If you’ve missed reading about my little adventure leaving it all behind and pilgriming all the way from Egypt to the Shaolin Temple in the north of mainland China to learn Kung Fu, Qi Gong meditation and zen Buddhism, here’s a recap:
These were all posted less than two weeks into my journey, and I have been here 10 weeks and very prolific. Take a look at the entire archive of my Shaolin China posts if you’d like to jump forward to a date and see my May and June posts, or to get the whole batch of letters I’ve written to the world from ‘the Center of Heaven and Earth’: http://pakinamlights.tumblr.com/archive
Hope you enjoy reading them, please do send me your feedback, here or via email at pakinamamer at yahoo dot com.
Battling intense mood swings and depressive episodes is not easy — and it’s harder when we forget the little things that made us dream and look forward to a better tomorrow. Even worse, we tend to discard and leave behind the small habits that keep us connected to the “now” — which is the more important between the past and the future.
Recently, I bought a new journal — engraved with a drawing of the Little Prince (my best friend) hanging by small ropes to a flock of birds, taking flight off his tiny planet and into the unknown. A line underneath the drawing reads, “L’essential est invisible pour les yeax.” The essential is invisible to the eyes.
It’s true. Once I started writing in that journal — after months and months of leaving this habit– I realized that I had the answer all along: I shouldn’t look outside of myself to battle my demons. But perhaps I should look inside, to the things that I already have and thought I lost, and instead of battling demons, perhaps I should befriend them, even love them. They’ve lived with me for so long, I’m probably their only home. I wouldn’t throw them away.
I’m loyal to strange things.
Writing, and sketching — creating form, ink on paper. Therein lies the magic that perhaps will free me one day. In my first entry, I wrote, “When writing, a person is in the moment, like right now. If you’re focused on getting ink on paper, nothing becomes more important than ink on paper. And within the ink and the words, there’s a certain magic, an incantation and a spell. Am I going crazy? Or is this me finally becoming sane? Finding beauty in the mundane. Or more correctly finding miracles in small things.
Words have a god. And whoever masters words becomes close to this God. If you become a word, the word, you become god. This is the essence of spirituality: becoming infinite inside something. Consigning your soul — this limitless presence– to a single point in space. Points are timeless, or rather not bound by time.”
So are words. And so will you, if you focus so much on the task of producing a word on paper that you disappear in it. Watch the pen move, the ink dispensed, sink into the pores of the paper, grow and stem out into a form that gives meaning, makes sense. Suddenly, the ink takes on new meanings. It becomes alive in the shape that it has created. Iqraa, read it back, breathe in, breathe out, in, out and everything changes. This is the present. Welcome to it.
Words can change the world.
How can this idea not be healing?
Similarly, I tried to re-explore sketching. A beautifully talented Tweep gave me a drawing book, as gift, a week earlier, and I haven’t stopped drawing ever since. And last night, I wasn’t too afraid — as I always were before– to share that bit of myself. So I posted some of these online, and I even changed my Twitter avatar to a self-portrait that I have drawn myself.
Will all this cure my dark episodes? It might. And if not, then it will remain there as testimony to how I tried.
“Nous écrivons des choses eternelles.”
Listening to: Nothing Mood: Indescribable, hovering in a grey area between happiness and sadness. Wants from the Universe: Love, love, love and more love. For people, and for things. Mostly, for myself. Because I need that.
… for falling off the grid recently. I have no excuse. But I must confess I have been turning more to writing letters to beings above and on the Earth, some of them dear friends, others are gods, and this has distracted me from the Watchtower (i.e. this blog). I promise to be less sporadic and more prolific. And in the course of the next few days, I will collect some material from personal emails, and anecdotes from trips to the desert, and turn them into proper posts that I can share.
Thank you for reading, and happy 2011. Two-thousand-and-Ten was nothing short of dreamy and beautiful, despite loss, deep pains and a set of troubles. It has taught me much. I have learned that the desert casts enchanting spells on gullible travelers, that words can break your bones if you let them, people can move on but sometimes they don’t, love is just around the corner but only if you’re ready, personalities (and body weight) are not set in stone and both can be lost for the good, friendships can be resurrected, fears squished and buried deep, that some bridges need to be burned to the ground, a listening ear is precious, that the past no matter how pretty can get boring, karma works, some hurts persist, the Universe listens, authority figures are always flawed, the essential is invisible to the eye and that you become responsible forever for what you tame. And oh, fennec foxes can get too friendly — but that was just plain fun to learn.
For 2011, I have decided that this Calvin Coolidge quote is my new year’s resolution: “Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan “press on” has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.”
Listening to: Songs from a time well past and gone
Wants from the Universe: Strength. And the courage to feel and act upon intuition and feeling. Love. Light. To hear the voice of God. The door that opens when others are closed. Peace of mind. More helpful hands for my projects. More luck. Also, and while we’re at it, an iPad and a Kindle.
Warning: This blogpost makes blatant generalizations about travel writing, and spends an awful lot contemplating why death and travel have much in common. The thoughts may be incoherent at times, and conclusions are loose. There’s much recycled from emails to a particular unlucky friend, and the beginning and ending may not tie together. You see, it’s very personal. And it’s more about me than about travel, or at least it’s equally about both.
Browsing travel books in a Heliopolis bookstore, I decided to read the first few pages of each book to check it for style. Between skimming through the books and jotting their names down on the yellow sheets of my new notepad (the cheapest I found in the proximity of the pricey stationer and bookstore), I sent snippets of thoughts in emails to a rather annoying friend who claims he “forgives but never forgets” and who shall remain nameless throughout this post.
One of the virtues of owning a blackberry; it’s a megaphone onto your small world. Thoughts are voiced, and voices are amplified and wrapped up nicely in mini-emails that fly off to friends and family, assuring you both that you’re there — Hmm, in a way.
I looked through eight books, some of which were more interesting and engaging than the rest. They Saddle Dogs: A Journey Through East to West by Greg Hunt was one of those that got my attention. “I have to say I like this Greg Hunt, at least his chapter One is good,” I wrote to my friend. “He writes with a mix of nostalgia and melancholia — with the right dose of cynicism and self-reflection.”
I reflected, “Death and farewells hover over the first two pages and I like that. A travel book that begins with things that passed, that’s new to me, and beautiful because death and farewells, as sad as they may be, imply journeys and movement, leaving the familiar behind and going towards the unknown. When we die or say our goodbyes, we travel, spiritually or mentally, and in both cases physically.”
The prelude to his book was preceded by a single quote, by Lewis B. Smedes. It read, “Forgiving does not erase the bitter past. A healed memory is not a deleted memory. Instead, forgiving what we cannot forget creates a new way to remember. We change the memory of our past into a hope for our future.” The first two lines touched me and the last two lines filled me with a sense of longing — it’s that feeling of hope mixed with doubt, and the longing is for sweet forgetfulness or peaceful remembrance, the one without bitterness, false delusions or unnecessary denials of a truth one could not live with.
What touches us about books are very strange indeed, I thought to myself. And I wondered what spoke to me in travel literature. The next interesting books helped me make some -admittedly vague- generalizations, part-humorous and part-analytical.
One of those books was called ‘Arabia of the Bedouins’ and was written by Marcel Kurpershoek.
And the bit I read warranted another correspondence to the chosen friend (also victim of my obsessive thought). I cited this quote, beautifully written, “A gentle, melancholy desert breeze, which whispered and rustled if you bent your ear in its direction, caressed the rolling dunes and carried with it the distant sound of a dog barking. In the same direction, on the other side of a deep depression, there was a glimmer of light, no more than a tiny patch in the blackness. A Bedouin tent, I guessed. In the white light of the moon, in its third quarter and high in the sky, only the largest stars were visible. Scorpio had already plunged below the south-western horizon and the remnants of the Great Bear had also disappeared. To the north, Andromeda wound its way across the heavens like the knots in a long rope, flanked by the inverted camel’s saddle of Cassiopeia. Under the table I had buried my bare feet voluptuously in the soft warm sand of the Nefud as-Sirr. Behind me was Hamra, the ‘reddish brown female camel’, as I had dubbed the Land Rover — much to the annoyance of my Arab friends, since colour designations are never used as animal names.”
And I wrote to my friend:
“From this small paragraph, I can conclude that good travel writing must have:
1. Wind, sand and stars
2. The word ‘Bedouin’ somewhere
3. A machine that has a name, and preferably a Land Rover.
4. A reference to camels
5. Mention of tents or some kind of sanctuary against the cold or heat
6. The friendly voice of a storyteller, the author, one of us.
7. Angry Arabs or ‘different’ Bedu people, the others, not one of us.
8. The words ‘melancholy’ or ‘nostalgia’ to give it an air of romantic tragedy.
9. Bareness (the desert, the “it”, the unknown, the mystery) juxtaposed against complex familiarity (the car, the “ours”, the known, the tried, the security blanket).
10. Color – literally or figuratively.”
Thankfully, I already know a car — a nice machine whose color reflects the light of the sun– which has a name, a twitter account and an email address and whose presence reminds me of adventure and of things that may never be again.
Another book, The Scent Trial: A journey of the senses, tells the story of a woman who traveled from France to Morocco and across Turkey, India, Sri Lanka and Yemen, to trace the origins of ingredients of a perfume scent created specially for her in a shop in London. In the intro of the book, Celid, the author, wrote, “And because scent evokes memories -at one time or another we have all experienced those sudden unexpected moments when a trace of scent instantly reminds us of an incident from childhood, or a forgotten landscape, or the presence of a long-lost lover – we tirelessly search for the right one.”
How smart! Her book is about scents, and through this beautiful sentence the author links the smells to psychological journeys as she takes us, the readers, on a physical journey, and sets the mood for the rest of her book. Senses and emotions. Another thing a travelogue is about. I added that to the mental checklist of what a travel book should allude to.
Next. The Hills of Adonis: A quest in Lebanon. “This journey belongs to a time of innocence – both Lebanon’s and mine,” read the preface. “Fleetingly it may recapture the beauty of that ravaged country and the people who used to live there in peace.”
The line evokes a sense of nostalgia -important in travel writing, it seems- and the essence of a past that is gone and can only be recaptured in writing. The book reads like a memoir. And the mood that the first chapter sets says that the book is both about place and man. It’s as autobiographical as it is a travel account.
“Of all the gods conceived by ancient men, the last to pass away were those divinities of sun and earth who dominated the Semitic world. Because they represented most nearly the needs and instincts of mankind, they remained long after their images had been broken: rebellious, archetypal giant,” began the first chapter of the book, foreshadowing a heavy dose of self-reflection. It didn’t disappoint.
“The search for such many-faceted divinities will entail being led astray, demanding as it does, a long walk down the corridors of time and thought. The conclusions will be personal, and the quest may be satisfied, as pilgrimages are, as much in its journey as in its end,” the author wrote.
In his Mirrors to Damascus, a personal record of the city jeweled with episodes from its history, he writes of Damascus, “but men came here before their coming could be recorded.”
Other books similarly spoke of the past in their account of a fleeting momentary present that seemed to be beautiful only because it carried remnants of a bygone era. Then again, what could be more attractive to a traveller than a “long-forgotten route” or a lost city or oasis, the hidden, the past, the personal journey towards the collective origins of us, the origins of man. Travel is about the search for the meaning of life, as friend and travel writer Amr El Beleidy wrote on his meditation of travel (“Why do we travel: To discover what we cannot leave” published by http://www.almasryalyoum.com/en)
It’s the quest for roots, in the hope of finding purpose. And this is why travel memoirs touch us, because the journey carries within it what defines man: the fall, the grand expedition towards finding self and God, the death, and the resurrection. When we travel, we open our eyes. When we die, we awaken. When we say goodbye, we take off. When we search, we realize what is essential and invisible to the eyes. We live. When we get lost, we find traces, small routes that lead back to ourselves. We travel. And when we know who we are, we travel away from the world, because we have understood it too much to desire it. We die. And it’s beautiful.
Listening to: Whatever was on in that bookstore, I think it was Arabic music
Mood: “Strangely beautiful” as I described it to said friend in a different correspondence
Wants from the universe: My own travelogue, strong friendships, sweet aromatic tea, a night spent under the stars, a happy hour (a real one, not the one meaning the drinks are cheap), a new adventure, a new love and more solitary walks in a quiet, cool Cairo.
This post is also available on my new travel blog @ Travelpod.com. Please bookmark it and watch it for more travel-related blogposts. Cheers!
This the curtain-raiser for a series that Al-Masry Al-Youm Travel, which I’m heading, has recently launched. With a new voice every week, writers offer their reflections on the reasons why people leave behind familiar settings, friends, and perhaps even family members and beloved pets, to explore new places, away from home.
I jumped on the early train to Minya minutes before it started moving, after pushing my way through the crowd at Cairo’s main railway station, where the hustle and bustle begins in the early hours of morning and almost never ceases.
I’d barely slept a few hours. Insomnia, coupled with an obsessive thinking that usually precedes my trips–on planes or trains, highways or boats–had left me looking like a zombie, disorientated, and wondering why on earth I was traveling. Minutes earlier I had been scrambling to find the right platform through half-sleepy eyes and a self-induced haze, my mind clouded.
So why do we travel?
To escape. To forget. Or perhaps to remember the things we push back into our memories during the rattle of daily city life as we juggle family commitments and work, haggle to get things done, and try to meet deadlines that pass rapidly by as we try not to lose our sanity. Perhaps it’s to preserve those subtle differences that separate us from walking, talking machines.
Or perhaps we travel because we have to.
In travel, we’re separated–not only from what we love, but from what we hate, and what we fear.
Psychologist Eric Fromm once wrote that the deepest need of man “is the need to overcome his separateness, to leave the prison of his aloneness”–because, he says, this separateness creates anxiety, and “the world can invade me without my ability to react.”
But maybe separateness is essential from time to time, facilitated by travel, precisely so that we can be invaded, by sights, sounds, ideas and people. In our vulnerability, we may realize who we are and what truly holds us together. We can start re-evaluating how we see the world. Our faith may be shaken or broken, or made stronger, depending on the outcome of the experience.
It’s a test of whether or not what we consider important has any meaning at all. Indeed, it’s a gamble.
And it is scary, because we may discover we’re holding on to an illusion, or on our return we may look differently on what we once considered of utmost importance.
Like any journey, toward the self or toward God, the truth can be too hard to handle. And once known, it can never be unknown. Done but not undone, like our past mistakes.
Perhaps travel, in that sense, is a mistake. Because opening your eyes, or Seeing, with a capital “S”, becomes a life-time sentence.
And so in deciding to travel, we’re torn apart by a desire to escape from our reality, and an equally strong desire to stay put and escape from the journey we’re embarking on–or at least from the memories, thoughts and questions it might provoke. The push and pull between the two forces decides what we do in the end.
Why do we travel?
To think. I took the window seat on that train to Minya, rested my head back and breathed. Thinking is different on trains, I thought to myself, as I stared through the window watching the cities, towns, countryside, and the world rolling by.
I pulled out my notebook to review my research for the assignment I was heading to Minya for, and to jot down a few extra questions.
I was traveling there to do a piece on sectarian clashes. Relations between Muslims and Coptic Christians in Egypt are tense, and since the 1990s violence between the two has been on the increase. My visit would include meetings with church officials and members of the Christian community, and I thought about how this was another exercise in getting people to talk and open up, despite the possible security threat.
Assignments away from home have a different flavor. At home, conversations, interviews and communications are muddled with worries, plans unfulfilled and things to rush to.
Away, we listen. We wake up early every morning, full of a new-found readiness to discover. Distance changes the way we look at what time has turned mundane, including the work habits we have fallen into.
Sources become people, assignments become stories, and “quotes” take on a human shape –the shape of the zeal, happiness, sadness or indifference with which they are uttered.
We’re alone, so we listen.
But I never opened my notebook throughout that train ride. I just looked through the glass window.
As scenery moves quickly to the backdrop of the world, all loses meaning, except those things that truly matter. These stay.
And they fill you with both reassurance, and a measure of sadness, a nostalgia mixed with a longing for freedom. The freedom that comes with separation. The freedom that hurts and liberates. The sister of loneliness.
It’s freedom from the very things that own and move us, from the angels and demons of human relations and what ties us to each other and to the world. In solo travel, on the road, we’re just us.
Thinking is different on trains. In moving. In the departure. In the journey. In the return. Or the no return. In the solitude.
The problem is that I manage, consciously or not, to leave a bit of myself behind everywhere I go. In the train. In the destination. In the people I come in contact with. In the higher levels of thoughts, and in their lowest.
Perhaps that’s why I’m never complete in stillness. And my mind can never go blank, even during an event-less train journey.
Perhaps that’s why I travel.
Readers of Al-Masry Al-Youm are encouraged to contribute by reflecting on their own journeys and telling us why they travel, either by sending their stories to firstname.lastname@example.org, or sending a direct message showing their interest to @AlMasry_Travel, by registering to the site and writing a blog or by leaving their comments. Also, my friends and readers of this blog, are welcomed to write guest blogs telling me why they travel and sending them to me here. You can leave them as comments on this post, and I’ll moderate and publish them.
“Here at last I was plunging into the untraversed and the unknown. What lay ahead? It was not the possible dangers of the journey which made my nerves tingle and caused my spirits to mount with exhilaration — dangers are merely a part of the day’s work in the desert. It was the realization that I was to explore hidden places; that I should go through a region hitherto untrodden by one of my own kind, and make, perhaps, some contribution, small though it might be, to the sum of human knowledge.” – Crossing the untraversed Libyan desert, by A.M. Hassanein, for the National Geographic.
Reading Ahmed Mohamed Hassanein’s article, I grew sad, then a particular brand of anger I know too well started to build up – just like a sand storm in the desert, twisting the sands and rising from the feet up until it’s as high as your head, as Hassanein rightly described – and reaching my head, the mind started to boil with ideas.
In my mind’s eye, I saw myself researching and retracing the Egyptian explorer’s steps on a paper map (Google Earth is beautiful to look at, but confuses me. I find paper, in all its forms, romantic. Books, journals, folded maps, nothing can beat this for me). I drew my own route in my head, and wondered who to sell the story to if I ever do an encore. Would the Nat Geo be interested? the Voice that lived in my head asked.
Then nothing. Silence. All the lights were turned off in my head. The mountains disappeared. A starless, moonless night suddenly loomed. And the anger that had almost morphed into a driving passion faded. And suddenly, my little dreams turned from oases to mirage, illusions. Depression trickled in.
It could easily be my mood; it changes you know. And this phase is dark (I’m learning to live with it). Suddenly, the left side of my brain started awakening from its slumber, bombarding me with considerations, resources being the first of them. The “company” question was next in line. Money and people are always tricky, the right side of my brain agreed almost reluctantly. But in an afterthought added, “you just need to decide, start planning, and the universe will take care of the rest.” The left-side let out a snort. The voice in my head interfered, and the argument was three-sided now.
I personally disengaged. It was too much to take in, and if I get truly depressed, I’ll just leave all and go to sleep.
So I took off to that lonely cave in my brain, and started to think. I’ll blog while I’ll do it. My blog is part of that cave, where I go to when I’m lonely, when friends and even the most special of people seem at a distance, on the other bank of a river which has no boats, and whose water is dark and treacherous.
And here I am. And right now, finishing an article written in 1920s with no glossing of how cruel the desert is but also not hiding how beautiful it is, I have a profound hatred for the modern traps of social life. My distaste for Twitter and Facebook alike are increasing, and my boredom with those who inhabit only those spheres is scaring even myself (then again, Tweetville was where I ran to when I felt lonely, inspired, happy or betrayed).
But now I feel it’s part of this monster, the city. It’s another illusion, a trap on three levels a la Inception dreams, full of faceless people who are just as lost as I am, or perhaps as lonely, people who can’t enjoy the moment without tweeting about it. Don’t get me wrong, some of those people are the most inspiring and successful I’ve met. But some have equated virtual presence with presence, or have decided to add to the “noise”. But this is not a blog about Twitter, its curses or virtues. And it’s not fair to bash one of the few places where I can truly share — as sad as this may be.
The road to Al-Kufrah.
I’ve been considering it, even before knowing A.M. Hassanein had been there. And now that I have read his accounts, it seems all the more magical. I wondered what the place looks like now, almost 90 years later, and whether tribes still hold fast to their traditions, alliances and secrets. Or whether like the era when that article was written, it all faded away, and now you have Bedouins with Nokia cell phones. Ugh, damn those too! (The phones, not the Bedouins)
It was sad to read about the Senussi brotherhood, knowing that most of them were destroyed by the Italians. In the early 1900s, they were still inhabiting part of the Western desert in Egypt, mainly in the oases (wahat) of al-Bahariya, Dakhla, Farafara and Siwa. They led campaigns against the British military, and at a point were defeated and had to withdraw into Libya. In the Libyan desert, they took sanctuary but similarly resisted the Italian forces until the early 40s, and like Libyans, they endured much damage. Their lodges and Sufi orders were closed, their sheikhs killed or arrested and their lands confiscated. The order still stands, according to records, but it’s now a pale shadow of its past prestige and glory.
It’s a bit of history of the Bedu that we don’t know. City people often call them “Arabs” or “‘Orban” – an alienating term and a reminder that they hailed from the Arabian peninsula. Not “pharoahs” like us, but Arabs. Different. “Colored” perhaps. Not “fair” (and lovely) like us.
But again, the people who live there are only part of the magic. The main charm lies in the stretch of desert itself, with all the kind of “silences” that Saint-Exupery had once described in his Letter to a Hostage, which alluded to his trips in the Sahara.
It’s the desert pulling you into its arms, with heart-warming scenery, in one moment, and pushing you away into a depth of a menacing storm, or your own hallucinations when the water supply is low and the sun is high, in the next. For you see, the desert is a woman, one you couldn’t love but would have died to. It’s Earth. It’s life. It’s that slightly moody, intensely charming man you were once in love with. It’s your soul, and mine, with all their fluctuations, mystic and elusiveness.
Hassanein wrote at some point: “One day we had to advance in the teeth of the storm, and I saw how it could keep moving slowly. To stop means to be drowned by the sand. The camels instinctively know this and continue to advance in site of the tormenting blast. On the other hand, the moment the rain comes they stop and even kneel down. During my previous travels I had collected many of the rules of sandstorms and their behavior, according to Bedouin information, but to my great regret, they were all broken in those days of trial. Sometimes, however, toward sunset, when we had been battling for hours against the seemingly interminable bombardment, the wind would stop dead, as if a master hand had given a signal. For an hour or more the fine sand and dust would settle slowly, like a falling mist. A short while afterward the moon would rise, and under the pale magic of its flooding light the desert would assume a new aspect. Had there been a sandstorm? Who could remember? Could this peaceful expanse of loveliness ever be cruel? Who would believe it?”
What strikes me about Hassanein’s writing is the ease by which he recounts his stories and records his findings. No (imaginary) frantic arm-waving or loudness in the story-telling, or magnification of dangers. He describes life and death matters – including being too short on water, losing camels which are like caravan members to them, losing the way, being caught in a storm or trekking for too long that death becomes a welcome thought- with such simplicity that the reader cannot be but awed.
Courage and resilience, it seems, cannot be spoken of but in small words. Big words are saved for the pretentious, and those who have nothing to say. Those who begin their stories with gasps of “Oh my God!” or “You would never believe what just happened.” Danger, adventure and accomplishment are not dramatic when they’re real. They’re only so when they’re mimicked and staged in big Hollywood flicks, or jotted down in resumes and boasted about in Twitter and Facebook bios.
Towards the end of his journey, after discovering two Oases, whose locations were not previously verified and so had become “half-mythical” in reputation, Hassanein’s caravan faces more difficulty on the return. Water supplies were little and the trek as well as the terrain were more difficult. “There was more than one night when I thought the desert would reclaim its secret of the hidden oases by blotting out our little party and swallowing us in the sands.”
However, the desert spared them, and “the heart of him who wandered into far places” was gladdened upon the return.
Indeed, that must be how “happiness” feels, that elusive notion, happiness, that only those who have been stripped of all (sleep, security, basic needs like food and water, a comfortable bed or a warm night without the fear of distant tribes or nearing storms) can only feel in the reunion with those simple pleasures.
Listening to: the humming of the air-conditioner in my room
Mood: indescribable, but a little calmer post-venting
Wants from the universe: Travel, Write, Publish. Love, Live, Be Loved. Repeat.
“Sovereign of my heart, Regina, kept safe and secret in the deepest corner of my breast.”
I’m big on psychology theorists these days, and while searching for e-books for Rollo Reese May (since I failed to find any hardcopies in our distinguished book-stores across Cairo), I came across works by Soren Kierkegaard, Danish philosopher, psychologist and theologian. I decided to “wiki” him since I have to admit I knew nothing of him and the book that I came across had an incredibly sexy title (It’s called ‘Fear and Trembling’).
His wiki page touched upon his relationship with the love of his life Regine Olsen. The woman, as also several other pages claim, greatly influenced his work. He was briefly engaged to her, their love was “deep” according to records, but then he lost her. How? Well, he broke off the engagement. It was his doing, and then he suffered for it during his short life (he died at 42).
Why did he do it? The reasons are not clear. Some say it was due to his devotion to God and church (almost forced upon him by his father), others say to immerse himself in his work, while some said he realized he was not a man for marriage but the real reasons died with them. Olsen refused to publish her diaries (although an unverified account resurfaced later and was sold as her diary), while Kierkegaard referred to his relation only in his work. He and Olsen also corresponded, but his letters remains and hers are destroyed. Some accounts said that Olsen had told her friends that before the break-up Kierkegaard felt an immense sadness, and she suspected that drowning himself in work was a tactic to distance himself away from her.
Such a mystery, isn’t it? From her side, Olsen was devastated when seemingly without good reason her man left her. He refused to take her back even when she threatened suicide. In her despair, she begged him not to leave her. And in order to drive her away, Kierkegaard feigned coldness, telling her that perhaps in 10 years, he will take another woman to “rejuvenate him.” The woman was left in shambles.
Ironically, she moved on, got married but he didn’t. In fact, he was “shocked” to hear of her marriage two years after he had left her. According to a source, shortly after the break up, of her he wrote: “Not even here in Berlin has my, alas, all-too-inventive brain been able to refrain from scheming something or other. She must either love me or hate me, she knows no third possibility. Nor is there anything more harmful to a young girl than half-way situations.” He remained alone until he died, and four weeks before his death, he still wrote of his agony. “I had my thorn in the flesh,” he said. “And therefore did not marry.”
Their story is fleshed out in the introduction of Kiekregaard’s book The Seducer’s Diary — which is believed to be an account of his relationship with Olsen, detailing how he seduced her and how he left, masquerading as a “fictional” tale. The introduction and the first 23 pages of the book can be found here (Google Books Preview).
Of her love, he had written in his journal, “Thou sovereign of my heart treasured in the deepest fastness of my chest, in the fullness of my thought, there […] unknown divinity! Oh, can I really believe the poet’s tales, that when one first sees the object of one’s love, one imagines one has seen her long ago, that all love like all knowledge is remembrance, that love too has its prophecies in the individual.”
The question that begs itself is: What was that about?
I’m sure the pain and the confusion had turned into energy that fuelled his creativity and inspired his writings and made his drive and will stronger. But why make this hard choice to leave abruptly as such and suffer the consequences? Was it reluctance to live with the idea of choosing one person, a lack of responsibility towards this choice or a refusal to surrender to the idea of marriage? Was it cold feet, fear of commitment, fear of happiness? Or was it the realization that he was not meant to be happy or settled or with the person he loved? The belief that he must suffer for some twisted reason that only God knew what it was? Self-punishment? Or perhaps worse, a knowledge that even the person that his heart desires can’t make him whole. A chronic feeling of (and an impulsion for) loneliness or aloneness? Perhaps it was simply boredom. Or a desire to break away, to always be free. Not to be tied down to anything, even the objects of one’s infatuation.
The story touched me. I could see people doing what he was doing (and to be honest, I could see myself doing that despite knowing that women are usually reluctant to make such radical decisions. I just read that women are more reluctant than men to break up relationships even if they’re equally, or even more, miserable than their partners).
The story is not shocking, it’s a bit surprising but most of all it’s sad. Heart-wrenching actually. Because we do make similar choices. I wondered if some people are, by nature, convinced that they cannot and shall not be happy that they consciously (or by a curse of obsessive thought) create the melo-drama, place a verdict upon their lives in their heads and act upon it.
Could it be? The idea scares me. I can’t help but think: What if I’m trapped in my own thinking as such that I might be stirring up suffering? That perhaps there’s a pleasure in being confined to suffering, to being a victim of circumstances. (Or that perhaps it’s easier). We’ve studied back in college cases of people whose lives (and failures) were prophecized by their thinking. Of women who say they can’t find love but keep rejecting it or scaring potential partners away, unconsciously and sometimes consciously. Of men who believe others will eventually hate them (if they see through the protective walls that they erect around them) only to provoke that hate through their actions, thus driving people to hate them and in turn validating their earlier beliefs. Self-fulfilling prophecy. Manipulation of events and others. A very forced way of proving you’re right — even if it hurts you and those around you in the end.
I would be interested to read The Seducer’s Diary in full, and try to search for answers to the question of whether or not some people seek suffering (or can’t do or create or be something without it) through this real-life story of heart-break and great accomplishment. Then again, Kierkegaard was a prolific writer, an influential psychologist and was known to be the “the father of existential philosophy.”
Yet, like many of us, despite delving so deep into human nature and what makes us who we are, he couldn’t be happy. He followed his heart. Then his mind. He hurt others. He hurt himself. He was disillusioned. He was confused. He ached. And perhaps, if my theory is correct, that was (secretly) what he wanted.
Listening to: Ahlam and Mohammed Abdu on Rotana Khalijiah
Mood: pensive, uneasy and slightly irritable
Glad to announce that Don Young quoted in my blog post Young Reflections has been convinced by someone (couldn’t resist bragging really) to create a blog and share his thoughts with the world. I personally became his first follower, and I love his words. Take a look: http://sleeplessdisorder.wordpress.com/ It’s a new born but it’s worth watching!
Let me take this chance and recommend a few more blogs that I check every morning:
It turns out I have been feeling this “loneliness” for far longer than I thought I did. I found some writings from a few years back, I don’t even remember writing them or the occasion, and I cringe a bit at the amount of melodrama seeping from every word. Here’s an abstract:
“Perception is a curse. Seeing through, having a breakthrough changed my life, changed me more than I can say. Words fail when I attempt to describe how alone I am, in this wretched world where my enemies are not black anymore, neither are my people all white and good. There are not many people where I am to testify to my loneliness or sing the praises of the no-knowledge land. But believe me –believe the sound of reason etching in my voice, ripping at my heart- it’s a deserted place where I am, where happiness is a thing of the past, and where peace never comes without a price.”
“Home becomes a relative thing, anyway. So perhaps it does not matter. Or does it matter? Because home becomes something abstract, something that could only be attained in struggle. Something that people dream of when they sleep; like freedom, love, right … all those beautiful, beautiful words. I guess I will be a traveler for long; me and them who see.”
I think these words were written in 2006 or 2007. However, I relate to my younger self on the subject of “home” and not finding it. And let this be a short note back to her, to the 25-year-old me: “You won’t find this ‘home’ for a long time, and yes you will be a traveller and you will cross paths with ‘those who see.’ And it’s not always good. But it’s never bad.”
Like Stephen Fry once did, I should do too: write a long letter to my younger self. Perhaps not at 25. But to the one stuck at crossroads at 19, to warn and comfort her.
I’m holding a shiny sword
I’m talking to three people
One of them I haven’t met since college
And two others who change faces
All of which I thought I forgot
I’m drawing figures but they’re already there
Dancing on paper
Dancing for me
Challenging me to pin them down and draw them again
I see them, I see them
And that’s why I think I can draw them with perfection
My mind tells me to write
Write what’s already there
On the paper with the drawings, dancing for me
And I see them, I see the words
And they’re already written
And that’s what my mind tells me
It tells me not to invent
But to copy the form
And to follow the form
And to forget that there is pen, that there’s paper
Only what’s already there for me to pencil and write
It’s a trick, my mind taught me a trick
And it was during sleep
Oh, it was in a dream
Now I remember the figures with hoods
And the robes
And the staffs
Dancing for me
Daring me to put my pen down
And find them
Daring me to change them
Daring me to think for my own
And I put my pen down to follow the lines
And they dance
And they dance
But I follow the lines
The voice in my head tells me to ignore it
Ignore the inventor
And become a god of lines
A god who follows the lines
As they twitch
As they switch
As they run from each other
As they rage
As they change
As they dance
Yes, they dance
On my paper
(I wrote it in 2009, after several attempts at trying to draw several comic book characters, as I saw them in my head, and failing. One night after giving up on the pen, I dreamt that someone was telling me -perhaps it was my Voice- to just follow the lines that are already there, to follow the form, to imagine that my characters were already there on paper and that I was just tracing them like kids do to learn drawing. I decided to try this the next morning. It didn’t work, but it produced this silly poem, which I like.)