Threads of Time: Recollections / Edition 1 available in Paperback
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I could have called this book False Memories. Not because I want consciously to tell a lie but because the act of writing proves that there is no deep freeze in the brain where memories are stored intact. On the contrary, the brain seems to hold a reservoir of fragmentary signals that have neither color, sound, nor taste, waiting for the power of imagination to bring them to life. In a way, this is a blessing.
At this moment, somewhere in Scandinavia, a man with a prodigious capacity for total recall is also recording his life. I am told that as he puts down every detail that his memory provides, it is taking him a year to write a year, and as he started late he can never catch up. His predicament makes it clear that autobiography has another aim. It is to peer into a bewildering confusion of indiscriminate, incomplete impressions, never quite this, never quite that, in an attempt to see whether, with hindsight, a pattern can emerge.
As I write, I do not feel a compulsion to tell the whole truth. It is impossible, however hard one tries, to penetrate into the obscure areas of one's own hidden motivations. Indeed, there are taboos, hang-ups, and areas of obscurity behind this story that I am not exploring, and I certainly do not feel that personal relationships, indiscretions, indulgences, excesses, names of close friends, private angers, family adventures, or debts of gratitude--which alone could fill a ledger--can have a place here, any more than the well-known splendors and miseries of first nights. I have no respect at all for the school of biography that believes if every social, historical, and psychological detail is added together, a true portrait of a life appears. Rather, I side with Hamlet when he calls for a flute and cries out against the attempt to sound the mystery of a human being, as though one could know all its holes and stops. What I am trying to weave together as best I can are the threads that have helped to develop my own practical understanding, in the hope that somewhere they may contribute usefully to someone else's experience.
The nurse tries to be kind to the five-year-old boy, who is puzzled at finding himself in a hospital bed in the middle of the night. "Do you like oranges?" she asks. "No," I answer stubbornly. Irritated that her customary trick has failed, she loses her patience. "You're going to have them anyway," she snaps, and I'm wheeled to the operating theater. "Here, smell these oranges," she says, as a mask is clamped over my nostrils. Immediately, there is a roaring and a bitter smell, a wild plunging and a surging swing upward. I try to hold on, but I lose; noise and fear merge into pure horror, then oblivion. It was a first disillusion, and it taught me how hard it is to let go.
Years go by. I am dressed for war. It's a disguise; this anonymous figure can't be me. But there's a war on and a student at Oxford has to pay for his privileges once a week by training to be an officer, because an undergraduate is officer material. Since childhood, the thought of war has terrified me, but because it seemed to take place far outside normal time, I always believed that if it came, I could escape by hiding under my bed for the duration. Now I see that I can't get out of it so easily and, all excuses and evasions having failed, I'm on parade, in heavy boots and a scratchy tunic.
Today is our first experience of the Obstacle Course. When the whistle blows, we set off, the sergeants shouting encouragement and all the enthusiasts charging forward, with leaps at the ropes, vaulting over the barriers, eagerly scaling the scaffolding. I come last, from school days a professional shirker, ignoring the sergeant's jeers, dragging myself laboriously over the mock-up walls and instead of jumping, sliding down until I hang by one hand, before dropping cautiously to the ground. By the time it comes to crossing the river on a log, the others have long since reached the other bank and are vanishing with joyful shouts into the distance. The sergeant waits for me. "Come on, sir!" he roars. The tone is insulting, but I am a budding officer, so the "sir" is mandatory.
I put my great boot on the log and grab a branch from an overhanging tree. Now both feet are on the log. "Come on, sir!" I advance. "Let go of the branch!" I do so. Two more steps, I reach up to steady myself and catch hold of a leaf. The leaf gives me courage, I walk forward, my balance is good, I can manage. The log stretches ahead of me across the water, the sergeant beckons encouragingly. Another step. The hand holding the leaf is even with my shoulder; another step and it's behind me. I'm balanced, confident, but my arm's fully extended. I can't take another step unless I let go of the leaf, and I can't let go. "Let go of the leaf!" the sergeant bellows. "Damn it, let go of that bloody leaf!" I resist. He roars. I call on all my willpower to force my fingers to let go, but they refuse. With my arm way behind me, I try to go forward. The leaf still gives me confidence, my arm is stretched to its full limit, it pulls me one way, my feet go the other. For a moment, I lean like the Tower of Pisa, then at long last I let go of the leaf and fall splashing into the stream below.
Again and again I return to this picture: the log and the leaf have become part of my private mythology; in a way they contain the essential conflict that I have tried all my life to resolve--when to cling to a conviction, and when to see through it and let go.
When I was a child, I had an idol. It wasn't a protective deity, it was a film projector. For a long while, I was never allowed to touch it, as only my father and my brother could understand its intricacies. Then the time came when I was considered old enough to attach and thread the little reels of nine-and-a-half-millimeter Pathe film, to set up a tiny cardboard screen within the proscenium of my toy theater and to watch with ever-repeated fascination the scratched gray images. Despite my love for the pictures it produced, the projector itself was a dour and charmless machine. There was, however, a shop I would pass every day on my way back from school, and in the window stood a cheap toy projector, made of red and gold tin. I coveted it. Again and again, my father and my brother would explain to me that this object of my desires was nothing compared with the serious grown-up instrument we had at home, but I refused to be convinced; the lure of the trashy redness was stronger than any persuasion they could offer. Then my father would ask me, "What would you prefer, a shining golden penny or a dirty gray sixpence? I was tormented by the question, I could feel it had a catch to it, but I would always settle for the gleaming penny.
One afternoon, I was taken to Bumpus, a bookshop in Oxford Street, to see a performance for children on a nineteenth-century toy theater. This was my first theatrical experience, and to this day it remains not only the most vivid but also the most real. Everything was made of cardboard: on the cardboard proscenium, Victorian notables leaned stiffly forward in their painted boxes; under the footlights in the orchestra pit a conductor, baton in hand, was suspended for eternity preparing to attack the first note. Nothing moved; then all of a sudden the red and yellow picture of a tasseled curtain slid upward and The Miller and His Men was under way. I saw a lake made of parallel rows of blue cardboard with wavy lines and wavy edges; in the far distance the tiny cardboard figure of a man in a boat, rocking slightly, passed through the painted water from one side to another, and when he returned in the opposite direction he seemed closer and bigger, for each time he was pushed into the wings by a long wire, he was invisibly replaced by a larger version of himself, until in the final entrance, the same figure was fully two inches tall. Now he was out of the boat with a menacing pistol in hand, and he slid magnificently to center stage. This grand entrance, worthy of a leading man, was absolute reality, as was the moment when hidden hands whipped away a mill with sails that really turned and a summer sky, blue with fleecy white clouds, and in their place dropped a lurid picture of the same mill in apocalyptic explosion, with fragments bursting from its orange core. Here was a world far more convincing than the one I knew outside.
Childhood is happily literal; thinking in metaphors has not yet begun to complicate the world. Even if one never asks oneself, "What is real?," childhood is a constant wandering back and forth across the borders of reality. Then, as one grows up, one either learns to distrust the imagination or else one comes to dislike the everyday and seek refuge in the unreal. I was to discover that the imaginary is both positive and negative--it opens on to a treacherous field, where truths are often hard to distinguish from illusions and where both throw shadows. I had to learn that what we call living is an attempt to read the shadows, betrayed at every turn by what we so easily assume to be real.
Lying in my bed with the sort of fever that makes the sheets rough and the day interminable, I would hear noises from the floor below and interpret them as the grinding of the Earth Submarine, from the comic I read every week. I was convinced that at any moment it would bore its way through the floor, and its rakish captain would invite me to join him in a new and perilous underground adventure. My dialogue was all ready, but he never came, so I would return to my true fetish, two precious rolls of professional cinema film that I had found in some dump. I would hold them up to the light, framed between two fingers, making them come to life with tiny jerks of the wrist. One was tinted green, and it showed two men in silhouette on a roof, while the other in pinkish red showed a figure slowly opening a door. Each time a new story would emerge from these fragments of action, and I happily discovered that the possibilities were inexhaustible. Cinema and theater seemed made to help one to go "somewhere else."
At the big radio exhibition, a crowd had gathered around a box, watching a gray and grainy image on a tiny glass screen. I pushed my way to the front to see this great new invention called television. The miniature picture showed a man drawing a gun. At once I was swept inside the screen; the crowds, the exhibition hall, all vanished, and nothing mattered anymore. I was part of the story, only interested to know what happened next, experiencing for the first time how quickly an illusion can grab hold of us, how easily our substance dissolves and we disappear into the unreal.
Another time, my mother and I slipped to our seats in a little Swiss mountain cinema at the moment when the trailer for the next week's film was on the screen. Here, too, the picture showed a man with a gun, but this time it was pressed against a girl's head, just visible on a pillow in the dark. "Wo ist der Schlussel der Garage?" he was murmuring. To this day, I hear this phrase and it gives me the same shudder. "Where is the key to the garage?" A quarter of a century later Brecht explained to me how important it was for him to prevent an audience from identifying with what happens on the stage. For this he had invented a whole series of devices such as placards, slogans, and very bright lights to keep the spectator at a safe distance. I listened to him politely but remained unconvinced. Identification is far more subtle and subversive than he seemed to imply. A television screen is bright, and while we know in our bones that it is a box and we are in our own room, nonetheless if a finger is rightly raised we identify with it. A gun, a clenched fist, and the illusion is complete. Where is the key to the garage?
The movies were my real windows on another world. I rarely went to a play and if I did so, it was reluctantly, dragged off by my artistically minded mother while my father would say with a wink, "We're not highbrow, you and me, we like films." Once inside the theater, I was usually fascinated, but it was neither the story nor the acting but the doors and the wings that captured my imagination. Where did they lead? What lay behind? One day, the curtain rose and the set was not just the three walls of a drawing room. It was the deck of a ship, of a real ocean liner, and it was inconceivable that such a splendid vessel could end abruptly in the wings. I had to know what corridors led away from those thick iron doors and what was out there beyond the portholes. If it was not the sea, it had to be the unknown.
Every day, to go to school, I would take the London Underground; the Tube, a train as cylindrical as its name, would nose its way through round tunnels and in each station, on every platform, there were doors marked NO ENTRY. I evolved wild fantasies round these entrances, convinced they hid obscure labyrinths that led to a world below the city, and I longed to turn the handle of the forbidden iron doors, just to peer within. I could never pluck up the courage to do so, but I always had the intimation that just behind the wall lay another world, accessible, rich with mystery, full of wonder--which could lead to another and still another until it reached a last one that was completely invisible. On half-days from school, I bicycled into the country and would lie on the ground, trying to hear the breathing of the earth. I wanted to thrust myself into nature, so I pressed on the rocks as though they were doorbells, in the hope that some primitive power, some unheard-of creature would answer my call. One day, as I lay contented in the long grass, a sudden question arose from nowhere and grasped me by the throat. "What if at this moment you are as close as you will ever be to the truth? What if the rest of life will be a gradual moving away from what you are now?"
Attractive girls, podgy girls sweating and unappetizing, young men in bowler hats and striped trousers reading the financial pages of their newspapers--my eye as a fascinated sixteen-year-old would pass to and fro across the row of figures in the Underground train. Each time it came to rest on an older person looking vacantly into nowhere, an intimate voice would murmur in my ear a line of T. S. Eliot's that I had learned at school: "In the halt between stations, the mental emptiness deepens," and the same questions would recur: "Why is growing up a decline? Do the shoulders have to stoop with passing time, does the excitement have to wane? Is this part of nature's plan, this slow slipping-down toward the grave?"
I would walk along the street looking at my fellow humans with a sense of wonder I have never lost, asking myself, "What are these creatures? How odd they look!" I would see the faces without recognition, as we imagine Martians, just balls of flesh, slitted and potted with curious bumps and holes, and I would stare, as though momentarily endowed with the eyes of the future, at the absurdity and ugliness of the motorized boxes of armor wheeling these people up and down the street.
I read books of science, not so much because I liked facts and measurements but because I was captivated by the ideas they aroused. In those days, a writer called James Dunne was making a great stir with books on Time, and as I devoured them, it seemed to me that all life's questions were finally resolved. Eternity, he wrote, is the keyboard of a piano, and Time is the hand that strikes the notes. The explanation seemed flawless, both elegant and complete.
Walking along Charing Cross Road one day, peering into the windows of the bookshops, my eye had been caught by a fat volume on display. On its cover in large letters was printed the magic word Magick. At first I was ashamed at my interest and several times would enter the shop and pretend to rummage on other shelves before furtively turning its pages. Suddenly, a footnote caught my attention: "A pupil who reaches the grade of Magister Primus can produce wealth and beautiful women. He can also call up armed men at will." This was irresistible, and although the book was far too expensive for me, I bought it and at once set out to trace the author, whose very name, Aleister Crowley, was notorious enough to produce a thrill of excitement and fear. A letter to the publisher produced a phone number, which led to an appointment at an address in Piccadilly, where gentlemen-about-town lived in expensive service flats. The great magician was elderly, green-tweeded, and courteous. He had been known in the twenties as "The Wickedest Man in the World," but I think he was down on his luck. He seemed touched by my interest, and we met a few times, strolling along Piccadilly together where to my great embarrassment he would stand in the middle of the traffic at noon to raise his elaborately carved walking stick and chant an invocation to the sun. Once he took me into the Piccadilly Hotel for lunch, and again in the crowded and startled dining room, he roared out a conjuration across the soup. Later he allowed me to hide him in my bedroom in Oxford so that I could make a sensation by producing him at the height of a college party, and on the same occasion he outraged a waiter at the Randolph Hotel who asked him for his room number by bellowing, "The number of the Great Beast, of course--666!"
When I did my first production in London, Doctor Faustus, he agreed to be magical adviser and came to a rehearsal, having first made me promise that no one should know who he was, as he just wanted to watch unseen from the back of the stalls. But when Faustus began his incantation, it was too much for him and he was on his feet, roaring impressively, "No! No, no! You need a bowl of bull's blood. That'll bring real spirits, I promise you!" Then he added with a broad wink, "Even at a matinee." He had demystified himself, and we laughed together.
What dominated my early years was alternately a natural skepticism and a delight in mockery, and on another level, a longing for belief. At school, Scripture had been taught by a Mr. Habershon. He wore a clerical collar and had a trick of rubbing his face with both hands so that it looked as though he had scraped away a layer of skin, leaving the whole face corrugated and red. I had learned as a child that I was Jewish and Russian, but these words were abstract concepts to me; my impressions were deeply conditioned by England: a house was an English house, a tree was an English tree, a river was an English river. Our school chapel was a place where we sniggered from boredom, yet at times it glowed with secret ardor, so when the age came for us all to be candidates for confirmation, I went to Mr. Habershon, confused, shamefaced, wanting so much to be taken by him on his special religious journey yet painfully embarrassed at the thought that I was opening my heart to the butt of our jokes and fearful that I might be forced to mention God in our liberal, scientifically minded home. Mr. Habershon sat there, rubbing his face: "There's a time in life when you know without question 'This is the moment.' If you let it pass, it will never come again." He rubbed his face again, as if it were a crystal ball in which he could read the truth. I wasn't quite clear which moment he was referring to, but I went through with the ceremony of confirmation. His phrase has haunted me ever since. Can one ever know "This is the moment"? I still wonder and shudder at the thought that I might have let it pass, that I am letting it pass again.
At Oxford each morning, there was a very precious moment of solitude when I would pass through a gate that led to a private path which ran beside the river. It was thickly overgrown, but the sun, when it shone, illuminated every twig, bringing into sharp relief each complex tangle of branch, stem, and leaf. When I walked there, I would revel in these inexhaustible patterns, for the details moved and rearranged themselves with every step I took, and I would go slower and slower, even rocking forward, then backward, to shake the details of the kaleidoscope and enjoy more and more intense glimpses into the ever-changing atoms of perception. I would become aware that a sigh was arising in me from some deep unknown source and that the sense of beauty was inseparable from a special sadness, as though the aesthetic experience was a reminder of a paradise lost, creating an aspiration--but toward what I could not say.
Many years later, experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs, I swallowed a pill made from the Mexican mushroom and at first was disappointed not to enter into a world of extraordinary visions. Then to my surprise, it awoke an infinite sensibility just in the point of my index finger. This time, my perception of detail through touch was so rich and full that I felt I would willingly surrender all my other senses, accepting to be both deaf and blind, if only touch were left, for that tiny point was universe enough. Had I penetrated to the heart of the fleeting moment?
[CHAPTER ONE CONTINUES...]