Who and what are we? Where are we?
When are we?
These questions are for others to answer. I lost the right to give answers.
The following account of two experiences in my life is intended to be read after my death, since I do not wish to have my sanity called into question while I live and still have much to do.
I have enemies and critics enough, though in recent times I hope I have made amends where possible. People rightly have accused me of crimes and things worse than crimes. I do not wish to be thought mad as well. The charge of madness would be easy to bear, but it would be false. The three wives, the families I have abused and neglected, the governments, businesses, institutions and individuals I have deceived – they need to know that nothing was done unconsciously or as a result of some mental infirmity. The wrongs done were done deliberately and in perfect sanity.
In my will and other documents, I have outlined ways of continuing to repair the wreckage of my life, an undertaking which began in my seventy-ninth year, and which has had some good effect – though full amends for a life such as mine are impossible. Proof of this fact is that I have been rewarded with new friends in recent years, but acquaintances and family from my past are justifiably skeptical or too embittered to care.
Lastly – in response to various partisan whisperings – I cannot say that I have turned to religion, which bewilders me still, though I feel no hostility toward it. I cannot say to what I have turned. I have turned, and that is all.
They say any age can be a good one, and that youth has its inevitable torments and its confusion.
In my case, youth contained all the joy and satisfaction I was ever to know. This is no autobiography: let me just say that I am the product of as good a family as any, and that I began life with all possible advantages, material and emotional. So much for my origins – and for psychology.
I was one of the first of the fortunate young Australians who headed to Europe in the early fifties. Thanks to well-off parents, a family legacy, and a precocious aptitude for investment, it was possible to suspend my studies for an entire year in order to travel. The adventures, the new friends and occasions for free inquiry made that year an unclouded joy. To be young, in vigorous health and well provided with money may be a danger for some; for me, naturally shrewd and fast-maturing as I was, there were only satisfactions.
My time in Europe was due to end just before the onset of winter there. After splitting off from my latest travelling acquaintances, I decided to spend the last days of autumn on my own in Rome.
In the early fifties, and at that time of year, Rome was open and oddly serene. Visiting the Villa Borghese – nowadays like a constantly crowded subway station, with no natural air or light – one could stand alone with Bernini’s masterworks while the falling chestnut leaves floated in through huge windows. To visit the Vatican galleries, the Raphael Rooms, the Sistine, one simply walked in. I recall standing alone for a full twenty minutes gazing at the School of Athens – enough time to scrub it from its wall!
In the evenings, I would dine outside in Trastevere, without the need for stimulation or new company. I was mentally gleaning the harvest of the past year. To hear a fountain gush and tinkle, drink cheap Castelli wine and anticipate a future that would be even richer in friends and experiences: that was all I wanted in my last days of travel. My youth was now ripe, what would be next? To feel the onset of a promising maturity on a clement autumn evening in Rome is to be sure of that promise. Nature and the centuries seem to be with you.
On my final day, I decided on a long stroll down the Appian Way before sunset, a fitting end to the year.
Beginning at the San Sebastiano gate, I wandered along the cobbles, not willing to go inside museums or catacombs, too intoxicated to stop at all. The energy in my young body after months of leisure and light but constant physical exercise was boundless. I seemed to float past the broken pediments, the ancients tombs and mausolea, the columbaria, the Arch of Hadrian, the Circus of Maxentius, the guardian cypresses. What had most glamour were the umbrella pines, the true symbols of Rome, the heads of which seem to float and dream against the midday blue. With a sunset and darkening sky behind them, they become giant alien fungi, clustering their heads in immemorial conspiracies.
On the way back, not far off sunset, I came again to the Church which has been nicknamed Quo Vadis. It is a seventeenth century structure, but it is on a site which has always had a church, or temple, or even a mithraeum. Legend has it that it is the spot where St. Peter, fleeing Rome and persecution, ran into an apparition of Jesus Christ, heading the other way. Quo vadis, domine? “Where are you going, Lord?” asked Peter, never too bright. And Christ replied he was heading to Rome to be crucified again. Of course, Peter turned back to Rome, to be crucified. So goes that story.
The church was still open, though the Way was now deserted in the gathering dark. I went in. It had a small and pretty interior, with no particularly ancient feel. Uninterested in its details, I merely sat for a moment and breathed. For a second or two, I felt – or did I emit? – a kind of psychic pulse. My background and education were entirely agnostic. Having never tried prayer, I wondered if some such thing had just occurred within or around me. Was it my mood of sheer gratitude for life and youth transformed into a kind of thanksgiving? Was there a kind of entreaty, as well? An entreaty for what?
The mood soon passed. My appetite was fairly soaring, and I had promised myself a final dinner near Santa Maria in Trastevere, seated outside with a bottle of best Brunello. There was packing to be done.
I stepped out of the church, into the semi-darkness. The evening air was heavy, my movements felt hindered, as if by soft elastic. Facing me across the way was the figure of an elderly man. Everything about him was strange. His clothes and hair seemed alien, in a sleek way, as in old movies about spacemen. He was gesturing at me, with his features contorted, and seemed to be repeating the same words without any sound being emitted. For a moment I thought he must be having a heart attack or some sort of medical emergency, but it soon occurred to me that the old man was either mad or one of the many aging perverts who come to Rome for their flings. I moved on, with a glance back to see if he was following me; but he had disappeared.
This odd event stayed in my mind, as did the surrounding moments, and those last, marvellous autumn days in Rome.
The life for which I am known soon began. A prodigious journalist, I became a prodigious liar. I was fairly destined to acquire my boutique media empire, although, unlike Beaverbrook and Murdoch, I had an escapist and sensual nature which led me into much stranger and darker areas. The everyday manipulation of politics and markets was the mildest of the abuses I committed. Marriages and fatherhood were uniformly catastrophic. By my later years, nothing mattered to me but manipulation, since I had gone far beyond the Byronic “good old gentlemanly vice” of aimlessly piling money. I’m sure that, with a little more energy and no sense of the absurd, I might have become a real-life Bond-villain.
Why tell all that? Manipulation, however fantastically conceived, is strangely boring when you are the manipulator. I avoided prison and financial losses, but got my desserts in all other ways. Nor did I rise from the ashes of the Decade of Greed, chastened or incorrigible or born again or anything at all. I was just myself, rich, but old, alone and largely inactive.
A last and truly ridiculous de facto marriage convinced me I was now like Baudelaire’s king, the one who reigned over a damp country and had cold, green Lethe water in his veins instead of blood.
I travelled, perhaps to terrorise a hotel clerk, or to bribe an official for something I did not want. Travel was a way to be a little longer.
I arrived in Rome, after avoiding the place for many years, as if Rome would accuse me. Silly.
There were some days of strolling between fountains, sipping on cheap Castelli wine – which now made me nauseous, sleepless – hoping to feel a little where I had once felt so intensely. It was late autumn. Exactly fifty-eight years had passed since the evening I had strolled along the Appian Way, paused in the little Church of Quo Vadis – the Church of Where-Are-You-Going.
Since the city had declared a traffic-free Sunday, it occurred to me to test my aging legs by walking a few kilometres of the Appian from the San Sebastiano gate. I arranged for a handicapped-person’s vehicle – allowed on such days – to take me to the start and pick me up there after sunset.
I shuffled listlessly along, being careful of the cobbles, and of the jostling crowds which are now a year-round feature of historic parts of the city. The ruins, the cypresses, the pines seemed lifeless, without romance. I felt nothing, there where I had felt the most. Rome was, indeed, an accusation.
As I made my way back, the sky was darkening. I came to the Church of Quo Vadis and halted without reason – as if I had reached the end of ends, as if the numbness of spirit had seeped into my very limbs.
That part of the Way was briefly deserted, for some reason. The retreating Sunday crowds were either before me or behind me. The air felt very heavy, giving me one of my frequent hypochondriac moments. I breathed deep, relaxed as much as possible, and blankly fixed the entry to the little church, not intending to enter – not intending anything. The memory of my previous visit so many decades ago crept back: the moment of inexplicable elation or entreaty inside, and the alien-seeming old man standing outside in the dusk.
Someone emerged from the portal. It was a young man, but dressed so strangely. His hair and clothes were from the period after the war. His face, as I peered at it, seemed so familiar.
Then I knew his face. It was an alert, amused face. It was an open, expectant face. There was shrewdness, but also sweetness, in those creaseless features.
I tried desperately to speak to him, but my words were stifled by the air that was like transparent molasses. I continued to mouthe, as he moved away, alarmed by my crazed expression and gestures. I kept repeating, but without sound:
“Where are you going? Where are you going? Where…?”
Of course, the young man could not turn from his course. Only I, the alien-seeming old man, could turn from his course. So late, so very late. Of the two of us, of the two of me, only I could respond to the little psychic pulse, felt in that same church, for just one moment, in that far-off autumn of 1951. Only I could know, only I could turn. So I have tried to turn.
Sero te amavi…
Late have I loved thee…
pulchritudo tam antiqua et tam nova…
beauty so ancient and so new.
Who and what are we? Where are we?
When are we?