THE OPAQUE WALL
On the anniversary of Nathan's death, we went to the beach. Maybe we were looking for the ungraspable image that Melville said was the key to it all and clearly visible in all rivers and oceans. Well, it may be visible to somebody, but I didn't see it. Of course, I probably wouldn't have recognized it if it had been floating like flotsam on the surface of the water. I didn't find any key but I did enjoy the beach. We spent two weeks in a cottage my mother rented, walking on the beach in solemn silence and sitting on the deck in the evenings while the sun sank into the sea. We talked some about Nathan but not really that much. Neither of us mentioned his death. We had exhausted ourselves in hours of anguished fretting over a death that in any sane world was inconceivable and incomprehensible.
In my psychological state, the beach house was just about perfect. It stood a couple hundred yards back from the water, built on pilings among the sea oats and bordered on the beach side by a large wooden deck. At twilight, when the sun left nothing but an orange tint on the waves, the ocean flooded the deck with a pungent fragrance and gentle gusting breezes. Even in the half-light, you could see the whitecaps cascading along the line of the beach. The calm of the evening was punctuated only by the incessant, rhythmic pounding of the surf like a gigantic heart.
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The last night we were there, I was sitting on the deck looking absently toward the surf when I noticed a great blue heron standing alone about twenty yards from the deck. The bird stood on one leg at the edge of the area lit by the flood lamp on the beach side of the house. The wind off the ocean moved the lamppost gently to and fro, so that the ring of light on the ground moved back and forth and the solitary fowl was alternately bathed in light and sheathed in darkness. The bird never moved while I watched him. The light came and went but he just stood there looking wary and maybe perplexed.
I still think about that strange gaunt bird standing on one leg in the pulsing light. It seems unbearably sad to be totally alone and uncomprehending: The heron had no way of knowing and no one to explain why the light came and went or why the ocean throbbed and the wind moaned along the shore. I don’t worry all that much about Nathan’s death anymore but the bizarre monopode randomly sneaks back into my mind and roosts there like a spirit from another world. Maybe because he first showed up in the summer, the hint of warm weather always invites him to return. He seems always to be lurking in the shadows but in the summer he is a constant intruder, yawking wildly if I try to elude him or chase him away.
As far back as I can remember, I have expected summers to be wonderful. I don’t know why I delude myself with that notion but I don’t seem to have any control over it. It begins with a giddy sensation in the
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spring, and I can feel the anticipation rising inside me like a providential tide. But summer is never anything like the images I create in my mind. Last summer was particularly disappointing. My friend Eddie Lichtman’s father hired us to deliver furniture again, and I was tired almost every weeknight. Also, Anna was gone the last month and a half of the summer working as a counselor at a camp.
We had not been getting along very well when she left, and then right before school started everything collapsed. She wrote me a letter in early August saying that she just wanted to be friends. I was already getting more and more nervous and strung out worrying about the meaning of things, and I couldn’t make the “friends” thing work in my mind. It was probably an illusion to begin with, but everything had seemed to be pretty much on track. I had been clacking along, more or less trying to stay with everybody’s programs and schedules, and all of a sudden the trestle seemed to give way under me.
My last day of work at the furniture store was on Wednesday of the week before the start of the fall semester. I was tired Wednesday night, so I decided to stay home and read instead of going out. But I really didn’t do much of anything. I fell asleep on the couch. I don’t even remember moving, but I was in my bed Thursday morning. The house was quiet and it was already nine-thirty when I woke up. My mother had left early because she had teachers’ meetings, so I just lay there for a while. I thought about staying in bed all day
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but, after about thirty minutes, I started getting restless and my thoughts began to roam.
I probably would have loafed around and done nothing if I could have kept my mind blank, but I had been working on a poem during the summer, and it started nagging me again. The original version was nine wobbly quatrains about a preacher who had based his life on faith and then found that he could no longer account for anything. The poem climaxed in his attempt to administer last rites for a parishioner and his inability to utter the necessary soothing words to the family. The poem got to be too long and awkward, and I couldn’t fix the glitches, so I pared it down and made a shorter poem out of it. It’s a pretty depressing piece of work, but I had become obsessed with it and I couldn’t let it go.
I got up, washed my face, then picked up my notebook containing my scribblings and went to the kitchen table. I was basically done with the short version except that I couldn’t find the right word in several places and couldn’t make the meter work precisely. Mr. Marcus says that you can’t be a slave to meter and maybe he’s right, but you can usually hear the words stumbling when the meter doesn’t work. I poured some orange juice and sat down to try to fix the remaining wobbles. I was much happier with the short version, but a couple of lines still sounded like an old gasoline engine.
By the time I gave up, it was after noon and I was
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hungry again so I fixed a sandwich and ate it staring glumly at the product of my efforts. The back of my neck had begun to hurt. Ultimately, I made only a few changes, mostly diction, and then declared the poem finished. I wrote out two copies of it, one for me and one for Mr. Marcus. I left mine in my notebook and signed the other one and stuck it in an envelope. I wrote across the front of the envelope, “Mr. Marcus, please read.” Then I folded the envelope and stuck it in the back pocket of my Levi’s. I had decided to go running and swing back by Mr. Marcus’ house, which is only a block over from school and a couple of blocks down on Bridgewater Parkway.
I was on the track team, which is the primary, maybe the only, reason I ran. When I started going to Bridgewater Academy, I felt sort of awkward. I stayed away from groups and team sports, but I liked running because I could do it alone. I also liked it because it seemed to help when something was bothering me. And I seemed always to have something bothering me. For the last couple of years, I’d been worrying about the meaning of things. I may have been fretting longer than that but I’m not sure because when I first begin to worry about something it almost seems to be a feeling more than a thought. I get a vague impression of it before I find words to describe what I’m thinking. The fret I called the “willy-nilly problem” was probably in my mind a long time before I got it in focus, which didn’t happen until about a year after Nathan’s death.
I’m a fretter. I’ll get something in my mind and it
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won’t go away. It may begin as an indefinite hint of a concern, and then I find that some word or phrase comes into my mind at odd hours. I’ll wake up in the middle of the night or I’ll be running along the street and there it is bouncing around in my head. The willy-nilly problem began to loom over me like a shadow and it has stayed with me. I had memorized the willy-nilly verses after I first read the Rubàiyàt when I was about ten years old, but the verses didn’t bother me back then. They did, however, stick with me because I would find myself from time to time repeating the words in my mind. The year I entered Bridgewater the verses became a serious burden, and I found myself increasingly haunted by the words:
Into this universe, and why not knowing,
Nor whence, like water willy-nilly flowing,
And out of it, as wind along the waste,
I know not whither, willy-nilly blowing.
The haunting of the willy-nilly lyrics persisted for a long time before I ever did anything other than brood about them. My first impulse was to talk to somebody, and I worked with that notion a little bit. I made a fumbling attempt to talk to my mother, but she gave me a bromide about life being an expression of God’s love and deflected the subject as though she didn’t want to discuss it.
I tried talking about it with Uncle Newt but that was, like all my recent conversations with him, more farce than drama. After I finally got out what was
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bothering me, he said, “Hang on a sec,” and then he left. He just walked out the door. The next day my mother handed me an envelope and said, “Your Uncle Newt asked me to give you this.” In the envelope was a single sheet with a handwritten note that said, “I couldn’t decide which of these limericks provided the better answer, but it’s got to be one or the other,” and below were these goofy limericks:
Let’s face it, you dumfounded dilly,
Your bafflements aren’t always silly.
But the source of your pain
Is most likely your brain:
You just don’t know willy from nilly.
Forget your muddles and mismatches,
Your foibles and gotchas and catches,
For despite your birth date
You got started too late:
The subject is now closed by laches.
I wasn’t amused or mollified. The effect of these deflections was to push me into my own broodings. Brooding is probably what I do best. When I face it, here’s what I find: The problem of meaning is strange and embarrassing. It is patently absurd not to know why or how you exist. You would think that the reason for existence would be one of those obvious things like why you breathe. It is bizarre that a person exists for years before ever even wondering why. Then it seems sort of late when you finally focus on the question, and it seems silly even to ask it. But I didn’t like that answer
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because, in the end, don’t you have to ask the question?
At the time, I didn’t grasp that Newt was right in both limericks. Nonetheless, instead of dropping the subject, as almost everybody else seems to do, I decided that maybe I’d go to the library and do some reading. After I had some terminology to work with, I could talk about it with somebody who would take me seriously. Actually, I didn’t rationalize it quite that well; the truth is I didn’t do anything until I stumbled into it. I was trying to find Euripides in the encyclopedia and I inadvertently turned to Existentialism.
The first few sentences got my attention because the subject seemed to be related to meaning. I read it and then went back through parts of it. I was so intent on finding an explanation of the meaning of existence that I couldn’t understand the point of the discussion. I struggled with it for several hours before giving up. I don’t know how long it took me to figure it out, but I finally realized that existentialism doesn’t give answers; it just gives a person a theory for superimposing meaning on his existence. It wasn’t what I was looking for.
The initial stumble into philosophy was not very encouraging. If the willy-nilly fret had gone away, I might have dropped it with a shrug. But the lyrics didn’t go away and the questions began to weigh even more heavily on me. So I gradually resumed the chase, pursuing anything I could find on the meaning of existence (generally falling under the branch of
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metaphysics called ontology), first in the encyclopedia and then in philosophical histories and summaries. Sometimes I tried original sources but not often because philosophers are writers of riddles. It isn’t philosophy unless it’s written in the most vague, hazy and abstruse language possible. After reading an explanation of the meaning of a philosophical oeuvre I had struggled with, my usual thought was, If that’s what the guy meant, why didn’t he just say it? Apparently it’s not philosophy without the verbal haze.
I wasn’t trying to become a philosopher. I was just trying to find answers to very basic questions. So, intermittently during my sophomore and junior years, I struggled to find glimpses into the nature of existence beyond the opaque wall (as my friend Lichtman called it), trying to penetrate the frequently bizarre ramblings of people who, according to somebody, are the greatest thinkers of all time. I cannot speak for them, but I can tell you that I wasn’t all that happy with the fruits of my labors or theirs. The struggle produced an increasing level of frustration and stress but no answers to the questions of why or how we are here.
The one thing I got from my reading was a kind of confidence. By the middle of my junior year, Lichtman and I were talking reasonably comfortably, if not knowledgeably, about the various subjects. I’m not saying we had mastered anything or even that we understood everything we read, just that we had completely overcome the concern that everybody else had figured the stuff out and we were the only ones in
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the dark. The reason for the lack of common dialogue isn’t that the answers are plain or certain. If people don’t talk about meaning, it’s because they don’t know what to say. People don’t talk about why they exist because, by the time the question comes into their minds, they know there’s no answer. Or perhaps they just decide that the question is irrelevant. Either way, it’s sort of depressing.
When I started running that afternoon, I didn’t intend to go anywhere in particular; I was just running along thinking about things and I ended up going through the Loop and down Regency Street. And then, when I got to the front of the public library, I had run about five miles and I felt like stopping. I went into the basement of the library and bought a Coke and then went back and sat on the front steps. After I cooled off, I went inside and found a table in the corner. I sat alone for a few minutes and then got up and nosed around for something that looked good. I didn’t know what I wanted to read, so I edged along the stacks like a prospector panning for gold. I didn’t find any nuggets. Maybe my problem is that I'm always looking for the grand eureka moment, as Uncle Nat used to call them, the insights we get from special people, like Galileo or Newton or Einstein.
I ended up trying to make my way through Thus Spake Zarathustra, a little book that had lurked at the edge of my mind for a couple of years. Frankly, it seemed hazy and histrionic. After suffering through it for a couple of hours, I gave up and found a summary
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that said it was a poetic paean to the supposed denouement of evolution. I didn’t like the verse very much (which may have been the translation but probably wasn’t) and the creature lurching toward the Übermensch seemed to be angry about something (the darkness maybe?), which produced a peculiar response in the face of the imponderable: Nietzsche didn’t know how to create life but he seemed to want to define what it should be and how it should behave. That notion bothered me. If you start with the premise that no human being has ever produced a living thing and no one has any inkling of how to do it, it seems absurd to extrapolate grandly from a blank slate.