Part 04, Chapters 41-50
Part 4, Chapter 41
“No, I will weep no more. In such a night
To shut me out! Pour on; I will endure.
In such a night as this! O Regan, Goneril!….
O, that way madness lies; let me shun that;
No more of that.”
When they arrived at Port Alice, David could hardly believe his eyes.
The village lay like a great stain on the nearly overpowering beauty of the landscape of western Canada. The snow-covered mountains stood in their imperturbable dignity, lifting themselves up with a sort of threatened majesty, pathetically blind to the danger that the squalor of the little town presented, encroaching from below.
The stunning, fresh clarity of the mountains and the surrounding water and sky, however, almost gave David the impression that everything was looking down at the ugly human settlement — and at him in his insignificance — not with any fear of danger, but with a certain mighty compassion. Even David, though, dimly sensed that this environment itself ought to have been the object of compassion, because of the probable destruction it would ultimately be facing.
If the mountains had possessed that kind of consciousness they would surely have felt not only compassion, but also a certain shame and humiliation at the way human beings had disfigured the region around the little port. The pulp mill sprawled in dark, brooding confusion, caked with the filth and pollution of decades. It spread itself next to the dock area like a fat, blowsy old hooker lying on a soiled bed. With a kind of insane abandon, its smokestacks poured out a burning, acrid smoke that choked and burned their lungs as soon as the cabin door opened and they stepped off the plane.
In the personnel office, even the young manager was coughing. “It’s not always this bad. Sometimes some of the chemicals aren’t mixed quite right, and if the wind blows in the wrong direction, this is the result.” He put his hand up to his mouth and gave another fierce cough. “But it’ll clear up in a day or two,” he added, “and it might be two or three weeks before we have this problem again.”
David experienced Port Alice not as a shock so much as a kind of wearying, enormously burdensome depression. He was determined, though, not to yield to that. If he’d lost what he thought of as his whole world of Harvard, if he’d lost the opportunity of leading a life that would be significant and that would give him the feeling of exhausting his strength in the pursuit of some overriding goal in literature or in the academic world, still, somewhere in his mind was the faint belief that even all the ugliness around him could somehow be put to use. And even if there was nothing that could be done with it in this world, then weren’t all the old ideals still alive, those youthful ideals that whispered to him that all this was simply the cross his faith had taught him about, the cross in one of its infinitely various forms? Those boyish ideals sometimes still whispered that Port Alice was a key that would unlock all the treasures of heaven and help him one day to experience the love of a compassionate and tender God. As absurd as that may sound to most people in the world today, and even though he could not really comprehend it himself, he still believed it, just as he believed — but could not quite grasp the significance of — the idea that God had taken from him everything he lived for so that he could perhaps learn to live for God and other people.
No matter how ridiculous that will sound to the overwhelming majority of people, David had always wanted to believe in those ideals, and would go on believing in them, always, or at least he would want to believe in them more strongly than he did. At the same time, of course, he would always admit that he never had understood them very well, certainly not as well as he should have.
Anyway, really understanding them or realizing them was beyond him then, and would always remain beyond him, more or less, only surfacing in his consciousness from time to time as the years passed. Years later, he would sometimes he think he might have believed and understood them less dimly, perhaps even understood them with a certain bright clarity, if he’d been less selfish and less limited in his thinking and his way of seeing things.
Of course he knew – he would always know – that others would say that such ideas are all the purest illusion.
Even then, much of the time, the ideals or the illusions – or his craziness – were not always of much help in allowing him to survive. What he usually felt in Port Alice was not ideals or illusions, but only the sense that he’d found a job that ground him down with its boredom and the exhausting physical demands it made.
He knew no one who could help him find a way out. Often he rebelled internally against the pain of what he was experiencing, and he felt anger and grief. Still he simply could not see any alternative. Of course he still sometimes thought of turning to his parents for help, or even to Harvard, but both of those possibilities he regarded as closed. That way madness really did lie, he told himself.
At Port Alice, the first job he had lasted two seemingly endless weeks in one of the darker, filthier, and more macabre areas of the pulp mill.
In this part of the huge factory was one of the largest — and in some ways most monstrous — machines he had ever seen in his life. It took what were for him truly majestic pieces of timber that had been torn from the sides of the British Columbian mountains, logs forty, fifty, even sixty feet long and two or three feet in diameter, drenched them with water and then, with huge steel blades, glittering wet in the dim light of a practically windowless building, as if the whole operation had to be carried out in secret, ground them murderously down to tiny wood chips.
If there was something slightly obscene taking place in that immense and horrible space, if there really was a kind of murder occurring there that had to be hidden away from the eyes of the world, David at least never felt that it was the murder of his own spirit. If he had thought in those terms, God knows what he might have done, unless he’d remembered and been able to believe in one of his old ideals: that every death can ultimately be followed by some kind of resurrection.
If he had thought like that, however, “ultimately” might have implied a point of time he was incapable of taking into consideration then. Or if he had been able to consider it, it would have seemed so far off as to be unreachable.
Part 4, Chapter 42
“(T)he worst is not
So long as we can say ‘This is the worst’.”
The floor below the gigantic machine, in a sort of huge basement, was a dark, freezing, wet underworld. There, the water from the machinery above, flowing out from the grinding process, poured down in a kind of steady rain, mixed with wet sawdust and pieces of wood. David’s job was to shovel this refuse from the floor into a wheelbarrow, and then to push the wheelbarrow along a narrow pathway of rickety boards over to a conveyor belt, and finally to dump the wet dreck onto the conveyor. All the time the cold, filthy water continued to rain down from the shrieking, clanking machinery overhead. David had been given a rubber rain suit, a hat, and boots to wear, but the water still ran down his face and neck. At the end of an eight-hour shift, he was as wet as if he’d worn no raingear at all.
The work was like something done in a circle of hell. And just as in hell, David was not alone. Dark, shapeless figures moved around in a dim light, in a kind of darkness visible, doing exactly the same work David was doing–shoveling the machine-generated waste that fell from above into wheelbarrows and then pushing the wheelbarrows, slowly and laboriously over narrow, rickety plank pathways laid over the water that covered the floor. He hardly spoke to anyone. It wouldn’t have done much good anyway. Most of the other people there appeared to be worn-out immigrant Chinese who knew no English.
When he’d look back on all that in later years, the whole situation would almost make him want to laugh, in a way. He’d want to laugh at his own stupidity for working in that place and for not finding something else to do.
Perhaps he shouldn’t be laughed at, though. Perhaps there ought to be some feeling of compassion for the poor blind boy he was then. He really believed he had no other choice.
It’s very likely that he got some satisfaction from all that suffering. It was not, however, the satisfaction of knowing that his sufferings were making any kind of contribution in what he’d learned was called the economy of grace in Catholic theology. It was not the satisfaction of knowing that he was, as his poor saints believed, sharing in sufferings that would ultimately complete the work of God’s creation. The satisfaction he felt was mainly nothing more than the adolescent satisfaction of knowing that he was undergoing something difficult, that he was proving himself as a young man.
Of course to many people it sounds foolish that all these sufferings could in any way at all have had a spiritual dimension for David. That kind of thinking is ridiculous in the world we live in now. Still, it is perhaps possible — or at least David would all his life hope it was possible – that somewhere in his mind, at some level, there was at least a slight awareness of a spiritual dimension. He would always hope that then or at some earlier time in his life these and all of the difficulties he went through could represent some kind of offering to the God he believed in. He would always hope that some larger purpose and meaning could be given to those difficulties, no matter how small and ridiculous they may seem now, or no matter how small and ridiculous David may seem now.
He had to hope and believe something like that, because – to repeat what’s been said so often before – he had so many dreams at Harvard, dreams that his life would have some significance, and even years later he couldn’t allow himself to think those dreams had been betrayed, by himself or by anyone else. He had to do everything he could to hang on to them – and he always would do that – even if it meant believing nothing more than that there’d just possibly been some small action of his, somewhere, sometime, that could give meaning to his life.
Of course he would later understand that the source of much of this desire for a significant life may have actually been a kind of pride. Perhaps, though — to be fair to the boy — those dreams may also have had some better origin than pride.
But even if at times he managed to feel a kind of satisfaction in the work he was doing, and managed to think that in the larger scheme of things all the suffering surely had some purpose, at the same time he believed he’d reached the lowest point in his existence. But then, just when he thought that, he sometimes remembered what he’d learned at Harvard: that Shakespeare wrote that as long as we can say, “This is the worst,” it isn’t really the worst, not yet. Still, he sometimes did really think then, in British Columbia, that he could go no lower than he’d gone now. There was nothing worse that could happen to him. He was so sure of that. And he continued to believe there was nothing else he could do. He continued to think that he simply had no choice except to go on as he was.
At times, though, he wondered how much longer he could go on. What he was having to live through seemed to continue endlessly, from one month to the next from one year to the next. It was not only the work at Port Alice, it was everything he thought he’d had to go through since he’d left Harvard. First there’d been the long, cold, laborious days in Wisconsin, then the slow torture of the time in New Mexico, and then the army.
A year earlier he’d been in the freezing, bleak, Kentucky winter, going from one meaningless day to the next. And now it was the same.
If not worse.
Part 4, Chapter 43
“You cannot face it steadily, but this thing is sure,
That time is no healer: the patient is no longer here.
When the train starts, and the passengers are settled…
Not escaping from the past
Into different lives, or into any future;
You are not the same people who left that station
Or who will arive at any terminus….”
–T. S. Eliot
Even though that first job at Port Alice would later seem to have continued for a very long time, in reality it went on for only a couple of seeks or so. After that, David was given another job, and a raise of twenty cents an hour.
The new work was in surroundings that seemed immaculate compared to where he’d been before, but the labor was more difficult and demanding for him, physically and even mentally.
Cynics might also say the new job was just as insane as the old one had been, but part of the reason for that was that all plant employees worked constantly rotating shifts. One week they worked days, the next week afternoons and evenings, and the week after that they had to work at night, all night. Then the cycle started over again. There was a continuous feeling of never getting enough sleep, never having enough time to adjust to the new work schedule. There was a constant sense of disorientation.
His job was to operate a large machine that reprocessed bales of pulp that had been damaged in manufacturing. He had to throw the bales into a large open tank, about twelve feet in diameter and eight or ten feet deep. The tank was full of water and at the bottom were huge metal blades turning at high speed. The pulp was dissolved and ground up into a gray sludge that was first carried away through a system of pipes and filters and then sent back through the manufacturing process.
David was expected to work very quickly and to fulfill a quota that was set by the foreman. In addition to meeting the quota, he had to spend time driving around the mill on a fork-lift, following a pre-determined route to various areas. This requirement put him under additional pressure. He had to pick up huge bales of pulp, carry them back with the forklift, and throw them by hand into the tank where the metal blades were churning the water.
David had never done that kind of work before, had never operated a forklift. Although he gave the impression of being athletic, he’d always felt clumsy around machinery, and when he drove the forklift, he was constantly afraid I would run into something, have some kind of an accident, or simply spill the load of pulp that was precariously balanced on the wooden pallet. The exhaustion and the lack of sleep magnified this sense of apprehension, and in fact he did often drop bundles or rolls or pallets of pulp and then had to ask for help in picking it all up again. He was afraid that if he’d tried to do it alone, he would never have had enough time and would never have met the quota the foreman set.
David was still so selfish, that he didn’t even notice what a remarkable thing it was that so many of the workers in the plant were willing to help him.
No matter how hard he worked, though, it was never enough. It was the first time he’d done a job that gave him a constant sense of failure. No matter how many loads of pulp he managed to throw into the machine, the foreman always pressed him for more. It never occurred to David, of course, that the young foreman was under pressure too, from his supervisor. One day, almost in tears, David shouted at him over the roar of the plant machinery, “But I’m doing the best I can!” And the foreman shouted back, “Well, your best just isn’t good enough!”
Later, perhaps because the foreman was afraid the other workers would make trouble for him — the union in the plant was a strong one — he came to David and apologized. But, as far as David was concerned, the damage had been done. Not only was he an apparently hopeless failure in life, he was also a failure at doing even a stupid job like the one he had.
As the weeks went by, though, he began to feel numb to the difficulties he was faced with. Years later he would realize that these difficulties were not, after all, really so very great, especially when compared to the horrors some young men have had to face at the age he was then, and the horrors that some still have to face. And with the numbness there came again the unrealistic sense that the whole period of time at Port Alice — which he was sure would end someday with a return to Africa — really was a kind of adventure.
The depression that had practically saturated his mind seemed to burn itself out, and it was replaced by the old desire to regard this part of his life as something exotic and exciting. He began to look around at the other people he was working and living with, and he found he was surrounded by types he’d never encountered before, people who began to appear colorful and even appealing, because they were so different from any he’d ever met in real life. They were more like characters he’d observed in books.
There was a group of loud, hard-drinking, young Irishmen. They seemed to have an affinity for David and treated him like a little brother. They were beaming and friendly almost all the time, though now and then David thought he saw a flicker of sadness in some of their faces when they looked at him, and he couldn’t understand why.
One of the people David was eventually closest to was a few years older than he was: a short, iron-tough Canadian who’d gone to New Zealand a few years before, joined the army there, and then been assigned to combat duty somewhere in Southeast Asia. He used to sit across from David in the cafeteria, smiling a gap-toothed smile from ear to ear and telling him and everyone else combat stories with passionate intensity.
His appearance and his background made him colorful enough, but what really rendered him extraordinary for David was the way the brutality of his army experiences was mixed with a sad, tender, continuous preoccupation with a Chinese girl he said he’d known in Hong Kong. She’d been powerfully, irresistibly attractive, he told them, and her grace and sense of wisdom were apparently even greater than her physical beauty. She’d been everything to him, the soldier told everyone, right from the first moment he saw her, when he’d been on leave in Hong Kong the first time.
It was never clear to anyone how much time they’d actually spent together, and whether that time had been continuous or been broken up into different periods of leave. As the days or weeks or months had gone by, though, it was clear that she came more and more to symbolize for the soldier everything that was beautiful and desirable in the world. He even claimed to feel they loved each other to the point where they were no longer living two separate lives, but sharing one single one together. Listening to him, David had the impression that the relationship between them was something nearly transcendent, that it had somehow raised the man’s awareness of life from that of a common soldier from the backwoods of Canada to that of a poet.
In the end, though, he said, he’d had to return to Canada when his army service was over. She had not believed — right up to the last moment — that he would ever leave her. At the airport, though, when he was about to board the plane, and she knew he was going, she became hysterical with grief, pulled his ring from her finger, threw it at him in rage and grief, and ran out of the airport.
He said he arrived back in Canada in a kind of daze, stunned and lost without her.
He couldn’t comprehend why he’d left her behind.
And now he was in Port Alice, obsessed with the dream of trying to save the money necessary to go back to Hong Kong to find her again.
Later, David used to wonder if he ever did go back. Much later, after he’d seen more of life, he knew the soldier never returned. He couldn’t have.
The sadness of it may be inexpressible, but David one day understood that if the soldier really had gone back, he would have found that the girl, Hong Kong, and he himself, in a sense, no longer existed.
Part 4, Chapter 44
“If I know a song of Africa — I thought — of the giraffe, and the African new moon lying on her back,…does Africa know a song of me? Would the air over the plain quiver with a color that I had had on, or the children invent a game in which my name was, or the full moon throw a shadow over the gravel of the drive that was like me, or would the eagles of Ngong look out for me?”
Out of Africa
Of course perhaps even then there was a part of David’s consciousness that was already awakening to the fact that his Canadian friend would never find the Chinese girl again. Even if David could have articulated such an idea to himself, though, he couldn’t have said such a thing to his friend, partly because he wouldn’t have wanted to shatter his dream, and partly because he wouldn’t have wanted to shatter his own dream either. He was more certain than ever now that he would soon be going back to Africa. He really knew that that was where he was going. In his adolescent way, he almost felt as though the primeval homeland of the human race itself were calling him, and if that were true, he knew he would answer. But he also knew — or at least half-knew, or anyway was somehow prepared to know — that he wouldn’t find in Africa the happiness he’d felt there before. He may somehow have understood — in some roundabout, backwards fashion — that the happiness he’d found in Africa had not come from Africa at all, had very little even to do with Africa, and really had to be pursued somewhere else.
And yet he clung to the old ideas of Africa with nearly all his strength. He continued to believe in his dreams of Africa.
Because illusions are often ineradicable, especially when people are young — David hung on to his dreams the same way that his soldier friend refused to give up the idea that he would find the Chinese girl again. In both their minds there was the seemingly indestructible idea that happiness was embodied in things external to themselves — a place, a person — and that if they could once again possess those things, they could possess happiness as well. David simply could not believe — now that he was so close to returning to Africa again — that if he went there, if he stood in those same places again, he wouldn’t know as great a happiness as he’d known there before. He couldn’t understand what the ancients knew: that no man can ever stand in the same river – or in the same place – twice.
It was almost certainly this idea, though, an idea stronger then than any idea of God, stronger than any grasp of the possible happiness of eternity – it was surely this idea that gave him a sense of purpose during the seemingly endless mass of gray, depressing days at Port Alice. Such an idea was perhaps not the best motive for surviving, but it served its purpose, and it was better than other ideas he might have had. And he did manage to survive. For that reason, the idea of Africa, that illusion, really was perhaps a kind of gift, something that enabled him to go on from one moment to the next, until he was able to leave Port Alice for good.
He’d been planning on staying there for six months or so. One evening, though, after he’d been at Port Alice for four months, he was talking with another friend of his, a young Canadian named Tony, who had taken a year off from university in order to save money and then travel around Europe with some friends. On this particular evening, Tony and David talked for a while, and then decided to go to the movies at the little theater in the town.
The film they saw that evening was “The Train,” a story of some members of the French Resistance who were trying to recover a large number of paintings the Nazis had stolen from the Jeu de Paume near the end of World War Two.
After the movie, Tony and David went back to the plant cafeteria for coffee.
They sat in silence for a moment. “I guess there are probably a lot reasons for criticizing that movie,” I said. “I know it’s just a story, but I think the underlying ideas are real enough.”
Tony looked down into his coffee cup for a moment, then looked up with an intense expression on his face. “I know what you mean. Maybe there weren’t people who did things that were heroic in exactly that way. But there was plenty of heroism in the world then.”
“I guess there had to be, if the world was going to survive.”
“Yeah, and not only that, but there’s the whole question of what it means to be part of a great nation, a country like France, with everything that its culture means.”
They looked around at the cafeteria, with its plastic tables and chairs, the bare neon lights overhead, some empty beer bottles left on one of the tables. “I guess North Americans wouldn’t know much about that,” David said.
Tony stared at an over-colored aerial photograph of downtown Vancouver hanging on the wall. “I can’t imagine living in a country where you can just walk into a museum and see so much great art. I can’t imagine what a country must be like, that can produce all that art. And the impressionist paintings in the Jeu de Paume were all produced within a few decades. I find that just incredible.”
David looked at him, and for a brief moment it seemed as if he was seeing Tony from very far away. “I saw those paintings once,” he said. “The ones in the movie, the ones in the Jeu de Paume. Sometimes I think it was an experience that changed my life. I think in the whole world there could be nothing like those paintings.”
Then Tony said, “You know, I’ve saved all the money I’m going to need when I go to Europe, so I think I’m probably going to leave here next week.” He paused as if he were expecting me to say something. “You know, if you wanted to get away from Port Alice now too, we could be in Paris a week from now, looking at those paintings.”
His words seemed to break down some hard, brittle, fragile structure in David’s mind. He’d been planning to stay in Port Alice until April or May and then go back to East Africa at that point, but when he thought about it, he didn’t see any reason at all why he couldn’t leave now. It would still be cold in Paris, but it was nearly spring, so how chilly could it be there? And anyway, how much money would he really need in Africa?”
He thought to himself, yes, it would be almost spring, and he would be in Paris again. He could see the Louvre and the Jeu de Paume once more, and maybe he’d even see everything the way he’d seen it on his first trip to Europe. He’d be free of Port Alice, free of the endless drudgery of his life and work there, free of the horror. The cold, dreary, empty days would be finished. He’d be in Europe again, and after that — Africa. No more dreams, no more fantasies, Africa again, real and substantial, there, beneath his feet.
And along with Africa, he thought, there’d also be the hope of finding again the happiness he’d known there before. Naturally he heard the little voice of common sense warning him again that he’d never find it, but he was simply incapable of believing such a thing. After all, Africa was still there, wasn’t it? Surely it must be just the same as it had been before. After all, he was the same, wasn’t he? Had he really changed in any way?
He smiled at Tony. “All right,” he said, “let’s go. Next week. I’ll call Cook’s in Vancouver tomorrow and change my ticket. Give me the number of your flight, and I’ll get a seat on the same plane.”
His Irish friends were shocked. One of them even begged him to stay.
A week later, though, Tony and he were gone.
Part 4, Chapter 45
“…Facti sumus sicut consolati.
Tunc repletum est gaudio os nostrum….”
–Psalmus 125 (126)
“…(W)e walked like men in a dream;
in every mouth was laughter….”
–Psalm 125 (126)
It seemed like a dream to him — leaving the ugliness and grime of Port Alice on a spring morning that was, after months of winter gloom, clear and bright, heading south in a tiny plane over the forests and mountains of British Columbia, and then being in Vancouver again, shining and clean and now in this splendid season so very different from what it had been at the beginning of winter.
David spent a few days in Vancouver with Tony and his parents, and then they left for Paris. He was so very certain the flight was the beginning of the fulfillment of the single most important desire he’d had for four years. It would mean the end of the longing for Africa, the end of the longing for the happiness he’d known there. He was convinced he was doing the right thing by going back. Certainly there was a chance he would be disappointed, but surely somewhere in that enormous country, in Tanganyika, he’d be able to find something to do, something that would allow him to feel like a man, like a human being, something that would let him feel the same sense of freedom and responsibility he’d felt in Africa before, the same innocent tranquility.
Surely now, he thought, this time in Africa he’d be able to put behind him for good all the unhappiness that seemed inextricably involved with his relations with his mother and stepfather. He could learn again the things he’d started to learn in Africa before: what it was to be an adult, a man, what it meant to leave childhood behind, how a man felt about life and how a man reacted to it. He understood he hadn’t yet learned those things, certainly not the way other young men his own age had learned them, and he believed that in this respect there really was something wrong with him.
Naturally he vaguely understood that by staying away from Harvard and the academic world he was becoming insensitive to the intellectual life, he was in a way brutalizing himself. This process had only continued at Port Alice, where he felt he’d had to numb his mind in order to survive the long, dull hours of manual labor. But if he could learn how to be good, how to be a man, he thought to himself, if he could escape from what he perceived to be a kind of prison of childishness and wrongdoing in the house of his mother and stepfather – and at Harvard – then the sacrifice even of the intellectual life would be worth it.
As the plane carrying him and Tony headed east from Vancouver, over the Rockies and over the prairies of Canada toward Montreal, he sat looking out of the window, thinking of Africa, thinking too about the kind of man he was sure he could be, once he returned to Tanganyika. It’s true that he was distantly aware of the possibility that all of the things he was running from were things that he was carrying inside himself, things he couldn’t escape quite so easily or quite in the way he thought, but he didn’t let himself think much about that possibility. It might have brought him too close to despair if he’d thought about all that, because he could see no way out of his difficulties, other than the way he was taking. All he could think of was the happiness he’d known in Africa before, a happiness he was so certain had really come from Africa.
He never thought much about the ultimate source of that happiness. He was so sure that once he was in Africa again, the vicious processes of life — as he saw them — in twentieth-century America would be stopped in him, and then reversed. And then perhaps he would slowly be able to live and think and feel as a man, as an adult human being.
That, he told himself, was all he wanted. And perhaps it was true.
Part 4, Chapter 46
“Die Entfaltung und Verteidigung von Selbstbestimmung muss täglich sozialen Zwängen und Bevormundungen abgerungen werden, die sich, wenn man sie nicht ins Auge fasst, unerkannt im Inneren fortsetzen und Menschen sich selbst entfremden“.
Bedenken gegen Anpassung
“Every single day, the ability to determine one’s own self must be developed and defended in the face of social forces and dictates that threaten man from within, forces and dictates that would alienate people from their very selves if they did not remain not constantly vigilant.”
Bedenken gegen Anpassung
Of course he know how silly such ideas probably sound, he had ever mentioned them to anyone — ideas about the search for adulthood that he was on, or thought he was on — but he was desperate then, and those ideas were still among the few things he had that could help him survive.
And he needed all the help he could get, since he was very often convinced that not only were his mother and stepfather encouraging and even compelling him to become the sort of person he didn’t want to become, but the society around him was reinforcing in him a response to life that he did not want.
As he saw it, the pattern of life he’d grown up in was making him into something he didn’t want to be, and he had to break that pattern. He was weak and irresponsible, he thought, compared to the ideal he had in his mind, compared to the kind of man he wanted to be and thought he could be, and it was the society around him, he believed, that was making him weak and irresponsible. That society seemed to be doing everything it could to undermine the strength and sense of responsibility a man should exercise in his life. The people in that society seemed to prefer weak, passive men, since they appeared to him then to be the only kind that was successful. From what he’d learned of life, he’d come to believe that if a man was strong, then he’d be harassed constantly, and subjected to forces that relentlessly ground him down. It was the soft and feminine man, he sometimes thought, who survived most easily, because such a man was not perceived as a threat.
Of course such ideas are absurd, and it is tempting to want to laugh at David because of them, but such ideas perhaps indicate the entire framework of thought that had developed in every area of David’s mind, through no fault of his own. Perhaps it would not be right to judge him too harshly. He had lost everything that was important to him in life, and those ideas may have been of some help to him in surviving his failure.
At any rate, this is the way he saw things, and he acted on this vision of the world by going off and searching for another kind of society, by trying to return to a country where he thought strong, intelligent men were encouraged to survive, where he thought people understood that if such men didn’t survive, everyone would be the worse for it.
He was pursued and driven by the desire to be the kind of man he thought of as an ideal type of human being, but this desire involved a terrible internal struggle against forces that seemed determined to shape him into something he did not want to be. These forces seemed always on the verge of breaking out in a way he thought he could not control, and much of his intellectual energy seemed lost in that struggle. He saw it as a fight for survival, but the only outcome appeared to be that one half of his mind tried continually to repress the other half.
Part 4, Chapter 47
“Upon a great adventure he was bond,…
And ever as he rode, his hart did earne
To prove his puissance in battell brave
Upon his foe, and his new force to learne….”
The Faerie Queene
It was evening when they landed in Montreal and changed planes for Paris. And by that time the tension and anxiety he was feeling about the future had increased to the highest pitch he’d felt in a long time, higher perhaps than when he first went to Vancouver, at least as high as when he first arrived in Montreal nearly a year before.
His fear of the future seemed to have become so great now that it was apparently only his conscious will that was driving him forward on his journey. The rest of him resisted it with all its considerable strength.
He wondered what he would do in Africa once he was back there, for the powerful attraction of Africa seemed gradually to be disappearing, now that he was faced with the reality of actually going back there and having to find something to do, having to find some way of making money, some way of surviving, alone, on a continent where he might feel himself to be a stranger now.
A nearly overpowering fear of the unknown divided his consciousness. He wanted to return to Africa, but he also wanted to give up the struggle, give up the idea of returning there, and the only thing that allowed him to continue was his will – no inner desire now, no inner drive at all, simply his will, in the face of a fear that somehow continued to increase every day, just when he thought it couldn’t possibly become any stronger.
One half of his consciousness seemed to want to kill the other half, the half that was so very afraid, the half that seemed to have such a powerful opposing will of its own. And it almost seemed right that it should be killed, since so many other things in him appeared to have been killed: whatever sensitivity he’d once had, for example, or articulateness or learning or love of literature.
When they arrived in Paris, all of the things he’d learned were evil and knew were evil, all these things began again to exert a powerful attraction for him. However, along with this attraction, there came an intense awareness of the loveliness of the civilization he wanted to run away from — that civilization that he blamed for all his unhappiness and all his problems.
Paris seemed alive with beauty. The very buildings spoke to him of the greatness and mystery he thought he’d glimpsed in all the literature he’d read at Harvard.
He went to the Louvre again, to the Jeu de Paume, and looked at those paintings that had meant so much to him when he first saw them as a boy in high school, an eternity ago. He looked at the impressionist canvases and felt again that they were providing him with views into another dimension, one where there were unlimited possibilities for using his freedom and intelligence.
The gentle shapes and colors he saw in that dimension represented a more coherent and more beautiful world, where he could find a sort of nobility and harmony, and where everything made sense. When he’d first seen those paintings as a boy, they were a slowly unfolding discovery for him, a discovery of the possibility that somewhere there might really be people who perceived and desired the kind of world those paintings revealed to him. Those images had been like messages from some impossibly distant place, messages from people who spoke to him as if they knew him.
Now they seemed almost to call to him, insistently, as though they were conscious beings who sensed that he was planning to leave them forever, which of course he was in fact hoping to do. He was even determined that if the civilization he was part of could not allow him to be the kind of man he wanted to be, then he would abandon it, just as he’d abandoned Harvard, without caring at all how many beautiful things he would have to leave along with it.
Ridiculing David for these ideas would be a way of dismissing him, but perhaps it should be borne in mind that even though he was experiencing a kind of adolescent paranoia – or worse – the pain he was suffering was not always easy for him to deal with. Even though he was usually so accustomed to it that he hardly noticed it, there were moments of desperation when he felt that all he could do was cry out and rage and weep. But to whom? Or to what? Very soon he would no longer – for a time, anyway – believe in anything beyond the material world around him, what he could perceive with his senses.
In the end, after one brief, final struggle with himself in Europe, he was convinced that he had to return to Africa. He was absolutely certain that it was still not too late to return and find there the same innocence he’d found before. As soon as he was there again, he told himself, everything would be the same as it had been before. He could continue where he’d left off four years earlier. He could continue making himself the kind of man he wanted to be, the kind he thought he should be, and knew he could be.
After a few days in Paris, Tony made arrangements to leave for Geneva, where he’d arranged to meet some friends he was planning to travel around Europe with. David had a reservation on a flight to Nairobi, via London.
The morning of the day he planned to leave Paris, he packed his things and left the hotel. Before going to the airport, though, he found a church where there was a priest who spoke English. The old sacraments of his childhood — he wanted them again in order to try to reinforce the sense of a new beginning in his life. He wanted to feel better, the way he always did after confession and absolution, as if everything in the world had somehow been made right once more. He wanted again to feel there was no need to be afraid of anything.
And for a time, the fear was in fact gone. On the way to the airport, he allowed myself to luxuriate in the delight of knowing that at last, after all the months and years of pain, he would soon be in Africa again, he would know the happiness he’d known before in that place. There would be no more longing, no more suffering. He would be safe once more from all the confusion, all the evil, all the unhappiness that had seemed to threaten him ever since he’d left Africa four years earlier.
Again, the benighted boy was really convinced all that would happen.
Part 4, Chapter 48
“Laszlo: And what if you track down these men and kill them? What if you murdered all of us? From every corner of Europe, hundreds, thousands, would rise to take our place. Even Nazis can’t kill that fast.”
–Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, Howard Koch
Screenplay of “Casablanca”
After a flight of less than sixty minutes, the plane he was on started its descent into Heathrow. The flight to Nairobi was due to leave in two hours, and now he felt as though he were being carried along on a wave of happiness. He was certain that within hours all the emotional misery, the depression, and the near-despair of the past few years would be over forever. The flight to Africa would be that secret door in the wall that opened into the bright, enchanting country, and once he was past that door, he was determined never to make the mistake he’d made before: this time he would not go back.
He did encounter one small difficulty, however, at Heathrow.
After he arrived from Paris, he went straight to the check-in counter for the London-Nairobi leg of the flight and handed his passport to the young woman there. She stared at it for a moment, rather coldly, it seemed to him, and with an attitude of steely efficiency that was only accentuated by her tailored, dark-blue British Airways uniform.
She looked up at him darkly, with an expression that seemed to say, “Well, we’re certainly not going to let you get away with anything.”
Without uttering a word, she turned away from him and made some notes on a piece of paper.
He waited, and in his selfish way he felt the soaring happiness that had invaded his mind on the flight from Paris dragged down to earth now. After what seemed like an endless length of time, she looked at him again.
“Yes?” she said, as though he were not a customer but an inconvenient interruption in her attempts to complete much more important duties, as though she hadn’t the faintest idea what he could possibly be doing there at the check-in counter.
David probably looked at her with just that mixture of pain and anger she may have been hoping for. “I’d like to reconfirm my reservation,” he said slowly, “on the flight to Nairobi this afternoon.”
“May I see your ticket, please?”
He handed it over, and she examined it for a moment. Then she looked at his passport. There was a long silence.
Finally she said, “I see that you don’t have a visa for Kenya.”
“But the woman at British Airways in Paris said I didn’t need one.”
Without a word she turned around and took a large black volume down from a shelf of reference materials behind her. She glanced through the book for several moments and then looked up with what looked like a small gleam of triumph in her eyes.
“What passport are you holding?”
“American. I just gave it to you,” he said, suddenly hearing a note of desperation and pleading in his own voice.
She glared at him as though the tone of that remark represented some absolutely unbelievable act of lèse-majesté.
Then she looked at the book in front of her again while David stood there, starting, in his childish way, to feel the tears well up behind his eyes.
She seemed so cold, so unfeeling, and so unkind. He could not understand how anyone could actually be like that. He felt confused, and more uneasy and angrier with every passing moment. He didn’t know how he should react to this woman’s evident and incomprehensible dislike of him, to what seemed to be her attitude of contempt.
Now even her accent was starting to become affected and snobbish — or so he thought. It was the kind of British accent Americans find particularly irritating. It occurred to him that perhaps she knew that.
She looked icily into his eyes. “I’m sorry, Mr. Austin, but according to government agreements” — he could feel the weight of the whole western world on her side — “according to government agreements, American passport holders are not permitted to enter Kenya without a visa.”
The book snapped shut.
The Queen of England, the Prime Minister, and the presidents of two other countries, the Republic of Kenya and the United States of America, had now spoken.
And they were all backing her up.
“But I’m only in transit through Nairobi. I won’t even be leaving the airport,” he said feebly. And now he was pleading with her.
She raised her eyebrows as though surprised he still had not learned who was in charge here.
“Even transit passengers need visas,” she said.
Then he knew what he should have known at the beginning: there was nothing he could do.
He looked at her and saw a woman who took great pleasure in her work.
The last thing she did before making a reservation on the same flight the following day was to give him the address of the Kenyan Embassy, where he could get the visa she said he needed.
She would now have something to look forward to the next day, he thought to himself, a day of more sadistic pleasure dealing with passengers. For David, it was very easy to feel bitter and vindictive, but then suddenly he was in something of a panic as it occurred to him that she — or someone like her — could postpone his flight again and again and again.
It could go on indefinitely.
And with that thought, absurdly and melodramatically, in his adolescent, Walter-Mitty way, he could almost hear something like a line from Casablanca in his mind: Major Strasser saying, “You have all the time in the world. You may be in London indefinitely. . . .”
Part 4, Chapter 49
“Well, World, you have kept faith with me,
Kept faith with me;
Upon the whole you have proved to be
Much as you said you were.”
A Consideration on My Eighty-Sixth Birthday
In the course of the discussion at the British Airways counter, his feelings changed from enormous delight to bitter depression, and the fact that they could change so quickly shows how immature and selfish – or perhaps simply ill – he really was. It shows how little he understood life, how little he understood the beliefs and ideals he thought he had. In fact, it probably shows how little he really understood anything at all.
Again, the temptation to heap ridicule and scorn on the boy, because of such childishly rapid emotional changes, is always there. To do that, though, might represent a failure of kindness and humanity. The best thing to do might be to acknowledge how young and hopelessly wrongheaded he was, and leave it at that.
Of course even at that time he wanted to try to change his behavior, to be better, to measure up to all those ideals he still had. In fact, he would go on wanting such a thing all his life, even though he’d never really succeed in being better or in realizing his ideals. Without continually making such attempts, though, his life would have had less meaning. He himself would eventually come to think of that as simply one more stupid idea — at least as far as most people were concerned — but he would always really believe that the attempt to be a better person could and should never end, not in this world anyway, no matter how much failure that attempt might entail.
He would even come to think that all of that was a reason for a certain happiness, because there would always be more to do, there would always be more to suffer, to suffer in order to achieve something that might somehow be significant. He would also eventually believe that the attempt to be a better person was a sacrifice he could also make for other people. More than that – though even he knew it would sound ridiculous in today’s world – it was a sacrifice he could make for God as well. He knew there would always be some fault to correct in himself. There would always be opportunities to spend time preparing — and again, he would one day understand how absurd it sounds — for eternity.
At that time, though, he really understood very little of all that, if he understood any of it at all, and so when he finally did leave London the day after he got his visa, he was still bitter and angry and actually possessed by the conviction that he would never come back, either to England or to any other place in that civilization that he thought had destroyed so much of his life and made him so miserable.
He was certainly not very capable of looking at his situation from a point of view that anyone would call spiritually advanced or magnanimous or forgiving or understanding.
He was angry, because up until the time when he had been forced — as he saw it — to leave Harvard, he’d thought he was capable of fulfilling all the hopes and dreams he’d created for himself. He’d thought he could achieve all the greatness his vague ambitions embodied. Now, though, the only thing he had was a terrifying uncertainty over what would happen to him in the future.
He was angry because he thought he’d tried all his life to do the right thing, and now for two long years, instead of being rewarded, he seemed to have been only punished for it, again and again.
Perhaps it can’t be repeated too often that in many ways David was really not very bright, so that he could not understand that people who try to do the right thing very often go through their whole lives suffering and in some cases are always despised.
He’d thought he was doing the right thing by leaving Harvard in order to escape his strange imaginings that people were trying either to corrupt him or to make him into something he felt he wasn’t, or wasn’t yet prepared to be. He’d almost felt that anything he achieved at Harvard would have to be, in a sense, paid for with his soul. An absurd idea, of course. Even he knew that, but if he hadn’t been completely convinced of that idea when he was at Harvard, he’d at least been afraid that he might be convinced of it very soon. He’d had to leave, for what he thought were the right reasons, the best reasons, but he’d received nothing in return, and that made him bitter. This probably indicates – and this too has to be repeated – how very selfish he really was.
There had seemed to be no alternative, though, except to leave Harvard and to try to do what he’d been taught was right, no matter what the cost. However, that cost was more than he’d imagined it would be. In fact, there seemed to be no end to the cost, and there seemed to be no reward at all. There was only this – for him – endless sense of suffering, in Wisconsin and New Mexico, in the army, in Montreal and the Arctic and Vancouver.
And now there was Africa again. And if he should find in Africa only more suffering, and not the joy that he’d found there before — what then? Well, at least, he thought, he would be in Africa again, and that might perhaps be enough. And if it wasn’t? If it wasn’t, at least he would know, he would know that everything he’d believed – about Africa and, in some strange way, about life itself – was only an illusion. At least he would know, and that, it seemed to him, would be something.
The flight to Nairobi was once again like stepping off the end of the world and finding himself in another universe, at first anyway. There was a stewardess who looked after him on the flight, and she was a mirror-image of the dragon in London. She brought him so many free drinks that by the time they arrived in Kenya he was for the moment extremely well protected against any unpleasant reality he might find in Africa. He continued to have the feeling that his hopes would probably be disappointed, though, but what could he do? He thought he had nothing else to hope for except his dream of Africa. He couldn’t give it up, not yet anyway.
Unlike many other people who rely on some kind of faith when they’re in desperate situations, David had a faith that was in the end so weak that it was impossible for him to really place any hope in anyone like God, at least not when serious difficulties came up in his life. Part of the reason for that, of course, was that David himself was very weak.
The religious belief he’d once had seemed so battered that he felt it was dissolving in his mind, like an ice sculpture ravaged by a windstorm in the desert.
Perhaps he was forgetting what hope really meant, perhaps he remembered it only as a kind of abstract theory.
Not long after they landed in Nairobi, apprehension occupied virtually every part of his conscious mind — but there was anger there as well, because the bureaucratic drama in London turned out to have been pointless. No one asked to see his visa for Kenya. No one even looked at his passport. He was simply directed to the transit lounge, where he waited for about an hour for his flight to Bukoba, in Tanganyika.
Sometimes the most decisive events in life occur in the quietest and most unobtrusive way: a word, a look, some simple statement, an apparently insignificant gesture, and then the world can change forever. Of course it’s probably true that there’s been a process of preparation for a long time in the subconscious. Still, when reality shifts in some radical way, it’s often the result of some apparently unimportant event, and for the conscious mind, it’s nearly always a surprise.
Part 4, Chapter 50
“What did he fear? It was not a fear or dread. It was a nothing that he knew too well….Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it all was nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada. Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada….He smiled….”
A Clean, Well-Lighted Place
There was an African also in the transit lounge, well-dressed, and in his mid thirties. He and David were the only two people in the room, and they sat there in silence for a few minutes, politely ignoring each other, in the English fashion. Then the man said, “Are you going on to Bukoba, or just to Entebbe?”
“I’m going to Bukoba,” David said. And when this statement was followed only by silence, he added, “I was there a few years ago.”
The man seemed to study his face for a moment before asking, “Did you like it?”
“Yes, I liked it very much,” said David, smiling. “I’ve been looking forward to going back there ever since I left.” He started to feel — and show — some of the old enthusiasm, but the man interrupted him.
“You’ll find it’s changed a good deal since you were there before.” Then he stared ahead of him, as if carefully considering something. He said nothing.
The way he’d made the remark hadn’t been particularly dramatic. It was in fact quite an ordinary statement, but there was something, in his tone perhaps, that left no doubt in David’s mind that a good deal had changed, that everything had changed, and that nothing would ever be the same again, nothing would ever be as it had been when he was in Africa the first time. He knew it all at once, in the depths of his mind. He knew it as deeply as he’d ever known anything. He knew it with the same certainty that he knew all the incontrovertible facts of existence.
And that’s all there was. A world disappeared forever, almost as if it had never existed. And even though it might continue to have some shadowy existence in his memory, he knew the reality would be forever different.
A little later, as he sat there on the plane, thinking about what the man had just said to him, he began to feel depressed again. He began to remember the newspaper reports of the violence and disorders and killings that had taken place in Tanganyika not long before, and his anxiety increased, and his sense of tension. As he sat there in silence, a feeling of foreboding began to grow and then to envelop and crush in on him as though it were a palpable substance.
Under the weight and pressure of this tension, this anxiety, this sense of loss, the whole, neat inner world that he had created for himself began to crack, weaken, and slowly collapse.
If, he thought to himself, he had given up all that was important to him — the entire, breathtaking world of the intellectual life, all hope of ever using his mind to discover or achieve or realize whatever greatness he could — if all that was now gone, and if the dreams of the contemplative life were gone as well, and if now the last desperate hope he had invested Africa with had also disappeared, then what was left in life? If he’d given up everything in order to be the kind of man he thought he ought to be, in order to lead a good life, and if all hope of doing that was now lost – as it seemed to him – then what meaning did life have?
Wasn’t everything meaningless now? Weren’t existence and religion and even the idea of God meaningless? Hadn’t they been right, after all, all those at Harvard and elsewhere who had seemed to whisper in his ear: “Life is absurd, life has no meaning. The only reason to live is to experience whatever pleasure we can, because in the end we’re all going to die and we’ll vanish into nothingness — and our consciousness with us.”
In the short space of a few moments, it seemed, existence became an empty thing. It became a hoax. A sickening feeling came over him when he thought of all those years of wasted struggle — the waste in his own life and in the lives of millions of others as well, all those who had ever placed their hope in any belief or in any ideal. If he could come back here, now, to Africa, to the one place he had been convinced for years he could be happy and where life would have some meaning, and if here, of all places, he could be faced with some of the same fears and unhappiness that had driven him from Harvard, then what point was there in anything? After he’d left from Harvard, after the weeks and months of boring, grueling labor in Wisconsin and in the army, and in Montreal and the Arctic and in British Columbia, after all the pain and temptation, if he still could not escape the moral and intellectual horrors that had first confronted him at Harvard, then all the prayers and hopes and everything else had obviously made no difference at all. Even his belief in God had clearly made no difference after all, had it?
All of it had been of no use — the long hours praying and thinking and waiting and hoping, the struggle not to think the thoughts and do the things he had been told were wrong. So much energy had been wasted on spiritual and intellectual ideals, and all those ideas were gone now. Everything was gone now. There was nothing, nothing at all.
When this sort of decisive crisis occurs, when a boy or young man like David feels his whole world wrenched from its frame with apparent suddenness, there is often no dramatic external sign, no tears or shouts or cries of anguish, there is no tortured twisting and writhing of the body, no groaning or clenching of fists. The death of the mind and heart and spirit can come more peacefully than that. A world ends, a slight spasm passes over the boy’s face; he leans forward slightly and touches his hand to his forehead, and then it’s over.
It would perhaps be truer to say, though, that he permits it to be over — or rather, in this case, it was David who permitted it to be over. Maybe if he’d cried out, if he’d clung to the old beliefs, if he’d spoken even the slightest prayer, or better yet, if he’d poured out a torrent of prayer, those prayers would have been heard. Then he might even have seen the ancient truth: that at such times everything is removed from an individual’s life so that there will be no room in it for anything but the one thing necessary. David was too young, though, and unfortunately too stupid to really understand that. And even if he had understood it, he might have been too weak to act on all the implications of such an idea.
Instead, he continued to wallow in misery and despair and self-pity, perhaps because that’s what he really wanted, what he may have continued to want for years to come.
The other passenger on the plane, the African businessman, turned to him. “Is anything the matter?”
“No,” he said, “nothing’s the matter,” and he thought to himself, no, nothing was the matter, except that a universe had just imploded, except that he knew his soul was lost, although he had no soul now. He had no soul, and there was no eternity, no God, nothing. There was nothing at all, forever, a non-eternity of emptiness and nothingness.
So, there it was. And what would he do now? Whatever he could, he told himself. He was in Africa again, and he would not go back. Fear and anxiety might be eating away at him, he might not even be able to think coherently, and he certainly did not know what he would do next. Still, if he tried, there must be something he could do, some kind of work, some job. He’d found one before in Africa, the first time he’d been there. Surely it would be possible to find one again.
Africa seemed so cold now, though. How would he survive? His beliefs and ideals had been the glue that held his life together; now they were gone, and there was nothing to replace them, nothing to give his life purpose and meaning. There was nothing except a sense of emptiness and cold despair, a fear of the future that made him shiver, and an excruciating anxiety.
He thought life held nothing else for him from that time on.