"It'll sink," said my friend's wife who holds to the common feminine faith that iron does not float.
"It won't sink," said my friend and of course he was right.
This couple has perhaps unwisely acquired a monster salmon which they poached in a tremendous poaching pan on half a dozen burners of the stove, but then it wouldn't fit in the icebox, on one of the world's hottest days, with many hours till supper.
"We can float it in the lily pool," said the man, "right in the pan we cooked it in, and it'll be almost as good as the icebox."
Done and done. And it sailed about as safe as little Moses, to the wonder of the wife who predicted titanicism with the loss of all.
You should know, however, that these people (against the advice of a wise friend) had installed a frog fountain at the edge of the pool. The big frog sat there and spouted water out his mouth. These people then trained the family cat (probably by extreme measures) to stand with his front paws on the frog and lean out to drink the spurting water. Rather dear, when you saw it.
Well. My friend eventually retired to his workroom where he was supposed to have been working all day -- he went to his office to request further time for his laborious project which has already taken him months and months, during which time he has been chiefly poaching and floating salmons, presumably -- and looked out his window:
Three cats were massed, each leaning heavily on the frog and with one free paw they were dabbling and waving in the water.
Michael, row the boat ashore. Hallelujah.
On the littoral they stood, like three mourning Didos, mewing softly to their love out there in the billowing sea. To come again to Carthage.
Their boat never came in. Through a summer's afternoon they yearned, and night came on. Once or twice the pan floated a bit closer but then some unsuspected eddy carried it farther off than it had ever been.
At the last some tremendous god reached down and took it off and it was never seen again.
Is this not the story of Everyman? Every personoid?
An African legend of the Baila tribe (I have been informed) concerns a woman whose children die, for no rime or reason, one after the other and she is left desolate.
"Why? she asks, coining a phrase.
She never finds out. Even though she goes to the horizon, where earth meets sky, to find an answer of the gods.
She even builds a tower to the sky, to assult Heaven itself and there demand an answer, but her tower (built of such twigs and light brush as she could manage) collapses beneath her. And at last, answerless, she dies of a broken heart. Her friends sigh briefly, but then it's the common fate.
Now if we turn to dark Bethesda (it was a very dark summer night, with only a few torches burning in the garden) we meet Margaret Berendes, an American psychoanalyst of German birth, who has brooded on the legend of that African mother struck down by deaths.
During the past six years Dr. Berendes took this African story and added to it a few of the insights she said she came to through her research with mind-altering chemicals such as LSD. She has used them in therapy for some of her patients and written accounts of what she feels has been a successful result.
In all cases, she was telling me, she has only raised the question of LSD therapy once to a patient. If he doesn't ask further, she never mentions it again. And in all cases she only raises the possibility of such therapy with patients she has been seeing for many months, and usually with patients whose progress in analysis seems stymied.
And only after the greatest degree of trust is already established between patient and doctor, and some weeks of preparation are gone through before the chemical is administered. And only in the most carefully chosen setting and with a male therapist also in attendance for the entire session which lasts some hours.
She has been struck by the fact that her patients invariably have what might as well be called religious insight during their session. Often what might be called peak experiences in which the patient feels at one with all life.
To try to illustrate this oneness, she took the African legend and reworked it. She wrote a script for several characters, made puppets, learned to operate them, chose and recorded appropriate background music (mainly Schubert and Bach, experimented endlessly with light wheels and colors and stage, worked out the best system of controls for the music and lighting. She learned to lie flat on her back, raising her hands straight up (the puppets cover her arms, which form their bodies) without weaking halfway through the drama.
In her show, which she has occasionally presented to the 20 guests who can be fitted into her living room, the heroine does not die broken-hearted. Instead, Mr. Death is a character whoinvites the woman to dance. She demands a few answers to life before yielding much to him.
And he does indeed allow her an at least partial vision. She begins to see herself not as an isolated grief battered mother of dead children, but as an almost undifferentiated wave in the sea of all women of all times.
She experiences such an identity, such a transcendence of her ordinary outlook, and her life is changed. She accepts.
Margaret Berendes' puppet show is a tour de force. When puppeteers from all over held a convention here recently, they flocked out to see her, and she was up till all hours to let them see her work. It was a joy to her, even if it damn near killed her. Many of her guests said they'd never seen anything like it.
I myself thought it startling proof of the skill humans are capable of -- those unbelievevable adjustments of a light here, a color there, a rhythm yonder -- when they work at peak concentration on something they believe is over whelmingly important.
There is no way a psychoanyalyst with a busy practice can enter a field as difficult and sophisticated as puppetry and turn out something that is not amateurish but polished to an extraordinary extent. There is no way this can be done -- any more than there is any way a walled city can be stormed by a handful of soldiers. But it's done.
It's a combination, I think, of yielding and attacking, and figuring out when to do which. Conrad used to speak of surrender to destructive elements -- in the destructive element immerse. Sometimes (but it's dangerous) it will hold you up. Like the iron pan with the salmon in it, or like the mother whose life is now worthless.
On television, of all places (channel 26, which for a change was not disgracing itself with a bunch of imbeciles begging for money), I saw some wonderful shows from Japan, one of them about the 1,000-day pilgrimage of a Buddihist monk named Sakai.
He had once been a suicide pilot, but the war ended before the day he was scheduled, so he lived, after all.He got into the black market, he got into God only knows what. Then he married and his wife killed herself. It began to dawn on him that something was not quite -- well, hell, he thought he might change.
He became a student, and a novitiate and even a sage. The 1,000 days of pilgrimage are spread over seven years. The outer activity consists in tromping up and down over some mountains -- not very big, only 5,000 acres -- dressed in a ceremonial way, continually chanting ceremonial sutras.
What is the point of that? Wouldn't it be better (to use the common argument of fools) to do something useful like walking the dog?
At one stage of the pilgrimage, about the fifth year, he entered a nine day fast. No sleep, no food, no water. But though he was not allowed water, he was required to ladle ceremonial water for an altar. The regimen brought him close to death.
And for what? It's a question that comes easily to us, used to jumping on anything we can jump on, and not at all used to holding back on anything we are not forced to hold back on.
The worth of the discipline, the reward of the danger, is to be found in Sakai's life, between what it was and what it is.To him it was worth it. He still has a way to go. He may yet fail. But then he was going to, anyway.
There was another show about the Tea Ceremony. A buddy of mine thought that was crazy. As if a television network were to present a documentary on how salad is served in Nantucket.
But of course the tea has nothing much to do with the tea ceremony, which is not about tea but about restraint and modesty and grace and purification and control and exaltation.
A central (if unspoken) command of the ceremony is that everything connected with it must be of supreme and almost superhuman grace, vigor, elegance and beauty. Except (here's a rub) it may not be fancy or costly. The pot and the cups must be unique in the world for artistry, the sort of stuff museums kill for. At the same time they must be so cheap and common that the poorest peasant might use them every day.
In this world it is hard, really hard, to find masterpieces of ceramics that the poorest peasant can easily afford. But that's what the ceremony requires, to be perfect, and if you run into trouble providing the necessary things, well, work it out as well as you can.
At least -- even if you fall short -- you know better than to use fancy porcelains, better than to put on any dog. You know better than to cover the ceremonial walls of the tea house with a museum full of priceless paintings. You know better than to have rare furniture, masses of flowers and silver and gold.
None of that. And no sparkling conversation, no brilliance of any kind.
You serve the commonest, cheapest drink. And not much of it.You do not take center stage, not even the host. You sit in your place and you stay still. You bow when you are supposed to bow. You admire the clay cup -- the one that cost a nickel and is beautiful enough that the Freer would poison you to inherit it.
You wash your filthy hands, you take off your filthy shoes, and you kneel when you enter the door, which is not high enough for a midget to enter without humbling himself.
It's a triumph of Japanese culture that once the serving of tea did more for art, more for manners, more for reverence and more for joy than all the artless informal casual self-absorbed techniques of the grasping world.
The little pussycats on the shore swatting the water to make the pan of fish come in. It's one way and lotsa luck. And the snow thick on the hills and the guy plodding up and down in his crazy hat, endlessly chanting his sutras, marching to Zion. Such different ways. And over yonder the plain room and the guests in a formal row and the cheap cup with the gaze all crackled, and the air still and the hands clean.