Another downward spiral had begun.

Years later, however, he would have to admit that he was often tempted to smile — maybe even to laugh a little — at the boy he was then, even though his situation seemed terrible at the time.

There may be situations so terrible that the people involved in them have no right to laugh at themselves, even if they want to.

If there are such situations, he would always believe that the period after Africa, at Harvard, was not one of them.

Part 3, Chapter 14

„Jetzt weißt du also, was es noch außer dir gab, bisher wußtest du nur von dir! Ein unschuldiges Kind warst du ja eigentlich, aber noch eigentlicher warst du ein teuflischer Mensch! – Und darum wisse: Ich verurteile dich jetzt zum Tode des Ertrinkens!“
–Franz Kafka
Das Urteil

“So now you know what there is, outside of yourself. Up to this point you knew only yourself. You were, quite literally, an innocent child. In a more literal sense, though, you were a fiendish man. – And so, know this: I condemn you now to death by drowning.”
–Franz Kafka
The Judgment

The first of his really serious crises that year involved his position as director of Project Tanganyika. Since this was the only activity at Harvard that he thought could bring him as much sense of achievement and satisfaction as his work in Africa had done, this crisis was fairly serious. At the time, of course, it seemed much worse than that.

At first, the work with the project seemed to be going well. David selected an outstanding group of project members, and he began the process of explaining to them, as best he could, everything he’d learned about East Africa and about the experiences a Harvard student could have there. This was the most enjoyable part of his work as director, and at first it helped heal the effects of his mother and stepfather’s apparent need to crush any signs of self-confidence or independence in him.

Organizing Project Tanganyika was the only activity that allowed him to maintain anything like the kind of identity he felt he had had in Africa. Whenever he worked on the Project, he was able, at least for a time, to recapture a sense of being a strong, competent, self-reliant young man, one who enjoyed trying to give others some insight into the excitement and satisfaction of working in the exotic place they were about to visit. As he began to do this, and as he began to form a bond with the new members of the project, his sense of self-worth increased along with a feeling that life was beginning to have some meaning once more. The pain and confusion of his life began to coalesce into something meaningful again, something that gave him a sense of bringing a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction into the lives of other people, and something that provided some happiness for himself as well.

At the same time, David was also developing a feeling for the kind of intricate pattern that sometimes seems to be created for us out of the infinitely various possibilities life can hold, a pattern we can use to acquire whatever wisdom we are capable of. Such a pattern is not always without its painful elements, however.

When he was young, every time his life began to follow a new pattern, suddenly and without any warning, he used to be shocked and angry, even enraged or in despair at times. The destruction of the old pattern seemed so senseless and meaningless that life itself used to seem senseless and meaningless for a time.

Because he focused only on the old life that he had outlived and outgrown, he was blind to what was new; he was ignorant of the new possibilities that were presenting themselves, sometimes in an incomprehensible and painful way.

He wasted a lot of time, perhaps, by being ignorant of those possibilities, but the waste may have been only apparent. Someone he considered a saint once told him, “It can all be made right in a moment.” To David, that meant — it had to mean — that even the apparently wasted parts of our life can be made part of a pattern that will ultimately bring meaning to our own existence, and to the existence of others as well. The process may also bring a kind of joy, along with the pain involved. And whether these things simply happen, or whether they are part of something larger — this was a question David would continue to turn over in his mind his whole life long.

Whether he ever managed to understand any of that later may be open to question, but he certainly understood nothing of it at the age of twenty-one.

So, when his connection with Project Tanganyika ended suddenly and, it seemed to him, brutally, in that autumn of his sophomore year, he was tempted to feel that the universe itself was driven by some arbitrary and malevolent force that cruelly and savagely wreaked havoc wherever there was anything good, anything promising, anything that seemed to bring some small joy or hope or gladness into life — or at least, he thought selfishly, into his life.

Sometimes it’s the pattern of our past upbringing that bursts into our life and seems to destroy everything important and valuable. This certainly part of what happened to him then, but when such a thing happens in our lives, it can perhaps be incorporated into something greater, something that will ultimately bring us happiness. Again, exactly how this happens, and who exactly is responsible for it is something that could never be sure of.

In the case of Project Tanganyika, it was the pattern of lifelong confusion and isolation that his poor mother seemed to have imposed on him that wrecked any hope that his work with the Project might succeed. It was, however, the pattern of lifelong belief that there is a destiny that shapes our ends — if not something even greater — that enabled him to survive the wreckage.

One problem for David was that he had never had much of a chance to learn to work and cooperate with other people. His poor mother had always discouraged him from leaving the house when he was a child, and playing with children his own age. A habit of being solitary was inculcated in him when he was very young. The poor woman had also worked very hard to disrupt the bonds of affection and communication with his brother and father and to attempt to turn the direction of those bonds toward herself alone. She was apparently driven to do that by her own demons and was not herself at fault. Her nature had been formed and deformed by her own parents and by social and psychological forces over which she had no control.

Her efforts, though, whatever drove them, succeeded. It became extremely difficult for him to relate to others, because he’d developed no skills for doing that, other than the crippled skills he’d acquired in the context of his tortured family.

So, in that second year at Harvard, when he worked on Project Tanganyika, he probably really had no chance of success from the very beginning, although of course he didn’t know that. Even though his relations with the new members of the Project were quite good, his relations with John Finchley — the head of the Harvard organization that was responsible for the project — rapidly deteriorated.

To make matters worse, since David hadn’t liked John very much from the beginning, it was easier for a great deal of friction to build up between them. Though it was of course wrong for David to feel this way — it was opposed to all of those ideals he thought were so precious to him — John gradually became for him the embodiment of everything he disliked in other people. John seemed to him fat and sleek and selfish and soft. The faults we hate in others are almost always the faults we possess ourselves — or are afraid that we possess. It was nearly impossible for him not to show his dislike of John. He couldn’t help feeling that dislike.

For this or perhaps some other reason, John seemed to intrude more and more into the affairs of the Project, and when he did that, David’s resentment understandably grew. It reminded him of his parents’ constant interference with his own life.

John wanted to know everything that was happening with the Project and became an ever-present observer. David of course had the impression that John seemed to resent any sort of leadership that David demonstrated as director of the Project. Eventually David came to see John as someone who was always trying always to diminish David’s position and his sense of self-esteem. It was what he believed his unhappy mother and stepfather had always done.

Of course he himself was unconsciously contributing to the creation of such a situation, but he didn’t understand that then. Even if he had, he wouldn’t have known what to do about it. All he knew then was that the Project was the most important thing in his life. It was practically all he thought about.

As time went by, David simply had no idea how to deal with the growing sense of conflict between John and himself, a conflict that seemed to be draining away all of the energy he wanted to pour into the Project. As the conflict continued, he started to wonder what the point of working on the Project really was. If involvement in the Project meant a constant, twilight struggle with someone who seemed to understand very little about him or what he wanted to do, then what was the point? Of course he wanted to return to Tanganyika as Project director, but that desire became more obscure as the disagreements with John brought on an ever deeper depression, and the depression made the world seem more confining and suffocating than ever.

At the same time, his feelings of dislike toward Professor Jameston were growing, and were combined with a vague, undefined fear of him. That situation too made it harder and harder for David to do any work at all. Sometimes it seemed it was hard for him even to move, or to perform any sort of physical reaction. It felt as though depression were weighing down on him like some irresistible force.

In the end, and fairly suddenly, as often happens in these situations, the whole structure of his involvement with the Project came crashing down. The relationship between John and him was simply too strained, and the paralyzing gloom that was settling over him made it impossible to continue working on the Project.

If David had been a person with a larger view of things, he could have perhaps talked to John and somehow resolved the situation. Unfortunately, he was too proud and probably too small to do that. Another young man in his position would have been able to work things out, but he couldn’t. He felt uneasy even going near John’s office. Finally, at the end of one particularly dark and psychologically constricting week, everything became intolerable for him, and he gave John what he thought he wanted. He sent him a letter of resignation from the Project.

What that meant for David was that he gave up the chance to return to Africa. What made everything seem so much worse to him, though, was that he also believed, with a horrible kind of instinct, that it was more than just Africa he was giving up. He was, he thought, also giving up his last chance of freedom and psychological independence from his parents. He thought he was giving up his last chance to become the kind of man he wanted to be, the kind of man he thought he’d started to become in Africa. That kind of man seemed to have died forever in him when he was forced — or so he thought — to resign from the Project.

He didn’t know then that it is impossible that such a “death” can really happen. If it appears to happen, we may be able learn to make it a means to something better and greater, something that will give an even deeper meaning to our life. Once again, though, learning to do this, learning to respond in this way to any apparent tragedy in life means clinging to some spiritual and intellectual ideals — and to everything they imply.

It is usually not possible, of course, to learn such a thing quickly. A human being must have patience. He must also keep in mind that this may be the only available means of redeeming the sadness, the pain, the sense of waste, and the occasional tragedy of life. Fidelity to whatever beliefs and ideals we have may be the only thing that makes life have any coherence at all. It may be the only thing that creates joy out of terrible contradictions and gives life more than an illusion of meaning. Without some ideals or a transcendent belief in something, a human being would be completely lost.

During that second autumn at Harvard David was still very far from understanding such things, and so his depression only deepened. He had more than ever a sense of being trapped. Ahead of him there seemed to be nothing but an indefinite stretch of dark, depressing time. He saw no way out. His life had entered a period that was more oppressive than anything he had ever known.

Instead of making everything easier for him, his year in Africa had apparently had the short-term effect of making him more unhappy than before. At Harvard, after having discovered how happy he could be in other circumstances, he perhaps felt the pain and ugliness of his life much more deeply than he would have if he’d never known anything else.

And now that his connection with Project Tanganyika had been broken, he no longer had even the hope of returning to Africa any time soon, no hope at all of going back to a life where he’d been happy. He felt everything was closed to him, every means of escape from a life that was endlessly bleak for him, and almost hopeless.

On the evening of the day David resigned from Project Tanganyika, he even went through the motions of some self-destructive behavior. He was so dramatic, that it would have been funny if he hadn’t been so genuinely sad.

He bought a bottle of scotch and took it back to the rooms he shared with Don and Ed. He lit a fire in the fireplace, put some records on the stereo, sat down in an armchair, and very purposefully began drinking the bottle of scotch. He wouldn’t remember much about the evening later, but he would remember that when Don came into the living room, and David looked up at his face, he was struck by the fact that Don looked distinctly frightened. Don tried to start a conversation with him, but David, in his depression, could hardly respond at all. He simply sat in the chair, staring into space, holding the glass of scotch tightly in his hand. He continued to swallow the contents rapidly, mechanically, refilling the glass whenever it was empty, while Don looked at him with a helpless expression on his face.

David didn’t appreciate or understand it then, but Don cared more about what would happen to him then than almost anyone he would ever know. Don had a deep sense of humanity that David would be able to appreciate only much later. In a similar situation in today’s world, a student in Don’s position might very well think, “Well, if he wants to destroy himself, that’s his business.”

That evening, though, there was really very little Don could do, and after a while he went back into his room and tried to study. Every half hour or so he came back to the living room and looked at David with a worried expression on his face, as if he wanted to help but didn’t know how. David continued drinking until the bottle was nearly empty, and then, so drunk he could hardly move, he groped his way to bed in a self-destructive stupor.

Later David would hope that if he ever saw someone else behaving that way, he would be just as worried about that person as Don had been about him.

If David could somehow have seen his situation as Don saw it, he certainly would have been worried about himself. He couldn’t understand at the time, though, what was happening to him, and neither, it seemed, could anyone else, no matter how much they might want to help.

He knew only that there was a kind of dark storm cloud of self-destruction gathering force as it bore down on him. He’d become so unhappy with the way things had turned out up to that point in his life that he almost wished it would all end as soon as possible.

It’s difficult perhaps not to think that he was either too weak or too cowardly or too confused or maybe even too stupid to try to change his life. Instead, he seems simply to have wallowed in self-pity.

And of course, it’s clear that his precious ideals were far, far shallower than he’d thought. If they’d been as important to him as he thought they were, he could have endured anything — any disappointment, any defeat, any disaster.

He had no really profound understanding of his ideals, however; he had nothing except a very weak faith. It was so weak, in fact, that at the first serious difficulty, his whole world crumbled.

Of course he’d tried to find help by talking to others, but he never felt he could really make himself understood when he spoke to anyone about his problems. He felt as if he were trying to convey experiences from a world that they had absolutely no knowledge of.

Again, a belief in God is something quite laughable for most people these days. There are those, however, who might say that if it hadn’t been for this God few believe in any more, David might have done more than simply make a self-destructive gesture on that evening at Harvard, when Don so worried about him.

Or these same people might argue that if David had made more than a gesture, even then this God few have faith in would have helped. It’s hardly possible to dispute such an idea.

What may be important about the whole incident, though, is that it indicates just how remote from having any real idea of God David was. If he’d given any real thought to the subject at all then — outside the compartment God was in in his mind — David probably would have thought that it was God who was remote from him.

At any rate, that evening’s small drama shows in one more way just how ready David was to feel sorry for himself, how ready he was to be consumed by self-pity. He probably used that evening to dwell on the fact that every attempt he’d ever made to achieve anything had been thwarted, though of course that wasn’t true. The more he brooded on this idea — and once he began to brood on such ideas, it seemed to go on forever — the more it seemed to him that there was even a kind of inevitability to the way everything he’d tried to do had been blocked. There was hardly any truth to that idea either, but sometimes for David, stuffing himself with self-pity could lead to the most absurd conclusions.

Of course there were times when he was aware of the things he had achieved: entering Harvard in the first place, getting reasonably good grades, being able to work in Africa, and then returning to Harvard. The problem was, naturally, that he couldn’t take much satisfaction in those achievements.

It was as though he felt compelled to see things in the worst possible light. He thought only about the way these achievements had been ignored or undermined by his mother and stepfather, so that soon he saw his mother and stepfather everywhere, diminishing him, emasculating him, destroying him.

And so it was that on his return to Harvard from Africa, during that whole semester, his depression fed on itself and produced a growing feeling of near despair. Even though he tried to cling to all his old spiritual and intellectual ideals, and even though he prayed out of a kind of numb desperation, he may not really — from the depths of his heart — have cried out to anyone at all and begged for help the way he should have. Despair can be so pleasant, so seductive. Worse than that, though, except for that one compartment in his mind where he kept his religion, he’d grown remote from the belief that any kind of help at all — human, divine, extraterrestrial, whatever — was really possible. Asking for real help from anyone seemed never to occur to him. If he did ask for help, it seemed he was just going through the motions, asking for it because he thought he should.

So as the weeks wore on, his situation could hardly have been worse, although at least he wasn’t alone. He did have his roommates.

One of the things that might have helped his situation — though such an effort was sadly beyond him — was to have tried somehow to improve the relationship with his mother and stepfather. Unfortunately he did nothing, unfortunately he could do nothing. As if hypnotized, he now saw them looming as the two most significant figures in his little world, even though they were eight hundred miles away from Cambridge. They could, however, by putting the slightest pressure on him, cause him to react. In his bitterest moments, he thought they seemed like experienced torturers who know exactly where to apply minimum force in order to obtain the maximum degree of pain. They were starting to occupy so much space in his small universe that they were every bit as important as the professors and the poets and the writers he looked up to.

David’s mother and stepfather were able to remind him at any moment how dependent he was on them for money, and they could make him feel that if he didn’t get money from them, it would be impossible for him to get it anywhere else. Without knowing what was happening, he had gradually become totally convinced of his complete dependence on them. He had come to feel that without them there would be no world of Harvard, no hope for the future for him, no poetry or intellectual life — or whatever intellectual life he was able to maintain. There would not be anything at all for him, if he didn’t comply with their smallest demand. What they did or said seemed to have the overwhelming power of deciding everything in his life.

Incredible as it may seem, in his youth and naïveté he continued to assume that his parents’ pattern of behavior was more or less the usual, normal way that parents behaved. Don’s parents, he told himself, must be the exception. David knew relatively little about life or about other people, except for what he’d read in books or seen in films, and these things could not have the reality that his parents’ constant, overpowering presence had.

It was because of this kind of stupidity on his part that he reacted to other people in the same way that he reacted to his parents. He was always on the defensive, more and more on the defensive, trying to protect himself before anyone had a chance to threaten or harm him.

As the days and weeks of that sophomore term passed, it was probably inevitable that he would become increasingly isolated. He became preoccupied with the need to guard himself against the psychological pain he expected other people to try to inflict on him. If his mother and stepfather were so capable of harming him, he thought in his ignorance, then why wouldn’t everyone else do the same? And since his sense of isolation reinforced his defensiveness and his feelings of depression — and vice-versa — all these elements came to dominate his thinking. In the end, they became so powerful that all he could do was apathetically go through the motions of what was expected of him — reading, studying, writing papers, taking exams, working for Jameston.

Living, in other words, but hardly feeling he was alive.

Part 3, Chapter 15

“And the thews of Billy were hardly compatible with that sort of sensitive spiritual organisation which in some cases instinctively conveys to ignorant innocence an admonition of the proximity of the malign. He thought the Master-at-arms acted in a manner rather queer at times. That was all.”
–Hermann Melville
Billy Budd

A day or two after David resigned from the project, Jameston telephoned him. “I’d like you to stop by this evening. I want to talk about that material I asked you to look up in Widener. I’m going out for dinner, but I should be back by nine-thirty or ten. Is ten o’clock too late for you?”

David didn’t like those late night meetings with Jameston. They always made him feel uneasy. Jameston himself made him feel uneasy. David always had the odd impression that Jameston had some ulterior motive for these late meetings, and that idea alone made him feel tense and vulnerable. An idea was also depressing, because he felt such a thought was unjustified and irrational. What was even more depressing, though, was the knowledge that he had no choice but to accept the situation with Jameston, whatever it really was, because he didn’t know what he could do to change it.

So, as the days and weeks went by David went on feeling more and more overwhelmed and bewildered by pain and sadness. It became more of a struggle just to get through the day, because the day seemed to consist of one disagreeable task after another. First he had to face the morning history classes, which, in his frame of mind, seemed stupefying and bewildering. After that, it was lunch time and the ordeal of the dining hall filled mostly with noisy and frightening strangers. Where should he sit? Who was there that he knew? What could he talk about? What could he have ever done or thought lately that would be of the slightest interest to anyone else?

After lunch there would be another class, or a few hours in the library, where he would try to read the books he’d been assigned, where he would force his eyes mechanically back and forth across the page, hoping somehow to be able to concentrate enough to understand and remember something. All the while, in the back of his mind there would be a tremendous sense of fear and anxiety: about what his mother and father might do to interfere with his studies and his life, about Jameston, about the future, about how he could learn to relate to other people. All these fears and anxieties made any real intellectual life impossible for him. And the intellectual life was the whole reason for his being at Harvard in the first place.

He tried to find in his old spiritual ideals the strength to endure another day, the strength perhaps to reverse — or at least to understand — some of the disasters that suddenly seemed so overwhelming. He prayed out of habit mostly, which is perhaps not the best way to pray, he thought to himself, but he prayed the only way he could. He tried to find some deeper meaning for his life, some way of going on in spite of what his parents or anyone else might do or say. And he hoped against hope that somewhere there was someone or something – God, a human being, some blind force of nature – that could save him from the catastrophes that seemed to be overtaking and enveloping his life.

He would probably have seemed ridiculous — and rather sad — however, to anyone who might have taken any real notice of him — an astonishingly naive boy trying to make some sense of the absurdity of his life, and in doing so taking on an almost hopeless task, because of the array of forces that seemed about to cut him down.

Still, that should be the last word about that boy’s situation at that moment. It would be wrong to leave the impression that he was entirely unprotected, or that he was wholly vulnerable to so many destructive forces, with nothing and no one to help him. People like David are never completely alone, though help might not come nearly as quickly as they would wish.

Part 3, Chapter 16

“Up and down I walked,
Up and down.”
–Amy Lowell

So at ten o’clock in the evening on the day Jameston had telephoned David to come and discuss the research he wanted him to do, David knocked on the door of Jameston’s apartment. The older man welcomed him once again in his bathrobe and pajamas, smiling cheerfully, his eyes fairly twinkling through his spectacles. David felt vaguely nauseous, and glanced away.

“Come in,” Jameston said. “Would you like something to drink?”

‘No,” he answered. “No, thank you. Not right now.”

They went into Jameston’s study.

“Is everything all right?” he asked, sitting down on the sofa. “Have you been working your way through that list of books I gave you?”

David was in an armchair on the other side of the room. “Yes — well, actually I haven’t done very much with it. I may have to leave a lot of it for Christmas vacation.” He leaned forward and folded his hands in front of him, resting his elbows on his knees. He felt like crying. He couldn’t talk. He could feel his throat tightening and the tears welling up behind his eyes.

“Why, what’s the matter?” asked Jameston softly.

“I don’t know. Nothing’s the matter.” David stared at the floor.

“You seem a little depressed.”

He leaned back in the chair, gripped the armrests, and looked at the opposite wall. “No, I’m not. I’m just tired sometimes, that’s all.” There was silence in the room. “I don’t know,” he said. “Yeah, I guess I’m depressed.”

Jameston smiled. “But what have you got to be depressed about? You’re young, strong, healthy. You’re intelligent and you have — charm. What more do you want? What’s missing?”

What was missing? All at once Augustine’s phrase came weirdly into David’s head: “Quia fecisti nos ad te et inquietum est cor nostrum, donec requiescat in te.” But he knew there was certainly no point in saying anything like that. So he frowned and shrugged his shoulders and continued to stare at the floor in front of him. It occurred to him that Jameston was trying to get him to talk, but what could David say to him that he could understand? It seemed so hopeless to try to say anything at all. It seemed better to say nothing than to say something and not be understood.

“I don’t know what the matter is,” David said finally, not looking up.

Jameston crossed his legs. “They have some very good people for students to talk to at the Health Center,” he said.

“What kind of people?”

Jameston hesitated only for a moment. “If you’d like to talk to someone, I can make an appointment for you.”

“You mean a shrink — a psychiatrist.”

“I really don’t think it can do you any harm. Many students go to see them at some point or other in their college career.”

David felt suddenly so tired. Well, he thought to himself, if that’s what he had to do, then that’s what he had to do, but he really didn’t think it could do much good. In his heart of hearts he believed his problems were so enormous that no psychiatrist could deal with them. Perhaps, in a way, David was right.

It seemed to him the very frame of things was askew, and who could deal with that? What he really longed for was someone who could look deep into his mind — or soul, if it could be called that — and could understand at a glance and say something that would make everything right. But he knew that was a childish desire. People like that didn’t exist, or hardly ever existed, so it was useless to hope he would ever encounter such a person.

Maybe a saint had that kind of understanding, David thought to himself, or maybe God did. He’d never met a saint, though, not that he knew of, anyway, and whatever God understood about his soul, well, he couldn’t realistically expect God to do any more than keep very quiet about it. He was bitter, and it seemed to him at that moment that that was all God had ever done.

In the conversation with Jameston, he felt it was wrong to try to resist Jameston’s suggestion. David thought he should do what he was told. If someone like Jameston, a professor and the senior tutor of Adams House, thought he needed to see a psychiatrist, then he probably did. Besides, he thought it wouldn’t do any good to refuse. He would only become more anxious and depressed, and then he would probably have to see a therapist in the end anyway. Besides Jameston was older and wiser and in a responsible position.

And then too, looked at from the viewpoint of David’s now rather tattered but still intact ideals, if he were to refuse to do what Jameston was suggesting, wouldn’t that be a kind of pride?

So, with a kind of tortured reasoning, he told himself that the demands of ordinary humility made it necessary for him to do what Jameston was asking him to do.

“All right,” David said finally, feeling more tired than ever. “I’ll go.”

“That’s fine,” said Jameston, smiling again. “I’ll phone the Health Service in the morning and make an appointment. Call me in the afternoon, and I’ll let you know when you’re to go over there.”

Part 3, Chapter 17

“For providence or instinct of nature seems,
Or reason, though disturbed, and scarce consulted,
To have guided me aright, I know not how….”
Samson Agonistes

A few days later David was sitting apprehensively across from Harrison Bradley, a middle-aged psychiatrist with a round face and tired, somewhat dull-looking eyes. Large puffs of smoke were coming from the pipe he was lighting.

David couldn’t say anything at first. He looked around the room they were sitting in. It was furnished in an expensive, institutional style; Bradley sat with his back to an enormous window that was partly covered by a heavy, deep-blue curtain, reaching from the floor to the ceiling. The walls were white and the carpeting gray. The chairs were the same color as the curtains; they were deep and comfortable. There was a low coffee table between Bradley and him, with a large box of tissue paper on it.

There was silence in the room. David thought he was expected to come to the point as quickly as possible and not waste time. “I’m here because I’ve been a little depressed lately,” he said.

Bradley looked at him. “Depressed?”


More silence.

“I really don’t care about anything anymore,” David said.

“But you care that you don’t care>”



David thought for a moment. “You see, I was in Africa last year, and—” he paused, trying to figure out what he could say and how he could possibly say it.

“In Africa,” Bradley said, relighting his pipe.

“Yes, I went there with some other students to work for a summer. I stayed for a year.” He stopped speaking again, but Bradley said nothing this time, so he continued talking about Africa.

After a while, Bradley didn’t seem much interested in what he’d been doing there or what he’d accomplished. David suddenly had the odd idea that he was under some kind of obligation to make the conversation interesting for Bradley, to tell him something that would hold his attention.

“Of course,” he said, “I was depressed sometimes in Africa too.”

“Even in Africa,” Bradley responded, and David could feel the man’s radar swinging back in his direction.

“Yeah, sometimes,” David told him, although as soon as he’d said it he wondered if his occasional feelings of sadness in Africa hadn’t been completely normal. Maybe. But then that wouldn’t have been so interesting for Bradley. David had to think fast if he wanted to keep Bradley from being bored, so he started to say, “The thing that used to depress me was the fact that I felt so —” he stopped again, trying to think what it really was that had made him feel unhappy in Africa.

Bradley, meanwhile, continued to puff on his pipe.

David could think of nothing more to say.

Bradley looked at him.

“I’ll lose him,” David thought to himself, “he’s starting to look tired again.” So he said to him, “I found it depressing that I felt so inadequate sometimes, I mean in relation to what this society expects me to be. Africa allowed me to be free of all that. Now that I’m back here, though, it’s starting to bother me again.” He sat there slouched down in his chair with his hands folded in his lap and his head bowed.

“Have you ever tried to do anything about it?”

David told himself that the questions the psychiatrist was asking were simply designed to make him talk. They only sounded stupid. “Do anything about it?” he wanted to say. “Do anything about it? What do you think I’ve been trying to do all my life?” He knew it would be “counterproductive,” as they say, to show that kind of irritation, so all he said was, “Well, I’ve tried, sure.”


Now he really felt Bradley was trying to be irritating, and he was succeeding. Still, David managed to stay calm, and he said, “I don’t think the results have been particularly good.”

“And you find that depressing.”

He looked up at Bradley, and now he couldn’t stop the tears of anger and indignation that were welling up in his eyes. “Well, of course I find it depressing,” he managed to say as evenly as possible. “That and everything else.”

“Everything else?”

“So this is non-directive therapy,” David thought. “You could train a parrot to do it.” But instead of saying that — of course Bradley would have had some answer ready — David told him how he felt about Harvard, about his mother and stepfather, about the kind of relationship he had with them. He tried to make Bradley understand why he’d been so happy in Africa and why he was so miserable at Harvard.

After an hour of this, Bradley gave him a bright smile and asked him to make an appointment with his secretary for the following week. “Well,” David thought to himself, “at least he didn’t seem bored.”

Except for feeling some satisfaction at having made the hour interesting for the psychiatrist, he left Bradley and the Health Center feeling pretty much the same as he’d felt going in. He started walking up Mount Auburn Street toward Adams House, staring at the ground. He glanced up before crossing the intersection near Dudley House, and there bearing down on him, with his glittering eyes and a bright, expectant smile on his face, was Jameston. He greeted David as if they shared some secret. “Well, how was it?” Jameston said cheerily. “Have you been to the Health Center?”

Trying to suppress a vague feeling of nausea, David said, “Yes, I’ve just come from there.”

Jameston examined his face for a moment and then his expression seemed to alter slightly, almost as though he’d just met with some disappointment. “Well, come by and see me this evening anyway,” he said. “I’ve got another list of books for you.”

That was almost enough to make David feel depressed again — not the list of books, but the idea of having to see Jameston. And then the paranoid thought occurred to him that Jameston had been waiting for him to come out of the Health Center. Then the even weirder and more paranoid thought came to him that Jameston was expecting him to have changed in some way Jameston could take advantage of, although David didn’t understand how. The fact that such a bizarre idea could even occur to him was in itself depressing. Should he mention such an idea to Bradley? Should he say anything so stupid about the Senior Tutor? Wasn’t it better just to say stupid things about himself?

David went on seeing Bradley once a week, and even if the discussions seemed to do little good, he told himself that at least he could try to make them interesting for Bradley. What else was there to try for or to hope for? That he would be sent back to East Africa so that he could be happy again? That his mother and stepfather would somehow change? That he would somehow change so that he would be more confident and happier at Harvard?

He knew there was really nothing anyone could do for him and there was no one to blame. Bradley struck him as an extremely limited person, with his parrot-like, non-directive question-responses, but David believed he certainly couldn’t expect Bradley to transcend those limitations — or help him transcend his own.

Part 3, Chapter 18

“They are all gone into the world of light!
And I alone sit lingering here;
Their very memory is fair and bright,
And my sad thoughts doth clear.”
–Henry Vaughan
They Are All Gone into the World of Light!

As the weeks of the term passed, if anything did change for David, it changed for the worse.

Foolish as it may sound to most people, David continued to believe that if he could form some deep and real relationship with the only being who can help anyone, the one that had created him, he would be happier. His life would be better.

He could not understand, though, what such a relationship might mean or what it would consist of or if such a thing was even possible or believable. He had no real sense — in spite of what he thought of as faith — that God even existed. He gave only a kind of abstract assent to such existence, he had only a kind of abstract desire to live for what God expected of him, to live for God. It was not a desire that formed part of the everyday world around him. After all, how could it? Almost none of the other people in David’s world had any awareness of someone like God, who even David knew had once been defined as being itself, existence itself.

Of course all David’s problems were his own fault. He would always admit that. He’d gone to Harvard — or thought he’d gone to Harvard — out of a kind of intellectual hunger. He thought it was the intellectual life — and nothing beyond that — that had been important and real for him. And since that was all he was seeking, that was all he found.

That was all he found because of course at Harvard there was nothing else. The word “spiritual” equaled the word “dream” or “fantasy” as far as almost all Harvard people were concerned. The word “spiritual” and all it connoted were considered a kind of aberration. This was true even, David suspected, at the Divinity School, that quaint institution that someone once said continued in existence only because the funds that supported it could not legally be diverted to any other use.

You could not discuss this “aberration” in conversation or in writing without of course at the same time expressing extreme skepticism or at least distancing yourself from it. You could certainly never express any actual belief in anything spiritual.

In such an environment, no one could come to any understanding of any thing or any dimension beyond the here and now. Even literature was treated as a kind of commodity, mere words on paper with no real connection to anything beyond the paper, with no real connection to real life.

David didn’t know how he could do anything except to try to put thoughts about topics like God and the spiritual life — and the real life he saw in literature, for that matter — into a kind of separate compartment, completely unrelated to his immediate concerns. Certainly much later, when his beliefs and ideas were directly challenged and put to the test, he did have to decide what meant more to him. By that time, though, the intellectual and spiritual distance between him and those ideas and beliefs had grown so great that he felt completely lost and confused and was unable to choose them as anything he could really base his life on.

All that did come much later, though. In that fall term of his second year at Harvard, his suffering brought him only unhappiness and pain, but again it was his own fault.

He could not see unhappiness and pain in any larger context. He could not find any joy in his little bouts of suffering. He could not think that he was in some infinitesimal way contributing to whatever grand design human beings have — or have to create — in the universe they inhabit.

He certainly could not grasp the — to many — so bizarre idea that his suffering and those of others could, in some hidden, hardly perceptible way, do more than anything else to create the world — or at least to create a better world.

So his depression continued, and he felt increasingly sorry for himself, and he remained in many important ways isolated from other people and from any reality beyond the narrow reality of his everyday world. Depression made all his studies boring for him, uninteresting, unsatisfying, valueless. He began to feel he was nothing, a shell of a man, wasted, dying of thirst and suffocation, gutted and empty, a barren, abandoned structure.

Fortunately, even though human beings may in some ways abandon every reality they cannot actually see, that reality never abandons them. Even David did not really expect the help that he begged for in the silence of his mind, the help that often comes in unexpected ways.

In this case, though, it came through Clayton and Ann Wise and through the friendship that began again with them after he returned from Africa. He visited the house near Harvard Square again.

In that living room that seemed the only safe, secure place he knew of then, the delicate structures of Bach rose and fell in the air.

Though Ann was not very much older than he was, he still regarded both of them as the sort of parents he’d never had. He visited their home almost every week, talked to them for hours as the flames danced in the fireplace. During a very cold, dark winter term, he managed to survive on the intelligence and warmth that he found with them.

He wondered sometimes how or why they ever put with him, so young, so lost, so miserable — and in many ways so stupid.

“Sometimes I think they made a mistake by accepting me at Harvard in the first place,” he said to Ann one evening.

She looked at him with that brightness, that quality of something very like innate nobility that made her so beautiful. “Why? Do you really feel there’s that much pressure on you?” she asked.

Silence. He couldn’t answer her. There was that much pressure on him, but just to acknowledge it would have made the enormous weight pressing down on him even heavier.

Clay got up and put another log on the fire. “The pressure at a place like Harvard,” he said, “is really pressure that we create for ourselves. No one’s putting it on us.”

“Maybe that’s true in a way,” David said. He didn’t think Clay was right, but he couldn’t say so. He hated to contradict anyone in those days, even when he should have, even when they were wrong in their thinking about him. Still, he wanted at least to try to explain what he thought.

He looked into the bright flames in the fireplace. The room evoked the usual sense of enchantment. For a moment he wasn’t afraid. He answered slowly and with determination. “When you’re surrounded by people who are as brilliant as people are at Harvard – and everything they do or say or think seems brilliant – then you can’t help feeling ashamed if you’re not brilliant too. It’s human nature. You can’t help feeling that you should be doing or thinking or saying something brilliant as well.”

“But how do you know you’re not doing that, in your own way?” said Ann. “How do you know you won’t do it even more in the future.”

David looked down at the floor. “For one thing, my grades are only mediocre.” When he looked at Ann again, she was smiling. As always, there was not only beauty but also a kind of wisdom in her face. She had a way of saying things to people without uttering a word. He saw her as gentle and understanding and full of encouragement. He often thought — though he could not sustain the thought — that if anyone so wise, even so radiant, would listen to him, then there must be something of value in what he did and thought, no matter what his mother and stepfather said to him.

“Anyway,” he went on, still afraid they wouldn’t understand him, “there’s another kind of pressure too, if you can call it pressure. What I mean is, it isn’t just the reminders of past greatness that you see everywhere at Harvard. It isn’t even the books in the libraries or the paintings staring down at you as if they were expecting you to equal their achievements — or surpass them. It isn’t just the whole history of the place. It’s not the plaque in the Yard with the quote from Virgil, or even Milton’s commonplace book in the glass case in Houghton.”

He looked down into the drink he was holding. “But all those things are part of what I mean.”

They waited for him to go on.

“I know all this is going to sound pretty weird,” he said, “but—” he looked into the fire again and wondered how in the world he could say what he had to say.

“But you shouldn’t care how it sounds,” said Ann softly.

“No, I guess I shouldn’t. What difference does it make, anyway?” he could feel the pressure starting to well up behind his eyes. “I sometimes feel,” he said slowly, “that all these people — T.S. Eliot, Henry Adams, Thomas Wolfe, even the odd ones like Cotton Mather, even some of the other old Puritans, even others who go right back to antiquity and even to whatever there was before that — all of them form a kind of community of people who know and recognize one another. I mean, in a way they’re still alive in their writings, or at least in the people who read their writings. And I feel sometimes they recognize — and I know how stupid this sounds, but I have to say it anyway — they recognize even me and are expecting me somehow to join them, that they even want me to join them, and I imagine them as kind and wise and having all the qualities of mind that I’ve longed for in people but don’t find very often. So I want to join them, too, no matter what it costs.”

He stopped again, wondering if anything he said made any sense at all. “It’s a desire in me to know them, to be like them, that puts pressure on me, creates in me a terrible kind of longing. I know, you could say it’s a pressure I create myself, and in a way I guess it is. But it’s an external pressure too, because it’s like being offered an invitation that I want to accept, an invitation to achieve something very, very difficult, so that I can share in the kind of life led by those people I admire, even if it’s partly only the life of someone who remains alive in books.”

He would later think how strange that monologue must have sounded to Ann and Clayton. In a way, it would sound strange even to him when he remembered it. But what would seem to him strangest of all would be the way he seemed to have taken the Catholic idea of the communion of saints and changed it into a sort of literary and artistic communion. Probably loneliness is the main explanation for that, though any good psychiatrist could certainly come up with other explanations as well.

Whatever Catholic ideas were mixed in with his thinking, though, may have resulted from the need he’d had — before he even went to Harvard — the need to convince himself that there was a good reason for not going to a Catholic university. There really had been a fear in him that he might lose his faith if he went to Harvard — and it’s perhaps useful to remember that things like faith were important for people in those days. At the same time, though, David was so hungry for — so passionately attracted by — what he thought would be the intellectual life at Harvard that he almost felt a kind of compulsion to go there. As far as his faith was concerned, he told himself that he would know if he were starting to lose it, and he could deal with that problem if and when it came up.

Of course, however, any ideas beyond the limits of Harvard intellectual life — concepts like faith, for example — weakened so gradually that he never realized what was happening. If being a good human being was still of any importance to him, it did not have the same single-minded importance it once did. If the idea of somehow being a saint was becoming a childish or irrelevant dream, if his enthusiasm for being part of some great overarching spiritual community was perhaps disappearing, then — any psychiatrist might agree — he was replacing it with the desire to be part of an imaginary community, one which existed only in time. This community may not have the immediate, transcendent reality that he attributed to the other one, but in the context of Harvard, it was more accessible in a way. Instead of striving so hard to know God — as he had once hoped to do — he now wanted to know the works of writers who had lived in the past. It never occurred to him — it never occurs to anyone because the idea is so peculiar — that in the grand design of things, those works too might represent something of what is in the mind of God.

Ann told him much later that she had been concerned by the apparently grandiose sort of thinking that these ideas of his — the idea of joining “them” — seemed to indicate. She said she believed that if he hadn’t been so isolated, he wouldn’t have had such ideas. She also believed, though, that there was little she could do to help him. He needed encouragement, true, but the kind of encouragement which would move him to some kind of achievement in the real world, rather than something that would keep alive in him the fantasies he seemed to be living by.

She later said that as the winter term passed, she tried to help him as best she could but felt more and more incapable of doing that.

It was during Christmas break, especially, that he would have needed that help; it was during Christmas break, in fact, that he needed all the help he could get.

Part 3, Chapter 19

Indica mihi, quem diligit anima mea,…
Ubi cubes
in meridie,
Ne vagari incipiam…”
–Cantica Canticorum

“Dark of skin…
Tell me, my true love, …
where now is thy resting place
under the noon’s heat?
Thou wouldst not have me wander to and fro…”
–The Song of Songs

David decided to stay in Cambridge for Christmas. He knew he would probably be lonely, but he could deal with that better than he could deal with his mother and stepfather.

He began the vacation by trying to catch up on the research he was supposed to have been carrying out for Jameston. To do that, he had to spend six to eight hours a day looking up books in the Union Catalogue in Widener Library. Perhaps this too was a way of taking revenge on his parents. He couldn’t punish them, so he punished himself. In some weird way, justice was done, though consciously, of course, he didn’t think in those terms.

He blamed his mother and stepfather, though, for the depression that had been hanging over him all semester and made him fall behind in the work for Jameston. If he hadn’t been so depressed, he told himself, he could have finished the work on time, and he would not have needed to stay in Cambridge to catch up. Or if his parents had given him an allowance, such as what his friends received from their parents, he wouldn’t have had to work at a job at all.

Some might say that his time at Harvard was an epic of self-pity, but whatever it was, that Christmas break in Cambridge did mean spending most of every day laboriously working his way through tray after tray of cards in Widener. One morning, just after he started his routine at the Union Catalogue room, he ran into Aikwe Awori, a Ghanaian law student he’d met through his involvement in Africa. Aikwe was the kind of person David often became friends with: superficially very different from himself and yet at the core, where it counted, somehow very similar, or at least that’s what David imagined. Whenever he encountered someone of this type, though, a kind of instantaneous bond seemed to establish itself, no matter what accidents of nationality, background, or even interests may have separated them.

Aikwe was not only intelligent, he was one of Harvard’s athletic superstars. Because of him, the soccer and track teams at Harvard were more successful than they’d been in years. He was in fact such an outstanding personality he’d even been the subject of a New Yorker magazine profile.

David probably wanted to think that he saw in him a toughness and strength that somehow corresponded to his own, but a kind that was differently expressed.

Whether that was true or not, David would always find it remarkable that people with unusual, similar strengths do seek one another out, because they want to find the kind of understanding no one else gives them. Others saw Aikwe’s strength as a kind of barrier and were afraid to approach him, or else they approach him so awkwardly that real communication was almost impossible. Others regarded Aikwe with awe or envy or with any number of other attitudes, except an attitude of understanding. Perhaps, David would sometimes think, there are elements in another person’s nature that we can understand only if we possess those elements ourselves.

When Aikwe saw him that day in Widener, his face broke into a broad, gleaming smile. “How are you doing?” he said. “I tried to call you the other day, but you weren’t in. Your roommates said you were going to stay here and work during the vacation.”

David returned Aikwe’s steady look, with its solidity, sanity and strength. It was so different from what he thought he found in other people’s eyes — a sometimes nervous, probing or challenging gaze that seemed to drain away whatever strength and energy he had.

“What I wanted to ask you was this,” Aikwe said, “I have a friend visiting, a sort of distant cousin from Uganda” — it never occurred to David to wonder how an African from Ghana could have a cousin in Uganda. “She’s staying with some friends in Newton. I’m going to be out of town for a few days, and I was wondering if you’d like to meet her. She doesn’t really know very many people in this area. She’s going to college in the South.”

David was always apprehensive about anything unexpected, but he was really apprehensive about this idea. His chronic homesickness for East Africa, though, made anyone from that part of the world seem irresistible, even if it meant leaving himself open to possible embarrassment — in this case, the embarassment of a blind date, and an inter-racial blind date at that.

He wrote down the telephone number.

That evening, when he called her, the first thing that startled him was his susceptibility to the old, aching sense of nostalgia, when he heard the liquid, East African-accented English. At first he listened not so much to her words, but to the way her voice softened and molded them. At the same time, though, he noticed that she spoke with a kind of gentle fluency and self-assurance. It was the voice of an educated and intelligent young woman whose face he could not quite imagine. Nor could he imagine the way that face would affect him. Later he wondered what he would have done if he’d known.

Much of the first part of the following evening he spent doing what young men of his generation often did before an important date: after renting a car, he made dinner reservations at a good restaurant, spent a long time getting dressed, and tried to prepare himself in every way to make a good impression.

He was tense. Meeting anyone for the first time made him tense, but this was worse. It was the first time he’d been on a date with an African. He wondered how people in Boston would treat a mixed couple, how it would feel to be part of a mixed couple. In his mind he tried to rehearse the evening with the greatest care, trying to prepare a solution for every possible problem that might arise, though even he had already learned that reality is something we can never really rehearse for.

By the time he actually went to pick her up, the tension was so great it almost made him numb. When he saw her, though, he could hardly believe his eyes. She was so beautiful and at the same time so approachable all his fears dissolved. She was one of the most stunning women he had ever seen, and at the same time the least intimidating. He could easily imagine that if she had been living in, say, Paris, instead of Atlanta, she might have been a model or an actress, her face known to men and women on every continent.

“Hello,” she said smiling, “I’m Margaret Otonwe.” And with those few words she created in him a sense of ease and confidence that destroyed every trace of apprehension that may have remained in his mind.

She was not, unfortunately, able to destroy all traces of idiocy. When they were sitting in the car a few minutes later, he stupidly blurted out, “You know, I’ve never been out with an African before.”

She stared straight ahead at the traffic, and out of the corner of his eye he thought he saw a kind of tremor pass over the fine, dark features, as if something quivered beneath the smooth elegance of her face. It passed in an instant, though, and she turned to him with the calm understanding an empress might have shown. “Then let’s go back,” she said quietly and sympathetically, the way she might have spoken to someone who was a little mentally retarded. “We don’t have to go anywhere. You can take me home if you feel uncomfortable.”

As she spoke the words coolly and evenly, with no trace of anger or indignation, and with complete sincerity, she made him more certain than ever that he wanted to be with her that evening. He was, though, feeling too insecure to do more than just go to a film with her, and after the film he took her home. When he walked her to the door, she said to him with a smile, “I know some people who are giving a party in Leverett House tomorrow night. Would you like to go?”

Of course he wanted to go. Even though he had no idea how to really talk to her, she’d been good to be with that evening. Just the few hours they’d spent together made him feel she possessed some secret store of feminine wisdom that all the western women he had ever met seemed to have lost. When he was with her he realized he’d never before felt so complete. Everything she did and said, every movement she made seemed calculated to enhance his sense of self-confidence and to make him want to love her in return, as he’d never loved anyone. She seemed to feel no need to compete with him in any respect, perhaps because she intuitively understood that her real power lay in simply being a woman. She seemed to know that by virtue of that power she was stronger and more capable in her own way than any man could ever be.

African women, Aikwe had once said to him are like the sea, or the heavens; the sea or the heavens feel no need to compete with the land; they simply are.

Being with her was for David more than being with a woman he loved, it was a new way of experiencing life. She seemed to want to build him up, not cut him down; to want to make him feel great, not insignificant; to cooperate in a kind of shared freedom, not bind him with a sort of iron control. She wanted to strengthen him, not make him weak. She did not dominate, she empowered — and thereby increased her own power as well. She found enjoyment in seeing him enjoy his strength, because she was confident he would use that strength to love her and give her what she wanted.

She always encouraged him to make decisions for both of them, without trying to influence the decision he made. She was confident that any decision he made for the two of them would be right for her too. In a thousand ways, apparently without any conscious thought, she knew exactly how to be a young woman who made a young man feel like a man. She had a seemingly limitless sense of the infinitely creative possibilities that can result from the interplay between a man and a woman. She could relate to a man simply, naturally, with none of the almost obsessive anxieties that Western women always seemed to him to have.

Naturally he agreed to go to the party with her the following evening, and all that day he thought about nothing but her, about the sense of liberation and freedom she had given him, and he felt the growing intensity of love for her.

That evening at Leverett House, there was a large group of white Americans and Africans, many of whom he’d already met through Project Tanganyika. David and Margaret danced for a while, as if they were at the center of a magic circle and the rest of the world didn’t exist. She moved like some graceful creature from the East African highlands, and he thought he’d never seen anyone act with such beauty and elegance.

When the party was over, they agreed to meet again the following evening for still another party, and during the whole of the next day he felt that a kind of transformation had taken place in him. He felt as if a part of himself that had always been missing, a part that he’d been quite content to do without because he’d never even known it was missing, had been restored by being with Margaret. He felt whole and complete, and in every move he made he experienced a sense of freedom and strength he hadn’t known even in Africa.

However, a different reality ultimately intruded.

Margaret had to return to college in the South in two days’ time. The relationship would have to end, and he believed there was no way it could continue.

Even if they’d both lived in Boston, he thought, it would have been impossible.

In spite of everything else, he thought that in the end the differences between them were simply too much of a difficulty for him, and so he became resigned to letting her go, resigned to never seeing her again.

He thought selfishly, mainly about himself, of course. He was convinced he’d never lose anything she’d given him, and that was all that mattered to him then. He’d remain strong and whole, he thought. And if he’d found one woman like Margaret, he believed, then surely he could find another just as easily.

And so, along with David’s other qualities — pride, self-pity, and the tendency to blame other people for his problems — a sort of outrageous selfishness became apparent.

That evening the party they were to go to was in Boston, in a townhouse on Beacon Hill. She said she wanted to say good-bye to him there. She didn’t even want him to see her home, and she appeared to be completely calm about these decisions. When the time came for him to leave the party, though, she began to cry. She spoke his name. He said good-bye again, and she repeated his name. He moved away from her and began descending the stairs that spiraled down to the ground floor of the building. He heard her call his name again, and he started to run down the staircase. He looked up, once, and saw her leaning over the railing at the top. She was still crying and still calling his name.

As he ran down the stairs, the descent seemed endless, and all the while he heard her calling him. And even when he finally reached the ground floor, shut the door behind him, and ran out into the snow, he could still — in his mind — hear her calling his name.

He would hear her, in a way, for the rest of his life.

And for the rest of his life, she would continue to come to him in his dreams.

Part 3, Chapter 20

„Und ich begann auch zu verstehen, dass das Leid und die Enttäuschungen und die Schwermut nicht da sind, um uns verdrossen und wertlos und würdelos zu machen, sondern um uns zu reifen und zu verklären“.
–Hermann Hesse
Peter Camenzind

“And I began to understand that suffering and disappointments and sadness are not there to make us feel morose or worthless or degraded, but rather to develop and transfigure us.”
–Hermann Hesse
Peter Caminzind

During the remainder of the academic year David’s life was not very different from what it had been when the year began, because he’d run away from the possibility of bringing about any real change in his life. He remained isolated and without any real friends, except perhaps for two people who were, in very different ways, just as isolated as he was. One of them, John Arkah, was from Ghana, and the other was his girl friend Emily.

They were so unlike David and so different from one another that it must have been difficult for anyone to understand what exactly it was that the three of them had in common. John was a short, dark African with a wiry build, a skimpy goatee, and blazing eyes. Emily, on the other hand, had what can only be described as the figure of a Walkyrie: she was tall, blond, and looked strong as a football player.

John and Emily lived together in John’s room in Adams House, an arrangement that was so unusual in those days that it seemed downright bizarre to David, even illegal. Emily was a Radcliffe student and of course had a room at her college, but she never used it.

Both John and Emily were absolutely brilliant, but also absolutely alienated, the way many university students were in those days. They lived like two guerrilla fighters, or members of the resistance doing battle with an occupying army. They wore fatigue jackets and lived in conditions that were as disordered and provisional as a jungle hideaway in wartime. John used to sit in the dining hall, his dark eyes blazing, preaching revolution in his quiet impassioned voice to whomever would listen to him. Very often he actually had a small audience of students around him, though they usually found his ideas more amusing than convincing. The intensity about him was perhaps what many found so fascinating, even if almost no one sympathized with his ideas.

After graduation John would become a novelist, well-respected and well-known enough to have an entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica. Somehow David would always find that gratifying, as though he were proud of the fact that John actually had the kind of brilliance David saw in him at Harvard.

Perhaps John and Emily liked David because he was friendly and seemed innocent and presented no threat to them. Beneath those brave, self-confident exteriors, both of them apparently felt very much alone and afraid. At the time, they seemed to David to be strange exotic creatures, with a wildness about them both that was oddly lovable somehow. He admired them, although he knew he could never be like them, not on the surface anyway.

At some deeper level, John and Emily and David resembled one other more than they might have admitted. Perhaps they even needed one another, though John and Emily, surprisingly enough, may have needed David much more than he needed them. They may have needed him more than any of them realized at the time, though of course it would have been difficult for David to have survived without them as well. David was in his own way really almost as alienated and isolated as John and Emily were, even though his preppy exterior resembled the look, the clothing, and the behavior of almost all other Harvard students of that time.

Naturally, in addition to talking to John and Emily, David was still seeing Bradley every week, but Bradley never seemed to be of much help. He seemed to David to be just another university functionary, one whose job happened to be processing patients instead of, say, processing appeals for donations or the bills to be paid for food services. What David felt he really needed in order to survive that year was companionship, and it was John and Emily who provided that.

Fortunately, David could not know that no matter how difficult things may have been then, they were not as difficult as they would become the following year. He couldn’t think about the following year, or any part of the future, perhaps because he was afraid to. He finished his exams at the end of the second semester, with results that were a little above average, and he made plans for writing a draft of an honors thesis that summer.

Or at least that was the plan he had before he heard from his mother and stepfather again.

David was looking forward to a summer of independent work, after the psychological pressures of the academic year, pressures so great that he was sometimes astonished he’d been able to withstand them all. His poor, sad mother and stepfather were of course aware of those pressures, because they were the main cause of most of them. One day, for example, near the end of the term, he received a letter from — or at least signed by — his stepfather. It is more probable that it was his lost and lonely mother who inspired it. She’d begun to control almost everything his stepfather did, certainly everything he did that affected David, and David knew his stepfather would never have written him anything without — at the very least — his mother’s approval.

This sad man, whose feelings had evidently been brutalized by the emotional violence that had occurred in his own life, bluntly announced in his letter that David was expected to remain in Cambridge after exams in May, go to summer school, and accumulate enough credits to finish Harvard the following year, as he would have done if he had not taken the year off to work in Africa.

David’s stepfather said he would pay for one more year at Harvard, but no more than that.

The letter dropped into his life like an unexploded bomb. The first thing he did when he read it was to wonder if his parents really wanted him to graduate from Harvard at all. By forcing him to stay in Cambridge after an emotionally searing year, there was a very real danger that he would quit and — perhaps this is what his mother really wanted — simply go back home to them.

It is possible that his mother had encouraged his stepfather to write the letter, with the hope — in her sorry, weird world of backwards thinking — that he would be manipulated into refusing the summer at Harvard and would return and spend that summer, if not the rest of his life, with her at home.

If so, then she hadn’t reckoned with the possibility that David would actually go ahead and enroll in summer school and try to finish his studies the following year, as his stepfather said he wanted. His mother probably didn’t really believed David could manage that.

If so, it would turn out that she was right, in a way, though things eventually developed far differently from what she was probably expecting.

David was certainly not very happy at Harvard then, but he definitely hadn’t prepared himself — either academically or psychologically — for graduation in only one more year.

He felt his parents were going from one extreme to the other. During the previous summer they’d treated him like a child, undermined his confidence to the point where he felt he’d accomplished nothing at all in his life and was utterly incapable of ever accomplishing anything. Now, suddenly, they had completely reversed themselves and were telling him he had to graduate in another year and start working at some job or other, or else they would pay for no more studies at Harvard.

Perhaps it is important to emphasize that David’s stepfather was an extremely wealthy man and remained so until his death. His estate could easily have accommodated the expense of another year — another several years, in fact, if that had been necessary or possible — of his studying at Harvard. Thus David could not understand what in the world his stepfather and his mother were trying to do.

Perhaps it would be truer to say that he was completely baffled. His stepfather had enough money to pay the cost of sending his brother to an expensive prep school, and they seemed to do that quite willingly, even enthusiastically. So why, he asked himself, did they seem to be trying to shatter the already fragile security of his world in this way? He felt he’d been just barely able to survive the emotional chaos he’d experiences at Harvard up to that point. Now it seemed his whole world was threatening to come crashing down around him.

Part of his sense of despair lay in the fact that he’d wanted to try to finish his studies at Harvard with an honors degree, but in order to do that, he would have needed the extra year to improve his grade average and write a thesis. He’d been looking forward to doing that. It was a goal he’d formed for himself, something that was difficult and challenging, and something he knew he could do well. Now, if he were forced to graduate in one more year, all that would be impossible.

What could he have done? Perhaps nothing. At least there was nothing he could think of doing, and so perhaps in the end it could be said again that the root of his problems lay squarely with him.

He could think of no one he could turn to for help. He felt there was just nothing else he could do but abandon the idea of graduating with honors. With a sense of indescribable loss — and this will probably sound ridiculous to most other people — and even with a feeling of desperation, he obediently accepted his mother and stepfather’s demand. He resigned himself to the idea that he would have to do whatever was necessary to graduate the following year. He resigned himself to the prospect of going to summer school, in spite of the sense of exhaustion he felt, in spite of the fact that he had absolutely no desire to take any courses in summer school, in spite of the fact that he’d been looking forward, almost passionately, to doing independent work on his honors thesis.

He did tell Jameston what his mother and stepfather were expecting him to do, and when Jameston’s face clouded over and he looked down at his desk, David thought that Jameston too must be skeptical about the whole idea. If he was, though, what could he have done to alter the situation? At any rate, Jameston would not have to deal with this or any of David’s other little difficulties any longer. Jameston would be on sabbatical when the fall semester started, and he was already preoccupied with the research he would do and with the book he planned to write. He probably felt there was no point in listening to another recitation of the apparently endless litany of problems David had to deal with. David’s situation was now of relatively little importance to him.

That didn’t really surprise David very much. He’d always felt that the way Jameston had hovered around him for the past year had been for some weird sort of selfish motive — although he couldn’t be sure exactly what that was. Now it seemed he’d been proven right. The hovering had stopped. David thought that perhaps he hadn’t offered Jameston whatever it was he may have wanted. Perhaps, as far as Jameston was concerned, David had really only dragged his endlessly mournful presence through every conversation they’d ever had.

Paradoxically, David may have able to find at least some happiness in possibly having been right about Jameston. That showed him that his view of things could have at least some small value.

It is tempting to believe that that was important in the petty, self-pitying world David seems to have constructed for himself and to have so single-mindedly been inhabiting.

On the other hand, perhaps it would be better not to be so judgmental. There may have been factors at work in his life that — seen from the outside — it is impossible to understand.

Log in