Jul 31, 2011

The Vagrant

The locomotive goes chug-chug-chug, and Ma, I'm going home. Once upon a time we lived like kings of the golden land. Now the West is but a dream that stretches on and out of sight, and this train that carries me has no idea where it's going or where that is. Strawchewer in the setting sun, riding East to West and West to East, dusty vagrant of the world. All that coming and going, going and coming. All that endless searching. So chug-chug-chug the locomotive goes, but I'm coming home, Ma, I'm a-coming back home.

Jul 30, 2011

John Steinbeck. May 22, 1951

...Yesterday I did not work. I had a sore left arm which gave me hell. Today it is gone. What strange aches we get, physical resentments against living I guess. You know, I like to think that I am general enough and common enough so that I have some empathetic approach to nearly every human emotion and feeling and thought. Of course it is only that I like to think this. It does not make it true but if it were true I would be a better writer for it. There is one field of feeling, however, in which either I am different from most people or they do not tell the truth—perhaps not knowing it or not daring to face it or perhaps feeling that it is a monstrous thing which should not be brought into the light. I don't know that this is so, I simply offer these as reasons why people do not seem to feel as I do. I refer to the will to live. I have very little of it. This must not be confused with a death wish. I have no will to die but I can remember no time from earliest childhood until this morning when I would not have preferred never to have existed. No moment of joy or excitement or sharp experience of pain or sorrow has even made me want to be alive if the opposite were possible. You see it is no longing for death but a kind of hunger never to have lived. The few times I have stated this I have been attacked with everything from straight disbelief to a kind of hatred as though I were a traitor to life. And perhaps I am. But my feeling is not based on any thought whatever. It lies far below the lighted levels of thought, somewhere in the blackness from which impulses arise. This feeling has its corollary in another which is equally disbelieved and yet is equally true. Having little will to be alive I have also very little personal ego—some vanity but little ego. The two oldest and strongest children of ego are domination and possessiveness, and I have very little of either of these. And the youngest and stupidest child is desire for immortality and I have none of this whatever. Another offspring is competitiveness, which is I guess a desire to prove superiority, and I have none of this either. It is a kind of crippled quality I guess, or perhaps one human characteristic is left out. But what I say is true. To that extent I am a monster like Cathy. And it is strange that my trade is one which usually is chosen by people who have a will both for life and for immortality. That is a paradox I know. I truly do not care about a book once it is finished. Any money or fame that results has no connection in my feeling with the book. The book dies a real death for me when I write the last word. I have a little sorrow and then go on to a new book which is alive. The line of my books on the shelf are to me like very well embalmed corpses. They are neither alive nor mine. I have no sorrow for them because I have forgotten them, forgotten in its truest sense.

—John Steinbeck, Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters

Jul 23, 2011

A Book in the Making

I have recently come upon an idea for a book. It is one that I must write, and write it well. No extravagance but plain, earthly language; yet it mustn't lose the larger-than-life perspective, and I see now that it cannot be anything less than an epic. A very ordinary epic. Yes, like the life of a human being; or I might just as well give up writing altogether.

Jul 18, 2011

those words that we never would say.

     Are you done? Adrian called from the elevator. Yes, coming coming. It took me three tries before the door would lock properly. I ran into the elevator and saw my man grinning; I looked shyly away and smiled to myself. Baby, there's something I must tell you. What's that? he said. I never got the chance that time, but you must know... The elevator came to a halt and two plump middle-aged ladies walked in, followed by a skinny one who decided it best to stand directly where the doors were, so that they wouldn't close. A man soon joined us too; the warning siren then came on, signalling that we were altogether too heavy for the elevator to function. Yet nobody wanted to step out, and as I grew more impatient by the present interruption, I squeezed my way out onto the landing and called for Adrian to follow. He at first refused, but the man started tugging him out. What are you doing! I shouted, and saw Adrian go into his epileptic fits. Stop! Stop! But the man went on dragging him by the hands out of the elevator. At the last tug, he threw Adrian across the landing; and Adrian, poor Adrian who couldn't fight back, lost his balance and fell backward. Adrian! Adrian! He tried to pick himself up but only staggered further toward the stairs. Adrian! No! He rolled down the stairs—bump, bump, bump—as I called out to him in horror. No! No! His body came to a stop at the bottom of the stairs, and I slumped down beside and carried it into my lap. Adrian! Wake up! I shook the heavy frame, trying in desperation to rouse him. Adrian, please! Adrian! Adrian! Adrian!...

     In the darkness of the room I repeated the dream over in my head, but nothing can be changed: again I couldn't say those words in time, and again I couldn't save him in time. Once I failed to have the courage to love; now I am still powerless, ordinary. What does it mean to be human? You're a spiritual being having a human experience. Yes, it's been a while since I've felt anything. Nothing truly dies. I know, I know. Everything is transformed. Adrian! I cried. Only love is real. As a tear rolled down the side of my face, something unlocked inside and I felt a wave of warmth and ache encase me. I smiled even as I wept—it wasn't you that I needed to save, it was I and you saved me.

Jul 11, 2011

Abraham's Promise (an excerpt)

     'May I ask you, do you have any other students?'
     Why does the boy ask that? For a moment it seems as if there is more than idle curiosity in such a question, perhaps even concern. 'Latin is not a popular subject anymore. People no longer respect learning for the sake of learning.'
     'Do you teach any other subjects?'
     'English. But who speaks English well these days?'
     Thus I fall into bitterness, self-deprecation that cries out for the response that sure enough follows. 'You're a very good teacher. I've ... learned a lot from you.'
     'I was a good teacher ... once. Nowadays I just offer a little help here and there. A remedial tutor paid to raise some child's grades. I lost my vocation a long time ago.'
     'But you've taught me. You've taught me Latin from scratch.'
     'That I have. And I've enjoyed doing it. You've made me feel like a teacher again.'
     Silence, broken only by the whirring of the ceiling fan. I cannot speak, nor meet the boy's gaze. I try, yes I do, to bring things to a close, to avoid further embarrassment. 'I should be going. Just run through the texts over the next few days by yourself, and you'll be fine. I don't suppose I'll see you before you leave for England.'
     'No, probably not. You said you've never been there, right?'
     'No. I haven't. I have a friend who went to England. Married an Englishman. A judge now, you know.' Richard stands up. I look at him and for some reason continue speaking, as if seeking to impress him.
     'You know something. You know what that Englishman once said?' Richard shrugs his shoulders, shakes his head, but looks interested in the answer.
     'He said he thought at first that I had been educated at Oxford.'
     'The boy smiles, almost in amusement.
     'But I wasn't, you know. I never was an Englishman. Never wanted to be. I wanted only to be a Singaporean.'
     'But you are.'
     'I'm just an old man.' Confusion and pain cloud the boy's features. I cannot leave on that note, and so continue in a lighter tone of voice. 'No, don't mind me. You, you're full of promise. You can do great things. Buy you have to be strong. It's not good enough just to do the right thing. You have to be strong enough to make what you do count. Maybe you can do that. But only if you will yourself to be strong enough. You can't depend on anyone else to help, not even someone you love, least of all someone you love.'
     'That can't be right. What's the point of love then?'
     What am I thinking of, talking in such a fashion? I can only confuse the boy, and what really do I mean? I think of the boy's mother, of the illness she is struggling with, think of how much she must mean to him. He is quiet and sensitive, a mother's boy, weak, ultimately weak.
     'Tell me what you mean.' He has resumed his seat. I must finish.
     'Some things can only be learned, not taught. These things can't be put into words. Loving someone is good, a wonderful thing, but it makes you weaker, more vulnerable. You love your mother so the pain she suffers becomes your pain.'
     'So I shouldn't love...' Despair fills his voice. I struggle to dispel it.
     'No, no. Once more, no. That's why I say these things cannot be taught. You should love, you will love, you won't be able to stop yourself and you shouldn't try. Just will yourself to be strong enough to survive your love. I see from your eyes that you still don't understand. You mistrust my words. You think I am too old.'
     'Yes, you do. Perhaps I am.' So finally, perhaps only to change the subject, I come to a point of which I have become almost convinced in recent days. 'Listen. You know my name?'
     'I'm sorry?'
     'My name?'
     'Mr Isaac. So?'
     'My first name is Abraham. Do you know the story of Abraham and Isaac?'
     'Yes. Sure I do. God tested Abraham's obedience—asked him to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. Abraham obeyed. He went up to the mountain with Isaac, tied him to the altar. At the last moment, when Abraham was about to ... you know ... God stopped him. He provided a ram for Abraham to slaughter instead.'
     'That's right. But have you ever thought of Isaac? At some point he must have realised what his father planned. Did he have such faith in God that He would intervene? How could he? He did not even know that God had spoken to his father. No, Isaac was ready to die. Why? Because he loved his father. He lay passively on the altar table, waiting for the knife. Love, boy, it leads you to sacrifice.'
     'Even Abraham, he was caught between two loves.'
     'Exactly. Sacrifice his son for the love of God. Or lose his soul for the love of his son. He was doubly vulnerable. And even though Isaac's life was spared by God, had not Abraham already betrayed his son?'

   —Philip Jeyaretnam, Abraham's Promise

Jul 7, 2011

The Cold (I)

On a fevered whim I seized my razor and shaved off the Confucius beard that had been growing; thereafter for the first time in three months I could not recognise my naked face. The dark hairs on my chin had otherwise obscured my pallor, which now distinctly exposed itself in contrast to my bruised red lips. My eyes were those of a stale fish and no longer smiled. My jawline had blunted at the edges. And as I stood transfixed by the stranger in the mirror, struggling to acknowledge how worn I had become, a grim resignation descended on me: I have died.