In Helsinki, Finland, during my childhood I first understood people can be crazy. I was a small boy and climbing stairs in the old apartment building near the harbor–holding my dad’s hand, climbing, the steps curved like inside a lighthouse, my blindness talking to my feet. You understand–this is an early memory, 1958 most likely. An old woman approached us coming down from above and seeing me said in blue blood Swedish (for she was a member of Finland’s small Swedish speaking minority): “Tsk, Tsk, barna blind…” Tsk, tisk needs no translation, even to a boy. I was a blind child, and there, on that stairwell, in the curving darkness, I received my brand–was branded. My father ignored her by shrugging and we kept climbing.
“Even a minor event in the life of a child is an event of that child’s world and thus a world event.” The words are Gaston Bachelard’s and I’ve puzzled over them for years. My minor event, the naming of my blindness took place in the Scandinavian winter on a dark stairwell and I absorbed some very unrefined ideas about physical difference and human worth–knew them instantly–but how could this ever be a world event? As I see it after all these years dear blue, there are two ways Bachelard can be right. The first is that the old woman’s contempt becomes a cathected and insupportable incitement, the seed of what Carl Jung would call a “complex” thereby draining my life of self-esteem, maybe even stealing my curiosity. The second is this small, nearly infinitesimal occasion turns me to making things. In both scenarios Bachelard is correct. In both cases a child’s world grows upward and outward and influences many people over a lifetime.
One day I wrote a poem about my boyhood incident.
“No Name For It”
Start with a hyphenated word, something Swedish—
Rus-blind; “blind-drunk”; blinda-flacken; “blind-spot”;
Blind-pipa; “non-entity”, “a type of ghost.”
En blind hona hittar ocksa ett korn;
“The fool’s arrow sometimes hits the mark.”
(That’s what the Swedish matron said
When I was a boy climbing stairs.)
She pointed with a cane:
Her tone mixed piety and reproof—pure Strindberg!
It echoed on the stairs, barna-blind—
“Blind from birth”;
En blind hona hittar…
The blind child’s arrow….
Dear Blue: I wasn't really a blind child at all, but one of the ghosts who rang Strindberg’s doorbell. I see this now but only through the poem. Strindberg imagined spirits were ringing his doorbell, saw them in the ambient light at twilit windows–things a blind child would know as facts rather than fancies. So in my private life, I’m a practical joker without doing a thing. I ring the old man’s doorbell with nothing more than a glance. I’ve hidden myself in the bushes. I will leap out when the lights go dark at his windows. I shall invade his solitude by means of the newly invented electric doorbell. I will do all this with nothing more than a glance.
Do you understand, Dear Blue, one night some thirty years ago, I met a drunken man in a bar in Estonia. He was very old. He claimed to have been a childhood prankster who tormented Strindberg. I thought then, and think now, how beautiful and sweetly unclear the facts are. I think how the unconscious works by means of animal faith. We go forward and upward by means of trust and laughter. I’d have tormented the old play write if I’d had a chance. Instead I grew up with a blind child’s arrow, a different trick, for I hit things askance and often produced a slanted music–an effect adagio and almost wrong though the credulous mind embraces it after all. Blue, I like Beethoven’s last string quartets. I like broken windows in abandoned country houses. I like crows on telephone wires and Boolean Algebra and rain in winter. I like whispers. I’ve always liked whispers.