An Ancient Greek myth relates that Icarus and his father, Daedalus, escaped from Crete on artificial wings fashioned by Daedalus out of wax and feathers. Icarus, growing overconfident in his joy of flying, ignored his father’s advice not to soar too high. As he approached nearer and nearer to the sun, the wax on his wings melted, and Icarus plunged to his death in what has been known ever since as the Icarian Sea.
Many of the old Greek myths contain deep psychological and spiritual truths. In this story we find symbolized one of man’s all-too-frequent mistakes: In his joy at discovering within himself some hitherto unsuspected power, he “flies too high,” ignoring the advice of those who have learned from experience to value humility.
I had discovered that by will power, faith, and sensitive attunement to certain things I wanted to accomplish, I could turn the tide of events to some degree in my favor. I could learn new languages and speak them adequately in as short a time as a week. (This discovery was one, of course, that I made over a period of time as I traveled around the world.) I could choose to be well, and I was well. I could walk confidently toward certain of life’s closed doors, and they opened for me. In all these little successes there had been two key words: sensitivity, and attunement. In learning Greek, I had tried to attune myself sensitively to the Greek consciousness; the operative principle had been not my mere resolution to learn the language, but my inner attempt to tune in to it. In the affirmation “I’m a Greek,” Greek, not I, had been the key word.
Now, however, in my youthful exuberance, I fairly flung myself into the breach. Partly, indeed, I was moved to enthusiasm by the sheer grandeur of my new insights. But because my enthusiasm was excessive, sensitivity and attunement often got lost in the dust kicked up by my overly affirmative ego.
I wanted wisdom. Very well, then: I was wise! I wanted what I wrote to inspire and guide people; I wanted to be a great writer. Very well, then: I was a great writer! (And if they weren’t inspired, it was their problem.) How very simple! All I had to do was, some fine day, produce the poems, plays, and novels that would demonstrate what was already, as far as I was concerned, a fait accompli.
The idea probably had a certain merit, but it was marred by the fact that I was reaching too far beyond my present realities. In the strain involved there was tension; and in the tension, ego.
Faith, if exerted too far beyond a person’s actual abilities, becomes presumption. It is best, above all, to submit positive affirmations to the whispered higher guidance of the soul. Knowing nothing of such guidance, however, I supplied my own. That which I decreed to be wisdom was wisdom. That which I decreed to be greatness was greatness.
It was not that my opinions were foolish. Many of them were, I think, basically sound. But their scope was circumscribed by my pride. There was no room, here, for others’ opinions. I had not yet learned to listen sensitively to that “truth which comes out of the mouths of babes.” At the same time, I expected ready agreement with my opinions even from those whose age and experience of life gave them some right to consider me a babe. I would be no man’s disciple. I would blaze my own trails. By vigorous mental affirmation, I would bend destiny itself to my will!
Well, I was not the first young man, nor would I be the last, who imagined the popgun in his hand to be a cannon. At least my developing views on life were such that, in time, they refuted my very arrogance.
For my junior year I transferred to Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. New perceptions would flourish better, I felt, in a new environment. At Brown I continued my major in English literature, and took additional courses in art appreciation, philosophy, and (since a science course was required) geology. My attitude toward formal education, however, was becoming increasingly cavalier. I didn’t see that a college degree would be of any possible use to me in my chosen career as a writer. Nor did I have much patience with an accumulation of mere facts, when it was the why of things that interested me.
Even our philosophy course, which ought to have been at least relatively concerned with the whys, was devoted to categorizing the mere opinions of those whose works we were studying. When I found I wasn’t expected to preoccupy myself with the validity of their opinions, I took to reading poetry, in silent protest, in the classroom.
Intent on developing the identity I had selected for myself, I played the role, for all who cared to listen to me, of successful author and philosopher. A few people actually did listen. For hours we sat together, engrossed in the adventure of philosophical thinking. I got my friends to see that joy has to be the real purpose of life; that non-attachment is the surest key to joy; and that a person ought to live simply, seeking joy not in things but in an ever-expanding vision of reality. Truth, I insisted, can be found, not in the sordid aspects of life, as so many writers of the day claimed, but in the heights of human aspiration.
Most of the writing of my student days has long since been consigned to fire and blessed oblivion. One piece that escaped the holocaust, however, expresses some of the views I was expounding at that time. It may serve a useful purpose for me to quote it here, unedited, for I still consider its teaching valid.
My countrymen, having begotten what is in many respects a monstrosity, go about saying what had never before been said so strongly, that we must go with the age if we would create great things. That it is necessary for them to repeat what should normally be too obvious for repetition shows how slight is the hold this century has on our hearts.
They have, moreover, misunderstood the true meaning of democracy, which is not (as they suppose) to debase the noble man while singing the virtues of the common man, but rather to tell the common man that he, too, can now become noble. The object of democracy is to raise the lowly, and not to praise them for being low. It is only with such a goal that it can have any real merit.
God’s law is right and beautiful. No ugliness exists except man’s injustice and the symbols of it. It is not life in the raw we see when we pass through the slums, not the naked truth that many “realists” would have us see, but the facts and figures of our injustice, the distortion of life and the corruption of truth. If we would claim to be realistic it is not reality we shall see from the squalid depths of humanity, for our view will be premised on injustice and negation. Goodness and beauty will appear bizarre, whereas misery, hatred and all the sad children of man’s misunderstanding will seem normal, and yet strange withal and unfounded, as if one could see the separate leaves and branches of a tree and yet could find no trunk. It is not from the hovel of a pauper that we can see all truth, but from the dwelling place of a saint; for from his mountain, ugliness itself is seen, not as darkness, but as lack of light, and the squalor of cities will be no longer foreign, but a native wrong, understood at the core as a symptom of our own injustice.
The more closely we watch the outside as a means of understanding the inside, the farther off the inside withdraws from our understanding. The same with people as with God.
My ideas were, I think, and as I’ve already said, basically valid. Ideas alone, however, do not constitute wisdom. Truth must be lived. I’m afraid that, in endless discussions about truth, the sweet taste of it still eluded me.
One day a friend and I were crossing campus on our way back from class. Lovingly he turned to me and remarked, “If ever I’ve met a genius in my life, it is you.”
For a moment I felt flattered by his words. But then, as I reflected on them, shame swept over me like a wave. What had I actually done to deserve my friend’s praise? I had talked! I had been so busy talking that I hadn’t even had much time left over for writing. And his compliment had been sincere! It was one thing to have played the part of author and philosopher to convince myself. It was quite another for my act to have convinced others. I felt I’d been a hypocrite. Sick with self-disappointment, I withdrew thenceforth from most of my associates at Brown, and sought to express in writing the truths I had hitherto been treating lightly as coffee shop conversation.
It didn’t take me very long to realize that it is much easier to talk hit-or-miss philosophy over a coffee table than to transform basic concepts into meaningful writing or living. There are levels of understanding which come only when one has lived a truth deeply for years. Initial insights may suggest almost the same words, yet the power of those words will be as nothing compared to the conviction that rings through them when their truths have been deeply lived.
St. Anthony, in the early part of the Christian era, was called from his desert retreat by the bishop of Alexandria to speak in defense of the divinity of Jesus Christ. Arguments had been raging through Christendom in consequence of the so-called Arian heresy, which denied Christ’s oneness with God. St. Anthony gave no long, carefully reasoned homily in defense of his theme. His words, however, were charged with the fervor of a lifetime spent in prayer and meditation, and conveyed such deep power that, among those who heard him that day, all further argument ceased. What St. Anthony said was, “I have seen Him!”
Alas, I had not seen Him. Nor had I deeply lived a single truth. The words I painted on my verbal canvas were more sketches than finished works. Try as I would to express my ideas in writing, the moment I picked up a pen I found my mind becoming vague and uncertain. Whatever I did write was more to develop my literary technique than to express what was really in my heart to say. I described situations with which I wasn’t personally familiar. I wrote about people whose living counterparts I had never met. To master my craft, I imitated the styles of others, hoping to find in their phrasing and choice of words secrets of clarity and beauty that I might later develop into a style of my own.
I had the satisfaction of being praised by certain professors and professional men of letters. Some of them told me they expected me someday to become a front-ranking novelist or playwright. At nineteen, however, I was far from justifying their kindly expectations. Worst of all, in my own opinion, was the fact that I was saying almost nothing really worthwhile.
I worked on the psychological effects, in poetry, of different patterns of rime and rhythm. I studied the emotion-charged rhythms of Irish-English, which the great Irish playwright, John Millington Synge, had captured so beautifully. I wondered why modern English was, by comparison, so lacking in deep feeling. I pondered how, without sounding studied and unnatural, I might bring beauty to dramatic speech.
One of the dogmas I had been taught in English class was that iambic pentameter, the blank verse form of Shakespeare, is the most natural rhythm for poetic speech in the English language. Shakespeare, of course, was trotted out as the ultimate justification for this dogma. But in modern English, blank verse sounded to me much too courtly.
Maxwell Anderson, the twentieth-century American playwright, used it in several of his plays, and the best I could say of them was that they were brave attempts. I certainly didn’t want to confine myself to the sterile formulae modern writers so often followed in trying to render speech realistically. (“Ya wanna come?” “Yeah, yeah, sure.” “Hey look, I’m not beggin’ ya. Just take it or leave it.” “Okay, okay, smart boy. Who says I don’t wanna come?”) Shakespeare, even when imitating common speech, idealized it. My problem was how to follow his example without sounding artificial. If literary language couldn’t uplift, there seemed little point in calling it literature. And if dramatic writing couldn’t inspire, why give back to people a mere echo of the way they spoke already?
For my summer vacation in 1946 I went to Provincetown, on Cape Cod — a haven for artists and writers. There I rented a small room, made an upside-down dresser drawer serve as a desk, and devoted myself to writing a one-act play. To make the few dollars I had stretch as far as possible, I ate the chef’s special every day for lunch at a local diner. For forty-five cents I got a greasy beef stew with one or two soggy slices of potato in it, and, if I was lucky, a sagging piece of carrot. After two months of this daily banquet, even that bargain price could no longer tempt me to endure such punishment another day. I went into the diner one afternoon, ordered the chef’s special, watched a slice of potato disintegrate as I stabbed at it halfheartedly with a spoon, then got up and walked out again, never to return.
Toward the end of the summer I spent a week on a distant beach, “far from the madding crowd.” (How wonderful it would be, I thought, really to be a hermit!) My one-act play, which I finished on those dunes, didn’t turn out badly, though I hadn’t been able to shake off the hypnotic charm of Synge’s English.
The summer itself was pleasant also, despite my penury. But above all what it did was show me that I was as much an outsider in artistic circles as in any other. Increasingly it was becoming clear that I would never find what I was seeking by becoming anything. To say, “I’m a writer,” or even, “I’m a great writer,” wasn’t at all the answer. What I needed above all concerned the deeper question of what I was already.