Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
The odor of stale urine, warmed over by the heat of a hundred summers, greeted me like an old friend. The steel poles on the train had the familiar slimy feel to them, courtesy of the hundreds before who had held onto them earlier that day and wherever their hands might have been. An obese man with his pants unzipped and barely held up rudely by a belt ambled by — the first rule of the New York City subway: there is always a crazy person on your train. If you can’t figure out who it is, it’s probably you.
Somewhere in Koreatown, in the shadow of the Empire State Building, it was the night before garbage collection, and the sour smell emanating from the black trash bags gathered into little hills assaulted the nostrils.
It was my first New York City subway station in two years, and it felt like some sort of homecoming.
But the gleams of the skyscrapers were no less familiar with their promises of elevation, liberation, transcendence, whatever those words may mean to you. Wealth, probably. Fame, probably. Not enlightenment, not in this American Babylon with its latter-day ziggurats. And I don’t mean that pejoratively. Babylon got a bad rap in the Bible. But give me cosmopolitan Babylon any day over the boredom of backwater of Judea. Give me sinful Pottersville over puritanical, joyless Bedford Falls.
And yet I remembered my Cavafy:
You said: “I’ll go to another country, go to another shore,
I took the train northeastward to another small corner where I spent so many years: New Haven, Connecticut. It was my 15th college reunion. There I saw the best minds of my generation... but no, a Ginsberg comparison wouldn’t be fair here. They were not destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, looking for an angry fix. More likely they were weighed down by baby strollers and the responsibilities of parenthood, worn ever so slightly by the care of the steady accumulation of wealth and the maintenance of an upper or upper-middle class life. We are what passes for an aristocracy in America.
Not only maintenance of the class but the reproduction of it. Doctors, lawyers, bankers, most of them. The sons and daughters of doctors, lawyers, and bankers, many of them. The parents of future doctors, lawyers, and bankers, no doubt. At the end of dinner on Saturday night, the reunion co-chairs announced that our class had donated nearly a million dollars to the university in the fundraising drive. Some people had money to spare, perhaps parents of future doctors, lawyers, and bankers whom they hoped would follow their footsteps here.
I tried to explain what I’ve been doing with myself. Fabrice, a classmate from France, asked me if I was pulling his leg about years nonstop travel. Some stared at me when I recounted the hospitality of Kurds in Iraq and the car bomb in Kabul. Others still asked me for travel advice: which has better hiking, Patagonia or the South Island of New Zealand? Most everyone looked at me with fascination, the way you’d look at something glaringly out of place so that your mind doesn’t know how to categorize it, how to process it, and yet you can’t stop looking at it. Say, the non-corporeal smile of the Cheshire Cat.
Eric is an actor. He and his wife were the only ones I saw that weekend pursuing careers in the arts. A risky choice, as we both knew, probably why it was also a rare choice among our peers — we who much prefer to succeed at a sure thing than to fail at an uncertain one. Funny, I said, how we spent much of four years reading philosophy and literature and being urged to contemplate the question of what constitutes a good life, and in the end most of us did the conventional thing. But who am I to say that the “conventional thing” is not the good life?
I had feared careerist competitiveness coming here. I was spared that, at least. It definitely prevailed at the 10th reunion. And at the 5th reunion we were all still in our 20s and looking to party. Now, it seemed, there was room for a degree of contemplativeness, a hint of the wisdom of age, of the realization that we might know nothing that we thought we knew.
We are thrown across time, I said to Eric. And therein lies the problem. As much as we might imagine looking back on our lives on our deathbeds and asking ourselves whether we’re satisfied with the choices we have made, that is an impossible thought experiment. We are today not the older versions of ourselves. Deathbed conversations are no way to evaluate a life. And in any event, we never know how our choices will turn out. One who plays it safe may lose everything in a market crash or a divorce. The daredevil who risks it all may end up having it all. Without knowing what will happen, without the luxury of infinite deliberation, we must make our choices now, in real time, and live with the consequences of our all-but-blind choices. How does anyone, then, live “the good life”?
One thing I do believe as an article of faith, as this place inculcated in me, is that at least one aspect of the good life is cultivation of one’s mind. The AirBnB I rented from a graduate student had bookshelves illustrative of this belief. The big names surrounded me, looking at me in insolent challenge from the book spines. Plato, Goethe, Carl Jung, Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, James Joyce, Joan Didion, John Steinbeck, Murakami, Camus, Faulkner, Dostoevsky, Virginia Woolf, Jose Saramago, Voltaire, Noam Chomsky, William Blake.
Some I read long ago and couldn’t be sure I still remembered much of, like Jack Kerouac or Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar or On the Nature of Things by Lucretius. Some defeated me, like David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.
Taken together, they at once reminded me of my own faith in a cultivated mind and my despair of ever being as cultivated as I’d like to be. And coming now from outside the intellectual cocoon of these ivied surroundings, I also remembered how much of the outside world was indifferent to all of this knowledge.
So I went to Sterling Library, the main library on campus, to my favorite room where I used to study, to be surrounded by even more books and their sweet smells, and to type this up.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."