Something In The Deep Night Of Ourselves

Certain people -- perhaps many more than we imagine -- reach a moment or stage in their life at which they cease being themselves. Something happens to them. For some it is a religious experience (e.g., Augustine, Tolstoy); for others it is the tipping-point of a long trial of psychic unease (Nietzsche, Artaud); some, like Aquinas, come to doubt the value of their life's work and are unable to soldier on, while others one day decide, to the shock of their friends and acquaintances, to live in extreme isolation (Salinger). Do such transformations occur more because of the force of external circumstances -- that is, of something acting upon us -- or more because of an internal impulsion of some kind, of which we can only have a very partial understanding?

The anthropologist Loren Eiseley touches upon this matter in his reflective essay The Night Country. He writes:

...many of us who walk to and fro upon our usual tasks are prisoners drawing mental maps of escape. I once knew a brilliant and discerning philosopher who spent many hours each week alone in movie houses, watching indifferently pictures of a quality far below his actual intellectual tastes. I knew him as an able, friendly, and normal person. Somewhere behind this sunny mask, however, he was in flight, from what, I never knew. Was it job, home, family -- or was it rather something lost that he was seeking? Whatever it was, the pictures that passed before his eyes, the sounds, only half-heard, could have meant little except for an occasional face, a voice, a fading bar of music. The darkness and the isolation were what he wanted, something in the deep night of himself that called him alone.

The silver screen was only a doorway to a land he had entered long ago. It was weirdly like hashish or opium. He taught well; he was far better read than many who climbed to national reputation upon fewer abilities than he possessed. His kindness to others was proverbial, his advice the sanest a friend could give. Only the pen was denied to him and so he passed toward his end, leaving behind the quick streak of a falling star that slips from sight. A genius in personal relationships, he was voiceless -- somewhere a door had been softly, courteously, but inexorably closed within his brain. It would never open again within his lifetime.

I knew another man of similar capacities -- a scholar who had shifted in his last graduate days from the field of the classics to the intricacies of zoology. A scintillating piece of research had rocked his profession, and he had marched steadily to the leadership of a great department. He was a graying, handsome man, with the world at his feet. He did not fail in health; his students loved him, and he loved them. The research died. This happens to other men. His problem was more serious: he could not answer letters. His best pupils could not depend upon him even to recommend them for posts or scholarships. Airmail letters lay unopened in his box. It was not that he was cruel. Anything a man could do by word of mouth he would do for his students, even the assumption of unpleasant tasks. Firm, upright, with a grave old-fashioned gallantry, in him also a door had closed forever. One never heard him speak of his family. Somewhere behind that door was a landscape we were never permitted to enter...

In some of us a child -- lost, strayed off the beaten path -- goes wandering to the end of time while we, in another garb, grow up, marry or seduce, have children, hold jobs, or sit in movies, and refuse to answer our mail. Or, by contrast, we haunt our mailboxes, impelled by some strange anticipation of a message that will never come. "A man," Thoreau has commented, "needs only to be turned around once with his eyes shut in this world to be lost."

In the next-to-last sentence Eiseley notes that some of us "haunt our mailboxes, impelled by some strange anticipation of a message that will never come." What message is this? Is it a word, a consolation, maybe an elucidation of some kind, that would lead us to forestall a particular course of action? Or maybe something that would summon us back to ourselves?

(March 1, 2010)

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