In 1916, Hermann Hesse’s life was troubled in several different ways. His father had just died. (Coincidentally, my own father had just been born.) And his grief weighed so heavily upon him that he was eventually dismissed from military service. His marriage was coming apart, yet his wife’s ever-worsening schizophrenia made him feel that it would be impossible for them to separate. Perhaps even more painfully, Hesse’s youngest son (with whom I myself share a first name) was suffering from an undiagnosed illness that appeared only to become more virulent and terrifying as the months passed. But true artists exist at the intersection of repression and creativity…and that year was also the year Hesse published his novella, “The Beauty of Youth,” which later was to become the first full-length literary work that the college-aged me managed somehow to read from beginning to end in German and (more or less) to understand.
I’ve been thinking about that novella lately, remembering especially a line in it that has stayed with me ever since. In the story, Hesse writes about a successful young man who returns to his parents’ home to spend the summer there before heading abroad to take up some position he has been offered. As he settles back into his childhood home, he embarks on a kind of mental experiment to see if it could be possible to return to one’s youth. He wants not merely to recall the past, but actually to revisit it…and, if possible, to alter certain specific aspects of it. It’s a bit of a complicated story, although also a very moving one that I recall liking very much, but the eventual conclusion is that the past is a place, as Hesse says explicitly, from which roads only exit. You can move back into your parents’ home if you wish…but you cannot revisit your own childhood by doing so any more meaningfully than you can re-see a play you’ve enjoyed by revisiting the theater in which it was performed after the show has closed. Away from the past lead only one-way streets, Hesse wrote, and the difference between adults with respect to their youths has to do only with the degree of regret they bring to that thought. But, he writes, even those the most beset by regret cannot go back in time to redo or undo what was once done.
Those lines must have meant something to me when I was in college. I do after all remember them all these many years later! And I’m sure I agreed with what Hesse wrote. (In those halcyon days of my late teenagedom, I basically agreed with everything Hesse wrote.) And yet…the issue turns out, at least for me, to be more nuanced and interesting than the almost simple observation that time only flows forward, that you cannot revisit the past, that time machines are the stuff of science fiction precisely because they don’t exist and can’t exist.
Over these last few years, Joan and I have been revisiting the scenes of earlier versions of our lives. (We didn’t undertake to do this consciously, but it’s turned out that way anyway.) We were in Jerusalem and Heidelberg three summers ago. We were in Vancouver the year after that. This summer we’ve been to Boston, where we lived for six months in the early 1990s, and to southern California, where I served a congregation for the three years before I came to Shelter Rock. And next week we’re on our way back to Toronto, the scene of Joan’s childhood, to spend some time with her family. I was even in Forest Hills the other week and found myself driving past the apartment building in which I grew up. I needed to make some phone calls and the blue tooth device I use to talk on the phone while I drive wasn’t working properly…so I parked, sat down on a shaded bench in the park next to my parents’ building where I played as a child and spent a lot of time reading when I was in high school and college, and began to make my calls. It may even have been the very same bench I was sitting on on when I first read Hesse’s novella as a sophomore in college! (And even if it wasn’t the same exact bench, then surely the more important detail is that it was the same me sitting in the same park. And I really did spend a lot of time reading in that park during my college years.)
There’s a certain nostalgic aspect to all this revisiting of the scenes of our earlier adventures. But it’s also more than that, more than mere nostalgia. You all know that I believe in ghosts, but mostly when we speak about ghosts we mean the ghosts of other people and specifically of other people who have died. But that’s only one version of the concept. Many non-Western cultures speak about the ghosts of the living, about the way that the physical body anchored in space and time exists in some sort of parallel way to the spiritual body that exists outside of both and with enduring reference to neither. It sounds like the kind of concept only an undergraduate could love, but the truth is that I keep catching glimpses of myself—or do I mean: my self?— in these places we’ve been revisiting. Most recently, for example, I had that experience last week in Boston. Joan was busy with her course all day long—she was training in some very complicated computer music program called Logic—and I was free to work out at the gym, to write at the library, to have lunch with friends (of whom we have many in Boston). We took a room for the week in the same neighborhood we lived in back in 1993. It was a long time ago. I was thirty-nine and Joan was even younger than that! Our sons were nine and six. Lucy was three years old. We were who we were and who we still are…but although physically we have all morphed into our current versions—the kids are 26, 23, and 20 now—I was amazed continually to notice traces of our former versions still haunting Beacon Street and Harvard Street, still present in that ethereal way of the non-existent that somehow impresses without threatening and which feels fully real. When I went to Congregation Kehillat Israel to hear Eicha on the eve of Tisha Be’av, for example, I had the incredibly peculiar sense that I hadn’t really been away for seventeen years, that in a sense I hadn’t been away really at all. Indeed, I had the strange sense that my own ghost had just left the chapel when Joan and I walked in and took our seats. I almost caught a glimpse of him too! (Was I really that thin at 39? Maybe I was!)
Does all this sound ghoulish and strange? It does, even to me! Well, maybe not ghoulish...but definitely strange! Nevertheless, I remain possessed of the conviction that I have shared with you on many occasions, usually during Yizkor, that time really is only a kind of midrash that we have invented to explain our lives…and that there is also the possibility of existence without reference to time past and time future. We affirm constantly that God in heaven exists in a way that is unrelated to the passage of time. But nowhere do we insist that what is true of God cannot also be true, at least in some paler, derivative sense, of ourselves. And so have I come to think things are in this world now that I’ve encountered my own ghost, if that’s the right word, in so many different places. They don’t linger, these spectral selves of ours. (The ghosts of the departed don’t linger either, of course. But that we surely all know!) And they almost never speak, or at least they don’t speak to me. But this strange progression of visits to the places we’ve lived—including over these last years more or less all of them: Queens, Toronto, Manhattan, Jerusalem, Heidelberg, Vancouver, Boston, and California—has only made me clearer on the concept that, for all time is the sea in which we swim as physically real people anchored in the physically real world, there is also the possibility of existing in others contexts and of swimming in other seas.
In the corner of my eye, I noticed my teenaged self just leaving as I sat down in that park in Forest Hills to make my calls. Was it really me? My first inclination is to say that the answer to that question depends on what the person asking it means by the word “really” in the question. But now that I think more carefully, perhaps the matter turns more precisely on what the asker means by the word “me.” We are, clearly, who we are. And, in that we are the aggregate of our own experiences and histories, we are also who we were. The only real question open to debate, in fact, is whether those earlier versions of ourselves exist independent of our own recollective consciousnesses as…whatever name we choose to label these spectral versions of our out-of-time selves. But I recognized both that guy who left the chapel at KI on Harvard Street when Joan and I came to hear Eicha and that teenager who was just leaving the park in Forest Hills when I sat down to make those calls…and, contrary to what you’d think, I was very pleased to see him (or do I mean them?) even if just for the briefest of moments.