Escape and Encounter

I was struggling with a paper that seemed to be going nowhere. It was about conflicts among the early Christians, I remember, competing notions of real and illusory, darkness and light, the earthly, the other, the saved, the mired.

It must have been freshman year, because my chief sensation was of venturing lost. I had no fixed friends, I felt like a fraud, and everything seemed opaque-the campus with its maze of courtyards, the behavioral codes of the prep-school kids, the expectations of my professors, this course in Western origins. Indeed, Western civilization itself: for that seemed to be the crux, and I could see now, amid the casual allusions to early heresies, that I knew nothing. I can remember chewing on the word eschatology, and returning from the dictionary with the realization that this, too, was code, that its meaning lay in references that led to other references; that any single concept opened into centuries of text, commentary, art, investigation, all somehow interconnected, all spreading outward, demanding a whole education to grasp, reading without end, a lifetime of ignorance. Eschatology: I understood that it had something to do with doom.

So I did what any freshman does who's feeling overwhelmed. I escaped. I slid open the door of my cubicle. Fluorescent light bathed the line of identical cubicles along the pale wall. This was a new library annex, entirely underground, perpetually, unnaturally lit, like a prison. I fled up the stairs and walked over to the old, wood-paneled law school auditorium, where Jane Goodall was to give three evening lectures about her study of chimpanzees.

This would be relaxing and mindless. The chimp lady from National Geographic. It would be like kindergarten, like TV. There would be slides.

The hall was packed. I had to grab a seat in the last row of the balcony, crammed in beside strangers. The lights dimmed, the slender legend came to the lectern, and for the next two hours we gazed and listened, absolutely mesmerized, absolutely captivated.

It was partly Jane Goodall herself-that beautiful British voice of hers, patient, precise, soothing, controlled, and above all cultivated, a voice perfectly pitched to the enterprise of civilization. It was partly the drama of the young Englishwoman plunging into a potentially dangerous jungle on a project of dubious prospects and then, after months of frustrating glimpses, finally finding herself close to the chimps, accepted. It was partly the inherent fascination of the apes, so clearly alien in their grunts and screams, so uncannily like us in their gestures and relationships, the play of emotion on their faces.

But more than anything, what drew us completely into her world were the stories. We met Melissa and Goliath, Figan, Olly, Freud, the famous David Greybeard, heart-faced Gilka, high-ranking Hugo, the matriarch Flo (who would ultimately merit an obituary in the Sunday Times), Flo's daughter Fifi, and Flo's peculiar son, Flint, who never outgrew a babyish dependence on his mother.

We followed the chimp clans of the Gombe nature reserve as we would follow a family saga. We laughed, we admired; we cooed over the babies, we cringed at the conflicts. Goodall, astute observer, sympathetic insider, so clearly cared about these individuals, and by the time the lights went up we cared too. It was like a sprawling novel you would be happy to inhabit forever. We didn't want to leave.

The next evening, after a more hopeful session with the Christians, I returned. Within moments we were all immersed again in Gombe. But the magic had another layer now, because we Goodall followers felt ourselves silently connected, members of the same congregation. When Flo fell sick, a dread stillness spread among us. And when she died, we sat stricken as Goodall explained how her son Flint spent hours beside her body at the Kakombe stream, how in the days that followed he became lethargic, hollow-eyed, gaunt, how he refused to eat. His sister Fifi showed up and groomed him, but he wouldn't leave with her. He huddled near the place where his mother had died, stared vacantly at the water, curled up, and died himself.

A post-mortem examination of Flint revealed the usual parasites as well as gastrointestinal conditions undoubtedly exacerbated by his depression, but nothing that would explain the swiftness of his decline. "We could only conclude," Goodall said in that even, erudite voice, "that he died of grief."

I cannot describe the emotion in the hall at this moment when the walls collapsed between study and sympathy, academic and personal, worldly and spiritual. None of us could move. None could speak. Each of us was transfixed, every face bathed in tears.

I don't really remember the third lecture, although I undoubtedly went. I know that I was able to finish my paper despite this strangely powerful encounter-or maybe because of it: the catharsis it provided, the perspective.

What I do remember is returning to the library after the whole experience feeling drained, feeling somehow blessed and grateful. It was as if I had gone through a kind of religious rite and emerged, not transformed but renewed, firmer in my belief that the human capacity mattered: patient study, devotion to the world and the mind, the interwovenness of wonder, care, curiosity, research, and language; the presence of mystery, not in the hereafter but in the here.

I should add that, for a lot of reasons, I gradually became a good deal more comfortable at college. I made friends, learned my way around, became an inhabitant of the place. I put a lot of words like eschatology in my tool kit, although, come to think of it, I'm not sure I ever used that particular word again.

I even developed a fondness for the underground library annex. By senior year, the row of cubicles along the wall reminded me of compartments in a train traveling through Europe. I would walk down the row, find an empty one, and slide open the door, imagining as I went in that cathedral towns were sliding by, that I had my ticket and was going someplace.

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