Friday, February 26, 2010
#69 – NIGHT IN SWITZERLAND
It felt awful the way Susan and Abigail used the word “us,” including me as “one of us”. Though when I was 16 I might have been overjoyed if anyone except a dumb jock or a dumb Republican or a good-taste wasp has included me in the “one of us line.”
Not that I sympathized with religious people. For this was area in which my views had been fixed since night in the summer of 1951
That night I was alone with my twin Peter in a second class compartment (the parents and Grandmother Clark were up in first) on a train from Venice to Paris going through Switzerland. In daylight we had come up along the Italian Riviera, which I had not known existed, over and again coming suddenly out of tunnels into bright red-roofed seaside resorts, dazzled by those bright tile roofs and gleaming white walls and yellow flowers and the brilliant azure and green and blue sea that met the mountains, passing by the gates of white-washed hotels that looked like places where people fell in love in tantalizingly dangerous ways that were in my head my head if not my experience. Then, after another tunnel, the longest yet, we were in high Swiss valleys as night was falling.
We bought chewy, honeyed Toblerone chocolate, still unknown in America, and crusty ham sandwiches, from out the train window at the little Swiss mountain stations. I started reading” The Importance of Living," a kind of popular introduction to the Orient written by a former Shanghai Methodist named LinYutang. I had picked it up early in the summer in Paris, where we had gone before Venice, and now were headed back to Paris again. I had found it on the Rue de Rivoli in an English language book store that had the banned-in-America books of D.H. Lawrence and James Joyce and Henry Miller. To me it was in some ways as exciting as all these other books though it was the only one that did not fit with the grainy black and white photos of nude ladies we'd purchased like buyers of contraband from street sellers along the seine.
I read it as amazing relief from the trapped feeling that had descended on me and not left even as I was devouring art in the Jeu de Paum and watching pretty girls dance nude at the Olympia, while fantasizing about staying on a in Paris to be a poet -- so far away from deadly conservatism and that family that I wanted to love but did not seem to much love me. Especially not when I was stuck with them all summer. My brother and I did not even have our own passports, we were on our mothers’. Which was fine for my brother who seemed the center of their worlds again, the good boy who would do them proud unlike his trouble-making twin -- I had recently gone from dumb and bad to merely bad - me. The horror when thrown close with the family again to find it was as if nothing has happened in all these years, all those triumphs on exams and with the school paper and in debating, debating and with girls and with even academics, me, who until the past two years had known I was the outsider, the dumb impossible twin whom no one would ever believe. And now I was right back there again.
The son of a Methodist minister, Lin at the time he wrote this book had decided, he was in favor of what he called paganism. In describing his reasons for rejecting Christianity he spoke of an aesthetic conception of God in which the deity – unlike the God of the Christians – could not be begged for small presents, and would certainly not male an ocean wind blow a sailing ship the way a prayerful believer wanted and against anyone sailing the other way.
His ocean wind line pushed me over the edge I had been approaching: not only would I not pray, I would never trust any god, or any person. And this seemed to me to mean life could to on It was a huge relief. So, unless required by a school, I did not enter a church for any reason other than tourism from then until this time now, when the Met felt like a church, and I wished I could banish the Roman room to the same small place as the those really comic gargoyles on Notre Dame.