Susan Clapp’s psychological take on Bruce Chatwin is probably a good one, if nothing else an accurate one. As both travel writer and master storyteller, Chatwin was a little fact and a little fiction, according to Clapp.
In a more personal and all-encompassing sense Chatwin, in Clapp’s estimation, was a beehive of contradictions. His saving grace, it seems, was to somehow solve these contradictions through his writing.
One has only to pore through In Patagonia, What Am I Doing Here, The Songlines and Utz to understand Clapp’s notion that writing was salvation for Chatwin. In each book, almost paragraph by neatly crafted paragraph, Chatwin took liberties with his craft, with his life.
He was a nomad, an errant and seemingly endless drifter who was awfully comfortable when locked in his room dreaming his way through yet another book.
In poverty, he was a lavish gift-giver. In his tortuous battle with AIDS he remained overly optimistic about the human condition. He was an art collector who rallied against pretentious people who collect art objects.
He loved both women and men, needed wilderness, and could not do without the fast pace of highly cultured cities such as Paris, New York and Lisbon.
But Clapp’s diagnosis, though tidy and noteworthy if you are into Chatwin as writer and persona, should come to us as a “nothing-new” observation.
Chatwin, in my estimation, was just doing what all of us do in our own way: always pulling a more complete self together from a scattering of ideas, opinions and motivations that are more than likely at odds with one another.
The fact of the matter is I have never met anyone who is not forever going down one path while always wishing they were taking another.
To some degree we are all acting out one existence while living another. I have never met the totally honest bloke who is not apt to sway in the wind when the dust finally settles.
We all lie, deceive, manipulate and massage fact with fiction. Life may in fact be the ultimate deception, just one big unavoidable contradiction.
I think this juxtaposition of character is endemic to our being human, to our being city dwellers, to being rural farmers, suburban gardeners, friends, lovers, parents.
If we are alive it is safe to say we are ready, willing and able to commingle who we really are with who we really want to be.
We all manage to live one life knowing full well our next of kin believe us to be living another. Even our most ardent supporters, our good friends, our most intimate compatriots, our very own wives and husbands have little knowledge of who we really are.
And you know what? We like it that way.
So if friend, confidant and biographer Susan Clapp is right on target about Chatwin, if he can reconcile his unsettled demons with the stroke of a pen, good for her for taking notice; good for him for being so utterly human.
But while Chatwin appears to work this all out in the written word, what do the rest of us do?
What outlet do we have for meshing dreamtime with reality? How do we make our disparate psychological ends meet? What do the rest of us do when our myths and dreams, our ambitions and our deepest drives collide?
Some of us manage to keep the dream alive — under wraps perhaps — until retirement. Only then do we feel justified in cutting loose all that pent-up emotion and taking flight with the wings we have secretly harboured and cautiously fine-tuned for years.
Many of us wait until the kids are grown. Responsibility fulfilled, pow, like a cannon ball laden with a lot of gunpowder, we all at once catapult into our new worlds.
We look at our revived and wobbly selves for a time and then gather the confidence to boast to our closest neighbours, “look at the new me.”
Once settled however, new dreams flood us again. And again.
Learning to accept ourselves as living contradictions, while often hard on our friends, neighbours and mates, is an essential and healthy way to weave ourselves successfully through this once-in-a-life-time experience we call living.
T.E Lawrence once wrote:
“All people dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity. But the dreamers of the day are dangerous people, for they may act out their dreams with open eyes to make it possible.”
Who then are these dangerous dreamers with open eyes?
They are us: You and I who are living in small villages while dying for the big city experience. They are those who desperately need time alone, all the while raising large families.
They are us who show up for work each day, throw back the shutters and do the ordinary day-to-day grind while dreaming the impossible dream.
We are all living contradictions. Many of us — like Chatwin — just learn somehow to go through it all with grace and expediency.
In Clapp’s words: “For Chatwin it was always midnight.”
For that is the time when dream and reality collide — when the two worlds seem like one. That is the time when adventure and destiny and commonplace pull together in order to make us whole.
That is the time when we are a danger to ourselves.
It is also the time when we are most alive.
Gregory Heming is a writer and optimist living in Nelson, British Columbia.