“I tend to think of the act of photographing, generally speaking, as an adventure. My favorite thing is to go where I’ve never been.” – Diane Arbus
Tolstoy spent his whole life looking for meaning. How ironic, says Konstantin Levin in Anna Karenina, that we were created with intelligence, creativity, insight, energy, and passion; and after a few fitful decades spend the rest of eternity in the cold, hard ground of the steppes. Tolstoy, like Levin, never gave up and after years of searching finally conceded the obvious. If billions of people have believed in God, why shouldn’t I?
Strange that such a genius would have wasted so much of his time. How could he not have known that despite Aquinas, Augustine, and Tertullian who insisted on logical conclusions to questions about the nature and divinity of Christ, that logic and faith do not mix?
After a long and personally productive career, an acquaintance of mine retired from “a desultory trade” – one, he said, which required little intelligence, the gift of gab, a tolerance for risk, and no commitment. What international development did provide was adventure, romance, and the good life. Surprisingly even the most blighted African countries had five-star hotels and international cuisine to go along with their unspoiled beaches, simple interior, and slow, peaceful pace; and Billy Palmer enjoyed every surprise, unlikely nook and cranny, gentle women, and even heat and dust.
Billy was not just an epicurean adventurer. His intellectual eyes were open. Why, for example, had even the great African empires left no traces – no architecture, temples, written record, poetry, or great thought? Why was the continent still mired in ignorance and poverty while the rest of the world raced on?
He felt privileged to observe medieval if not stone age culture in the raw. He was the first white man to have set foot in Makkanpur since the last British Collector of the Raj visited in 1939. He visited Tuareg nomadic settlements that had not changed since the Roman occupation of North Africa. He rode 100 miles down the Napo River just before it joined the Amazon and drank ayahuasca with the Jivaro Indians. As a young man the adventure was enough without parsing meaning, purpose, development, or future. Yet he could not ignore the obvious. Here he stood, drinking herbal potions in the middle of the forest with half-naked, painted, tribal chieftains in 2010. What was that all about?
In the morning, the Amazon settlement was no different from any other. Girls collected firewood, women cooked, boys went off to fish in the river, babies cried, mothers-in-law complained, and men painted themselves for the ritual of The Leaf, a ceremonial purging of deformed spirits of the dead.
Plus ça change, Billy thought.
In other words Billy Palmer had by the time of his retirement collected enough information on the nature of human enterprise and the meaning of life to beggar the pursuits of Tolstoy. Before starting on his cultural journeys he had always wondered whether people were more alike or more different. In other words, were all societies, cultures, nations, and empires predictable if not ineluctable because of human nature? Or were there fundamental differences which qualified one over another?
He was convinced that he had gotten his answer. Minutes out of the womb we all acted the same – hungry, self-interested, territorial, aggressively possessive, and individualistic.
Yet, intellectual that he was, Billy could not stop there. His observations were anecdotal, probably fueled by an obsessively independent mother who had taken many lovers without remorse and whose intellectual indifference (“Morality imprisons. Amorality frees”), thanks to her thorny personality, had always trumped his father’s temperance. He could not count on personal impressions; and like Tolstoy had to at least consider received wisdom.
He began his studies with Shakespeare’s Histories. If a concourse of facts and figures could not describe the human condition, then perhaps fictionalized versions could. Jan Kott, famous Shakespearean critic, observed that if one were to lay the Bard’s Histories in chronological order, their themes would be predictably repetitive. Although the cast of characters might have changed, their intents, purposes, and plots would not have. Human nature – absolute, given, unchangeable, and permanent – would always produce the same results. Whether John, Henry IV, Richard III, Henry V, or Henry VIII, the scenario would not change, nor would the denouement.
He pushed on to the Russians and Scandinavians; but neither Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Ibsen, or Strindberg had any other conclusions to offer. Sadly and ironically, we all were born with exactly the same makeup. Any variations were cosmetic. Shakespeare’s most fascinating characters – Hamlet, Lear, Cleopatra, Othello, and Macbeth – are compelling not because of what they do but how they do it. Drama is not so much conclusion as it is expression. Iago, Tamora, Dionyza, Goneril, Regan, and Edmund all act in the same venal, morally corrupt, and self-serving ways but differently.
Harold Bloom, perhaps the premier literary critic of the late 20th century, was an intellectual Jew who more than any other intellectual of the period understood the absolute foundational primacy of the Bible in Western art. Bloom’s esoteric references to Job, Malachi, and Ezekiel were lost on his Yale undergraduates for whom Wordsworth, Byron, and Shelley should be taken at their most romantic word. Bloom ruined poetry, Shakespeare, and literature for Billy Palmer because of his insistence on reference.
During the first years of Bill Palmer’s retirement, however, he finally understood what the master was getting at and immersed himself in Biblical exegesis and textual analysis. Finally, he said, he was getting down to brass tacks. There could be no facile dismissal of John’s first chapter or the eloquence of Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians.
Yet, after courses at the seminary, volumes of criticism, and helpful reminders from colleagues who had become Christians, Billy Palmer was unsatisfied. Unlike Tolstoy, however, who backed into faith, he was simply tired out.
To the surprise of his wife, friends, and former colleagues, Billy Palmer’s intellectual interests strayed no further than Victorian fiction. Trollope, the Brontes, Du Maurier, Hardy, and Walpole were quite enough. They were lovely stories told from beginning to end – like Dickens, George Eliot, and Sinclair Lewis. Delta Wedding by Eudora Welty was especially interesting because it had no plot, no ulterior artistic motive, nor any attempt at meaning. It was simply the story of a multi-generational Mississippi Delta family gathered for a celebration.
He began to watch movies again – romantic favorites, whodunits, action heroics, and comedies. Netflix had long ago dropped Bergman, Herzog, and Eisenstein from his ‘Favorites For You’ offerings.
Billy Palmer had reached and crossed The Point of No Return. After a certain point, although one may know only an infinitesimal bit of the world’s knowledge, that is enough. There are too many predictable similarities in facts to endlessly pursue them. It is enough to know that human nature underlies all human enterprise and that all human history will be that of familiar stories of greed, aggression, patriarchy, and territory.
“You’re just getting old”, said Billy’s wife who continued her work as a community volunteer and contributor to social causes. Her husband’s new lassitude and indifference were becoming cause for concern.
Yes, Billy admitted, he was getting old; and the old adage about age and wisdom finally made sense. He was surprised, however, to find out that such wisdom had nothing elevating or spiritual about it.
He only wondered why it had taken him so long to realize the unavoidable fact that life was indeed meaningless; and that any time spent on trying to prove otherwise was time wasted.
Luckily for him, Billy Palmer had spent the best years of his life in sensuous and sensual adventure. Better to die knowing that you have had a good run, than to realize that you have learned nothing.