Chapter Thirteen. Responsibilities
Six weeks later. Early evening. Eight of us sat around a polished wooden table in one of the library alcoves. The two senior monks, Mr. Chin and Mr. Petrov; Mr. Conway; Mr. Herrick; Mr. Chang; Sunnie; Mr. Barnard, and myself. I was emphatically in the presence of my betters.
Mr. Barnard occasionally referred to Mr. Conway, humorously, as Shangri‑la’s “Executive Director,” but I had rarely seen him act in that capacity. The few incidents that disturbed our placid routine were handled in their course by a quiet word in the right place. As the high lama had promised, the burden of leadership there was light.
And never had I sat in on a meeting of the few who represented Shangri‑la’s guiding hand. They always seemed able to struggle along without my contribution, just as President Kennedy, the Air Force and General Motors always had, back when I was in the States. Besides, Shangri‑la has neither the need nor the taste for business meetings. The board of directors, or however they referred to themselves, rarely met. Or so Mr. Barnard said. Ordinarily he and Sunnie, quite as much as I, would be unneeded at any such meeting. Actually, for all I know, they met frequently, if only for the pleasure of each other’s company.
In any case, I had no doubt why I had been invited. Items A through Z on the agenda were Mr. Dennis Corbin: progress of and prospects for. At Mr. Conway’s request, I told them what I knew of Corbin’s motives and beliefs, and sketched his character as it appeared to me. (They’d heard the opinions of Mr. Conway and others, presumably. I suppose they were trying to gauge my biases by weighing my description.) When I finished, there was a small silence, broken by Mr. Chin, the most senior of Father Perrault’s disciples, the one Mr. Barnard irreverently, but affectionately, referred to as the chairman of the board.
“You convey the impression that he is unsympathetic to our existence,” he said. He paused—and no one moved to break the pause—then turned to Mr. Conway. “Is this impression also yours?”
“It is,” Mr. Conway said.
“Is he, then, by nature an unsympathetic person?”
“I think not. He responds well to individuals. But his education and professional training have left him with strong prejudices.”
“He as much as called George a reactionary the other day,” Mr. Barnard put in.
The old monk’s leathery face wrinkled in a slight smile. “It must be most pleasant to be quite certain of the correctness of one’s views. I have quite forgotten the sensation.” He turned back to me. “What are those prejudices, in your view, Mr. Chiari?”
“He doesn’t want to have a thing to do with anything that might have God involved in it,” I said. “Just as soon as he heard that this is a monastery, I think he wrote us off to some extent.”
“Dismissed us as serious people,” Mr. Conway said, translating.
“He thinks religion is superstition. If he humors our opinions, he thinks he’s being charitable and generous. He can’t imagine how sensible people can believe in a God who concerns himself with individuals. And if you try to talk to him about prayer and miracles, well, he’s just got an absolutely closed mind.”
“Closed minds may be opened by the proper experiences,” Mr. Chang said. “Such, at any rate, has been my experience.”
Mr. Chin was still looking at me thoughtfully, weighing what I had said, and weighing, it may be, other things unsaid or said previously.
“I seem to recall that you yourself, when you so providentially arrived here, were not untouched by similar superstitions,” he said at length. “I recall much talk of bad luck and accidents; much regret over lost opportunity. In what respect do Mr. Corbin’s superstitions differ from those you brought here?”
Interesting. If he’d heard “much talk of bad luck and accidents; much regret over lost opportunity,” he hadn’t heard it from me. In 17 years, he and I had had a few polite conversations, scarcely any of any length. Presumably he’d been talking to those I’d grown close to. In fact (I suddenly realized) perhaps he’d made it his business to receive reports on me at intervals regular or irregular, long or short. But to answer his question:
“We grew up in different worlds,” I said. “I was born in 1936, he was born in 1953. I was raised Catholic, he wasn’t raised much of anything. His folks were Presbyterian, I guess, but after his mother died I don’t think he got much religious training. Anyway, being raised Protestant is a lot different from being raised Catholic.”
“Inferior, sure,” Mr. Barnard said, grinning.
Not knowing what Mr. Chin might know of my beliefs, I answered as though I thought Mr. Barnard’s words were meant seriously. “You know I don’t think that. I’m only saying a Catholic school education gives you a structure you don’t get anywhere else in the world.”
“Perhaps equivalents exist,” Mr. Chin said quietly.
I took the hint and did not pursue the subject further. “And then, he’s got that scientific training, you know, and I was always strictly liberal arts.”
“Mr. Corbin is oriented toward technology and George is inclined toward history and literature,” Mr. Conway translated.
Mr. Chin nodded slowly. “I have been told that you write verse, some of which is quite acceptable.” I was amused by the careful limits put on the compliment, and astonished that Mr. Chin’s briefings had extended so far.
“And, of course, there’s politics.” I paused, trying to be fair to Corbin without soft‑peddling my observations.
Mr. Chin said, “Do I understand that our guest is in accord with the notions of my misguided compatriots?”
That helped nicely to focus my reply. “Well, he isn’t a communist, but his attitude toward them is something I just can’t understand. He says that our fear of being discovered is the result of prejudice fostered by Cold War propaganda. He says a lot of people—including him, I gather—think the Cold War was just something whipped up by the `military‑industrial complex,’ which is a phrase one of our presidents used to describe the relationship between our war industries and the military establishment. He says the cold war wasn’t motivated by fear at all, but was a plot to assure that America’s economy didn’t collapse after World War II because of lack of economic demand. He really believes it, apparently.”
[“You still didn’t break radio silence, even when you knew you had to come down?” Corbin was incredulous. I had looked at him, equally puzzled. “Didn’t I already say it? I wasn’t about to bring the Chinese in on me, no matter what. I wasn’t going to go down in history as Francis Gary Powers the Second.” His face revealed that he had suddenly discovered that the gap between us was even wider than he had thought. “Boy, you really bought that Cold War stuff, didn’t you?”]
“The history he learned hasn’t much in common with what you learned, has it, George?”
“No sir,” I said to Mr. Conway. “Like I said, we grew up in different worlds.” Which is what I’d told Mr. Barnard a few days before. It occurred to me to wonder if that remark then had led to this meeting now.
I had turned away from Mr. Barnard to look out the window at the mountain across the valley. “No, as far as I can tell he isn’t a traitor.”
We were in one of the little alcoves that are, to me, one of the monastery’s nicest features. I like the bookshelves lining the walls, the sun flowing in through the windows (thick white draperies pulled back to the sides), the dark polished tables, the simple chairs. Ordinarily I like standing at the window, looking out at Karakol across the chasm of the valley. How many hours had I spent here, doing just that, letting the peace of this part of the world flow deeply into my being? Particularly in the first years, I leaned on it for reassurance and comfort. Even the sickness of separation, which had so filled me some nights (looking out at the moon that others maybe looked at, far away)—even that had been easier here. But this day I couldn’t feel its support, even as I continued to stare out at the mountain called Blue Moon. I could feel Mr. Barnard’s presence, quietly watching from where he sat at the table.
“Don’t make much sense?”
Reluctantly. “It isn’t that. Things change, even things you’d swear couldn’t change. I suppose it’s natural.” I turned to see Mr. Barnard smiling at me. “What’s so funny?”
“This is your swearing‑in ceremony, I reckon, that’s all. I was thinking you’d been with us long enough that you’d earned your wings, but I can see there was one more experience we’d forgot about: seeing the world change so much after you’d got out of it. Everybody goes through it. When you’re the last one in, why, the world is whatever way it is when you came; it’s natural to you, and all you can see is how different all these older guys see things. Then sooner or later you are one of the older guys, and somebody new comes in and all the things that could have been are suddenly dead, and all there is is how things worked out. You can’t help thinking about all the things you half‑thought might happen, that didn’t.”
“All the lost opportunities, you mean?”
“Lost opportunities, and worse than that. Watching it all slide. Like, for me, being here in the ’30s and then hearing you talk about Hitler and Stalin and the death camps and the war and the atomic bomb and all. You can’t help seeing that it didn’t need to be that way at all, and you get the news all at once, not a little bit at a time the way news used to come to you. Up till now, George, you were the junior member of the firm, so you were the only one couldn’t see things that way.”
“Oh, I see it.”
“Sure, but you see it a little different today than you did before you talked to Corbin. Talking to him makes it real to you that life is still going on out there.”
“I don’t know as it’s going any too well, either,” he said.
“Mr. Barnard, it isn’t! I can’t even talk to him. We don’t live in the same world.” I left the window and paced a few steps up and down. “You wouldn’t believe the crazy stuff he comes out with.”
He smiled again. “I wouldn’t? How about all the crazy stuff I used to hear from you?”
“From me? What crazy stuff did you ever hear from me?”
“Lord, who could remember it all?” He laughed. “It’s just natural, George, it’s different generations. I’m born one time and I see things the way folks naturally did then. You’re born another time and you see things different. How else could it be? People are used to what they’re used to. Don’t you remember all those arguments you and Herrick used to get into about the British Empire? He grew up taking it for granted and you didn’t; that’s all that ever amounted to. That, and the fact that you’d watched it fall to pieces, and he hadn’t.”
“It fell to pieces long before I knew it was there, Mr. Barnard. They lost India before I was a teenager.”
“Well, that’s what I say. To you, it wasn’t ever real, it was just something you read about in the history books. But to him, it was still there, in all its power and glory, right up until you came here.”
“Until I—? But there’s the radio!”
“Yeah, but hearing it on the radio ain’t the same thing as meeting it in the flesh, which is what you’re finding out right now. You and me and this Corbin boy are all Americans, and maybe the others figure that makes up pretty much alike. Maybe to them we are pretty much alike. Now, the three of us know that America covers a lot of real estate, so we expect some differences between us that maybe the others don’t—but even if we all came from Yellow Springs, Ohio, we wouldn’t be alike, because we wouldn’t really be from the same place at all. The same place, 50 years later, ain’t the same place.”
“What’s he saying that’s got you so hot and bothered?”
“I’ll give you just one example,” I said, pacing again. “He says the reason we’re afraid of the Chinese finding us is because we’ve listened to too many years of Cold War propaganda. That’s what he called it. Said a whole people can’t become villains overnight just because they had a change of government, and we’re just behind the times. He didn’t quite come out and say it, but he more or less thinks we’re a bunch of reactionaries.”
Mr. Barnard pursed his lips. “He does, eh?” Absent‑mindedly, he picked up one of his cigars from the table, licked it, and put it unlit in his mouth, where he proceeded to chew on it.
“I asked him if he’d ever heard of Hitler’s Germany. He said that was different, the chedrool.”
Mr. Barnard laughed. “The what?”
“Chedrool. You know—a stupe, a dummy.”
“Is he dumb, though?”
“Well, no, he isn’t. But he’s plenty ignorant! And when he’s wrong, there just isn’t any use telling him; he just looks at you like you’re some moron he has to humor.”
Mr. Barnard stood up and went over to the little brazier where the shouldering fire was kept. Bending over it, he held the cigar against the coal, puffing in and out until the cigar drew. He straightened up and replaced the top carefully. For a minute or two he stood there, occasionally emitting puffs of smoke, saying nothing, looking at nothing in particular. “By the way, George,” he said after a minute, “I meant to tell you. Herrick says the radio from Corbin’s airplane works. Chang and the others are going to put in some time listening to whatever they can find on the military frequencies, see if we’re becoming famous with the Chinese Air Force.”
“Tell them for God’s sake to be careful not to hit the transmit button! That’s all we’d need.”
“Herrick already disabled it,” Mr. Barnard said. Then he lapsed into pensive silence.
“Well,” he said finally, “it’s the same old story. We’ve got somebody here who don’t particularly want to be here. He don’t fit in with our beliefs, he don’t see any value in our ways, and he thinks he’s smarter than the rest of us because he’s read later newspapers than we have.” He took a long pull on his cigar. (I wondered, sometimes, what Mr. Barnard would have done if the natives in the valley below had not had their equivalent of tobacco to make cigars from. Would this particular vice have been replaced by a heavier indulgence in the native liquors?) He glanced directly at me. “He’s still your problem, I’m afraid. At least for a while.”
Still my problem. I looked around me at the other six. Why still my problem? All anyone asked me to do was (1) spend time with Corbin, to keep him more or less content, and (2) write this endless memoir. And even Mr. Conway, normally so open and articulate, wouldn’t tell me why I was doing either.
“I can’t see that anybody sees it as particularly important,” Mr. Barnard was saying. “You don’t hear about it on the radio to amount to anything. Course, maybe they been talking about it and I missed it, you can’t tell.”
My mind had been on autopilot while I’d been elsewhere. I played back the recording. They were talking about the revolution in Iran.
“Surely,” Mr. Chang said, “the importance of so singular a phenomenon must be self‑evident to the well‑informed.”
Mr. Barnard grunted. “Maybe the well‑informed don’t run the radio.”
“You’ve all heard Henry say, as well, that the establishment of a Marxist regime in Kabul has also received little attention.”
Mr. Chang pursed his lips. “No one doubts your diligence or accuracy, Mr. Barnard. Still, the substance of what you report surpasses understanding. In Afghanistan, Marxist revolutionaries overthrow the king and the West scarcely notices. In Iran, Islamic revolutionaries overthrow the Shah—and the West scarcely notices. And Mr. Dennis Corbin has no resistance to socialism. I trust that everyone here takes the point.”
Mr. Conway turned to me. “You can’t have followed that, George. You have been kept from knowing much that has gone on. Please accept my assurance that if you’ve been left in the dark, as you have, it was not because we did not trust you, but for other good reasons.”
Mr. Chang spoke. “Nor is this necessarily the time to reveal all that has so long been concealed from you, Mr. Chiari. However, we are being forced to reconsider many things.”
I looked from one to the other, and finally addressed Mr. Conway. “I don’t get it,” I said. “I can see that Iran and Afghanistan and maybe Dennis Corbin are all intertwined in your minds somehow, but I don’t see how, or why.”
Mr. Conway frowned, an expression rare for him. “We are wondering if it isn’t time for us to throw our last ounce of weight on the scales. Before it becomes too late. We see the blind leading the blind, armed with ever more powerful weapons every day. Unless something changes the pattern, surely there can be only one end. If we, here, can help divert the world’s suicide course, obviously we must. But it’s not at all obvious that we can intervene effectively, and it is of importance that we make the correct decision.”
Mr. Barnard responded to my frown of puzzlement. “We all know that Father Perrault had a vision of the destruction of civilization, George. What we don’t know is, did his vision include radioactivity?”
Mr. Petrov spoke, and as usual his words were few: “The problem, Mr. Chiari, may be stated so: The world has forgotten who it is. Your America, Conway’s England, my Russia, Chang’s China—they think they are one thing; they are something else. So they have no peace. Not with one another, not with themselves. They forget who they are, they cannot stand.”
I’m sure I looked as bewildered as I still felt.
“Life ain’t a matter of what people would like it to be,” Mr. Barnard said in explanation. “It’s what it is. People that get the wrong idea about their life can’t live right. They can’t even think right, see right.”
“Which is why one’s religious ideas are so important,” Mr. Herrick said, a little sententiously, as was his way. “One’s religious ideas shape one’s views on what forces do or do not exist in life.”
“And the other way around,” Mr. Barnard said.
“To be sure. One’s views of what exists shape one’s religious ideas, certainly.”
“I still don’t get it,” I said, feeling dense.
Mr. Conway said, “It is a matter of evidence. The West sees two Asian Moslem countries taken out of the Western orbit and transformed: one into the Marxist orbit, the other into something new and unpredictable. It sees, but seems not to notice.”
I shrugged. “But what could the West have done?”
“Quite possibly nothing. Quite possibly there was nothing it should have done. But it should have noticed. That it does not notice argues a terrible, dangerous blindness.”
“Quite dangerous. A society so blind to immediate menace is arguably beyond the point where it can still renew itself. And without the West, where is the world? In our time, and into the foreseeable future, the future is in the hands of the West, for it was in the Christian societies of the West that the individual was nurtured. If the West should fall, what would become of the individual? And without the individual, where are the eyes of the human race?”
I wasn’t much further out of the darkness. “Mr. Conway, I can’t see why the revolutions in Iran and Afghanistan are so dangerous. But if they are, don’t you think the West will realize it sooner or later?”
“Perhaps. And in any event, two instances of statesmen’s blindness would not in themselves have roused such alarm within us. I have been close enough to the statesmen of my time to have little faith in their wisdom or foresight. But those examples merely confirm other evidence. Years of Henry’s gleanings from radio broadcasts, plus other things I won’t go into, plus your Dennis Corbin.”
(My Dennis Corbin?)
“More specifically, Dennis Corbin compared to one George Chiari. Vintage 1953 as compared to vintage 1936. The comparison is in your favor as an individual, George, but it argues poorly for the trend in America as a civilization.”
I smiled, not too convincingly perhaps. “A trend? On the strength of comparing two people?”
Mr. Petrov shook his head slowly, emphatically. “No. You do not know.” He raised a hand in a gesture that included his comrades at the table. “Many people watch many years. Blind lead blind.” He turned to Mr. Chin. “Conway should tell his dream.”
“Yes,” the old Chinese said.
Long ago, in the course of introducing me to so many things, Mr. Conway had taught me to take dreams seriously. He and I had discussed many a dream in the process of his teaching me how to hear what they were saying, so dealing with dreams was no big thing to me any longer. So why did the very mention of this yet‑undescribed dream tighten my throat and set my pulse racing?
Mr. Conway divided his attention between Mr. Barnard and me, from which I concluded that we were the only two around the table who had not previously heard the dream.
“Some months before Mr. Dennis Corbin dropped in on us, I had a dream in which I addressed an audience in New York City. I think we have been able to puzzle out the meaning.” Seventeen years before, I would have dismissed the idea that a dream could have real meaning. “Here’s the dream. I was on stage with someone else. We were inside a lecture hall in New York City, but as I looked toward the back of the hall, I realized that it went on and on to the horizon, so that the audience consisted of tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands. We were speaking about the life of the spirit, and they were listening, with attention.”
“In New York City, of all places,” Mr. Barnard said. “What do you make of that?”
[Mr. Barnard’s words made me think how I have never been fond of New York City. Not enough trees, for one thing—and with that thought I was stabbed by a violent longing to see the mixed forests of my youth. Particularly there arose a vision of the marshlands of the Delaware Bay. The fact that I would never see them again suddenly seemed unbearable, even though I knew full well that if I were by some magic returned to that area, and that life, the marshlands would fade, within days or weeks, into the half‑noticed background, and I would be longing to be back within this valley, my real home. But to know that did not diminish the intensity of the vision. Sitting in Shangri‑la, perched halfway up the side of a mountain in northwestern Tibet, all I could see was marsh grass and isolated pine trees, in early morning, with a blue heron taking wing. In my ears was the harsh cry of sea gulls, and not so many miles away, by car, was my parents’ house. I could drive at a reasonable speed and still be there in 20 minutes.]
Mr. Conway was looking at me. “George?”
I pulled myself back to the here and now. “The place to begin, so I’ve been told,” I said, smiling at Mr. Conway, “is with each symbol, and what each symbol means to the dreamer. Your dream had you and another person talking to an audience. How did it portray you?”
“I was in evening dress, with highly polished shoes. That is, my clothing was totally appropriate, even elegant. I spoke confidently, I was filled with energy and conviction, and I could feel that I was carrying the audience with me.”
“You could feel it as the character, or as the dreamer?”
“It was the atmosphere of the dream. They were listening with respect and interest and profit.”
“Anything else about yourself?”
Mr. Conway was silent, thinking. “It was strange. The audience and I could see each other, but only through a veil of some sort. It was as if a thin curtain was between them and me; I think that was one reason why it took me a while to see that the hall extended so far out. Until my eyes adjusted to see through the curtain, or veil, I could only see those in the front rows, and those indistinctly. I can’t tell you much. I didn’t actually see a veil, it’s more a manner of speaking. Something was between the audience and me—but something not tangible. The audience appeared hazy, as if far away, yet they were right there before me, very close.”
“And the other person?”
“He was a young man, dressed not as I was, but in everyday clothes. I remember noticing that I was doing the talking, but the audience was looking at him, as though he was the one speaking. In fact, I have the impression that they couldn’t see me at all, only him.”
“Anything else about the audience?”
“They were a mixed group. Some in evening clothes, looking prosperous and influential, others looking like workmen, some in coveralls. Some in military or police uniforms.”
“Any ladies in the crowd?”
“Oh, yes, a thoroughly mixed audience in every respect. I thought they were a good crowd, and I was pleased they had come and was pleased they were listening.”
“What does a lecture hall mean to you?”
“A place to communicate, of course. Not much reaction to it, other than that. I was somewhat surprised, but not terribly, to see it extend so far. You know dreams have their own logic.”
I knew. “Well, what about New York City? What does it mean to you?”
Mr. Conway smiled with lazy irony. “You may not think this too flattering to your country’s greatest city, George, but on my only visit it impressed me as having too many people in too little space. Too much energy, too much money, too much of the sort of power that money and energy bring. Its vitality left one awed—but held something of the inhuman.”
“Not the right word, perhaps. `Impersonal?’ Yes, impersonal. The city was so big, and its concern for the individual so small. It tended to leave one dwarfed.”
That was certainly true enough. “So there you were, speaking to a crowd of New Yorkers, and getting across to them. You’re doing the talking, but they think they’re hearing someone else. You aren’t even sure they see you at all. You’re dressed formally and your partner is not. Do you have a sense of this partner?”
“He is an American, a young American. He reminded me of your doughboys in training with my troops in the trenches in 1918, radiating simplicity and idealism and youthful vigor. They affected many of my brother officers similarly, I know. They were direct, frequently humorous, very cheerful and willing. Very quick with their hands, very full of self‑confidence, particularly in matters involving machinery or rifles. They seemed, to us who had been three years in the trenches already, prodigies of youth.”
He looked from me to Mr. Barnard and back to me. “The image of America I formed in those years has never dimmed. The two of you share many of their best qualities.”
Mr. Barnard and I were equally embarrassed. I think we both considered making a joke, and both decided against it. I asked, “And there wasn’t any more to the dream?”
“There was. We had been addressing the crowd for some time, I recall, before I realized the size of the audience. Then we could hear airplanes coming, and I knew they were bombers. We are all filled with the greatest dread, a sort of impersonal dread. Not so much that we feared our own deaths as the deaths of others. Of all the others, somehow. And that’s all I remember. The dream did not portray us ending our talk, or coming off the stage.”
“What did it feel like?”
“I can only stress the intensity of the dream, the air of urgency that did not diminish when I awakened. If anything, it gathered strength.”
“You take this pretty serious, I guess,” Mr. Barnard said.
“Certainly,” Mr. Conway said. “Every tradition of this house speaks to the value of dreaming. Even twentieth‑century science has caught up with the older wisdom in that regard.”
“Well, Joseph, what do you reckon it means?”
It took me a moment to catch the allusion: Joseph, the dreamer.
Mr. Conway generally appreciated Mr. Barnard’s sense of humor. He’d told me once that a sense of humor not dependent on malice was among the most valuable gifts one could bring to a closed community such as ours. He smiled affectionately at him now. “I think the message is clear enough. The dream uses me as the person talking. I doubt the outside world hungers to hear the details of my childhood, or my reminiscences of the foreign service. Surely it envisions me speaking of what is closest to our hearts here. And what is that but the need for the world to find a new way of seeing? I think it wants us to give the world what we ourselves were given by time and reflection.”
Mr. Chin said, “Is it not appropriate that this monastery’s famous personage should bridge the gap between two visions of the world? I ask myself, indeed, whether this is not why he was led to make his long journey out from here and then back again. That journey brought him fame, which may prove useful now.”
“Well, not literally,” Mr. Barnard said. “You can’t go anywhere after all this time. You ain’t 40, remember, Conway, though you look it.”
“I haven’t forgotten. You will notice the dream has me speaking to the world only through an interpreter.”
Mr. Conway turned to me again. “Since, as Henry rightly points out, I am confined by my age to the limits of this mountain and valley, the question becomes: How could I speak to the world if I chose to do so? Transmit over the radio? Not very convincing to the outside world, I should think, nor likely to be long continued. Anything more certain to bring the communists down on our heads, I cannot imagine. Should we invite others here, that they might see and listen? Again, impossible, unlikely to be persuasive, and very quickly fatal. And so you see why you were invited to this conference, George. Not alone for your knowledge of Dennis Corbin’s mental state.”
I hadn’t the faintest idea.
“Your manuscript. The record you are writing of your years here.”
This manuscript. I could scarcely believe him. “But—there’s nothing particularly great about what I’m writing, Mr. Conway,” I said, “you know that. It’s just some things I remember. And it’s full of side‑tracks and stuff that wouldn’t interest anybody but my family, maybe.”
“Perhaps you underestimate its value as evidence. A personal testimony often evokes response where a formal presentation does not. These past few weeks, I have set several people to writing, not yourself alone. I hoped we would produce some credo, some document that would persuade some in the world outside to look more seriously at `discredited’ remedies for their situation. For this we need not a formal tome, but a reminder, a nudge: Beyond the nudge, I think we must rely upon spiritus mundi to lay its thumb upon the scales. I think you have come closest to producing what we need. You are closest to this generation, your own reactions to a new way of seeing are recent enough to be fresh in your mind, and your style is—is, let us say, more in the vernacular than any of the others. I think it may win response.”
“You print something that lets the Chinese communists know we’re here and you’ll win response, all right,” Mr. Barnard said. “It’ll be the end for us. D’ you think whatever good it might do is worth it?” He cleared his throat. “It seems kind of foolish to me, to work like beavers to stop anybody from finding us, then go print an announcement that says `To whom it may concern, look under the right rock and you’ll find us.’ That don’t sound sensible to me, Conway, and you surprise me. It don’t sound just like you.”
Mr. Conway looked at me, rather than at him. “Henry has a point, of course, and we have debated it here more than once, these past few months. We have a responsibility to protect this institution, and also, no less, those in the valley below who seem to have been entrusted to our care. But is it enough for us to remain here, anonymously working for the world in ways it would not acknowledge, while we watch it sleep‑walk over a cliff? Or do we owe it something more?”
Rhetorical question. No one felt moved to answer.
“We all know Father Perrault’s vision of civilization being destroyed by war. We have since heard of Carl Jung’s vision, in 1944, of the destruction of most of the world. But they need not happen. They are only possibilities until they are ratified by millions of individual decisions and are frozen into time.”
Mr. Chin spoke again. “Mr. Conway’s dream invites us to consider how we can best make our weight felt. I take it none would argue that our lives, or the lives of the inhabitants of the valley below, would outweigh the life of the world?”
No one did.
Into the silence I said that in any case I didn’t understand how we could get my manuscript—any manuscript—into the world.
Mr. Conway said, “We could get it to the world. But I’d prefer not to leave it at that.” He gazed at me somewhat abstractedly, as if he were looking beyond me—the first time I’d even seen him do so—and asked if I thought that Dennis Corbin could be prevailed upon to accompany my manuscript to the outside world and see it through the publishing process.
The idea was absurd. Which wasn’t like Mr. Conway.
In six weeks, I’d spent a considerable amount of time with Corbin. Six weeks may not be much time in the outside world, with distractions and preoccupations and schedules and this and that, but it’s a long time aboard ship. Time enough to get to know somebody pretty well, if you want to. Even, almost, whether you want to or not. He’d helped me do chores, and we’d sat around and talked about life in the States, and—just as I had with Mr. Barnard when I’d first arrived—we’d told stories, swapped impressions of where and when we’d grown up, described things we’d done and things we’d wanted to do but hadn’t done.
Naturally, we’d wound up talking about who we were, what we believed, what we valued: Thoreau’s “where I lived and what I lived for.” We had come out of different worlds, and lived in different worlds still. Even if I had never come to this beloved place, he and I would have had little enough in common. As it was. . . .
He and I were hiking, one brilliant still morning, up and back along the ridge where we get our exercise, the same ridge he’d measured with his feet when he’d first been told he couldn’t leave. [And how was it that he couldn’t leave, and I couldn’t leave, and all of a sudden maybe he could?]
“There’s a lot involved,” I told him. “Meditation, visualizations, instruction, the study of texts—and some direct experimentation, too. It’s not a matter of taking somebody’s word for it.”
He wanted to know why, if what we’d found was so great and so “globally applicable” (his phrase), nobody had ever discovered it before.
“Dennis,” I said, “that’s just the point! We didn’t discover it, it’s been known for thousands of years. You can find descriptions of the process in all languages, in all cultures. We’ve got lots of those books here, and obviously the outside world had them long before we did. They’re available, if anybody wants to take the time to look for them. It’s just that so much of the process is non‑verbal. It’s hard to describe in words. You wind up talking about the way you experienced it, rather than what you experienced. The best the books can do is give hints. And anyway, you can’t accomplish anything by trying to duplicate the externals of how somebody else woke up. All you have to work with is what’s closest to hand at the moment. Fortunately, that’s all you need.”
“`When the student is ready, the teacher will appear,’” Corbin said mockingly.
I was surprised he’d even heard the saying. “That’s right. How did you know that?”
“Be Here Now. This is like being back in San Francisco. The Age of Aquarius, and all that.”
“Individuals recognize the truth when they hear it,“ Mr. Conway told me. “That’s how the truth makes them free.” But it seemed to have left Mr. Corbin unaffected.]
“I guess you could find a teacher here,” Corbin said. “I’d hate to try it in Brooklyn.”
“Why? Is there any reason you couldn’t be sincere, and humble, and curious and loving there? Or anywhere? Can’t you pray and meditate there? It’s just a matter of calming the mind and lessening personal desires, and staying on track. That’s all you need. The teacher will appear.”
But this was all mumbo‑jumbo to him. To him the world is luck and chance and struggle and circumstances. He couldn’t see that internal and external reality are inextricably connected. Certainly he couldn’t see that his view of the world—the Western secular view of the world—makes no sense once you step outside of its assumptions. He’d never done so, had no intention of doing so, and hadn’t ever met anybody, before me, who had done so.
I puzzled him. “I don’t get it. You have a good mind, you went to college, you were in the Air Force, a flyer—you know about science and technology. You know their value. How can you throw it over for this superstition?”
“It isn’t superstition. It’s experience.”
We came to the end of the trial, the farthest point we could reach in that direction. Hardly pausing to look at the spectacular but almost painfully familiar view, we turned and walked back toward the buildings, maintaining our pace.
“Then why can’t your experience be scientifically verified? If it can’t be verified, maybe it isn’t so.”
“How can science possibly verify it, when its assumptions rule out what it would have to investigate? Can science measure will, and emotion, and different levels of being? Science thinks of people as if they were interchangeable physical particles—and then wonders why it can’t find soul or mind or psychic powers.”
“Hold it! That is precisely the problem here. As soon as we start talking about verification, you say, `Oh, this can’t be measured.’ But if it can’t be measured, why should we take it seriously? They used to say outer space was filled with ether, but when they couldn’t find any trace of it, they finally gave up on it.”
I walked along in silence for a few steps, wondering if the impossible distance between our assumptions could be bridged. I decided that probably it couldn’t—but not the least of Shangri‑la’s gifts is the time for impractical pursuits. “Spoken like a true materialist,” I said. “Mass and volume and velocity measure everything, explain everything, predict everything. The universe is a giant clock, running—running down—all by itself. Tell me, Dennis, did any of your computer programs ever write itself?”
He didn’t bother to answer this verbal jab.
“What’s left of Newton’s clock, Dennis, now that we’ve discovered that matter doesn’t exist?”
Contemptuously: “That’s ridiculous.”
Corbin took an energetic kick at a stone. It went clattering over the side.
“That’s been done before, Dennis,” I said, grinning. “Dr. Johnson kicked the stone. But it still doesn’t prove anything.”
“I don’t know who Dr. Johnson is. All I know is that you can try as hard as you want to, but you can’t talk matter away.”
“I don’t want to talk it away, exactly. But it isn’t what it looks like. Sure, you swing a hammer and drive a nail. But what’s really happening? The hammer and the nail are made up of atoms which are mostly space. And the parts of the atom that aren’t space—the electrons, the nucleus, all that—are particles that are themselves mostly space. And so on down the scale, ad infinitum, as far as anybody’s ever been able to see. Particles aren’t bits of something, they’re more like patterns of energy, wrapped around nothing. So where is the material in your hand? Or in the hammer it holds? Or the nail it drives?”
“You’re playing with words, that’s all. You want to see my hand? Here it is. Here’s the mountain we’re walking on. You can’t argue the mountain out of existence.”
“Dennis, I know they’re really here. But the point, again, is that they aren’t what you think they are. We experience them, so we know they exist. But we don’t experience those ultimate particles of yours. They’re just concepts. They don’t exist. Physicists says that at low mass and high energy levels, matter acts sometimes like waves and sometimes like particles. So where’s your ultimate particle? Out acting like a wave somewhere? Seems to me it’s more likely that its a wave, acting like a particle. Mr. Herrick convinced me long ago that matter is what he calls `a purely local phenomenon, confined to certain energy levels.’”
Corbin asked me if I had any idea what I was talking about.
“Yes I do. I’m telling you simply that there isn’t the slightest `scientific’ excuse for saying that matter is the realest part of life. We know matter and energy are different forms of the same thing. I don’t see any reason to think that mind—spirit, if you prefer—is only a fringe effect produced by matter. I think it’s much more likely to be the other way around, if anything.”
“Boy, I can tell you were a liberal arts major.”
“Yeah. Nobody with a scientific background would be caught dead saying stuff like that.”
I’d been expecting that. “Ever hear of Sir James Jeans, Dennis?”
“No. I take it he’s another crackpot being rushed to your rescue.” Despite our mutual irritation, we grinned at each other as we walked, with some difficulty, side by side on the narrow trail.
“Not quite a crackpot. He was a great British physicist of the 1920s. Won the Nobel Prize, I think. Anyway, he once said that increasingly the world appeared to him less as a great machine than as a great thought. You see? Matter isn’t any more `real’ than thought and spirit. You don’t have any `scientific’ reason to think it is.”
“I still come back to evidence,” Corbin said stubbornly. “I don’t care what it is, anything real leaves tracks. If you can’t find tracks, maybe that’s because it doesn’t exist.”
“But you have to be willing and able to recognize the evidence when you see it. There’s plenty of it, God knows.”
I gave him example after example. Verified accounts of faith‑healing at Lourdes and other places. Carefully documented accounts of extra‑sensory perception. Modern examples of people under stress performing feats of strength or endurance normally far beyond their powers. I even threw in the example of professional gamblers and others who are naturally “lucky” (not counting the innumerable cheats among them) as people who possessed the knack, conscious or unconscious, of drawing to themselves positive energies leading to favorable results. I also mentioned people who were spectacularly “unlucky” as examples of the same energies.
Nothing shook him. He was convinced that “scientific” materialism was the sole alternative to medieval superstition, and he wasn’t about to consider any evidence that might lead in a different direction. It put me in mind of Miss Brinklow. He and she were opposite sides of the same narrow coin.
Corbin, shepherd this manuscript to publication when he wouldn’t agree with a word of it? Clearly, the idea was impossible.