ILSE AND I sit at a table in the sun. We have finished lunch, are having coffee. We are at the edge of a cliff, look over miles of blue water to a wooded peninsula and another island, above which Mount Rainier rises abruptly from the sea, solitary, covered with a glimmering whiteness merging with the blue-white sky. Ilse wears an orange halter dress and a straw hat. Through the filigree brim of the hat the sun makes a bright grid on her cheek. Her brown arms rest on the table.
“There’s no place for me here,” she says. “I’m not needed. Except as a cook. I don’t mind cooking if I’m also a companion, but I won’t be just a cook. Joan can fix your meals. Maybe you’ll like that better . . . You don’t want a companion. You don’t speak. Whatever you think, whatever you feel, it stays inside. You don’t tell me. After breakfast you disappear into that study and talk to God. Joan wanders off into the woods and talks to animals. I have no one to talk to. I wait.”
Monty comes racing up to the table, pushes at my arm. I look up. Down the slope in the orchard Joan is on her knees, hair falling over her face. Presently she stands, lifts her cupped hands to eye level, slowly opens them. A movement of head indicates her observation of a ladybug in flight. I shift the coffee cup as Monty paws at my arm.
“I’m not important to you,” Ilse says. “You care about Joan and you care about your work. That’s all. I’m like Monty. I keep nudging but can’t get your attention. He wants to tell you Something. And you look up. But as soon as you reassure yourself that Joan is all right, you lose interest. But it’s still important to him. Maybe he’s found a snake and wants to show you.”
She stands. “Come on, Monty. I’ll go with you.” She holds out her hand and starts off, but Monty won’t follow. He sits beside me. “Nobody here wants me,” she says. “That’s why I’m leaving. ”
I draw her down beside me, put my arms around her, kiss her. “I want you. What does it take to convince you? Have you forgotten last night?”
“Last night! Ha! Why is there nothing left over? Why are you not with me? Really with me?”
“Remember how cold it was at midnight? How we wandered through the orchard, arms around each other? That blackness of forest, that icy blaze of stars? And later, how warm?”
“And where is it now? Where has it gone? All morning you were in your study. On the cross! Why do you leave me alone? Always! Always! I would take you down and bathe your feet, but you’ll have none of it. You want the nails left in place. You don’t believe you could stand up on your own, move around in life and just live. You bequeath your life,to posterity because you’re afraid to live it with me. Your passion goes into your work. Your romantic feelings go to Joan. I get what’s left, the carnality. Thanks a lot! Even that could be something. I try to make it mean more to you, to spill over into the rest of living, to mean to you what it means to me. I can’t tell you. I try to show you. Something in you holds back.”
In the cold night she flings herself wide, takes me in beyond her control of what may at such depths then happen to her. I am touched by her trust and by that response which wells up in her, gushes over in a voice from another world. “Oh, Allen! . . . Allen! . . . Darling!” By allowing me to touch her so deeply, she makes me a god. Her arms are tight around me. I am the source and the object of her passion. It begins and ends in me. The world has disappeared.
But my desire does not end in her. I reach into her for something that lies beyond. My heart is a galloping hoofbeat, but in the dark press I pursue a secret end. I strain into her for something to carry me away. Not the wave that lifts us both; something else. Something I reach for but do not touch. I just miss. And when the wave drops me back in the same bed alongside the same woman, who sighs in utter happiness and snuggles against me, and I caress the soft black hair and murmur in her ear-then under cover of darkness failure pools in my eyes. I have been close but have missed.
I hear the hum of eternity. I think of the trolley at the foot of Nob Hill, cable thrumming under the street; I’m the gripman, I lean back on the grip, the car hooks on, begins to move, is carried up, up, to the top. Such a strand is running here, silently, powerfully. I feel its presence, close, somewhere in this darkness. She and I are but momentary thickenings on this endless strand. Our grip is failing, we are falling away, the cable slips by us, through us, faster, faster. Straining into her I seek the silken strand, want to seize it, be carried up out of this valley of death.
“I feel used,” she says.
“YOU’RE IN A trance,” Ilse says. “Are you looking for those hidden threads. . . still?” I smile, nod. “Well, don’t! Come, sit down. Pay attention to me. It’s bad enough you leave me alone all week. Don’t leave me while you’re still here. The weekend isn’t over yet.”
I sit on the bed, the dusk of the room thickening and flickering. She takes my hand. Her fingers are feverish. “Tell me,” she says, “what could be more important than our being together?” “I have to work.” “But what? What is it? What really do you do?” The fingers of her hand are unsatisfied, wait, continue to ask. “You’re a psychoanalyst,” she says. “You know already a great deal. Why isn’t that enough?” I make a deprecating gesture. “I want to find the pattern that. . . falls away in the night.”
The air seems to become milky. Fog stands at the window. The sounds from the street are muffled. The faint reflections of red have disappeared.
“You HAVE A terrible mind,” she says. “It takes everything apart. So what can you find? There’s nothing there. Of course! Because you’ve taken it apart! Life is in the configuration of things, the relatedness. You can take a watch apart and put it back together and maybe it will still tick, but you can’t do that with a flower or a kitten-or with me. That’s the trouble with you. You’re a mechanic, but life is not a machine.
“I’m different. I try to make people Set. A face, a flower, a dog. Particularly a face in the moment of a changing mood, a flower turning toward the sun, a dog hearing a strange sound. I say to people, ‘Look! This is life. Isn’t it marvelous! Isn’t it wonderful!’ But you don’t do that. You look at the world and you see what I see, but you pay no attention to it. You’re not interested in the surface of life, only in its depth. You ignore the face and surmise about the bloody psychodynamics.
“And as for the flower, that’s just a nuisance for you, something to be watered. If it weren’t for me, there’d not be a single plant in this house-or around the house-because they require attention and so keep you from your precious work. And the same for the dog; if it weren’t for Joan twisting your arm, there’d never be a dog in this house. You’re not interested in faces and flowers and dogs. That’s life, but you’re not interested in life itself, only in understanding life. So you hardly glance at life, you’re in such a terrible hurry to understand it, to master its causality, the theory, the principle, how it works.
Life threatens you, so you want to control it. But it can’t be controlled. That’s its nature. Once you can control it, it’s gone. And if ever you finish your theory, get everything worked out, you’ll find yourself king of the dead. Nothing will stir in your realm. Not a breath of air.”
ALL MARRIAGES ARE quarrelsome and difficult, all except those good marriages that are good because one of the pair is passive, allowing the other to dominate, and, since rights are respected only to the degree one is prepared to defend them, eventually to demean and to exploit, whereupon over time the compliant one accumulates submerged rancor so massive, expressed in the modes of that same passivity that once expressed the love, that the marriage fills to the rooftop with coldness, until finally beneath the facade of harmony there is nothing but a block of ice.
Do not dwell on the shortcomings of your marriage, or on the unfortunate personality traits of your wife. Dwell rather on what is right about it, what is fortunate, what is blessed. Do not feel deprived because of what you have not, but fortunate because of the great deal you have. When things become abrasive, try to focus on how you (I’m talking to myself) can make things better by being more adroit, more empathic, more sensitive.
For all marriages are unhappy. None of my friends and none of my patients has a happy marriage. An unhappy marriage is the normal state, not a deviation. The unfortunate reaction, therefore, is to feel bitter about it, to nurture a grievance, to imagine that married to someone else one would be happy; for this reaction leads one into actions and attitudes that make an unhappy marriage more unhappy, rather than into those responses which would tend to make an unhappy marriage less unhappy.
The main reason for misery in your marriage (I’m still talking to myself) is your tendency to think that you’re entitled to a happy marriage, that with a little luck you would have had it. You must accept the given unhappiness as normal, and proceed immediately to do whatever you can to diminish that unhappiness. What you have is the human lot.
But don’t expect much. And remember: there is no occasion for grievance.
That rare, rare thing, a happy marriage, is a mutual capitulation, an agreed-upon diminishment of life. The once lovers agree to be blind to what they have lost. They live in a cloned closeness to escape an anguished separateness, do not permit themselves, even in the privacy of their own minds, to harbor views or values unacceptable to the other.
THE OPPORTUNITY TO love is ever present. No one, in his loneliness, need ever say, “I wish I had someone to love.” That someone is right there. The trouble is she has become real, while only the still imaginary inspire us to love.
ILSE LOVES TO travel, to walk about in strange cities, breathe a foreign air, hear another tongue. Swimming delights her; the presumptuous intimacy of the unresisting medium makes her laugh. She likes to talk with friends, always wants to know what they are doing, to hear about their children. She loves to walk, to feel the sun on her face, to browse in new stores, to visit museums and look reverently upon the past.
All these things, so desirable to her, I find tedious. She does not, however, like to do them alone; so I go along, and while apparently participating, actually am waiting for whatever it is we are doing to be done with. And as I go on like this, tolerating in benign martyrdom a way of life created from her initiative, it comes somehow to seem that, on my own, I could arrange things better, that I know how to live, but am constrained by her needs to banal diversions.
One day something goes wrong with my knee. I’m not so crippled as I portray, but enough to be excused from obligations. My wife is all sympathy, tells me it will get better. “What do you want to do?” she says. “Come! Get in the car. I’ll drive. It’s a marvelous day. We’ll go anywhere you want, do anything you like. It’s Sunday, it’s springtime, the sun is shining. You mustn’t be sad. Where do you want to go?”
I have no idea. Anywhere. Nowhere. My mind is not blank, but neutral. Places parade before imagination and all are equal. She drives us to the beach, thousands of people swimming, oiling themselves on bright towels, playing in the sand; along a golf course where we pause to watch a man take three practice swings, then hit a perfect drive, the ball sailing straight away, up, up, and out of sight; by a museum with a show of French Impressionists, throngs of people entering and leaving. In the park we drive by picnickers, teenagers throwing Frisbees, barefoot girls playing volleyball, young couples pushing baby carriages, smells of cooking, of charcoal fires, sounds of baseball, of guitars, and of laughter. My wife, delighted with this panorama, drives slowly, glances at me eagerly, ready to stop wherever my inclination may suggest, do anything I want, go on to any place I wish, while I,looking out on this unhesitating life process, fall into a well.
Every one of these people knows what to do, how to enjoy it. It looks terribly simple, yet I have not the knack. I can do these things, go through the motions, simulate the responses-to an observer it might seem that I, too, know how to enjoy a holiday-but in the manner of a brain-damaged patient who, thinking intently what each leg must do, can somehow get there, yet not with a natural walk. I lack a kind of native knowing which is the legacy of everything that lives. Now, suddenly, without the obligation to do those many things which, as it seemed, I have been bound to do, I have nothing better to put in their place, indeed, nothing whatever to put in their place. Free, I cannot improvise. Relieved of my burden, I am bereft.
How strange! I have worked hard all week, now along comes a day of utter leisure. Must there not be something I want, something that would give me pleasure? I must observe these people more closely. There must be a secret, some simple solution.
Always and forever the student and still I don’t know how. Are there no classes in living? Would someone take me on as an apprentice?
NOT KNOWING HOW to live is separateness, the division of the world into self and others. I sit inside my skull and look out as a frightened man from a moated castle. Me in here and the world out there. We negotiate, we make deals, exchanges, but we are not one. I am an entity, complete. Never do I lose sight of where I stop and the world begins. With sleepless vigilance I patrol the edges of selfhood, warn visitors away. I am independent within this domain, but am dying. It is my wholeness that destroys me. I long for partness in a greater whole.
Knowing how to live is oneness with the world. I die of the hunger of oneness. I find it never. I read about it, and the words are ghosts. Dharma is not for me, nor “the way” of Lao Tzu. I feel it in the patience of trees, the wind in their branches sighs about it. I hear it in the rote of the surf and the song of the lark. I see it in animals and in children. I touch it but cannot make it mine. Mine! I’m trying to grab it, I suppose, ravage it back into this moated castle, and that’s the troublethis division of everything into self and others which I can’t escape because it’s not something that limits me, it is me. I stand on a ledge.
WE ARE HELD in life by commitments, as broken bone by a plaster cast. “The man who desisted from committing suicide because he heard the factory whistle blow,” writes C. E. Ayres, “was thereby recognizing a profound truth, namely, that his existence is so intertwined with those of other people that his death must inevitably send forth waves of disturbance and interruption, affecting most those who are closest to him but also prejudicing, to however tiny an extent, the whole effort of mankind.”
I have severed relations with the factory, the whistle blows but not for me. I cling to nonattachment even as I suffer from it. For so long has it been my way that, however wrong in principle, it has become for me right. I owe it loyalty. It has come to be the source of all that I can do. Desperate unrest is my workshop.
“None but the truths which have been extracted under mental torture appeal to us,” writes Cyril Connolly.
ILSE HUNGERS FOR intimacy as cut flowers for water, cannot make peace with my sense of mission. Suddenly, as we walk, her hand pushes its way into mine like a tiny frightened animal seeking shelter. “I’ve been thinking,” she says, “over and over-it’s such a trite thought-we’ve lived together so long . . . then one day one of us will die, and. . . will never see the other any more.” She lives in others, ascribes nothing worthy of immortality to the isolated self even if that self be her own.
How brief and fitful our time.
I DO NOT use myself up in living. A part of myself I save, like a miser, hoping to transmute it into something that will go on living for me in the future. With the quick I have little to do; the eminent dead are my models, the yet unborn my legatees. I am a time-binder, obsessed with mortality, spend my life creating an effigy to outlast me. In the graveyard, ceaselessly I carve at my epitaph, trying to make of it something so beautiful, so compact of meaning. that people will come from afar to read.
It need not be in vain, this elaboration of self-great treasures have been so fashioned. What gets served up to the future may be a tasty dish indeed, but what shall we say of the chef, oblivious of the hungry ones around him, garnishing himself for the gourmets of the future? Rather than miss a day of painting, Cezanne did not attend his mother’s funeral. Rilke could not spare from his poetry the time for his daughter’s wedding. The world cannot do without such people, but pity those whose lot it is to live with them.
I think rather more of those who use themselves up, die with nothing left over, disappear without a trace. My wife holds nothing back, spends her life on the living, gives herself to the hungry, who feed on her, consume her substance. I see her getting smaller, becoming transparent, beginning to disappear. But look at her face! It grows finer, more beautiful! She has time: Come and be fed. She prepares no delicacies for the future, but soup today for everyone, even for those hungry chefs who think only of posthumous banquets. Better get to know her now, for she will soon be gone, and you’ll not then recover her from the history of our time. But without the likes of her, there would be no future for which the present could be a history.
I FIND MYSELF wanting to fall in love again. With her of the volatile spirit, the open and generous heart. I have been holding myself aloof for years, invulnerable, to protect the search. But love can’t live on the shelf, must be fed with those confidences which create vulnerability. Without risk of hurt, there is no love. Not, anyway, of the kind we used to have, she and I-the soaring, the despair, the exaltation.
Now I have no search to protect, have lost direction, find nothing, create nothing, want back the deep, deep joy. I must open myself to pain, must see it as minor beside the passion it makes possible.
“WHY DON’T YOU talk to me?” Ilse says. “What are you preoccupied with?”
“Why can’t you be preoccupied with me?”
“With you I’m more than preoccupied. I adore you.”
“I don’t believe it. What are you writing?”
“I can’t say.”
“It’ll go away.”
“Is it fiction or nonfiction?”
“I can’t talk about it.”
“Is it about me?”
“Listen, Use, I’ll tell you a story.” “It’s about time!”
“A few days ago I was walking in a dark wood. A heavy mist, like a white sea, lay about me. From it rose the black glistening trunks of tall cypress. There was not a sound; my footfalls were noiseless in the soft turf Overhead the green canopy was lost in white. I walked slowly, the heavy dampness suspended around me, began to feel a mystery in the whiteness. Then a strange thing happened. I saw a bird. It was sitting on a low branch. I could not see it clearly because of the mist, but well enough to realize it was of great beauty, of such brilliant plumage as never before had been seen. A deep happiness came over me. Never had I encountered such a lovely thing. I felt a great longing to show it to others, to everybody. . . ”
“Everybody but me!”
“No, you first of all, and most of all. Then to everybody. But I couldn’t move. I hardly dared even breathe. I locked my gaze on the eyes of this shy, wonderful. creature, knowing that at the slightest move or sound it would flyaway, and that then neither I nor you nor anyone would ever see it again.
“But I knew-no, rather, I hoped, I believed, and still believe!-that if only I observe it steadily enough, with enough devotion, and in purity of heart, eventually it will come closer . . . and then closer. . . and closer. . . and as it approaches, I will see it more and more clearly, and finally it will alight on my hand, and this wild, wonderful thing will have become tame. And then, you know what I’ll do?”
“I can hardly bear the suspense.” “Use! What will I do?”
“You’ll call your publisher.”
“No. I’ll call, ‘Ilse! Ilse! Come see what I’ve found!’ And you’ll come. You’ll be enthralled. And then I’ll want everyone else to come, too.”
Her eyes are wet. She is weeping, through her anger, for all the lost years.
The Little Boy
SHE LOOKS AT her hands. Ancient, withered, discolored, gnarled with arthritis, leaping veins and tendons. A plain wedding band on her fourth finger, a large amethyst in gold setting on her middle finger. She touches the rings, hesitates, moves them back and forth, finally takes them off. “Look at them,” she says. Her manner is portentous. Inside the wedding band: OMT and MBW, June 19, 1908. “I want you to take them with you . . . to keep them safe.” I protest: She enjoys them, she should keep them. “No. I’ll lose them. You take care of them for me. Keep them safe. I want Joan to have them. . . someday.” I drop them into my pocket. Her eyes follow their disappearance, linger on the pocket.
On my next visit, as we sit talking, she seems to be waiting for something. “Where are my rings?” she says. “In San Francisco, Mother. Don’t you remember? You wanted me to look after them for you. . . so they wouldn’t get lost.” “Yes, but I could wear them while you’re here. They’d be safe as long as you’re with me.” “Well, that’s true,” I say, “and I’m sorry I didn’t think of it myself. Next time I’ll bring them.”
A few months later I’m back, and give her the rings. She receives them eagerly, hungrily; with something like a sigh, a visible relaxation, she slips them on her fingers, she is whole again. During the next two days, I watch her affirm herself in these rings. They contain the past that is lost to her. When it is time for me to go, she again, reluctantly, surrenders them. “No, Mother, I’m not going to take them. They would simply lie in my desk. Useless. But you really enjoy them. I want you to have them. I want you to wear them all the time.”
THE VISIT IS over. “Good-bye, Mama.”
She fixes me with a look of solemn entreaty. “Son”- she takes my hand, presses it between both her own-“son, why don’t you take me back with you? I wouldn’t be much trouble and I could help with the chores.”
I look at the sagging eyelids, the clouded, unseeing eyes. Incontinent, unable to feed herself, strapped in a wheelchair that she not pitch forward. “I’d like to, Mama. . . but you’re too weak to make the trip. You have to get back some strength first. Then I’ll take you.”
She looks at me dubiously, takes a grain of hope, but not more. It flickers briefly and fades. She stares at the wall, then turns to me in desperate resolve. “Well, I can tell you one thing,” she says emphatically, “if you ever get down bad sick and have to be hospitalized, then I’m gonna come out there and look after you. I’m gonna come. . . even if I have to walk every step of the way. I’m gonna see to it that you get the proper medical care, and the proper food to help you get strong. . . and then I’m gonna stay a while.”
ONE DAY, HAVING neglected her for a while, I call the nurse to get my mother on the line. There comes the thin, vacant voice, changing to warm as she recognizes me. She wants to talk but has nothing to say. I chat, I tell her news of my children. She doesn’t remember them. I describe them to her, relate her experiences with them, try to make them come back. Nothing. She does not remember that I live in California or she in Texas, does not know what month it is, what year. She reproaches herself for having neglected her parents recently: I tell her they have been dead for fifty years, and that she was a great comfort to them in their last illnesses. She is reassured. And when am I coming to see her? She thinks I am just around the comer, cannot imagine me two thousand miles away.
“And how is the little boy?” I ask. “Oh, he’s all right. . . I reckon.” “Do you talk to him?” “Oh yes, I talk to him.” “And does he answer you?” “He shies away. Don’t seem to want much to do with me.” “What’s his name?” I have never asked this before. “Why, his name is . . . Allen”-slow wonderment spreads out in her voice-“Wheelis. . . .” A slight startle of breath, a double take. “Funny.” She hesitates. “He has the same name as you.”
Silence. I wait. Will she discover significance here or only coincidence? The moment drags, passes. Nothing. My childhood is lost to her. “Sometimes I won’t see him for quite a spell,” she says, “but then one day I’ll hear a blood-curdling yell.” She chuckles. “And then I’ll know he’s around.” .
That cry leaps from a deep well, without context or connection. She has no idea what it means, nor why she feels comfort rather than alarm. But I know. I remember that cry and the fantastic power it claimed.
AT TWELVE I discovered Tarzan and fashioned an identity on the life of this dauntless and unvanquishable savage. I would live in the jungle as he did, would survive on but my own strength and ingenuity, would be protector of all the friendly animals and the terror of the evil ones. I took Tarzan as my middle name. The trees roundabout were carved with the letters ATW. I wanted to depart civilization at once but knew I was too young. I had to wait. . . to prepare myself. But how long? Until sixteen, I decided. Then I would be ready. But would my mother let me go? I must get her promise.
I held close the details, said only that I wanted to live in Africa. “But at sixteen? No. You have to go to college.” “Please, Mama.” “We don’t have to decide now,” she suggested. “You’re only twelve.” “Please, Mama. It’s terribly important to me. Promise.” “I can’t promise such a thing, son. It might not be right for you. Let’s wait.” “I can’t wait, Mama. I have to know now. Please!” She is silent, troubled. “A lot can happen between now and then,” I add deviously, encouraging her to believe that I will change my mind about wanting to do such a thing, that therefore she will never have to deliver on this promise; while knowing that I will hold her to it even though I, in bad faith, seduced her into making it. “Just say yes. Please, Mama!” She sighs. “All right, hon.”
The way is clear, the fantasy unrolls. At sixteen, I will hitch. hike to Galveston, get a job on a freighter. Eventually this freighter will touch at Casablanca, where I will jump ship, find work on a coastal steamer going south. At the mouth of the Congo I’ll pick up a riverboat, go upstream, deep into the interior. The river narrows. One night I will silently let myself over the side into the dark water, swim to the shore, disappear into the trackless jungle.
I viewed the next four years as preparation. I must become strong, must acquire the basic skills of survival. I raced down the veranda, leapt to the mesquite tree, swung about on the branches. I practiced climbing with ropes, threw spears, made flint knives. And frequently, after mortal combat, I rehearsed that celebrated moment of epiphany: Placing my right foot on the body of vanquished foe, I threw back my head, beat upon my chest, and uttered the victory cry of the bull ape. I had never heard such a cry, nor was I, in Texas, likely to. Knowing only that on hearing it all the “denizens of the jungle” trembled, I improvised the loudest, most prolonged and alarming cry I could imagine, then practiced to make it uniform, distinctive, and terrifying.
And one afternoon, lost in my reverie, forgetting that my mother was entertaining the ladies of the Bible Society, I placed my foot on the body of Numa the lion and uttered my cry. And the ladies leapt to their feet, teacups flying, faces blanched at the murder evidently taking place in the next room. But my mother was tranquil and reassuring. “Oh, that’s all right,” she said. “Pay it no mind. That’s just Allen. . . practicing. ”
My SISTER DEVELOPS Alzheimer’s disease. Gradually her memory slips away. After a few years she knows nothing, can no longer feed herself. Francis puts her in the nursing home alongside my mother. Neither recognizes the other. My sister wanders the hallways, smiles benignly, but does not speak. Francis dies of cancer; she knows nothing. She comes upon her mother, stops and stares at her with fIxed and uncomprehending smile. My mother glares. “What is that woman doing here?” she cries angrily. “What does she want? Why is she staring at me? I don’t like that! Something ought to be done about a situation like this. Where is the management? I’m going to report her!”
A TELEPHONE CALL from the nursing home. “Your mother is crawling around on the floor. We can’t think what’s got into her. Never been like this before. We pick her up, tie her in her chair, but first chance she gets she’ll slip right out, sorta slide down, and then there she’ll be, crawling around again.”
I ask the nurse to put her on the phone. After a while 1 hear the struggle, the labored breathing. “Hello, Mother. How are you?” Pause, then the thin, infinitely tired voice. “I guess I’m all right, son.” I ask about the crawling. She begins to cry. “I’ve lost my rings.”
The world is lost to her. Those rings were its vanishing point. When next I see her, she still slides down out of her chair, gropes about on the floor, but no longer knows what she seeks. Everything is slipping away. She still has a grasp of me, though at times she stares blankly as if I too were fading.
The Flying Dutchman
THESE ARE THE last hours of my mother’s life. And she knows nothing. Only I observe her blind, stumbling arrival at the end of a century-long journey. I hope it may be different as I lie dying. I hope that I will be able to take myself as the object of reflection, see my life in extension, the whole course-taking off like a ballistic missile, soaring, leveling off, fallingand, just before the end, achieve, like the computer in a warhead at impact, a view of the whole trajectory.
I doubt my mother has ever done this, or would want to. For years now, she has had no awareness of death. Death got lost as memory failed and reality slipped away. The last time she grappled with it was six years ago. She was ninety-four, frail and failing. She took my hand, solemnly, between both of her own, her voice dropped, her manner became portentous. “Son, I want you to know. . . you know. . . I don’t want to live forever. . . you know that. . . son, some folks nowadays . . . they just hang on and on, no use to themselves or anybody else, tak. ing up space and costing money. I don’t want anything like that. I don’t want you to take any special measures . . . you know what I mean?”
“Yes, Mama, I know.”
“I’ve lived a long time, and when my time comes. . . when it’s right for me to go. . . well, I’m ready. I leave that all to you. . It’s up to you.”
“I don’t want to just hang on when my mind is gone and I’m no use to people.”
“You’re still in good health, Mama. You have a lot of life before you. I want you to keep living as long as you can enjoy things. ”
We sit in silence. She strokes my hand absently, brooding, troubled. Her breathing becomes irregular, she wants to speak. Can’t find the right words. She sighs. “Son,” she says after a bit, “son, tell me . . . how long do you think I will live?”
I realize she is afraid. “You have a lot of vitality, Mother. You’ve always been very strong. . . ”
“You’ve pulled through bad sicknesses that would’ve been too much for most people.”
“So I think you might. . . live to” -I canvass her anxious face, extend my estimate-“you’ll probably live to be one hundred!” Wildly extravagant. But maybe she will buy it. Perhaps it will make her happy.
Her expression doesn’t change. She fixes her eyes on mine, judiciously weighs, examines, my estimate: “That’s not very long, you know.”
IN ATTENDING MY mother’s death I preview my own, try to get the feel of it, take its measure. But cannot, can never get this matter settled. I accept what’s coming only in the sense of acknowledging its inevitability, not in affirming its propriety or rightness.
An uneasy truce, the terms are not clear. Something more should be possible. One should not be stuck forever with this nagging problem as unfinished business. How is it handled by the wise, by the really mature?
An interview on television with Erik Erikson. “And have you achieved wisdom, Mr. Erikson?” The question is loaded, for Erik has staked his reputation on the depiction of life as phasic; and the task of the last phase, in which his shaky infirmity unmistakably places him, presents the alternatives of wisdom and despair. “Have you achieved wisdom, Mr. Erikson?” He hesitates, then stands behind his product: “I’m afraid I have.”
Mazeltov. I have not. I’m as old as he, almost. Anyway, like him slogging along through the last phase, if it is a phase, anyway the last years oflife. But not with wisdom. Rather, with the vanity, awkwardness, longing, and sham that have characterized my passage through all the other phases.
I distrust the wisdom of old men. I listen to them and am not convinced. I suspect a coverup. They don’t have things really straight either. They’re headed, mapless, into the same dark that awaits us all.
We know what it is, we see it lying in wait up ahead: Consciousness is going to end. That vast net which, nearing the end of a long life, has acquired such enormous reach into time and space, such variety of experience, inward and outward, backward and forward, that knows so much, and, beyond what it knows, can imagine anything-consciousness, that ringing glass, is going to shatter, its shards plunge back into nothingness. Like the fading fragments of a burst of fireworks.
THE LIGHT SNAPS on. The nurse enters, opens the diaper. No feces now, just bright red blood. The nurse stares at me with a mute question: She wants to call an ambulance, wants my mother rushed to the hospital, to have a blood transfusion. I shake my head. She points to the hands and feet, which are turning blue. Again I shake my head. Her expression closes over with disapproval. She cleans my mother’s wasted bottom, puts on a fresh diaper. Together, one on each side of the bed, we feel the pulse. It is weak and fast and thready. The nurse leaves.
IN BED, ALONE, in darkness, waiting for sleep, falling away in the rustle of time, I dream: I am a prisoner in a concentration camp. My back has been broken. A guard offers me a pillow. I decline. Presently he offers again. Moved by his kindness, I accept, and immediately feel a blessed relief. All of the prisoners sit or lie along the ramparts of the castle, all of us in an extremity of exhaustion from torture. I look down a sheer stone wall, several hundred feet. A man is looking up at us, calling, chanting, waving his arms. He wears a white shirt, blue jeans, sneakers. And a black cap. Has long hair. A young man. Several guards in brown shirts stand about watching him, occasionally looking up at us. The man sways and beckons, utters long singing calls: “Come to me! Jump! It’s so easy. So-o-o easy. You will float through the air. Like a leaf. Like a feather. No more pain. Never again will you suffer. ”
I feel my own pain, also the wonderful softness of the pillow still at my back. I think of jumping, am tempted. I want to jump. Presently one of the prisoners does jump, plummets to his death on the rocks below. The one who beckons, encouraged now, renews and intensifies his ca”. His seductiveness becomes more insistent, ecstatic. Others jump. One by one they are crushed, like eggs, on the rocks. I want to follow, but hesitate-feel the softness at my back.
Then, in quick succession, still dreaming, I have three insights. First: In giving me the pillow, the guard was doing me no kindness. Affording me some relief, he was suggesting a final relief, was tempting me to jump. What I had taken as mercy was malice. Second: The young man below in the black cap who beckons is a collaborationist, a prisoner like the rest of us, trying to save his own life by leading us to death. And it won’t work: in the end they will kill him too. Third: Although I now have the strength to hold fast to the parapet and not jump, and so have won an extension of life, a sort of victory, this means that I will presently be subjected to even more monstrous and ingenious tortures, and that a time will come when I too can stand no more and will jump.
I flail about in bed, clutch at the sheets, cry out.
TH E OLDER I get, the less I know, the darker the well of time. r have a sense of waste, of a terrible, ineluctable waste, a profligacy of waste. Everything I know, all of the accumulated strategies of life, of creation, all is being swept away.
And rendered meaningless?
I don’t know. There is nothing else. All of life is a trying to make something in the face of knowing that one can make nothing that stays. As I get older, the roar of the cataract, of everything being swept away, grows louder, while the making of something becomes more and more fragile and illusory. The universe is a chamelhouse. A cataract of soul pours unendingly over the brink. We all swim upstream against the overpowering current, trying at the last moment to throw something ashore, some little thing that will remain, bear witness that we were here.
And of course some things do remain. Collectively they comprise the culture we inherit from the past. And if we ignore the millions of lives, each with its unique vastness of spirit spilling over the brink, that culture looks quite grand. But is of no comfort. We don’t contribute to it. What we try to throw ashore falls short, is lost. All is lost of our flimsy and flickering lives. “We are a phantom flare of grieved desire, the ghostling and phosphoric flicker of immortal time.” So Thomas Wolfe thought, and so, still, do I.
Wolfe was one of the more fortunate ones. He threw a lot ashore, and it’s still with us, still alive. But of no comfort to him, I might add; he’s gone. It could only have mattered to him in prospect, in attitudes of hope for the future, while he still lived.
As a matter of fact I, too, should be called fortunate; for I, too, have twisted over in the white water, in the swirling current, and lofted a bit to shore. Most of my books fall out of print, but a few seem to stay. Is that of any importance? I think not. I think it doesn’t matter at all. Am I kidding myself? Can I imagine a thought experiment that might test this out? Well . . . perhaps.
Suppose the consciousness that is I, that now thinks these thoughts, to be a ghost, my corporeal life having been lived say in the sixteenth century. Would it now matter to this ghost whether that actual life of four hundred years ago had been grand or nameless? Would I care whether I could, or could not, now, as a ghost, go to an encyclopedia and with my invisible hands look myself up? Hm . . . I’m not sure. I would like to know that my life had been colorful, adventurous, gallant, rather than drab, but beyond that I don’t think I would care. I’m a writer; would I want to have been a famous writer? Fame I would have wanted then; I wouldn’t now care. It wouldn’t matter. Looking back over the now immutable past, I’d just as soon have been John Skelton as William Shakespeare. For who besides this forlorn ghost could know? And why should that ghost now care? Why even should he think back? Why, indeed, since he does not and cannot exist?
VALUE IS CERTAIN in sex and play. Of nothing else can one be sure. Laughter, dancing, sensuality-this is life. Guilt, anxiety, depression-this is death. When children race through the house laughing and screaming, chasing each other, grabbing, tearing each other’s clothes, tickling and groping, jumping on sofas, throwing pillows, overturning chairs, ignoring authority, defying rules, violating boundaries, we recognize that this is life being fully lived moment by moment, that death has no part in this scene, does not exist, that this is life in its purest form, the most enviable state of being. We recognize it, but we are afraid of it, so what we experience usually is a furious disapproval, not recognizing our envy.
For we adults have become adults by virtue of designating, at the prompting of anxiety and insecurity, the more exuberant aspects of sex and playas evil, of formulating rules that forbid them, of becoming ourselves the rulekeepers and rule enforcers and infraction punishers, of spending our lives in redemptive efforts, in guilt and penance, trying to cleanse ourselves, to renounce our sin, and so achieving a measure of order, thereby gaining-what?-a clear view of the final emptiness.
WE ANALYSTS ARE very defensive about our theory. As well we might be. Conjectural excess has always been our method. “It may be surmised that. . . ” “We may assume that. . . ” “It seems possible that . . . ” These phrases thread their way through our literature, in and out, modest little bridges between clinical finding and some new proposition designed to explain that finding, the proposition always advanced as a “hypothesis,” thereby claiming scientific status, yet always nonverifiable and nonfalsifiable. It comes about finally that simply the showing of clinical data as consonant with a hypothesis is taken as proof of the hypothesis.
As conjectures acquire credibility by such use, and become venerable also with age, with mere survival, insidiously they cease to be hypotheses and come to be facts-upon which new conjectures may then be built. And every one of us wants to do a little building. We get out our little hammers-master builders every one of us!-and tack on some new bit of gingerbread to an already overloaded, already dangerously overhanging, already too baroque, balcony. Our theory is now a Winchester House, that mystery house of a thousand rooms, secret doors and passageways, different levels, always changing, crazy angles, one room connecting obscurely with the next, the whole thing the product of its owner’s belief (Winchester’s widow, I think) that so long as the house was unfinished, she would not die-that hypothesis having been advanced by her palmist. That’s what our theory is like, and it’s quite understandable we might be defensive about it.
But there’s something else we assume, more basic, more important, about which we’re not defensive at all. Indeed, we seem unaware of it, take it so for granted, like the air we breathe, so self-evidently true that its truth need no longer be remarked. That assumption is simply that it is possible for a human being to be well adjusted, to have a good life, that however rare it may be in fact, it is in principle possible. There are a few psychoanalytic asides, always jocose, which stand as disclaimers. “Analysis enables you to cope with the misery of real life,” or “to adjust to the poverty in which it leaves you.” But this is window-dressing, a specious cynicism to ward off the embarrassment of a real utopianism.
The assumption is basic and ubiquitous. Without it, we’d have to pack up our couch and ottoman and fade away. Our socalled science is married to a genuine faith: That serious and sustained misery is not inherent to human life, that it is imposed by neurotic conflict or by reality hardship; that, therefore, if neurotic conflict is analyzed and resolved, and if reality hardship is absent, one will love and will work, will live out one’s span with contentment, with real gratifications, and when the end comes will pronounce it all to have been worth while.
Of course, we say, there is always reality hardship, and that’s true. But no, not always. For it’s also true-rather blatantly, even embarrassingly, true-that many of us in America, most particularly those of us who can afford psychoanalysis, are often free of reality hardship, are. in good health, have money, are well married, have suffered no loss. Are we well adjusted? Are analysts well adjusted? As a group, we are spectacularly free of reality hardship, and are very well analyzed. What would I say of my own life? Of the lives of my colleagues?
We are deceived and we have deceived others. The good life is possible when awareness is limited, but it is not possible for us. We know too much. Were we to know only the world, we’d be all right But knowledge spills over. We know also ourselves, our fear, our destructiveness, our hunger for immortality, our oncoming death. Our knowledge subverts adjustment at the root. The misery inheres in what we are. The ideal is incoherent.
FIVE YEARS OLD, too young for school. Skinny arms and legs sticking out from skimpy pants and short-sleeve shirt. When the older boys got back from school, I went to Jimmy’s house to play. Five boys had arranged themselves in a circle, were throwing a ball one to another in sequence. I put myself in the circle, but when my turn came, the ball sailed over my head to the nextin line. An oversight, perhaps; I waited for the next round. When passed over again, I complained. They did not seem to hear.
My complaint grew louder, became pleading. Again and again the ball flew over my head. I jumped but could not reach it, wailed, went to my friend who usually was willing to play with me, tugged on his sleeve, “Let me play, Jimmy! Throw it to me too! Please, Jimmy!” Jimmy shrugged, threw the ball over my head. I began to cry. “It’s not fair!”
I was enraged, wanted to retaliate, to walk away. But could not reject them so long as they would not see me, would not hear. And because they were denying my existence, I could not give up trying to enter their circle. I began to run after the ball, tried to intercept throws, but when I managed to position myself before the next receiver, the order would change, the ball going instead to someone else. I ran back and forth, in and out, never finding a way to become a part. It was a magic circle, it joined them, excluded me. I was a nonperson.
Eventually I gave up, sat down at some distance, exhausted, disheartened, watched the ball fly around, one to another, in sequences of infinite desirability. It was too painful to watch, I lowered my head, scratched in the dirt. When my crying stopped, the boys, tired of the game, stood about idly, bored, wondered what to do next. “Here, Allen,” Jimmy said, as if to a dog, and tossed me the now unwanted ball. The boys huddled, came to a decision, set off together. “Where are we going?” I asked, following after. But again could not make myself heard. I ran to keep up, but they ran faster, and came presently to a thicket which with their long pants they could push through, whereas I, with bare legs, was turned back bleeding. The boys disappeared, their laughter grew fainter, died away. I extricated myself from the brush, walked back toward Jimmy’s house. It was getting dark. There was a strong and cold wind. I was whimpering. Maybe crying.
Then there was my mother standing before me in her longbrown coat. “A norther has come up,” she said, taking my hand. “All of a sudden. That’s why it’s so dark and cold.” I looked up. Black clouds were rushing across the sky. She wiped my nose. “We must go home.” The pebbles hurt my bare feet; I hopped and lurched, holding her hand, trying to avoid the sharper stones. My teeth were chattering, the skin of my arms and legs became goose flesh.
My mother stopped, opened her coat “Come inside,” she said. She folded me into the coat, buttoned it in front of me. We proceeded awkwardly, my shoulder against her thigh, my head alongside her hip, enveloped in darkness, in wannth, in the smell of her body. She was wearing an apron, and there was a smell also of food-onions and something fried. She must have been cooking supper when the norther hit And stopped to come get me.
It was difficult to walk; we went slowly. I couldn’t see anything ahead, but looking down could see the ground where I was putting my feet. I was getting warm in that germinal darkness. My teeth stopped chattering, my knees stopped shaking. I was aware of the powerful movement of her hip against my cheek, the sense of a large bone moving under strong muscles. Aware also that it was difficult for her to walk with me buttoned in. Occasionally she stumbled. And just then, for the first time, I became aware of goodness. Of goodness as a special quality, like evil, which a person mayor may not possess. She doesn’t have to do this, I thought. It’s not necessary. I’m cold, but I could make it home all right.
What she gave me could not have been demanded, I would never have thought to ask. All afternoon I had been demanding something to which it seemed I had a right, and had been denied; yet here was a good to which I had no right, freely offered. No trade. Nothing asked in return.
THE MEANING OF life is in that coat: it is the home to which one belonged as a child. If you’re lucky, you never lose it; it simply evolves, smoothly and continuously, into that larger, more abstract home of religion, or perhaps, in a secular vein, into clan or community or ideology. Meaninglessness means homelessness. When home is lost and the nightmares begin, that’s when one goes in quest of meaning.
And one has the impression then of reaching outward and forward, of delving into something out there, of grappling with the world, trying to penetrate a mystery; and it seems that one has only just come to recognize the existence of this most fundamental problem, a problem that has been there all along, but that only now, just possibly, has one arrived at the capacity to solve, or at least to try. But this is retrospective falsification. The problem has not been there all along; it came into being only with the loss of home, and the attempt to solve it is not an effort to create something new but to recreate something old. It is a quest backward. One is trying to refashion, in a form acceptable to an intellectualizing adult, the home of one’s childhood.
How to live? Who knows the question knows not how. Who knows not the question cannot tell.
In those days, everything seemed different. It seemed possible to organize one’s life, to resist’ the tide of entropy, to impose form. In some fundamental sense, life seemed understandable if one went at it with enough will and intelligence. Now everything seems different. Life is not to be managedor shaped or directed, it is not even to be understood. Life is to be lost. And the only question is whether with grievance or with generosity and grace.
JOAN THROWS A ball for Monty. Out of the trees, suddenly, comes a large yellow dog, attacks, is tearing at her dog. She weeps desperately. The violence and the tears are everywhere-behind a tree, beneath a leaf, in the smiles of a summer day. Escape, forget for a while, but not for long.
I separate the dogs and her sobs diminish, but one day it will be me, or someone else dear to her, and she’ll be sobbing again in just such helplessness. Our safe world may be lost in the spite, the vanity, the self-indulgent fit of anyone of our tyrants, and the sobbing children of Vietnam, the screaming mothers, will be all around us. The crazy violence that is everywhere, promiscuous, flares up in an instant, with no more warning, no more meaning, no more reason than a dogfight. How little time for laughter, how brief our innocence of what lies in wait.
What can I do with what I know? What is my task?
Canetti: “Oh priest of signs, disquieted creature, caught in the temple of all alphabets, your life will soon be over. What have you seen? What have you feared? What have you accomplished?”
My WIFE HAS built for me a new study. Blue ceiling, birch walls, wonderful smell of new lumber. I feel a deepening intolerance of apathy, of not making anything, of sliding downhill on an old life that is really over.
He who has a message, who deals in salvation, writes a book of structured argument, of hierarchic order, of reasons in sequence. Not I. My life is all searching, never finding. I bear witness to what I have seen-a maze of roads, conflicting signs, freeways that end on nowhere, angelic maidens who fall under a spell and turn drab, far-reaching insights that become inert and explain nothing, blueprints of reason that twist out of shape and vanish with a twang in a minor key.
I have always been too guilty to be happy. Guilt such as mine threatens life itself. The first task, therefore-and never has there been time for a second-is to fend off an inner accusation that threatens to annihilate. This I have done, by work, day after day after day, and so life has passed, and looking back I can see I’ve fought my demons to a draw, or a little better, but where, lost to me, was the music, the laughing in the night?
BEHOLD THE MAN of reason. Regard him in his work. He has struggled with this problem all his life. Solve it here in one guise and it appears there in another, as if a different problem. He is getting very old when he understands finally its true and single nature: not knowing how to live.
Such an insight, you might think, would cast him down, but he feels hope, exhilaration. It’s better, he thinks, to have one big problem than a bagful of small ones. You can concentrate your efforts, create a single strategy. How, then, does one learn how to live? One must search, see what can be seen, analyze, make connections, relate things to each other in casual sequences. For a rational man, there is no other way than the way of intelligence to learn anything. But in learning how to live, intellect is treacherous, for life is a matter of rhythms, while intellect reduces rhythms to law.
He goes back to Hegel, to Nietzsche, to the pragmatists, the positivists, the dialectical materialists, ransacks the old closet of philosophy, fumbles around there in the dark as he has so often in the past, but now with a clearer sense of what he is looking for. He goes back to the poets, to the Elegies and the letters of Rilke, the effete but ruthlessly honest meditations of Eliot; returns to the searchers after God: Pascal, Kierkegaard, Teilhard de Chardin.
He has learned nothing, is still the student, a doomed centipede unable to correlate all those legs, falling down, getting up, trying again, always signing up for another course: “The Anatomy of Legs,” “Legs, Their Physiology and Biochemistry,” “Advanced Leg Dynamics,” and now, still hoping, a yet more advanced course-“How to Walk.” All these courses have in common the method of intelligence: they take the problem apart, carefully, piece by piece, seeking hidden relationships. He hopes to find the rhythm by dismantling the melody, examining each beat separately.
Look at him, age sixteen, at a high school dance, already a master of this methodology. With great yearning he watches the dancers, remains aloof . Cautiously he moves along the wall, simulates nonchalance, as if at home in such gatherings. He smiles, nods, leans against a door, and, having been shown in a thousand advertisements the connection between poise and smoking, lights a cigarette. He feels dizzy, coughs, moves on, chats with a teacher, makes it appear he is taking but a brief break from the dancing.
In fact, he is watching the dancing feet. How is it done? What is the formula? He is diagramming the movement. What is the excursion of each foot? How far? In what direction? What sequence? Now he looks at the faces of the girls. How do you tell which one, on being asked, will say yes? What is the formula for that?
Suddenly before him is a girl with dark flowing hair and smiling eyes, and with every beat of the music her body registers a slight response, a resonance, which wants to become a full participation. Along his sides the trickle of sweat, the smell off ear. “Hello, Jan,” he says. His mouth is paper-dry, he swallows, waves a hand casually toward the dancers. “Reminds me of that scene in Gatsby, the summer night, couples swaying under the paper lanterns, and that marvelous line, ‘old men pushing young girls backward in eternal graceless circles.’ ” He nods, moves on; and Jan, who sailed into his life like a comet, trailing glittering promise, is swept away, lost.
My WHOLE LIFE has been given overto this search and I have found nothing. I’m growing old and still know not how to live. It’s already too late to do much with the answer, which, in any event, seems still remote.
One day, though, I shall have it. An intimation of final justice tells me this quest shall not have been in vain. Like the tourist who, avid to buy, receives his letter of credit only as he is departing the country of bargains, I shall be unable to use it, but will count it a victory in principle.
WE ARE PLUNGING down a cataract, and what’s important is to call out. Not for help, there is no help. Not in despair-what can anyone do but shrug, look away? But to give a signal. A gesture of love and humor to acknowledge drowning so others who drown will know they are not alone. We are all drowning; deny it with blindness, transcend it with laughter. The laughter I seek is that which looks straight in the eye of despair and laughs. The proper subjects for comedy are fear, loneliness, and death.
Maybe there is no meaning but only life; and in art, no meaning but only the illusion of life. Maybe that’s the whole thing: To observe life so closely, to search it out so carefully, with so much love, that it comes alive, that it is.
A HOLIDAY IN summer. I go in the afternoon in bright sunshine to sit in a dark and nearly empty theater. As I wait for the film to begin, the sour loneliness of the place settles on my spirit. Yesterday’s cigarette smoke in the air, balls of hardened gum under the armrests, popcorn and candy wrappers on the floor. I and a few other bleak souls wait dumbly like oxen in the rain for deliverance, each of us isolated in the drizzle of his own everyday misery.
The house darkens, the music begins, the screen is illuminated, deliverance is at hand. The Bicycle Thief. The few of us sitting there, dispersed, walled off from each other by pain and distrust, by a kind of stubborn uncaring, become a community as we watch. We are shown a poor man trying to find work. We see his wife, his son, we feel their fear, the loom of hunger. Gradually de Sica’s love of this man makes him come alive, makes him human. The thief who steals his bicycle is faceless, beyond notice, one of the ignominious and detestable of the earth. All our sympathy goes to his victim who. without the bicycle, will lose his job. We follow him in his desperate search, feel with him, suffer his frustration, enter his despair, finally become him-then he steals a bicycle! And suddenly we have stolen a bicycle, are one with all men, high and low, good and bad, and weep for all that is faceless and voiceless and moves with heavy heart over the dark earth.
What a grand thing de Sica does, what a great and disinterested love to take as its object this limited, thwarted, and weak man, and. by going out to him with such caring, such patient observing, to make him not only live-though that’s miracle enough-but our brother! I most deeply salute a man with the soul to do that. And if ever I find myself seeking out the privileged, the interesting, the beautiful, I hope I will remember the bicycle thief and that I am he.
THE ONCE TOUGH rubbery skin hangs over vanished muscles as a film, a terrifying drapery. Everything slips away: memory, vision, hearing, teeth, unable finally to tie your shoes, to hoist a suitcase to an overhead bin. Should one not be ashamed of hanging on so long?
Gogol died at forty-three; Kleist made a quick exit at thirtyfour. taking his girlfriend with him. Schubert had sung his last song at thirty-one. Keats at twenty-six. Shelley at thirty, Byron (“So we’ll go no more a’roving . . . “) at thirty-six, et cetera. (What am I doing? Claiming status by shared mortality?)
While I am a long time dying. When do we begin to die? And when are we done with it? Perhaps I am dead already. Would I know? When does life end? Not the last heartbeat that doesn’t matter so much-but the loss of meaning. And what is meaning?
What we are drifting toward, that dread thing, is the loss of the capacity to be loved. It happens silently; we don’t notice. They notice, they know, but they don’t tell us, they pretend. (Perhaps an animal might tell you: Freud knew only when the stench of his cancer was such that, though his family behaved as always, his dog would no longer come near him.) They deny, they affirm love, they declare love, but it’s not love they then offer but compassion, duty, respect, sometimes fear because we light the ugly way that they too will pass. So we never know when it happens. We die in the palsied spilling of soup, the dripping nose, the colostomy, the incontinence, we die over a cup of tea, a quiver of lip.
What is there to love when flesh has gone? Is there anything else? All noble qualities of mind may remain, but are they, without flesh, enough? Can the wasted one still love another? Is that enough?
“What do you suppose an embrace of mine would be worth now?” asks the AIDS-ravaged Harold Brodkey, recalling the myth of his sexual irresistibility.
WE LIVE BY attachment, not by reason. That’s why love is primary: there is no value without caring, and caring is loving. If, looking about at the world, one finds no one and no thing to love, no bird, no tree, no flower worth caring about, the world is without value; and then, in fatal consequence, one’s own life is without value.
But if, looking about at the world, one finds someone to love, or perhaps not a person but a dog, or maybe only a plant that wants water and needs sunshine, or maybe not even anything living but a thing-an old house that has sheltered us, that has creaked and moaned in the storms of winter-then one has something to live for, and in consequence, one’s own life is worth preserving. That’s the point: one’s own life has value only because one cares for others. And one cares without a reason! Without reflection, without the weighing of profit and loss. The caring that justifies everything else is itself without justification. It is a leap.
Attachments grow in the dark, like roots. Silently, invisibly, they extend themselves in heart-soil, anchoring us in the world. To go on living then is not elective; we cannot depart this life, we are held by invincible tendrils.
I SMELL MY death on the wind, want to see something of beauty and nobility in the time that is left, to enlarge consciousness. I adjure myself: Stay with the main show, do not be drawn off into sideshows, diversions, entertainments. Do only what you are most solemnly charged to do. Whatever is elective is a turning away. There in the big top a man is hanging by his teeth, twisting, spinning, spotlights playing over him, the drums beginning to roll. He’s going to fall and nothing can be done, no net, but in the moments remaining he may yet achieve something remarkable, a glittering gesture, a movement perhaps of breathtaking beauty.
The main show is the search. It mounts on despair, spins there above you. Any turning away to watch the dancing bears is a betrayal of the dangling man. Hold fast, stay with him, watch the twists and turns of his brief agony, study his condition. What in this fateful moment can he still do?
Is IT NOT time? Whom do I address? Time to take up again the seeking out of those faint footprints in the night, to try again, perhaps to hope again, and, beyond the trying, to seek the means to keep on seeking when nothing is found.
SOMETIMES I-EVEN I!-feel a wild and deep joyousness, the exaltation of cold wind on one’s face when one is young.
IN THE DEPARTMENT store. Overcoat collar turned up, scarf over my left shoulder, black hat low over my eyes, I wait. My wife is in the ladies’ room. Christmas crowds flow around me. Swirl, eddy. I stand motionless against a pillar. Minutes pass.
I turn my head, catch a woman in the moment of her jaw going slack, her lips parting. Astonishment sweeps over her face. She veers toward me, ann outstretched, beginning to smile. She has a child in tow. “Oh, my God! I didn’t think you were real! Then you moved!” She laughs slightly, a dark, rich laugh, touches my ann. Through my jacket I feel her fingers. Again that slight laugh, relief and wondennent. Her large gray eyes make friendly contact: Though unexpected, I, refugee mannequin, am being welcomed to the realm of flesh. She nods, passes on.
Where is she? Where has she gone? I want to grab her, find her flesh under my fingers, feel it give, secure my reality in her yielding.
A FAST-MOVING TRAIN, teeming with people. A great din. All speak together, all struggle to be heard. The rocking motion throws us side to side. Rumble and clatter of wheels, groan and creak of metal. In some of the cars people are fighting, hurl each other back and forth, out the doors, out the windows. More crowded now, more difficult to move. I am pushed backward, forced to the outside, am clinging with fingertips. Cinders, the assaulting wind, the driving rain. Vision blurs, the landscape is featureless and dark. No lights, no homes, no roads. Fingers loosen. Music from within. A waltz. Ah . . . they’re dancing.
I will leave this sweet monster soon. Rounding a curve, it will fling me away. Without slowing, it will hurtle on, racketyrackety-rackety, clackety-clackety-clackety, without me, through the night.