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Part 05, Chapters 11-End ——————–

Part 5, Chapter 11

“How dare you use the word hopeless — as if it were the last! Come now, confess, damn it! There’s always hope, isn’t there?”
–Eugene O’Neill
The Straw

To any rational person, David’s belief in his ideals appears absurd, and if he suffered because of the loss of them, then it must be said again and again, he deserved that suffering.

Naturally the loss of an illusion can be a bitter thing for anyone – although one English professor David knew at Harvard claimed he was glad when his illusions were gone.

Young people like David cling to their illusions and beliefs and ideals with tremendous obstinacy, even with what most people would call a kind of stupidity. Certainly in other ways those young people may be intelligent, but the more intelligent and idealistic they are, the angrier and even uglier they can sometimes become when rational people prove to them how illusory their beliefs were. This is especially true in the case of someone like the lost and rather pathetic boy David was in his last year at Harvard, a boy who had now lost his ideals, his beliefs, his illusions, everything.

Perhaps the only thing that ultimately saved him from the possibility of real disaster was that in spite of everything he still longed for the time when all his ideals — and all his beliefs — were intact. If there’s even a trace of that kind of longing in a young man, it may still be possible for him to regain everything he’s lost – even though intelligent people know that such beliefs and ideals have no basis in reality.

Many will laugh at this, but David hungered for those ideals, the way a man hungers for the return of some lost love. He looked for ways of reviving the reality of all the vanished dreams; he wanted so much to make sense of it all, or he wanted at least to have someone acknowledge all he’d suffered.

Even he, though, half-understood that he was only feeling sorry for himself. Once he was invited to a small luncheon given by Professor Benson, the Master of Adams House. David didn’t know exactly why he’d been invited, or what the luncheon was for, but he was astonished at one point to hear Benson offering a kind of apology and seeming to glance at him. It was all David’s illness, of course, with its ideas of self-reference. Afterwards, he couldn’t remember what it was that Benson was apparently apologizing for, but he somehow connected the apology with himself.

The next time David saw Constable, he mentioned the incident, but he did it reluctantly, knowing what Constable would think of it. “I know it’s ridiculous,” I said, “but I thought that Benson was apologizing to me on behalf of the people who may have caused the grief I’ve gone through for the past three years.”

“You mean, that’s what you wanted to think,” he said. “Are you still taking the tranquilizers?”

“Yes,” David answered, as if someone had somehow pushed one more leaden weight downward on his mind.

He really didn’t know what to think anymore. Since there was apparently something wrong with all the things he thought, he wondered what the point was of trying to think anything at all. In his usual courageous way, he began to withdraw after that conversation with Constable, into a smaller and smaller circle of friends, until for a while there was only one friend that he had anything to do with, Stephen Steiner, a lanky young man from New York who was majoring in English. They were friends for several weeks, until David began thinking that things he’d discussed with Stephen were appearing in conversations he had with other people. This happened – or so it seemed to David – with an irritatingly greater frequency, until the old fears of being talked about surfaced again, and he decided all he could do was end the friendship.

Because he’d already begun to drift into another small group of friends, cutting himself off from Stephen wasn’t difficult, although it may not have been at all easy for Stephen. In fact, David probably hurt him deeply.

David’s acquaintance with his new group started rather abruptly, and perhaps, he would of course think in later years, not really by chance. He was sitting at one of the long tables in Adams House, eating lunch alone one day, staring down into his food the way he often did, and in his usual bewildered state of mind. Suddenly he looked up, and sitting directly across the table from him was a young man staring at him, almost wide-eyed, through large horn-rimmed glasses. The young man said nothing, and David was startled by the expression on the face and in the eyes. He had the eyes of an innocent, and his expression seemed to be insistently repeating: “See? Here I am.”

“If Dustin Hoffman had worn glasses in ‘The Graduate,'” David thought to himself, “he would have looked exactly like this guy.”

His name was Larry Martin, and he was majoring in economics. In later years David would think to himself that he and Larry were friends from the moment they met. Larry seemed to want to be David’s friend, and because David thought that such people could be few and far between in this world, he was almost always helpless if someone really wanted to be his friend.

At first, Larry probably tended to feel a kind of admiration for David, because David was a little older and more experienced than he was. That phase of their friendship ended fairly quickly, though, when Larry began to discover that David was as uncertain and confused as anyone. When the friendship continued beyond that point, the reason may have been that being David’s friend gave Larry the opportunity to confirm his own strengths. When he compared himself to David, he found that David had far less self-assurance than he did, and that David frequently needed his help.

Still, it has to be said that there were times when David was able to return the favor; there were times when the situation was reversed, and he was in a position to help Larry.

Part 5, Chapter 12

“Listen, I shall have to whisper it
into your heart directly: we are all
supernatural / every day
we rise new creatures / cannot be predicted”
–Elaine Feinstein

Later, David met one of Larry’s other friends, Mike Slade, an untamed – even wild – Harvard student, who remained for Larry the kind of mentor that Larry had apparently been looking for in David.

Mike had come to Harvard from a small town in South Carolina but had dropped out at about the same time David had, three years before. Mike too had just come back, but his life away from Harvard had been much different from David’s. Mike had enlisted in the Army, not in the reserves, as David had, but in the regular Army, and he’d spent a year in Vietnam. He still had his South Carolina accent, which he did nothing to try to hide. His time in the Army had probably only exaggerated his innately direct and outspoken way of dealing with people.

Under other circumstances, Mike might have been considered just a loud redneck, no matter how unjustified that opinion would have been. At Harvard, everyone who knew him simply ignored some of the more outrageous aspects of his behavior.

It wasn’t that everyone thought of themselves as so very tolerant. It was just that Mike’s intelligence and wit, his ideas and actions, made many students think of him as eccentric and wild, and therefore someone they regarded as quite likeable, somebody they were curious about. More than that, many of the students who knew Mike shared the impatience he felt for a number of people encountered at Harvard in those days, including most instructors and professors.

Getting to know Mike and Larry was a kind of revelation for David. Both of them were leading lives that were, to say the least, very different from his. For one thing, they were sane, while David was, it must be remembered, quite crazy.

Both Mike and Larry responded to life in a way that David had never even considered, that he would never have thought possible for himself – especially not for himself. Nevertheless, it seemed to be a better way than the one he was used to: freer, more open, less rigid, less marked by the sort of tremendous fear and anxiety he so very often felt. Mike and Larry seemed never to be tortured by the deeper questions of good and evil that haunted David to the point of desperation.

He couldn’t, of course, completely adopt their attitude toward life. The forces out of his own past acting on him and influencing his attitudes toward other people – toward everything – were too powerful to be changed even by being friends with people like Mike and Larry. Besides, the university medical center had categorized David – quite justifiably – as seriously ill, mentally ill. He had been classified – and this must not be forgotten – as something like a piece of human garbage that had been dropped off at Harvard by mistake, or at least that was how he’d come to think of himself. He believed that everyone knew – everyone knows – that such people can never really change. He understood that the sooner he could be gotten rid of, the better for Harvard.

He had been made aware of all that, and he knew he had no alternative but to accept it.

He knew he was who he was.

As Christmas vacation got closer, David became even more depressed than he already was. Naturally his condition was his own fault, and he deserves no sympathy. He had only himself to blame, because he had cut himself off from all his beliefs and ideals, and they were, he had learned, what led to the only source of goodness that exists. There was nothing therefore that could make him feel good about himself, or about anything at all for that matter.

He didn’t go back to his mother and stepfather’s house for the vacation. There seemed to be little point in that. He’d already gone back there so many times thinking that everything might be different and finding, of course, that it never was. He knew now that nothing would ever change there, and he dreaded the thought of having to spend any more time at all with his mother and stepfather. He couldn’t go back home simply so that they would have another opportunity to ignore him.

He asked himself what the point of that would have been.

And so he started the Christmas vacation in Cambridge. At first the days dragged by with a feeling of crushing boredom and relentless depression. Those feelings were relieved only once, when he and Mike got drunk together and stupidly stood in front of Professor Benson’s house singing Christmas carols at the top of theirs voices. Fortunately, Benson and his family weren’t home.

Later, after Christmas, David went to New York and spent a few days with Larry and his family, but of course that too depressed him. Larry’s family seemed so much more normal than the one he’d grown up in. David envied Larry for what David thought of as his friend’s bright, unclouded future. When David considered his own future, he very often had a sense of impending catastrophe, with years of blackness, depression, and confusion looming ahead of him.

But how could he have felt anything different? He’d given up all of his ideals, all his beliefs, and they had been the only sources of strength — the only real supports — that he had ever had. He had nothing and no one to help him, because he couldn’t ask for help in the one place where he’d once believed it be found: he didn’t — couldn’t — believe in anything any longer, certainly not in anything like God, and his life was a wasteland.

However – and this cannot be repeated too often – he had only himself to blame.

Part 5, Chapter 13

“Hence, Augustine, after saying that ‘for God to make a good man from an evil one is greater than to have created heaven and earth,’ adds, ‘for heaven and earth shall pass away, but because men are immortal, to have made a good man from an evil one is a work that will last for all eternity.’”
Summa Theologica, First Part of the Second Part, Question 113.

When David returned from New York, Constable increased the dosage of the tranquillizers – or, more accurately, the anti-psychotic medication – he was taking. So, he thought to himself in a kind of despair, this is what his life had been reduced to: being manipulated by chemicals. All he’d ever wanted was to be treated like a human being, to be told the truth, to be dealt with as if he were a mature person. He’d wanted to speak and be spoken to like a human being, with human thoughts, human feelings, human ideals and dreams. Instead, he now found himself manipulated as if he were beyond the reach of other human beings, as if he were some kind of contaminated object, a thing to be handled and acted upon, outside the pale.

He blamed the world, society, the twentieth century, for his predicament. Sometimes, though not often, he even blamed himself. At other times he blamed his mother and stepfather. At still other times he blamed his professors and other teachers at Harvard.

He couldn’t fully understand then that if anyone was to blame, it really was only himself. He couldn’t at that time see something that he came to believe much later – rightly or wrongly: that it is a miracle, so to speak, that human beings exist at all, and that those elements of existence that seem so painful – tragedy, disaster, and death – are in a sense the most miraculous of all. Out of such evil, out of all evil, as Aquinas wrote, good can be drawn, perhaps even a greater good than would have existed if the evil had never occurred.

Of course, such ideas are nonsense for those who live according to the dictates of reason, but David – it hardly needs to be said – did not and could not live that way. He even then had in his mind, at least unconsciously, the thought that without a belief that somehow transcends material existence, and everything that follows from such a belief, he could not survive. Bradley would have said that was simply an element in his psychopathology or, to put it more bluntly, his craziness, and others must accept that judgement.

For the moment, though, David did not even believe in anything transcendent, and so all he could do was grieve for everything he thought he’d lost.

The grieving made things much worse, and only added to his obvious psychopathology.

Toward the end of that winter term, in January, as final exams approached, his anxiety level began to rise. The tranquilizers didn’t seem to be helping very much, and he experienced a series of small crises. Among them there was one that at the time seemed to take on nearly cosmic proportions, though years later it would seem laughable even to David.

It does, however, finally and unequivocally, prove what Harvard psychiatrists had been saying all along – that David was, to put it bluntly again, quite crazy. Again, there may be those who are tempted to feel a kind of misguided compassion for him, to see David as some kind of misunderstood victim, a bright young man whose life was ruined by obtuse psychiatrists. Such ideas are utterly wrong-headed, however. That point must be emphasized again and again. David must be seen objectively. He was simply a mechanism that was not functioning properly, could not be repaired, and had to be disposed of as quickly and quietly as possible. That was, after all, what Harvard psychiatrists were for.

His latest crisis took this form: on the exam for a Shakespeare course he was taking, there was a set of questions on the mind and personality of Hamlet, and as David sat there in Burr Hall reading the exam, he became convinced that whoever had written it had only one purpose in mind: to use it as a way of probing David’s mind and personality. This idea seemed suddenly, in fact, to occupy his whole being with such intensity that when he started answering the question, he wrote nothing but a long, increasingly incoherent expression of outrage, characterized by the sort of crude language that was so popular among students and intellectuals at the period. He attacked the professor who taught the course; he attacked Harvard; he attacked practically every person and institution he could think of that was of any significance in his life at that moment.

After the exam was over, he was horrified at what he’d done. Perhaps, in his childish and pathological way, he’d hoped that this cry of protest might bring out of at least one person some show of understanding for his situation. Maybe he hoped it might lead someone to utter some word that would show him a way out of the confusion he felt was completely engulfing him now. He naturally didn’t realize that this was impossible. It cannot be repeated too often that David was mentally ill, and illnesses like his are not amenable to quick and easy cures, if they can be cured at all.

He went to see Jim Radnor, his old tutor. After all the years of crisis, though, Jim had had enough. He looked at David blankly, as if he were focusing his eyes on something behind David, as if David weren’t even there. Jim said he would take care of the matter, and that David shouldn’t worry about it. And that was all.

David didn’t know then that Jim believed — or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Jim knew — as everyone else did, that David was hopelessly out of his mind, capable of the greatest weirdness, and beyond the reach of ordinary human communication. Naturally David didn’t know it then, but as far as Jim was concerned, there was no point in spending a lot of time trying to talk to David or understand him. There was nothing to understand. Madness is, after all, incomprehensible.

Jim’s lack of interest in David’s situation – a lack of interest that was certainly understandable and justifiable, since Jim was no clinician and was not trained to deal with students like David, who were so clearly mentally ill – Jim’s lack of interest made David feel even worse of course. He went into a depression that this time was deeper than any he’d ever gone through – but naturally that was no one’s fault but his own. That must never be forgotten.

His usual response to pain and suffering and disappointment was simply depression. He had no idea anymore that he could respond in any other way. It apparently never occurred to him that he could try to change the situation that was causing him to feel that pain and suffering and disappointment. That too was part of his illness and is something that should evoke no pity whatsoever.

If it had occurred to him, he would have wanted to feel the kind of spiritual joy in his suffering that his now lost saints felt, but he no longer thought about such things. The intellectual climate of Harvard had seen to that, and of course that was only as it should be. “Reason” had triumphed, and if people like David are sometimes destroyed by such a triumph, it is only because they’re weak – or in David’s case, mentally unstable. That much – it must be stressed again and again – is obvious.

Even if David had been able to believe in God as he once did, his understanding of such a belief, and its implications, would almost certainly have been very tenuous. It would have been so tenuous, in fact, that his belief would probably have done him no good. It would very likely have made no difference at all in his thinking or in his attitude at that time. David was really no different from anyone else suffering from similar handicaps.

He felt lost and disoriented because he thought if he couldn’t talk to Jim, then there was no one he could talk to anymore, no one who could help him unravel the impossibly tangled confusion of thoughts and ideas that filled his brain. It seemed to him that all anyone did was dismiss him like an idiot, kindly of course, but like an idiot all the same, an idiot who presented them with a problem they didn’t care to solve, or a problem that was too much for them to solve. He thought it must be much easier for everyone to think of him as simply crazy and to remember he would soon be gone from Harvard. And he was right of course, except that as everyone knows, he really was crazy. That much is absolutely undeniable.

When David left Jim that day, Jim gave him a small bag of cookies that his aunt had sent.

Part 5, Chapter 14

“To this last degree belong also those miserable souls who are so greatly in love with their own goods that they take them for their god, so much so that they scruple not to sacrifice their lives for them, when they see that this god of theirs is suffering some temporal harm. They abandon themselves to despair and take their own lives for their miserable ends, showing by their own acts how wretched is the reward which such a god as theirs bestows.”
–John of the Cross
The Ascent of Mount Carmel

In the aftermath of the exams, the only thing David wanted was annihilation, simply not to exist. He’d moved into another suite of rooms, and was by himself now. The rooms were dirty and unfurnished, and they seemed to be a reminder of everything he’d lost at Harvard. They were different from the warm and lively and well-furnished rooms he’d shared during his sophomore year, after he came back from Africa. He and his roommates almost always had visitors then. And if not, if David’s roommates were out or away, and he was alone, he could sit by the fire in a comfortable chair or on the sofa under the warm glow of a lamp, and he could read and listen to music or work on a paper for one of his courses, while the snow of a Cambridge winter drifted down outside and whirled around the inner courtyard of Adams House, as it had done for generations of Harvard students.

Everything was quite different for him now. In the bleak and empty rooms he could think of nothing better to do but lie on his bed for hours and wish he could somehow just stop existing. There were moments when it was clear that that was the only logical thing to do — stop existing — except that in the end it wasn’t possible for him to do that.

A friend who still believed in what David wanted to believe in had once suggested that perhaps it wasn’t possible for him to “stop existing” because people he’d never met had been praying for him.

“I used to believe in things like that,” David had said. “But I can’t any more.”

“Why not?” his friend replied, and he smiled. “Is such a thing really so impossible?”

David didn’t want to argue with him, because as he reached the end of his Harvard years, David could see nothing ahead except darkness. The thought of annihilation wasn’t at all frightening or repulsive for him. It sometimes seemed, in fact, an eminently reasonable thing to have happen. Anyway, it made as much sense as getting up and trying to get through the day. Complete annihilation seemed something normal, something really in the nature of things. There were moments when it seemed even breathtakingly logical and simple. There was, he sometimes thought, a certain shining clarity about simply ceasing to exist.

When it became a little too clear, however, even for him, he used to get up and walk around Cambridge for hours at a time, and when he told Constable about these ideas, the psychiatrist of course increased the medication he was giving David. Of course that was the reasonable thing to do, the only thing to do. David was feeling sorry for himself; he couldn’t see that he – and no one else – was the cause of his misery. Increasing David’s medication was the only thing that any rational psychiatrist could have done.

In later years, he would sometimes wonder if it wasn’t perhaps the medication itself that made nothingness seem so logical, something he could confront without the slightest anxiety at all. However, no reputable psychiatrist would agree that such a thing was possible.

There was another kind of nothingness he could now confront with no anxiety: the nothingness of his own life, the despair of ever being able to achieve anything at all, either at Harvard or at any other time. Others will certainly applaud that realization, because it meant that David was at last facing reality.

However, there was one illusion he continued to live with. He was convinced that somehow, somewhere, he would be able to find a purpose, a reason for living. He still had not grasped what any reasonably intelligent person knew at that time: life is absurd, it has no meaning. David, though, began to cling to the idea that even though his own life might be ruined, he could at least try to help someone else – a friend, for example – achieve something with his life.

David thought he could at least try to help someone else; that is, whenever any other person might need the sort of poor help David could give, which certainly would not be very often.

Larry wasn’t one of the lost ones. In this respect he wasn’t at all like David. Larry would amount to something someday. After all, he’d just been admitted to Harvard Law School, and this fact alone seemed to confirm for David the idea that Larry would in future achieve all the success he wanted. So, all the more, David wanted to help him, David wanted to invest all the energy he could in making sure Larry really did achieve everything he was capable of. This was especially true since even David understood what everyone else had known for a long time: that he himself had been written off as worthless – quite justifiably – and was well on his way to achieving nothing at all.

Naturally David didn’t notice the contradiction inherent in this kind of thinking: if Larry’s success was inevitable, then any help David might give was superfluous. As usual, David remained blind to that kind of contradiction, probably because if he had been aware of it, it would have called into question his whole reason for being.

He thought he could see that Larry was one of the promising ones, and even though David believed he himself was bound to be forever a failure, at least he might be able to contribute somehow to the success of someone else’s life — to Larry’s life. It was this belief, really the only one he had left then, that actually sustained him during the final, gruelling part of his senior year, when everything seemed to torment him with memories of all his shattered and now irrelevant dreams.

Any reasonable person will perceive how extremely selfish and self-centered such a belief was, on David’s part. Obviously he didn’t really want to help Larry or anyone else. It’s clear that the only thing David cared about was saving himself from despair.

One incident that showed how true this was occurred during the final exams. David wanted to give up again, and not take the exams, but it was Larry who convinced him he should keep going, take the exams, and finally graduate. He would later say, “It was really Larry who was helping me at that point, I suppose, instead of the other way around.”

The phrase “I suppose” demonstrates how reluctant David was to admit that his sense of sacrificing himself for Larry was just a sham.

Still, it has to be admitted, for what it’s worth, that even Larry did have one serious crisis during the exams, one that David was able to help him get through.

Then it was all over, all of it, more quickly than he could have expected, or would have believed possible. Finally, after the long succession of crises, the tranquilizers, the deadening effect of the personalities of the various Harvard psychiatrists — Davis sometimes used to vaguely wonder what they were taking — after everything, and in spite of everything, he finally graduated one day in June, eight years after he entered Harvard, not exactly the same young man he’d been at the start.

But he thought that was the way it was supposed to be at Harvard.

It rained the day of graduation, and the ceremony itself, traditionally held outdoors, had to be canceled — for the first time in over a hundred years, someone said. After everything else, that didn’t really matter very much to David.

Actually, he thought to himself with a bitterness he didn’t recognize anymore, it seemed somehow fitting.

He left Cambridge the day after graduation. The spring air in the Yard, the smell of the freshly cut lawn near Lamont, the indomitably brilliant blue sky that was general that day, after all the rain, everything was the same as it had been during his first spring at Harvard. Everything reminded him that it was only he himself that had changed, it was only his own self that had been ruined and, as far as he could see, destroyed. The rest of the world was as fresh and beautiful as ever.

While he was luxuriating in self-pity, though, the rest of the world did go on, and his adolescent awareness of that fact too gave him an additional, crazy feeling of hope: he would disappear and no one would remember him, but at least the rest of the world would survive. Again, more self-pity, disguised as a kind theatrical heroism, though of course to David that hope and that idea were real.

Just before he left, he made one more visit to St. Paul’s, down the street — and worlds away — from Adams House. As was typical of David, he probably didn’t really know why he made the visit. After all, he hardly ever seemed to know why he did anything – or at least he hardly ever did anything that was comprehensible to anyone else. Perhaps this visit was just one more literary — or dramatic — gesture.

He didn’t know why he did it, because everything seemed lost now — beliefs, ideals, hopes, dreams — but there in front of the candle flickering inside the red glass holder, there in front of all that that flame represented — at least to the old women with their rosaries — he thought to himself with a sort of inexpressible gladness: yes, of course, something would survive. In spite of everything.

Reasonable people will smile knowingly and think to themselves that this was David’s final illusion.

He believed he would survive, though.

He would survive.


Author’s Epilogue

The twentieth century was a time when, in one way or another, perhaps more individual lives were destroyed than at any other time in human history.

This book is for all those who did not survive destruction long enough even to cry out for justice.

Moreover, it goes without saying that as far as this story is concerned, the literary convention of the unreliable narrator should be kept in mind.

When such a convention is used, of course, the author’s own viewpoint and that of the narrator are quite different.

London, Honolulu, Tokyo, Munich, Dusseldorf

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