When we lived in Paris in the early fifties of the last century when I was a little boy of six, seven, maybe eight, my father was a mystery. For me as a child (and perhaps for all the rest of me as well) everything was mystery. It surged before me in sensory immediacy, just as it was, yet always changing, full at once of caprice and the immutability of actually being. Looking back I see that we lived well as citizens of a conquering/liberating power, even though we had no refrigerator and the furnace worked intermittently. We were privileged, an anomalous status for people who belonged to a faith whose remnants were just clinging to life and trembling with knowledge of the once and future terror.
The Second World War was not truly over. It raged on in the heads and hearts of so many who were silent, including my father. The dead had met their deaths by combat, by extermination, by accident, by hidden acts of cruelty intimate beyond naming and yet they were not dead because the living clung to them, scrapped desperately to reach them and failed. The living were thrown back on their own minuscule and diminished resources. This was all they had as their dreams in nights of fitful sleep kept reminding them of the radical amputations they had suffered.
Three or four times of a Sunday afternoon my father and I walked along the banks of the Seine. I had no idea what he was thinking nor even did I have an idea of trying to form an idea of what he was thinking. I felt his hand on mine, warm and tender and I felt not powerful but important in an unaccustomed way. The questions of what my father was thinking, how he thought, perhaps began when I was little before I knew they were beginning, but took their shapes later along the way of my life.
I suspect my father marveled during our walks that he was still alive and that this being still alive was both rapturously sweet and bitter beyond words. It was a baffling amalgam of ravishing dream and ravishing nightmare. Much later on I learned in snippets that my father had a friend named Henri Michoux who had a number of special characteristics. For one, he read the whole of Proust’s A La Recherche du Temps Perdu each year, much as in synagogues the whole of the Pentateuch, the Five Books Of Moses, is read in a liturgical year.
Henri Michoux was also interested in -more than interested in – a connoisseur of Buddhist art. Parisian museums had splendid collections of all varieties of Buddhist art, part of the booty of France’s colonial adventures in Asia. My father was managing an engineering office designing NATO air bases which he knew would be obsolete before they were completed. He had a chauffeur during our time in Paris. One afternoon a week he would disappear from the office to join Henri Michoux in a serious visit to one or another of the many forms and figures of Buddhist devotion stored deep in a Paris museums.
Strange behavior for an engineer but perhaps not for one who had taken his inspiration from Leonardo, one who had been fascinated by grafting as a teenager.
I regret that I did not ask my father while he was alive how he knew Henri Michoux.
Did he know him from his days as a politically active student in France before the war? Had he and Michoux shared hopes, fears, adventures and perils? When he returned to France in 1948 and then again in the early fifties, my father was returning to a world he had inhabited. It was a world in which he had had many connections, many destroyed but some remaining. His best friend from Moledeczno, Charles Mlot, had survived. His wife’s Catholic family did not betray him.
I very much wish I knew more about the life and times of Henri Michoux, at least enough to make him into some semblance of a person and personality in my mind. For this omission and so many others like it there is no remedy.
I do think I know what my father was doing when he slipped away from the office to be with Michoux and the Buddha and Buddhism. I think he was looking for some means, some company in coming to grips with the sorrows of life, some way to detach himself from his hurt and his shame. Survivor shame may be more devastating than survivor guilt. That he had been helpless to protect those he loved tormented him. He was not a healthy man and at that point did not know how long he had to live.
I believe he and Michoux were co-conspirators in this effort. Michoux, too, had health concerns, in his case laryngeal cancer, not myasthenia gravis. Theirs was a friendship in a time when museums were quiet contemplative places, near neighbors of Temples. They may not have said much to each other. They may not have needed to say much. I suspect Michoux shared a little of his learning, but without letting it get in the way.
In the years that I knew him my father mentioned Michoux only three or four times.
However, given my father’s propensity for silence about what was tender and difficult, this was sufficient testimony to his importance. My guess is that they did know each other before the war that lived on in both of them. When we traveled through China looking at Buddhist Tang dynasty cave art, my father and Michoux were with me, part of our bedraggled party.