Part 04, Chapters 21-30

Part 4, Chapter 21

“Nachdem der Staretz niedergekniet war, verneigte er sich vor Dmittrij Fjodorowitsch in einer vollständigen, deutlichen, bewußten Verbeugugng und berührte sogar mit der Stirn den Boden.”
–Fjodor Dostojewski
Die Brüder Karamasoff

“After the monk had knelt, he bowed down before Dmitri with a bow that was complete, well-defined, and deliberate. He even touched the ground with his forehead.”
–Fyodor Dostoevsky
The Brothers Karamazov

When he was released from the army one day in January, ten months after he’d left Harvard, he didn’t go straight to Canada, but back to his parents’ house in Michigan. He was probably hoping that his parents would see how desperately he wanted to salvage something of his life, and they would try to help him. He may have thought they would at least want to help him.

No one spoke to him of such things, so what he couldn’t know, it should be stressed, was that his mother and stepfather had simply written him off. Only years later would David learn that Bradley had told them he was hopelessly sick and that there was almost no possibility he would ever be normal. And they accepted that. After all, it was to their advantage, or at least to his poor mother’s advantage. If everyone was convinced he was crazy, then she could take control of him by “helping” him. Her sad possessiveness toward him would have a free hand, and everyone would admire her kindness and love. There wouldn’t be anything now that could hinder or restrain her. David would at last be hers, and hers alone.

Of course it was also to Bradley’s advantage to tell everyone how “sick” David was. For Bradley, disposing of him that way meant getting rid of a troublesome patient, one who “did not respond to treatment,” as he would put it later. Bradley’s peers at the Harvard Health Service could no longer wonder what he was doing wrong, why he wasn’t able to “cure” David, why he’d had David coming to see him week after week and month after month.

For both David’s mother and stepfather, Bradley’s “diagnosis” meant that the wrong they felt David was accusing them of — by virtue of the fact that he simply existed — could perhaps now be exorcised. They no longer had to feel the weight of his disapproval of their divorce and remarriage. Now they could say to themselves, “There’s nothing wrong with us. He’s the crazy one.”

It really was a win-win situation for everyone involved, except for one person.

However, since that person wasn’t really important, there was no reason to discuss anything with him. Everyone — university administrators, teachers, and friends — more or less just tacitly agreed that everything he did was simply the result of craziness, and naturally no one would discuss a situation like that with a crazy person, so David knew nothing. Everyone — except David himself, of course — had much to gain that way. It was the most convenient way out of everyone’s difficulties. Of course the difficulties all that created for David were just beginning.

Perhaps it will be more or less unbelievable for many people that a Harvard physician, a mother, and a stepfather could have done this to a young man who was relatively bright and promising and had his whole life in front of him. On the other hand, it may not be so unbelievable for other people.

Certainly far worse things would happen to other young men. After David’s time, a student at Harvard Medical School would commit suicide in Boston, his diary revealing to investigators that one of the causes of his death was his relationship to a psychiatrist he was referred to by the Medical School. Skeptics might doubt the truth of the story, but years after David was at Harvard, he would read about the case in a book by a respected Boston-area journalist, a book that created a sensation at the time. He would also read that the psychiatrist’s license was revoked because of her involvement in the case.

As far as David was concerned, he would go on to hope that, if anyone did believe him, if anyone could believe that such things were possible in the life of a young man, the outrageousness of it might cause a spark of human feeling sometime, somewhere, in someone who might hear about him. That spark alone is important, he would come to believe, for in this world of ours, human feeling seems sometimes to be in short supply and should be encouraged whenever possible.

On the other hand, someone with a deep sense of wisdom and humanity may conclude that no matter how terrible it was, what happened to him was simply one more example of the truth that perhaps cannot be repeated often enough: there is no injustice and no evil in the entire universe from which the source of all wisdom cannot draw the most splendid and luminous good.

However, whatever good can be drawn from what happened to him, after the Army, at home with his mother and stepfather, there was little that had changed there. Life in that house was what it had always been. After what he’d achieved in the past three years or so — getting into Harvard in spite of his mother and stepfather, being able to survive there with reasonably good grades, enduring the misery he’d experienced there, remaining intact despite the adolescent horror and disorientation of the life he’d led since he left Harvard — he was now confronted with behavior on the part of his mother and stepfather that indicated they believed that he had done nothing and that nothing at all had happened to him. He started to feel lucky if they even acknowledged his presence, so having them recognize any achievements or upheaval or suffering in his life soon became more than he thought he could expect.

But why should they acknowledge or recognize anything at all about him? What was he to them? He was no blood relation to his stepfather, and as far as his poor mother was concerned, he had long ago ceased to exist for her, replaced in her sadly demented imagination by nothing so much as a kind of clone, one that she could shape according to her own depressingly warped ego needs. He was so different from that clone that — as far as she was concerned — he deserved no recognition from her.

Besides, his mother and stepfather were convinced he was crazy. There was simply no point in trying to help him. The effort would be a waste of time. Besides, he wasn’t suffering, he wasn’t in pain. They not only knew that he was crazy, they also knew that he wasn’t in pain, because crazy people just don’t feel pain. And not only was there no point in trying to help him, but they sensed instinctively how much it was to their benefit that he should be considered crazy.

Of course David himself knew nothing about these things then. It might or might not have been better for him if he had known. It would only be many years later that he would understand the truth.

Sometimes he had the feeling that while his mother and stepfather were ignoring everything he did or said and everything he was, they were at the same time waiting for him to do something — what it might be, though, he had no idea, but it seemed to be something that was well-defined in their own minds. He used to ask himself again and again what it might be that they had in mind, but he couldn’t figure it out.

Was it possible that they were waiting for him to do something really crazy, something that would allow them to have him committed, so that he could be sent just a little farther down the road to destruction? For normal families, such a thing would be unthinkable. Unfortunately for David, his mother and stepfather were not quite normal. In the world they lived in, they may very well have imagined that by getting rid of him, by having him committed to an institution, they could get rid of their own persistent feelings of guilt and unhappiness. It probably was not enough for them just to be told that he was crazy. They almost certainly wanted more than that.

At that time, fortunately, he understood nothing of all these things. Only one thing was important to him: the desire to be free of the unhappiness that had closed round him since he’d left Africa, an unhappiness that filled almost every moment of his life, turning every passing second into one more movement in a dissonant symphony of psychic pain.

And even though David was still faithful to all of the ideals he’d been raised with, he was blind to the fact that if the pain he felt could not be avoided, it could at least be put to some use; it might even have enormous value in the larger scheme of things. He still didn’t understand that it was even possible to find a certain happiness in such pain, not for some masochistic reason, but because the pain might be a part of a vast number of sacrifices that could perhaps foster goodness in the minds of others. They are the sacrifices of those who at least try to be good human beings. Even if they don’t always succeed.

At that time, unfortunately, he simply could not imagine that the really quite small amount of pain and suffering he was experiencing — or any amount of pain and suffering, for that matter — really could be of great use. Of course he imagined — in his dreamier moments — that la souffrance would bring him to some kind of wisdom, as though he were a character in a novel by Dostoevsky. Most of the time, though, David was — to put it bluntly — still so stupid that when he was actually experiencing some suffering, all he really wanted to do was rid himself of it.

Part 4, Chapter 22

“Dantès durchlebte alle Grade des Unglücks, das die in ihrem Gefängnis vergessenen Gefangenen erdulden müssen“.
–Alexandre Dumas
Der Graf von Monte Christo

“Dantès experienced every degree of suffering that a prisoner who is forgotten in his prison has to endure.“
–Alexandre Dumas
The Count of Monte Cristo

While the months in the army were going by, and then the weeks in his parents’ house, the way David thought about things was gradually worn down and altered, and he began to feel that if everybody said he was crazy, then maybe he really was crazy. And if he was, then he didn’t really need to talk to a priest, but to a psychiatrist.

Even though it hadn’t done him any good to talk to Bradley, he started to believe that some other psychiatrist, the “right” psychiatrist would surely be able to help him. Then he could be “cured” and could go on to lead a happy life. He had read somewhere that there was a psychiatrist in Philadelphia who had been successful working with cases like his, so David got in touch with him. The psychiatrist told him, however, that it would probably not be a good idea for David to come to a strange city, try to settle down and find a job, for the sole purpose of coming to talk to a psychiatrist.

David was at first so dejected he wasn’t sure what to do. The weeks at home with his mother and stepfather were going by with dull, painful slowness. There was no discussion of his future. There didn’t even seem to be a possibility of discussing it. My mother and stepfather appeared not to have the slightest interest in what became of him. They continued to go about their lives as though he didn’t exist.

He decided he had to escape. He knew that very soon the army would assign him to a reserve center near his parents’ house, and he would have to start going to weekly army drills and meetings. He would be subject once more to the dull, painful, meaningless routine that army life had become during those final months of active duty.

Confined, bewildered, lost, he became increasingly desperate. As far as he could see, nothing he did or said was of the least importance to his mother and stepfather, even though he still had the odd feeling that they had something in mind for him, some pattern they were expecting him to follow, as soon as he’d figured out what it was.

Or perhaps they were hoping he’d break down completely and learn once and for all that all his ideas about the intellectual life and all his other ideals were nothing but illusions. When that happened, they’d be able to remake him into someone like themselves, someone reasonable, concerned with the truly important things in life: football games, new furniture for their house, dinners at the country club, and, of course, making money.

After several weeks of this, when his sense of desperation and anxiety had become almost unendurable, they announced that they were going to Florida for a week’s vacation. This news hardly surprised him. It was the kind of thing they often did. Anyway, whether they were there or not, he knew his situation would remain essentially the same: he’d be alone.

After they left, he spent the first few days moving restlessly from one over-decorated room to another in the huge, vacant house. He didn’t know what else to do. Sometimes he stood and watched the water glittering in the indoor swimming pool on the ground floor. Finally, when he couldn’t stand it anymore, he made a decision. No matter what the risks were, he had to get away. He had to leave, because there were greater risks if he stayed there: the risk of feeling increasingly confined and oppressed or the risk of eventually acquiescing in the role his parents expected him to play, a role that — whatever it might be — filled him with a sense of foreboding whenever he thought about it.

He had some money he’d managed to save while he was in the army, so one morning he packed his things and left. It was raining outside and a thick cover of cold, gray clouds hid the sky. He was afraid, he was alone, he was depressed, but he had no choice. He had to escape. He had to get away from his mother and stepfather, from the prospect of Army reserve duty, and from the depressing atmosphere that was becoming almost as intolerable as the weird ideas he’d had at Harvard had been.

He felt apprehensive and sick, because he seemed to face a situation that was loaded with anxiety no matter what he did, whether he left home or stayed.

The bus ride to Philadelphia was long and cold and bleak. He still felt —as always — unspeakably lonely. All of the closeness of the intellect in friendships he’d had at Harvard was gone forever: the ease of communication, the shared jokes, the profound excitement of discovery. He was alone in a desert waste, and he had no idea where he could go or what he should do or what would happen to him. Any spiritual ideals he had left were now so weak that they could hardly play any part in the kind of terrifying situation he was now confronted with.

Despite the tremendous fears he’d had there, Harvard now seemed warm and secure compared to this present moment. Under those conditions, he even forgot the fears and the craziness that had driven him from Harvard.

Now, in spite of all the time he’d spent by himself since the day he’d left Cambridge a year earlier, his recurring thought was that he felt he’d never before been so frighteningly alone.

Part 4, Chapter 23

„Mir ist so ein armer Narr von Künstler unendlich rührend, weil es im Grunde auch mein Schicksal ist, nur dass ich mir ein klein wenig besser zu helfen weiß“.
Italienische Reise

“For me, a poor fool of an artist like that is infinitely touching, because his fate is basically the same as mine, except that I know how to help myself a little bit better.”
Italian Journey

When David reached Philadelphia, he checked into the YMCA and called the office of the psychiatrist he’d written to. His secretary said she couldn’t give him an appointment for another three days, so he decided to use the time to look for a job, though he felt so depressed, lost, and confused that he had no idea how in the world he would ever find one.

Even under normal conditions — whatever “normal” conditions might be in his case — he would hardly have known how to go about finding a job in a strange city, but now all of the misery, unhappiness, bewilderment, and fear that he was trying to repress were so nearly overwhelming that finding a job seemed all but impossible.

At times, the tension he felt was driven by so much energy that he thought he might suddenly explode, possibly just burst into flame. At other times, he felt as though he were moving along the edge of a precipice of anxiety, and if he fell off, he would be plunged into some unspeakable nightmare of madness.

Within two days, he decided it was all hopeless, and he made up his mind to go to Boston. At least in Boston there were the Wises, he thought to himself. They’d always been kind to him in the past. Surely they’d be able to do something for him now.

In a few days, though, he was to discover that that idea too was only a dream. What could he really have been expecting the Wises to do? He did spend a few days with them, and at first he felt safe and comfortable, but he continued to be gripped by the sense of almost overwhelming depression that seemed to have been haunting his mind for months, maybe even years.

Was there anything he could do, he asked himself, except return to his mother and stepfather’s house? This idea, though, brought on an instantaneous, crushing sense of defeat, and made the feelings of loneliness and depression even worse. Still, he felt for a while he had no alternative.

It occurred to him that he could, if he wanted to, make a detour through Montreal on the way back to Michigan. Later he could never be sure if he’d been planning on simply passing through Canada, or whether he really hoped to stay there. He probably didn’t consciously remember the dream about Canada he’d had in the army. Perhaps he in fact was planning nothing, expecting nothing, because he’d learned in one long searing streak of pain over the recent months and years that it seemed not to matter at all what he planned or expected, because things would always turn out differently.

He spoke to almost no one during the long bus trip at night from Boston. One person who did speak to him, though, was a plump, rather slug-like young man a few years older than himself. Every time the bus stopped so that the passengers could get food or coffee, David found this man standing at his side, and after the last stop they made, the man came and sat next to him on the bus.

“You’re going to Montreal?” he asked.

David said he was, and then turned away. He really did not want to talk with someone he found so repulsive. Apparently, though, this man wanted to talk with him. “I’m doing a residency in psychiatry in Montreal,” he told David, and with that one statement all of the terrifying memories of Harvard were revived: the fear of going crazy, the fear of thinking his professors were all talking about him and aiming their lectures at him alone, the fear of thinking that there were people like this stranger who deliberately tried to meet him, as if by chance, in order to change or influence his life in some way, or — as they always put it — in order to try to help him.

The stranger continued to try to make conversation with David, saying he’d lived in Montreal for a year and that he liked it a great deal. David had absolutely no interest in talking with him, though, and in the end the man was finally able to figure that out.

When they arrived in Montreal, it was a freezing, bleak morning in March, almost a year since David had left Harvard. When he thought of that day years later, he would see himself vividly as he was then, dragging his heavy bags from the bus in the decrepit station, struggling with those bags along the cold, empty streets of a strange city. Did he really know what he was looking for, or what he was running from?

He should not be pitied. His problems could be said to be of his own making. He was such a confused and lost young man, though, that not to feel sorry for him, and not to regret that there was so much intelligence and idealism gone to waste, there, on that deserted, icy street in Montreal, in that city still locked in a Canadian winter, seems difficult to avoid.

In later life, however, every time that image of himself arriving in Montreal occurred to him, he had to remind himself that he really could blame no one except himself for the situation he was in. Everything he was going through was all his own fault, even though he would always be tempted to look for someone else to blame.

He’d brought all the disasters on himself, or maybe it could be said it was his response to life that had brought it all on. If he’d somehow managed to force himself to remain at Harvard, he told himself even then, the unhappiness he was experiencing would never have occurred. He couldn’t think of going back to Harvard, though.

That would have meant going back to something he felt was far worse, in a different way, than anything he was experiencing in Montreal.

Part 4, Chapter 24

“Man muß hinuntergezogen werden wie von einem Magneten, so, dass man alles Bindende mit einer einzigen Geste von sich wirft und nun selbst arm ist und alles frühere veregessen hat. Da sehe ich Franz von Assisi und Beethoven und Rembrandt“.
–Hans Scholl
Briefe und Aufzeichnungen

“You have to be pulled down as if by some powerful force, so that you throw off everything that binds you and you’re poor and you’ve forgotten everything. I see Francis of Assisi like that, and Beethoven and Rembrandt.”
–Hans Scholl (Member of the German resistance, executed 1943, age 24.)
Briefe und Aufzeichnungen

During those first few days in Montreal, David was so depressed he hardly left his room at the YMCA. He knew no one in the city. He didn’t even know how to meet anyone. He felt completely and totally alone.

The only thing that kept him alive then, the only thing that kept him going, was the belief that he had sacrificed everything — Harvard, literature, the desire for learning, all his towering intellectual ambitions — in order to realize higher spiritual ideals or, as he saw might have thought of it, in exchange for eternity.

With that one idea in his mind, he managed to trudge on from one day to the next under an oppressive burden of fear and guilt, fear of the future and guilt about all the past mistakes he thought he’d made in life.

He managed to go on believing that all the boredom and pain of his life would have some transcendent meaning. In some bright eternity, he told himself, whatever grief he’d suffered would be compensated for.

His belief in these things was so tenuous, though, so vague and poorly grounded, that years later he would be amazed that he could hang on to that belief as strongly as he did. He would also be amazed that even though that belief was so weak, it managed to have an effect on him. Somehow it really did seem to provide the strength he needed to survive the miserable circumstances in which he found himself.

Literature, though, did offer some consolation. On one of his trips out of his room he bought a copy of Jude the Obscure. He spent most of the next couple of days reading it, slowly, feeling sorry for himself, of course, and wallowing in every similarity between the hero of Hardy’s novel and himself. Certainly he understood that he hadn’t been shut out of a university the way Jude had been, but he felt shut out just the same. Perhaps it might be truer to say that David felt it had been his ideals that had been shut out of Harvard, and himself along with them, since he couldn’t give them up.

Decades afterwards he would think how easy it could be for him to heap ridicule on the sort of person he was then, but he would feel that it would be better not to do that.

By ridiculing himself he would be ridiculing all of the lost, confused, and lonely young men who have ever had to struggle in a world where, as someone once said, the good are not often rewarded and the wicked not often punished, but the innocent are always abused.

On the other hand, thinking in such terms could be a kind of self-pity. Besides, for all anyone knows, every human being might perhaps, in the end, be innocent.

Part 4, Chapter 25

“ ‘I may make all thing well, I can make all thing well, I will make all thing well, and I shall make all thing well; and thou shalt see thyself that all manner of thing shall be well.’ ”
–Juliana of Norwich, 14th Century

Eventually of course David started getting tired of spending all his time alone in Montreal. Besides, since he had only about three hundred dollars to his name, he needed to decide soon what he was going to do, how in the world he was going to live.

There were moments, though, when he became so depressed that he felt practically immobilized, and he knew that if he didn’t do something soon, he’d never survive at all. He was even afraid that he’d be tempted to destroy himself completely.

In this indescribably dark period, it was only the beliefs that he’d had since childhood that helped him go on, the beliefs that almost everyone he knew at Harvard would have ridiculed.

After four days alone, David decided he would try to stay in Canada. Only if that turned out to be impossible would he go back to his mother and stepfather’s house. He’d try to work in Canada if he could. At least in that way he’d be free of the intolerable pressures that his mother and stepfather placed on him, intolerable because those pressures were meant — or so it seemed to him —to force him to conform to a confining and limited way of life. Besides, if he stayed in Canada, he would also be free of the army reserve meetings he was supposed to attend every week.

He could not, he finally decided, go back to what seemed to him to be the gray, dreary bleakness of his life in the United States.

He went to the office of the immigration department in Montreal to try to find out if he could work in Canada. He was told he would have to find a job first, and then he’d be given a work permit. It was difficult for him to deal with government bureaucracies, and it was even more apprehensive about having to do that in a foreign country.

He thought, however, that once this difficulty was taken care of, he wouldn’t have to deal with the immigration authorities any more. How would he have reacted if someone had told him that this was only the first of such visits, in many countries all over the world? He would be going to such offices in the future in South Africa, in Israel, in Iran, in England, in Japan, in France, and in Germany. That visit to the Canadian immigration department was a kind of rehearsal for what would happen over and over again in his life. In later life he realized how lucky he was not to know that then.

Because he was told he’d have to find a job before obtaining a residence or work permit, he began scanning the advertisements in the newspapers for something — anything — to do. Because, as usual, he felt depressed, inadequate, and incompetent, it was impossible for him to consider any kind of job other than the most menial sort of work. He began going from one factory to another in Montreal, so beautiful in many ways, but for him so large, cold, and confusing then. He applied for job after job and was always turned down. He continued to look, though, driven by two desires that he seems to have thought he could realize only by staying away from his parents, away from Harvard, away from the United States: the desire to be good and the desire to be a man. He seems often to have thought, though, that he might never be able to realize those desires, and so he also experienced a kind of frantic anxiety; he had the feeling he was pursued by his fears as much as he was moved by his ideals. He had no real idea, though, what else he could do. He had no idea if there was any way he could prevent the waste and suffering in his life, or if there was any person who could help him.

Years later, when he thought about that period of his life, he would in a way wonder if the suffering even should have been prevented. “All will be well,” wrote Juliana of Norwich. “All will be well, and all manner of thing will be well.” David often thought of those words and connected them with Aquinas’ idea that the most sublime good can ultimately be drawn from the most horrendous evil.

David did finally find a job as a worker in a small factory that made window curtains. He also managed to find a room to live in, within walking distance of the place where he worked, on Rue St. Urbain, so he could move out of the YMCA.

He started work every morning at eight and finished at five in the afternoon; on Saturdays he and the other employees of the company worked only until noon. It was dull, boring, and laborious work, but he found that he was soon able to do one of two things: at times he could regard it all as a kind of adventure, and at other times he simply made his mind numb to the sense of pain and boredom he felt. He really believed he had no other choice but to work in that factory. He did not know what else to do.

The job involved sweeping floors and carrying heavy rolls of cloth around on his shoulders. He also spent much time feeling the old pain of what seemed to him then as his terrible loss. Harvard was lost to him, literature was lost to him, the use of his mind was lost to him, or at least the use of it at the highest levels of thought. He felt lonelier than he’d ever before felt in his life — and yet he believed that this seemingly terrible sacrifice of his life and intellect would have some ultimate meaning. God in heaven, he believed, could not fail to notice him and release him somehow from that unhappiness.

That’s what he wanted. Release. Suffering was what he didn’t want. He couldn’t find any joy in it, the way the saints he admired were able to. Unlike them, David couldn’t in his heart really believe that sacrifice and suffering could be sources of happiness, because they give life meaning. Of course he wanted to believe it, wanted to believe that sacrifice and suffering could be a royal road to happiness beyond this world, but in the final analysis he couldn’t really manage that. The only things he did believe were the few ideas he managed to cling to desperately and with the last bit of strength he had. Still, those beliefs were enough for the time being.

Since he understood so little, the days at work were very difficult, especially the late afternoons. Most of the other people had left the factory, and he had time then to think. But instead of thinking about anything constructive, anything that might offer a way out of the place where he was, he thought only of his own unhappiness, his own unhappy life. He thought of Harvard and the books he’d read there, the people he’d known, and the things they’d talked about. He looked back on those moments as the only time in his life that he’d ever come close to finding the sort of intellectual community he’d been searching for, even though, when he actually was at Harvard, he hadn’t really thought that way at all. Now all his dissatisfaction with Harvard, all the fears he’d felt there, were forgotten. They were replaced in his mind by a Harvard that probably had never existed, or existed only in the kind of waking dream David appears to have been subject to at Harvard.

But he pushed on through the slow, bewildering, painful succession of days. Depression often made him sleepy and acted like a drug that numbed his awareness of the disaster his life had become. He had an almost constant fear, though, that some governmental or police authority would come to the factory or to the little furnished room he lived in and drag him back across the border to the United States — and to the Army.

He dealt with this fear by writing to the commanding officer of the reserve unit in the town where his parents lived. In the letter he said he wouldn’t be coming to any more Army Reserve meetings because he planned to remain in Canada. He added that he even planned to renounce his citizenship and never return to the United States.

Part 4, Chapter 26

De la musique encore et toujours!
Que ton vers soit la chose envolée,
Que l’on sent qui fuit d’une âme en allée
Vers d’autres cieux à d’autres amours.

Que ton vers soit la bonne aventure
Éparse au vent crispé du matin
Qui va fleurant la menthe et le thym…
Et tout le reste est littérature.
–Paul Verlaine
Jadis et naguère

Music, once more and forever —
Let your poetry be the thing that soars,
The thing one feels flees illusion
Toward other heavens, with other loves.

Let your poetry be the good adventure,
In slight disarray from the impatient wind of morning,
Giving off the scent of mint and thyme…
And all the rest is only literature.
–Paul Verlaine
Jadis et naguère

As the freezing Montreal spring turned slowly into summer, David began to feel less depressed. He received a letter from the Army. His papers now showed that he’d applied for — and been granted — permission to be absent from the United States without any obligation to attend Army Reserve meetings.

There were times now when he even began to feel a certain sense of exhilaration. What he was doing really was beginning to seem like an adventure to him after all, and it may in fact have been just that, certainly at some deeper level than he was aware of.

Part of him, though, still grieved because he felt he was wasting his mind, and this small inner sound of his grieving would not be silenced by telling himself that the waste was being compensated for by the experience of “real life” and “the real world” in Montreal.

The grieving went on despite the fact that he tried to cling to the belief that he would someday be rewarded for the suffering he was undergoing. He tried to tell himself that those rewards were more important than anything else. Because his belief in those rewards was really so very weak, though, the undercurrent of grief in his life continued.

And it continued.

He continued to study French while he was in Montreal, taking lessons from a middle-aged French-Canadian poet, a woman who had written and actually published some volumes of poetry and who seemed extraordinarily wise and experienced to him then.

Perhaps she would seem the same way to him even now, though.

One day he was talking to her in an insistent, adolescent way about the value of suffering, trying to put some of his own grief into perspective, trying to understand it as much as he could, trying to find some purpose in it. Since his suffering, however, had not even approached what some people have to go through in life, he must have sounded very young and very shallow to her. At the end of his monologue, she turned to him and said simply, “La souffrance viendra.” Suffering will come. And she went on, in French, “But you see, we have one extremely effective way of dealing with suffering. I think you’ve already discovered it: our literature, our books. They give us a way of transcending the petty sorrows of the moment, whether we write the books or read them, or both. Look at that volume there in the corner. It is nearly three hundred years old.” She sat looking at the ancient book for a moment. “It has a life of its own.”

He never knew what the book was. He was too self-absorbed to ask about it, but her words would always echo in his mind. They’d also pose additional questions for him, and he wasn’t sure if his unhappiness was relieved or deepened by what she’d said.

It may be true that a book has a life of its own, he thought to himself, but if he were to spend the rest of his life exiled in the kind of existence he found himself in then, in Montreal, away from Harvard, how would he ever be able to share in that life?

It would take him a long time to answer that question, and the only way he ever would be able to answer it would be to try to write some poor book of his own, a book that perhaps no one would ever read or want to read. At least, though, he’d know he’d done what he could.

At any rate, his French poet friend and teacher was, as David himself always said, a wise and intelligent woman. It may be that what she had in mind for him when she made the remark she left him with that day was that he should at least write some book or other, however good or bad it might turn out to be in the end.

At that time, though, in Montreal, he couldn’t think of such things. Writing any kind of book was beyond him then. It wasn’t a book he had in mind then. Just about all he really had at that point was a desperate hope, a hope of finding something more, somewhere, a hope at least of something beyond his present existence. It was the hope of something he was convinced he would one day be able to grasp, or enter into.

So he continued to live on in Montreal through that summer, with the weight of depression often pressing downward on the surface of his consciousness, relieved only by those moments of hope.

Hope is a strange thing, though. A little bit of it goes a long way. And the exhilaration of the hope he had then was enough for him to be able to survive.

And there are times, as everyone knows, when only survival is possible, but survival, for the time being, is enough.

Part 4, Chapter 27

«Pas un amour, pas une amitié qui n’ait traversé notre destin sans y avoir collaboré pour l’éternité.»
–François Mauriac
Le désert de l’amour

“No love, no friendship has ever intersected our destiny without having an influence in eternity.”
–François Mauriac
Le désert de l’amour

One day after work, the foreman of the factory where David had found a job invited his small team of employees out for a beer. They’d worked late, and they’d worked hard that day, and the foreman wanted to thank them. They sat in a pub talking for a while, and then one of the men, a short, red-haired English-Canadian turned to David and said, “I got a letter from my brother the other day; he works in the Territories.”

David looked at him. What “territories” was he talking about?

“Yeah, the Northwest Territories,” the man said. “My brother’s got a job working with Hudson’s Bay Company up there. He makes a pile of money. Anybody who works in the Territories or in the Arctic makes money.”

From that day on, David began talking to people about the Arctic, trying to find out what sort of work was available and how he could get a job there. In the back of his mind, the desire to return to Africa was still alive. It wasn’t simply a return to Africa that he was thinking about, though, but a return to the happiness, the innocence, the feeling of achievement, and the sense of community he’d known there. If he could earn money in the Arctic in order to go back there, then that’s what he’d do. In the meantime, he was sure he could find in the Arctic the adventure he still wanted. Being there and working there would be a way of being free of the long, boring hours in the factory in Montreal. It would be a way to see the vast expanses of land and ice in the far North. If the freedom of the intellectual life was closed to him, he thought to himself, then he wanted to experience at least the physical freedom that that part of Canada seemed to offer.

Ironically, it was in Africa that David had read a sentence in a novel by François Mauriac, where the French author defines the meaning of adventure, at least for him. If David had really understood what Mauriac wrote, he would have thought that adventure didn’t mean Africa, or the Arctic, or any place at all. Of course the idea Mauriac had is absurd in our skeptical age — it’s nearly impossible to write intelligently about such things now — and even though David thought about Mauriac’s idea in Montreal, he didn’t even know that he didn’t really understand it. Perhaps he never would grasp it, and even though it sounds absurd to say it, perhaps, later at least he would know he’d never understood it. So it’s possible that David would eventually make that much progress in his life. In Montreal, though, he was still looking for adventure where it couldn’t be found at all.

After being told about the Arctic, David started looking at newspapers advertisements for any jobs he might be able to find there. He wrote out a résumé and laboriously typed more than fifty copies — one each day — there were few photocopying machines around then, and no computers. He sent a letter and a résumé out to all of the mining and oil companies that he found in the yellow pages of the Montreal telephone directory.

And while he did all that, he continued working in the factory. On his days off, he used to wander around Montreal, especially the old parts of the city. On hot Saturday afternoons in July, that part of town was practically deserted, and perhaps the empty streets and lovely, old shuttered buildings resonated with his state of mind. These older parts of the old French city may have also unconsciously reminded him of the structures of thought and what he might have regarded as the mansions of literature in his mind. These had been important to him once but now shut and falling into disuse.

What he would remember most in later years, though, was standing in front of the windows of French bookstores late on hot, sunny, silent afternoons. The stores were closed and the streets deserted, and he would stand there and look with something like longing at the titles of the books on display — Mauriac, St-Exupéry, and others he’d never heard of.

He made himself think, though, that even those vacant weekend afternoons were of some value to him, that he was seeing something beautiful and important when he walked among those ancient buildings on the streets of Montreal. Perhaps some will say he was doing what human beings always do at moments of great loss: they will say he was deluding himself into thinking that the loss was going to contribute something valuable to his life, but whether or not it was an illusion, without that idea, he could not have survived. He had to believe that even though he’d lost the world of literature at Harvard, he’d gain something in return.

Perhaps he wasn’t wrong. Perhaps the loss was — or would be — compensated for, or he may have been at least starting the process of getting something in return, maybe the process of one day — as he’d learned from his poor lost saints — getting everything in return.

Part 4, Chapter 28

“Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,
Their ancient, glittering eyes….”
Lapis Lazuli

Early in August David was scanning the advertisements in a Montreal newspaper and saw an ad placed by a company that was looking for a diesel mechanic to work at a weather station in the Arctic. He wrote to the company and said he wasn’t a diesel mechanic, but he enclosed a resume and asked if there were any other positions he might be suitable for. He said he’d even be willing to work as a general laborer.

A week or so later he received a telephone call from the company’s personnel manager, who told him he thought they might have a job for him. He asked David to come in for an interview.

He went over to the office the next day, and two weeks later he was packing his clothes and preparing for a flight to Resolute Bay, a small settlement on Cornwallis Island in the high Arctic, about eight hundred miles south of the pole and over two thousand miles northwest of Montreal. He was to be paid what in those days was the quite substantial sum of four hundred and fifty Canadian dollars a month, plus room and board. Of course that certainly isn’t much by today’s standards, but at that time it was nearly the equivalent of the air fare from Montreal to Nairobi, a fact David was well aware of.

He was also aware that he was about to enter a part of the world that few people he knew had ever seen, and he was excited by the prospect. Yet years later he would have to admit there was the possibility that he made himself feel more excited, than he really was. He wanted to believe that he was about to set off on another adventure, even though part of him still believed there was no adventure like the one he’d left at Harvard, the adventure of the mind. By now he hardly remembered the fears of madness he’d experienced there; he could only feel the exhilaration he’d known during his reading, or during a lecture by one of the English professors he admired, one of those lectures he’d found intellectually exciting rather than terrifying.

All that was gone now. He’d lost it all, and he had only whatever poor adventures he could contrive for himself elsewhere. Living through physical adventures, contrived or otherwise, was not very easy for him to do. He’d always lived in a world of the intellect. As a result, perhaps the adventures he did have were really very poor ones, because they were so safe, and because the emotions and ideas that surrounded them always seemed a little artificial perhaps.

As David sat in the waiting room at the airport in Montreal, he met a few other people who were going up to Resolute Bay. Out of habit, and because he was still so naive and foolish, he listened to them almost as attentively as he’d once listened to lectures on Beowulf or Shakespeare or Keats.

And sometimes their stories actually were a little like something out of an Anglo-Saxon saga. He heard one of the cooks bound for Resolute telling a story in a thick French-Canadian accent. “I once worked in a logging camp in British Columbia,” he said. “One night some of the loggers were sitting around playing poker. They played for hours, with bottles of whiskey passing from one to another of them. Finally, some time in the early morning, they stopped, after they’d played all night, and one of them had cleaned out everybody else at the table.”

He paused and looked around at all of us. “Suddenly one of the men said the winner’d been cheating all along. He denied it. And he kept on denying it as he reached out across the table to pull his winnings toward him. He denied it and denied it and only stopped denying it when one of the losers whipped out a knife and drove it down, hard, through his hand, nailing it to the table.”

The cook looked around at us again and added, “The blood spurted all over the money.”

Everyone was quiet for a moment, and David sat there, innocently considering what he’d just heard, thinking in his adolescent way that surely now he was about to find the adventure he’d been looking for.

They left Montreal a short time later in a small, two-engine propeller-driven plane that would take roughly fourteen hours to make the trip to Resolute. Part of the rear section of the cabin had been converted into a sort of cargo hold, and there were crates and boxes of various sizes and shapes stacked there, roped in and covered with a huge piece of canvas. In the front of the cabin was the most wonderful variety of people David thought he’d ever seen: Eskimos in parkas of animal hide, other workers on their way to Resolute, an American writer, a Canadian Air Force pilot, a doctor, a woman teacher, and an assortment of civil servants.

For him, the most exotic people among all those passengers were the Eskimos. One old man among them had the most remarkable face David had ever seen. He looked to David as if he’d discovered some wonderful secret about life; his face seemed permanently aglow with a smile that never left it. His eyes glittered with light, like the old men in Yeats’ poem, and his lean, round face was creased with a hundred lines that for David seemed to radiate age and wisdom. David wanted so much somehow to be able to record the image of that face, and to preserve everything it appeared to mean. With all of the naïve idealism of his youth, he wanted to be able to comprehend the wisdom he thought he saw there, and he wanted to pass it on to others, together with all of the sights and sounds around him. David felt so many things he wanted to pass on to others. Everywhere around him there were things that no one else seemed to see.

As the plane flew north across Quebec, he followed its progress in his mind, the whole time wanting with all his strength to believe that he was moving northward into some brave frontier, wanting to think he was doing something meaningful, not simply wasting his life.

Once again it should perhaps be stressed that it would be easy to see him as just one more poor lost boy then, looking for something to do with his life and energy and everything else that was part of him. If he’d been more intelligent and more determined, he could have found something really would have been an adventure, something that would have been satisfying. There would have been no need for him to enhance in his mind the events of his life by looking at them from a hopelessly romantic point of view.

Naturally it was something of an adventure for him to be traveling to the Arctic, but whenever he wrote letters, or sections of a journal, or talked about the Arctic later, he had the feeling he was trying to make himself believe it was more of an adventure than it really was.

Perhaps he had to do that, though, just to protect himself from the horror of the idea that he might have been wasting everything: wasting whatever he’d learned at Harvard about literature, wasting whatever intelligence he might have had, wasting whatever life there was left for him to lead.

Part 4, Chapter 29

“To Buck it was boundless delight, this hunting, fishing, and indefinite wandering through strange places.”
–Jack London
The Call of the Wild

After reaching Ungava Bay at the northern edge of Quebec, they altered their course slightly and headed more toward the northwest. A short time later they landed for a refueling stop. David went outside the airport and walked toward the water, then turned around and looked back at the low hills ranged along one part of the horizon. The air was already much colder than it had been in Montreal, and there was an overcast sky above. It felt more like the start of winter than the middle of August.

The entire scene might have seemed a little dull, even to a dreamer like him, except for one thing. A low mist hovered close to the ground, a mist that suggested to David what Shakespeare once called “the mystery of things,” something guessed at in life, half-known, half-understood. He was filled with a sense of excitement and wonder, a sense of just barely grasping the significance of something he ought to communicate to others.

He could not for the life of him, though, figure out how to do that, and perhaps he never would.

When the plane took off again on the last part of the journey to Resolute, David sat and talked to a Canadian Air Force pilot, who seemed to have read everything Saint-Exupéry had ever written. They talked about the French writer’s vision of the world, and the conversation had the effect of only reinforcing David’s innocent romanticism. It also began to shape his state of mind for the moment they would land at Resolute several hours later.

Almost as soon as he stepped off the plane on the island, though, he realized that his existence there was not going to be quite what he had planned on. It didn’t really seem to be much of a place for innocent romanticism.

They landed around eleven o’clock at night, except that there was no night. The August sun was still shining brightly overhead. They’d arrived during the summer-long Arctic day, and there would be no real night for weeks. Even then, at the start of the dark season, the nights would be very short.

There was no airport at Resolute, hardly even a runway, only a gravel landing strip. As David stepped through the door of the plane, he saw a bleak, rocky landscape and a strange collection of long, low, buildings that appeared to ramble away in all directions. They were painted in an international orange that seemed to scream at the newcomers as they walked down the steps from the plane.

That first evening, he slept in a small room with five other men, all stacked above one another in bunk beds. Perhaps it would be better to say he tried to sleep. The others seemed constantly to come and go through the sun-filled “night,” either because they were working different shifts or because they were making trips to or from the card games someone said were going on in the twenty-four hour bar.

The following day, though, he was told he would be assigned to live and work at a temporary camp that was being set up a few miles away, next to the island’s very compact port facilities. These would be open for about four weeks, during the only time of year when the island was not embedded in the ice of the Arctic sea. During this period, the annual cargo ship that brought a year’s supply of imperishables docked and was unloaded. The goods that the island received this way were supplemented during the rest of the year by food and matériel that were flown in from Edmonton every week on a Canadian Air Force plane.

David went to work at this port camp as a dishwasher. His co-worker was a loud, rough, but likeable Canadian college student named Don. He was there to save some money, he said, before going back to university in the fall. The first job that was given to them was the task of cleaning up the kitchen, which hadn’t been used since the last ship had been there the year before. Their immediate boss was the cook who’d told the story at the airport, about the man whose hand had been stabbed because he was suspected of cheating at cards.

The cook himself, though, was a friendly, almost gentle man who treated them well. No knives through the hand, not even any yelling. He gave Don and David time to sit around and talk, like young men of college age everywhere, and they talked about the things most young men of that kind talk about: the world, life, themselves, the past and the future. Don too was new to Resolute, and perhaps without completely understanding what they were doing, they were trying to make sense of the world they were in — both world in general and the world of Resolute — and to find their place in them both.

Perhaps it was in this way that David managed to maintain whatever innocence and naiveté he still had — and apparently he still had a great deal, although given a choice between being naive and being experienced, he would have chosen the latter. The problem was that he didn’t realize just how naïve he still was. On the other hand, it may have been his innocence that allowed him to find so much beauty in the bleakness of the island landscape, beauty that was at times so compelling that it was almost as if a kind of voice was calling to him whenever he walked out alone to some deserted part of the island.

It wasn’t a real voice of course, although he reflected that people like Bradley, at Harvard, would have said he was crazy even to think in terms of anything like a “voice.”

Probably a lot of people would have said it was crazy, certainly in the world David lived in, anyway. He knew that, but he also continued to tell himself that far in the future, there might perhaps be more individuals who know exactly what he felt. Perhaps at some point in the future – he clung to this idea – that sort of experience might not seem so unusual — or crazy — at all.

At Resolute, just as at Harvard, if he’d really wanted to talk about such an experience, who could he have spoken to? Who would have listened? Who would have understood? He didn’t think anyone would.

Of course he’d read about people who would have understood such a thing, who had experienced the perception of something so beautiful it made them feel a kind of ache. He knew that someone like Keats, for example, would have easily grasped what he was talking about it. His poetry was full of it. Or someone like Jacques Maritain – who David looked up to then – would have understood.

But there was no one he personally knew at that moment who would have understood. Certainly not in the camp at Resolute. Certainly not any of the other students there. They might be able to understand some things, he thought, but not that. Sadly enough, no one at Harvard understood such things either. At Harvard, he knew from experience, anyone who saw things the way Keats did, or Maritain, was considered strange at best, not just by Bradley, but by most other people as well. Worse than that, anyone who saw things that way at Harvard then was thought to be not simply strange, but certifiably crazy.

At Harvard it was all right to study the work of men like Keats or Maritain as though their ideas and their world were self-contained little mechanisms inside a box that could be observed and studied from the outside. But actually to think like Keats or Maritain, or to see the world as they might have seen it, at Harvard such things were simply not done. They were in bad taste, even faintly obscene.

It was of course all right for Keats and Maritain to think the way they did. Keats after all was a poet, safely dead. He’d lived far in the past, when nearly everybody seemed to have strange ideas. Maritain, of course, was a philosopher, respected in some circles, but wasn’t he a Catholic? How could you expect anything but odd thoughts from a Catholic? They all believed in such claptrap anyway, didn’t they?

At any rate, that was David’s view of Harvard.

And so whatever he saw – at Harvard, at Resolute, anywhere – he kept to himself, except for writing it down in a journal. He never spoke about it to anyone. He simply went on living with the longing to understand what that haunting beauty meant — the curve of a rock, the colors of the sky at morning, the snowy, windswept reaches of the island they were on. He suspected it all might have something to do with his ideas on the existence of God, but he didn’t know what that something might be.

He also still didn’t understand that any intimation, any faint perception of such things is going to isolate a man in a certain sense, at least until he learns to translate that perception into something that others might possibly understand — translate it into sympathy, understanding, sacrifice, the ability to tolerate hardship and suffering for the sake of love.

He understood none of that then, and, sadly, he would understand only a little of it as life went on.

At least he would learn to understand a little, though.

And he would always be glad of that.

Part 4, Chapter 30

« À Sœur Fébronie qui défendait les droits de la justice divine, Thérèse avait déclaré en une autre circonstance : “Ma Sœur, vous voulez de la justice de Dieu, vous aurez de la justice de Dieu.” »
–Le Père François de Sainte-Marie
Manuscrits autobiographiques

“To Sister Febronie, who defended the rights of divine justice, Therese had said at one time: ‘Sister, if you want justice from God, you will have justice from God.’ ”
–Le Père François de Sainte-Marie
Manuscrits autobiographiques

David used to walk along the shore of a little lake not far from the port at Resolute. The water was clear, and the lake not very deep; he could see straight down to the rust colored rocks below the surface. The shore too was covered with rocks, and the hills around the lake were made of huge masses of brown stone.

For some people, perhaps, it might have seemed a rather bleak prospect, but for him, everything he saw there was dazzling. Everything reflected the pure light of the bright summer sky. He felt at times almost as though he’d found something in that frigid desert that he’d always been looking for. Of course he didn’t quite know what that something was, but he saw a purity and a beauty in the land that he thought could absorb some of the bitterness he felt, for in his selfish way, he believed more and more that life had played some kind of unfair trick on him, and he often felt angry. He thought he deserved justice.

He hadn’t yet encountered Therese of Lisieux’s comment that if it’s justice someone really wants, then it’s justice he will have.

Self-pity is sometimes understandable, and perhaps can be forgiven or overlooked in someone like David, but nevertheless it is a quality that is not pleasant to see in anyone, certainly not in anyone like David. And this seems to have been a time of self-pity for him, at least in part.

He’d hoped and wanted to do so much with his life, but nothing had come of his plans and dreams except his arrival on a barren, rocky island in the Arctic. He was simply too foolish to understand that he had arrived in the kind of desert that he’d often been looking for when he was younger, though out of different motives from the ones that had driven him to Resolute. He couldn’t grasp the fact that if he were really as idealistic as he thought he was, then Resolute was the place where those ideals could be realized: ideals such as his belief that nothing is more important in life than the God who created life – though of course such an idea sounds inexpressibly weird today – that God who can only be found by those who have left everything else and gone to a place where there is nothing else. Ideals like that are ridiculous in the contemporary age, and of course even David really didn’t understand them at all, though he may have thought he did. More than that, though, if he was looking for the desert of his ideals, he didn’t understand this desert can be found anywhere, in many different places, within them and outside each individual. It can be found in the middle of Manhattan or Tokyo as well as on a frozen island in the Arctic.

Instead of trying to understand the advantages of what life was offering, instead of trying to realize some of his ideals, David was only sad that everything he’d worked for seemed to be gone, destroyed, reduced to nothing. He simply didn’t have the necessary insight or sense of sacrifice to see what he’d been given in life. He couldn’t even seriously entertain the possibility that everything that happened to him might be the expression of what some people have written was God’s unimaginable love – although he thought that this was something he believed in deeply. Despite what he thought he believed in, David could not really believe that there exists a God who truly wants only real happiness for every human being. There may have been a part of him that found such an idea as absurd as other people find it now.

On the island in the Arctic, he thought and behaved as he always had, unfortunately. He blamed external forces for the problems he was having. He couldn’t understand that in a sense he’d really caused all his problems himself, or at least he hadn’t done all he could to resolve those problems. He couldn’t say, for example, that he really had done all he could to find a way of surviving at Harvard. He couldn’t say that at Harvard he should have cried less and tried harder.

If he was too immature or too unintelligent to understand these things, though, if he felt sad that the beauty of literature was lost to him, and if he couldn’t understand that this loss was in fact a kind of gift, he was able at least to try to console himself with the beauty around him in the Arctic. He was able to allow that beauty to speak to him, to enchant him, to call him away from the excessive dullness of the work he had to do there.

And again, it is tempting to think how easy it would be to ridicule that poor benighted boy. It would be easy to laugh at his failures. He’d tried so hard to find some meaning for his life, and he’d failed. Because he was weak and cowardly? Probably.

He’d hoped so much that he could find something useful and exciting to do in life, but obviously he hadn’t hoped hard enough or really tried to realize those hopes. He’d wanted above all to use his mind, but he hadn’t really made the kind of effort required to do that either. He allowed himself to be overwhelmed by the feeling that he’d been thwarted by parents who couldn’t understand him or his internal confusion.

And now he’d banished himself to a job that — however exotic the physical surroundings might have been — became increasingly boring as the days passed, a job that seemed to dull his mind. He felt that his education and intelligence were slipping away from him. And of course they were, for no matter how exotic the environment on that island may have been, the people in that environment certainly didn’t have minds as quick and alive and brilliant as the people he’d known at Harvard.

Still, wasn’t it true that he was the one who hadn’t had the courage and strength necessary to remain at Harvard?

Again and again, it seems difficult not to feel that such a young man as he was deserves to be ridiculed for weakness and stupidity. He didn’t really grasp that he was the one responsible for everything he’d suffered. At the very least, he was the only one who could ever find a way out of those sufferings. He was the only one who could ever see that his sufferings could in the end be turned into a source of joy.

Nevertheless, it would perhaps be unfair not to see that he was trying to do what he could, and if he didn’t understand the deeper and broader implications of his suffering, and how to find a way out of them or put them to some greater use, he was able to do one thing that may have mattered in some larger scheme of things. He did at least keep trying to discover all that was unusual in the people around him, and that wasn’t difficult to do when he first arrived in Resolute, because there were so many different kinds of people there.

Log in