To Roam or to Perish

To Roam or to Perish

Denis Bélisle

first met him more than twenty years ago in a tightly-packed classroom where fifty young adults were waiting as in a theatre but without the barely contained excitement, seats arranged in graduated levels around a central platform, which until then had been for me a pulpit devoted to dispensing “scores” already read and heard too many times. Nothing new under the rain on this September morning in 1980, even less in this damp room smelling of raincoats and wet clothes, as all busied with the cult objects of academe: notebooks, books, pencils, everyone preparing and dedicating their small altar for the ceremony of note-taking. I came with cigarettes, coffee, and the conviction that for anyone who has a little imagination, it is impossible not to waste one’s life.

By self-mocking necessity, I found myself back in school, this halfway house between the wage-induced hypnosis of the work place and the hideous deprivations of vagrancy. Study, learn, understand … the ultimate refuge of the self ever in need of reinvention, which grows out of self-doubt, annihilated certainties, obstinate expectations. I had always felt the existence of a realm of secrets, so near that would be revealed, but so far since no one seemed ever to have been there: the place where knowledge unfolds and possesses us, becoming indistinguishable from ourselves. My thirst was intense and unquenched. My first year at university had offered nothing but boundless emptiness of meaning, dispensed by insensible glottises braying litanies of old recipes that pulled hundreds of eyes down to scribblings rather than lifting them toward something worth looking at. As soon as the last exam had been written, my throat on fire, I fled with thirty dollars in my pocket and thumbed my way west.

That summer I wandered more than 15,000 kilometers, taking odd jobs as necessity dictated, lingering in mountains and cities. I was offered readymade destinies by strangers: a young man with wealthy parents who wanted me for a business partner; a young woman who fell in love with me; another one whom I loved; a thief who wished to drag me into smuggling ventures. I met other students, workers, native peoples, travelers all, on the move, against the various backdrops of the world, boulevards, ocean, skyscrapers, cliffs, houses, forests. A career? Not for me. My sole aim was always to experience the human condition, and its most sublime expression seemed to be this inner life, this fluid pulsation of thought rising and falling of which no one ever speaks ….

In the fall, like a migratory bird, I returned to school. By habit. That very morning, that back-to-school morning, making my way among the umbrellas and notebooks, I made a momentous decision: if something dramatically different does not happen soon, by next week, I’m going west. To hell with this masquerade!

9:10 a.m.-He is late. He walks in, a cup of coffee in his hand. No books, no documents. He looks at us almost en passant, smiles, takes a sip of coffee. He paces through the room, glancing at us from time to time. For a few minutes, that is all he does. Suddenly, he stops and declares, “Hello. I’m here to travel with you on a stretch of road this term. I speal< fast. I know I speak fast. I speak fast because I don’t want you to take notes. In this class, there will be no books, no exam. Rather we will talk-talk about knowledge …. “And then he begins, his flow of thought pushes him to resume the pacing, back and forth, and like a big cat in his cage, he makes us dream of freedom.

I did not go back west the next week. Ten years later I was completing my doctoral studies with this character who in no way resembles how I pictured a university professor. Look .at him: he laughs, he enjoys himself. He is bold, takes risks, and sometimes, God forbid, he is wrong. It has been a fabulous journey, swept along in his wake, like a wave pushing me towards my own discoveries. I had scores of teachers, some of whom did not lack intelligence, scholarship or benevolence, but in light of the longing and intensity which marked my youth, I often have the impression that, as far as professors go, I only had one.