empty of future, renew the sign: lucent paradox, ineluctable trace ...


Opening the Envelope

When the envelope arrives, I find myself unable to open it. I remember another occasion when I didn't open one of these, joking that, since it was bound to be a rejection, I might as well throw it straight in the bin ... that one turned out to contain a cheque but we all know history never repeats or rather, only in the sense of tragedy becoming farce. I leave it sitting on the table and move on to other things.

On the last page of the last essay in Waimarino County there's a quote from Georg Christoph Lichtenberg about dreams. I didn't use the whole aphorism and I'm not going to repeat it here, or at least not yet. The drift of it is that dreams are as much a part of our real life as our waking experience and that the two are not really distinct from each other. It's also the case that what are sometimes called daydreams, sometimes speculation, sometimes delusion, sometimes even more unflattering names, are a significant part of our waking life. For some of us—I wouldn't like to say how many—this strange daily intermingling of fact and fantasy is a defining quality of our experience.

We're usually taught these days that imagination is a positive quality, something to be valued. On the other hand, there are many examples, from the criminal courts, from news reports and from direct personal experience, of people who have come to grief precisely because they could not distinguish fact from fantasy. We value the ability to project a possible future and then work to make it work, but when an enterprise fails, as often they must, those who dreamed that particular dream usually suffer consequences that might run from private or public humiliation to state punishment, even, in extreme cases, to death.

People who spend their lives trying to make art in its various guises are committed to the projection of futures which they then attempt to realise, but so are those who open businesses, go into politics, become professional sportspeople, travel, get religion, grow old ... inescapable, the urge to dream and then realise the dream. There are even those among the physicists, Paul Davies for instance, who suggest the very processes by which we observe the universe are of this nature, partaking of observation that feeds speculation that then influences further observation. Davies was in the newspaper this week suggesting that we need to revise our understanding of the so-called laws of physics to include the possibility that they are not immutable but evolve, like everything else does, over time. He's the latest to send Plato back to his cave.

One of the sections of Waimarino County, the third, is in fact called Illusions and many of the short prose pieces it contains are transcriptions of dreams, while others are transcriptions of real life experiences as if they were, or could be, dreams. When I look at them now I cannot honestly say where the real life experience ends and the dream begins, or vice versa. Because, as in the mutable universe, the experience changes once it is put into words, somehow leaving the dream/reality conundrum behind. This is what I hope and also, if the hope is realised, what I love.

Meanwhile, the envelope still sits upon the table; like Schroeder's cat the dream it contains is either dead or alive and I won't know which until I open it. I go looking instead for Lichtenberg, one of my favourite books, with its own mystery, since I have no idea how or when or where I acquired it, not new, it's a battered second hand Cape Editions Paperback #8, from 1969. Aphorisms & Letters, it's called. Here it is, page 45, the dream aphorism, I'll give it in full:

I commend dreams again: we live and feel as much dreaming as waking and are the one as much as the other. It is one of the superiorities of man that he dreams and knows it. We have hardly made the right use of this yet. Dream is a life which, combined with the rest of us, makes up what we call human life. Dreams gradually merge into our waking; we cannot say where man's waking state begins.

This seems even more profoundly true than I remembered and gives me a feeling almost of dizziness, especially that last about not knowing where the waking state begins. The envelope on the table will be a kind of awakening, as well as a signpost pointing in one of two directions: either I'll spend the next few months pursuing an artist who was thought to be dead but may still be alive, through the underbelly of Sydney, in the relics of shanty towns and communes, housing commission flats where teenagers deal drugs, bars and gambling joints and brothels ... or I'll follow another artist, like Lichtenberg from Darmstadt, definitely dead but possibly restorable in print, through the arid wastes of the western lands, from Kow Swamp to Lake Mungo to Menindee to Bulloo ... which will it be?

I find my paper knife, shaped like a crocodile, made of hard black wood, insert the point beneath the flap on the envelope and begin the sawing motion with the sharpened underside of the tail that will open it. I carefully pull out the couple of sheets of thrice-folded A4 and smooth them flat. I read ...

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