Saturday, November 22, 2008

Du Temps Perdu

The shop around the corner has finally gotten its act together and started selling date biscuits. They have a crumbly exterior, something like shortbread, and a paste filling made of Chinese jujubes and crushed walnuts. I fell in love with them the last time I was in Beijing, when I came here right after college.

Actually, back then they were not quite my favorite kind of Beijing sweet. My very favorites were little pastry shells filled with rose-flavored sugar. They were so evocative of their Central Asian origin that, biting into one, you could practically hear the bells jingling on the camels' harnesses as they humped along the Silk Road, tramping over grassland and desert, plodding across wind-riven ridges and picking their way through stony valleys haunted by lizards and tumbleweed. They were most inspiriting. "How very wide the world is, and I am at large in it." That was how they made one feel.

But the more pedestrian date biscuits were almost as good in their way, and much more readily available. They were to my first sojourn in Beijing what Carr's Digestives were to my years at boarding school: they both marked and epitomized my days here with the placidity of a sundial.

I'd been trying to find them ever since I arrived back in Beijing a couple of months ago. Then a few days ago I finally saw them in the bakery section of the local grocery store, so I bought some and ate them dipped in tea. They were even better than I remembered.

But that was all. They didn't bring the past back to me. As I ate them, I didn't really think about my earlier year in Beijing at all. I just thought, "Boy, these are good."

Well, Nature may imitate Art now and again, but I guess she can hardly be expected to do so on command. Besides, it is surely a good thing to be able to enjoy date biscuits in such absolute terms, to be able to take them as such a thoroughly present pleasure that one feels no particular reliance on whatever history one might happen to share with them.

Still, the incident left me feeling puzzled and a little uneasy. I've always thought of myself as practically defined by a powerfully nostalgic bent. My "senior quote" in my high school yearbook , taken from Book II of Vergil's Aeneid, reflected this view:

forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit.

Perhaps hereafter even this will be a pleasure to recall.

Of course, it's a common enough reference for graduating seniors, and, with its wry applicability to the travails of school life, its general appeal is easy to understand. But I meant it seriously. Even at seventeen, I had already had plenty of experience with an apparently unbounded capacity for affectionate regret, which was usually directed indiscriminately towards whatever lay behind me. More significantly, my understanding of both the past and the present often seemed to be principally delineated by that feeling, and by its attendant sense of irretrievable loss.

The years since then have introduced me to many variations on this sensation. Life in one place has repeatedly given way to life in another; with each transplantation I am little more laden with retrospection. Last week my students asked me what my favorite word in Greek was (we were doing Favorite Words as a conversation starter) and I found myself replying, without hesitation, "εντροπαλιζομενη," as Homer says of Andromache, who "turns and turns again" as she leaves her husband on the walls of Troy.

I don't quite know when my periodic visits to the Harvard campus began to leave me feeling rootless and dispossessed, but it happened fairly soon after graduation, certainly while I was young enough and connected enough feel that I still belonged there, had I been able to find my way to that point of view.

Yesterday I went to a conference at Beijing Normal University, where I taught English right after college. I wondered if the visit would produce the same forsaken feeling that I had come to expect from my trips to Harvard. In a way it did, but what I really felt was just rather numb and dreamlike.

This detached feeling was itself a little frightening. The vague sense of disorientation associated with the date biscuits and their failure to evoke my first year in Beijing quickly crystallized into a specific concern. I found myself wondering whether, without being aware, I had begun to protect myself so thoroughly against memory's incursions as to become a kind of fortress.

I thought these things as I found the conference hall and settled into my place. But then something rather unexpected happened. One of the other participants came over to me and asked me if I were on the foreign languages faculty at BNU. "Didn't you come here right after graduating from college?" he asked. "I remember you. I was in your class. You've hardly changed at all."

Once I had got over my initial flutter of pleased surprise, something else captured my attention. My former student told me that he was now a professor of history at a university in Shandong province and asked if I had been all this time at BNU. Well, he has only made a few trips back to campus since graduating; I suppose for all he knew I could have been a fixture here for the last dozen years.

I think one reason returning to an old school can be so fraught with emotion is that schools seem so unchanging. Some faculty do come and go, of course, but many of them stay for whole lifetimes -- or whole careers, anyway. We are the ones who change.

It gave me quite a start, thinking that I might have assumed the character of an institution -- temporarily, at any rate -- for this professor from Shandong. I found myself spending a long moment wondering how he felt about coming back to BNU.

I felt a little sad on the bus ride home, but not as sad as I might have felt, and not as numb as I had been feeling. I had spent a little time thinking of someone else, and of course that is almost always the answer.

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