WALL

College is a place for falling in love. At least it was when I went to a small church related liberal arts college from 1958 to 1962. Those with whom I fell in love rose like mountain peaks above the cloud-cover of a huge mountain range.

Without exception, those who were important to me were significant religious leaders on the campus. In those days there were liberal arts colleges which did not teach a fundamentalist version of Christianity but which took religion seriously. Nowadays, as far as I can tell, most intellectuals have been weaned away from any form of religion – which means that they no longer have a serious interest in literary, philosophical and artistic history of the civilization of the world. Everything is math and “science.” It’s technology, really. If you can’t make a gadget out of it, it isn’t true. We have succumbed to a cheap pragmatism. In the days I went to college science and humanities were on a more or less equal footing.

So who were these religious leaders? Looking back on it, I am reminded of Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain. Each of the slightly bigger than life characters in Mann’s novel represented a particular psycho/spiritual possibility. So it was at Lynchburg College. Rev. Stanger, who held weekly religious discussions at his home, represented a liberal, middle-of-the-road spirituality. He was open-minded. He was convinced of the importance of religion, but a little vague with regard to what he really did believe.

VAnAuken – educated at Oxford and a proponent of high Anglicanism – held religious views that would have parallel those of CS Lewis. He also had weekly discussions at his house.

And there were two students who were of equal prominence. Terry Riester, who belonged to DeMolay – and later rose in the ranks of the Masonic Lodge. And finally the Antichrist, Wall, who saw the world as a place of endless absurdities and felt that the religions of Steiner VanAuken and Reister were pale reflections of a true spirituality. Wall believed that God is dead, as a cultural fact – and that no other fact in the world came close to being equally Important. Without God, we lived in a wasteland – a void. He was my primary love for much of my college life.

Physically Wall was tall gangly and tough – intelligent and well coordinated – and an excellent athlete. He was a pitcher on a bush league baseball team. Once Wall had me catch for him while he warmed up for a game. I was horrified when I saw how fast those balls he pitched came at me. I wasn’t primarily interested in catching his pitches, but in getting the catchers mitt between me and the ball so that I wouldn’t be killed. I was neither tall nor gangly, nor an excellent athlete.

It took a few months for me to fall in love with Wall. I think I may need to explain this statement.

At that time I found boys – more or less from the time they grew their permanent teeth up until they sprouted facial hair – very beautiful. Most of my life I have also found girls and women my own age more or less equally attractive as boys. There was an emotional component to my attraction to boys that made my feelings for them stronger then what I felt for young girls though I was not oblivious to their charms.

I could, for example, relate to a poem like this by Jamie Gil de Biema.

Hymn to Youth

Oh, not you again, use (barefaced little charmer).

What brings you to the beach? We grownups were quite relaxed

And you come in to glue open our eyes, stirring up

our imaginations to impossible dreams.

Risen from the waves, all splendor, and brilliant in pure sensation

(You little beast) dripping to the shore with tiny rosebud breasts,

Your delicious bum like twins smiles.

Oh, slim little goddess with rounded ankles,

the suggestive push your hips

Giving birth to your delicate thighs. Precise and indefinite beauty

no one’s tears have yet stained your fine white cheeks.

And we watch you rise, the incarnation of a mythical land,

rise with bulls, sea shells and dolphins on the white sand between sea and sky,

Still tremulous with water drops, dazzling the sun and smiling –

Smiling and singing far off at the waters edge. But we hear only

The proclamation of kingdoms of youth: that intensely free and fabulous land

In which desire can swell, like the sea, without guilt.

(Oh, you little beast:) why did you choose

This beach to display your intricate childish beauty

In which the frank face of the starlet

And the charming shyness of the prince are blended?

But you suddenly frown, your fine brow tormented by a fleeting thought,

And turn your face back to the sea – beautiful indifferent girl

With salty-wet hair– And saunter along the beach

As if you didn’t know that behind you follow

Men and hounds and gods and Angels and archangels

And thrones and an entire melancholy ocean.

My eyes, also, would have followed her down the beach like hounds. But for me, girl beauty was something to be worshiped from a distance.

Women were their own species. I was attracted to them with a mixture of lust and fear.

But men? However much I might have desired their friendships, when I was an adult myself, men were not sexually appealing to me. I did not seek out pictures of naked men nor fantasize about engaging in sexual activities with them. The idea of allowing a man to perform annual sex with me was positively repulsive. (This is not to say that I look down on men who are so attracted or that I consider such activities as objectively repulsive. It’s just not my cup of tea.) Yet in all respects other than physical attraction I had all the symptoms of being intensely in love with Wall. It was exciting just to be with him. I liked talking with him. I wanted his approval. I would’ve been happy to have married him, though I would have been preferred to forgo the physical consummation of the marriage.

Perhaps this is the place for a digression. In one of my novels I put my view of the nature of sexual attraction in the mouth of a character. Here it is:

Everyone's got a different landscape. And that's a good way for it to be. Their ain't no gay nor straight nor pedo nor bi, and certainly no normal or abnormal, no more than you can say about an ocean or a continent, this one here is normal, and that one is abnormal. Each person is just his or her own landscape -- which like any landscape is a mixture of things. We just find ourselves among all these hills and forests with all the living things within them, and sometimes we find joy in their beauty and other times we tremble at the dangers that might pop out at us at any moment.. To always see the beauty while at the same time never forgetting about the possible dangers – that is the way I think we should live. Beautiful and dangerous are useful words. They define real things that happen to us and around us – things we can know and see. But “normal” and “abnormal” -- what use are those terms? When I look around me I don't see no normal or abnormal. I see beautiful and ugly and loving and hateful and helpful and dangerous – but not normal or abnormal. Those are life killing words. Those are words narrow people use to try to put life in a little box because it's too big and unruly for them to accept on it's own terms. Normal and abnormal? Pah! Show me an abnormal mountain.

                        From A Galaxy of No-Stars

So what am I to say about this peculiar situation when I seem to be in love with a man but experienced little or no sexual attraction toward him. That does to some extent challenge my notion that sexual energy is what drives love relations. Of course the easiest solution is to say that I was repressing my sexual feelings. I suppose this is conceivable but by and large I’m pretty open and honest with myself about what my feelings are. Perhaps Eros is frequently but not invariably connected with sexual desires, but can equally well manifested itself through our emotional and intellectual centers. I don’t know. I’m simply trying to record the facts here with whatever understanding I have.

My bonding with Wall was connected in an odd way with my bonding to Boone – the woman I was eventually to marry, and who will be the topic of another vignette. In both cases my love of them had to do with the love of God – of the One – of whatever it was that modern life murdered:

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us?

                              Nietzsche

With this difference between wall and Betsy. . .

With Betsy the attraction had to do with the fact that we both had experienced in a spontaneous way a oneness with something which we believed to be the Absolute. With Wall our bond had to do with the absence of God in modern culture.

We both grieved God – Intensely.

Perhaps I should round out this picture of Wall with an event that happened a week or two after I was in the sit-in. A weight-lifting muscle bound student – John Todd -- at the college decided that “nigger lovers” should not be left in peace. One evening when I was going back to my room in the dorm he blocked my way and threatened to beat the shit out of me. I have no doubt that he could have, but I managed to walk around him and make it back to my room.

The next day I told Wall about the John Todd incident. It never occurred to me that he would do anything about it. I was just updating him on the news. Later I learned from him that he confronted Todd in a store downtown where he happened to encounter him. He invited Todd out to the street where they could have it out. Todd declined the invitation and Wall let him go with the understanding that he would not bother me again.

Strange. That put me in the roll of the threatened girl friend protected by her lover. I had never seen my relationship with him in that light before.

And this brings me to the icy road in West Virginia where I was almost killed on my way back from Christmas vacation in Indianapolis. Without describing the event in detail, I almost skidded into a truck on a bridge. I lifted my foot off the break just in time to regain my control of the car.

Why was I almost killed that day – and why was I spared? Just mechanical randomness? “Sometimes you get the bear sometimes the bear gets you?”

Perhaps

But like all religiously oriented people I tend to see the events of my life as driven by significance. Not by accident.

Perhaps it had something to do with what was waiting for me back at college. It turns out that two of the three most important people in my life had decided to betray me. Wall and Sheila and decided to get married.

Perhaps on some level I knew that– And did not want to go on living.

And why was my life not ended then?

Perhaps something wanted me to go on living. Or perhaps something wanted to spare some of the others who might have been killed or seriously maimed in the accident that almost occurred. I end up with only “perhaps.” Nothing definite. May it was random. The luck of the draw.

It does seem probable to me that other levels of causality in addition to the mechanical ones we observe all the time, exist. We catch glimpses of this in what Jung called “synchronicity.” The problem is that, so far as I know, there is no way of actually verifying this. How would one distinguish between events really were driven by forces we didn’t understand, and unverifiable speculations that we imposed over events that are actually random? I’m afraid that my speculations on such matters always end up in question marks.

By treating some of my speculations as existential hypotheses I want to explore I escape paralysis. But that doesn’t erase the question marks.

In any case I was not killed on my trip back to school. That much I can report with certainty.

The accident that didn’t happen highlights another preoccupation of mine. As I get older and think back over my life I realize I have caused happiness in some situations and suffering in others. I carry within me a sort of balance sheet. I want the amount of happiness caused to exceed the amount of suffering caused. Had I hit that truck it would have caused more suffering in the various cars that would have plowed into us than I could have overcome in several lifetimes. It is so easy to do damage and so hard to really help. The cards seem stacked against us.

However it is, the bottom line of this accounting can never be calculated. We don’t know what most of the consequences of our acts have been – or will be. And whenever we attempt to calculate the balance, we are not yet dead. So it could be radically altered by something that is not yet occurred.

As the Greeks said, consider no man happy before his death. I forget who said that. One of the playwrights, I imagine.

Sheila and Wall did get married and they had a beautiful son. Then Sheila ran off with still another man – taking the boy with her and causing Wall almost unbearable grief. I am not judging her for this. I don’t know what their relationship might have meant to either of them. But I am sure that this confirmed his belief that this world is just a realm of grief and suffering and that the only intelligent thing to do is to seek a path of escape.

Sheila walked away from a young man she was going with in order to begin her relationship with me. Then she left me for Wall without any warning. Finally she left Wall with their child. Watching her ability to leave without seeming to give it much thought did make me think that perhaps her leaving me before we got married and had a child may have been a blessing rather than the curse it seemed to be at the time.

It might seem surprising, but it was not his taking Sheila from me that ended for good my relationship with Wall. Eventually we recoiled from that and resumed our friendship. What finally ended our relationship was a theological matter. He joined a group called the Path of the Masters, which taught people to separate from this “veil of tears.” My belief was that we should remain committed to this world and that our path should be a matter of transforming our way of being in the world – not escaping from it. As Martin Buber said it:

Creation is not a hurdle on the road to God, it is the road itself. We are created with one another and directed to life with one another. Creatures are placed in my way so that either a fellow creature, by means of them and with them may find a way to God.”Quoted in the "Catholic Worker."

Oddly enough, the new religion of the elite, trans-humanism, also discards creation as a sacred place. In its own way, it too sees creation as something to be escaped – by “overcoming it.” Among modern and non-religious philosophies, only world-views grounded in a strong ecological awareness retain some degree of appreciation for the sacredness of creation.

I Am Is Born

I need no miracle nor special sign
Beyond the range of commonplace design – 
No burning bush, nor parting of the sea.
Though I should surely love such pageantry, 
I need but birches, pale against the snow,
Or on a twisted limb a stately crow
To see I AM is born in Bethlehem
Swaddled in the mystery of i am.  

 

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