I refer now to all those jokes about the meaning of life. I refer to the Jokes about how someone goes through the jungle and the desert and then climbs the Himalayas in search of the wise man who will tell him what life is. I know what life is. Life is a desk.
At least my life is like my desk. I am talking now just of me, not anyone else or everyone else. Sometimes I get my desk almost cleared off--almost perfect. I get the mail done and I get things stacked in neat little piles. I put the press releases in one pile and the drop-dead letters in another pile and the reasonable letters telling me how wonderful I am in another pile.
I have more piles for the heart-wrenching people who write from prison and then a pile for the people who say the CIA has bugged their teeth and, just to prove it, enclose copies of a thousand letters to their congressmen and to their local newspaper editor who, it goes without saying, would have printed an article by now were it not for the fact that he, too, is in the CIA.
All this gets stacked and then taken care of--letter by letter. I take the articles I have clipped from the newspapers and then try to remember why I have clipped them and then do something with them. I work at this sort of thing for hours and hours, usually on a Saturday, but always--always, always, always--there are letters I cannot answer and clippings I just have to clip and, of course, a phone call I just have to make. So my desk never gets cleaned up.
It is the same with me. I am, I think, always close to perfection--not perfection in some goody-goody way, but perfection in the sense of self-knowledge. Occasionally I get seized by fits of insights into myself and then I resolve to do things differently--better. Not only that, but I rue the fact that I did not know what I now know earlier in my life. It would have made things so much easier. I would be, without a doubt, more popular and richer and more successful and, there is always the chance, taller. Someday I will be taller than I am now.
Anyway, always I think I am on the verge of knowing all about myself, understanding me. But it never happens. Something comes along and I react to it in some strange or different way and then I have to conclude that I was not even close. I have to start all over again and then, after some work, I get closer and then closer still until, like the almost clean desk, I think I am on the verge of actually doing it--knowing precisely who I am.
I think that there really are people who know exactly who they are. I used to think that most people were like that. They are formed, complete, not always on the verge of getting somewhere, not--as Jack Newfield once said of Bobby Kennedy--in a state of becoming, but already there. They got there in the Army or maybe at business or engineering school, but wherever they got it, they knew at 20 or 21 who they were--no ifs, ands or buts.
I think I see these people on the street and I imagine what their desks look like. They are neat. They make me wonder if you can tell all you need to know about a person from their desks. I don't think so, but I have a friend who thinks he can look at a married couple's bedroom and tell about their sex life. The grander the bedroom, the more ornate it is than the rest of the house, the worse the sex life. I don't know if this is true, but I thought I would mention it as my way of helping the bedroom furniture industry.
Maybe this works with bedrooms and not with desks. I don't know. All I know is that my desk suits me (My desk should be in analysis), and that this is not the way I thought things would turn out. When I was a kid, I thought adults knew certain things. They knew--just knew--how to deal with headwaiters and how to make witty toasts and how to stay awake for the drive home after a dinner at some relative's house. Self-knowledge was also one of those things.
But this is not the case. The purely physical uncertainties of childhood have been replaced by mental ones. The body I had yesterday is the body I have today. It is the mind that I do not know. This is not the way I thought it would be. I thought by now I would know myself. Instead, I know something else. I know what life is. It's a desk.