My oldest friend, Don White, forwarded an obituary to me from the Prince George Citizen the other day. It was for Butch Nielsen, a man both of us were equally close to in our formative last two years of high school and for a few years after that.
Butch and I were similar in several superficial ways. We were blue-eyed and blondhaired sons from relatively prosperous local families, both of us were chronic underachievers at school who stayed at the edges of the school’s social hierarchies, and, whenever possible, well clear of parents and teachers. But Butch was more thoughtful than I was, a nicer kid who read more and lipped off less compulsively. He seemed to know exactly who he was, and he had a certainty of judgment that was well beyond his years and far beyond mine. There was a sweetness and a gravity to him that made me, and more than a few others, look up to him.
We did most of the things young men do together—and to one another: we teased and tested one another, tried to steal each other’s girlfriends, got drunk, got into fights and into minor scrapes with the cops. We even went canoeing and camping and fishing together. It was in these last activities that we most deviated from our peers. We camped and fished with Ernest Hemingway’s Michigan fishing stories as our manual, and instead of the local custom of drinking whiskey and puking into the campfire, we built our campfires with exquisite care and put sticks in our coffee the way Hemingway wrote about, and we speculated, under the cool and starry northern skies, over what the universe might be about.
I don’t know how Butch died. I don’t know where he died, except that it wasn’t far from where he was born, and I don’t know what it was that killed him. If I were one of those self-involved assholes who thinks the world evolves around whatever they’re doing or thinking, I’d say that Butch died 45 years ago, when his brain went permanently off the main road while he was taking classes at the University of British Columbia. It is true that shortly after that he retreated back to the north, and into some obscure territory within himself which he never again left, as far as I can tell, for more than a few minutes or hours.
The common view was that he experienced what medical people call schizophrenia, which is a stigmatizing catch-all term for deviations from normal perception. Don White has always found it more accurate to think of what happened to Butch as a kind of mental stubbornness rather than schizophrenia—as if Butch took stances that he was unwilling to let go, and then backed it with an almost-rational decision to let irrationality govern his perception of the world.
Whatever it was, something happened inside his mind in his early 20s that changed him. One night, late in the fall of 1965, while he was at UBC taking creative writing classes, he showed up at an apartment I’d rented on Vancouver’s West 2nd Avenue to show me a play that he’d written. He was in a state of agitation unlike anything I’d seen from him, and when I glanced through the play, I recognize how similar it was to Leroi Jones’ Dutchman, which was about a group of people trapped in a New York subway car. It’s occurred to me over the years that it might have actually been Leroi Jones’ Dutchman he showed me, but really, there’s no way to know what it was. His creative writing instructor hadn’t responded to it well, and Butch seemed completely distraught over it. What I do remember clearly about that night is that everything—not just the play—was seriously out of kilter for Butch, from the complaints that “it” wasn’t good enough, that he wasn’t good enough, to some less coherent complaints about what was real and what wasn’t. I tried to argue that everything was okay, that since we were just starting as writers, of course we weren’t good enough, yet.
After a long, mutually anguishing wrangle, we walked across the Granville Bridge, and I had to physically grab him to prevent him from jumping. I got the sense, even while I was holding onto him that he wasn’t really intent on jumping into the oily waters of False Creek, but rather, wanted me to know that whatever was happening to him was serious enough to make him consider it. It was an extreme moment for me as well as him, but I believed it would blow over and our careers as writers and thinkers would continue to unfold. I was wrong.
A couple of weeks later, Butch quit university and went back to the north, where he disappeared for several years. Whenever I was back there, I tried to find him, but never did—or when I did, the Butch I knew refused to engage with me or was simply unable to. And really, I didn’t try as hard as I might have. I’d started university myself, I’d gotten married, and my own life was suddenly in full flight—and the stories I heard from others about Butch weren’t sanguine. Someone—Claus Spiekermann, I think—had spotted him walking the highway between Prince George and Vanderhoof—a distance of almost 100 kilometres—and Butch had been vague and evasive about what he was doing on the road when Claus stopped to offer him a ride.
“I’m restless”, he’d said, not as an explanation, but as a way of refusing the offer of a ride. Getting to Vanderhoof, he was saying, wasn’t going to alleviate his restlessness.
During those years I told myself at least a thousand times that Butch knew what he was doing. But really, I wasn’t sure. I told myself this because in high school and the few years we had after that, he always seemed to know what he was doing, emphatically and authentically so. He knew what to think about, and he knew what to read. I’d followed cheerfully in his footsteps because I sure as hell didn’t know what to think or what to read. My early education was almost wholly based on appropriations of his recommendations about what to think about and what to read. He gave me a life I couldn’t have constructed on my own, and therein lies an unpayable debt.
He (and thus, “we”) had set out, in those innocent days, to (as Albert Camus wrote, quoting Pindar) exhaust the limits of the possible, or to burn ourselves up in the pursuit. We wanted to live without the comfort of divine design and without the pretense of objective meaning—both, we thought, were unscientific and fatuous. Dostoyevski had taught us that a controlling god was unacceptable even if it did exist, and the Second World War and its atrocities confirmed it. With Camus, we took the absurdity of life as our starting point and set out on the business of judging whether life is or is not worth living. For me this was a judgment already settled by my temperament, which was disposed not to question whether life was worth living. I was attracted to the question’s gravity and drama, but there was, for me, little about it that was precarious. If our studies offered an alternate answer, well, this would be a fine drama, no?
I wasn’t, in other words, serious. This was part of my education, which I sensed (correctly, as it turned out) would go on for a very long time, after which I would settle the philosophical accounts, and if necessary die for what I’d discovered to be the truth. Meanwhile I was romantically tuned to burning up in the pursuit: at 30, I told myself, I would have the most interesting face in the world, and what woman could resist that? And hadn’t Camus himself written that he had never seen anyone die for the ontological argument? I took this to mean that no one could die from it, either. But maybe both Camus and I were wrong about that.
So what was it that Butch Nielsen introduced me to? First of all, hundreds of books and their writers I might not have otherwise read; with Dostoyevski and Albert Camus at the centre of them. The ideas he brought me I’ve never really tried to put together in any organized fashion, maybe because I was so seamless at appropriating them that it didn’t seem necessary to acknowledge that they were more his than mine.
Beyond the reading lists and our common contempt for authority, whether it was governmental or that of our parents, what he brought was, in its briefest formulation, what Albert Camus called absurdity: the idea that a human life is without objective meaning, that we’re here to roll rocks uphill until our strength fails and the big rocks we’re pushing tumble back to the bottom and we have to choose whether to trudge back down to start rolling them back uphill—or to commit suicide with a 40 hour work-week and fling ourselves into the void by other means.
In Camus, this is sometimes phrased with a seductive counter-theology: “…if there is a sin against life,” he wrote in the essay “Summer in Algiers”, “it consists perhaps not so much in despairing of life as in hoping for another life and in eluding the implacable grandeur of this life.” But mostly, it was a darker and less romantic expression of the realities Europeans had experienced over the long, cruel past, and particularly since the beginning of the 20th century: that life was cheap and hard; that meaning was both elusive and slippery; that harsh evils ruled the human condition; and that taking one’s own life could be a legitimate way of asserting one’s freedom.
I heard only the lyrical side of this, because that’s all I wanted to hear. I’d caught a glimpse of the darkness while we were travelling in Europe. It had just been the once, at the end of an arduous six week adventure into Yugoslavia, when I felt my mind starting to slip away from me. It scared me enough that I retreated to the relative safety of distant relatives in England. Not long after, I went home, and I stayed away from any kind of travel for years after. Butch, I think, went deeper into all of it, beginning while we were in Europe. He disappeared for about four months at one point, and no one knew where he was. When he returned, he offered no explanation, and he seemed prepared to get on with the same set of half-baked plans we’d had before we left for Europe: read books, go to university, become writers. He was more moody than he’d been, but the moods passed and the playfulness we shared as young men reasserted itself. Until that day when it went away forever.
The clinical definitions of schizophrenia are broad and not entirely coherent. It is usually characterized by “abnormalities in the perception and expression of reality” that can manifest as auditory hallucinations (hearing voices), paranoid or “bizarre” delusions, or simply as disorganization in speech and thought, and the social dysfunction that naturally results from that. I’m not sure Butch heard voices. If he did, he would have been reluctant to admit it. And really, “abnormality in the perception and expression of reality” is the long term goal of art, isn’t it? Certainly that’s what I’ve spent my professional life trying to achieve. But it is clear that for more than four decades years, Butch struggled with a disorganization of his thought that he could only overcome for relatively short periods.
When Don and I had a conversation with Butch in Prince George during the autumn of 1996, I noticed that when he came out of his shell and started to talk, the conversation quickly trailed back to the ideas and books that had interested us in 1962-1964. It was as if he’d simply stopped in that nexus of experience, and either couldn’t or wouldn’t move beyond it. The idea that he was actively refusing to move beyond it makes a certain sense, but it’s also possible that he was trapped there, inside a kind of mental fugue where there was a problem—an intellectual problem—that he couldn’t solve, and that at best, he was choosing to stay inside. Maybe that’s what schizophrenia was, for him.
That 1996 conversation went on for about twenty minutes before Butch’s attentions began to wander: he had things to do—laundry, I think he said—but his eyes told us he wanted us to go away, and we did. It was the last time I saw him. I tried to find him several other times when I was in the city, but no one seemed to know where he was, although nearly everyone conceded that he was there—somewhere. Often, they’d seen him walking along a street or highway, lost in those restless thoughts that were his chosen companions—or tormentors. After his sister Peggy died, I had no more easily approachable family contacts, although in retrospect it’s apparent from the obituary that his family was there for him, and that they took care of him as far as he’d let them.
The uncomfortable truth here is that I simply don’t know what became of Butch Nielsen, except that he “got lost”, and I didn’t try very hard to find him. I now know, sort of, that life doesn’t have any objective meaning, and that we don’t have a right to purposeful existence or happiness, and that the goodness and sweetness of life is often wasted or lost. Butch seems to be the proof of that. Even there, I have no sense of what is true and what is a lie. All I can testify to is that the small darkness of Butch Nielsen’s absence has been with me for 45 years now, and that now, it can never go away.
2351 words April 28, 2010