I was reared in a cultural microcosm that undervalued experience. More than that, it treated experience as a kind of monstrous blemish upon the face of thought, a defect that was deemed the more unfortunate for being the more noteworthy, unexpected, or rare. It was as though the threadbare commonness of climbing the Himalayas, or roaming the world as a hired assassin, or sleeping with seven women at once was more glaring than that of shopping for bread and milk. Experiences alleged to be more substantive or adventurous, went the implicit argument, were more illusory and, hence, distracting, polluting, and generally unsuited to the mind. And the abiding aim was cultivation of the mind.
Russian culture, ever echoing what, in English culture, had been William Blake’s command to see Heaven in a grain of sand, chimed in with this. Our writers did travel far and wide; they did fight in wars; they had bizarre love affairs and lost fortunes at cards; but, just as Russia never produced a school of formal philosophy, she never produced the intellectual type of Hemingway, T.E. Lawrence, or Somerset Maugham—wise to the world, allegedly, and proud of it. Our writers “wanted to travel,” in Andrei Platonov’s phrase, “into the depths of man.” Not to Arabia.
In retrospect, I cannot but appreciate the inverted cynicism of that approach to reality. I cannot but admire my parents and their circle of Moscow friends for having isolated me so effectively, throughout the whole of my youth, from action, and solely by means of an education in the pleasures of contemplation. The vita contemplativa was the sum total of their own lives, and, all along, I had been able to feel that their solicitude was not hypocrisy but the increasingly scarce product of a unique and absorbing, though quite possibly moribund, cultural tradition.
And so it went on in my own life and travels—this obstinate, indiscriminate, and anachronistic denial of experience at all costs. So long as the joys of the vita contemplativa are unceasing, I kept on thinking, I consent to regard the physical world around me as a medieval cloister. Well, not quite, perhaps, but then again, anyone who reads Augustine’s Confessions or listens to Orff’s Carmina Burana knows that monasteries were not merely repositories for the Sid Sawyer personalities of their day. Still, during my first ten years in the United States, I never once visited Europe, and, during my subsequent 15 years in Britain, I never once ventured beyond the European continent. That’s a quarter-century of stubborn self-confinement to an intellectual ideal.
The Russian emigré grandmother of an erstwhile friend of mine, a Hohenlohe by birth, refused to come out of her house in Rio de Janeiro to look at Sputnik, which everybody said could be seen in the midnight sky: “It’s a Soviet provocation,” said the princess. At the American university I attended, I was drawn to the study of Gnostic writers, and even to the Coptic language in which they raged against the world, for the simple reason that I had glimpsed an intriguing Russianness in the totality of their denial. They went further, of course, because, to them, not only all experience of the material world, but its very source, matter itself, was of the Devil.
Having grown up under totalitarianism, I could see their wisdom; for, if everything around you is the work of a malevolent demiurge, can you really gamble on a single atom as the source of joy for your immortal soul? On the other hand, I was no longer living under totalitarianism, or so it seemed; and, if matter was free and governed by its own laws, including those of physics, then perhaps the girl next to me was truly my beloved, the sunset I was admiring in her company was real, and the taste of the veal chop with wild mushrooms at the inn on the Vermont border was not, in the end, a Soviet provocation.
Thus I smoked but didn’t inhale. Matter, our source of experience, might not be evil, but relying overmuch on the value of experience was contraindicated to the man who wanted to save his soul and be truly free. All action is provocation. Certainly, I reasoned, there must exist an ethical fissure between good and bad actions, but it is since time immemorial shrouded in moral mist and, more important, dwarfed to nothingness by the much wider chasm that separates action from contemplation.
It was into this chasm that I fell one night ten years ago in London, when I walked through the doors of a seedy gambling club and looked into the mesmeric whorl of the spinning wheel. It was—and, in the context, I cannot possibly think of a word more laden with meaning—an experience. It was as though all the pent-up thirsts of a puritanical past stirred to life within a parched soul, and I felt like the old spinster who, never having tasted liquor before, liked it so much that she drank a whole bottle of brandy and died of alcohol poisoning later that evening.
The revelation was, as revelations so often are, a blinding paradox. A life of contemplation teaches one many things; yet it is only when one is drawn, perhaps unwittingly, unwillingly, or by pure chance, into action, that one realizes that what these things add up to is an understanding of the world one has spent a lifetime contemplating, not of oneself. And, quite probably, a life of action is likely to spin out the selfsame paradox in reverse; so that an experienced, decisive, resourceful man of the world will be deeply conscious of his own weaknesses and strengths, of his own cowardice and bravery, but will then travel to Spain to fight on the wrong side, write a panegyric to Stalin, or lose his money on Wall Street.
Next month, I’ll tell you exactly what happened to me that night.