Authors: Amanda Lohrey
Copyright Â© Amanda Lohrey 2016
Amanda Lohrey asserts her right to be known as the author of this work.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form by any means electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise without the prior consent of the publishers.
The National Library of Australia Cataloguing-in-Publication entry:
Lohrey, Amanda, author.
A short history of Richard Kline / Amanda Lohrey.
Middle aged men â Fiction.
This project has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council for the Arts, its arts funding and advisory body.
All our scientific and philosophic ideals are altars to unknown gods.
Varieties of Religious Experience
I set down this memoir in order to record a strange event that intervened in my life at the age of forty-two. I say âintervened' because that's how it seemed at the time, as if it came out of nowhere and without warning, but I see now that the animating spirit of the event had been with me from the very beginning; it was simply that I had not known how to recognise it. It was as if I were an arrow shot out at birth towards a distant target that I could not see, but that I was destined, at the moment of impact, to strike with the full force of my being.
Until I met her, I confess that for most of my life I was bored. It's an unattractive word, boredom, and I flinch from it now, but for a long time it was the only word I could summon to describe my condition. Today I would say that for much of my life I suffered from an apprehension of lack, but one that I found difficult to put into words. In essence it consisted of a feeling that nothing was ever quite right; something was always missing.
How many of us have been dismayed by that feeling? And ashamed of it at those very moments when we ought to feel happy? We ask ourselves: what is the flaw in our being that gives rise to this discontent?
In my case the effect of it was to create a sense of detachment, because if something was missing, then all action must ultimately prove to be futile.
And this was not a conclusion reached by my mature self; it was something I experienced even as a boy. There were days when I brooded on it, and if I as a youth had been taken to a therapist I might have been diagnosed as suffering from depression, except that I was neither listless nor withdrawn. I was an energetic child, reckless even, and what I experienced was more like a baffled disappointment.
As I grew older I began to reflect. What
this lack, this something missing? And how did I know it was missing if I didn't know what
was? Did others feel its absence or was it only me? And if the latter, where had I acquired this pathology? And then it occurred to me that there was a logic at work here: if there was lack, it followed there must somewhere be fullness. But how would this fullness, were I ever to find it, manifest itself? What would it look like? Was there a flaw in creation such that it didn't exist? Or was it at the core of some cruel joke: that it did exist but could never be found?
My parents considered me difficult; I was prickly and wilful. Certainly my mother thought so. One year when I came home after spending the summer at my uncle's farm, less than a day had passed before Ann snapped at me in exasperation, âI'd forgotten how you always have to have your own way.' And then, with one of her lengthy sighs, âWhy can't you be more like your brother?'
Yes, why couldn't I? For once I agreed with her. Gareth was four years older and the good-natured one. Gareth had a ready smile, along with a gift for taking the world on trust, and I loved him for it. It was Gareth who seemed at ease in any situation, who shone with a casual grace that drew everyone into his orbit. As for my sister, Jane, she too appeared to be uncomplicated. I, on the other hand, was âpicky', and in my mother's eyes the most sullen and self-absorbed of her three children. âThat's Richard for you,' she'd say, ânever satisfied with his lot. Why can't you just be grateful for what you've got?' This as I sulked over or commented acidly on some tedious family outing.
As a consequence, the word âgratitude' began to take on a detestable colouring. Gratitude said mediocrity, said also complacency and self-deception. Gratitude was a euphemism for conformity and resignation; at least, that was my intellectual position. Emotionally it ate away at me, this idea that I was difficult and ungrateful. It made me feel inadequate, at odds with the world. I was too restless, my parents said, too critical. I, on the other hand, wondered why adults seemed to be so easily pleased.
I could cite many instances here but will give only one, my First Communion. My parents made a great fuss, but for me it was a non-event. The priest droned on, the hymns were solemn, the cathedral intimidating and gloomy. Afterwards we walked in quiet orderly lines to the school and sat down in the boarders' dining room to a communion feast of dry sandwiches and sickly pink cordial. I remember looking up at the big clock on the wall, where the minutes limped on in silence, while behind us the nuns patrolled the aisles, or stood like sentries, their black arms folded across their chests.
Something momentous was supposed to have happened, but what? That night, in bed, I asked myself if I felt any different. I searched for signs but there were none. I was the same, and the world was the same.
My father, Ned, was an engineer and a devotee of the slide-rule. He was a nominal Catholic but wore his religion lightly, like a protective outer garment between him and the metaphysical weather. I suspected he went to church to please my mother; at heart he was a complacent rationalist whose tone and demeanour managed to insinuate that if his children could not reason their way through to sense, then it was simply a question of time before all the mysteries would be solved by science and the riddle of the cosmos unravelled. My mother's response to every dilemma was an arsenal of clichÃ©s â âTomorrow's another day'; âYou can only do your best'; âTime will tell' â any one of which could incite me to a savage rudeness.
One thing I did know: at the heart of Nature was a mysterious force, and that force was the ground of any possible perfection, a promise both of fruition and of annihilation. How did I know this? From those moments of clarity that sometimes came to me as a child, days when we camped beside a remote beach and I floated on my back in the ocean, the water a pale, glassy green, the sky a hazy infinity. Or the time when I was nine years old and walking with my father in the vicinity of an old copper mine. We were trekking along the pebbly rim of a barren hill that had been denuded by sulphur waste, and the only growth we could see was a small bush in the distance, sprung to life on a rocky out-crop. The outcrop had no rail and Ned called to me, âStay away from the edge.' But I ran to the bush and looked down into its centre, into the thick cluster of its stems, its dense whorls of un-curling leaf. What I saw there was perfect symmetry, and that I was a part of it. For a moment I disappeared, and in that moment I was free.
But there were other, darker times. Some nights, unable to sleep, I sat up in bed and gazed out my attic window at the stars. Then I felt a cold, shivery awe at the great maw of the sky; the stars blinked into a black void and I felt my own inconsequence. I was someone who didn't matter. No-one mattered. It was terrifying and I curled up in my bed and wept from fear and desolation. But then, on the cusp of sleep, I experienced a strange cognition, an uncanny feeling of nostalgia. It felt like homesickness, but for what? I was living at home, had lived in the same house since I was born. Still, I sensed that in the space between sleeping and waking there was another realm of being, and in that surreal country, both strange and familiar, lay my true home. But where
that place, and how could I get there? Sometimes when I was alone in the bush behind my uncle's farm I felt that same nostalgia well up in me, a sweet sadness, a desire to merge, to know again what I had been separated out from.
But my most intense experience of it as a boy came after masturbating: first the rush, then the sense of falling away, the fleeting apprehension of a lost Eden.
Wherever that feeling came from, by the time I was twelve it had gone. It was then that death came to me, not as an idea but as a reality. And it wasn't that anyone close to me died, it was just that suddenly I
. I knew that death was one day going to ambush me, and that it might even be just around the corner. Life was both unspeakably precious and at the same time utterly futile. And if that was the case, why was I born? Why did humans have such powerful minds? Why did
have a mind if it could not save me?
At the age of thirteen the pain of the death paradox drove me into absurd behaviours. If everything was precious â and it must be because otherwise there was only waste â then even something as mundane as electric light must be precious. I calculated the amount of light needed to illuminate a dark room and the number of light bulbs that could be dispensed with. I remonstrated with my mother over her profligacy and the array of table lamps she would switch on at night to create a âmood'. Then I would prowl the house, turning off any lights I considered unnecessary.
Today I would be diagnosed as suffering from an obsessive-compulsive disorder and perhaps given a pill, but my earnest attention to light switches proved to be no more than a phase, a brief experiment in my war with death. As abruptly as I had initiated this practice, suddenly one day I abandoned it. And this was more or less the pattern of my early life, staying intently and resentfully within the boundary of the normal, while feeling for most of the time that I lived just outside it.
All through my adolescence I saw an inherent darkness in things, layer upon layer, and on some days felt submerged in it. I bled out into the world and the world bled into me. I can recall moments of disassociation from my body when I would be crossing the road at night and suddenly see my own corpse stretched out on the bitumen. But I knew these glimpses were not premonitions, not prophetic of things to come. They were hauntings from some dark world of the psyche where a sense of evil was at times palpable, though this was not, I knew, the Devil (what a joke) but something infinitely more subtle. And it seemed to me that you could read this scientifically as a physics we didn't yet understand, a terrible warp in the field, or a leakage of bile on the surface of things, because sometimes I could feel it, like a coating on the skin or a thin membrane across the eyes.
âRichard thinks too much,' my mother liked to say, and the very tone of her voice infuriated me, though this was, in a way, true. It seemed to me that my brother didn't think much at all, he simply
, with an instinct that appeared never to fail him. When I prolonged an argument with Ann and Ned over the dinner table, Gareth would get up, push his chair back and give me a look of exasperation mixed with affection, a look I would pretend not to notice. But inwardly I felt chastened, though not for long, and certainly not by my mother's verdict, for already I knew from experience that what is a weakness is also a strength, and while there were times when I would think myself into a black hole, I could with some effort think â rationalise â myself out of it, at least in relation to my own discontent. Other people's distress was something else. It was here that logic failed me. It could not answer the simplest of questions: why did people suffer?
I recall one incident that aroused me to an almost animal fury and shame. I attended a party for the sixteenth birthday of a schoolfriend, Glenn. Just after eleven Glenn's mother brought in the cake, and as we gathered around the supper table Glenn's drunken father took exception to a careless remark by Glenn and with methodical rage proceeded to beat his son senseless. The heavy fruit cake slid onto the carpet with a thud, Glenn's blood sprayed across the white tablecloth, his mother screamed and broken glass scattered at our feet. His sister knelt in a pool of sticky liquid and held Glenn's head up from the floor while we, his friends, froze like wooden trolls, stranded in a scene of intimate carnage.
At last there seemed nothing for it but to slouch off down the steep driveway, and though it was cold I did not accept the offer of a lift and chose instead to walk the several kilometres home, breathless with impotent fury.
Never had I witnessed such a criminal humiliation. I had seen boys bash one another, but this was different, and when at last I reached the park opposite my house I stopped and drove my fist repeatedly into a tree until the pain blurred all thought.
When finally I let myself in through the front door, my father was lying on the couch in front of the late movie.
âHow was the party?' Ned asked.
I held my hand behind my back to conceal my bloodied knuckles and bounded up the stairs. âThe party was shit.'
I found that while I could bear another's pain, I could not bear their humiliation, and I wondered: did this mean I was weak? Once, driving home with Gareth, I saw the victims of a car smash laid out on the road, and, although this was distressing, there was not the same sense of something sacred having been violated as when one human being abused another. Confronted by cruelty, only my imagination kept me from imploding. In my head I would fantasise a series of righteous murders, night after night, wherein my powerlessness was annulled, and justice, however crude, was done. Who was God that he permitted such injustice? God should be ashamed.
And so if I could not have a just god I would have no god at all. Instead I turned to science. My heroes were J. Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Teller, and in their feats I saw the glamour of true knowing as opposed to blind superstition. My father, I saw, was a mere functionary, a fixer, but the lives of these men were fables of the possible. Teller was the smartest of them all and perhaps, I explained to Gareth, the smartest man ever born. More than that, he was a knight in scientific armour, a man with a mission. The Nazis had killed his parents and his sister, and Teller wanted to build the hydrogen bomb to kill them in return. It was the perfect emotional equation. This was the work of the true superman, solving the problems of the universe while everyone else was asleep.
I read a lot then, read with an urgency that was one part anxiety, one part impatience and two parts will and determination. Since my all-consuming aim was to find the meaning of life, I would take a book and strip it of what its author had to say. I would sit, or lie awkwardly on my bed, pen in hand so that I might underline important or revealing phrases.