I always wanted to grow up to be a great lover, a famous saint or – if it could be arranged – both.
There were obstacles, the memory of which still visits me from time to time. For example, there was the afternoon at the apartment of a pleasing little classmate whom I did not know very well. Arriving home again, I spun out a tale that seemed to keep the same tune and beat as the grownup stories of being ill-used that I often heard at the dinner table. I no longer remember the details that I made up (thank God!) – but they had to do with how Nancy, my playmate, was being ill-treated (by another child? by the maid?) and how, worst of all, her mother didn’t know!
When my mother, thinking to do the right thing, called Nancy’s mother, it was soon made clear to her that no such thing had happened or could have happened. Remembering the truth only when I overheard her side of the phone call, I prudently hid in the closet.
It looks funny now, but I rather wish my parents had treated the whole thing more harshly than they did, instead of thinking it funny. I never had that confrontation that Protestant kids are supposed to have, where the divide between truth-tellers and liars is sharply drawn, and preferably driven home with a cane or a leather strap. Instead, only by degrees and degrees did I learn to see that, indeed, there is “a great gulf fixed.”
Another time, my mother (of whom I think the world, but who – as she would be the first to tell you – wasn’t perfect) decided to play the ouija board. This is a board game where the letters of the alphabet are arrayed on one side of the board while the players put their hands on a piece of wood or plastic called a planchette. Then they wait patiently for visiting spirits slowly to spell out their replies or messages, by moving the planchette from letter to letter.
My mother invited me and other family members to be players. The others soon got bored, which left me as the only reliable partner. The reason I was so reliable was that I had tired of it so quickly that – to offset excruciating boredom – I took to pushing the planchette and pretending that messages were arriving from Miklosch, the departed husband of one of my mother’s Russian friends.
This went on, I forget how long, but it put me in the most awful situation. Finally, I could take it no more and confessed, to one and all, that “Miklosch” had been none other than myself.
Once again, the general reaction was, unfortunately, amusement. My mother was apparently more surprised that I‘d been deliberately pushing the planchette than she’d been that Miklosch had communicated with her from the beyond.
Why didn’t they give me the Protestant speech, or take a strap to me, or by some other means draw that bright, red line?
I really don’t know. My parents’ courtship had been spent in long discussions of Marcel Proust, where the subtlest changes of mood become the main event, finely delineated in long paragraphs. There are no bright red lines. The Proustian paragraphs lie in the areas between the large actions. They guide you to notice with care – and leave inward room for – the moments of subjective experience.
Also, my parents were not Protestants. The villages in the Pale of Settlement to which the Tsarist regime had consigned their forebears were places of labyrinthine concealments. The stratagems of compensation were many-layered: such as self-refuting scholarship, self-consuming, pietistic ecstasies and self-confuting ironies. To be co-victims of anti-Semitism – the world’s oldest and most contagious of mental illnesses – is not an encouragement to emerge full and fearless into the white light of day.
Bambi would like to leave the sheltering forest and run round the sunlit meadow, but he’d get shot and killed if he did.
They did not make the Protestant speech and I grew up anyway, as best I could. What measures did I take subsequently to find the naked light of truth and walk under it? It was a matter of confronting fears as much as deciding to be “on oath” at every occasion. It was a process that went forward sometimes by a sudden, dramatic taking-a-stand, but ordinarily by a longer, more enshadowed and groping exploration of ambiguities and double-messages. I met goods to be weighed, greater and lesser evils to be ranked.
Gandhi said, “Truth is God.” But where was truth when he took nubile girls into bed with him to test his innocence – and to hell with theirs? Even the Truly Great … have trouble finding the truth that is God.
Which doesn’t mean it isn’t worth the trouble.