And in one photograph you can see him stitching his fingers together with a cotton thread. Why would he do a thing like that? Why did he? I don't know for certain. I, who was in the same room while he performed that grotesque operation. I, who snapped that picture which speaks to me of a life I thought wasn't mine anymore. How unrewarding the memory of those dead moments is, with its inability to explain that which was mysterious then!
An experiment with pain and endurance. Trying to see how far he could go before I lost my nerve and pleaded with him to stop doing it to himself and to me. He was waiting for that reaction, I knew that, even then. He was waiting so that he could encounter my bewildered fear with a wry smile, resisting all attempts of dissuasion. I knew my pleas would be rejected, and so I just sat quietly, hoping he wasn't hurting himself too much. And then it began to be fascinating and I wondered if I should try it myself. The mere thought sent shivers down my spine. Instead, I took my camera, and with it turned the event into a game - an artistic experience. With the camera between us, we felt safer, located in well- rehearsed roles. He was doing things, and I trying to make them eternal.
With his wildly over-grown curly beard and his big nose he looked like a prophet straight out of the bible. Only he was so unholy, almost profane. But was something talking through him? Something of whose presence he was only dimly aware? That fierce penetrating look of his which saw right through you and made you feel completely naked, all your vices and weaknesses exposed to the scrutiny of God's chosen element. He felt chosen sure enough, chosen to be humiliated. He wasn't like any of us. His life would be different, he used to say. Well, is it?
"Life" was a funny thing with him. He had only scorn for his. It was a gift he had no use for, but not knowing where to exchange it for something better, he felt stuck with it. With an unconcealed contempt he looked down on us, as we were struggling with life and trying to make it meaningful. He hated us for trying so hard. For him, it was the lowest degeneration - the attempt to create sense out of nonsense. He couldn't see why we even bothered. No, he would not fall into that particular trap, he used to say in rare moments of sincerity. If life was an inevitable duty, then the best one could do was to try and irritate whoever gave the order by not just disobedience, but by a total refusal to participate. And nobody could force you to participate. But when it was pointed out to him that, in effect, he was participating as much as anyone else, merely by making the conscious decision of being inactive, he just shrugged his shoulders and said that nobody should expect him to be consistent.
I suppose you might say he was a perfectionist. He refused to accept the mediocrity that was evident as a standard around him. Feeling frustrated by the way his actions turned against him, he often advocated a total disbelief in reason. He distrusted reason and the reasonable, claiming that dependence upon reason was like leaning against an unsound wall which you knew would give way at the slightest pressure. He restricted himself to the absurd and the mere grotesque, hoping that these in turn would produce the divinity he failed to reach through reason. And he blamed, and hated, us all for not following suit.
"How can I provoke if I'm on my own?" He used to whisper in desperation sometimes when we were alone and he could stop trying.
"Whoever's responsible for the present state of the world."
"Why provoke? Why don't you accept that your influence can only be local? You're important to us. Isn't that enough?"
"No, it's not and never will be. I don't want your miserable and sentimental compassion. And that's all you can give me, isn't it? You can never really understand."
"We understand well enough, but you don't accept our reasoning, do you? You don't want to be understood. It will only spoil it all, won't it?"
"Oh, shut up! Unless you have something original to say, which I know you don't."
"Carrying on like this will only leave you friendless. If you're so fed up with us and the world, then why don't you put an end to it all? Why don't you just jump or something?"
I knew instantly that I shouldn't have said it. He turned his head towards me and the pain that was reflected in his eyes was unbearably frightening. I'd never seen that pain there before, or since. It was an admission he wouldn't allow himself to make very often. He didn't want any compassion, not even from us, his closest friends, the people who tried to mitigate his pain.
I knew that it would make him angry but I had to show my affection, just to prove to myself that I, at least, was still human. I drew nearer and put my hand on his shoulder, intending to embrace him. He shook it off as if it was a menacing fly. I didn't persist. How can you help someone who doesn't want your help? How can you assume the responsibility of looking after someone's well- being when you're not sure what there is to be guarded?
But I don't want to create a distorted impression. He wasn't as down- cast as it sounds all the time. We had our happy moments together. But somehow the memory of those happy moments has faded away, while the recollection of the times when he seemed to be beyond hope remains intense, leaving a stronger imprint on the mental image I still have of him. it's a strange thing; as if I wanted to remember him unhappy because of the lesson I learnt from his unhappiness. I don't think there was any one particular event that promoted our falling out of friendship. I remember being disturbed by the fact that I couldn't force him to become the person I wanted as a friend. We just drifted apart steadily. I don't know what he's been up to since. I lost all contact when I moved out of town, and as the years moved on, it became impossible to renew the relationship. We were too far apart.
But a few days ago I came across this photograph of him stitching his fingers together and I wondered whether he was still trying to stitch some sense into his life, or whether he had given up altogether. I'd like to think he is still around. I hope he isn't too unhappy. I hope he isn't making someone else too unhappy. In my mind, the fascination with which I was fastened to him, is imbued with a sense of danger.
During the time we were friends, I used him like a man uses his toe to see whether the water is too cold. I never pushed him into anything though. I just stood behind and watched the signals. With his mind, he travelled to places my mind was too timid to even contemplate. He was kicking his way through life, while I was toddling carefully on the beaten track, trying not to disturb the dust. He wanted something terrible to happen to him; I suppose he would have seen it as the proof of the existence of some divine justice, which he was desperately refuting. But that proof never arrived. Nobody ever answered his call.
He always just stood there, contracting his face with contempt and disgust, and piled abuses upon anyone who happened to be in his vicinity. Most of the time, I was the main recipient. Not that I minded. No, I felt I owed him at least that much. He, at least, had the courage to challenge, even though it was always clear that in the last analysis, his teasing was little more than fear. By spiritually screaming, he was drowning out the din his own fears were making inside his head.
It was generally supposed, amongst our circle, that he was losing his sanity. Slowly but consistently. I rejected the notion with terror at the time. If he was going mad, I had thought, then who would serve as my beacon of sanity? No, I refused to believe them. But even my staunch belief in his clarity was slightly undermined when, in reply to my questions concerning the infamous stitching, he told me it was an act of revenge. He wanted to cripple himself, and the stitching was the first step. Lacking the strength to kill himself, he chose to immobilise himself gradually. Thus, he said, he would fight his survival instinct and weaken it. When it was defeated, he believed death would follow naturally.
"I want to prove that I can beat myself; that the survival instinct isn't the strongest element in my system. I want to prove that truth, or the quest for it, is vitally stronger."
I would have laughed it off as intellectual masturbating if his determined look wasn't so evident a proof of his sincerity. I gave up trying to talk him out of it as soon as I realised I was only making it worse. Resistance was what he anticipated of me. It made him feel he was right in what he was doing. Since fight was the fuel of his rebellious anger, I stopped arguing and after watching him for a while, picked up the camera. He snorted with scorn.
"You can't mutilate this one into art! This one is for real!"
But of course it wasn't. It took him a few hours to work out his anger and I helped him to remove the stitches from his wounded hand. He didn't prove a thing, not to me. But it's all part of the past now. I did turn him into art, and I know he would have despised me for that. But how can one deny the urge when one is faced with as a strong reminder, as the photograph, of the irretrievability of the past, but by means of art? The photograph of him stitching his fingers together with a cotton thread.