You are viewing a read-only archive of the Blogs.Harvard network. Learn more.

Part 03, Chapters 41-48

Part 3, Chapter 41

“…lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep….”
–Robert Frost
Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Just before the exams, a letter arrived from David’s mother and stepfather. It informed him that if he did not graduate from Harvard at the end of that semester, they would not continue to pay for his education.

There was no gentle, apologetic attempt to at least make him believe they were having financial difficulties and perhaps could not afford to pay for his education, for of course that would not have been true.

There was only a blunt ultimatum. Graduate or else.

With the exam approaching, the pressure he was already feeling was nearly overwhelming, but it was perhaps the letter from his mother and stepfather that pushed him, in a sense, over the edge.

He might have gone to sleep the night before the exam thinking he’d be able to write it, but the reality of the following morning was quite different. He felt completely isolated, utterly alone, and he was too young – or anyway too immature – to be able to cope with such a feeling very easily. He was now convinced there was no one who could help him.

Certainly not his mother and stepfather.

Their ultimatum was one of the blows that staggered him as the time for the first exam approached. Now he felt his situation was hopeless, and this feeling was only deepened by his youth and naiveté. It seemed to him that he was about to be destroyed by one or the other of two gigantic forces, perhaps by both.

On the one hand he felt the pressure to conform to what seemed to him an alien way of thinking about morals and spirituality; on the other, he felt the ground was being pulled out from under him by his mother and stepfather to such a degree that it seemed pointless even to go on struggling to study or to deal with the problems he was having at Harvard.

Frightened, alone, and without support of any kind, he felt that even the strength he’d once found in religion seemed to fail him. He hadn’t yet learned that there really is no strength to be found in religion itself. Strength can be found only in the person who is the ultimate object of all religion, only in an intimate and sometimes desperate dependence on that person. In later life it would seem to him that he hadn’t yet really even begun to understand his relationship to that person.

In that spring of his junior year at Harvard, the fears now seemed to grow and multiply in his mind, taking forms that were more bizarre than they’d ever been. He was afraid he’d start actually believing there was a conspiracy of people who were bent on turning him into what he considered an evil person. He was afraid he’d start believing that his professors were going to scrutinize his exams for signs of some kind of vulnerability or weakness. He had to use up more and more of the energy he had left in order to fight off the crazy idea that the exams he was about to take would be read with a view to finding out to what extent he’d accepted what he considered to be evil, the fact of this evil, in himself, in everyone else, to what extent he’d begun to enjoy this evil, condone it, refuse even to call it evil.

He felt he was having to constantly fight off such crazy ideas.

He felt he had to keep telling himself there was no conspiracy.

He was constantly haunted by the fear that he would actually start believing that even the exam questions themselves would be written in such a way so as to probe the deepest parts of his psyche. In that event, he felt he would be defenseless, with no time or opportunity to protect himself against the probing.

These fears were related to another that he’d been fighting for weeks, the fear that he would at any moment start believing one more idea that he knew was crazy: that his tutor, Jim, was using the weekly tutorial papers he wrote as a means of finding out what sort of a person he really was. He was afraid he’d start believing that all the questions Jim posed were aimed at that goal.

Of course the idea that he might believe anything so absurd disgusted him. Jim, he knew, would never pervert the use of literature in that way.

No one would.

David knew that Jim believed as David did that literature should be studied for its own sake, not as a way of secretly exploring the personality of the person you were talking to.

He knew all these things, and yet the idea kept circling through his mind, like a vulture, that in the tutorials with Jim there were no questions on Milton, on Shakespeare, or on any other author that were not somehow calculated to make David reveal some part of himself.

Almost with a kind of psychic violence, he struggled against the idea that Jim would formulate such questions. Such questions seemed immoral to him, and Jim, he knew, was a very moral person.

David couldn’t accept the idea that Jim — or anyone, for that matter — would use what David considered deception, in an attempt to manipulate him into revealing his weaknesses and his inadequacies, or even his strengths and capabilities.

He realized, however, that something similar seemed to be happening in his encounters with many other people as well, so that the moment he started to imagine that anyone was probing him, trying to expose some inadequacy in him, he ran away from the encounter.

Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that what he was actually running away from was the crazy idea that anyone would behave in such a way.

He couldn’t help it. That insane idea occurred to him not only in the course of a simple conversation or a tutorial. Writing a paper about his ideas could be such an encounter, or a written examination. An exam, though, was far worse than having to write a paper about his ideas. When he wrote a paper, he thought he could prepare everything very carefully. He could hide or disguise anything he didn’t want to reveal. An exam was completely different. He thought there was no way to prepare himself for what might be a devious question, one that he was certain had been written in such a way that he would have to reveal every facet of his personality, everything — good and bad — that he wanted to hide.

Was he “certain” that the question had been written in that way? Again, it would probably be more accurate to say that he was afraid he would soon be certain about such a thing, that he would start believing it was true.

This was his state of mind, on that evening before that first exam, when he went to bed wanting to believe he could write the exam the next morning. He woke up, though, knowing that it would be impossible, knowing that that day was the beginning of the end.

He felt mentally paralyzed by fear and by the need to repress any and every idea that was unacceptable to him. He woke up also knowing that it was a physical impossibility for him even to leave his room and walk to the examination hall.

So he stayed in his room alone and waited.

He didn’t know what he was waiting for, but he knew something had to happen. He knew some catastrophe would now occur. The world, his world, would collapse. Missing an exam would make it collapse, because as far as he was concerned, missing an exam was almost a sin, something monstrous, something he thought of as unforgivable, something that he, at any rate — who never even dreamed of missing a class, much less an exam — could not forgive himself for.

It’s hard to imagine such people really exist, but for David missing class was bad enough, but missing an exam was as serious as committing murder or suicide.

There, that was what was perhaps at the core of his thinking, though he didn’t know it: committing suicide.

That is perhaps what he really wanted to do, at least symbolically, because by putting himself beyond the pale, beyond any possibility of help or hope, he might be able to end the tortured state of uncertainty and ambiguity and fear that he was in.

Part 3, Chapter 42

“Die Verzweiflung schickt uns Gott nicht, um uns zu töten, er schickt sie uns, um neues Leben in uns zu erwecken.“
–Hermann Hesse
Das Glasperlenspiel

“God sends us despair, not in order to destroy us, but to awaken new life in us.”
–Hermann Hesse
The Glass Bead Game

David lay on the little foam-rubber sofa in his room and stared at the ceiling.

He got up and walked around the room.

He lay down.

He got up and walked around again.

The hour for the exam came and went, and nothing happened. Other hours came and went, and still nothing happened. And he could not bring himself to leave the room.

Finally he picked up the telephone and called Jim. He felt so terrible he could not even speak for a moment. Finally he managed to say, “Jim, I missed the exam.”

There was silence on the other end. He picked up the telephone and carried it into the bathroom. It seemed safer. If he spoke on the phone there, no one could hear him through the door to the main entryway. He sat down and put the telephone base on the floor, holding the receiver in one hand and clutching his head with the other, as if there were some terrible pain there.

“Which exam?” Jim asked.

“Bateson’s exam. Samuel Johnson.”

“What happened?” His voice now seemed to him to take on an edgy and somehow expectant tone.

What happened? How could he answer a question like that? All at once the only thing he could feel was pain, psychological pain and an overwhelming sense of something like despair. He began to make a sound that was like a low moan, rocking back and forth. He heard himself groaning in a voice that sounded strange to him. Over and over again he repeated the words, “I – can’t – take – it – anymore.” He kept repeating the words in a kind of chant.

“David, stop it,” Jim said. “Stop it, David. Have you seen Bradley lately?”

He tried to think. “Yeah. I mean, I don’t know. I saw him a couple of days ago.”

“What did he say?”

He started rocking back and forth again, clutching his head with one hand. “I don’t know. He didn’t say anything. He never says anything.”

“Why don’t you call him?”

“It doesn’t do any good,” he moaned. “It doesn’t do any good.” He started chanting that phrase now.

“David, wait. Don’t do that. Listen, call Bradley now. Talk to him. He can make you feel better.”

“And just how can he do that?” David said, through a fog of confusion and psychic pain.

“He can talk to you, give you something that will make you feel better.”

“Listen,” David managed to say. “I just want to know one thing. Are all of these professors talking about him?”

The reply was almost immediate. “No, of course not.”

David pulled at his hair with his left hand. One kind of pain seemed to distract him from another. “So, I must be crazy,” he said, as much to himself as to Jim. “I must be crazy”

“David, call Bradley.”

David knew that Bradley could do him precious little good at that point, but he wanted the pain in his mind to stop. He would do anything to make it stop; he would do anything if someone could make everything all right again. The destruction of his world was almost complete, but he still clung to the hope that someone, somehow, could put everything together again, just the way it had been before.

He certainly wasn’t able to do such a thing.

Part 3, Chapter 43

“Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget …
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan…
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs….”
Ode to a Nightingale

David called Bradley’s office. The line was busy. The bizarre thought crossed his mind that Jim had called Bradley and that they were talking about him. He almost shook his head in disbelief: even with all the pain, the unyielding persistence of his fantasies amazed even him. He tried the number again and this time reached Bradley’s secretary. “I’m sorry, Dr. Bradley is with a patient right now.”

“Does he have any time free this afternoon? I’d like to see him this afternoon. This is David Austin calling.”

“Just a moment. I’ll check.” She put him on hold. When she came back on the line he had an appointment.

He spent the rest of the afternoon alone. He certainly couldn’t go to lunch. If he’d been frightened of having meals in the dining hall before, he was terrified of it now.

In the afternoon he went to the Health Center and saw Bradley. At first he just sat there stupidly, not knowing what he could say that Bradley would understand, knowing with a kind of despair that Bradley wouldn’t really respond to anything he said. Finally, David said to him, “I missed an exam today.”

“Why?” Bradley asked.

“I couldn’t take it. I mean, I couldn’t take it. I kept having these crazy ideas.”

Bradley said nothing. They sat in silence for a few moments.

“I’ve said this before,” David went on, “but maybe I didn’t emphasize it enough. Maybe you couldn’t understand how much these things have been bothering me.” He paused and Bradley waited. “I just keep having all these delusions. I mean, they would be delusions if I believed them. I keep thinking everyone is trying to change me into something I don’t want to be. They seem to be saying that everything that I’ve always thought was wrong is all right. They seem to be constantly encouraging me to do what is wrong, even to enjoy doing what is wrong, what I know is intrinsically evil.”

He paused again, and of course Bradley said nothing. So he went on, “And then there are the delusions about the professors talking to me in their lectures.” This time Bradley interrupted. “But what does all that have to do with the exam this morning?”

David leaned forward and stared at the floor. “I couldn’t take the exam,” he said, “because I had this weird idea, this idea that all the questions were somehow designed to probe me.”

“Probe you?”

He glanced up at Bradley, who seemed to be scowling. David gripped his hands tightly together and looked back down at the floor. “I mean, probe. You know, find out what kind of person I am.”

“But what’s wrong with that?”

David looked up at him with tears of confusion, despair, and anger starting to form in his eyes. If Bradley’d been trying to get a reaction from him, he’d succeeded. “What’s wrong with it?” David said, and his voice seemed to him to have a strange pitch. “It’s such a crazy idea that I might start believing it. I don’t want to start believing these things. I know it’s ridiculous to think that the professors in these courses are writing their exams just to find out what sort of person I am. I know it’s absolutely insane. Besides, why do people have to keep probing me? Why should they want to know what sort of person I am? Why should they care? Why can’t they just leave me alone?” Now he was looking at the floor again, holding his hands tightly in his lap.

They sat in silence for a moment. “What are you going to do now?” Bradley asked.

Now he leaned forward and supported his head in his hands. “I don’t know,” he mumbled.

“What do you want to do?” Bradley asked softly.

“I’d like to die,” he said.

David could feel Bradley staring at him, and the tears that had been welling up in his eyes overflowed and started running down his cheeks.

“I think,” Bradley said, clearing his throat, “it might be a good idea if you spent a few days here in the Health Center, in the infirmary. How do you feel about that?”

David looked at him. How did he feel about it? What did it matter? He’d missed an examination. He’d committed the one unpardonable sin and ruined everything for himself. To “spend a few days in the infirmary” seemed to him to be just one more step in a long inevitable decline. If he was so ill that he couldn’t even function as a normal person and take an exam like everyone else, then he must be really sick. Anyway, he thought, the Health Center was a safe place, away from all his professors. He wouldn’t have to listen to their lectures and continue to struggle against the idea that they were directing those lectures at him alone. He wouldn’t have to be bothered anymore by what he thought they were saying.

“All right,” he said to Bradley, “I’ll stay in the infirmary.”

“Good. If you go back to Adams House and pack a small overnight bag, I’ll make arrangements for you to be admitted when you come back here.” He reached around and knocked the ashes from his pipe into an ashtray on his desk. “I’d also,” he said slowly, “like you to take some medication.”

David felt he’d already been hit by so many blows, so often, that one more just didn’t make any difference. Still, as he bent forward in his chair and looked at the floor, as though he were leaning over an executioner’s block, he asked, “What kind of medication?”

“Just a kind of tranquilizer,” said Bradley.

But that was one blow too much. “I’d rather not,” he said.

“But it will make you feel better. It’s just like taking an aspirin for a headache.

“What kind is it?” he asked, looking up at him.

He told David the name, and David leaned back in the chair and stared in front of him. He knew all about that drug. He’d seen it used on severely disturbed people, when he’d worked as an orderly in a hospital back home. And now Bradley was suggesting he should take it. So he must be severely disturbed too. Well, at least that answered the question of whether he was crazy or not. Then he thought to himself, “But if I could just get away from Harvard.” If he really was that crazy, being at Harvard only seemed to make it worse.

Could he really just leave Harvard, though? Could he really do that? It would mean the end of everything: his participation in the intellectual life, his hopes for some kind of career. No, not that. Not yet. He’d just have to keep on going until he couldn’t go on anymore. “All right,” he said, and he felt he was simply giving up, surrendering, once and for all. “I’ll come into the Health Center, and I’ll take the medication.”

Part 3, Chapter 44

“If you take away a man’s traditional way of living and customs, you had better make certain you can replace them with something of value.”
–Epigraph to the film version of Robert Ruark’s Something of Value

David entered the Health Center as an in-patient that same day. During the few days he was there, he spent most of his time alone, never going into the patient lounge, certainly never talking to any of the other patients.

He began taking small doses of the medication he was supposed to take, but those doses may not have been strong enough. He continued to be afraid that he might start actually believing his professors were all talking about him. He might even start believing the other students in Adams House were talking about him as well. If any of them came to see him in the infirmary, would he begin to assume that they were going back and reporting to his classmates about him?

He kept waiting for the medication to take effect, and during those long hours alone in the infirmary, he had plenty of time to turn over in his mind those ideas about his professors that had been in his mind all semester. He couldn’t seem to think about anything else. He was no longer so afraid of them or what they were saying — perhaps the medication was working, after all — but the ideas he’d been having remained, the ideas of self-reference.

He still had the thought, for example – although he didn’t believe it – that all four of the professors whose classes he was taking that semester were doing everything they could to turn him into the sort of person he didn’t want to be, the sort of person that had a taste for everything he’d been taught was evil. He still could not rid himself of the idea that his professors were trying to destroy all of the beliefs and ideals that were important to him, those seemingly or supposedly ineradicable beliefs he’d been acquiring all through his adolescence.

He couldn’t give them up, though, because they were the only thing that had helped him to survive all of the potentially destructive turmoil of his life. He clung to them as though he were clinging to the very ground of his being, and in a sense perhaps he was.

It was he who had made those ideals and beliefs a part of his existence. No one had forced them on him or manipulated him into believing them. It was he who’d gone out and found them and incorporated them into his life and thinking — with a sense of perhaps — as some would put it — providential urgency.

The problem was that before he entered Harvard, he’d had no idea to what degree ideas like his were of no importance — were even repugnant — to most people at Harvard then. He didn’t understand how much the beliefs of the Catholic Church were in direct contradiction to almost everything that the mind of twentieth-century academics cherished.

Even if he’d known and understood all that, he would also have known that whatever his professors may have thought, their ideas could hardly have been so directly connected to his own situation that they were aiming all of their lectures almost exclusively at him.

Again and again it should be emphasized that all he knew at that time was fear. He was afraid he really would start thinking that his teachers and professors were all participating in some incredibly subtle process aimed at completely remaking him, making him over into a person he found disgusting. It seemed to him that every move they made, every word they uttered was something he could have interpreted — if he’d wanted to and if he’d let himself — as part of this imaginary process of molding him into a different sort of person. He even knew it would have been very easy for him to conceive of this process as one that extended into every area of his life.

Over and over again the fearful thought kept recurring that he might just start believing that his professors were all pushing him along paths that they wanted him to follow. Quite aside from questions of morality, there were matters relating to career choices as well. He still wanted to make a serious study of the poetry of Keats, while his professors seemed to be encouraging him to study Milton. They seemed to have planned out everything for him, leaving him no choice. He felt as though he were never to be allowed to choose anything on his own. Again, he knew of course that was all nonsense, but he was repeatedly haunted by the fear that he would start believing it wasn’t nonsense at all.

There was an additional problem, however. Though he knew how nonsensical it all was, he did take every hint his professors seemed to offer, he did follow what he thought was every indication of their desires, at least up to a point. He yielded to whatever he thought was expected of him, up to a point, because he was the kind of person who thought he was supposed to be obedient and respectful where authority was concerned, even when that authority was only obliquely expressed.

Again, though, only up to a point, for all the time he was doing what he thought they wanted, he experienced growing feelings of dislike and even hatred for them. At times he was bitter that academics even existed. They were supposed to believe in truth, and yet their whole lives seemed to him — adolescent that he was — to be made up of almost nothing except hypocrisy and deceit.

This was especially true with regard to the idea of freedom. Freedom was supposed to be so important to them, and yet — adolescent that he was — it seemed to him that their actions showed they didn’t believe at all in freedom for him, though they claimed they did. Again, all nonsense, but nonsense he was afraid he would start believing.

He was constantly trying to believe that the freedom they claimed was an essential aspect of existence really was important to them. However, it almost seemed to him — he was afraid it would seem to him — that every move they made was somehow calculated to manipulate him along one path or another, thereby denying him the freedom they insisted was so precious. And the more he was tempted to believe this idea, the more determined he became to break free, the more determined he was never to follow the patterns that they seemed – in his unguarded moments – to be trying to impose on him.

This kind of thinking continued more or less the entire week he was in the infirmary. At the end of that week he was ready to leave; he thought it would be the easiest thing in the world just to return to Adams House and to his classes. He’d had a rest, and he thought now it would be easier to go on doing what was expected of him — while all the time preserving that inner core he was determined nothing could ever touch or change.

“How do you feel?” Bradley asked him just before he left the Health Center. They were sitting in the room he’d spent the week in.

“I feel fine. I’m looking forward to getting out of here.”

“I’d like you to continue taking the medication.”

“All right,” he said, at the same time thinking that that would be the last thing he would ever dream of doing at Harvard.

And in a way, it was.

It was, because he thought to himself that if he were going crazy, he wouldn’t go crazy at Harvard, stuffed with medication. If he were going crazy, he would go crazy on his terms, in his own way, in a place of his choosing, and without any kind of medication designed to blur the sharp edges of his consciousness of the world around him.

Part 3, Chapter 45

“…(T)hus I turn my back:
There is a world elsewhere.”

The first evening out of the Health Center, David told himself he felt pretty good, or at least he felt that way until he went into the dining hall.

One of his classmates came up to him as he was standing in the dinner line. “Hi, David,” he said, “I hear you just got out of the Health Center.”

David looked at him. “That’s right,” he said.

His classmate smiled. “So, now you’re just like everyone else.”

Years later, David would realize the guy was just trying to be helpful, he was trying to be friendly. He was from the Midwest, like David, far from home, and although David knew him slightly, and he seemed likable enough, they had never become friends. If they had, perhaps they might have had a great deal in common. What his classmate was trying to tell David was that he and others had also had their share of difficulties at Harvard.

But David, unfortunately, was too afraid or too proud or too insecure then to be able to interpret his classmate’s comment as an attempt at friendship. It seemed to David to be a threatening remark, because of course it instantly brought to mind the recurring and somehow threatening idea that all his classmates were talking about him. And because this idea was linked in his mind to the idea that all his professors were talking about him as well, both ideas began to reinforce each other. Almost at once they became so powerful that they nearly overwhelmed his ability to keep on disbelieving them.

When he heard the other young man’s words, David experienced a brief feeling of panic, which he managed to suppress. Certainly he didn’t understand that by doing that, he was merely creating the likelihood that the panic would soon recur, and recur more intensely.

He turned and left the dining hall.

The next morning, when he went into Levine’s Shakespeare course, almost immediately he had the sensation that he was sinking into a dark, bottomless pit. The moment Levine began to speak, the old, gloomy fantasies started weaving themselves around him exactly as they’d done before.

He realized with a sense of jarring despair that the week in the health center had done him no good at all. Once again he had the absolutely clear impression — which he knew of course to be absolutely false — that Levine was speaking directly to him and about him, spinning a web of references and associations that he could not free himself from.

“These two heroic lovers,” he heard Levine saying, “struggling with one another on an epic scale, never quite coming together, never being able to stay apart, provide us with more than just an intimate view of the love that exists between two individuals of genius. ‘I have immortal longings,’ cries Cleopatra. In doing so she does not simply reveal a love which dismisses death and looks toward an eternity of union with Antony, she also expresses the ancient struggle of artistic genius to achieve union with a level of existence that transcends this present life.”

David stopped taking notes, laid down his pen, and looked up at Levine, whom he saw looking back at him, in a lecture hall filled with perhaps two hundred other students. “All right,” he thought to himself, “it’s finished. Everything is finished. I’m starting to imagine it all over again.”

What he was imagining, of course, was that Levine was talking about David’s own unacceptable desires, his own desire for immortality, and his own longing for heroic achievement. Even as he imagined these things, he didn’t want to imagine them. He’d tried for months not to imagine them, but apparently he couldn’t stop, at least not without taking medication. And perhaps, he thought to himself, not even then.

It was probably at that point that he made the decision that changed – some would say ruined – his life forever. If he could not free himself from these recurring delusions and fantasies, he told himself, then he would leave Harvard. He would leave Harvard, because when he was away from Harvard, none of these strange ideas seemed to bother him. He said to himself that when he was away from Harvard, he would have no delusions that professors were directing their lectures to him. Away from Harvard he would have no unusual ideas or fantasies of any kind. After all, he’d never had such thoughts during the time — now seemingly buried in the distant past — when he was in Africa.

Part 3, Chapter 46

“…(T)he purpose of life now appeared to me as the pursuit not of truth but of loving-kindness….”
Remembrance of Things Past

He left Levine’s lecture that day in a daze.

He’d made a decision, one that he was perhaps really only partly conscious of.

He began walking back toward Adams House from the lecture hall. On the way, the sense of confusion turned slowly into panic. As the minutes passed, his mind seemed to be churning out thoughts and ideas with nearly uncontrollable speed. In no discernible order images flashed across his consciousness, and he found it required enormous efforts of concentration just to make the smallest decisions about what to do next, or to think about the simplest things.

He did, however, manage to remember that the following week was spring vacation, and that his mother and stepfather were expecting him to come home. They’d sent him an open plane ticket that morning, so he went to a travel agency in the Square to make a reservation. The clerk seemed to be having more difficulties that morning than he was, and the longer he waited for her to make out the ticket, the more panicky he became. As he stood there, it seemed to him more and more that it really was Harvard that was the source of all his problems.

He became more determined than ever to try to get away.

He watched the clerk fumbling around, and all the ideas he’d been repressing seemed suddenly to assume a life of their own, a life that was even more extreme and intense than before. The thought — which he knew was ridiculous but which he could not get rid of — came to him that somehow he might be prevented from leaving Cambridge. The temptation to think that his professors were directing their lectures at him now became the temptation to think that they would also try to keep him at Harvard. He was even tempted to think they were somehow encouraging his feelings of panic as a way of ripening him for a total change in his thinking, a conversion from the way he looked at the world to the way they looked at it. However, the very existence of such crazy ideas in his mind made him afraid he would start believing them, and the sense of panic was raised to an even higher level.

He tried as hard as he could to rid himself of these ideas, but the greater the effort he made, the more his whole world seemed to move toward the verge of crumbling. What was worse, he felt there was no one he could talk to — not Jim or Bradley or the Cohens. Not a soul.

Then he thought of Bishop Riley. Yes, he almost said out loud, dear, kind Bishop Riley could help him, somehow. He could tell him what to do. He could suggest something. He walked quickly away from the Square toward the white frame house next to St. Peter’s Church. As he approached it, though, the bishop was just leaving, getting into a car with two elderly women. His eyesight was not good, but when he looked at David, an expression of concern came over his gentle, worn face.

“I’m sorry, David, I can’t talk to you now. I have to go out. Has something happened? Is it serious?”

“No,” David said, perhaps at some level of his mind feeling the sickening-sweet downward pull of despair. “No, it’s nothing serious.”

And the bishop looked at him sadly, with an old man’s worry, as David turned and walked away.

Where could he go now? He walked back toward Adams House through the cold, clear air, and then realized he couldn’t have lunch in the dining hall. If he did that, what could he say to anyone? Besides, if he went to the dining hall, he was bound to start wondering again if people were talking about him, or perhaps someone would say something he couldn’t deal with.

No, the dining hall was impossible. Instead of that, he would just go for a walk along the Charles. That had often helped before.

He started to walk down Mount Auburn Street, past the front of Adams House, past Claverly Hall. When he reached Elsie’s restaurant, filled with its lunchtime overflow of students, he noticed one of the section instructors from Williams’ course, and in his anxiety he almost wondered if he was there just by chance. Did everyone know that this crisis had finally broken over him? Were they all watching out for him? No, all of that’s ridiculous, he told himself. But perhaps the idea itself shows how much he wished there was someone he could talk to, someone who would really understand everything he had to say.

In our rational century it is unacceptable to write this, but David would always somehow believe that at that moment, perhaps more than at any other in his life, he was, perhaps more than he would ever understand, being watched over not by other people, but by that hidden providence people hardly ever think of.

He would believe it, because years later it would seem clear to him that at that moment he was on the verge of being completely destroyed. Years later he would see that. At that moment, though, he was certainly not aware of anything like that at all. He was aware only of his panic, a panic created by the fear of the ideas that kept recurring in his own mind. And the panic fed on itself: the more fear he felt, the more the strange ideas about Harvard occurred to him, and the more they occurred to him, the more fear he felt. Perhaps it would have helped if he’d continued taking the medication that had been prescribed for him. At least it might have helped in the short run. In the long run, though, it seems reasonable to wonder what kind of person he would have become if he’d continued to take it. He would almost certainly never have left Harvard when he did, but his life would not necessarily have developed along any better lines. On the contrary, it might have been a great deal worse.

It might have become the complete disaster he was saved from that day.

Part 3, Chapter 47

„…(W)ann sagt man sich dann: Nicht mehr weiter, selbst wenn es das Leben kostet? Und ziemlich bald haben die vielen Eingriffe so viel Mut verzehrt, dass man nicht mehr die Nerven besitzt um zu handeln. Das gleiche gilt für die Angst, die ausgelöst wird, weil man für sein Leben oder seine Freiheit oder für beides fürchtet. Es ist verhältnismäßig leicht zu handeln, wenn diese Angst das erste Mall auftritt, denn Angst ist eine mächtige Kraft“.
–Bruno Bettelheim
Aufstand gegen die Masse

“…(W)hen do you say to yourself: this far and no farther, even if life itself is at stake? Fairly quickly, all the intrusions eat up so much of your courage that you no longer have the nerve to act. The same thing is true of the fear that is aroused when a man is afraid for his life or his freedom or both. It is relatively easy to act when this fear appears for the first time, because fear is a powerful force.”
–Bruno Bettelheim
Aufstand gegen die Masse

On that day, then, that day that was unlike any other day, the day that changed the course of his life forever, he walked past Elsie’s restaurant, turned left on Boylston Street, and headed toward the Charles. The weather was cold, bright, and clear; there was an intense winter purity in the air. He began walking along the river toward Boston, and as he went, he kept going faster and faster, until he was practically running, fleeing from everything: from Harvard, from his strange ideas, from Jim, from all of the people he knew there.

At the same time, though, he was convinced that he was also fleeing toward something, toward an adventure perhaps, or maybe simply toward extinction, but certainly toward a world that was more comprehensible than the one he’d known at Harvard. Whatever happened, at least he would be away, free of it all, finished with all of the insanity he’d thought he had found in Cambridge.

He followed the river until he came to a bridge. He could see Boston on the other side, the great golden dome of the Statehouse brilliant against the limpid blue of the sky. As he walked across the bridge, he looked down into the water, and in his hyperexcited state, he saw the light of the sun dancing off the waves like the blaze of a thousand diamonds. He stared at the water for a while, fascinated, almost feeling he was in another world, nearly forgetting where he was, momentarily caught up in one of those surprising visions of beauty that Bradley regarded as a sign of disease, one of those visions that had – in spite of the pain, in spite of the misery – often recurred since that day in September when his mind had been flooded by the first overpowering impression of how lovely the world could be.

He looked at the river and wanted to cry; it appeared so beautiful to him, and he didn’t understand why. He didn’t understand why he was there to see it. Beauty like that seemed like a message from the world, one that he couldn’t decipher. He wanted, as always, to talk about it with someone, but of course there was no one there. He needed to talk about it so that perhaps somehow he might discover a way of using it. He needed to communicate it to people who he felt would be sympathetic, people whose lives could in some way be enhanced by what he’d seen.

He simply did not know how he could speak of such things, though – and in fact he would never know. He did not – then or ever – know what meaning these things had, or what it meant for him to be carried out of himself by the light reflected from the waves on a river, or by the haze surrounding the moon on a winter’s night, or by the hundred other manifestations of beauty that passed before his eyes with surprising frequency in those days.

He continued to look at the river for a while but finally, of course, he knew he had to turn away and go on. He crossed over the bridge and continued walking on into Boston, starting — in spite of all he had just seen — to feel again that same sense of barely controlled panic he’d left Harvard with.

He came to a streetcar stop and decided he would go downtown. There was a Franciscan church he knew of, and he thought that if he could go in there and just sit and pray and try to think for a while, he would feel he’d found some refuge.

By the time he got to Park Street, near the church, he decided to call Jim. There was still in his mind the memory of all those intellectual ideals he’d come to Harvard with. That part of him still clung to Harvard and didn’t want to leave. Perhaps if he talked to Jim he’d find that there was something in the whole situation that had changed. Maybe there was still a chance that everything could again be the way it was when he first came to Cambridge.

Jim sounded irritable, though, when he answered the phone. “What is it, David?”

“I don’t know, Jim. I don’t understand what’s happening to me.” He stood there enclosed by the glass of the telephone booth, in the middle of Park Street station, with the ancient streetcars rattling by and the crowds of afternoon shoppers hurrying past.

He most certainly did not understand what was happening. He felt disoriented. How had he gotten into this situation? What was he doing at Park Street station anyway, instead of being at Harvard, the place that had always meant so much to him? Harvard had in some ways become the whole aim and purpose of his life. What was happening to him? What was going to happen?

“I don’t understand anything, Jim,” he said.

“I’m sorry, David. I wish I could do something for you.” He sounded bored, distant. “Have you talked to Bradley?”

“Not since I left the Health Center.”

“Why don’t you call him?”

He didn’t know what to say. “All right, Jim,” he finally answered. “I’ll telephone Bradley.” Now he wondered why he’d even called Jim. It seemed stupid now to have expected him to say anything other than what he did say.

A few moments later he reached Bradley and heard him telling him, “Why don’t you go home early for spring vacation?”

In his unhappiness and despair he would have done just about anything he was told to do. “All right,” he told him, “I’ll do that.”

Going home would mean going back to the pain of seeing his mother and stepfather, he thought to himself, but at least it would be an escape from the craziness he was experiencing at Harvard. The anxiety and sense of panic were starting to increase again now, and they were approaching an almost unbearable pitch. “At least Bradley’s on my side,” he told himself. “Bradley’s on my side. Bradley’s trying to help me, otherwise he would never have suggested I go home.”

Years later, he said that to a friend of his, who replied, “Well, yes, perhaps. But getting you out of Harvard was also a way for Bradley to solve his own problem — you. You must have been creating quite a serious difficulty for him by that time. He had to account for the time – now a year and a half – that he’d spent and was spending with you. He couldn’t go on forever blaming you for ‘not responding to treatment,’ the way he often used to do. The best thing for him was just to get you out off the scene completely.” He looked away from David for a moment, then turned back to him with an expression that was impossible read – sadness or anger? Indignation? A mixture of all three? Then his friend went on, “I’m sure Bradley hoped — at least unconsciously — that once you left Harvard, you’d never come back.”

He paused again and added, “Your leaving Harvard was the solution to all his problems, and that was probably all he was really interested in at that point. It wasn’t really your problems that he wanted to solve now; it was his own, and you must have been the biggest problem he had.”

Part 3, Chapter 48

“His Byronic hatred of the society of his time had made him determined to escape from European civilisation, whatever the cost… (O)ne is left wondering what had gone wrong with the European spirit that so long a journey and so great a renunciation were necessary.”
–Kenneth Clark

Panicked as he was, David still managed to find the number of the travel agency in Cambridge where he’d made his reservations to fly home. He called them and said, “I made a reservation on a flight to Detroit this morning. I’d like to change it, please. My name is David Austin.”

“Please hold the line,” said a woman’s voice.

So he waited. Thirty seconds went by, a minute. Another minute. He waited and felt the anxiety increasing. And again the absurd thoughts began: Harvard was somehow making it difficult for him to leave. Someone in the administration had contacted the travel agency and asked that he be delayed if he tried to fly out of Boston that day. If they could get him to spend one more night in Cambridge, they would have won, he thought stupidly. Even though he knew such ideas were idiotic, he also knew he had to get away that day.

It might have been then that the part of him that loved Harvard, loved all of the intellectual ideals Harvard represented, was strangled and silenced by his fears. Now he had only one aim — to get away.

He hung up the phone. He didn’t have to have the travel agency change the ticket. He could have that done anywhere. There was an American Airlines office in the Statler Hotel. He could go there.

He started walking through the maze of Boston’s streets, and, in the tangle of his own thoughts, got lost in a few minutes.

He walked very fast, as though he were trying to keep up with the thoughts blazing in panic through his mind. He turned a corner and almost collided with a policeman. The officer stopped and stood there in his dark blue uniform, smiling down at him. David tried to ask where the Statler was, but he spoke too fast. The policeman looked at him, still smiling, but with a puzzled expression.

David repeated the words in a way that sounded painfully slow to him, but which he hoped were at a normal speed: “Can you tell him how to get to the Statler Hilton?” The officer continued to smile and pointed out the way to the hotel.

David ran off, only half understanding the directions, but he somehow found the hotel. When he walked into the brightly lit airline office, the woman behind the counter looked up and smiled. He tried to appear as normal as possible, tried to speak slowly and calmly. “When is your next flight to Detroit?” he said, handing his ticket to her.

When the departure time had been confirmed and everything was ready, he took a cab out to Logan and sat in the passenger lounge, waiting for his flight to be called.

The wait seemed endless, and the irrational fears began to creep back into his mind: what if someone came to the airport and tried to stop him from leaving? What if they tried to keep him in Boston?

He wanted so much to leave, and he wanted so much to stay.

He looked around at the other people who were waiting. No, he thought, he had to leave. He had to leave the atmosphere of Harvard, the atmosphere that sometimes seemed so insane to him. He would find a place where he could be free and where everything would make sense the way it had in Africa.

When the flight was called, he went to the gate, showed his boarding pass to the attendant, and got on the plane. Someone could still come and take him back. It was still possible. He half wanted that and half feared it. Even after the plane had taken off, the idea occurred to him that it might still be called back to the airport. He sat staring into the sunset, almost paralyzed by fear and anxiety.

The sun glowed with a deep, rich color that he’d never seen before. He was absorbed in it and fascinated by it. He thought it was the most mysterious sunset he’d ever seen, mainly of course because of the state of mind he was in, but perhaps also because he unconsciously felt that something in him was dying with that sun.

Once during the flight, from very far away, he heard the stewardess asking if he wanted some coffee. At first he couldn’t understand either the question or who she was talking to. He was almost hypnotized by the colors in the sky, and she had to repeat her question. He jerked his head around, and she smiled at him, this bewildered young man, sitting there alone. He gave her what must have seemed a confused smile, and shook his head no.

When he finally arrived in Michigan, he tried to telephone his mother and stepfather from the airport, but there was no answer. He had no key to their house, so he called Rick and his wife and stayed overnight with them.

And now, he thought, he was finally free; he was bewildered and in pain, but he was free. He would never go back to the frightening, claustrophobic atmosphere of Harvard, the atmosphere he thought had almost driven him insane. He would never go back. He would find a world where everything made sense, where people were kind and could understand him, and he could understand them. He would find a world where he didn’t have the kind of unacceptable ideas about people and about himself that he’d had at Harvard. He would be all right. He would be just like everyone else, and everything would be normal again.

Somewhere he would find such a world, and there would be no more fears of going crazy, no more fears that he was being manipulated by others into being the kind of person he did not want to be. In that world, he would be free to be the person he’d always dreamed of being.

Everything, he thought in his misery and hopelessness and loss, everything would be so much better soon.

Log in