Kierkegaard's Clown

Kierkegaard's Clown

by Jerome Donovan

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780595440122
Publisher: iUniverse, Incorporated
Publication date: 08/07/2007
Pages: 120
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.28(d)

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CHAPTER 1

Reunion in The Gamßia

Reza Krishen and I hang on grimly as the dilapidated pickup truck from Rough & Ready Tours of The Gambia lurches and rolls down the rutted dirt road through the wilting fields of vegetables and peanuts. We face each other in the back of the truck on two worn wooden benches extending lengthwise from the cab to the tailgate, struggling to keep our knees from touching, like self-conscious schoolboys on a backcountry outing.

It is nearly noon. The sky is low and leaden, and the soul-wilting humidity has already sucked all vitality from us, like a paper towel passing over a damp countertop. We have arranged this weekend excursion to temporarily escape our boredom — the familiar and predictable ennui that inevitably extinguishes the enthusiasm of any visitor to this place, especially that of visiting Westerners like us. We are here to help the Gambians but can barely muster the energy to even rouse ourselves.

The Gambia — in a touching attempt to retain some token of postcolonial dignity, the government insists on the "The" — is a tiny English-speaking sliver of sand, scrub land, and mangrove swamps on Africa's Atlantic coast, hemmed in on three sides by French-speaking Senegal. Reza and I are independent consultants on a two-week assignment for the American international development agency, USAID, to investigate prospects for expanding the country's agricultural production beyond its historic dependence on peanuts. As the team's lawyer, my official task is to assess how to change Gambian laws to accommodate this ambitious new policy. We will fly home in seven days.

Unofficially, I am here to persuade the government to take the political and practical steps — in which I will helpfully instruct them — to implement several other changes in its agricultural policies that the U.S. government prescribes for all such poor countries. I am well aware that these changes will expose The Gambia's small-scale farmers to America's agribusiness giants and their mass-production techniques, including their dangerous theories on genetically modified crops. Like America's family farms before them, The Gambia's intimate farming culture, the keystone to its very way of life, is to be swept into the thresher of Western agribusiness.

My job is to convince the Gambians that this will be a good thing; this will be progress. Of course, no officials or farmers will believe me. They will see my prepackaged orthodoxies for what they are — self-serving heresies issuing from some faraway and alien power. From the standpoint of my employers my mission will succeed only if the Gambian officials, in an unsentimental calculation, conclude that the benefits to themselves of my proffered solutions outweigh the certain damage to their peoples' lives.

Reza is tall, fit, and graying, a sixty-five-year-old agronomist from Kerala, in southwestern India. He is a "St. Thomas Catholic," an heir to the Christian branch that the Apostle Thomas — "Doubting Thomas" — founded in his post-Resurrection travels to the East. But I have never seen in Reza the spiritual fervor that I have always associated with Indians. Indeed, to me he typifies the familiar suave, fully assimilated Third Worlder — someone who has, chameleon-like, so thoroughly acquired the hues of his comfortable Western perch that he and his perch are now indistinguishable from one another.

I am a stocky, quiet (some say borderline surly), forty-two-year-old divorced lawyer from northern California. I went to U.C. Berkeley's law school and endured four years of a dull general practice in Petaluma before taking my first interesting legal job, advising Honduras on certain aspects of a so-called free-trade agreement with the United States. A law school classmate working in Washington threw the assignment my way.

Reza and I have been in The Gambia for just a week and have immediately slipped into the familiar pattern. We lodge in the country's best hotel, high above the once-broad beaches from which the government has gouged thousand of tons of sand for use in construction projects. For every high-rise tourist condominium the government has built with the sand, probably two condominiums' worth of tourists have avoided The Gambia because of its vanishing beaches.

Frequently our previously scheduled meetings with ministers and other officials are abruptly cancelled without explanation. So we pass most of our days drinking in a semi furtive fashion and eating long lunches by the pool. When we work at all, it is in our respective rooms, typing our "deliverable" — our assignment's report — into our laptops, a task we began two weeks before leaving home.

Overall, our routine is sweaty and desultory. We begin the day with an acceptable level of energy and efficiency. But after an hour or two, it invariably deteriorates to a lethargic, dogged determination to squeeze just enough of the standard, limp prose into the "deliverable's" rigid format. We stay the required number of days and then bolt on the first available flight.

Now not even the whining, jarring lurching of our small official "tourist truck" can keep me fully awake. I am vaguely on the lookout for bargains — local crafts to add to the closetful of almost identical stuff I have in my Maryland house. It is stuff I seldom look at but think that my grandchildren — if I ever married again and had children — would sort through at my death and, in their loving ignorance, perhaps think of me as a savvy connoisseur of native artifacts.

Where the fields border the road, spiky bushes vie for space with ten-foot-high termite mounds. Shaggy-barked trees, ranging in height from three to thirty feet, block our view of the fields themselves, a forbidding display of arboreal aggression, probably required to repel the voracious local termites.

In the distance, through gaps in the trees, we can see local women weeding their vegetable patches in stately slow motion. Most of these women carry sleeping infants on their backs; the infants bound to their mothers' backs with lengths of brightly colored cloths, in the timeless manner of rural poverty, fusing the mundane and the maternal from the baby's birth to its mother's death.

Hearing our truck approach, the women straighten up and turn toward us, and we wave to them. They smile in their resigned and languid manner and wave back. They seem genuinely pleased to see us.

I sometimes wonder if these women ever tire of playing unpaid roles in the government's efforts to promote this kind of "ecotourism," if they ever tire of waving to foreigners who rattle through their fields and villages but seldom stop or leave anything behind but tire tracks and gasoline fumes.

More likely, I think, these women neither know nor care about such campaigns. Their lives move to deeper rhythms, rhythms that mystified and even offended the first colonial intruders from Europe, and now do the same to us, the latest intruders.

What are these rhythms? The closest I can come to identifying them is to call them gifts that these people give to everyone every day. Gifts of hospitality, concern, presence. Gifts that primarily spring from some source other than calculation.

At times, on other African assignments, I have tried to locate these rhythms within myself but could never do so. Soon enough I had abandoned the search and, reverting to the rhythms I did know, sunk back into my familiar spiritual lassitude, my numb soul dragging my sack of platitudes and pious certainties behind me.

As our truck approaches a small village we are greeted with enthusiastic waves and shouts from men and women, young and old, who idle on rough-hewn wooden chairs along the whitewashed mud walls of the narrow houses and shops that line the central square. The young men, struggling to stand out from their peers, wear knit wool hats or baseball caps with their visors off at an angle. Their objective is punk rakishness, but the effect is uninspired conformity.

The old-timers, far removed from fashion's fantasies, just look old.

The young women have a surer sense of themselves, with their bright frocks and elaborately cornrowed hair — mostly black hair, of course, but with a smattering of henna and occasionally even yellow and orange. I find their garish dyes oddly evocative, a bold reaching beyond the expected.

As we enter the town, the young people's enthusiasm bubbles to hilarity. Seemingly from nowhere, boys and girls ranging in age from six to sixteen materialize in the road and chase after us, laughing and shouting, straining to touch our outstretched hands. They wear T-shirts and shorts that flood the local markets from Asian sweatshops. None wear shoes. Their shirts sport pirated images of fading Western pop stars like Michael Jackson, Madonna, and the band Metallica, whose contorted faces, flaking off the shirts from countless washings, are silently frozen in midlyric hysteria.

The light shining from the children's faces diverts my attention from the tortured images on their shirts.

"Should we throw some coins to them?" I shout to our driver-guide over the whine of our truck's engine.

"No," he snaps at me over his shoulder, as if I thought our outing was a trip to the zoo.

"They don't want your money so much as to just touch you — make contact with you."

I think, "That's what I want, too."

Reza and I touch as many of their hands as we can reach.

The children run behind us for perhaps a quarter mile before dropping out, their excited shouts gradually fading away.

Silence returns.

I am euphoric.

Then the Clown — Kierkegaard's Clown — shows up again. He is sitting next to Reza on the bench across from me. He looks the same as always: floppy felt hat, bulbous red nose, flowery green shirt with big red polka dots, baggy brown suspendered trousers, outsized shoes with soles precariously detached.

"Hey, hotshot, have you figured it out yet?" he cries, jabbing his furled, lime green parasol in my direction, squirming in his seat, his stagy heartiness laced with mockery.

But his kohl-rimmed eyes are not mocking. They are pleading.

"Why are so many poor people in poor countries like this so happy — or if not quite happy, at least content? What's their secret? You must have some idea by now."

He doesn't pause for a reply. He knows I have none.

"You have figured this out though, haven't you, Paul ..." he says in a quieter tone, "... they know something you don't know, and you need to discover what it is, and start living as if you too believe it. And there isn't much time left, is there? The circus tent is still on fire, and if you don't get out soon, you'll die!"

I don't respond. In fact, I never respond directly to his question. I usually ponder it for a moment, but more likely than not, just as an answer begins to form in my mind, my thoughts will veer off onto other paths.

This is happening now.

My conscious mind is still savoring the delight of the children who had been so happy to chase after Reza and me. In fact, as I had watched them, the Clown's riddle had again vaguely occurred to me, like some half-forgotten monologue with myself — a monologue that I had told myself I had resolved but in reality a monologue that had crept back to me when I could no longer pretend that I had, in fact, resolved it.

Now that conversation has resumed. Again I see that haunting photograph from the Vietnam War: families streaming from their burning village, running from the American troops who, in panicked confusion, had just napalmed their huts. The image of a terrified girl of eight, her clothes burned off her body, running naked and screaming toward the cameraman, who might have taken the picture from the back of a truck just like the one that Reza and I — and the Clown — were riding in now.

The rich killing the poor. Is this what the Clown is warning me against?

My brutal reverie flees as quickly as it has come, and I refocus my thoughts on the laughing children who were chasing us.

The Clown is gone.

"Naturally," I think. He never hangs around long.

I glance toward Reza. He is gazing sleepily at the passing countryside, unaware that the Clown had even been there beside him.

I feel the familiar surge of dread.

Kierkegaard, a Dane, was a caustic and unorthodox Protestant philosopher who lived in the mid-nineteenth century and is seldom mentioned today without the taglines "Christian existentialist" and "leap of faith." He once told the story of a fire that broke out backstage at a circus and threatened to engulf the entire tent. To forestall panic, the manager sent out a clown to alert the audience to the danger and urge them to leave instantly. But they thought the clown's increasingly frantic urgings were just his act — part of the show. They laughed, stayed put, and perished.

I think Kierkegaard's message is this: the world is a circus, and our salvation depends on our heeding those prophets who may look and sound like clowns but whose warnings about how we should live our lives — and tend to our salvation — we ignore at our own risk.

Of course, the trick has always been to distinguish the real clowns from the prophets like Kierkegaard's Clown. I always thought I could do this. Whenever Kierkegaard's Clown turned up as a priest, preacher, poet, or philosopher, I thought I could tell that he was not really a clown at all, but a prophet whose message was true. And when other kinds of clowns, wearing foolish costumes and spouting dire warnings, barged into my life's circus from time to time, I confidently ignored them.

Furthermore, I had always naively assumed that most other people were like me. I believed that they, too, knew that there was a reality deeper than the false "reality" proclaimed by the real clowns — the clowns who try to convince us that we can happily live on daily doses of amusement and diversion. I was convinced that while most people seemed to live their lives under the spell of this false "reality," deep down, like me, they knew what I knew: this false "reality" was mere illusion.

What really counted was whether our lives were in tune with the deeper reality, the reality that Kierkegaard's Clown kept badgering me about — a reality I could not see but, most of the time, could sense.

But lately I hadn't been so sure. Now, I think that most people actually believe that life's surface is the only reality. And, worse, I'm afraid that I might even be starting to agree with them. I'm afraid that I, too, have become so inured to life's constant infusions of false "reality" that I no longer know how to interpret any clown's message. In my indecision, I find myself becoming one of the circus audience who still listens to all the clowns but now ignores them all, refusing even to decide which are speaking truth and which are lying.

I just sit there, passively watching the clowns and the other performers — the jugglers, the freaks, the horses trotting in circles, the bears on bicycles, the elephants on balls, the lions on stools, snarling at their handlers — all of them trained to entertain me and tamp down the gnawing boredom and anxiety that now poison my spirit at every circus performance my spirit attends.

And, like a tiger that has snapped its chains, this morbid unease menacingly prowls the ground just outside the circus tent where I live my life.

I have returned to my room after having breakfast with Reza on the hotel terrace overlooking verdant, steamy gardens. Tiny brown birds with gold-flecked wings had brazenly darted about our table pecking at crumbs of toast and bits of fruit, hopping to within inches of us and defying us to do anything about it. The handfuls of other guests were sleekly dressed members of the local elite and desiccated, aging European couples — mostly Scandinavians — who seemed to be nursing hangovers.

I had not mentioned the Clown's appearance to Reza. I respected him and wanted his respect, and such a tale would certainly not have impressed him in any way that I would have wished.

Furthermore, I was still trying to take in just what had happened yesterday in the truck after Reza had dozed off, and the Clown had shown up. I think I know Reza well enough to suspect that he might share my puzzlement about the poor's ability to find contentment, but I'm not certain about it.

Raising a subject like the Clown with Reza would force him to focus on me and my quirks and not on the Clown.

I would wait.

I spend most of my life waiting.

(Continues…)



Excerpted from "Kierkegaard's Clown"
by .
Copyright © 2007 Jerome Donovan.
Excerpted by permission of iUniverse.
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