Recent events in my life got me thinking about a book that I read in my youth. In hindsight it seems to me that my life has mirrored the biography of X whose life journey this novel describes. I'm not going to reveal the name of the book. That would be too embarrassing! But I recall that even as I read this book I started thinking “this is going to happen to me!” It’s not that I wanted these things to happen. I just seemed to know that they would. And sure enough my life did begin to follow the trials and tribulations of X in the novel. It may have been that I subconsciously tried to find ways to emulate the events in the book, to copy them. I grant you that. That could easily be true. But some of the events could never come about through my own efforts. There is no way, however artfully, however skilfully that I might have tried that I would have been able to architect these things for myself. The most important events could only have come to me with the cooperation of Nature, with the help of the Cosmos. They could only have come to me from the outside and they bear the unmistakable stamp of fate. Like the book itself my life, my story could only have been written by a more powerful author than me. Nevertheless it is probably true that in the ways that I could emulate the disposition of X I did. I did strive to copy him. I did strive to behave like him. At that time I willingly threw myself into his mindset. But I eventually forgot about the book.
Until recently. Recent events in my life harken back to this novel again. More forcefully. My life is up to the difficult parts, the climactic parts. My prophecy that I would share X’s fate is still coming true. I decided that I had to reread the book, to read it again, but I could not find my copy. In the last few weeks I have been to many bookstores, secondhand book shops, libraries and book rooms in search of a copy but I have not found one. The book is reasonably popular and is published as a penguin classic. You might say why not order it on-line? I don’t know. It didn’t occur to me. In truth ordering it online seems a little crass. But I did find another novella by the same author and rereading that went some way to satisfying my impatience while I continued the search. His books are all very similar. And then last weekend while we were cleaning the cupboards in our small apartment, perhaps in preparation for moving house - that escape hatch, that emergency exit, that way out that we may need to soon invoke - whilst cleaning the cupboards I found a freshly minted copy of the book! A brand new copy of the novel was hidden away at the bottom of our messy cupboard! The copy of the book has an inscription written on the inside cover but the inscription is for someone else, the inscription is not to me. So not my copy then. Not a copy that I was supposed to read, but here it was! So now we have two layers of improbability, two orthogonal twists of fate. Firstly this book mysteriously describes my life foretelling my future and secondly a copy of the book has been miraculously returned to me in the hour of my need.
All of this, as interesting as it is, is only preamble to justify my writing about William’s story today. I have been reluctant to write about William’s story because unlike my other stories I cannot vouch for it’s authenticity. My knowledge of what befell William is unfortunately only third hand. I do not know the doctor who reported it, the doctor who broke his oath of confidentiality in reporting it. The doctor that couldn't resist sharing the curious events that he was privy to. No I don’t know the doctor personally. But I do know the priest. I do have a close personal relationship with the doctor’s confessor, the Catholic priest who the doctor opened up to in the confession box. And whilst the priest never laid eyes on the artefact in question himself he did administer poor William’s last rites. He did preside over William’s last rites. Of course William is not the fellow's real name. I have changed his name but his real name does also begin with a W.
So even though I can't personally vouch for the authenticity of what is related below, I can at least confirm the plausibility of these happenings given my own recent experiences. Given my own recent experiences with a novel that spoke to me of my destiny and foretold my fate I can confidently assure the reader that William’s story could be true. These recent events in my life I see as permission, nay more than permission, they entreat me to share the tale of William Eraserhead. There are lots of similar tales to William’s. Balzac’s The Wild Ass's Skin. Oscar Wilde's The portrait of Dorian Gray. Stravinsky's A Soldier’s Tale. Many more. It’s an archetypal storyline. Even so William’s story has something to add. I think that there is something new here in William’s tale.
William’s adolescence had not long since come to a close and his young adult life was a mere bud when William was able to travel to India as is the wont of many a recently grown up youth. It was to be a coming of age journey for him, something to open up the possibilities of his future. India seemed the perfect place to challenge any complacencies and wipe the slate clean. How wrong could William’s ambitions in India be.
In the hustle and bustle of a bazaar in Delhi's old quarter William was approached by a Yogi who offered to tell him his future for just a few small rupee. The Yogi was young and handsome, shiny, vital. Superhuman powers gleamed in his eyes and he wore his long black hair coiled up inside an orange turban. The Yogi showed William a photo of himself meditating on hot coals in his ashram with his long hair unwound. He was a powerful Yogi, anyone could see that. This Yogi whispered a few unknowable truths in William's ear and then slipped a leather bound book into William's hand before disappearing into the busy market place. William later searched for the Yogi but William would never find him again. The book's title, embossed in gold, was “William MMMCMXXVII”, something like that, William's Christian name followed by some Roman numerals. The Yogi had carried a small stack of such books with him, different colors.
William went back to his guesthouse and read the book. As the title suggested the book did indeed describe William’s life. It was William’s biography. The text went into quite a lot of detail. It almost seemed that there was too much detail for such a short treatise of three hundred pages or so. When William read the book with interest and concentration the book depicted all of the minutiae of his life. It described all of the tiniest details. In rich prose the text related William’s internal feelings and doubts, false and true memories, all in a Proust like way. In a meticulously nuanced, coloured and personal way. But reading Proust is hard work. If William started to grow tired and could no longer make sense of the Proust like intricacies, if his mood became more impatient and he couldn't concentrate then the text mysteriously zoomed out. The granularity became coarser and the style of the text morphed so that it was less arduous to read. When William’s concentration was most compromised the text eventually degraded into a simple list of events and finally the events themselves might be excised, for example what William had for breakfast might be omitted and only key events of the day were printed in bold. It seemed as though the book adjusted itself to maintain William’s interest, to entice him in again. In this way the book was difficult to put down.
But William hated the book. He just hated it. He was transfixed but it was a horror story to him, the horror of it. Oh what a tedious life he had lived, what vanity, what distraction, what useless pride, what small mindedness. And what a woeful future was in store for him. What little progress! What abominable arrogance. He saw himself as an outsider and the person he saw he had no time for. On that very first night of having the volume in his possession, even on that first night of reading it, William tore out a page. He tore out a page, a page from his past and he let the smouldering embers from his hashish pipe fall onto the page charring the text “and then William decided to.". This action seemed to provide some solace and so he took a match and burned the page until it had curled and flamed into a small pile of ashes.
William awoke the following morning in an anxious mood. He’d had bad dreams. William awoke and anxiously opened the book and turned to the page that he had burned and it was indeed missing, his fretful anxiety could relax there, the page was missing in the sense that the page was now blank and silent. It was free of text. The page was free of the language that William had found so agonising the night before. The small pile of ash had vanished, the ash had gone and the page had returned but at least the page was now blank. William tried to remember what it was that had offended him so but he found that he could no longer recall. Had he overreacted in burning the page? Reading on assured him that there had been no overreaction. His face contorted with disgust as he started to read the following page which still contained the marks of his fate and he promptly tore that one out too. He tore out a dozen or more pages, impulsively, and made a little fire in the ashtray in his guesthouse room. It is the rainy season he thought, it's the rainy season he justified. The guesthouse can’t catch on fire in the rainy season. After burning a few dozen pages William became exhausted and hungry. He went out into the busy streets in search of a masala dosa which he ate greedily, forgetting himself. He felt a little lighter after all this burning. He felt like there was a little less of him.
The following day William was about to return to his task of erasing his past and burning this horrible Yogi gift but the successes of his previous endeavours gave him pause. His very success troubled him. Holes had definitely appeared in his memory, absences, missing time. Perhaps erasing his life by burning the pages was the wrong approach. Maybe rubbing out the text through fire was not the thing. Burning the pages did not cleanse his past, rather it erased his past and this loss of memory started to scare William. William bought a texta and tried to write something on the newly blank pages, he tried to to replace his losses with something more to his liking, William the Great, but the pages would not take his ink. No. The pages refused to take his ink. He found that he could not be the author of his own destiny. His power to influence the book stopped short at erasing its contents, at erasing himself. His only power seemed to be self erasure.
As the years passed William returned to the text often to familiarise himself with the week ahead, to remind himself of what would become of him in advance. There was no particular advantage in this foreknowledge. It wasn’t like he could change anything about it. If he tried to tell others what he knew no words would come. But he studied his life and knew well all of the twists and turns of fate. He kept a diary and made notes and commentaries on his sacred life text. He felt that armed in this way he may be able to distil something better, his soul might be touched in a better way. He submitted himself to what was in store for him, a courageous thing, he acquiesced. But he was mortally afraid of Chapter Eighty-One. It's contents he could not abide. Chapter Eighty-One bought an ice to his veins, gave him a chill. No. He would not let the contents of that chapter actually happen, he would not allow that particular chapter to be actuated in the cogs of the physical world. It was enough for him to have peeked at it in his imagination. He would not live it.
As this fatal chapter approached William determined to do something that would invalidate it. He came up with a plan that he thought must alter his future so that he would surely avoid that most horrible part of his fate. A preceding chapter contained an incident to do with a ring so just days before this event was due to occur William cut off his finger. To do such a thing points to the psychological distress that William was in. The incident to do with the ring was a direct precursor to what would transpire in the later chapter so William had reasoned that without the ring, without his ring finger, the events that so frightened him could never occur. The mistake that William made, a mistake that he might have avoided had he read the plot more carefull, had he interpreted the narrative of his life more accurately, was that Chapter Eighty-One was the hinge and fulcrum around which the entire story revolved. Without that chapter there could be no William, there could be no thought of William at all. Without the axis of that chapter nothing else made sense.
As William severed his ring finger his amnesia was almost instantaneous. As the blood flowed from his severed finger so too did all of William’s past and future, so too did all of William's life. As William’s finger wept all of the pages of the book, if one could have seen, all of the pages were emptied of words. Soon all of the pages in the book were blank and silent. The text of William’s destiny was erased. Such Yogi mischief. I believe William would have stood a better chance of fulfilling his destiny if he had not known of it in advance. Perhaps. Perhaps his very foreknowledge was also his destiny.
Nonetheless the book contained one last message for William. An obscure message that is difficult to interpret, a message that I find difficult to interpret. The book from then on began to flash the text “TODAY!” When I say flash, well, not exactly flash but something like flashing, something akin to flashing. William would alternately open the book, at any page, and the page would at first appear blank. He would the close the book and reopen it and now the page would proclaim the admonishment “TODAY!” The word today in capital letters followed by an exclamation mark would be printed in bold italics centre page. In his last years poor William would sit in the gardens near where he lived and constantly open and close the book, staring, forlorn. Poor William could not interpret the command, the appeal, the plea. In truth neither can I.
Firstly I don’t believe that we are all like William. I don’t believe that we all have fixed marching orders or unalterable destinies. For some of us the book of our own lives would be able to take the ink of our own pen. To a greater or lesser extents I believe so. But for William the wriggle room as they say was extremely slight. He was strapped in. I believe that karma had strapped him in.
Yet why should William reject his destiny? Why should we reject our destinies? What do we hope to achieve by being something other than who we are? Can one decide to be free of their humanity, to be free of being human? It sounds absurd to say it. “I no longer want to be human” says the unhappy human. But that is you! We are part of a species, part of a culture, a part of so many things. You can see these things as constraints or alternatively you can see them as interconnections, as interconnectedness. All of these interconnections are woven together to produce a fabulous tapestry, perhaps. Perhaps William's thread had become a knot, an impediment to the weave and so the knot had to be untied a little, untied and rewoven. I think that is how I will interpret William’s story. Don’t resist your destiny thinking that resisting it will make you free! Your destiny is you. William, by being William you are already free. I hope that you can try again to unravel whatever knot it was that was unwritten, that would have been unknotted if only Chapter Eighty-One had actually come about!
For my own part I haven't quite finished rereading the book that tells the journey of my own life. I am just about up to my Chapter Eighty-One, I am just about up to today. Wish me luck!