This morning, like a migrating bird landing on a branch and immediately taking off again, a fragment of memory came back. It was from the early 1960’s and I was walking with Liz, my college girlfriend, in a patch of undeveloped land behind my parents’ house. What struck me about this remembered moment was that it was a patch of life missing from the narrative arc that remains of my first real relationship: we met, discovered life together for a few years (until I proved to be too selfish), and she moved to France to marry another man.
Liz and I met on a train ride from Montreal back to Bishops University, for the start of spring term. Four of us—Liz, Michael Ondaatje, another man I’ve forgotten, and me–sat in facing benches for the two hour train ride south.
In the following years, Michael was more connected with Liz than with me, but he gave me a copy of Eric Fromm’s “The Art of Loving”, which, until this morning, I never read. Now, a few chapters in, I wish I had read it in the 1960’s. But we can’t reinvent our past selves to accord better with values we later develop.
This morning, in 2018, I’ve been remembering: not as a recapturing of the past but a present infiltration by the past.
I haven’t read George Santayana since I was a young man living in Montreal—at first in my parents’ house in the suburbs and later in several apartments downtown. Today, I found myself appreciating how much Santayana provided a foundation for my later interests. Reading a chapter in Tarthang Tulku’s “Knowledge of Time and Space”, I paused at a sentence that used three words—psychological, epistemological, ontological—and realized that I had first encountered two of them in the writings of George Santayana.
Santayana used two other rather specialized words—dialectical and materialism—to describe his own philosophical belief that the ability of the human mind to formulate ideals (such as in Plato’s “Theory of Forms”), arose when our animal nature evolved to support rational understanding. In this respect he pays Plato the back-handed compliment of getting things precisely and elegantly backwards. Whereas Plato presents a transcendent reality preceding, underlying and animating our fallen embodiment (a view later taken on by Christianity), Santayana asserts that the presence of an ideal realm only emerged when the material realm produced a capacity to envision one. And he explores the human mind and human societies—their religions, philosophies, and beliefs—from the perspective that a sense of beauty is as central as any rational understanding we may claim.
George Gurdjieff, another thinker whose writings have influenced me along the way, has also come and gone from my current explorations. Gurdjieff asserted that human beings have fallen into a state of insanity but don’t realize it. We don’t realize it because our insanity prevents us from seeing reality. Our “I” places itself at the center, where its point of view is the only one allowed to operate. The grip of this insanity has become virtually unassailable, he claimed, with no safety hatch for a ray of light or a navy seal to enter. There is only one avenue back to sanity, Gurdjieff concluded, which he called a “pang of conscience”.
Michael Ondaatje was instrumental in causing me to experience a “pang of conscience”. It must have been May of 1964, because Liz and I were graduating and my parents were down for Graduation Weekend. After a supper celebration, I suggested to Michael that we invade the Women’s Dormitory. There, once inside, I must have drawn the attention of the facility’s Matron–noisily rolling up and down the hallways on a suitcase trolley. But before I could get in trouble, Liz helped me escape through the matron’s private quarters, where I jumped out a window and ran back to my dorm.
Next morning I learned that several males had been discovered in the woman’s dorm and that the university administration was taking it all very seriously. The professor in charge of the Mathematics Department had his quarters in my dorm and—through his partially open door–I could hear several voices talking about how Michael might be expelled from the university and how important it was for the faculty to intercede on his behalf.
A pang of conscience can resemble an attack of low self-esteem, and I suspect I felt afflicted by both that next morning. However—whereas low self-esteem can cause us to retreat from the challenges of life–a pang of conscience leaves the door open for us to realize that we have not yet developed the qualities which others can respect, but which we would like to one day earn.