Such is the Depth



Having finished building his wild garden, Albert Speer circled Spandau Prison on daily walks, moving peas from one pocket to the other to record his laps, from which he could then calculate total kilometers. By his own account, he soon became bored and restless with the same old familiar itinerary. To enliven his imagination, he conjured a more richly varied landscape to traverse: Heidelberg, the Alps, and then onwards across distant and exotic lands.

Yet we cannot help but question whether boredom was the true motivation. Perhaps he stumbled across some unwelcome thought buried deep in the mysterious core of his essential being; glimpsed some charred corpse or ruined city; or heard the footfalls of unquiet spirits, battalions of the dead, marching past the dark speleothems of his memory. Then he decided — time to go.

Could it be that his imagination was not becoming too dulled, but rather too lively, turning up uncomfortable truths with which he was not prepared to reckon? Possibly the same mechanism that prevented him from seeing the truth about Hitler became active here again. Or maybe he did break through to some deeper insight, and then could not tolerate the implications.

In a subtle treatise on walking his home landscape to the rhythms of personal memory, William deBuys writes:

On my twenty-seven-year circuit up and down arroyos and back by the river and the field, the layering of repetition and memory has so twined my sense of the land with my sense of my own past that one leads to the other and back again without the least interruption.  (…)

It is as though one’s awareness of place and awareness of self had grown together like two plants in the same pot, so that their enmeshed roots formed a single web of memory.   (…)

In such a way, a homely well-worn path becomes a route into and through the self, leading to destinations unimagined. This is the paradox of the familiar: the more you know a place, or think you know it, the more it can take you where you do not expect.

For prisoner number five, that was exactly the problem. The walk around the prison threatened to become a spiral down into unexpected and unwelcome depths, where the tangled roots of memory threatened to choke him. On such a circuit, he was far too present to himself, and thus set off for safer territories, distant, and full of of the sorts of aesthetic abstractions that made him feel most at home.

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