This is morning at the Legation I met a Colonel Porter who asked what my share in the world’s work was. I said I had been looking at Mohammadan architecture.
“Mind you,” he replied, “I’ve seen a good deal of Palestine, Egypt, and Persia, and I’ve given a good deal of thought to the matter. I can tell you the key to the problem if you like.”
“Really. What is it?”
“The whole thing’s phallic”, he uttered in a ghoulish whisper.
I was surprised at first to note the influence of Freud on the North-West Frontier, but soon discovered that for Colonel Porter the universe itself was phallic. (The Road to Oxiana)
These are the lucky ones. Always, they believe, they have found the solution to the problem of the world; the answer revealed in some good book, or by a wise man with a charming smile and a sales patter of uncanny profundity.
“Follow me, if you would like to…no no no no no. Forgive me this false start, but it’s been a while since I talked to someone like you, and our words, it seems, can rust like unused machinery.
“Follow me, yes, now we are going somewhere, follow me if you need to know the secret to life’s miseries. Ha! You want to know the answer to all its joys? Marvellous! It really is surprisingly simple. The best ideas are usually close at hand; providing you know the right place to look; and a friend, my friend, can always help you. I’ve been a lucky man, and good fortune, as the prophet says, should always be shared; and you look like someone who could use it. Come! I am a happy man. Yes! Happiness! It’s like a young communist, forever proselytizing to the benighted. Here you are, have my party card… Ha! Forgive me my silly joke. But, honestly, you may find what I say useful.
“You have a feeling you have lost something? And yet, you don’t know what it is… It’s in the eyes, my friend. I have a first class optician! But it is true, isn’t it, that you’re aware only of this absence; the loss of something you once believed you had? Good. You… (sotto voce) how shall I put... (loud now) You walk into a familiar room and know something is missing, and yet you have no idea what it is… Exactly! Come! I will open your ears”, he mimes a key unlocking a box, “and show you what you must see”, he pretends to look through a microscope. “Come in here, behind the curtain…”
You follow him into a dark room. There is a single light on a low cupboard in the far corner. At the end of the room there is a silhouette, the details of which you can only vaguely make out. The old man touches your arm and indicates you to walk closer. As you approach this confused outline becomes a human shape, and you see what looks like a large, almost life-size doll. You walk nearer… and bump into an object that rattles, moves and hurts you – it is a dining room chair. Recovering your composure you look much harder at this by now sinister object; you eyesight adjusting to the light. Seeing more clearly, you see… is it a dilapidated puppet? Instinctively you look for strings hanging from the ceiling. Then, with your hands on the back of the chair, you stretch out to have a closer look… It is Charles Darwin, who ravaged by age looks like a London tramp.
The wise man explains:
“My great grandfather had him stuffed the day after he died. I come, you see, from a long line of taxidermists, that most foolish of professions, which luckily has ended with me.”
He then turns around and leads you out into the light of his shop.i
“But, what is the secret?”
Have you been looking and listening?”
“But then you know. There is nothing more I can say.”