ONE of my wishes is that those dark trees,
So old and firm they scarcely show the breeze,
Were not, as ’twere, the merest mask of gloom,
But stretched away unto the edge of doom.
I should not be withheld but that some day
Into their vastness I should steal away,
Fearless of ever finding open land,
Or highway where the slow wheel pours the sand.
– Robert Frost, from “Into My Own”
“The Russians adore their past, hate the present, and fear the future. How sad it would be if we forgot that the future we fear turns slowly into the present that we detest, and finally into the past that we so adore.”
– Anton Chekhov
When the naturalist and explorer Alfred Russel Wallace was forced to stall his exploration of Malaysia in 1858 due to a malaria-induced fever, strange matters clouded his mind.
Here’s how The Guardian’s Rob Mckie describes it:
“Thoughts of money or women might have filled lesser heads. Alfred Russel Wallace was made of different stuff, however. He began thinking about disease and famine; about how they kept human populations in check; and about recent discoveries indicating that the earth’s age was vast. How might these waves of death, repeated over aeons, influence the make-up of different species, he wondered?” [Rob Mckie, “How Darwin Won the Evolution Race”, The Guardian, June 22nd, 2008]
When the fever subsided, Wallace realized that the residual images his illness left behind represented the inspiration he needed to answer his own queries. The theoretical broad strokes of natural evolution began to germinate within him, independently of Charles Darwin, and the two men eventually presented their ideas in a joint manner to the Linnaean Society.
(The story is much more complicated than this, as Darwin did not receive with delight Wallace’s separate arrival on an idea he himself had been afraid to publish for some time. See Mckie’s full article.)
Fast forward 154 years, and I lay in a bed at Forrester Inn in Lilongwe, Malawi, also “felled” by a fever. It’s not malaria; I ate something I shouldn’t have, and incurred a bacterial infection in my stomach. I failed to keep anything down (I made a big mess in the bathroom sink after consuming too much guava juice), lost a tremendous amount of body fluid, and had a blood pressure of 80/46. The doctor at the clinic wanted to put me on an IV, but I refused, and took home some drugs instead (“But you’ll faint!! The sun’s too hot out there!!”).
Backtrack just half a day or so, and I was thoroughly immersed in the Lilongwe “social scene”. I hate that term: scene, as if life is one big movie in the head and we’re all supposed to walk across the stage some day for our fifteen minutes of fame. But Malawi is a disarming place. Perhaps it has to do with my epidemically novel looks (though less novel as the years progress), but the people, I’m convinced, are the friendliest in the world. Even the guy trying to rip you off, or cuss you out seems unusually agreeable. In other words, this country can turn you into something of an extrovert, something I never am.
I was eating out everyday and night with people I barely knew, I was staying out late despite what the tour book told me (not) to do, I was eagerly talking to every individual of the opposite sex that I encountered (like I said, everyone seemed very friendly), and soon enough, the days started to slowly blend into the nights. I was in an almost drunken daze, a zombie-like state (since I got very little sleep), and my life in Canada receded far into the background. I didn’t give a damn that my time was limited—in the moment, things seemed to last forever.
That’s the dynamic I was living.
When the physical body leaves its material surroundings to inhabit a completely different set of social circumstances, the eventual result is one of a “double life”. Life in the newly adopted setting becomes more and more separate from the “old” life. It grows denser and more diverse as the days pass. While the older set of realities (to be “returned” into) is probably more “dominant” existentially than the latter set, the self is nonetheless so immersed in (and preoccupied with) its immediate surroundings that perspective becomes absolutely unaffordable. This is probably what causes “reverse culture shock”, another outrageous term that is—although accurate in what it tries to describe—an unnecessarily obtuse way of interpreting one’s experiences.
When one is forced to leave a place so alien compared to one’s “home”, and then prompted to return after a prolonged period of absence, a desperate need for perspective becomes acutely evident. This need manifests itself in a psychological process that, at times, probably constitutes as “shock”.
This description is all by way of saying that just a couple of days ago, I was totally separated from the memories of my “other,” “normal” life. I was swimming in waters that felt so fresh that a completely new set of realities seemed to automatically construct itself around me. Everything from the athan being called out of the mosques, to the cheap local food that eventually made me sick, to the open sky that transforms into a celestial work of art at night, eventually connected with one another, and ultimately became what felt like a giant web of new metaphysical realities. I simply couldn’t be bothered to think of Canada.
Then, out of nowhere, I caught a bacterial infection. The ensuing bout of physical illness blew away all these new realities like the wind does away with cobwebs.
Whatever images Alfred Russel Wallace saw in his malarial dreams, I will wager anything that my feverish visions can top them all. Forget evolution. I saw the supernatural! I recall when I caught the flu once right before a high school calculus exam, and I dreamt that a life-sized integral sign began chasing me like a giant snake, eventually wrapping itself around me and choking me until I awoke. This was nothing compared to what I saw in my sleep just a few days ago.
Friedrich August Kekule von Stradonitz fell asleep once in his study after an unfruitful attempt at piecing together the organic structure of the chemical compound benzene. He too began to dream, and the contents of his subconscious spoke to him: he saw a snake, and it was eating its own tail. Similar to Wallace, this contributed to Stradonitz’s eureka moment. He realized that the structure of benzene was circular, a fact that he, at least in part, arrived at through the symbolic language of the human subconscious.
Anyway, I wonder what my dreams told me. Actually, I have no idea, but I can articulate how they left me to feel. I certainly didn’t come across any scientific discoveries, and I rarely remember any of my dreams, but this fevered session with my own subconscious gave me visions of everything from dark figures flying around in my bedroom, to giant lizards on the floor, to brilliantly-coloured clouds hovering over my head—all in the span of a few hours. At one point, I even felt a hand come across my throat, while another hand pressed down on my stomach—as if holding me down. I awoke grabbing at the air, drenched in sweat, and hyperventilating.
But when I did finally awake, I had a giant migraine in my head. It was like awaking from death, from the grave. But not only did I feel totally weak (although the fever was completely gone), and completely wasted physically, I also felt strangely sober. I’m not usually a drinking man, so I don’t mean sobering up from a drunken binge. However, I felt strangely awake, as if my sleep wasn’t simply constituted by the past few hours, but the entire three weeks, at the beginning of which my stay in Malawi actually began.
It probably had to do ultimately with the physiological effects of my illness, but it was also something more than just the physical. The night of extreme fever shattered the world that seemed to arise from my newly found surroundings, which began to engulf me. Before the fever, like I said, I lost all perspective of time and place. The city I stayed in, and the people around me became everything. I was very present, almost too present.
Chris Hedges writes in War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning about how being in warzones literally made life more meaningful, though with ultimately disastrous results. He talks about how in extreme circumstances, when one’s adrenaline is being pumped with force, colours simply become brighter to the eye. It’s a powerful experience—but also a narcotic. Certain types of experiences, when filled with apparent “meaning”, become our drug. We don’t want to leave it. I’m not saying that my experiences so far in Malawi have become unhealthily addictive, but I was definitely on track to experience some serious emotional loss when I landed back in Toronto. Life had become good here—too good! It took a night of intense sickness to shake me out of it—that dream-like state. Whether that’s a good thing or not is debatable, of course, but it happened to me.
Now, a few days later, when I’m healthy again, I’m more hesitant when I go out. I wait a little longer before shaking someone’s hand, walk a little faster in the dark, look a little more often over my shoulder, and feel a little more compelled to go home early. I just feel a lot more sober, and think a lot more before I do something. I definitely think about what I eat now. No, my dream did not hand me any novel discoveries, like Wallace or Stradonitz experienced, but it did leave behind the residue of perspective. I feel compelled, like I usually do, to deliberate more before making a decision, to take a step back and observe my experiences in order to interpret them accurately. I stopped ignoring my emails from Canada, and finally wrote home, for only the second time in a month. I asked myself what my absence meant to others in my life, instead of not giving a rat’s.
It is a matter of slow, and painfully accrued realization that when separate lives are led on separate lands, one “life” is bound to recede deep into the past, its pieces and images recalled only by memory, and then deposited back again into the recesses of our minds. The life that remains may not always be the one most coveted by our innermost desires, but it constitutes our reality anyway.
But we eventually realize that we only live one life regardless of where we are—not two, not three. The times in our lives that we cannot forget nonetheless become the stuff of a distant and dispassionate past. The wish to relive these moments is eventually transformed by time into a dark anticipation felt one when stands before a giant chasm, where the other side can only be reached via a point of no return.