The project has gone well, for the most part. The college was as supportive as I could wish. My dean and other administrators recognized the value of what I was undertaking and told me they would like me to remain affiliated with the school. They could not grant me indefinite leave, but because I would be working nearby they offered me an adjunct position that would allow me to keep my office, require me to teach only as much as I could, and leave the door open for me to return to full-time status. They also gave me access to the library, which I might need in my work for Vassal. Elsewhere on campus, my colleagues and students asked that I visit them when I could, to discuss the Squeezeshot phenomenon with them, and to share my impressions of Vassal to the extent my discretion allowed. I told them that I would.
The morning after I accepted Vassal’s offer, we began work. The first session took place in my colleague’s office. When I walked in, he was sitting at the desk with a stack of spiral notebooks in front of him: his journal.
“Here it is. Read it and tell me what you think. We’ll meet here again tomorrow, same time.”
I asked if I should read it there or elsewhere.
“Anywhere you want,” he said. “In your office, apartment, or wherever. Be a little careful no one steals it, though.”
I had worried about that.
“Should I copy it?”
“Maybe a couple of copies, one for me and one for the Bigheads. Aside from that, just take reasonable precautions. Don’t leave it lying around. If the government wants it, they’ll manage to get it. But they haven’t stolen it yet, so probably they won’t. Besides, it’ll be published soon for the world to see. Then, anyone who has any use for it will have it. By the way, as you read it, feel free to make corrections—grammar, spelling, anything. Write in the margins if you want. And show me whatever you think needs attention, and we’ll fix it.”
I took his notebooks to the college copy center, then to my office. There, I spent the rest of the day and much of the night reading them and making notes. Many of his entries were incomplete or unclear. Many were illegible. He had written longhand and hastily, with poor penmanship. I sensed that he had written to satisfy his inner needs, to ground himself, not for anyone else to read.
Our next few meetings also took place at the college. He read the notes I had written. He did not say anything about them, but seemed to approve. I suspected he was testing me and would have terminated me if he were not satisfied.
Most of my notes called for more detail from him, or pointed out the illegible sections. He began with the latter.
“We’ve got to know what I wrote before we can move on to what I didn’t write,” he said.
Some of his handwriting even he could not read. He had to guess. That took several weeks. Then he asked that I come to his house for the rest of our sessions.
“We’ll get further down to business there. It’s time to get on with cleaning up what I’ve written, to make it clearer. Judging by your notes, you’ve found plenty of places for that. We’ll build on what’s there, and fill in. There are many gaps, as you’ve noticed. I’m sure I’ll tell you a lot I never thought to write down in the first place. That will give you material to insert. I’ll talk and you’ll write.”
Evidently, he still felt he could work with me. That pleased me.
* * *
At his house the next morning, he led me to his screen porch, with the view of the river. He had pulled two wicker rocking chairs together and set a low table in front for his notebooks. He gestured for me to sit in a chair, and sat in the other.
I took my pen and notebook from my bag. (This was before the era of the laptop computer, my constant companion nowadays.)
“Away we go,” he said. “I’ll begin by telling you how I got started with the Journal. A lot of that is already in it, but bears repeating. And as I said, some of what I’ll say will be new. You might as well write it all down, in case it’s useful.”
I said nothing, nor did he expect me to. He began.
“I started it several years before I met Victory,” he said. “I was unhappy. I had invented my invention, and the government people were coming at me for it. They wouldn’t let up. I tried to be diplomatic, but I mistrusted them and didn’t cooperate. I was as nice as I could be about it, and they were nice, too, but soon, the Cold War being what it was, push came to shove. They threatened me with bad publicity, prosecution, and imprisonment. They were polite, oblique, but their threats were clear—iron fist in velvet glove and all that.
“I knew they were bluffing. What I’d invented was mine, not theirs. I hadn’t used classified information or borrowed from projects I had done for them. They had no grounds to arrest me.
“Also, I knew they wouldn’t want anyone else to learn what I had and somehow get hold of it, especially the Russians. If the government were to arrest me or tell the press about me, word would be out. That would not only alert the Russians, but would embarrass the government people who had approached me, since everyone would learn that they’d failed to get me to share my invention with them. Also, they didn’t want to make me angry; they wanted me to help them. So, I called their bluff and continued not cooperating.
“Inevitably, through their spies, the Russians found out about it. They sent someone from their embassy to see me, in case I would share my invention with them. I was no red, white, and blue Cold Warrior, but I was no Commie pinko, either. I’d admired Marx’s writings, but had regarded them as idealistic more than practical. I’d never said or done anything to make the Russians think I would give or sell my work to them. I understood that they had to try, but I told them just to go away. Like our government, they were not happy to hear me say that.
“I was finding all the confrontation stressful, with both governments. I was afraid one side or the other might kidnap me, even torture me, to get the secrets of building my device. Or they might kill me, to keep it out of the other side’s hands. I could not avoid thinking about those possibilities. I was in my twenties—pretty young. I had never thought that I might die soon. The idea felt very odd. Sometimes, my body, my breath, my thinking, everything, got to feeling like a big load of sludge inside me. It was not a nice feeling.
“One day, I was on the river, fishing, holding a fish I had landed. At any moment, I thought, I could get yanked out of my life like that, like a fish from water. Blip, whop on the head, dead! That would be me. I anticipated the end of my consciousness, of everything I knew. The possibility of dying seemed much too real. I knew I wasn’t dead, but, as I say, I didn’t feel alive. Feeling alive was a distant memory. I lived outside myself. I was a specter, my own bad dream.
“That exhausted me. Other people, even my friends, were no help. They tried, but to me they were just shapes and sounds. I couldn’t relate to them or care about them. That was true even of people I knew well and had cared a lot about and who cared about me.
“I became depressed. I envisioned where I might be headed: to darkness and the nullity of the grave, to a whole lot of nothing. My dying wouldn’t be important except to a few of my near and dear ones who would outlive me. Even then, like most deaths, mine wouldn’t be important to anyone for long. Those people’s lives would go on and mine wouldn’t, that was all. I would no longer exist. ‘I’—what was that, anyway? Nothing much, that’s what, maybe nothing at all. At most, it was here one moment and gone forever the next.
“When you believe that you’re about to die, you may add yourself up. You may take stock of who you are, your accomplishments, where you’ve been and what you’ve done. You may think about choices you’ve made. You consider what you’ve missed, how your life could have gone differently and maybe should have. That’s what I did, endlessly. It was my ego’s last gasp, my vanity vanishing, my precious self sliding toward oblivion, leaving behind what little was left of me.
“The more I thought about those things, the less substantial they seemed. My thoughts were useless to me. They gave me no boost, no traction. I was nowhere, going nowhere else, just because I thought that my government or the Russians might get tough and kill me for not giving them my dinky invention.
“I wasn’t going to change my mind about giving it to them, though. I didn’t even think of that. I couldn’t. I had no spark in me: no heat, no light, no presence. I was less than a ghost. All I could do was eat and sleep, basic functions. I didn’t feel good about anything.
“I didn’t feel bad, either. That made things worse. I would’ve been better off if I did feel bad. Pain of any kind would have been positive, something for me to deal with, to try to recover from. As it was, I felt no need to recover. I was stuck in neutral without knowing it or caring. I had no sense of things getting better or worse, and no sense that better or worse were even possible. Even my idea of being about to die left me. I didn’t think or feel anything about anything.
“That’s how I was back then, after the government people and Russians started coming at me. I felt so empty. Words can’t describe, at least mine can’t.”
* * *
For the first time since he had started talking to me that morning, he paused. I wrote fast, catching up with what he had said.
He spoke again.
“That was years ago—less than ten, but it seems longer. I’ve thought about those days. It’s one of those things you look back at, like a serious accident you’ve lived through.”
I was still writing. At the edge of my vision, I saw him shake his head.
“Much to remember,” he said.
“I haven’t talked much about that period in my life. I did to Victory, of course, and Jimmy a few times, and the Indians, and a little to your friend and mine at your college. That kind of depression is a relative condition. You recognize it when you’ve got something better and healthier to compare it to. I didn’t have that, and I couldn’t summon that. I was wordless, mindless, heartless. I had no way to measure, no grip on anything. I was nowhere, with no sense of my condition. I might as well have been unconscious. That was the worst time of my life up to then.”
He paused again.
“I go in circles just talking about it.”
“I don’t know how long that lasted. Days, weeks. I don’t know if the government came, or the Russians. They may have knocked on my door. If they did, I don’t remember, and I’m sure I didn’t answer.
“Then it ended, just like that.” He snapped his fingers. “Something inside me triggered a little electrochemical jump across synapses in my brain. Or it started some favorable hormone dribbling through the bag of meat that was me. Or in some other way it flipped a neural switch that sent signals I was conscious of. Maybe it started with something I ate, or with some of my brain cells acting up or dying out. Or with another touch from my angels. Ever since they first came to me, they have been with me, delivering their message to me whether I notice or not. In those dark days, I needed that.”
My angels within and outside me
the same place and being
Relax they say
and mean it
I have never seen
such a non-surprise
“I woke up. That was a small change at first. Some light entered me. I could see again. Things started to take shape. Time began to pass. My thoughts began to add up.”
“It was wonderful. I felt relieved. I was getting back to normal—normal enough, anyway. I began to think about things I might do now that I’d resumed being human. That’s when I thought of writing things down. I had a story to tell. I knew that the government and the Russians would return soon and try again to persuade me. They would fail again, and when they did the government might follow through on its threats to take me away. Or either of them might kill me, as I’d feared—some ‘accident.’
“I figured that if I wrote things down and something nasty like that happened, people might find what I’d written and spread my story. Maybe that would outlive me and do people some good. Maybe I would acquire a positive reputation in people’s minds, for standing up to the most powerful nations on the planet, for fighting their evil, the big bullies. How admirable I would seem. Immortality would be mine in death, at least. Not that it would do me any good.
“That was a silly reason to keep a journal, of course—vainglorious, egotistical, a motive you might expect in a naïve young man with a dream, which I was. But writing would also be a nice change from what I had been going through. It might take my mind off the pressures I was under. So, I did it. I bought myself some pens and these notebooks and gave it a try.”
* * *
“I had never written much: papers for school, lab reports and memos at work, personal letters. Nothing long-form, and nothing that told much of a story. I didn’t know it yet, but I didn’t have the skills for that. Not even close. And considering everything that was on my mind—shell shock, I guess it was—there was little chance I would develop those skills. But as I say, I didn’t know that yet, so I went ahead.
“I didn’t establish any routine in my writing. I wrote when the spirit moved me. That came in spurts: five or ten minutes at a time, or a half hour, sometimes an hour. I’d write some paragraphs or a few pages. I didn’t get deep into it. I was messy about it, slapdash, as you have seen. And I never read what I’d written. I never revised anything. In each session, once I’d said enough or lost interest, I closed my notebook and didn’t pick it up again until I felt like it. That was often days later, or weeks.
“Sometimes, I thought my writing went well. I thought I was being truthful, even artful. But those were the delusions of a beginner. What I was writing couldn’t fulfill my intentions. I didn’t have enough ability, couldn’t connect my words enough with what I had lived through and was living through then. Writing wasn’t like math and engineering were for me. In those, the pieces clicked into place. I could construct something impressive out of them, something that worked. When it came to writing, I had neither the skills nor the right instincts, and I didn’t have the time and desire to acquire them.
“Eventually, I realized that writing my journal wasn’t helping me. What I was writing was forgettable. It was something I was dabbling in. I would never want to read it, much less publish it. It was too off-target. I was just scribbling, imitating real writing. There was no one to teach me what to do, and I didn’t think of looking for help. I plugged ahead for a while, but with less and less enthusiasm. I wanted to abandon the effort. I didn’t do that for a while, though. Now and then I thought of more to write, and I wrote it. But that became less frequent. More weeks passed between sessions, then months.
* * *
“Then I met Victory. She saved me. There’s no other word for it. My life improved in every way, including my writing. I still thought that I was in danger of getting killed, and that some day people might want to know my story, so my dream of immortality still lived in me. I resumed writing more often. I wrote on most days or every few days, if only for a short time. I knew that I still wasn’t writing immortal prose. I was just doing what I’d started out to do before: figuring things out; assessing what I’d done regarding my invention, and where that had brought me, and what I should do next. That was therapeutic for me. Once again, I was marking my path so anyone could see where I’d been and maybe benefit, or at least think well of me.
“Victory was a big help. Not hands-on help. She was an accomplished writer, and offered me that, but I didn’t want it. I wanted to write on my own, in my own voice, amateurish though it was. She helped me by encouraging me. Amid all the commotion around us, she never let a day pass without suggesting that I sit down for a few minutes and write in my journal. ‘You’ve got things to say,’ she said to me, ‘so say them.’
“So I did. I kept at it for several years, through most of the time I was with her. Eventually, though, there got to be too much else going on. We were running around overseas and in the U.S., using my invention some. I didn’t have much chance to reflect. I had things to say but they were fragmentary, elusive. I couldn’t put them into words.
“My writing began to feel like it did before: I was going through motions, failing to record anything meaningful. Victory and I had a life to live, an interesting and demanding one. Writing in my journal wasn’t important to me anymore, and it was no longer any relief. So I stopped.”
At that point in his description, Vassal paused and looked out at the river. Facing his memories, I supposed.
“Then my time with her ended. The worst happened, as people know. It was sudden, violent, a nightmare. By the time I got to her, she was dead.”
He paused again, very still. He scarcely breathed.
“I fell back into depression. Whatever had switched on in me when she came into my life switched off. Once again I couldn’t think about anything. For a year, I sat alone in this house and brooded. No words, no ideas, just surviving. As before, I didn’t try to find my way out. There was no point, no point to anything.
“The government and the Russians gave up on me and left me alone. There were just the government guards out there like they are now, at the road, at a distance, where I wouldn’t notice them. That was good, I supposed. Also, I had my memories of Victory to keep me a little bit warm. I thought maybe I wasn’t as miserable as I had been the time before, before I met her. But I was wrong. She was dead. That fact took me as low as a person can go.
“Once again, I wasn’t in pain. I was too numb. I didn’t think of killing myself, or escaping, or otherwise putting an end to my misery. I might have thought about those if I could have, but I couldn’t. As before, the concept of ending my misery didn’t exist. I felt no hope, and didn’t want any. Everything was a mess I could neither grasp nor care about.
“There was no looking for better then, or imagining better. Such was my eternity, and I couldn’t leave it. I experienced no pleasure or desire for anything. As I say, I didn’t want out of my condition. I was alive and that was all.”
* * *
“Then came another turn in my fortunes. One day, as I shuffled out of my bedroom, I noticed my notebooks lying on a bookshelf where I’d left them when I’d stopped writing. Every day I had walked past them without noticing them. Now, there they were.
“I picked them up and read them. They weren’t as bad as I’d thought. Nothing great, but they conveyed a fair amount of what I’d intended. That got me going. I began to think about what else I had wanted them to say, and what I might want them to say now, after Victory’s death. I wondered if working on them might do me good. I decided to finish them and publish them. I knew I wasn’t capable of doing that on my own, not as well as I wanted, so I looked for help. I contacted my friend upriver, at your college. I figured he would know somebody. Which he did.”
Another pause. As was becoming usual, my transcribing lagged: “. . . working on them might . . .” In my peripheral vision, I saw Vassal’s face turn toward me. I thought he might be looking at me. I kept my head down, writing until I finished. Then, without raising my eyes from the page in front of me, I waited for him to resume talking. He did not resume. He remained silent and unmoving. Minutes passed.
Finally, I swung my eyes to look at him. He was staring at me. I blinked. His expression did not change. He seemed to be looking through me, to somewhere beyond me. I looked away, then back at him. Nothing changed. His face hung, seemed tired, empty, a framework of despair. But I could not be sure what he was feeling. I did not yet know him that well. What was he doing staring through me like that, as if unaware of me? What had brought it on? Was it some madness? Were my initial misgivings about working with him proving correct? Or was this the state of mind that he had just described to me, the depression that had possessed him after Victory was killed? Did it still possess him? Was he still that unhappy, and if he was had he unburdened himself any by telling me about it? Did he want this project of his—of ours—to serve as some kind of therapy for him? Was that part of my role?
Or was I seeing something else? Was he experiencing no difficulty at all? Had he brought his former state of mind alive for me deliberately, like a skilled performer? Had he described it to me dispassionately, and displayed it to me artfully, so I could write about it?
* * *
He continued to stare. He had become a lump; a living one, I presumed, but if he was breathing I could not see it. He did not move, not a muscle or an eyelash. How long was this going to last? A while back, he had been speaking about feeling dead. Was he dying now? Was he in the grips of a rigor pre-mortis? Was he going to die right there on the porch, staring at me from his chair?
Something was wrong. Was he suffering a seizure? Was he in the throes of some medical or psychological emergency? He could not be dead already, could he, sitting up like that, his head turned to me, his eyes open? Or was this nothing worrisome—no danger, no affliction, no discomfort on his part, nothing wrong, just normal behavior?
What should I do? Should I say something to him? Should I alert his guards at the end of the driveway, have them call an ambulance? Should I get up, leave the porch, take a walk up the road, give him time to himself? Or should I stay with him and do nothing, wait him out?
I felt angry. If this behavior was deliberate on his part, he was not treating me right. He was messing with me in some way I did not understand. What the hell! He should show me more decency. I was breathing the same air as he, living on the same planet. He should accept me to a degree he had not yet done. He should appreciate that I was more than a humble worker toiling for him in the aftermath of his tragedy, editing his scattershot journal for him and writing more words for it, since he could not. He should initiate a friendship with me, and a strong one. He should not just continue his tepid cordiality. Our work was important, and I was essential to it. I did not deserve this behavior, and neither did his journal. Maybe I should quit this job. Maybe this should be the end for us.
I was in one of my panics and I knew it. He must know what he was doing, so I should calm down. After all that he had been through, I should not think of complaining either about his treatment of me or about this bizarre contretemps. Our project had just begun. At the moment there was a gulf between my wishes for it and the reality, but that was my problem, not his. Surely this episode would pass. I should be patient.
I looked at him again. I still could not help worrying that he might die right there, or prove to be insane. I was afraid that our work was ending, my hopes for it never to be realized.
* * *
He moved, came alive again. Relieved, I tried to read his thoughts, manner, and posture. I could not. He blinked and looked at me, in the eyes this time, not through me or beyond me. There was softness in his face now. I saw warmth there and the light of recognition—what I would come to know as his twinkle—and they were directed toward me. I decided that he had been attending to our mission. My anger and dismay of minutes before embarrassed me now. My face flushed pink, me who never blushes.
“Well,” he said to me. “Well.”
He continued to regard me with his twinkle. It was as if he had seen my concern and embarrassment, and wanted to reassure me. His mouth opened to speak. Nothing came out. That was unlike him. I waited. Was he poking fun at me, parodying my mute stammering of a few days before? He closed his mouth and looked down, then up at me again, but this time with no expression, no twinkle. What was this? Was he slipping back into his abyss? Anything seemed possible, from further empty staring to more of his talk. Once again, I wondered: Does he see me, and see me for who I am?
He smiled, a twist of his lip and a lifted brow. Intended for me? I could not tell. Was this a look of complicity with me, or of some humor he felt we shared? Or—goodness!—was it a look of affection? Should I hope?
Still smiling, he looked away from me, but his look acknowledged me, I felt, and welcomed me. I knew then that I had witnessed a performance. For the benefit of our work, and for my benefit, he had stripped his memory bare and felt no shame about it. He had wanted to bring about this episode exactly as I had experienced it. Good actor that he was, he had succeeded. I suspected that he might perform more acts like it for me in the future. They might be an important part of what he had hired me to record.
It took us a year to complete his journal, as I had anticipated. When we published it, he had not ventured from his compound since the tragedy of a few years before, nor had he issued any communications or allowed reporters to talk with him. But he remained well known. His accomplishments and troubles were fresh in people’s memories, and stories about him in the media had not ceased.
The public responded to the Journal predictably. A mediathon ensued. There was constant blither about him on TV, and swaths of hyperbole about him in newspapers and periodicals, and self-dramatizing vigils by reporters and commentators, who camped as near to his downriver compound as his guards allowed. That lasted for several months.
The Journal revealed much about how the government had handled him during the years after it discovered what he had invented. In light of that publicity, law enforcement agencies and congressional committees felt compelled to investigate. Their efforts were hesitant and hypocritical, hampered by unwillingness to prosecute or criticize Vassal or government officials. Much that the executive branch had done in its approaches to him, protection of him, and free rein it had given him, had necessarily been outside the law. As suited their missions, the White House and the federal defense, intelligence, domestic security, and law enforcement establishments had coveted his technology to use as their own. They had also worried that if they were to arrest and prosecute him, or pressure him too much, then he, Victory, or, if he allowed, his unruly friends the Bigheads (horrors!) might use it to expose the government’s inner workings to the world. Much of the public would not have understood or condoned those workings no matter how much huffing, puffing, and explaining the government and its defenders did. The exposure would have embarrassed all branches of the government, and weakened it, perhaps even threatened its legitimacy.
From the start, in secret meetings on Capitol Hill and at the White House, the executive branch had kept key senators and representatives apprised, as it should. All of them had sympathized with the predicament the executive had faced. When Vassal published his journal, members of Congress did no more than posture, as one might expect. As often happens when such scandal erupts, a few of the more unhinged expressed outrage. They seethed with hindsight and demotic bluster, accusing government officials of errors of judgment, failures of oversight, lack of creative problem-solving, and a general inability to foresee the unforeseeable and accomplish the impossible. But when it came to actually doing anything about what the book revealed, even those members did as Congress often does and should: They acted with caution. After some mild debate, they passed toothless resolutions that both approved and disapproved of how the government had handled Vassal. In effect they did nothing, and so did the law enforcement agencies that were investigating.
When in doubt do nothing. That is a wise maxim familiar to workers in government and other institutions, as well as to everyone else. In this case, Vassal had destroyed his devices several years before, and had neither reconstructed them nor considered doing so. His journal was mere words, a book, a history. Despite the attention that it attracted and the lawbreaking that it reported, officialdom determined that there was no need to take meaningful action.
* * *
The reaction of the broader public was more emphatic, as the media response displayed. Vassal had anticipated some commotion, but its magnitude surprised him. Though he remained in his downriver home, he felt as if he had once again stepped into a spotlight on a vast stage, in front of an immense audience, without script or rehearsal.
“All this attention!” he said to me at the time. “I was in the middle of something like this a year or so ago, when Victory and I were putting on our shows and so on, before we destroyed my work. It can make a lone, uncooperative inventor of a seemingly world-changing invention—me, for instance—feel self-conscious, even do some soul searching. But not much.”
Intense and widespread though the reaction to his journal was, he did not allow himself to get caught up in it. He did not play either to the government or the rest of the crowd. He did not respond to any inquiries by legislators, police and government investigators, reporters, scholars, or anyone else. He ignored all subpoenas and lawsuits—there were dozens. He held no press conferences, made no speeches, granted no interviews, participated in no talk shows, and answered no mail. He refuted no criticisms and he accepted no blame. Nor did he acknowledge praise from admirers, or accept honors that were offered. He refused to say anything for public consumption. He let his journal do the talking.
His refusal to respond infuriated some critics, official and otherwise, but produced no other consequences. For a while he remained a center of people’s attention. Thanks to his guards, however, he was not besieged in person. Via news media, and reports to him from the Bigheads, he kept informed of public reaction to his journal, but he never felt much concern. Most of that reaction, he felt, was uncomprehending and disproportionate, in some cases hysterical, but that neither shocked nor disappointed him. He understood people’s feelings, and sympathized.
“People are doing what I would do in their shoes, just as I do what they would do in mine. There’s no need for me to get caught up in their frenzy. I’ve done my bit by publishing my journal. I couldn’t help people more if I wanted to. I may or may not have more to say at some point, but that doesn’t matter now and probably won’t matter then. People will go their ways and leave all this behind.”
He anticipated that the Journal would pass quickly from public notice, as most news does. He believed that people would forget about it within weeks, or a month or two at most. For some time longer, maybe several years, a few deep thinkers and chronic worrywarts might publish considered analyses in niche periodicals and discuss the matter in lightly attended lectures and conferences, but the mainstream media and general public would pay those little or no heed.
With minor exceptions that is what happened, which he welcomed. He felt no desire for fame or influence, and was glad to leave the spotlight’s glare behind.
* * *
With the Journal done, our work together was at an end. I ceased commuting to Vassal’s cottage. I spent my days in town, preparing to resume teaching full-time at the college. I assumed I would see no more of him. But one morning not long after the public commotion concerning his journal subsided, he phoned and asked me to come to his place to meet with him. We met that afternoon on his porch.
“Now that the Journal is published,” he said, “I realize that I have more things to say. They’re nothing important, nothing the world has to know or would benefit from. They’re just some things I want to make available. I’m hoping you’ll help me. I’ve enjoyed working with you. I’d like you to keep doing that, if you’re willing.”
That pleased me. I, too, had enjoyed our work. Also, I was curious to hear anything more he wanted to say about his life and his invention.
“I’m with you,” I said.
Our regimen changed. This time he had no plan. He had written nothing in advance, no journal or notes, and he had thought nothing through. He would tell me what he wanted to say, which he would discover as he went along. I would write that down, in his words and mine. I would flesh it out, structuring and refining it however I wanted, as I had done with parts of his journal. If I wanted to research its topics and find material to complement it, I would visit the college library or, as I have done in recent decades, plumb the internet.
For this new project, he wanted me to take more initiative. He wanted me to be not only his ghostwriter and editor, as I had been for his journal, but also his chronicler, collaborator, and, if I wished, his illustrator. I imagined that my new role could be akin to that of the okyeames or court linguists of the Akan people of West Africa, who serve as confidantes, advisors, and intermediaries to the ruler, conveying his words and ideas to the public, elaborating and embellishing them, often rendering them as proverbs. That appealed to me.
The result of our work was to be one book, a prequel to and elaboration of his journal. As time passed, however, we found that it filled several volumes, and included sequels to his journal. They took us years to create.
His saga has come to us in that manner for more than a quarter century now. I have devoted myself to my role in authoring it, and made that the greater part of my life’s work. More than a job to me, that has been the highest and most satisfying adventure I can imagine.
* * *
I am a sympathetic listener, but sometimes I am intrusive about it. Often when someone is talking and pauses to search for a word, I offer one. That is a reflex of mine. I intend it to be generous and attentive, but sometimes, I know, it is rude. By some standards, I have a large vocabulary and an easy way with words, perhaps too easy. I like to share that, for anyone’s benefit, but it can seem—and perhaps be—manipulative.
I have never interrupted Vassal in that way. I have held my tongue. That has not been hard for me. For our new project, as during our work on his journal, I have preferred to remain silent. I have continued to feel daunted by what he invented, by his remarkable history, and by him as a person. Also, I have wanted to report accurately not only what he has said, but also what he has intended to say. That has required that I listen to and observe him attentively. I have wanted to report accurately, not necessarily verbatim. I have wanted to read truthfully into his words and between the lines, into what he has left unspoken. Toward that end, I have allowed his pauses to come and go at their own pace, even when they seemed awkward or searching for the right word. I have let him speak in his own time and manner, for me to revise later.
As before, I have spoken to him only rarely, often just a few words a day, and then usually just to ask a question or two to start him talking. In my writing, however, my behavior has been more forward. I have not hesitated to elaborate or clarify what he has said. As I have reported, he has wanted me to do that. I did some of that while working on his journal, and he liked it. For that project, there was not much need for it. I mostly revised or completed what he had already written. But he appreciated my few alterations and additions.
This time, he has wanted me to regard even his unspoken words and thoughts—to the extent I could determine them—as raw material that I should make use of. He has been happy to have me ascribe words, perspectives, and deeds to him that have not been literally true to life.
“I’m yours to play with, Reverend Professor,” he said. “I like it when you write words into my mouth and thoughts into my head. I like when you assign me feelings and actions. I don’t care if they differ some from what I really say and do. They’re often truer than I can say and truer than I know. They fill out my ideas, add nuance to them, enlarge and broaden them. Elaborate me all you want. Treat everything I say and do as points of departure. Spread your wings and fly!”
I have done that gladly. As I have reported, however, I have also regarded my writing and other art as my end of a dialog between us. Because of that, I have insisted that he read and affirm everything that I write. Usually that has occurred within a day, when what I have written has been fresh. He has responded to my work selflessly. Sometimes he has suggested minor changes, but usually not. A generous partner, he has continued to encourage me to write what I wish. He has wanted me to deliver his apologia, and contribute to his legacy, however I see fit. He has trusted me to speak for him.
* * *
He shares my skepticism about language. One day early on, when we were working on his journal, he was in the midst of telling me something when his normal fluency failed him. Several times he stopped and started, struggling to articulate. Finally, he ceased talking and looked at me with exasperation. To encourage him, I mumbled a line of Joseph Conrad’s: “Words, as is well known, are the great foes of reality.” He laughed, and resumed his usual easy discourse.
That evening, I handed him a book opened to another remark of Conrad’s, from a letter to the socialist Robert Cunninghame Graham: “Life knows us not and we do not know life – we don’t even know our own thoughts. Half the words we use have no meaning whatever and of the other half each man understands each word after the fashion of his own folly and conceit. Faith is a myth, and beliefs shift like mists on the shore; thoughts vanish; words, once pronounced, die; and the memory of yesterday is as shadowy as the hope of tomorrow.”
Vassal read that and said, “That looks right to me. As Conrad knew, though, we have to keep talking and writing. We’ve no other choice. We communicate as well as we can, and think we’re accomplishing something, even though, whether we know it or not, we pretty much aren’t. Feeble though our efforts are, we think we make progress.”
Our skepticism about language has shaped our collaboration. Both of us appreciate that speech, writing, thinking, illustrating, and other expression are inexact no matter how on target we think they are. That breeds humility.
He has said to me, “I’ve told you that in this project of ours I’m glad to have you represent me however you want. I say things to you and you report them, but I realize that even when we report other people’s words, each of us speaks in our own voice and from our own perspective, within our own context. I have no problem with that. Your reporting of what I think or do is as truthful, accurate, and complete as anything can be. All voices are the same voice, or they might as well be.”
Some of the words, ideas, and actions that I attribute to Vassal, then, are not words, ideas, and actions he ever spoke, wrote, thought, or performed. That is inevitable and, he and I agree, no problem. I can and should do no more than translate him in my own way. At best, anything that any of us tries to express is largely inexpressible. Reading about a person and his life is not at all the same as being that person and experiencing his life. Nor is it the same as occupying the biographer’s place beside him.
SCROLL 4 ➡︎