Part 03, Chapters 31-40
Part 3, Chapter 31
“…(T)here are spread
On the blue surface of thine aery surge…
The locks of the approaching storm….”
Ode to the West Wind
All through those early weeks of the spring term of his junior year, David could feel a kind of pressure building. The more he tried to ignore the comments he thought his professors were directing at him in their lectures, the more insistent the ideas that those comments contained became. They were occasionally more than he could endure.
One day for example, there was a guest professor in Williams’ course, Professor Parkins, one of the younger professors in the department. The subject of his lecture was Shelley, and in particular “Ode to the West Wind.”
When Parkins began the lecture, everything he said seemed to David to be more abrasive and offensive with each passing moment. Parkins mentioned that he thought the greatest poet of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century was Goethe. David’s adolescent sensibility was so offended that he could hardly believe what he was hearing. He’d read nothing in German and had been heavily influenced by professors who believed that the greatest poets of that period were the English Romantics, especially Keats. With all of his sophomoric enthusiasm burning inside him, David felt personally affronted and insulted by Parkins’ assertion of Goethe’s superiority. David was infuriated that he should have to sit in a lecture hall and listen to anything so stupid.
The lecture had no more value for him, although it did continue to have an impact. Parkins went on to discuss certain threatening aspects of nature that he saw in Shelley’s ode. Even though David tried to not to, he became almost — but not yet quite — convinced that Parkins was deliberately trying — for reasons David could not explain — to bait him with his ideas, provoke him into doing or saying something outrageous.
Ever since Africa, David had considered the world of nature the embodiment of pure loveliness. Nature for him was nearly a separate dimension, filled with beauty and magic: the moon, in Africa and Cambridge, surrounded by a soft aura, seemed to whisper to him and to remind him of the world as he had glimpsed it that autumn day in his room in Adams House.
Parkins’ lecture, though, attacked those ideas, it attacked all the ideas of the lost boy David had become.
In the lecture now, Parkins’ voice now seemed to be droning on, becoming louder and somehow threatening, every word pounding itself like a hammer blow into the most sensitive part of David’s mind. Parkins’ voice rose to what David experienced as a horrific crescendo as he reached the final line the poem he was reading aloud: “When winter comes, can spring be far behind?” The words, as Parkins read them, seemed to present spring not as something beautiful to be anticipated and hoped for, but as a disaster that threatened everyone. David sat in his chair and continued furiously taking notes, doing his best to remain — and to appear — emotionally untouched by what Parkins was saying. The words, though, continued to strike him with unrelenting force. Parkins’ voice became louder and stronger and more powerful with each line of the poem. David felt as if he were being assaulted, suffocated, and strangled, and he knew he couldn’t stand it much longer.
He’d once told Bradley he didn’t want to believe the professors were aiming remarks in their lectures— or even their entire lectures — at him, but that he was afraid he would eventually start believing it. Now he did believe it. All at once he seemed to have crossed some kind of threshold. Now — at least for the time being — he actually believed Parkins was twisting the meaning of Shelley’s words, and doing it for David’s benefit, to show him the world was not filled with innocence and beauty, but that it could be a quite monstrous place at times.
That was something David could not accept. He felt Parkins was doing violence not only to him and his ideas, but also to the meaning of Shelley’s poem.
Parkins delivered — or so it seemed to David — the last line of the poem by practically roaring it into the microphone, as though the coming of spring were the ultimate horror, the final catastrophe, as though spring were the most frightening and appalling prospect imaginable.
This seemed to David such an absurd interpretation of the poem, such an unendurable lie, that he felt he could not go on sitting there and giving implicit assent to the ideas of such a charlatan as Parkins.
If David had not been so young and so serious, he could have simply laughed at Parkins, but that was impossible for him then. David was very young and extremely serious, and so he was aware only of a sense of outrage, a feeling that an injustice was being committed, an injustice to literature and to a great poet. He was suffocating with fear and anger.
Parkins had finished reading the poem, but there was still a half hour of lecture time remaining. David thought he could not tolerate sitting there for that — though of course he could have if he’d been able to laugh, even to himself. If he’d been able to laugh at himself.
He was filled, though, with the passionate anger of a young man, and so he did something that would have once seemed unthinkable to him: he closed his notebook, picked up his book bag, stood up in the middle of the lecture hall, and practically scrambled over a long row of other students in a frantic effort to get out. It was a tiny gesture, of course, but to David it was a dramatic and courageous protest in front of three hundred people.
And of course no one noticed.
Nevertheless, once he was outside, he was shocked by what he’d done. In those days, no one walked out of a lecture by a Harvard professor. David almost felt he’d committed some kind of grossly indecent act. “But at least,” he thought, “I asserted myself. At least for a few moments I broke free and did what I thought was right.”
He had also, at least for that moment, completely assented to what he’d been so afraid of ever thinking: he had actually believed — and acted on — the absurd idea that his professors were directing their lectures at him.
Part 3, Chapter 32
„Der Mann ist ein Rebell….Er ist ein Einzelgänger, ein Außenseiter….“
“The man’s a rebell….He’s a loner, an outsider….”
If what has been written about David so far is disorganized and confusing, what will now be written will probably be even more so.
Breaking free — the idea of doing that was indescribably important to David then, even though he hardly understood what he really meant by it. What he did understand, though, was that he felt he had no control over his own life, that there always seemed to be other people — his parents, his teachers — who were trying to manipulate it — and manipulate him.
He seemed to have no right to choose anything for himself, not even the writers he wanted to study. If he wanted to concentrate on the Romantics, he was encouraged to study Milton instead. There was a lack of good Milton scholars then, and he imagined he was being groomed to become one. He imagined that Jim and everyone else around him saw a resemblance between Milton and him, and that they thought he would learn something more significant from Milton than from the Romantics.
David would have been the first to admit that this was a laughable idea. He knew at the time it was laughable, but he couldn’t get rid of it. It was the fact that he couldn’t get rid of such an idea that was so troubling. It was such a crazy thought, but he wondered how long it would be before he started believing it. And when he started believing it, wouldn’t that mean not only that the idea was crazy, but that he was crazy too?
On the other hand, in many ways such an idea was very gratifying, very flattering, and probably that’s one of the unconscious reasons he couldn’t let it go of it, even as he consciously believed he really was trying to rid himself of it.
All of those dreams and illusions only demonstrate how little he understood the real nature of greatness. At Harvard, the kind of greatness that he learned to idealize and admire was the greatness of the great thinker, the great poet, the great discoverer of new worlds. This was a particularly Renaissance kind of greatness, or an eighteenth- and nineteenth-century kind of greatness, it was the idea of the aristocrat of the mind, the idea of the intellectual and artistic giant among men.
This was the very opposite of the real idea of greatness, and he failed to see that. Probably he didn’t want to see it. He didn’t want to see how much our civilization has been influenced by what may be the only true idea of greatness, the idea that writers like Tolstoy or Dostoevsky had, for example, the idea that the last shall be first and the first last, or by the idea that he who would be the greatest among us must become the slave of all the rest, or that the greatest among us come to serve, not to be served, or that we are greatly blessed when men persecute us and speak all manner of evil against us for the sake of our beliefs.
Because such concepts were really incomprehensible to David at the most profound level, their deeper and broader implications were in many ways incomprehensible for him as well. However, these ideas had already had some impact on his thinking, because he had been raised with them. He couldn’t fully understand them, but he couldn’t give them up either. The only way he could deal with them was to separate them from his daily life and keep them in that mental compartment that was completely sealed off from everything else.
However, no matter how much these concepts seemed to be separate from his life, they were slowly penetrating deeper and deeper into his subconscious mind. They were also beginning to affect his thinking and behavior in ways he didn’t realize. While part of his mind longed for the kind of greatness Milton and others had had, or even the kind of greatness a professor who studies Milton has, part of his mind drew back, as though there were something wrong with all that, as though it were somehow not reason enough to be alive. Or not reason enough for him to be alive.
Another difficulty was that the part of him that longed for what he thought of as greatness longed for the greatness of the poet, and he felt he was being forced in some way to become a scholar. Even if he had wanted that, he felt he was not being given the freedom to choose to study what really interested him. He felt he was being overwhelmed with pressure to study Milton, and Milton did not interest him as much as some other writers did.
Again, what was for him really so terrible was the certainty that none of these ideas could possibly correspond to reality, and yet he was frighteningly close to believing them, which meant, once more, that he thought he himself must be in danger of losing touch with reality.
He could not get rid of the idea that pressure was being put on him, and this pressure appeared so powerful that at times it really did seem like a kind of manipulation, so all-pervasive that it was quite useless to try to resist. He could not rid himself of the idea that the professors and tutors he knew were trying to mold him into the kind of person they thought he should become, instead of allowing him to become the kind of person he wanted to be.
Once again, because the conflict kept repeating itself in his mind, he had to go on repeating to himself that he knew such ideas were absurd, but he was terrified he might start actually believing them.
Perhaps the basic problem was that the person he wanted to be, the ideal that had been imprinted on his heart and mind long before he had ever even heard of Milton or Keats, was in direct conflict with the values he thought he had found at Harvard. However, because he felt he was in danger of adopting the “Harvard” values as his own, and because these were in such conflict with his earlier values, he found himself at the center of opposing intellectual and mental forces that he did not know how to reconcile.
Probably all of this makes little sense in the telling, but it made no sense to him even then, either, and he often thought that all he could do was run away from even the need to make sense of it all, run away from the need to try to reconcile all the conflicts.
Part 3, Chapter 33
“A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter….
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces…..”
–T. S. Eliot
Journey of the Magi
Naturally David continued to try to tell Bradley about his thoughts and feelings, but as so often happened, Bradley seemed to be having some difficulty understanding.
David would always believe, however, that the fault was his. He would always think that he probably wasn’t explaining things very well, or explaining them in a way that was interesting enough to hold Bradley’s attention.
“What bothers me more than anything else,” David said to Bradley one day in the blue and gray furnishings of the Health Center office, “is that I’m afraid I’ll start believing all these things that I keep thinking.”
“You know.” David looked at him with what must have been an exasperated expression on his face — and this too was something David would one day very much regret having done. But he disliked Socratic questions — they seem to be used all the time at Harvard — because to his idealistic way of thinking, there seemed to be something inherently deceitful about them, because they involve pretending to be ignorant when you really know the answer, or you think you do.
Fortunately, he didn’t say that to Bradley. Bradley would have resented it, and it would only have added to the punishment — as David saw it — that Bradley eventually meted out Besides, people who ask Socratic questions almost always deny that they know the answer to the questions they ask. David felt pretty certain that’s what Bradley would do. So he said, “I’m sure I’ve told you this before, haven’t I? I’m afraid I’ll start believing that all these professors really are directing most of their lectures to me, that they really are giving me advice on how to lead my life.”
“Well, I’ve told you this before: suppose you simply accepted whatever advice you think they’re giving you, and acted on it?”
David sat there and stared at him for a moment. The other time Bradley made that remark, David might have misunderstood him. Not this time. David would never forget that remark, though in the long years that followed he would still sometimes ask himself if he was sure he heard Bradley correctly.
In the end, though, he would be certain that he did hear Bradley correctly, and that he didn’t imagine anything.
At that moment, however, David sat there and stared at Bradley and then looked away. It may have been at that instant that David made his decision to leave Harvard, even though it would be some weeks before he actually did it.
In what many will call an adolescent sensitivity to moral values, or even a morbid preoccupation with them, all of Harvard seemed to David in that moment to be grounded in — and interwoven with — lies and ambiguity that were for him intolerable. Communication appeared impossible. People seemed always to be asking questions they already knew the answer to, or suggesting things in such a vague way that he could only think they had some ulterior motive for saying what they did, or that they were hiding something. His childishly suspicious nature— what else can it be called? — made him feel that at Harvard people were often — for some dark reason he couldn’t fathom — trying to hide the fact that they knew the truth about something, until they were ready to let you know that they’d really known the truth all along.
Truth. More often than ever he noticed the Harvard coat of arms everywhere, with the word Veritas emblazoned on it. It began to seem to him, in his cynicism, like some kind of joke.
If he really did make the decision to leave Harvard then, at that moment, in Bradley’s office, it was not a decision that he made easily, although many people afterwards thought he did. The decision caused him, in fact, considerable pain, at times almost unendurable pain.
In some ways he really had begun to feel that he was finding at Harvard the kind of intellectually exciting place he’d hoped to discover when he first went there. He was beginning to learn how to really read literature; he was starting to wake up to the beauty it contained, to the power it could exert over the minds and thinking of human beings. He felt he was beginning, in a way, to confront the great minds of our civilization — and, now, suddenly it was all being torn away from him, though it was really he, of course, who was forcing himself to do the tearing.
The difficulty was that he’d found at Harvard not simply the intellectual excitement he’d been looking for. He found a kind of terror there as well. In the deepest core of his being he believed instinctively that some of the things Harvard represented were not anything like the great ideals he’d had in mind when he went there. These things that Harvard seemed to represent were wrong, as far as he was concerned.
He even started to wonder if the intellectual values Harvard represented were really in the final analysis not completely compatible with what he felt was most important in life, with what he felt was even more important than the intellectual life. Besides, those values seemed to bring other things in their train, things that he considered objectively evil.
The most ironic thing of all is perhaps this: what David always said he really wanted when he came to Harvard was something like Plato’s academy. But if he’d ever actually been a member of that academy, with its Socratic questions and no doubt with other things he would have objected to, he would have eventually felt about that group the same way he felt about Harvard. And he would probably have left it as well, with at least as much pain.
He was coming to an understanding, more and more, of the various elements of life at Harvard. And if many of them terrified him in a way, what was even more terrifying was the knowledge that he was now making some fateful choice between all the beauty he was starting to see at Harvard and a journey into the unknown, a journey into a kind of desert.
It was probably in Bradley’s office that afternoon that he chose the desert, and he would soon set out to cross it. There would eventually be many times, when he would want to return, when he would long for the world he’d known before the desert.
That, anyway, is what many others have done, who set off on similar journeys, at other times, in other places.
Part 3, Chapter 34
“Abbot Pastor said to a brother:…Two farmers lived in a village. One of them sowed his field and reaped only a small and wretched crop. The other neglected to sow anything at all, and so he reaped nothing. Which of the two will survive, if there is a famine? The brother replied: The first one, even though his crop is small and wretched. The elder said to him: Let us also sow; even though our sowing is small and wretched, lest we die in the time of hunger.”
The Wisdom of the Desert
The time has come to talk about Bishop Riley. David didn’t understand it at the time, but he would later come to believe that it was this old man who came closest to embodying the ideals he was looking for when he went to Harvard. Ironically, and sadly, the good bishop also came to believe that it was he who accidentally caused David to leave Harvard and forever cut short whatever promise he may have shown there. The Bishop may even have gone to his grave believing that, if he thought about David at all at such a moment.
David would deal with that thought by always believing that in a better world than this one, where the Bishop surely must be, he knows the truth. Perhaps even when he was alive he grasped something of the truth, for he was a man who believed that nothing in life can be in conflict with the intricate design that Providence has conceived, the design that will end in the realization of the purpose for which all human beings and everything in the world were created.
David used to go to him once a week for a talk and for confession. If it had not been for the Bishop, David might have either left Harvard sooner than he did, or left it forever, or else remained at Harvard and been morally and psychologically destroyed there — though in that case David would have been the first to admit that the fault would have been his and not Harvard’s.
He used to go to the rectory of St. Peter’s Church, a few blocks from Harvard, where Bishop Riley lived in semi-retirement. His rooms were modest, furnished in a kind of Irish-Victorian style that Joyce might have put into one of his novels — into Ulysses or A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
The Bishop was a wise, intelligent old man, extraordinarily kind, and, like a poet, partly blind. Years later, when David read Victor Hugo, he would think how very much Bishop Riley resembled the good Bishop of Digne in the first chapters of Les Misérables. David saw a sort of saintly aura around the bishop as he sat listening patiently to David and offering advice, before hearing his confession. Despite the great difference in their ages, they were able to find a common ground for communication in a love of learning and in the beliefs they shared.
The Bishop provided the reinforcement and support David needed to maintain what he saw as the integrity of his thinking, even the integrity of his very nature. David could never speak to him, though, about what he was really suffering at Harvard. At least he couldn’t speak of it directly, and so it was without realizing it, perhaps, that the Bishop helped him to survive that suffering — as long as it went on at Harvard — and even everything he suffered after Harvard.
David couldn’t tell the Bishop about the absurd idea he had, that his professors were speaking directly to him in their lectures. It seemed somehow unthinkable. The Bishop’s world was so different from David’s, so sheltered in a way, or so it seemed to David. He thought that speaking to the Bishop about his professors’ lectures and his own strange ideas would have been like bringing a live boa constrictor with him into the Bishop’s rooms. It seemed utterly ridiculous to speak of such things, though perhaps there are those who would say that it was not David’s youth and naiveté, but really only his pride that made him keep silent. If he could have spoken of these things, though, what could the Bishop have said and what would he have thought? Would it have made any difference? Could he have helped David resist the powerful and terrifying forces he felt confronted with at Harvard? Could the Bishop have somehow helped him to stay at Harvard?
Those too are questions he would ask himself over and over again in the years that passed. He would never know why he went on asking them. They could surely have no possible meaning later.
Perhaps the important thing is that David learned from Bishop Riley how to maintain his faith in a situation that threatened to destroy it. It’s true that he had put himself into that situation. It’s true that in a way he wanted to make Harvard’s values his values, but hadn’t he done that in all innocence, not really knowing what Harvard’s values were or what they would mean for him?
When he did begin to understand that, hadn’t he, without really noticing it, separated from his everyday existence everything he knew about higher values of any sort? Or hadn’t he tried to do that, as long as he could, until, in the end, the compartmentalization of his thinking broke down, and he could not avoid making a choice between one way of living and the other, one way of thinking and the other?
Before that choice seemed necessary, though, instead of talking with Bishop Riley about it, or talking with anyone about it, David went on attempting to reconcile the world as it is with the way he wanted it to be. He thought the world should be filled with innocence and with that goodness of God that he looked for and believed he found every morning.
He thought that if he could not find this goodness and innocence in the world, then there must surely be something wrong, not with the world, but with him.
And if the world seemed confusing, then it must be he who was confused. Unfortunately, David came to believe that the only way to rid himself of this confusion was not to try to understand the world more deeply, but to try to leave the world he was in and find a better one. If he didn’t do that, he thought, he would only become more confused. He would also, he thought, somehow add to the world’s confusion himself. He believed of course that it was better to avoid that. He even believed he should have as little contact as possible with the world, or at least with the world as he knew it then.
On the other hand, there were times when David thought that for him the world was Harvard and that it was ridiculous for him to think along the lines of leaving it. Bishop Riley would probably have agreed with much of that. How could he really think about leaving Harvard? Of course it was ridiculous, but young men are often ridiculous, and David was extremely young.
He was also, perhaps — and this too is important to keep in mind — still almost a primitive in the way he perceived and reacted to things. When he read literature, for example, he felt so passionately involved with what he read that — and this should probably be repeated — he did sometimes very nearly believe the words had been written for him personally.
He never discussed ideas such as that with Bishop Riley, though. He never discussed them with anyone, although Jim Radnor may have understood what David was thinking. David simply accepted the fact that other people didn’t seem to react to literature as strongly as he did, but there didn’t seem to be anything he could do about that, not did he think that fact was particularly important.
Probably he didn’t really want to discuss that idea with Bishop Riley or with Jim or with anyone, although of course he should have, because that idea too played a part in his leaving Harvard. Perhaps another reason he didn’t discuss his reactions to literature was that secretly he didn’t really want to react any differently from the way he did react. He didn’t really want literature to affect his emotions or his thinking any less than it did. He enjoyed sitting alone in his room and crying over the abdication scene in King Lear: the exchange of the word “nothing” between Cordelia and Lear was painful for him to read. He could walk around Cambridge for what seemed like hours with Lear’s words alive in his mind: “Upon such sacrifices, my Cordelia, the gods themselves throw incense.”
It is in fact very possible that reactions and feelings like that were based on a kind of pride. Without really acknowledging it, David could feel superior to everyone else, because he could think of himself as being so very sensitive to literature. At any rate, it’s true that he must have needed to feel superior, because when he attempted to write about his ideas in critical essays, his teachers were not at all impressed by them. Later he would think to himself that what he wrote must have seemed rather pathetic to his teachers, because, in a way, it was his heart that he used to put down on paper, in displays of emotion that he equated with fine insight. What his teachers at Harvard wanted was not his heart on paper, but essays on English literature that were controlled, detached, and analytical.
On the other hand, years afterward, David would read a book by a distinguished critic that condemned the controlled, detached, and analytical sort of essay, while approving of those people who perceived a “real presence” in literature. The book made him sad and happy at the same time, because he imagined it justified the attitude he’d had toward literature when he was at Harvard. He was sad, though, to think that no one had been able to see that he’d been right, when he was at Harvard. Of course if he really had been right, he might have eventually been able to make everyone see that, if he hadn’t left Harvard the way he did, and when he did.
Still, in discovering the book about the “real presence” in literature David was also happy to be able to think that perhaps truth, in the end, even after so many years, had prevailed.
He also asked himself: if truth had prevailed in that instance, wouldn’t it also prevail in other ways as well?
A naïve question, many will say. Perhaps it is, but perhaps that too was the kind of question Bishop Riley taught him to think of.
Part 3, Chapter 35
„So sprech’ ich dir ab Krone und Reich, Recht und Leben. Landflüchtig sollst du sein, achtlos, ehrlos, rechtlos…Soweit Feuer brennt und Erde grünt. Soweit Schiff schreitet und Schild scheinet. Soweit Himmel sich höht und Welt sich weitet. Soweit der Falke fliegt den langen Frühlingstag, wann ihm der Wind steht unter seinen beiden Flügeln. Versagt soll dir sein Halle und Haus und guter Leute Gemeinschaft und alle Wohnung, ausgenommen die Hölle. Dein Erb und Eigen teil’ ich zu dem Gotenvolk. Dein Blut und Fleisch den Raben in den Lüften“.
Ein Kampf um Rom
“Thus I dispossess thee of crown and kingdom, law and life. Landless shalt thou be, unheeded, unhonored, unfree…Where’er fire shall flicker or earth grow green, where’er ship sail or shield shine, where’er heaven heighten or the world widen, where’er falcon fly o’er field of spring with wings that wander the wind — driven shalt thou be from hearth and home and from all good folk, driven from every dwelling save the halls of hell. And all that thou hast — or hast to endow — I give the Goths. Thy blood and flesh I give the ravens as their prey.”
A Struggle for Rome
As the second semester of David’s junior year continued, everything that happened seemed to increase the constant sense of despondency. His feelings of hopelessness in turn made him even more sensitive to any small defeat that under other circumstances would not have bothered him very much. For example, every time he failed to receive the highest possible grade on a paper or an exam, he became depressed and angry.
Jim Radnor was now his teacher in two of the four courses he was taking, and he often had to write papers for him. The grades he received on those papers largely determined his mood and his attitude toward Harvard. When the grade was less than he expected, he compelled himself to react the way he had been taught a good man should react, humbly and with a sense of acceptance and resignation. He would usually even thank Jim and tell him how pleased he was with his grade; he would even tell him that he had been expecting the grade to be even lower. And he was completely serious.
The grade very often was lower on the next paper, and his feelings of anger and depression grew. His attempts to hide and suppress those feelings also grew, however, as did the feeling of always being under some kind of pressure: the pressure to achieve and the pressure never to show how much he was hurt when he couldn’t achieve all he wanted to, or when his achievements were unrecognized.
Humility was an obligation, David believed, certainly where his grades were concerned. He thought that grades were simply to be accepted, whatever they were. His teachers were the authority in such matters, and there was no point in arguing about things like grades. There was never any point in arguing with anyone in authority. Besides, for David obedience was a spiritual obligation.
His teachers must know much better than he did, he thought, what grade he deserved, and arguing with them would only indicate a kind of pride on his part. If what he wrote really was as good as he thought, if his ideas possessed any validity, the truth would one day be known. It would be the ideas that would win out in the end. The ideas were what mattered, not the person who’d produced them.
He think he was right about that, of course, but the only difficulty with such thinking is that you have to be prepared to see your ideas win long after you yourself have been defeated. It may be possible to live with such a philosophy, but only if you are convinced that this world and this existence will one day be replaced by infinitely better ones. Otherwise, you will never have the strength and the hope you need in order to live for the survival of your ideas alone.
David probably never really had that strength or that hope. Certainly at Harvard he was too young to understand that sort of thinking as well as he thought he did. For that reason, at the same time that he suffered from feelings of depression and near despair, his sense of inner conflict continued to grow, until he began to foresee that he might reach the point where he could not contain the conflict anymore. Outwardly he was yielding, submissive, agreeable — but inwardly he could not accept the grades that Jim or any other teacher gave his work, and this inability — or refusal produced in him feelings of tremendous anger and frustration, feelings he did not know how to deal with.
He was constitutionally incapable of trying to convince his teachers that he deserved better grades. Even if his ideas about humility had not prevented him from doing that, he had learned from his mother and stepfather that all arguments with authority were useless, even dangerous. When he was younger, if he ever protested — even quietly — that something within the family circle was unjust, his protests were silenced by force, not physical force, but by powerful, overwhelming psychological force, by pressure and intimidation and threats that his poor stepfather exerted, usually after his mother — tortured in her own way by her past — had directed him to do so. That had happened so often when he was a younger that he’d forgotten even how to protest.
He knew it was wrong to feel anger, but he had no way of avoiding such a feeling. He might have had spiritual ideals about rejoicing that he was suffering injustice, but he couldn’t realize those ideals. He was probably too weak or too immature to do that, or he didn’t really believe in those ideals the way he thought he did.
If he’d learned from the nuns in school that he should be happy that he was sharing in the sufferings of a God who, out of love and humility, had suffered everything for him, David didn’t know how in the world he was supposed to feel that kind of happiness. Eventually he even forgot that he was supposed to feel that kind of happiness.
If he couldn’t avoid feeling anger and a sense of injustice, however, he did manage to do the next worse thing: he continued to repress those emotions. In fact, he was so successful at repressing them that he became less and less conscious of them himself. He certainly never talked about them, even to Bradley.
Yet they were still there in his mind, ready to wreak havoc with their powerful, destructive force. And because he retained enough of his moral ideals to know he couldn’t direct his anger toward anyone around him, he chose the next best target: himself.
He began — or perhaps continued — to react to every injustice by punishing the only person he was allowed to punish: himself.
Part 3, Chapter 36
“Do not go gentle into that good night,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
With self-punishment, of course, came the continuation of moods that were black with sadness.
David felt he was a failure in his studies. He felt bewildered by what his teachers were saying in their classes and lectures — not because he couldn’t understand it, but because he couldn’t accept it, and because he wanted to rid himself of the idea that his teachers were actually directing comments to him in their lectures — and sometimes directing whole lectures to him.
He’d given up many of his ideals and adopted many of the standards and goals of the world around him, and this was no doubt causing much of his unhappiness. His unhappiness, though, was also caused by the fact that he had in fact resisted adopting at least some of the goals and standards of the world around him. This resistance created in him a tremendous sense of conflict, and this conflict was a further source of unhappiness.
He would have despaired completely in that situation, except for the tiny, indestructible kernel of belief that he perceived at the center of his consciousness. It was the belief that there is, somewhere, another dimension to human existence, beyond the suffering that many people experience.
That belief prevented hope and happiness from being completely blotted out for him. He was at times still able to feel a kind of enchantment at the arresting beauty of things around him: a tree arched against the egg-shell blue of the Cambridge sky in winter, a flight of birds gliding through the air over the Charles. These and countless other things gave him a secret feeling of delight that he did not know what to do with — except to want somehow to express a sense of gratitude that he was there to perceive these things.
Despite the gathering storm of sadness that seized him sometimes, he used to feel he was going to burst with happiness at moments when he was able to perceive at least a small part of the beauty of the world. He still wanted to try to speak of this happiness — which was perhaps even more than happiness — to other people, but he seemed unable to find a way of doing that. Besides, he was afraid, afraid that this happiness and the perceptions that caused it made him different from other people. He’d never heard anyone else — except in literature and poetry — talk about insights into “the mystery of things.” And so he felt increasingly isolated and alone, even though he had, as he said, read about people having these experiences. Wordsworth and Keats, for example, made him feel a sense of excitement and relief, when he found in their works so many ideas and impressions he thought were similar to his own.
Were they, though? Were they really similar? The question would seem academic to him in later life, though he continued to be obsessed by it, and probably would remain obsessed by it until his dying day. It would be a long time before it occurred to him that if he really had been moved by beauty in the same way that Keats and Wordsworth had been moved by the beauty they saw around them, then he would have written poetry like theirs, and nothing or no one could have stopped him. Even if we live in an age when feelings and ideas are no longer expressed in that kind of poetry, wouldn’t he — couldn’t he — have found some way of expressing what he wanted to express?
Whatever the answer to that question may be, because David was young and enthusiastic, and very naïve, he went on talking about these experiences, or at least he kept on referring to them in conversation. Whenever he did that, though, he would very soon experience the old terror: On the next day or the day after that, he would hear his teachers making references to his remarks in their lectures. As always, that kind of thing only increased his fear and anxiety, because it seemed to him to be such a crazy idea. He wondered what would happen next. Would he start thinking people were speaking directly to him over radio or television? Would he start receiving radio transmissions from Mars through the fillings in his teeth? Would he start hearing voices?
Even he could understand that there was a crisis developing in his life, and because he never resolved that crisis, the questions would persist for decades. He would keep on wondering about them and asking himself about them over all the intervening years between his time at Harvard and his old age. It seems important, therefore, to emphasize them often in this poor account of his few years at Harvard.
And because he was lonely and isolated during those years — this too should be repeated — and because he tended to keep everyone at a distance and even avoided other people at times, the intensity of his reactions to literature and to the world in general only increased. Those reactions — even though basically good — had now become so very strong that he really had no way to express them so that he could get a clear and unambiguous response from other people. They had now gone beyond the simple enthusiasm of his first semesters at Harvard.
He was therefore completely convinced that he had no alternative but to continue going to the lectures in his courses and to listen to his professors as they seemed to talk more and more only to him, while at the same time sitting there and knowing that such an idea was completely, totally, utterly absurd.
It was, to say the least, becoming an increasingly serious conflict for him. It was now the middle of February of the second semester of his junior year, and he could not get rid of the idea that would never bother him anywhere else in the world except at Harvard. It was — to repeat it once more — the idea that would go on repeating itself in his memory all the years of his life. It was the idea that he could not make go away. It was more and more the idea that it was not just a few remarks that were being directed at him in what his professors said, it was entire lectures that were being aimed at him. Again and again he would have the experience of having a conversation with Jim, or giving Jim a paper for the tutorial class they had once a week, and then the next day hearing those same subjects being referred to, in one way or another and sometimes at great length, in all of the lectures he attended.
Of course when things reached that point, David began to be more frightened than ever, if that was possible. He continued trying to repress the fear, though, along with everything else, but of course the more he repressed it, the worse it became and the more afraid he was that he would soon start believing that his teachers really were talking to him in their lectures.
A few weeks later, by the beginning of March, he was really quite desperate, but he went on trying to subject his situation to what he thought was rational analysis. His ideas seemed to have grouped themselves around two poles of thought. The first one centered on the idea that people at Harvard — faculty members, other students, everyone — were suggesting to him that any and all types of behavior were not only permissible but desirable. Things that he had been taught all his life were wrong, he was now told were good. No, he was more than just being told they were good, he felt he was being pressured into believing they were good.
Certainly most of what he perceived as pressure must have been his own insistent desire to experience what he himself knew to be wrong. Wherever the pressure came from, though, it still seemed overwhelming, and he hated it, he didn’t want it. At the same time, there was within him a corresponding opposite pressure, just as powerful, to do what was right, to be the kind of person he had always been taught he should be.
Both of these forces were on a collision course in his mind.
The struggle between them was continuing to make him feel more anxious and more afraid than he had ever been before in his life.
Fortunately, he didn’t know that the struggle had hardly even begun.
Part 3, Chapter 37
“A flame began to flutter again on Stephen’s cheek as he heard in this proud address an echo of his own proud musings.”
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
While that battle was taking shape, another one was in the making, related to the second group of disturbing ideas, and these David found more difficult to deal with.
Although he never actually believed it, he continued to find it increasingly difficult to rid himself of the absurd idea that among the things the professors seemed to be communicating to him in their lectures and in their reading assignments was the outrageously and laughably absurd idea that they recognized some extraordinary talent in him. Of course such an idea was ridiculous, he knew it was ridiculous. How could any of his professors or teachers recognize anything at all in him? None of them — except for Jim — even knew him.
Still, no matter how much he tried to ignore it, no matter how much he tried to tell himself he was imagining it, in hundreds of subtle ways he heard them telling him about himself and advising him on how to survive in a world where people with extraordinary talent are extremely vulnerable.
It was about this time that something started happening that should be mentioned once more. David began noticing that professors in his courses often made fun of some of the very people he admired, and this kind of mockery was painful for him to listen to. In Bateson’s course on Samuel Johnson, he would find himself nearly cringing with embarrassment whenever Bateson described Johnson’s idiosyncrasies and failings, not because he was embarrassed for Samuel Johnson, of course, but because he somehow always managed to connect those comments with himself.
Of course David knew Bateson wasn’t referring to him. He wasn’t so far gone that he imagined Bateson knew anything about him. However, all the same, he wanted something like that never to happen to him. It was then that David swore to himself that he would never write anything that would allow people to examine him and dissect him and ridicule him the way Bateson was doing with Johnson. David swore he would never write anything that other people would want to read — and that would be one promise he’d manage to keep.
But the asinine “genius delusion,” as he came to think of it, took other forms as well. It took the form of the steadily rising fear that he was different from other people in some extreme way, a feeling that he’d been marked for some special task in life, for some extraordinary — and extraordinarily difficult — achievement. Intuition told him that such tasks and such achievements demanded a special kind of loneliness, one that would be terrible to endure.
He felt lonely enough at times — despite the fact that he actually did know a fairly large number of people — without contemplating the possibility of anything that might isolate him from even more.
Both of these struggles, the struggle concerning evil and the struggle concerning his own potential, were a source of unspeakable terror for him, even though he had to be causing the struggles himself — there is no other explanation. As often happens with young men trying to find their way in life, he was probably playing with roles he might fill one day, possible ideas about the way he would live. After a time, though, these roles and these ideas became too threatening and terrifying, because the possibility that he might actually start believing in them started becoming all too real.
Jorge Luis Borges once gave a talk to a small group of students at Harvard, and he was asked about the meaning of a story he’d told them. He answered, “The meaning is that we have to be careful which games we play in life, because if you play a game long enough, it becomes real.”
Perhaps that statement describes what was happening to David. He’d been playing a game, flirting with evil and flirting with the idea of greatness, but the game had started to become a little too real, and he felt he was beginning to lose control of it.
He was discovering in himself the capacity that we all have for doing what is wrong. He was also discovering a disturbing desire to excel — not simply at Harvard, but in the larger world, in a world where excellence in almost anything can appear to be a threat to many people, who will then try to destroy it.
David’s unconscious seems to have been playing with ideas of greatness — even ideas of evil, or what he’d been taught was evil — the way a child plays with fire, feeling a sense of excitement and fear.
He’d contemplated the lives and thinking of the great men of the past. He’d even thought he too would someday accomplish great things. But then at Harvard he also began to understand, in his own weird way, a few of the implications of this kind of thinking.
This understanding took other odd forms, besides the ones mentioned already. At one point, for example, it seemed to him that the people around him were beginning to use the first person plural whenever they talked to him about anything. They seemed to be speaking to him as though each of them were part of a group, while he was an individual, alone. The sense of isolation that this kind of conversation produced in him was difficult to bear, even though he knew he must somehow be twisting the meaning of their words.
At the same time, though, he had to admit that he did like to imagine that there really was some great task he had to complete, some new world of the mind and spirit he had to explore. He sometimes believed he had to accomplish this work and set out on this journey all alone, without the comfort and strength he might get from any companion. The essence of greatness, he seems to have told himself, was loneliness. David thought that everything a great man did, everything he had to accomplish, must be done alone, in what seemed to David to be frightening isolation.
Worst of all, at least for many of his hopes and ideals, without realizing it, he had begun to think of Providence as a kind of abstraction, far away. The compartment in which he’d stored all his thinking about God seemed to be breaking down. He could no longer safely enter it and leave the world outside.
Of course such thinking was very confused, even somewhat bizarre. Even David understood that. He could also dimly understand that that kind of thinking was not only confused and bizarre, it was quite grandiose.
He didn’t really see, though, that it must have been he himself making himself feel psychologically isolated and alone. He didn’t see that if he could have brought himself into closer contact with other students, things would perhaps not have been so difficult for him.
He was still painfully shy, and his classmates still seemed almost frightening in a way. His shyness and his feelings of inadequacy reinforced each other, and he attributed formidable intelligence to his classmates.
And the more intelligence he attributed to them, the more inadequate he felt, until a sort of downward spiral developed, and he became — when he forgot about the “greatness delusion” — a quite worthless individual in his own eyes. He didn’t see that these feelings of worthlessness were quite probably the cause of the “greatness delusion.” He didn’t see that it was clearly his own feelings of worthless that were creating or contributing to this delusion — or semi-delusion, since even he knew that it was too ridiculous to be true.
During all this time, even though he still clung to the beliefs he’d been raised with, the compartment in his mind that he stored those beliefs in was coming under stronger attack from the outside. He had to spend so much energy just reinforcing the walls of that compartment that the beliefs he kept stored there could give him no sense of being a worthy human being. This too contributed to the “greatness delusion,” because if he could find no sense of self-esteem in the traditions he’d been raised in, then he must have had to seek it elsewhere, in the absurd temptation to think that his professors were devoting all of their attention to him.
It was only a temptation, though. Of course he was able to prevent himself from actually believing in the ridiculous daydream of supposed greatness. However, the mere fact that he continued to have this daydream, though, was painful for him, because it seemed to him to be so crazy. He was afraid of it, and this fear ultimately led to another kind of craziness.
He did manage to talk about his fear of craziness to Jim, in a general way, avoiding the details, but that only made matters worse. As soon as he began talking about that to Jim — and perhaps to others as well — he began hearing in his professors’ lectures descriptions of the difficulties many great writers of the past had had with their sanity. Especially in the course on Samuel Johnson, Professor Bateson seemed every day to discuss Johnson’s attempts to maintain his sanity.
When that started happening, it was really the last straw for David. He was more afraid than ever that it was only a matter of time before he would come to believe that his professors really were trying to speak to him through their lectures. It was only a matter of time, he feared, before he would start to believe his professors really were telling him it was permissible to do all the things he’d been taught were wrong.
He was also terrified that he would eventually even believe that his professors really were telling him he had the potential for greatness, or that they really were giving him advice on how to survive in a world where he had a special role to play.
Healthy and stable individuals, he knew, did not think their professors were doing such a thing. And since he’d never been troubled by such absurd ideas anywhere but Harvard, the thought continued to grow in him that if he could not repress these ideas, then the only alternative — as he’d determined on that snowy day in February — the only logical alternative was to leave Harvard.
Part 3, Chapter 38
“Hope is the chief blessing of man, and that hope only is rational, of which we are certain that it cannot deceive us.”
Rambler No. 203
Even though repression did at first seem to David to be the only solution to the problems his strange ideas were causing — the ideas about what his professors were or were not saying in their lectures, the ideas about the kind of person he really was — as the weeks went by, repression of course became more and more difficult.
It demanded too much of his attention and energy. It demanded so much of him, in fact, that everything else in his life was carried on simply by force of habit. By the middle of March he felt he was moving around Cambridge by sheer will power, as if he’d been programmed to just move around Cambridge.
Sometimes he found it almost impossible to concentrate on his studies. His mind seemed to be filled with questions that he could not answer and that he was finding it harder to suppress. Outwardly he managed to continue behaving more or less like any other undergraduate, but inwardly he felt he was disintegrating. Perhaps he was, and perhaps it was inevitable.
Possibly the destruction of such young men is always inevitable, for how can they survive in the world?
Later, in the odd, modern age in which David lived most of his life, whenever he saw one of the golden youth, one of those who seem filled with a kind of limitless promise, with so much to offer, he would almost think that it would be fitting to start mourning them. He knew that such young men would almost certainly not survive. They were not wanted. The ones who were bright, decent, and gentle, the ones who have that inner strength that even they are unaware of, the ones who have all the striking features common to the best that our kind can bring forth — such young men, he would think, are almost without exception doomed.
David would realize they were doomed, because they possessed everything that those who envy them did not possess. And those who envy them were more numerous and more powerful than they were.
At such times, though, David would think that there was perhaps one thing that could save them: the knowledge that the world has always been like that, in some ages more so than in others, but it really has always been like that. It would occur to David that this might have been the way our civilization always progressed, paradoxically: by ultimately destroying many of the best among us. David would often think to himself that this was in fact one of the main themes of Judæo-Christian civilization, from the beginning and down to our own day.
How many people have there been who have commented that the real saints — of every religion —were themselves once golden youth — decent, gentle, strong, often bright and of striking appearance — and that many of them were in a sense doomed because of what they were. They were made to suffer, and made to suffer by the same forces that bring about suffering and destruction in the lives of such young men today. And they were destroyed in the end, at least to all appearances. Ultimately, however, it could perhaps be said that they more than survived.
That was at least one ideal, one belief, that David would never be able to abandon.
Part 3, Chapter 39
“Upon such sacrifices…the gods themselves throw incense.”
In those final months of his junior year at Harvard he still clung to the vision of literature he’d always had. For him it was still a kind of endless conversation among the immortals — absurd though that may sound — and he believed nothing would ever change that.
And in fact nothing ever would.
Literature for him was — and always would be — a series of statements about life that are of permanent human significance. At Harvard he wanted to contemplate those statements the way the saints of his boyhood had contemplated God. He also wanted something more, though, something he’d almost started to forget about. He wanted to explore what he had for so long thought of as that ancient territory of the mind, the landscape of which he too — in what Bradley would have called his adolescent impudence — wanted to help shape.
The apparently insurmountable difficult he faced, though, was that he still had not completely resolved the question of how many of his ideals and ideas were simply illusions. The possibility that he was simply crazy — and the fear engendered by that possibility — seemed to be always with him, and seemed to increase almost exponentially as the days and weeks passed.
His anxiety grew, and there was nothing he could do to escape it.
By the middle of March he could no longer read or study. Certainly he could no longer read or study effectively. He used to sit down in front of a book and let his eyes pass over the words, understanding about as much he would have if they’d been written in a foreign language he’d forgotten, or one he’d never learned. He’d sometimes read the same section over and over again, trying to comprehend its meaning, but in the end he always gave up in despair and went on to the next meaningless sentence.
Sometimes in the library or in his room, he used to look up from the book he was trying to read and feel that some dark catastrophe was bearing down on him. And it was.
It would begin with the mid-term exams, which were scheduled to start at the end of March, and it would extend far beyond them.
He had no idea how he would confront those exams, but he went on each day as he had been doing, a kind of robot, a sort of automaton.
Like many people who are presented with confusing elements in their world, his response was to force himself to continue behaving exactly as he’d always done. His behavior became increasingly mechanical, and friends told him much later that this was a very sad thing for them to see. It was painful for them to observe someone who had once seemed to them so full of promise become gradually brittle, closed, and dead.
It seemed to them sometimes that there was an almost physically solid surface forming on his features, as if he were constructing a façade that would shield some unprotected inner world.
And of course something like that was in fact what was happening.
And who, he wondered sometimes, would ever be able to understand all that? There were moments when he felt that if he were to try to write it all down, there was almost no hope at all that anyone would ever comprehend those pages, even if anyone ever read them.
Because of that, there would remain in his mind — always — a tremendous resistance to putting down on paper the events of those years. There would be a formidable resistance to putting them down in a coherent and readable way.
But he would spend much of his life trying.
It would always seem to him — though he tried hard not to think about it — that his life at Harvard was truncated by some act of injustice that he could never quite define and could not comprehend, some act of injustice that people would have said — at least in other times — cried to heaven. Certainly there were times when his life at Harvard seemed that way, no matter how hard he tried to see it from other perspectives.
Whatever it was that happened to him at Harvard, though, one of the only remedies he would always feel he had would be to make at least some weak attempt to speak about it, to try to let someone somewhere know what happened.
Of course, he would always know the attempt was almost certainly futile. He would always know that.
He would understand that even if he weren’t sabotaging the writing process himself, even if he were capable of making everything understood, it would still be highly unlikely that anyone would read what he wrote or even care what happened in his life. If no one cared or understood at the time that these things were happening to him, why would anyone care in the future?
He would realize that they almost certainly wouldn’t. And yet he would feel compelled to go on with the attempt at writing about his life. Somewhere, sometime, someone would exist, he would eventually come to believe, who would read what he wrote and understand.
He would also believe that what he wrote could, or must, in some small way, help to prevent the sort of tragedy that occurred in his life — because he would always believe that’s what it was — from occurring in someone else’s life.
The disaster that his life at Harvard was — and he would come to admit this quite freely — his own fault. He would always be quite willing to admit that, even though he would always know there was really no reason to admit it. There would never be any need to admit it, because no one would ever consider any other possibility. No one he knew at Harvard then would ever even consider the possibility that they might have contributed to what may have been his destruction.
There would be no need to admit it was his fault, because the disaster quite clearly was his fault, for any number of reasons.
For one thing, it was his fault because like many adolescents of his generation, he saw himself, absurdly, as someone who possessed a certain purity, which he wanted to preserve. He wanted to remain uncontaminated by corruption, as many others wanted to and did, or so he thought.
In his case this kind of thinking was reinforced by all that he had learned of God and morality, in the ways already described. He was led to try to protect what he thought of as his inner world, the world of idealism and even of goodness that he thought he contained.
He believed that even if he couldn’t protect that world, and it was destroyed — even if he was destroyed — he could at least feel a sense of intellectual martyrdom for having eventually left Harvard and everything it represented for the life of the mind.
And of course for him then, the possibility of experiencing any kind of martyrdom, psychological or otherwise, was an idea he found pleasant to entertain. Because, certainly, he had only the crassest idea of what something like martyrdom of any kind — in the best sense — really involved.
He would come to believe that there was something in his thinking — perhaps it was his stupidity — that was inherently and instinctively opposed to the intellectual world of Harvard, because that world challenged and threatened his moral values. He felt powerless, though, to oppose that world. Perhaps he even foresaw that he would in some way or to some extent eventually be destroyed by it.
And if he thought about any of these things before he ran from Harvard, he thought of them as his own kind of martyrdom, for which he would surely be quite quickly rewarded.
He had no idea that the martyrdom — if that’s what he wanted to call it — would go on year after year after year.
The prospect of this strange martyrdom was frightening for him, though — this martyrdom that meant giving up Harvard — was that Harvard, and all it represented, was not simply important to him, it was his very life.
The intellectual world of Harvard, whether he fully recognized it or not, whether he admitted it or not, really had become his very life.
He would eventually realize — when it was much too late — that in spite of everything, he had undergone a kind of awakening at Harvard, an awakening to the life of the mind.
Harvard had deepened in him a hunger for that life, for all that was great in the whole long history — and in the very existence — of our kind.
Harvard awakened and deepened the attraction he felt for what he saw as the indestructible idea that runs like a thin vein of gold through all literature, the idea that we have to continually aspire to some higher ideal, some greater intellectual achievement, something that will enhance the life of our kind.
He dimly understood all that even before he ran from Harvard.
He also understood what giving all that up would mean.
Part 3, Chapter 40
“The difference between despair
And fear, is like the one
Between the instant of a wreck,
And when the wreck has been.”
The Single Hound
Some will say that David ultimately took the coward’s way out. He simply ran away. He was weak, and it was his weakness that prevented him from clinging to his ideals no matter what the cost. He was weak, they will say, too haunted by all of the problems he blamed his mother and stepfather for, when in fact the cause of those problems really lay with him.
David himself would have agreed with all that, because he was ready to accept any criticism, perhaps a little too ready. He was ready to feel guilty for anything he was accused of. He was ready to allow himself to be blamed for everything bad that happened in his life and in the lives of those around him. So when he was told that his attempts to protect something valuable in himself were really nothing more than a way of defending his illusions, he agreed with that analysis.
He could not, others said to him, tell the difference between his illusions and reality. He was told that all his problems were created by his attempts to defend his illusions, which he called his “ideals,” because in order to defend those illusions, one of the things he would have had to do was acknowledge that evil exists in himself and in others. He was told that he was afraid to do that.
The people who said these things to him probably had the best intentions. Unfortunately, the more they tried to help him, the more defensive and rigid he became. He was afraid to abandon his view of things, afraid to lose the ideals that were important to him, and he was exhausted by the effort to defend those ideals against accusations that were simply illusions that were completely incompatible with reality.
All his efforts and all his fears made it nearly impossible for him to concentrate on his studies. He went on spending hours at a time staring at a book, the pages of which had become indecipherable. Again, in that state of mind, he understood nothing and was sustained only by the bewildering and desperate hope that merely by looking at the words on the page he might manage to learn something. He had to learn something, because mid-term exams were looming.
As the date of the first of these exams approached, he felt more and more as if his mind were full of something like concrete, as if he had lost the power to think. He felt an increasing sense of hopelessness about passing the exams. He started to wonder if he would even be able to make sense of the questions, let alone answer them.
He began to wait for those exams as if he were waiting for an execution, and in a way perhaps he was. He may in fact have been waiting for something that would put an end once and for all, not to his life or to the pain he felt, but to the confusion and ambiguity that seemed to be overwhelming him.
He couldn’t communicate his state of mind to anyone, not to Bradley, not to a priest, not to any of his friends. He believed it was impossible to make them understand, even though it seemed to him that he’d tried. The effort seemed useless, though. And because he thought he’d at least tried to make people know how he felt, he had the impression at times that he was stranded on a kind of desert island, wildly signaling to passing airplanes and ships, and none of them ever noticed him.
Perhaps the simple truth is that he didn’t try hard enough. At any rate, no one realized how serious the situation had become until it was too late to do anything.
The evening before the first mid-term exam, he went to bed telling himself he would somehow be able to pass it, in spite of everything. He told himself that he would at least be able to write something in the exam book, even if he could remember nothing of what he’d studied, nothing of what he’d read. In fact, however, his mind was a terrified blank, and it seemed that all his energy that night was being directed toward not only trying to suppress the ideas he couldn’t get rid of, but also toward trying to make himself forget that his mind was a blank.
What was it about the exams themselves that he was so terrified of? It’s not easy to explain that, because it will probably sound as if David was crazier than ever. Perhaps it should simply be said, once more, that he was terrified of believing in things that seemed crazy to him. He was terrified that he might actually start believing in those things, and then he really would be crazy.
He made an effort to suppress that terror, and the effort only made his anxiety worse.
He was afraid he might start believing that nearly everything he wrote on his exams would be carefully scrutinized by practically all of his teachers. It would be scrutinized not merely for its academic content, but for what might be called its moral and psychological content as well. Harvard professors gave him the impression that they believed intellectual and academic success depended on a student’s ability to rid himself of any kind of psychological constraint; and to them, it seemed to David, the chief psychological constraint was conventional morality. Again, however, he didn’t actually believe anything like that, but the fear that he would start believing it, and soon, this fear was almost overwhelming.
He was afraid he would start thinking that Harvard professors believed as long as a student adhered to conventional morality, as long as he refused to participate in what some described as the liberated morality of the modern, enlightened age, there would be so many constraints on the student’s thinking that he could not use his abilities to their full capacity. He was afraid he would also start believing that the professors thought it was up to them to help the student rid himself of those constraints.
David’s problem was that he believed – or wanted to believe – something quite different, something that was just the opposite of what he was tempted to think his teachers believed.
David believed there could be no intellectual freedom, no vital energy in a man’s work if he wasn’t free of anything that was morally wrong. In David’s case, if he did something he considered wrong, he felt some gross, heavy weight on his conscience, something that seemed to drag him down. There was no sense of brightness in his mind, no sense of what some have called the lightness of being. If he did something wrong, there was no driving desire to do his work as well as he could, to overcome difficulties and obstacles. If he did something wrong, there was no desire to write an exam or a term paper that would be a source of delight to himself and to other people – or at least that had been true when he was in a state of mind where he could write an exam or a term paper.