My personal sense of unease had been with me for some time, although “unease” is putting it mildly. There had been milestones of relief, little landmarks along the way. These were often books. A man called John Coleman wrote a book called The Quiet Mind. I found the title riveting. Something inside me rose in affirmation, but it was not me that had reacted. No, it was something else—but not me. I once read from a mystic that real prayer is not done by the person. You can make like you are praying, but real prayer is something the prayer does all by itself. With a little grace you might be able to get out of the way. That is the most you can hope for.
As a writer I was doing mental calisthenics. Some of it was good enough to be published. My wife found it reassuring because most writers are not famous for making money. Translation filled some of our wider gaps. Somehow, we got by.
There occurred a telling late-afternoon incident. The kids were not home from school. My wife was still at work. I was deep into a translation. An immense calm arose. I remember the mystic saying that meditation is not something you do; you must get very quiet and “feel how you feel.”
How did I feel? Like I was quietly sunbathing in something sublime. The world had fallen away. My mind dulled into abeyance. I looked up from the keyboard, tentatively, almost afraid of breaking the spell. The quietness was huge, and the room seemed to be a perfect temperature. The air felt unaccountably clean—an intangible feeling, but one definitely felt. I remember a quickly rising sense of isolation and a sudden feeling of worry. I held on, almost gasping like a fish out of water, and then the worry dispersed, I can only express it that way. I realized that it was not only all right to be me; I also had little choice. Something tingled above my heart and below my throat. My chest felt the way you feel when you drink a glass of cold water, and you feel it going down.
I turned to the translation. Something inside prayed—could prayer be hope?—that there would be nothing crass to disturb the spell. I remembered Patrick-Leigh Fermor’s A Time to Keep Silence. The author had entered a monastery to work on a book. He related that first, he was bored to desperation in the monastery, where nothing happened; then, the bubble of boredom broke, and he felt perfectly at ease with his situation. He reported a heightened sensitivity. When he left the monastery, he found driving along a freeway appalling because even the most innocuous advertisement placards along the way were an insult to his sensibility.
My wife arrived home. She looked into the room where I sat like a stunned ox. She said, “Gosh, the house feels nice.”
I knew what she was talking about, of course, but couldn’t explain any part of it. I mumbled something like, “Yeah, the translation went well.” But the house feeling nice was the best thing that I had ever experienced, and I have no idea how it happened.
The children came home, bringing their world with them. I knew that what I had experienced was the way it was meant to be. A vibration inside of me was speaking from beyond my mind. There was no mental conversation. Everything was simply seen. I sat dazed, gently resistant to a now muffled little voice trying belligerently to assert itself. The mystic had related of another voice, the whisper from the soul.
I learned, realized, what great artists give. They offer something that is so special that one’s focus is removed from the self. It was curious that George Ivan Gurdjieff proposed a system of “self-remembering”; I was then convinced that “self-forgetting” was possibly more useful. I believe that if one has the ability, luck, or grace to forget oneself, it could be the first step placed on a spiritual path. Nevertheless, right there would be the realization of all one’s troubles and certainly not instant salvation.
I had the feeling that this is what Mr. Hemingway had—perhaps unconsciously—been seeking as he shaved his sentences down to the bare minimum until a rhythm arose, making reading like counting the beads of a rosary. Laurens van der Post touched upon inner feeling in The Lost World of the Kalahari when relating of tracking an animal over two days to finally make a kill, and a Bushman saying that the women would be rejoicing and heating the cooking pots. “But how will they know about the kill?” van der Post asked. “They will feel it, here,” said the Bushman, tapping his chest.
I feel sad about Mr. Hemingway. I suppose it is the sadness felt at losing a good man, a sadness you should feel when losing anybody. I believe that he acquired the grace of seriousness, and perhaps even a quiet mind, but there was much inside of him that got in the way as he led a riotous life of worldly adventure. Mr. Hemingway dealt with his dilemma in A Clean, Well-Lighted Place. Despair is of the mind, and the mind is a tyrant. The quiet mind is a mind that is modest, in abeyance; it serves and does not lead.
Any writer who would describe with words something beyond words has my sincere best wishes. Of course, there are the atmospheric interludes in one’s life that offer a divine nudge. If any reader has heard the hypnotic call to prayer from a muezzin, floating at dawn over trees at the edge of a jungle, they will know what I mean. The point is that although there may be a sudden crashing rise of birds, the voice itself does not shatter the silence. It really does float hauntingly as a sound ethereal. The call to prayer heard in a city is often more strident but no less enchanting. One is struck by something stealthily all-encompassing, something impossible to ignore, something that lingers in a sudden brittle silence.
Religion was obviously not to be avoided. There were too many hooks, like “The peace that passes all understanding.” Real understanding must be subservient to peace. The stunned-ox experience has brought a new dimension. I sit, gaze, go empty, and it works. During the night I scribble notes terrifically aware of the danger of laziness. If I don’t write
down this current gem I will not be able to sleep, and it will, of course, be gone in the morning. My wife looks gorgeous with her hair over her eyes as she sleeps. I sigh, resisting distraction.
I wrote about the current influx of refugees into Austria. The winter is coming. They sleep on the earth, wrapped in a blanket. There is frost on the blanket at dawn. They shiver, waiting for the sun. This is Mr. Hemingway’s “real” and “true,” given in a writing style that is no style at all and possibly his attempt at eliminating the self. On the other hand, it does say everything that needs to be said.
Walking in Vienna’s Stadtpark one can see a bronze of Mozart, once going green but now gilded, and listen to an orchestra playing alfresco, releasing swarms of the great man’s melodies into the air. Possibly poetry and prose readings would suffice to almost match such music, but they would have to be sensationally good to even get close to the magic of what Richard Strauss said about Mozart: “I spend three months looking for a theme, Mozart shook them out of his sleeve.”
I once had the privilege of spending time with and interviewing two famous jazz musicians, the bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen (who straightened out my pronunciation of Kierkegaard) and the guitarist Philip Catherine. Both of these musicians knew how to swing with the best. Pedersen had been invited to join the Basie band when he was only seventeen. Catherine had been on the road for ages in Europe, traveling with Chet Baker. Nevertheless, they had their weaknesses, and I was pleased to find that they closely resembled mine.
“So many great songs,” one of us sighed.
“Yes, I have a soft spot for Emily,” I said.
“Mercer and Mandel,” Philip said. “Nice.”
“I had it by Tony Bennett, years ago,” I said.
“I was backing Tony Bennett at a club one night,” Niels said. “The show was being taped and for some reason he was not allowed to record it at that session. Some sort of contract thing. But Tony left the recording mic and went right to the front of the stage and sang Emily to the audience, and they loved it. It’s a beautiful song.”
There was silence. Three middle-aged men sat dreaming about what is manifestly ur-schmaltz. Someone hummed a few notes, quietly. Brows wrinkled, eyes emptied, we each nodded a gentle nod, sagaciously.
“When Joanna Loved Me, is also great by Bennett,” I ventured. I didn’t have the courage to tell them how much I liked Friendly Persuasion, a Pat Boon hit.
It is always revealing to be with people of tremendous talent or sensitivity. I spent some time with Heinrich Harrer, the author of Seven Years in Tibet. We got on well together, possibly because he liked the British. We worked together translating one of his books on mountaineering. One day he asked me, “Lawrence, how can you write about mountaineering when you are not a mountaineer?” I am afraid my answer was somewhat glib, “Heinrich, I do not need to get shot to know that bullets hurt.”
There may, or may not, be a lack of humor to be found among people of talent, but underlying everything is often a seriousness that can be felt because they have found their purpose in life. They are doing what they are supposed to be doing. This makes the seriousness more a matter of quiet, of steadiness. Triviality doesn’t come into it.
Pity the poor writer. But this writer has been given the grace to be at peace with writing. Vienna, again. It is a city made almost silent by a hush-quiet fall of snow. In the Hotel Sacher café, the waiter approaches so inaudibly his presence is first felt; you then check instinctively for shoes. Outside on the sidewalk, a bunch of Krishna people dance by, their pale pure faces raised to the sky, a hop-shuffle dance from Krishna to Rama, abandonment to an Asian rumba.
I recently read something of Shaker philosophy, which went, “Never make anything unless it is needed and useful, and if it is useful and needed don’t hesitate to make it beautiful.”
Something inside rises to beauty. Then the quiet mind permits appreciation. Excitement doesn’t come into it.