Benny Kaplan styled himself a rationalist. As a child he had enjoyed fairy tales, myths of all cultures and biblical stories (strictly Old Testament) but he had never, from the age of about six or seven, believed in the existence of any of the creatures or characters from those stories, or, for that matter, anyone called God. From about the same age, another part of his brain began to cultivate stories about nature and scientific discovery.
Benny went on to study philosophy and medicine. He became an enthusiastic member of the university rationalist society, where he was inspired by Eddie Roux, the mild-mannered botany lecturer at Witwatersrand University who had got up the noses of many a God-fearing person with his well argued proof that the Almighty was, in fact, an artefact of the human mind. Roux was also reviled by White Afrikaner nationalists as a traitor and a kafferboetie [derogatory term for a White person who made common cause with people of colour] because of his liberal views. Benny, however, trod an apolitical path through those quicksands. The university motto, ‘Scientia et Labore’, became his motto too.
Until well into middle age, Benny’s life could be summarised in a few words. He devoted himself exclusively to the twin pillars of science and scholarship and seemed to possess the academic equivalent of the Midas touch. Whichever field of endeavour he embarked upon brought him distinction and honours. Not for him the primrose path of feckless student life or the thorny emotional distractions which had ensnared so many of his colleagues in lifelong relationships, whether harmoniously or disastrously. Benny had conquered what he regarded as his irrational impulses and felt no need to stray from the discipline of his books and his microscope. Through these instruments of learning he was able to immerse himself in a world every bit as fascinating as that peopled by the ghosts and goblins from the pages of his childhood story books and not fraught with any of the awkward consequences associated with the domain of interpersonal relationships.
Life, however, has a way of restoring equilibrium when things get out of balance. One of the pans in Benny’s scales – the pan reserved for reasoned thought and verifiable information – had clunked to the ground, while the other one, reserved for every experience in life that was irrational. fantastical and chaotic, had been left dangling precariously in mid-air, bereft of any counterweight to depress it. At this point, Benny, wrapped in his scholarly world, was visited by three dreams which considerably disturbed his composure.
In the first dream, Benny is playing chess with a little boy not unlike himself, curly-haired, bespectacled and with the earnest expression and pouting lower lip which runs through his family line. Only this child is well filled-out, even pudgy and certainly not skinny like his own remembered little self. The little Benny is in a strong position but then makes a blunder which loses him the game. At once the pout enlarges, the round face crumples and then – Wham! Chessboard and pieces fly in all directions and the child is inconsolable. Benny wakes from the dream feeling tearful.
In the second dream he is in a large, arid space dotted with tin shanties and strewn with litter. A few children are squatting in the sand playing with sticks and stones. They look up at him curiously. He has lost his way and knows he shouldn’t be there. He has stumbled into a zone reserved for Black people but he doesn’t know the way out. He enters one of the shacks – perhaps the occupants will be able to direct him. A blanket is draped across the single room as a partition. From behind the blanket a woman emerges. Benny recognises her as Paulina, the domestic servant who used to care for him all those years ago. She smiles at him, good-natured as ever. She advances towards him as if to hug him but suddenly her lips tighten into a grimace, her extended arms become claws, her eyes flash hatred. The youngsters who have been playing in the sand have gathered at the entrance to the shack. Their curiosity has taken on a menacing aspect. He looks round to find a way out but Paulina is blocking his way. The boys start to edge towards him. He wakes in a state of terror and is unable to get back to sleep.
The following night he has another dream. This time he is in his childhood home. The table is laid with tasty-looking dishes. One of the plates is piled with Matzos. At the centre of the table is a silver goblet alongside a bottle of sweet red wine. Two candles are burning – evidently a Passover repast has been prepared. The guests are arriving. They are friendly, but he doesn’t recognise any of them. He looks around in vain for his family. The room fills up and he finds himself without a place at the table, so he has to leave.
Outside the house he finds himself once again in a desert landscape. He notices the skeleton of an animal, half-buried in the sand. This arouses his interest – it could be a valuable fossil. He takes a closer look at it and sees, to his horror, that it has become a human skeleton. But wait – the skeleton now has flesh. It begins to stir and is apparently alive. There is a beseeching look in its eyes and he knows that it is parched. He wants to offer it a drink but is unable to pronounce the word ‘drink’. He wakes to find himself repeatedly uttering that word as if to reassure himself that he still has the power of speech.
As a scientist, Benny knew that dream imagery was as much rooted in the matrix of the brain as the sights and sounds of our waking lives. However, he had never previously thought about the meaning of his dreams and he was now deeply troubled by the feelings churning around inside him in the wake of those dreams.
i would like to be able to tell you that Benny sought therapeutic help to ease his state of mind but unfortunately he was far too sceptical to pursue such a course of action. However he did acknowledge that something had to change and I’m glad to say that he made a resolution to spend more time away from his studies. I’m even more pleased to tell you that he soon found fresh air addictive and was able to enjoy a few simple transactions with people who showed absolutely no interest in his latest research findings.
Benny still considered himself a rational person but he decided to discard the ‘-ist’ suffix. ‘After all’, he mused, no one self-defines as an ’emotionalist’ or a ‘soul-ist’, so why should I proclaim myself as a rationalist. That’s positively irrational.’