You Can't Go Home Again, by Thomas Wolfe

46. Even Two Angels Not Enough

Since childhood [George wrote to Fox] I had wanted what all men want in youth: to be famous, to be loved. These two desires went back through all the steps, degrees, and shadings of my education; they represented what we younglings of the time had been taught to believe in and to want.

Love and Fame. Well, I have had them both.

You told me once, Fox, that I did not want them, that I only thought I did. You were right. I wanted them desperately before I had them, but once they were mine, I found that they were not enough. And I think, if we speak truth, the same thing holds for every man who ever lived and had the spark of growth in him.

It has never been dangerous to admit that Fame is not enough — one of the world’s greatest poets called it “that last infirmity of Noble mind”— but it is dangerous, for reasons which everybody understands, to admit the infirmity of Love. Perhaps Love’s image may suffice some men. Perhaps, as in a drop of shining water, Love may hold in microcosm the reflection of the sun and the stars and the ‘heavens and the whole universe of man. Mighty poets dead and gone have said that this was true, and people have professed it ever since. As for that, I can only say that I do not think a frog pond or a Walden Pond contains the image of the ocean, even though there be water in both of them.

“Love is enough, though the world be a-waning,” wrote William Morris. We have his word for it, and can believe it or not as we like. Perhaps it was true for him, yet I doubt it. It may have been true at the moment he wrote it, but not in the end, not when all was said and done.

As for myself, I did not find it so.

For, even while I was most securely caught up and enclosed within the inner circle of Love’s bondage, I began to discover a larger world outside. It did not dawn upon me in a sudden and explosive sense, the way the world of Chapman’s Homer burst upon John Keats:

“Then felt I like some watcher of the skies When a new planet swims into his ken.”

It did not come like that at all. It came in on me little by little, almost without my knowing it.

Up to that time I had been merely the sensitive young fellow in conflict with his town, his family, the life around him — then the sensitive young fellow in love, and so concerned with his little Universe of Love that he thought it the whole universe. But gradually I began to observe things in life which shocked me out of this complete absorption with the independent entities of self. I caught glimpses of the great, the rich, the fortunate ones of all the earth living supinely upon the very best of everything and taking the very best for granted as their right. I saw them enjoying a special privilege which had been theirs so long that it had become a vested interest: they seemed to think it was a law ordained of nature that they should be for ever life’s favourite sons. At the same time I began to be conscious of the submerged and forgotten Helots down below, who with their toil and sweat and blood and suffering unutterable supported and nourished the mighty princelings at the top.

Then came the cataclysm of 1929 and the terrible days that followed. The picture became clearer now — clear enough for all with eyes to see. Through those years I was living in the jungle depths of Brooklyn, and I saw as I had never seen before the true and terrifying visage of the disinherited of life. There came to me a vision of man’s inhumanity to man, and as time went on it began to blot out the more personal and self-centred vision of the world which a young man always has. Then it was, I think, that I began to learn humility. My intense and passionate concern for the interests and designs of my own little life were coming to seem petty, trifling, and unworthy, and I was coming more and more to feel an intense and passionate concern for the interests and designs of my fellow-men and of all humanity.

Of course I have vastly oversimplified the process in my telling of it. While it was at work in me I was but dimly aware of it. It is only now, as I look back upon those years, that I can see in true perspective the meaning of what was happening to me then. For human nature is, alas, a muddy pool, too full of sediment, too murky with the deposits of time, too churned up by uncharted currents in the depths and on the surface, to reflect a sharp, precise, and wholly faithful image. For that, one has to wait until the waters settle down, It follows, then, that one can never hope, however much he wishes that he could, to shed the old integuments of the soul as easily and completely as a snake sloughs off its outworn skin.

For, even at the time when this new vision of the outer world was filtering in and making its strange forms manifest to me, I was also more involved than I had ever been before with my inner struggle. Those were the years of the greatest doubt and desperation I had ever known. I was wrestling with the problems of my second book, and I could take in what my eyes beheld only in brief glimpses, flashes, snatches, fragments. As I was later to discover, the vision etched itself upon some sensitive film within, but it was not until that later time, when the second book was finished and out of the way, that I saw it whole and knew what the total experience had done to me.

And all the while, of course, I was still enamoured of that fair Medusa, Fame. My desire for her was a relic of the past. All the guises of Fame’s loveliness — phantasmal, ghostwise, like something flitting in a wood — I had dreamed of since my early youth, until her image and the image of the loved one had a thousand times been merged together. I had always wanted to be loved and to be famous. Now I had known Love, but Fame was still elusive. So in the writing of my second book I courted her.

Then, for the first time, I saw her. I met Mr. Lloyd McHarg. That curious experience should have taught me something. And in a way I suppose it did. For in Lloyd McHarg I met a truly great and honest man who had aspired to Fame and won her, and I saw that it had been an empty victory. He had her more completely than I could ever hope to have her, yet it was apparent that, for him, Fame was not enough. He needed something more, and he had not found it.

I say I should have learned from that. And yet, how could I? Does one ever really learn from others till one is ready for the lesson? One may read the truth in another’s life and see it plain and still not make the application to oneself. Does not one’s glorious sense of “I”— this wonderful, unique “I” that never was before since time began and never will be again hereafter — does not this “I” of tender favour come before the eye of judgment and always plead exception. I thought: “Yes, I see how it is with Lloyd McHarg, but with me it will be different — because I am I.” That is how it has always been with me. I could never learn anything except the hard way. I must experience it for myself before I knew.

So with Fame. In the end I had to have her. She was another woman — of all Love’s rivals, as I was to find by a strange paradox, the only one by women and by Love beloved. And I had her, as she may be had — only to discover that Fame, like Love, was not enough.

By then life’s weather had soaked in, although I was not fully conscious yet what seepings had begun, or where, in what directions, the channel of my life was flowing. All I knew was that I was exhausted from my labour, respiring from the race, conscious only, as is a spent runner, that the race was over, the tape breasted, and that in such measure I had won. This was the only thought within me at the time: the knowledge that I had met the ordeal a second time and at last had conquered — conquered my desperation and self-doubt, the fear that I might never come again to a whole and final accomplishment.

Then the circle went full swing, the cycle drew to its full close. For several months, emptied, hollow, worn out, my life marked time while my exhausted spirit drew its breath. But after a while the world came in again, upon the flood tide of reviving energy. The world came in, the world kept coming in, and there was something in the world, and in my heart, that I had not known was there.

I had gone back for rest, for recreation, for oblivion, to that land which, of all the foreign lands that I had visited, I loved the best. Many times during the years of desperate confinement and labour on the book I had thought of it with intense longing, as men in prison, haltered to all the dusty shackles of the hour, have longed for the haunted woods and meadows of Cockaigne. Many times I had gone back to it in my dreams — to the sunken bell, the Gothic towns, the plash of waters in the midnight fountain, the Old Place, the broken chime, and the blonde flesh of secret, lavish women. Then at last came the day when I walked at morning through the Brandenburger Tor, and into the enchanted avenues of the faery green Tiergarten, and found that Fame had come to me. It was May, and I walked below the blossoms of the great horse-chestnut trees, and felt like Tamerlane, that it was passing fine to be a king and move in triumph through Persepolis — and be a famous man.

After those long and weary years of labour, and the need of proof to give some easement to my tormented soul, this was the easement I had dreamed of, the impossible thing so impossibly desired, now brought magically to fulfilment. And now it seemed to me, who had so often gone a stranger and unknown to the great cities of the world, that Berlin was mine. For weeks there was a round of pleasure and celebration, and the wonderful thrill of meeting in a foreign land and in a foreign tongue a hundred friends, now for the first time known and captured. There was the sapphire sparkle in the air, the enchanted brevity of northern darkness, the glorious wine in slender bottles, and morning, and green fields, and pretty women — all of these were mine now, they seemed to have been created for me, to have been waiting for me, and to exist now in all their loveliness just for my possession.

The weeks passed so — and then it happened. Little by little the world came in. At first it sifted in almost unnoticed, like dark down dropped in passing from some avenging angel’s wing. Sometimes it came to me in the desperate pleading of an eye, the naked terror of a startled look, the swift concealment of a sudden fear. Sometimes it just came and went as light comes, just soaked in, just soaked in-in fleeting words and speech and actions.

After a while, however, in the midwatches of the night, behind thick walls and bolted doors and shuttered windows, it came to me full flood at last in confessions of unutterable despair. I don’t know why it was that people so unburdened themselves to me, a stranger, unless it was because they knew the love I bore them and their land. They seemed to feel a desperate need to talk to someone who would understand. The thing was pent up in them, and my sympathy for all things German had burst the dam of their reserve and caution. Their tales of woe and fear unspeakable gushed forth and beat upon my ears. They told me stories of their friends and relatives who had said unguarded things in public and disappeared without a trace, stories of the Gestapo, stories of neighbours’ quarrels and petty personal spite turned into political persecution, stories of concentration camps and pogroms, stories of rich Jews stripped and beaten and robbed of everything they had and then denied the right to earn a pauper’s wage, stories of well-bred Jewesses despoiled and turned out of their homes and forced to kneel and scrub off anti-Nazi slogans scribbled on the pavements while young barbarians dressed like soldiers formed a ring and prodded them with bayonets and made the quiet places echo with the shameless laughter of their mockery. It was a picture of the Dark Ages come again — shocking beyond belief, but true as the hell that man forever creates for himself.

Thus it was that the corruption of man’s living faith and the inferno of his buried anguish came to me — and I recognised at last, in all its frightful aspects, the spiritual disease which was poisoning unto death a noble and a mighty people.

But even as I saw it and knew it for what it was, there came to me, most strangely, another thing as well. For while I sat the night through in the darkened rooms of German friends, behind the bolted doors and shuttered windows — while their whispered voices spoke to me of the anguish in their hearts, and I listened, stricken in my chair to see the tears and the graven lines of mortal sorrow form on faces which only a short time before, in the presence of others, had been masked in expressions of carefree unconcern — while I heard and saw these things my heart was torn asunder, and from its opened depths came forth into my consciousness a knowledge that I had not fully known was there. For then it was, most curiously, that all the grey weather of unrecorded days in Brooklyn, which had soaked through into my soul, came flooding back upon me. Came back, too, the memory of my exploration of the jungle trails of night. I saw again the haggard faces of the homeless men, the wanderers, the disinherited of America, the aged workers who had worked and now could work no more, the callow boys who had never worked and now could find no work to do, and who, both together, had been cast loose by a society that had no need of them and left to shift in any way they could — to find their food in garbage cans, to seek for warmth and fellowship in foul latrines like the one near New York’s City Hall, to sleep wrapped up in old newspapers on the concrete floors of subway corridors.

It all came back to me, all the separate fragments of the vision I had seen, together with the sinister remembrance of that upper world of night, glittering with its riches, and its soft, sophisticated pleasures, and its cold indifference to the misery and injustice on which its very life was founded. It all came back, but now it was an integrated picture.

So it was, in this far place and under these profoundly moving and disturbing alien circumstances, that I realised fully, for the first time, how sick America was, and saw, too, that the ailment was akin to Germany’s — a dread world-sickness of the soul. One of my German friends, Franz Heilig, later told me this same thing. In Germany it was hopeless: it had already gone too far to be checked now by any measures short of death, destruction, and total ruin. But in America, it seemed to me, it was not mortal, not incurable — not yet. It was desperate, and would become more desperate still if in America, as in Germany, men became afraid to look into the face of fear itself, to probe behind it, to see what caused it, and then to speak the truth about it. America was young, America was still the New World of mankind’s hope, America was not like this old and worn-out Europe which seethed and festered with a thousand deep and uncorrected ancient maladies. America was still resilient, still responsive to a cure — if only — if only — men could somehow cease to be afraid of truth. For the plain and searching light of truth, which had here, in Germany, been darkened to extinction, was the remedy, the only one, that could cleanse and heal the suffering soul of man.

After such a night of seeing whole at last, day would come again, the cool glow of morning, the bronze gold of the kiefern-trees, the still green pools of lucid water, the enchanted parks and gardens — but none of it was the same as it had been before. For now I knew that there was something else in life as new as morning and as old as hell, a universal ill of man seen here in Germany at its darkest, and here articulated for the first time in a word, regimented now in a scheme of phrases and a system of abominable works. And day by day the thing soaked in, and kept soaking in, until everywhere, in every life I met and touched, I saw the ruin of its unutterable pollutions.

So now another layer had been peeled off the gauzes of the seeing eye. And what the eye had seen and understood, I knew that it could nevermore forget or again be blind to.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30