Being a Stranger
For long periods of my life, living in places where I did not belong, I have been a perfect stranger. I asked myself whether my sense of otherness was the human condition. It certainly was my condition. As with most people, my outer life did not in the least resemble my inner life, but exotic places and circumstances intensified this difference. Sometimes my being a stranger was like the evocation of a dream state, at other times like a form of madness, and now and then it was just inconvenient. I might have gone home, except that a return home would have made me feel like a failure. I was not only far away, I was also out of touch. It sounds as though I am describing a metaphysical problem to which there was no solution - but no, all of this was a form of salvation.
I was an outsider before I was a traveler; I was a traveler before I was a writer; I think one led to the other. I don't think I was ever a scholar or a student in the formal sense. When I mentioned this notion of being a stranger to my friend Oliver Sacks, he said, "In the Kabala the first act in the creation of the universe is exile." That makes sense to me.
Exile is a large concept for which a smaller version, the one I chose, is expatriation. I simply went away. Raised in a large, talkative, teasing family of seven children, I yearned for space of my own. One of my pleasures was reading; reading was a refuge and an indulgence. But my greatest pleasure lay in leaving my crowded house and going for all-day hikes. In time these hikes turned into camping trips. Fortunately our house was at the edge of town,so I could go out the front door and after half a mile of walking be in the woods, attractively named the Mystic Fells. On my own, I had a clearer sense of who I was, and I had a serious curiosity about what I found in the woods. The taxonomy of the trees and flowers and birds was a new language I learned in this new world.
When I went to Africa, a young man and unpublished, I became a mzungu, or white man, but the Chichewa word also implies a spirit, a ghost figure, almost a goblin, a being so marginal as to be barely human. I did not find it at all hard to accept this definition; I had always felt fairly marginal, with something to prove. So, speaking about myself as a traveler is the most logical way of speaking about myself as a writer.
As for my apprenticeship as a writer, I am sure that my single-mindedness was helped by my being out of touch. Both ideas - being a stranger, being out of touch - seem to me to be related. I believed myself a stranger wherever I was - even when I was younger and among my family at home - and for much of my life I have felt disconnected. You think of a writer as in touch and at the center of things, but I have found the opposite to be the case.
A variation of this concept was once a great topic in colleges. When I was a student it was the obsessive subject - the alienated hero or antihero, the drifter, epitomized by the figure of the casual and detached murderer Meursault in Camus's L'Étranger, or Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, or the trapped and ineffectual Josef K. in Kafka's The Trial, who is a total stranger to the process that is for no apparent reason blaming and victimizing him. There seemed to me something freakish about these men and something formulaic about their predicament. I found these characters and this discussion less persuasive because the characters seemed like stock figures in a morality play. I could not identify with I, a stranger and afraid In a world I never made.
I have been much more affected when an apparently whole, rounded character described a sense of loss or deep isolation. It is no surprise when the hero of a postwar French novel is said to be alienated, but how much more powerful when the anguish is that of someone instantly recognizable, like Nicole Diver in Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night, or Peyton Loftis in William Styron's Lie Down in Darkness, or the "whiskey priest" in Greene's The Power and the Glory. It is almost a shock when one of the great serene masters of the novel speaks of alienation, as these three men have done - Fitzgerald on alcohol in The Crack-Up, Greene on manic-depression in A Sort of Life, and Styron on suicidal depression in Darkness Visible. Even Henry James, the intensely sociable and inexhaustible dinner guest, experienced several breakdowns and many depressions. Jorge Luis Borges wrote, "I speak in a poem of the ancient food of heroes: humiliation, unhappiness, discord. Those things are given to us to transform, so that we may make from the miserable circumstances of our lives things that are eternal, or aspire to be so."
There are few more explicit descriptions of the pain of isolation than that confided by James in a letter to a friend, who had asked mildly, using a travel metaphor, what had been his point of departure - what "port" had he set out from to become a writer. James replied: "The port from which I set out was, I think, that of the essential loneliness of my life - and it seems to be the port also, in sooth, to which my course again finally directs itself! This loneliness (since I mention it!) - what is it still but the deepest thing about one? Deeper, about me, at any rate, than anything else; deeper than my 'genius,' deeper than my 'discipline,' deeper than my pride, deeper, above all, than the deep counterminings of art."
The English writer V. S. Pritchett spoke about this condition of otherness in his autobiography, how it was not until he began to travel far from his home in south London that he began to understand himself and his literary vocation. He said that he found distant places so congenial that he became an outsider at home. Travel had transformed him into a stranger. He wrote, "I became a foreigner. For myself, that is what a writer is - a man living on the other side of a frontier."
For various reasons, it is now not so easy to be a foreigner (I am using the word in a general sense). Yet it was very easy for me less than forty years ago, when I was an impressionable teenager and amateur emigrant. Then, a person could simply disappear by traveling; even a trip to Europe involved a sort of obscurity. A trip to Africa or South America could be a vanishing into silence and darkness.
The idea of disappearance appealed to me. For about ten years, the whole decade of my twenties, I was utterly out of touch. I went to central Africa in 1963 and stayed for five years, and then instead of heading home I went to Singapore, from which I emerged late in 1971. At that point I buried myself and my family in the depths of the English countryside, nowhere near a village. During this entire period, living frugally, I did not own a telephone, and the few calls I made were all in the nature of emergencies - reporting births and deaths, summoning doctors, all on borrowed phones. This decade of being off the phone, which is the most extreme condition of being cut off, was formative for me, one of the best things that could have happened in my passage to becoming a writer, because it forced on me a narrow sort of life from which there was no turning back. I was isolated and enlightened. I learned to cope, I read more, I wrote more, I had no TV, I thought in a more concentrated way, I lived in one place, a nd I studied patience.
"Connected" is the triumphant cry these days. Connection has made people arrogant, impatient, hasty, and presumptuous. I am old enough to have witnessed the rise of the telephone, the apotheosis of TV and the videocassette, the cellular phone, the pager, the fax machine, and e-mail. I don't doubt that instant communication has been good for business, even for the publishing business, but it has done nothing for literature, and might even have harmed it. In many ways connection has been disastrous. We have confused information (of which there is too much) with ideas (of which there are too few). I found out much more about the world and myself by being unconnected.
And what does connection really mean? What can the archivist - relishing detail, boasting of the information age - possibly do about all those private phone calls, e-mails, and electronic messages. Lost! A president is impeached, and in spite of all the phone calls and all the investigations, almost the only evidence that exists of his assignations are a few cheap gifts, a signed photograph, and obscure stains. So much for the age of information. My detractors may say, "You can print e-mails," but who commits that yackety-yak to paper?
As for the video revolution, the eminent Pacific archaeologist Yoshihiko Sinoto told me that the most rapid deterioration he had ever seen in human culture took place when videocassette players, powered by generators, became available in the outlying islands of the Cook group in the Pacific. Now villagers were watching Rambo movies and pornography, with disastrous results to the fragile society. Last year I was in Brazil. A woman in Rio mentioned that she was flying to Manaus, on the Amazon, to meet her husband, who worked there. She was eager to go, she said, because Titanic was showing at an Amazonian theater. Four months later I was in Palawan, a somewhat remote island in the Philippines, and walking along a beach I heard a Filipino boy humming the Titanic theme, "Our Love Will Go On."
Nothing I can say in protest against the proliferation of the creepier manifestations of popular culture will change the continuous innovation in electronic media, which seems more and more to me like a cross between toy making and chemical warfare. Having lived through the whole electronic revolution, I know that much of what I have seen is not progress but folie de grandeur. It is misleading, creating the illusion of knowledge, which is in fact a profound ignorance. Obviously advances in communication are traveling so fast that you can accurately characterize people as writing at the speed of light throughout the world.
But of course not the whole world. The most aberrant aspect of the delusional concept of globalization is the smug belief that the world is connected and that everyone and every place is instantly accessible. This is merely a harmful conceit. The colorful advertisement for cellular phones or computers showing Chinese speaking to Zulus, and Italians speaking to Tongans, is inaccurate, not to say mendacious. There are still places on earth that are inaccessible, because of their geography or their politics or their religion. Parts of China are off the map, and for that matter parts of Italy are too - there are villages in the hinterland of Basilicata, in southern Italy, that are as isolated as they have ever been.
For the past ten years, since the disputed and disallowed election of 1991, the entire Republic of Algeria has been a no-go area where between eighty and one hundred thousand people have been massacred. Algeria - a sunny Mediterranean country, the most dangerous place in the world, with the worst human rights record on earth - is right next to jolly Morocco and colorful Tunisia, the haunts of package tourists and rug collectors. This bizarre proximity highlights the paradox, which is an old one, that close by there are areas of the world that are still forbidden, or terra incognita, where no outsider dares to venture. In spite of all our connectedness we have little idea of what passes for daily life in Algeria.
Distant and arduous travel is not always required to find a no-go area. For many years Northern Ireland was a patchwork of town and neighborhood strongholds, based on interpretations of Christianity. If you were the wrong sort of Christian, you might be killed. There are New Yorkers who think nothing of traveling to Tierra del Fuego but who would not set foot in certain parts of New York City. I am not saying all these places are equally dangerous, only that they are perceived to be so.
And while millions of people in the world are accessible, millions are not - many live in closed cultures, the sort of hermetic existence that has not changed for centuries. For well over forty years travelers were forbidden to enter Albania, and Albanians were forbidden to leave. This isolation ended ten years ago, and because the confinement had been involuntary, Albanians have found it hard to adjust - have "decompensated," to use the clinical term - and have suffered a decade of chaos and a sort of political dementia, which has in part fueled the Kosovo conflict. I was in Albania a few years ago. It was a glimpse of the past for me and, by the way, a place without telephonic connection to the outside world.
There are lots of such places. Zambians in their capital, Lusaka, find it much easier to communicate with, say, people in Los Angeles - just pick up the phone or log on to the Internet - than with the Lozi people, in Zambia's own Western Province, who live without electricity and telephones and in some cases without roads. Life goes on for the Lozis, and though they suffer drought and disease, their lives are in many ways richer, more coherent, for their isolation. The hinterlands of the world still exist, neglected if not inviolate, and thank God for them. But it is only a matter of time before they are violated, with predictable results. I have witnessed this in a number of countries. When I first traveled in Sicily in 1963, Uganda in 1966, Afghanistan in 1973, Honduras in 1979, the upper Yangtze in 1980, and Albania in 1993, I felt in each place that I was off the map. After me came a deluge - soldiers, tourists, developers, or the complex cannibalism of civil war - and the inhabitants of those places hav e been profoundly changed, if not corrupted in new and uninteresting ways, as though turned into gigantic dwarfs.
Anyone with money for a ticket can fly to any other big city in the world - an American airport is a gateway to Vladivostok and Ouagadougou. My reaction to this is: big deal. Cities did nothing for me. It was the hinterlands that made me.
In Africa as a mzungu, I was a stranger among the People, which is what "Bantu" means. I was not a person but rather a sort of marginal spiritlike being, and what I spoke was unintelligible to most of them. That was a good lesson. Until then, I had not known that most people in the world believe that they are the People, and their language is the Word, and strangers are not fully human - at least not human in the way the People are - nor is a stranger's language anything but the gabbling of incoherent and inspissated felicities.
I should have known this purely on the basis of Native American terminology. "Bantu" meaning "the People" has its counterpart throughout the world's cultures. The name of virtually every Native American nation or tribe or band - Inuit, Navaho, and so on - translates as "the People," the implication being that they are human and the stranger is not. For example, the earliest people in what is now Michigan called themselves Anishinabe, "the First People." Strangers named them the Chippewa, which was corrupted to Ojibway, a variation of "those who make pictographs" - because of the elegantly engraved birchbark scrolls they produced.
The early French travelers who were the first to encounter these Anishinabe were blind to these scrolls, could not read them, were interested only in the furs the people could supply. There are distinct disadvantages to being a stranger. The stranger is always somewhat at sea and, like a castaway, faced with unusual, unexpected problems.
Otherness can be like an illness; being a stranger can be analogous to experiencing a form of madness - those same intimations of the unreal and the irrational, when everything that has been familiar is stripped away. The stranger can feel like someone wounded or disabled. In The Wound and the Bow, Edmund Wilson used the Greek myth of Philoctetes as a metaphor to describe the relationship between art and illness. The underlying idea in the myth is that Philoctetes' wound is part of his character: "the conception of superior strength as inseparable from disability." It is not only Philoctetes' wonderful bow that makes him superior, but also his fortitude, a power derived from his bearing the pain of his wound. His unhealed injury gives him nobility. This notion of the link between trauma and art (or sickness and strength) was not new with Wilson; it exists throughout literature. It is in part the basis of the heartsick artist-lover of the Romantic movement, as well as much of what we understand as modern. Bor ges, who was blind, wrote, "Blindness is a gift."*
The greatest exponent today of this interpretation of illness as a possible source of imaginative power - though he has never referred specifically to the myth of Philoctetes - is Dr. Oliver Sacks. His patients are classic strangers. In the case histories collected in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and An Anthropologist on Mars, Dr. Sacks has explained how an apparent disability in one area of a person's life can grant an access of strength or inspiration in another area. More recently, in The Island of the Colorblind, he has described how achromatopes develop a keen understanding not of color but of what he calls "a polyphony of brightnesses." (The non-colorblind person is as helpless as the sighted man in H. G. Wells's story "The Country of the Blind.") And he tells of encounters in which the physician is revealed as less acute, less capable, and less perceptive than the patient.
To be a stranger is to be childlike, a bit defenseless and dim, and having to acquire a language. In Seeing Voices, his study of the deaf, Dr. Sacks compares Saint Augustine's description, in his Confessions, of his learning to speak as an infant with the deaf learning sign language. Wittgenstein's analysis of this experience relates this to the stranger's dilemma: "Augustine describes the learning of human language as if the child came into a strange country and did not understand the language of the country; that is, as if it already had a language, only not this one." This is precisely what the stranger feels: an inner sense of helplessness, almost infantilism, in this new place, as if the stranger had passed through the looking glass.
Living in the African bush for so long meant that I was dependent on the hospitality of Africans, the Nyanja people in Nyasaland. They could have managed very well without me, but I needed them. My first task was to learn their language, Chinyanja, also known as Chichewa. After that, my life was much easier, although I felt isolated: I had only a bicycle for transportation for my first two years; I had no phone, and for long spells of time - hours or days - no electricity. On the plus side, I was not far from a vegetable market and a post office. I raised pigeons and ate them. I liked my students. I had friends in nearby villages. Except for periods when there was political trouble in the country and rifle muzzles were pointed at my face, I did not feel I was in much danger, because in general I understood the risks. In spite of my sympathy and good will, I knew I lived apart, but that was not a new feeling. In terms of being a writer, I felt very lucky.
Another important and common fact was that in the Africa I knew, and even the Southeast Asia I knew, local people did not think of solving problems by uprooting themselves and emigrating. They accepted that they would live and die in their own country, indeed in the village where they had been born. They did not have relatives or families elsewhere. A person who is in a country for life tends to see himself or herself as part of a community, with responsibilities. Because fleeing was not an option, the people I knew had a well- developed sense of belonging. They took the long view: they had been there forever, the land was theirs, they were part of a culture, with a long memory, deep roots, old habits and customs. Living among such people intensified my sense of exclusion, of being a stranger, and it fascinated me.
Haunted by the restless dead, these places are more populous than they appear, for most people share their existence with the unseen world of spirits. Ancestors live within us. There is an Inuit notion that a baby born soon after the death of a grandparent is actually the incarnation of the deceased, and the infant will be referred to as "Granddad" or "Grandma" and treated with the respect accorded to an elder. In most of the places I lived during my decade of being cut off, it was an accepted belief that the dead were not dead at all, nor even absent; for many people in the world no one dies, no one really goes away. The dead are present, friends are present, ancestors are present. Recognizing this, Lévi-Strauss wrote, "There is probably no society which does not treat its dead with respect." At my present age I am more prepared to entertain the concept of ancestor worship and the proximity of the spirit world than of monotheism. Anyone who has grieved for the loss of a father or mother understands what I a m saying, but it extends to all areas of time passing.
Turning up twenty-five years after leaving Malawi, I met people there who reminded me that I had not been forgotten. As a friend, I had not really left. For them, not much time had passed. Is this because we in the West tend to measure time in terms of a single lifetime? Perhaps in places where life expectancy is short (it has been calculated to be thirty-eight years in Zimbabwe), a life span is a useless unit of measurement.
Toward the end of a long day's paddling in the Trobriand Islands, off the northeast coast of Papua-New Guinea, I put ashore at a tiny seaside village intending to ask permission to camp on a nearby beach. "Stay here," the goggling villagers insisted. "You will be safe." That also meant they could keep an eye on me. No one ever asked me how long I intended to remain in the village, though they were bewildered that I should prefer my tent to the hospitality of their huts. Fear of malaria - endemic and often fatal in the Trobriands - was my only reason. After two weeks of utter contentment I paddled away.
They yelled: "Come back sometime!"
Six months or more passed before I returned, and when I did, without any warning, dragging my kayak out of the lagoon, a woman on the beach smiled at me and said, "We were just talking about you."
Her casual welcome delighted me. There was nothing remarkable about my reappearance. It was as if I had hardly left. I had thought of the intervening months as full of incident in my life. That same time was not long for them; it represented one harvest, one storm, and several deaths. But no one truly dies in the Trobriands. The dead simply go to another island: their spirits reside on Tuma, just a bit north.
The villagers' own notion of the passage of time made my return less stressful. There was Trobriand protocol - ritual greetings and presents - but none of the drama and forced emotion that characterizes an American homecoming. It pleased me to think that I figured in their consciousness. Death or departure was part of an eternal return.
And the friendship of people who come and go, for whatever length of time, is not diminished by their absence. What matters in the Trobriands is your existence in the consciousness of the village. If someone talks about you, or if you appear in their dreams, you are present - you have reality.
The most dramatic example of otherness occurs when two radically different cultures meet for the first time. This encounter is summed up in the expression "first contact."
In First Contact, their 1987 account of a series of such events in New Guinea, the authors, Bob Connelly and Robin Anderson, found people in the New Guinea highlands in the 1980s who had been present when Australian prospectors first came to the highlands in 1930. The Australians were in a hurry to find gold, but seeing them cross a river in their valley, the villagers believed that these white men were the ghosts of their ancestors. All used the word "spirit" to describe the strangers.
One of the witnesses, Kirupano Eza'e, said, "Once they had gone, the people sat down and developed stories. They knew nothing of white-skinned men. We had not seen far places. We knew only this side of the mountains. And we thought we were the only living people. We believed that when a person died, his skin changed to white and he went over the boundary to 'that place' - the place of the dead. So when the strangers came we said, 'Ah, these men do not belong to the earth. Let's not kill them - they are our own relatives.'" Another man, Gopie Ataiamelaho, said, "I asked myself: who are these people? They must be somebody from the heavens. Have they come to kill us or what? We wondered if this could be the end of us, and it gave us a feeling of sorrow. We said, 'We must not touch them!' We were terribly frightened."
They had to be from the sky - where else could they have come from? Also, some people took the white men to be incarnations of a mythical being, Hasu Hasu, associated with lightning.
This parallels the Hawaiian belief that Captain Cook, in the year of first contact, 1778, was the god Lono - he seemed to have all the attributes, and he was feared until he too was discovered to be mortal. On an earlier voyage, in October 1769, when Cook arrived at Turranga Nui in what is now New Zealand, the Maori thought these Englishmen were atua, supernatural beings, or perhaps tipuna, ancestors who were revisiting their homeland. Cook's ship, the Endeavour, was taken to be a floating island, the sacred island Waikawa, and the crew to be tupua, or goblins. In 1517, the year of their first contact, the Aztecs took the Spaniards to be avatars of Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent, god of learning and of wind.
Even today the word for foreigner or white man in Samoan is palangi (a related word, papalangi, is used in Tonga), meaning "sky burster," a person who comes from the clouds, not a terrestrial creature. Haole - white person, in Hawaiian - means "of another breath." The polar Inuit assumed that they were the only people in the world, so when they saw their first white stranger, the explorer Sir William Parry, in 1821, they said to him, "Are you from the sun or the moon?"
Dim-dim, in Trobriand, means someone not human, not at all like the Trobrianders, who trace their origins to ancestors who rose from holes in the northern part of the main island. The Naskapi Indians of Labrador thought the first white men were ghosts, because ghosts were white too, and fairly common. The writer Larry Millman, who collected oral accounts of the Naskapi around Davis Inlet in Labrador, told me that as a result of this belief, "the Naskapi kept bumping into their white visitors, who were Oblate fathers, because they thought they could walk right through them, as in fact they could walk through ghosts." Today in Hong Kong, the word gweilo is used for a white person or foreigner; it means "ghost man."
The more isolated a people, the greater the emphasis on a stranger's being benign. I am not referring to their near neighbors, with whom they tended to be in conflict - as in New Guinea and elsewhere - but rather to the hard-to-account-for person of another color who invariably is first seen as a spirit of a dead ancestor, then as a patron with goods to share, next as a pest, and finally as a threat. As they met more foreigners, the Inuit began to see them as fellow humans, but different; the widely used Inuit word for white person is kabloona (derived from qallunaat), which means something like "eyebrow stomachs," probably a reaction to whites' hairy bodies by the almost hairless Inuit.
In general, the more contact a people have with foreigners, the more they lose their innocence regarding the strangers' motives, and this cynicism is usually reflected in their language. The late- medieval book of travels attributed to Sir John Mandeville has proven to be a compilation of travel narratives from many sources, and, along with the actual accounts of early (thirteenth- and fourteenth- century) travelers to China, includes medieval fantasies about cannibals, one-eyed men, and dog-headed people. Among others, Shakespeare used the more outlandish details in his work - Caliban is taken straight from Mandeville.
Columbus's descriptions of the islanders he encountered in the West Indies show him to have been heavily influenced by Mandeville. He asserted that he saw one-eyed men, and cannibals, and dog-nosed individuals. He was also influenced by Marco Polo, and using his copy of Marco Polo's Travels as confirmation, Columbus thought he might be in Asia. Some islanders he took to be soldiers of the Great Khan. It was important for Columbus to establish the myth of Carib cannibalism, for then Spain could enslave the people on grounds that they were savages. This same logic applied in the Pacific (New Hebrides is the most dramatic example), where the apparent existence of cannibalism justified intense missionary activity, or slavery, or both.
Anthropological stereotyping is not new, but one of its symmetries is that when an isolated people are visited, and they discover that the visitors are not gods or ancestors or goblins but are people looking for gold, land, or souls to save - usually all three - they tend to protect themselves, and for defending their homes they are termed "cruel," "brave," "bloodthirsty," "warlike," or "savages." The word in Italian for slave (schiave) is related to the word for Serbian (Schiavone), as in English (from Latin) "slave" is related to "Slav" - so many Slavs had been enslaved that the words became synonymous, as "barbarian" has its roots in "bearded" - the hairy enemy. And "bugger" is related to "Bulgar."
This European stereotyping is shared by the Arabs and the Chinese. In China there are many words for foreigner, from the generic wei-guo ren to the words for "red-haired devil," "white devil," and "big nose." It cannot be a mere coincidence that all these Europeans, Arabs, and Chinese live in places that have been crossroads for foreign travelers, and enemies. Unlike the New Guinea highlanders and the Inuit, they were well aware that there were others in the world.
The Arabic language reflects this worldliness: "foreigner" is ajnabi, and the root means something like "people to avoid." Another such word is ajami, which means foreigners, barbarians, people who speak Arabic badly, and Persians. Gharib, stranger, is related to gharb, the West, in the sense of "a person from the West." ("East" appears to have more friendly connotations in Arabic.) But the point is clear: linguistically, first contact exemplifies a kind of innocence, and nothing intensifies xenophobia more than seeing strangers as a threat.
"Every stranger is an enemy," a notion I have encountered in my travels in various cultures, achieved its cruelest expression in Nazism. In his preface to Survival in Auschwitz (also titled If This Is a Man), Primo Levi discusses this delusion. He writes, "For the most part this conviction lies deep down like some latent infection; it betrays itself only in random, disconnected acts, and does not lie at the base of a system of reason. But when this does come about, when the unspoken dogma becomes the major premise in a syllogism, then, at the end of the chain, there is the Lager" - the Nazi extermination camp.
It is rare to find the opposite view, but not long ago, Tenzin Gyatso, the fourteenth Dalai Lama, wrote in his essay "Compassion and the Individual": "All that is necessary is for each of us to develop our good human qualities. I try to treat whoever I meet as an old friend. This gives me a genuine feeling of happiness. It is the practice of compassion."
But I was not embraced as a traveler. I was seen as a stranger, sometimes a dangerous one. My experience of that conflict made me a writer.
One of the paradoxes of otherness is that in travel, each conceives the other to be a foreigner. But even the most distant and exotic place has its parallel in ordinary life. Every day we meet new people and are insulted or misunderstood; we are thrown upon our own resources. In the coming and going of daily life we rehearse a modified version of the dramatic event known as first contact. In a wish to experience otherness to its limit, to explore all its nuances, I became a traveler. I was as full of preconceived notions as Columbus or Crusoe - you can't help it, but you can alter such thoughts. Non-travelers often warn the traveler of dangers, and the traveler dismisses such fears, but the presumption of hospitality is just as odd as the presumption of danger. You have to find out for yourself. Take the leap. Go as far as you can. Try staying out of touch. Become a stranger in a strange land. Acquire humility. Learn the language. Listen to what people are saying.
It was as a solitary traveler that I began to discover who I was and what I stood for. When people ask me what they should do to become a writer, I seldom mention books - I assume the person has a love for the written word, and solitude, and disdain for wealth - so I say, "You want to be a writer? First leave home."
Except for "Down the Yangtze," all the pieces in this book were written since my previous collection, Sunrise with Seamonsters (1985). I have placed them thematically, in a way that seems right to me, rather than putting them in chronological order.
Memory and Creation:
The View from Fifty
One of the more bewildering aspects of growing older is that people constantly remind you of things that never happened. Of course, this is also the case when you are younger, but it is only with the passage of time that you're sure of the lie. I was driving up to Amherst with my parents a few years ago to accept an honorary degree, and my mother, who was excited and talkative, said, "I always knew you were going to be a writer."
I said to myself, No you didn't. You always said I was going to be a doctor.
My father said, "Yep, you always had your nose in a book."
I said to myself, No I didn't.
When I got to Amherst, one of the officials said, "Remember when we arrested you at that demonstration?" And he laughed. "That was something!"
I said to myself, It was horrible. About fourteen people on the whole campus protesting what was the beginning of the Vietnam War, and everyone else calling us Commies. The so-called student left was composed of freaks, misfits, kids with glasses and hideous haircuts, dope smokers, a jazz pianist, and a handful of Quakers. I had the glasses and the haircut. It was no joke. My uncle in Boston heard about my arrest on the radio, and he called my parents, and people said, "This is going to affect your whole future." My whole future!
Someone else that weekend said, "Well, when you were editor of the student newspaper . . ."
I said to myself, I was never editor of the student newspaper, which was actually quite a prestigious post and much more respectable than anything I would have chosen or been given.
I think perhaps I have made my point, and I don't want to belabor it. But the subject has been on my mind a great deal lately: I have just turned fifty years old. Who wrote this? Fifty: it is a dangerous age - for all men, and especially for one like me who has a tendency to board sinking ships. Middle age has all the scares a man feels halfway across a busy street, caught in traffic and losing his way, or another one blundering in a black upstairs room, full of furniture, afraid to turn the lights on because he'll see the cockroaches he smells. The man of fifty has the most to say, but no one will listen. His fears sound incredible because they are so new - he might be making them up. His body alarms him; it starts playing tricks on him, his teeth warn him, his stomach scolds, he's balding at last; a pimple might be cancer, indigestion a heart attack, he's feeling an unapparent fatigue; he wants to be young but he knows he ought to be old. He's neither one and terrified. His friends all resemble him, so there can be no hope of rescue. To be this age and very far from where you started out, unconsoled by any possibility of a miracle - that is bad; to look forward and start counting the empty years left is enough to tempt you into some aptly named crime, or else to pray. Success is nasty and spoils you, the successful say, and only failures listen, who know nastiness without the winch of money. Then it is clear: the ship is swamped to her gunwales, and the man of fifty swims to shore, to be marooned on a little island, from which there is no rescue, but only different kinds of defeat.
I wrote that in my novel Saint Jack when I was twenty-nine years old, and I think it is inaccurate as it applies to me - I cannot identify with that person or relate to that state of being middle-aged and clapped out. Nor can I share even remotely the sense of loss Philip Larkin expresses in his fiftieth-birthday poem, "The View":
The view is fine from fifty, Experienced climbers say; So, overweight and shifty, I turn to face the way That led me to this day.
Instead of fields and snowcaps And flowered lanes that twist, The track breaks at my toe-caps And drops away in mist. The view does not exist.
Where has it gone, the lifetime? Search me. What's left is drear. Unchilded and unwifed, I'm Able to view that clear: So final. And so near.
These sentiments give me the willies. Larkin at fifty seems to regard his life as just about over. I do not feel that way; I hope I never do. I have always felt - physically at least - in the pink, no matter what my age. One line in Saint Jack goes, "Fiction gives us the second chances that life denies us," and this remark, which I regard as prescient, is one of the themes of this excursion today.
When I began writing Saint Jack in 1970, one of my friends was turning fifty in Singapore, and it seemed to me, I suppose, salutary to observe that climacteric, for as I say, one of the strangest aspects of growing older is that people constantly remind you of things that never happened - and worse, they ignore what actually took place. The invented reminiscence of "I'll never forget old what's-his-name" has a cozy quaintness and seems harmless enough, but the element of self-deception in it can lead you badly astray.
Lately I have been wondering about the relationship between memory and creation, and between memory and perception - and behavior, too. It all seems scrambled together. I say "lately" partly because of this half-century birthday and also because of several dramatic changes in my life: becoming separated from my wife, traveling extensively in the Pacific, resuming residence in my American house. My life has been full of changes, all of them unexpected. When I was young and felt downtrodden I thought, My life will be pretty much what it is now, because people were always prophesying, saying they knew exactly what was going to happen to me, even if I didn't - another example of people alarming me with their lies.
I often think that I became a writer because I have a good memory. When I say "a good memory" I do not mean that it is a totally accurate memory, only that it is a very full and accessible one, packed with images and language. Montaigne, who discusses the question of memory in his essay "On Liars," claimed to have had a terrible memory. He makes the case for the virtues of having a bad memory (such an afflicted person is less worldly, less ambitious, less garrulous), and asserts that "an outstanding memory is often associated with weak judgment." There are other treats in store for the deeply forgetful person: "Books and places which I look at again always welcome me with a fresh new smile."
Montaigne suggests that he is utterly helpless. And while it is true that remembering depends on habit, it also depends on the use of deliberate techniques. I agree in general with Dr. Johnson's observation, reported by Boswell, that "forgetfulness [is] a man's own fault."
Yet often the very drama of events prints them on our memory.
At the age of two I started a fire under my crib. I put a match to some newspapers, as I had seen one of my older brothers doing just a few days before. Without any alarm I was a spectator to a great tumult in the house as my burning mattress was flung out the back window onto the lawn.
Not long after that I squeezed through the loose picket of a fence and cut my scalp on a rusty nail on the top bar. The resulting scar was a white crescent, and for a long time, whenever I got a short haircut, people said, "What's that on your head?" I must have been very young - how else could I have gotten through that small opening in the fence?
A few days after my sister Ann Marie was born, in 1944, when I was three, I was being looked after by a neighbor while my mother stayed in the hospital. Lonesome for my father, I noticed he wasn't home. Believing he was at church - it was a Sunday - I eluded the baby sitter and walked there, a quarter of a mile away. I distinctly remember the long crossing of a four-lane road known as the Fellsway - I was so small I could not see over the hump in the middle to the other side. I sat on the church steps calling out "Daddy!" and there I was found by my panicky father. A search party had already been sent to a nearby brook, believing I had fallen in and drowned. I suppose this was my first attempt at independent travel.
The first book that was read to me was Make Way for Ducklings (it had a Boston setting), and the second was The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins, by Dr. Seuss. As soon as I could read I wanted to be a hero.
I can name nearly every child who was in my first-grade class, Miss Purcell's, at the Washington School, in Medford. We wrote with big thick pencils. In the third grade Miss Cook introduced us to ink - we had inkwells and used sharp steel nibs; the difficulty of forming letters with those sputtering nibs is vivid to me today. I know Psalm 23 because it was Miss Cook's favorite when I was eight. I knew the distinct odor of everyone's house, friends' and relatives', where I was taken as a child: the assertive and often offensive reek of cooking and different people. Blindfolded, I could have identified thirty of those smell-labeled households.
I have more recollections of this kind, which go under the name "episodic memories" and I am well aware of their approximate truth. "Remembering is not a re-excitation of innumerable, fixed, lifeless, and fragmentary traces," Sir Frederick Bartlett wrote in Remembering. "It is an imaginative reconstruction, or construction, built out of the relation of our attitude towards a whole active mass of organized past reaction or experience, to a little outstanding detail which commonly appears in image or in language form. It is thus hardly ever exact, even in the most rudimentary cases of rote- capitulation, and it is not at all important that it should be."
I have altered my memories in the way we all do - simplified them, improved them, made them more orderly. Memory works something like this: stare at a square and then close your eyes; the afterimage will gradually soften into a circle - much more symmetrical and memorable. Goethe was the first to write about this phenomenon.
"Few have reason to complain of nature as unkindly sparing of the gifts of memory," Dr. Johnson wrote in The Idler. "The true art of memory is the art of attention." This observation is vividly illustrated in the life of the Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci, who traveled and proselytized in China in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. He is known to Sinologists as the man who drew the first map of the world for the Chinese, and in so doing conveyed many facts disturbing to the Ming court: that China might not be the Middle Kingdom, that other large countries exist on the planet, and that the earth is round.
Ricci developed a highly complex mnemonic system, which served him well as a missionary (he carried a whole library of Christian theology in his head) and as a linguist (he became so skillful in the language that he wrote a number of books in Chinese). His memory also endeared him to the Chinese and won him Christian converts. In his study of the man and his times, The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, Jonathan Spence described how "Ricci wrote quite casually in 1595 of running through a list of four to five hundred random Chinese ideograms and then repeating the list in reverse order."
The memory palace that Ricci advocated was an imaginary mental structure that might be based on a real building. This construction, great or small, was the best repository for knowledge. It could be vast, full of rooms and halls, corridors, and pavilions, and in each chamber we could place the images of things we wanted to recall. Ricci wrote, "To everything that we wish to remember we should give an image; and to every one of these images we should assign a position where it can repose peacefully until we are ready to claim it by an act of memory."
The scholar Francesco Panigarola, who may have taught Ricci in Italy, and who wrote on memory arts, could remember as many as 100,000 images at a time. And as a Jesuit, Ricci was well aware of the importance Ignatius of Loyola attached, in his Spiritual Exercises, to memory as a means of contemplation. Ricci himself credited the concept of the memory palace to a Greek poet of the sixth and fifth centuries b.c., Simonides of Ceos. But the arts of memory were a part of classical learning, and in listing the memory experts of the past, Pliny's Natural History was as powerful an inspiration to Ricci as it was to Jorge Luis Borges four hundred years later - the result in Borges's case was his wonderful story "Funes the Memorious."
Ireneo Funes, the hero, has a marvelous memory, and one day the narrator loans him a copy of Pliny. Later, he visits Funes, who begins by reciting the book by heart - in the darkness of his room. . . . enumerating, in Latin and in Spanish, the cases of prodigious memory recorded in the Naturalis historia: Cyrus, king of the Persians, who could call every soldier in his armies by name; Mithridates Eupator, who administered the law in twenty-two languages of his empire; Simonides, inventor of the science of mnemonics; Metrodorus, who practiced the art of faithfully repeating what he had heard only once.
But Funes is unimpressed by any of this. His own memory is as good but much stranger, for after a fall from a horse he became paralyzed, and in waking from the trauma of the fall he discovered he had the gift of an instantly imagistic memory:
He knew by heart the forms of the southern clouds at dawn on 30 April 1882, and could compare them in his memory with the mottled streaks on a book in Spanish binding he had seen only once. . . . Two or three times, he had reconstructed a whole day; he never hesitated, but each reconstruction required a whole day. He told me: "I alone have more memories than all mankind has probably had since the world has been the world. . . . My memory is like a garbage heap." Borges describes one of Funes's bizarre projects, how he has invented an original system for numbering, giving every number "a particular sign, a kind of mark." The number one might be the gas, two might be the cauldron, and so on:
in place of seven thousand thirteen he would say (for example) Maximo Perez; in place of seven thousand fourteen, The Railroad; other numbers were Luis Melian Lafinur, Olimar, sulphur, the reins, the whale. . . . In place of five hundred he would say nine. Assigning an image to a word, Funes has reached the number twenty- four thousand. The narrator is at pains to point out that Funes is almost incapable of sustained thought or of generalizing. Funes can't understand why the word "dog" stands for so many shapes and forms of the animal, and more than that, "it bothered him that the dog at three fourteen (seen from the side) should have the same name as the dog at three fifteen (seen from the front)."
In this oblique story of the memory palace of Ireneo Funes, Borges gives final expression to the clear link between memory and creation.
As a schoolboy I had no memory palace, but I did have a manageable sub-Funes system of converting anything I wished to remember into an image. My intelligence was emphatically pictorial, and in this I was buoyant, but I foundered whenever a subject became unreasonably abstract. I still regard the best sentences as those which throw up clear images, and the worst as opaque, intangible, unvisualizable - like this one!
I performed well in school because rote capitulation was so important. Learning was memorizing: history was names and dates, geography was capitals and cash crops, English was reciting poems by heart ("The sun that bleak December day / Rose cheerless over hills of gray"). Biology was the simplest of all for me, not just a memory exercise but a new vocabulary: nictitating membranes, epithelial cells, osmosis, and the exotic-sounding islets of Langerhans (in the pancreas). Early in life, on the basis of my easy grasp of biological nomenclature and what I consider aesthetic reasons - all those euphonious names - I resolved to be a medical doctor. Even after I had abandoned the ambition, I went on telling people that it was my chosen profession - its being respectable and moneymaking, no one would question the choice.
I survived school because I remembered everything: my memory saved me. It was an odd, undemanding, and unsatisfactory education, and I think, because so little writing was involved in it, that its oddness helped make me a writer. For one thing, I read whatever I liked - in a jumble, preferring adventures about fur trappers or castaways, ordeal stories that involved cannibalism (Boon Island by Kenneth Roberts comes to mind), and books considered smutty or outrageous in the 1950s: Generation of Vipers, Tropic of Cancer, Lady Chatterley's Lover. Because of the censorship and repression of the period, language itself - seeing certain forbidden words on a page - was a stimulant, a thrill. I avoided anything literary. I was not taught any formal approach to essay writing. I was forced to invent my own writing technique.
This homemade reading list and my impressionistic method of writing did not serve me well at college. I was criticized for not being rigorous or trenchant. "Who says?" was a frequent comment by my teachers in the margins of my essays. I was offering personal opinions, not literary judgments. This did not worry me. My academic aim was never to excel but only to get it over with and move on. I was impatient to graduate: my reading had given me a taste, not for more reading or writing, but for seeing the wider, and wilder, world. I had felt small and isolated living in the place where I had grown up. I had read to find out about the world. I despaired of surviving being swallowed up by my hometown of Medford. I wanted to leave.
There was another obstacle. In college I was curious and energetic, but there was a weariness in the novels I read, in life in general, a sense of doomsday approaching. The postwar dreariness had penetrated into the fifties and even overlapped the sixties, and in the vogue for the placeless novel or play or poem, the dominant emotion was frustration and anger expressed as exhaustion. It was a sense of powerlessness, and it was almost certainly political: this was an age of racial segregation, fallout shelters, the Bomb, deep conservatism, overbearing religious views, and a denial of women's rights. Books were banned and put on trial. The literary expression of the period was a kind of confusion. It was the era of Waiting for Godot, the setting of which is an almost bare stage. Bare stages were in fashion. So were novels without much sense of place - I am thinking of the French nouvelle vague, but there were British and American imitators. Naturally, Eliot's The Waste Land was extremely popular.
I found this all unhelpfully abstract. My main objection, although I did not know enough to formulate it at the time, was that my own memories were of no use, my own experience somewhat irrelevant to the metaphysics of the modern novel or poem. Apart from blackouts and the shouts of air raid wardens - but why would the Germans want to bomb Webster Street? I wondered - I had no useful memory of World War Two, and that set many of us apart in the sixties. I had no sense of the Waste Land - I came from Medford, after all, which was a frustrating but funny place. We used to say Medford was famous because Paul Revere had ridden through it in 1775, but in fact we were more proud of the tough gangs of south Medford who slugged it out with the gangs from Somerville. Medford had particularities: my teacher Mr. Hanley, who had a wooden leg; Harry Walker, the drunken policeman who once lost his badge and gave us a quarter when we found it; hangouts like Joe's poolroom and Brigham's ice cream parlor and Carroll's diner; the dank, muddy smell of the Mystic River.
It is true that I could share some of the feelings of spiritual crisis in the literature of the fifties and sixties, but I had no strong belief that God was dead. In any case, God was like Banquo's ghost, popping up at every riotous occasion, to my great shame. I had been raised a cultural Catholic, and so religion had a strong ethnic coloration, depending on who was saying Mass or giving the sermon, an Irish priest (Saint Patrick, Mary mother of God, boozy funerals) or an Italian (Saint Anthony, the muscular Christ, boozy weddings).
Now and then I recognized my own world in fiction - in the stories of J. F. Powers (The Prince of Darkness, for example); in José María Gironella's Spanish trilogy - I have no idea how The Cypresses Believe in God (sex and syphilis figuring in a large way) came to be in the house; in Joyce's Dubliners. But mostly I didn't recognize anything in fiction as resembling the world I knew. I envied the prosperous families with prep school kids, the Jewish families trying to look respectable, even the struggling blacks: their worlds appeared, to a greater or a lesser degree, in popular fiction. Stereotypes of them existed. They were written about. My own mongrel world had gone unreported. It was like being denied my own experience, and without a model - with nothing to imitate, with the mistaken notion that my world might not even be worth writing about (after all, there seemed nothing specifically literary about the life I knew). I devised my own remedy. I fled, went away as far as I could, with the Peace Corps to central Africa.
Africa was a lucky choice for me, because distance, in terms of both space and culture, produced in me feelings of alienation that only memories could ease. I could not live in a culture that was completely foreign, and my solution was to live in my head. I needed to remember the past in order to be calm, and retrieval was not easy. I was in Nyasaland, which at that time was a British protectorate. The African towns were superficially English, like English culture made out of mud. In the absence of stimuli - I went to Africa with one small suitcase; I had virtually no possessions - I had to devise ways to gain access to my memory.
Does this seem a deliberate process? It was nothing of the kind. It was not a calculated act. Like almost everything in my life, it was haphazard, accidental, and I was seldom conscious of what I was doing. Writing is to me only superficially deliberate. It is more like digging a deep hole and not quite knowing what you are going to find, like groping in a dark well-furnished room - surprises everywhere, and not just remarkable chairs but people murmuring in the weirdest postures. I am inclined to agree with the novelist narrator Bendrix in Graham Greene's novel The End of the Affair when he says (and Greene himself believed this): "So much of a novelist's writing . . . takes place in the unconscious; in those depths the last word is written before the first word appears on paper. We remember the details of our story, we do not invent them."
This is why writing takes such patience. I had that, and determination - a great stomach for the job. And why? Because my life depended on it. I had nothing else - no one to support me, encourage me, or pay my way. If I faltered, or failed, or if I took a year off, I was shafted.
For years I had been practicing the craft of writing, but what is the craft? It involves rumination, mimicry, joke-telling. It requires long periods of solitude; I have always managed to be happy alone. Many writers I have known talk to themselves. I have a mumbling habit, which has served me well not merely as a mnemonic device but as an imaginative rehearsal for writing - it is image- making of a serious kind - and I nearly always mutter as I write.
Nothing is truly forgotten - there is no forgetting - Freud said; there is only repression. In Civilization and Its Discontents he wrote how "in mental life nothing which has been formed can perish . . . everything is somehow preserved, and in suitable circumstances (when for instance regression goes back far enough) it can once more be brought to light."
All his life Freud was concerned with retrieving early memories. This preoccupation led him to develop theories of repression and eventually to write his wonderful paper "Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming." A Freudian might explain my creativity in Africa as follows: when I had ceased to be affected by repression at home, and in the United States generally, and was living entirely on my own, unaffected by the scrutiny and the ambitions of my somewhat censorious parents, I was able to recapture in these suitable circumstances the early memories that gave me an impetus to be creative. Perhaps.
Writing in Africa gave me access to the past, helped me cope with long periods of isolation in a foreign place, made me reach specific conclusions about the people I was among - in a word, it enabled me to see Africa clearly. This plunge into my own memory inspired in me feelings of oneness with Africans and their landscape. Our lives in many respects were totally different, but on closer examination I saw how much we had in common and how these people shared many of my fears and hopes.
I am speaking of an early period in my writing life, but the most crucial one. I was in my early twenties. I had begun to deal with reality. It was no longer the literature of the Waste Land, the theater of the absurd, minimalist poetry, the barren and featureless narrative. I do not belittle them; I am simply saying they were no help to me. I may seem to criticize certain types of writing. No; only that they are not my type. "The house of fiction has many windows," Henry James said.
From the vantage point of Africa, I was able to see that where I came from seemed to have merit and was a worthy subject. Africa too was an immediate subject - after all, hadn't Conrad and Hemingway written about it? Nevertheless, I arrogantly felt that these great writers had not done Africa justice. It irritated me that although Tarzan of the Apes, Henderson the Rain King, The Unbearable Bassington, and Devil of a State were partly or wholly set in Africa, Burroughs, Bellow, Saki, and Burgess had never set foot on the continent.
Conrad and Hemingway had no such excuse, yet in their fiction they ignored Africans or else made them insubstantial figures in a landscape. Conrad could be terribly ponderous and vague; Hemingway, remote and rather privileged, hadn't the slightest clue to the human activity, the politics and culture, in the country. He was a big-game hunter, the sort of rich and complacent bwana mkuba we saw in Land Rovers heading for the herds of kudu or the migrating wildebeest.
As a resident there, not a tourist, I understood that any slob could kill big game in Africa. The animals were big and they were everywhere. Nothing was easier than bagging a zebra - there were herds of them - and an animal like the coveted (and now seriously endangered) bongo was the easiest of all: you just set dogs on this broad-horned antelope, and when it was preoccupied with this pack of savage mutts, you shot the poor creature in the heart (to preserve its head as a trophy). Hemingway's Swahili was notoriously bad and laughable. As for Africans themselves, they were like a well-kept secret: no one had really written about them except sentimental settlers like Karen Blixen, who wrote from the point of view of a colonial memsahib. Doris Lessing came a bit closer in The Grass Is Singing, but even she seemed to be writing about an earlier period.
I was not writing particularly incisively, but I had started along the right road - a narrow and empty side road. I had a sense of being freer, of growing stronger, and my belief in myself had nothing to do with success or failure but only with writing well. Of course, I wanted to be recognized - I wanted to be a hero - but that desire was not incompatible with the various
fanciful roles I had chosen for myself, growing up: the traveler, the hunter, the explorer, the lion tamer, the forest ranger, the scientist, the surgeon, which were all brilliantly solitary and somewhat heroic. I can honestly say - and it was a great help to me - that I had no driving ambition to be wealthy. If so, I am sure I would have given up writing and done something more immediately profitable. I knew many people who did just that.
"The opposite of play is not what is serious but what is real," Freud writes in "Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming." He goes on to describe people's fantasies and the relationship of these daydreams to the reality of their lives. "We may lay it down that a happy person never fantasizes, only an unsatisfied one." Time is a crucial factor, because of the relationship between memory and fantasy. The fantasy is linked to three "moments of time" (not very different from the "spots of time" to which Wordsworth alludes in The Prelude): "Mental work is linked to some current impression, some provoking occasion in the present which has been able to arouse one of the subject's major wishes. From there it harks back to the memory of an earlier experience (usually an infantile one) in which this wish was fulfilled; and now it creates a situation relating to the future which represents a fulfillment of the wish. What it thus creates is a day-dream or fantasy, which carries about it traces of its origin from the occasion which provoked it and from the memory. Thus past, present and future are strung together, as it were, on the thread of the wish that runs through them."
Normally, a daydreamer conceals his fantasies, but if these fantasies should be revealed to us, Freud says, we would be repelled or unmoved by them. On the other hand, when the creative writer discloses his fantasies, we experience pleasure. "How the writer accomplishes this is his innermost secret; the essential ars poetica lies in the technique of overcoming the feeling of repulsion in us which is undoubtedly connected with the barriers that rise between each single ego and the others" - that is, in artistic alteration, the writer softens and disguises his daydreams, and with style or wit he gives us aesthetic pleasure. It is all in the telling, Freud says, which is true enough, and this "enjoyment of an imaginative work proceeds from a liberation of tensions in our minds." He goes on in an aside to say that "not a little of this effect is due to the writer's enabling us [as satisfied and enlightened readers] thenceforward to enjoy our own day-dreams without self-reproach or shame."
In a word, reading is liberation. We are vindicated in our dreams. The same is true of writing, since a dream is being fulfilled in its artistic re-creation. And the dream has a complex time frame of past, present, and future. Something in the present provokes an impression that rouses a wish that is linked to an earlier memory.
Being in Africa certainly liberated me, and I did remember a great deal that I had thought I'd forgotten. This access gave me a sense of conviction; it calmed me, and in that reflective mood I was given greater access. I discovered, for example, that if I was very calm, at a point of resolution, I could write well. It might be truer to say that I needed to be calm, needed my mind clear, in order to remember. My sense of freedom grew: the joy of writing made me more joyful, because at its best it has always demanded a mental journey and led me deeper into my unconscious mind. There is a paradox in this: the deeper I have gone into my own memory, the more I have realized how much in common I have with other people. The greater the access I have had to my memory, to my mind and experience, searching among the paraphernalia in my crepuscular past, the more I have felt myself to be a part of the world.
The political dimension of this creative process was something I had not expected. There was a dissatisfaction among Africans, a hankering for something better in their lives. That yearning and that bewilderment was familiar to me. They felt as I had growing up, and in many ways their condition, the way they had been patronized by colonial powers, recapitulated the condition of children in a large, oppressive household. Imperialism is like a big unhappy family under the control of domineering parents. It was the way I had felt at home. Contemplating the conditions of Africans stimulated my own childhood memories - the frustrations, the longings, the fantasies. Consequently, in this atmosphere, writing about Africans and recalling my past, I could truly express myself.
The provocative occasion that Freud mentions as stimulating the memory and producing a creatively useful fantasy might also be the simple contemplation of an object, or the chance association of music or an odor. A musical phrase stimulates memory in Proust's Jean Santeuil, the famous memory-unlocking taste of the cookie in Remembrance of Things Past.
I developed internal ways of stimulating my memory. It is possible for a writer to think creatively only if he or she manages to inhabit a mood in which imagination can operate. My need for external stimuli inspired in me a desire to travel - and travel, which is nearly always seen as an attempt to escape from the ego, is for me the opposite: nothing induces concentration or stimulates memory like an alien landscape or a foreign culture. It is simply not possible (as romantics think) to lose yourself in an exotic place. More likely you will experience intense nostalgia, a harking back to an earlier stage of your life. This does not happen to the exclusion of the exotic present, however; in fact, what makes the whole experience thrilling is the juxtaposition of present and past - Medford dreamed in Mandalay.
It was a deliberate dream for me. In the dark, in distant places when I needed the consolation of memory, I used to calm myself and reflect on the past by mentally getting into my father's old Dodge and driving from home through Medford Square, up Forest Street, down to the Lawrence Estates, past the hospital where I was born, and then drive the long way home, around Spot Pond, taking in all the scenes of my early youth.
Who are the great travelers? They are curious, contented, self-sufficient people who are not afraid of the past. They are not hiding in travel; they are seeking. Recently I was on the northern Queensland coast of Australia, in an aboriginal reserve. In the most unlikely spot I encountered a beachcomber who had been living there for several years. He was looking for plastic floats and bottles, building a raft that would take him around the top of Cape York in one of the most dangerous channels in the world, the Torres Strait. I asked him if he knew the risks.
"I'm not bothered," he said. "You can go anywhere, you can do anything, if you're not in a hurry."
That is one of the sanest statements I have ever heard in my life.
So many times over the years, in the most far-flung places, I have heard people exclaim, "This reminds me of home" or "This reminds me of" - and name a place where they have been very happy. It might be said that a great unstated reason for travel is to find places that exemplify where one has been happiest. Looking for idealized versions of home - indeed, looking for the perfect memory.
Friends are also reminders of where we have been, what we have seen. They are a repository of our past, and friendship and love enable us to retrieve memory. The most human emotions and activities put us in touch with the past, which is another way of saying that neurosis frequently distances us and makes the past ungraspable. When Freud says that only the unsatisfied person has fantasies, he is not saying that the more unhappy you are, the more access you have to memory. On the contrary, he states that if "fantasies become over- luxuriant and over-powerful, the conditions are laid for the onset of neurosis or psychosis."
You know how much friendship matters to memory when, for whatever reason, a friend leaves the orbit of your existence. Losing a friend to death or absence or misunderstanding is not only a blow to self-esteem but a stun to memory. The sad reflection that we are losing a part of ourselves is true: part of our memory has departed with the lost friend.
One of the extremes of this is marital woe - separation and divorce. My wife and I separated in 1990. The pain of that event had many causes. It was an emotional trauma, but it was more - it was as though I had been lobotomized, part of my brain cut away. My wife had been a repository of our shared experience, and I could count on her to remind me of things I had forgotten. When she read something I had written, she had a unique ability to judge it. She always knew, even when I didn't, when I was repeating myself or being a bore. Her presence stimulated my memory, because her memory was an extension of my own. We had lived together and loved each other for more than twenty years.
It is easy for a writer to think, because of the solitary nature of the profession, that he or she is in this alone. But is that so? A writer cannot be the solitary figure in the Waste Land, the actor on the bare stage. "Everything I have written has come out of a deep loneliness," Henry James wrote. Lonely, yes, but he was not alone - he could not have been and written as he had of such a complex world, so many landscapes, so many levels of society. The paradox is that the writer is involved both in society and in the world, and yet is alienated from it. It is simply not possible to remove yourself from the society of people or the flow of events, yet the very things that stimulate writing are frequently obstacles to the writing process. Travel is a great stimulant, as I said, but it is hell to write while you are traveling.
I separated from my wife in London and quickly realized that I could not live in the city anymore. That very day I flew to the United States; I needed the comfort of my childhood home. I needed reassurance, the stimuli of those landscapes and sounds - the weather, the temperature, the odors. It was winter: frost, rattling branches, wood planks shrieking in the house, night skies, dead leaves.
I also needed the artifacts in that house, objects such as pictures and knickknacks. My chair. My desk. My books. With these, I felt, I could begin again. Once, about six years before, our London house was burglarized. People have various responses to news of a robbery. You feel violated, they say. The thieves must be desperate, they say. Criminals come from awful homes; they're on drugs; they need your stuff; you're lucky you weren't home; you might have been killed.
Mine was none of these. I felt, They stole my memories - they removed a portion of my mind! The insurance people asked how much my things were worth. I told them truthfully: they were priceless. I would never look upon those objects again and remember. For this reason, for a period of time I ranted like a fanatic. I am not talking about a video recorder or a radio. I am speaking of a small silver box that had the camphor-wood odor of Singapore, of the pen with the worn-down nib with which I wrote seven or eight books, of the amber necklace I bought with my last twenty dollars in Turkey. All of it gone, flogged to a fence somewhere in London. Sentimental value, people said. Yes, but to me there is no other value. If all we were talking about was money, then these things could have been replaced and I would have had no problem. What was removed from me by these thieves were the stimuli for some of my dearest memories.
Interestingly, Freud was just such a magpie in the way he collected little objects. His house and study were crammed with pots and statues and artifacts, most of them Egyptian, Greek, and Roman. He never wrote about them, but undoubtedly they stimulated him, for his work is full of classical allusions and historical detail. It's a pity that Freud's house was never burgled, because I would have loved to read his analysis of his own emotions as the victim of a theft of his treasured things.
I aspire, where material possessions are concerned, to the Buddhist condition of non-attachment. That is my ideal. I am not so acquisitive that I am possessed by these objects, though I do feel dependent on them at times. I think one must practice ridding oneself of them, but that requires concentration and great mental poise - I want to learn how to give them away; it must be my confident decision. I don't want them torn out of my hands. Obviously, the happiest person is that Buddhist who truly sees that such objects are illusion, and who owns nothing - all these possessions are in his or her memory.
The act of writing - artistic creation - dependent on memory, is itself a mnemonic device. And what is strangest of all is that drawing on memory - say, writing a novel - I am giving voice to one set of memories while creating a structure for remembering the circumstances of writing that book. Looking at almost anything I have written, I can remember the room, the weather, my frame of mind, the state of the world, or whatever, while I was working on that piece of writing. For a reader or critic this can be deceptive. For example, it was in Dorset, in the west of England, that I described the hot, cloudy tropics in Saint Jack, and in Charlottesville, Virginia, that I wrote about Dorset in The Black House. I look at The Mosquito Coast and see south London, and I glance at Jungle Lovers and hear the cooing voice of the Chinese amah feeding my children in our Singapore house.
My books mean as much to me for what they are, for their narrative, as for those personal scenes and circumstances that they have the power to evoke. Often, the memory of writing the book overshadows the work itself. This aspect of writing has not been explored or analyzed, and yet most novelists, when asked to introduce a particular work, reminisce at some point about the surroundings of their creation - the house, the family, the weather, the writing room. It is almost a conventional digression in any introduction. I can truthfully say that nearly everything I have written carries with it the circumstances of its creation. Picture Palace happened to be my twelfth work of fiction, but the title might have served for any of them.
Such books are in the widest sense histories - of my world and myself. In spite of my conscientious work, they are probably full of inaccuracies, but they are as true as I could make them. I lost patience with the Waste-Landers and the purveyors of whimsy, the people who used language for its own sake, its own sound. "It's like farting 'Annie Laurie' through a keyhole," as Gully Jimson says in The Horse's Mouth. "It's clever, but is it worth the trouble?" The opposite of play, Freud said, is not seriousness but reality.
The political implications of this ought to be obvious. Having lived through the fifties and sixties, and having heard all the canting conservatives, I am well aware of our national tendency toward revisionism. If the sixties was a time of disruption and unruliness by students and others, it was because they faced an almost overwhelming, and much more vocal, number of people who were saying, "Bomb Peking . . . Bomb Hanoi . . . Mine Haiphong Harbor . . . Give white South Africa a chance." The Vietnam revisionists are legion, and the issue has been flogged to death. But to take a more recent example of revisionism, I was amused by the reception that Nelson Mandela was accorded when he was released after twenty-six years in a South African prison. I remember when he had received his life sentence - I had copied his courtroom speech in his own defense into my notebook. I remember reading this eloquent affirmation of human rights to a friend, who dismissed it, actually laughed, saying, "He's dreaming." Every indu strialized country continued to trade with South Africa, and the apartheid regime officially declared the Japanese as white - and Japan gladly accepted the reclassification in its eagerness to trade. Mandela's reputation grew because a few people clearly remembered him, and because Mandela had the good luck to survive - he was one of those South African prisoners who were not tortured to death. Mandela's greatest achievement was that he himself was loyal to his memory. Hitler said, "Who remembers the Armenians?" - referring to their massacre by the Turks earlier in the century - when he was challenged in his decision to exterminate the Jews. It was only recently that Americans remembered who the Palestinians are, when we were forcefully reminded by the Intifada.
Memory can be a burden, and can seem a bore. In Sinclair Lewis's novel of the future, It Can't Happen Here, one of the hero's perorations about remembering sounds tedious to his listeners until America falls apart under a fascist dictatorship. Most Yankees who travel to the South are struck - I certainly have been - by the southerner's memory for details of a war the rest of us have mostly forgotten. Faulkner makes the point in Absalom, Absalom!: the southerner lives in a state of constant remembrance of the past. This is generally true, though the lamentation for the Old South does not always embrace the memory of slaveholding or the sort of apartheid, the Whites-Only signs, that I saw myself on a visit to Virginia when I was ten. The Civil War was fought in the South, but I also think that the humiliation of defeat is more memorable than the euphoria of victory, and emphatically, the winners have the most authority when they publish their version of history.
That is why it is often better to look at the past, or at the reality around us, through the window of fiction. A nation's literature is a truer repository of thought and experience, or reality and time, than the fickle and forgettable words of politicians. Anyone who wishes to be strong needs only to remember. Memory is power. I said earlier that in choosing to be a writer I felt that I was on the right road, but a narrow and lonely one. I remember most of the way, and now I see that it has been the long road home.