The Berkeley Complex
I am an actor, although what that means is never quite clear
to me. Some days ago, for example, and I cant remember how many, I was in a
line at the supermarket, Dunnes Stores, I think it was. And note how I affect a
certain vagueness as to which supermarket. Of course I know it was Dunnes
Stores, its just that speech with me never quite works like that. I declaim, I
become the mode of address Im using, I speak in character, and that character
can never be my own. I had entertained a lady friend the night before and hoped
to surprise her with breakfast, I was in the line as I said, behind a group of
women with my meager purchases, a melon, I seem to remember, and six free-range
eggs, when the girl behind the cash register, dressed in some kind of maroon, rayon
smock, as they all are, it was Dunnes Stores after all, blushed at my approach.
She was serving a mother in a pink tracksuit, with an infant
perched in the infant part of the supermarket trolley. I am generally quite
unmoved by children, but this infant was, by any standard, divine. The mother
was a different matter, she had that irritating certainty generic to young
mothers, irradiating not only a bloom of health but an exclamation mark. Look
at me! I have a child! I am a mother! I am proud! Of this tracksuit! Of this
bum too large! It is evidence of my fruitfulness! My nurturing! So the mother,
needless to say, noticed nothing but the infant, the divine one, that was a
different matter. The infant noticed all the glitter on the cash register, the
music of its opening and closing and the finger of the thin-faced, sallow
creature in the maroon rayon whose job it was to operate it. Now you might
expect, in fact you would expect, with a probability of certainty of 90
percent, that young maroon-covered Cinderella operating the till would
reciprocate the attention of the child. The magnificent certainty of its
mother. But no. She didnt even glance. Her eyes drifted from the shopping on
the moving belt, past child and mother, to beyond the mothers pink shoulder.
And she noticed me.
I was gratified, I will admit that. Recognition is, after
all, the staple of the actors diet, the cogito of his sum, not so much the
reason for his being as the ground his being moves on, we live to be seen,
exist to be seen and the awful possibility then presents itselfdo we exist
when we are unseen? But more of that later. Yes, I was gratified, but not
surprised. I had trodden the boards. I had done the soaps some service. My Othellotext
stripped to the bone, two lovers, one voyeur, and a handkerchiefwas not
without renown. Surprise, therefore, was not an issue. But I was surprised, if
you will, by how gratified I was. That blush, you see.
That blush acted upon me like the first drops of water on a
parched landscape that had never in its past lacked rain. And note the rather
studied use of metaphor. I am an actor after all. The landscape had once been
showered with bounties, had been verdant, fruitful, lacustrine. During my Othello,
Jane and I had moved onstage and off in the blissful assumption of being
admired, observed. Then the run ended and the big drought began and her Iago
turned out to be a glass eye in a gabardine trench coat. Even the parts dried
So of course I was gratified. That fragile hint of
recognition. I had entertained a lady friend the night before, as I said—and
you believed me, of course you would, the slightly rakish tone, the hint of
concupiscence, the mirror before me, the professionactor!but I hadnt, merely
wished I had or wished you to think I had, wished you to think I had not been
walking in this desert, but through a verdant garden continually renewed by
rain. No, there have been days when that statement would have been effortlessly
true, but those days were long gone. I had spent the evening at the local pub,
drank a little too much, found my way home in a blur I dont remember, woke to
the memory of a tangle of limbs around mine, but found myself alone, with a yen
for scrambled eggs and a slice of melon. And here, in the supermarket lineup,
the young girl behind the checkout desk blushed when she recognized me.
You see, I have of late been suffering from a complex. Now I
could have said that differently, Ive been suffering from a complex lately,
lately Ive been suffering from a complex, but I didnt, did I, and why I
didnt is part of the problem. And that problem is the stage. The of late,
again with its ever-so-slight archaism, its basic mechanism, which is one of
delay, and delay, you will find, believe me, if you are ever stuck on stage
before an audience of anything more than one, artful delay, is of the stages
essence. And if youve read your Dr. Freud, which I will admit to doing,
fitfully and intermittently, but enough to register unease about some of the
more basic facts of living, and if youve ever acted, you might one day find
yourself playing the part of Oedipus and thinking of Dr. Freud. You may one day
find yourself playing the part of Oedipus and wondering at the fact that the
most pivotal trauma Dr. Freud posited about our passage through this sorry
spectacle we call life is based round a theatrical reality. A part. A
character. A play. A story, so outlandish, so symmetrical, so complete, that it
could never exist without the stage. And you may find yourself wondering about
the stage and the world, wondering which is the mirror of which. And you may be
wondering now, is that the essence of my complex, some delusional reversal of
stage and life, of mirror and reality? And Im way ahead of you, and will tell
you no, my complex is by no means delusional. Nor is it Oedipal. But it is even
more profoundly wedded to theatrical realities. I have a name for my complex, a
private name. And Ill share it with you. The Berkeley Complex. And it has of
late returned. And when the girl behind the checkout counter recognized me, she
They are both related, bear with me. When she blushed I was
gratified, so gratified that I surprised myself. So gratified that I was
relieved. Now think about this. The surprise I understood, but whence the
relief? As if a hidden hand clutching my chest had just unclasped, a
transparent plastic coating over my mouth had just imploded, I breathed for the
first time, it seemed, as young girls say, in yonks, I breathed, felt relief,
and only then knew I had not till that moment been breathing. And I recognized
my Berkeley Complex. Berkeleythe bishop, that is, not the choreographerthe
Trinity Divine who wrote the sentence that expressed, with bleak and
inescapable clarity, the actors condition.
Esse est percipere.
To be is to be perceived.
Think of it.
We actors exist to be seen.
And the corollary is, of course, terrifyingly simple.
When we arent seen, we dont exist.
Even as a child I suspected some dissonance at the heart of
things. I had a loving mother, too strong maybe, brought up in that old house
out in Greystones, where the peeling veranda on the porch looked out over the Irish
Sea. Something colonial about it, as if the rains that washed that yucca tree
were somehow tropical, but they werent of course, they were cold, constant,
and damp. Mother too strong, definitely, father ineffectual, wrote pamphlets on
a variety of social issues, issues ofwhats the wordcivic concern. Inveterate
letter writer, to the Irish Times, Independent, Bray, and Wicklow
Peoples. But the details are irrelevant, really, suffice it to say that
when I woke at night, with the waves doing their business outside and the old
house creaking, my greatest terror was that in that dark I was not, in that
dark I did not exist, whatever had existed had diminished with the visible
universe to what I could see at that moment, which was, precisely, nothing. I
would blunder, chest constricted, through the doorways, out the hall, through
the other doorway into that animal-odored room with the large brass bed where
after an eternity her bangled hand would turn and switch the side-light on and
my relief would be her eyes, seeing me, knowing I was seen. A peculiar child
you might say, yes, not for me the snuggle under that blanket of maternal
warmth, the Oedipal burrowing of my thin body between his and hers, no it was
the eyes that did it, those brown orbs under the long dark lashes, illuminated
by the yellow light under the shadow of the trembling lampshade. The plump hand
with its bangle reaching out to me, the sweet port-sodden breath, all those
were irrelevant, it was the eyes I wanted, always to be within the angle of
An awareness of the blessings of mirrors came at an early
age. Yes, mirrors definitely helped. They were all over that drafty house and
when she finally died, bequeathing it to me, I moved back into that mirrored
heaven. Jane of course moved in with me, made an uneasy truce with my familial
ghosts. For he had died first, odd how it goes like that, first Papa, then
Mama, who never seemed to notice him when alive but was devastated by his
absence. There was nobody, you see, to notice her. So she lost all the vital
juices, lived in a cocooned memory of the days when they both noticed, even,
dear God, loved each other. The old embers, Lord did she rake them over,
bringing each memory out of the gray dust until it had given her whatever
warmth it had accumulated. The memory, you see, of being looked at had now to
serve for the fact. That day in Portrush, she would say, he looked at me, and I
would listen, I would listen of course because she had to look at me. Then the
sight went, cruelly, two days before she died, she was there but her eyes were
no more, and a voice, eyeless, is hardly a voice at all. And the day she died,
the most amazing of facts. How life, even at its bleakest, retains the capacity
to surprise. One of those eyes, those eyes that so long sustained me, was made
I had the undertaker
remove it. Both lids peacefully closed, in the open coffin. But one of the
sockets empty. And to those of you who shudder with revulsion I would say, Do
you think the body will arise on Resurrection Day complete with its pacemakers, balloons of silicon, plastic limbs,
ceramic teeth, and glass eyes?
Mother. Did the drought begin then, Mother, the day I was
thrown back upon the world, with nothing but a glass eye to sustain me? No,
later . . .
A glass eye, though, on a bedside table will strain the
happiest of unions.
Jane, damn her eyesblue-green, with long brown lashes, an
odalisque droop toward the cornertook severe exception. But then again,
perhaps we had never had the happiest of unions. The arguments didnt so much
begin then as increase in intensity and frequency, until eventually an endgame
was reached: Its either me or it.
How typical of this impossibility we call life to present a
choice between the disastrous and the unthinkable. But, lets face it, you do
not lose your loved one for a glass eye. So I walked out one tempestuous day,
having swept the glass orb from the bedside table into my coat pocket, and
strode down the howling gale that the South Pier had become, with every
intention of flinging it into the Irish Sea.
But I couldnt. Sitting on the wet metal of the Napoleanic
cannon, I looked down into those uneasy waves. I imagined the eye sunk in the
silt a hundred yards from the harbor, among the conger eels that slinked out
from the gaps between the granite blocks. Alone, unobserved and unobserving, it
seemed a fate quite literally worse than death, since death would have placed
it secure within my mothers hollow eyelid, in the oaken coffin, the graveyard
on Bray Head.
I returned home to Janes unblinking gaze. Did you do it? she
asked. I did, I lied. You know, Ive been worried about you lately, she said,
and her eyes seemed to soften. She blinked, finally, twice. Youre dealing with
a lot of issues, I suppose. Issues, I echoed. Yes, she said. Does it hurt to
talk about them? Hurt, I echoed. Yes. This house, Gerald, I mean is it the
healthiest thing to stay on here when . . . When what? I asked. When so much
baggage comeswith it . . .
She was moving closer to me, blinking as she walked. Her
eyes, which had seemed dull for months, had regained that blue-green sparkle. I
remembered that sparkle, that luminescence, her eyes languorously turning
toward me, close, supported by my crooked, exhausted arm. It heralded the
onset, or the aftermath, of the thing itself. You havent worked, youve hardly
talked, and whatever happened to your Othello. My Othello, I
echoed. Yes, she whispered, as she was up against me now, your Othello,
you were going to revive it. My Othello is sleeping, I said, awaiting his
moment. Well, she whispered, maybe its time we woke him.
Her eyes turned toward me, later, supported by my crooked,
exhausted arm. We should sell this house, she said, move to the inner city
while you rehearse your Moor. My Moor, I said. And, she said, we should share a
cigarette. And she reached down to my gabardine coat, extracted one packet of
Players blue, one Zippo lighter, and one glass eye.
She left the next day.
The drought did not begin immediately. No, there was a
period of respite, of relief even when the empty house seemed not blessed
exactly but favored with an unexpected calm wherein the waves outside the
window beat for me and for me only, when the glass eye sat calmly and
inanimately beside the bonsai plants, a gift to me from her which I watered, of
course, too much unfortunately so they soon began to shrivel and the eye, the
blessed eye, reflected their diminishing oriental leaves. There was a period
wherein I thought, as one would, its all for the best, the dripping underwear
no longer hanging from the shower curtain. We could have moved as she wanted,
not to this drafty mausoleum at the end of the Greystones line but to a place,
a gaff in the inner city, a reacquaintance with old friends, old habits, the
theater even, our Othello even, my Moor, her Desdemona, but it was, in
the tawdry argot of the afternoon soaps, not to be.
And one day, there it was, the drought. Strange how it
operates, no way to isolate the moment of beginning, all you know is that
something has commenced, something is now happening that once was not. The
river shrinks, the grass whitens, the leaves curl, a burnished gold, a certain
empty beauty at first, then the beauty fades leaving just that, emptiness, a
dry well, river bed, fountain, shoreline, whatever the metaphor demands.
Until that blush on the young Cinderellas cheek while
queuing with six eggs and a melon behind a mother and child at the checkout in Dunnes
Stores. I was quietly gratified to be reaffirmed in my existence, paid my two
pounds twenty, walked through that subcolonial architecture back to my empty
house, sliced the melon, left it by the dead bonsai, fried one egg, toasted one
slice of bread, dunked a teabag in a steaming cup, took it out again after a
decent interval, poured a splash of milk, drank the tea, ate the breaded egg
staring out at the bare, sere emptiness. The sea was so white it was hardly there.
And I realized that if the drought hadnt quite yet ended, its ending had
A triangle of sunlight came through the smudged kitchen
window, illuminating the dried leaves of the bonsai. The earth inside the brown
plastic vase was overflowing with cigarette ash. The glass eye reflected it and
me and the segment of melon beside it. I lifted the eye so it reflected them no
more, and wondered whether their presence was diminished by this lack of
reflection. I saw myself in its convex glare, forehead and cheeks distended,
the room behind me curved into its glass circularity. Mother, I whispered. And
I placed her in my right-hand pocket, threw on my overcoat, walked out into the
Into the unobserving
street, onto the empty train, and through the eyeless city. I was alone in my
carriage and alone observed the stations interrupt that rolling mess of ocean.
It didnt care whether it was seen or not, it pitched and ruffled without even
the courtesy of regularity to its movement. Eucalytpus trees soughed past my
window, pines, jutting elbows of manicured wilderness, houses, elegant and
dowdy, a browning, shuttered swimming baths, a parkland, a sanctuary for birds.
Then the roofscape of your average city, a hint of Victorian grandeur in Pearse
Station, an escalator that looked like an old version of someone elses future,
a fumble with the ticket at the turnstile, a right turn down Amiens Street
underneath the Brunelesque bridge that train I had just vacated trundled over.
I walked, having no direction, and found my destination, not having looked. It
was the Olympia Theatre. We had planned, in the days when we still made plans,
to revive Othello there and I wondered on what stage, if any, she was
Is there anything quite as sad as a theatrical façade
abutting a busy street in the early morning sunlight? The metal canopy jutting
onto the pavement, the tattered board above it advertising last winters
pantomime. Theatrical flamboyance unobserved. Or, observed alone by me. And I
was pondering the mysteries of observance when I observed myself walking at a
purposeful clip down Dames Street, turning right beneath the theater awning and
walking through the glass double doors.
That it was me, I was certain. The doors swung back now,
just so, in and out with the force of my entry. And that I was standing on the
opposite curb observing the doors swing closed again, I was certain too. But of
how to reconcile both irreconcilable facts I was not certain at all. So I
walked through the halting traffic, across the smoking street to the doors I
had just entered, and entered them again.
It was all must inside and damp red velvet. There were large
mirrors on the walls and a booth in the center of the aisle of the alcove.
There was a girl in the booth, rearranging ticket stubs. If she noticed that I
was making my second entry, she gave no sign of it. I walked down the half
circle that the aisle became, in my nostrils the corrosive smell of damp from
the red carpet. The circular aisle gave way then to a door, and the
scallop-shaped fan of the theater interior. I walked through the rows of seats
with their velveteen covers, all around me the emptiness of my echoing
footsteps. The stage was in darkness with the curtains pulled back. I heard a
footstep then and recognized immediately that it was not my own. It was a
womans step, with a dragging heel that sounded familiar.
I thought you left, Jane said.
Two minutes ago.
Where did I go?
I dont know. Where did you go?
Tell me what I did before I left.
Are you talking in riddles?
No. Please. Tell me what I did.
You kissed me and you promised this time to sort it out.
Sort what out?
SeeI knew. Nothing changes.
Her head bowed low, hair falling over her face, and her
shoulders heaved. She was crying.
I cant help it. Hold me.
I walked slowly to the stage and put my arms around her. I
felt a rage of unease inside me.
Promise me youll do it.
Please. Please. Her shoulders heaved again.
I heard footsteps behind me. For a moment I feared they were
my own. Then I heard the sonorous tones of a director.
Now. Desdemona and Iago.
I let my arms course down her woolen cardigan and wondered
when shed bought it. I stepped backward. For some reason I didnt want them to
see my face. So I slipped through the flies, blundered through the warren of
half-remembered alcoves and out the stage door.
I bought a Cuban cigar which I set between my lips, unlit,
sat in a café opposite, and drank endless cappuccinos. I had a feeling hed
come back. Knowing myself as I did, the depths of prevarication to which I
could sink, unless he had effected a radical change in my nature, I was sure he
would come back. But he didnt. He came out again.
Smoking this time, a habit I thought I had quenched last
year. An irritating actorly strut to his walk. Was that really how I looked, I
wondered, how I appeared to others, the gabardine sitting rakishly on the
shoulders, the sleeves hanging free? Please let that not be me.
But me it was, actor, turning left down Crowe Street through
the jumble of Temple Bar. The coat fluttered in the breeze from the Liffey, the
empty sleeves were insufferably smug, if the pose was sickening, the poseur was
He turned right at the riverside and walked along the busy
window of Virgin Records on Bachelors Walk. There was a kid of East European
descent selling copies of Big Issue and I stood, ignoring his
outstretched hand, staring in the window at a display of Leonard Cohen records.
I saw the brown hair crawling over the collar of the rumpled gabardine coat, I
saw the thick right hand run abstractedly through it, I saw myself move right,
toward the entrance, past the left hand of the kid proffering the rolled-up
copy of Big Issue, into the huge, pulsing interior. And I followed. I
saw myself go from dark to light, into a world of desultory youths fingering
through piles of CDs, up an escalator to the classics section. I walked from
the escalator through the lanes of music as he did, I saw him stop by the
compilation display and I stopped too. I saw his finger flick over the
alphabetical headings until it reached C, and I knew in advance what I
or he was going to choose. Leonard Cohen, Greatest Hits, of course, how
unimaginative if inevitable. Jane always had a terminal weakness for that lugubrious
two-note baritone voice, he missed her, or if he didnt miss her, he wanted to
abide for a moment in the common universe that was her. And I noticed then, how
could I have missed it, how how how how, the torque, the half-circle that
snaked inside his shirt collar, the two rubberized ear pads at either end, with
the cable that coiled from them to his coat pocket, which could only have led
to a CD Walkman. And I felt angry for a moment, I thought, how unmannerly, how
unlike me or him, to come equipped with an accessory I would never have dreamed
of possessing. And he picked up the CD with thick, stubby fingers and rapidly,
with a sleight of hand I never knew I possessed, slipped the silver disk into
the breast pocket of his gabardine coat.
I was stilled for a moment by fear for myself. I began to
sweat suddenly, glanced around behind me to see if anybody had noticed, one of
those Virgin Records employees in the maroon golf shirts, a store detective,
maybe, then I turned back to see myself walking with an effortlessly casual
lope toward the down escalator. And I began to will myself safely out of the
store. Dont panic, I said, keep up that lazy, careless demeanor, lean that
way, just so, off the moving handrail and thats it, a glance to left, to the right,
walk off the last moving step to the open glass doors, to the street outside. I
half expected to hear an alarm sounding as I made it through the doorway, into
the bright sunlight and then remembered he had palmed the disk, not the cover.
And I began to congratulate myself then, following behind at six feet or so,
weaving through the crowds down Bachelors Walk, through the cars that trundled
over OConnell Bridge. A theft, albeit a minor one, perfectly commissioned, the
goods sitting snugly in my left-hand breast pocket. I had reached my right hand
in to feel the disk in my gabardine coat before remembering it was he, not I,
who had done the deed. And I saw him pausing slightly in his journey as his
right hand pulled the disk out from his gabardine coat. He leaned against one
of the metal uprights of Butt Bridge and inserted the disk into his Walkman. He
placed the earphones on his head and turned round, hunching low, to adjust the
volume. A train shuttled overhead and as he fiddled with the levels, his eyes
glanced up and I swear they caught mine.
As if a mirror had been placed, my eyes met mine, glinting
with reflected sunlight, thirty or so feet away, the passing crowds and traffic
intervening. My heart stopped or some such cliché, no it didnt stop but the
sweat that oozed from my pores once more wasnt caused by the weak, afternoon
sunlight. It was those eyes, more knowing than mine, more themselves than mine,
infinitely more at home with what they saw, which of course was my eyes,
reversed. They met mine, the lines round the corners creased in the briefest of
smiles, then the head turned and moved on.
He was making for the Tara Street DART station, of course,
he had to be, the slow, crushed trek out to Greystones in the rush-hour crowds.
And I followed, as by now I knew I must. There were two impulses to the
following: the impulse to follow him, that is me, and the impulse to simply,
like a carrier pigeon, return home. I bought my ticket, as he did, a one-way,
no return, moved up the escalator into the cathedral of smoked glass above, and
ran behind him into a waiting train.
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