As a child and young adult, I rarely left my room. I read. Books of old, mostly, those torn and tattered tomes one finds in small bookstores, buried on some nameless shelf with the sweet smell of mildew wafting from the crisp and crumbly pages. In those books I found my freedom, my absolution. Plato, Aristotle, Copernicus, Newton, Descartes, Darwin. Childhood days passed alone; reading, writing, pondering. And yet … for all the knowledge I devoured – and all the great things that great men taught – the Truth was always a ghostly ship sailing away from the shore. Sailing away from me.
So eventually I foreswore a taciturn life in academia, loathe to gaze down upon the world as if from some exalted Tower of Babel, peering through dusty spectacles at the amblings to and fro of lesser men in the university courtyard. A doomed apparition of fraudulent erudition.
It is easy to talk of existential meaning and teleology and general relativity and Charles Darwin in a cozy lecture hall, proselytizing to a tribe of naive and ignorant fledgelings seething for the epicurean carnal pleasures of campus life, breathlessly counting the seconds until the ring of the bell inaugurates their descent into hedonistic oblivion.
It is yet another matter altogether to ponder the pitiful plight of man as bullets mute and cold hiss past your head, with heart stampeding in a frenzied thump, thump, thump. Then, and only then, in the darkest inferno of Dante’s imagination, in swirling and primordial chaos, in war, does the meaning of self, and of life, and of the cosmos rise from the undulating abyss of the mind like some insubordinate volcano spewing smoke and fire and ash and turning green grass into molten sludge and dreams into nightmares and hopes into fears wherever the capricious wind does alight to flame.
It was just such an experience as a young man that plucked all measure of innocence from me and turned me out as inquisitor of the world. (Have not we all travelled our road to Damascus?)
One day during post-doctoral research, as my exalted professor was mumbling some equation or other, I stopped listening. I stopped listening, but I started hearing. Then I abruptly stalked out of the lab, abandoning my books and notes on the desk. I stuffed a few essentials in a small backpack, emptied my savings account, jumped on a greyhound bus and left my life without a sound.
I flew to Israel, where my parents grew up, my ethnic home, and I enrolled in the army. I found my way into a special forces unit. I wanted to learn about the world. This would not take long.
It happened outside Jericho. We were dressed as tourists with clean white shirts and khaki pants and sunglasses and great big gaudy cameras slung around our necks. The four of us arrived for a meeting in the vacant desert at 8pm, the sun slinking away as the redness crept across the sky. My IDF brothers and I waited there on the dusty plain, swirling eddies of sand whipping around our feet as the howling wind rose up to meet the darkness. But where was the music and where the dance?
Suddenly, without warning, four rotted-out pickup trucks bristling with guns rose from the desert sands like the Phoenix and out of the trucks leaped hardbitten men with machine guns, wiry and brutal and tattoed. It was an ambush, somebody talked. So we commenced to fighting, I mean, what else could we do? We were surrounded and I saw my friend fall and I thought it was the end but as we were fighting we fought. I looked back and at first I thought it was someone else but it was not someone else it was Jaacov and he was lying in a contorted red mess on the ground, gone.
There was a little red circle on his soiled white shirt. A bullet must have gone clean through his heart.
We turned and ran and shooting as we ran. We stumbled into the nearest filthy village half-naked and bloody and dusty and looking like a band of roadagents just done with some horrible plunder. Violent lives ending violently.
It seems like a dream now but that red dream comes back to me and shakes me awake cold and shivering on the blackest of black nights. Death is like an old friend and as he stepped from the shadows I could only smile awkwardly for our way had not crossed in so many years. I could stop now and declaim my horror at the events of that day as the choir sounds ‘repent, repent’ but then this would be a false story and a false story is no story at all.
The ship and the ship’s Captain share an equal destiny entwined with the tapestry of order that breathes fire into the rolls of the deep blue sea. And so it is too with experience and discovery. In finding so are we found.