He remembered something Zhuli had once said.

Luckily, joy seeps into all your compositions.

What joy can this be but the joy of composition itself? The joy of having something rich and deep to draw on, the joy of having the means to record the ebb and flow. The joy of keeping a lasting record.

For Sparrow, this recollection must have brought a secondary pleasure: the knowledge that he was understood by another, perhaps better than he understood himself.

Sparrow had never made a sustained sound, the music came in beginnings and endings like the edges of a table.

What would it feel like, to make a sustained sound — to devote oneself to one art, one passion, and draw the notes, words, meaning out of oneself continuously like a stream? Unimaginable, because life is discordance, life is not a sonnet or a melody. We get what music we can find.

The music is there, but living among its notes, being too close, we cannot make sense of it. Time will come and remove us, help us view our lives from afar; with the passage of time, a theme or two become perceptible, giving a semblance of order or significance, like a distant rhythm half-heard.

For that reason, the fugue is the central analogy of this text: for the fugue contains at least two, and perhaps more, voices; and the fugue, like Sparrow’s life described here, comes in a tripartite structure, having an exposition, a development and an ending where what we hear in the beginning comes back, different but still recognizable. In the middle portion, the voices sing against one another, dizzying the listener with mimicry and invention, doubling and dissembling; order returns at the end, lending the listener clarity, a measure of peace, letting go. Clarity and euphoria: never the twain shall meet.

But living here and now, being in the middle of what is happening, there is no order, only surprise, sometimes soft and bright, and always impossible to hold in the hand. No sustained sound, but a recurring melody that drops into view and then disappears again, gossamer and light. Not being able to grasp it, not wishing to detain anything either, we let the tide of sound, by turns brittle and bold, wash over and carry us towards the end of things.


Was that really how it had begun? Ai-ming wondered. Could it have been so simple?

A rhetorical question, of course: this is, after all, a story without a start. Or more precisely: it is a story with starting point after starting point. The narrator’s story, her own, is merely the first frame; it contains her parents’ story, which in turn frames and is begun within their parents’ narrative; cutting through all these is the Book of Records, whose stories blend with the lives of those who read them. Who shall say where the story begins?

Searching for the beginning of things is an obsession for us; we look for it the way a traveller in the desert looks for water, and when we find it, it must be akin to how that traveller mistakes a mirage for an oasis. To find the beginning of things gives us hope of understanding who we are now, how we came to be; I search, all the time, for an event that can explain an emotion, as if reducing it to a single moment could somehow render the emotion smaller, more manageable, less volatile. Yet this quest for the original moment also appears, disappointingly, to be false; for could anyone claim to understand a story simply by retracing its plot? No, the place where things begin is not bound by time; it is found not by walking backwards.

My words ring false; when the hour is late, one can afford to be honest. We walk backwards, retracing our steps, not to search for the beginning, or to make sense of things, for that would make us all philosophers or scientists; because we are fools, we walk in circles, re-visiting the old scenes again and again, saying to ourselves we are trying to think and understand, when in fact it is all a second, third or fourth tour of places we saw once in haste, having no time to pause; it is going back again and again, perhaps further back but never far enough to find that imaginary beginning, back again and again simply to forestall and delay the future that is all too close and of course cannot be delayed, a future that already seems to be part of the present.

Why had Gould gone back to record the same piece of music again?

Why does anyone do anything again? Is it because simply completing something is not in itself sufficient or satisfying? After we’ve read a book, why do we read it again? Is it to experience the same flush of feelings, the exact facsimile of emotions, almost as if one were treating oneself to a replay, in slow motion, of the inner theatre? Is it a sign of addiction, a mania, a compulsion?

Reading about the Goldberg Variations — recollections by pianists about their attempts to master the pieces — produces a deep impression of its maddening character. Virtuosos who overcome the most complex pieces crumble before Bach’s machinations, as if he had conspired with the harpsichord to produce something destined to be a dream to listen to, but a nightmare to play. Why had Gould, who had made his name playing them perhaps faster and with greater precision than many before him, chosen to return to this mania?

Listening to just the first aria of both versions, one after another, we mark some clear differences in the character of the playing: where the first was fast, marked by something fiery and trenchant, there is now a holding back and slowing down, a desire to construct something more delicate; where the first was decisive and strong, almost impetuous, a hurtling forward, there is now a gentle tentativeness that is not indecision but surely something more wise, something that comes with the passing of the years. Perhaps the Gould of 1955 was compelled by the music, perhaps the pianist was driven forward by it; in constrast, the man behind the 1981 recordings seems to have a statement to make, a plan and a strategy, a wish to mould the music to his newfound character.

And so perhaps we return to the things we love, the things that madden us, again to find out how much we have changed, how much we have learnt. We come back to the things that hold us and captivate us to see if we have moved forwards at all.

And here was Yiwen, just ahead of her. Ai-ming halved the distance between them and halved it again.

What feeling could equal what we experience at the sight of a looked-for face, a silhouette we suddenly find, amidst a sea of bodies and faces?

Yet hiding here is a quiet reminder of Zeno's paradox, hanging like a shadow over this moment that is so apparently infused with joy: halved and halved again – in his race against the tortoise, Achilles allows his opponent to have a head start, believing that he can close it in an instant. But to get from his starting line to that plodding tortoise, Achilles must first halve the distance between them; when he arrives at that halfway point, he finds himself facing yet another halfway point, and another and another, so that what appears within reach, what appears at first glance assailable, is in fact forever out of reach.

They smiled shyly at the girls, who giggled. Everyone exhaled, like a rest between sets.

What is here but coquetry and courtship? Here's the scene conjured: at the head of the student body are young women pushing forward, their faces unabashed, provoking; on the other side, apparently placed against them, but clearly on the receiving end, a thin line of men in uniform. One is reminded of how chess works as a symbol of the duel between the lover and the beloved, a duel where winning and losing lose all significance.

The students heaved through the centre and the green police lines dissolved to the sides like a soft leaf curling open.

Unmistakable, then, the reversal of roles: the weak and oppressed part, push into, break through and spill past the line that is now soft, pliant; what was masculine and meant to keep at bay the feminine has given way, been broken down, not by sheer force but persuasion, passion. What we see in this scene is not a battle of ideas or a war of wills; it is a game between willing bodies, dalliance and play. A kind of happiness.

“Sparrow, do you think it’s possible to love something too much?” She had grasped his hand, the way a child does.

"But each phrase it so full, if I tried to hear all its overtones and undertones, nothing would ever get played!"

What is true of music, is true too of reading: stopping to savor every word makes reading itself impossible, for reading is a kind of intentional blindness. Worry over every word, assess every phrase, and you succeed only in isolating and breaking into islands what should be continuous ground. Devote yourself to loving every word, and you lose the entire plot. The good reader knows that he's leaving gaps behind him even as he ploughs forward, gaps he hopes he can come back to, gaps he hopes he remembers.

So it is with symbols, so it is with life, the moment-to-moment passage of time: can we stop ourselves for a moment to take it all in – admire the way the light falls on a face, the colour of lamps, the distance and the closeness, sentences begun and unfinished – and still be in the moment? No, you can't stop time, time hurries you along like a train, you're watching the scenery and although you have a deep impression of its beauty, it's all a blur, just a vivid hash of colour and dream; and if you're too busy trying to hear all the overtones and undertones of a moment, you're not playing any music at all, you're a member of the audience. Every moment is full, too full, so our understanding and memory will always be ridden with holes, a word missed and a sigh misplaced, a gesture not completely understood. We live with the knowledge that we cannot know everything, that if memory is a book, its pages have had entire passages erased, figures and phrases that might have helped, that might have given comfort, or helped us understand a little more.


Zhuli, he thought. I’m sorry that I came too late. Of course he knew that she had forgiven him long ago, so why did he hold on to this guilt? What was the thing he was most afraid of?

Better guilt than nothing at all, better guilt than forgetfulness: perhaps what one should fear most of all is not death itself or departure, but the dying away of memories, the disappearance of what we once felt most intensely. Because what we feel most strongly gives rise to the most vivid impressions, the strongest colours, and without them, we have nothing to call our own, we have little with which to recognise ourselves.

What about the boy with the glasses slipping down his nose? She had wanted to reach out and touch his slender waist and ask him … ask him what?

Doesn't it all seem absurd to you? Why do we have no words for what we truly feel? What's wrong with our parents?

Nothing wrong at all with our parents, or their parents. Words fail us even as they sustain us. This is what we've recognised for a long time:


The truth that can be spoken is not the truth;
The name that can be spoken is not the real name.
Absence begets space;
Presence is in all things.
Possessing nothing, one peers into the heart of things;
Pursuing things, one sees only the visible.
Yet having and nothing are inseparable,
They come from the same source:
A mystery,
A mystery folded within itself,
A door to understanding all things.

And so we've always known that words cannot be trusted: they are rude attempts (everything is) at an approximation of the truth. Calling an apple an apple, knowing its name — this is not knowledge; it is only a label for something we don't understand. And yet we fool ourselves into thinking it is sufficient, that knowing the word for something somehow brings us closer to its truth. And so words are an illusion, they create the impression that we know, and by doing so hold reality at bay. I put words on the page night by night, and it sometimes seems enough, but I know I am getting nowhere. Yet they are all I have.

Now she started singing by herself: “I’ve never stopped asking you, when will you come with me? But you always laugh at me because I have nothing”


我曾经问个不休 妳何时跟我走
可妳却总是笑我 一无所有
我要给妳我的追求 还有我的自由
可妳却总是笑我 一无所有

喔 妳何时跟我走 喔 妳何时跟我走

脚下这地在走 身边那水在流
可妳却总是笑我 一无所有
为何妳总笑个没够 为何我总要追求
难道在妳面前我永远 是一无所有

喔 妳何时跟我走 喔 妳何时跟我走

(脚下这地在走 身边那水在流 脚下这地在走 身边那水在流)

告诉妳我等了很久 告诉妳我最后的要求
我要抓起妳的双手 妳这就跟我走
这时妳的手在颤抖 这时妳的泪在流
莫非妳是正在告诉我 妳爱我一无所有

喔 妳这就跟我走 喔 妳这就跟我走

(脚下这地在走 身边那水在流 脚下这地在走 身边那水在流)

喔 妳这就跟我走 喔 妳这就跟我走
喔 妳这就跟我走 喔 妳这就跟我走
喔 妳这就跟我走 喔 妳这就跟我走

Today, the afternoon wind had an unkind bite, April could not let go of winter.

Moon Reflected in Two Springs is playing and I am waiting for the bus, watching the rain break little ripples in a puddle by the curb. For a merciful moment I am only watching but on the bus these lines remind me, I know not why, of the man from whom this music came, and I become conscious of the tremendous distance between him and I, musician and audience, composer and listener: is this an illusion, this vivid impression that somehow we can share a common emotion?

If April cannot let go of winter, then surely it lingers the way this composer stood and admired the unreal moon, at once understanding and regretting the way it must have dawdled, apparently almost but certainly not touchable. The song from the erhu starts, lengthens and thins, deepens and grows and sometimes attentuates almost till it is inaudible, but it is there, it is a single thread of sound that the player doesn't let go … until a sudden break, a rude caesuras punctuated by percussion, a single note. When the music resumes, it doesn't take long before arriving at a frantic sawing motion, to and fro like a bee or man mad; yet this panic departs as soon as it comes, and the same lingering resumes, pulled and stretched and never fully abandoned. Thin and shrill, the song reminds us of the shocks the world subjects us all to; slow and mellow, it reminds of the comfort that illusions bring — a moon reflected in dark pools, a line from a song or a poem, memories.

But some were known, including Wang Wei’s “Farewell”







Pausing in my journey to share a drink with you, dear friend,

I ask where your journey will bring you;

You say you are weary of striving,

that you are returning to the shelter of mountains in the south.

Be on your way and ask me nothing more, you say.

Overhead, above us both, the clouds are endless, infinite.






One night he dreamed that he sat in a concert hall.

Giddy with joy, full of nervous anticipation, he awaited the performance of his own Symphony No. 3. A chime summoned the last members of the audience. The lights dimmed. Quiet settled. He watched, unable to move, as Zhuli walked onto the stage in a long blue dress. She searched the auditorium for him. Her hands were empty. He woke.

So now that she is very much beloved, she can no longer love; she is no longer there to love him although she has become a part of him.

Her hands are empty, so there is no music although there is a symphony to be played. He has wedded his art to her image; without her, what he has written has no sound, it is not music, just signs on a page.

When Ozawa came, he said our ability to interpret the music had fundamentally changed

As if an entire emotional range was lost to us, but we ourselves couldn’t hear it. Every musician in the orchestra knew they’d been cheated. But until that moment, we never had to face it so directly. 

Back, then, to what Zhuli said: Does it alter us more to be heard, or to hear? To hear is to be able to hear, to be sensitive, to possess an emotional range — almost as if one had access to a whole other world.

What must it feel like, to be a musician, to have committed one’s life to the life of the ear, only to be told that you cannot hear the gap in your own music? It is as if a man had spent his whole life building and making, only to find out that he had lost the use of his arms a long time ago, that he had had his hands amputated slowly, a digit at a time maybe, so quietly and yet so assuredly that he had continued to flail and wave limbs that were no longer his to lose.

So in this case, at least, in the case of the amputated musicians without ears to hear, alteration comes through hearing. For by the time they were heard by Ozawa, they had only come to be informed of their change, and the change had happened a long time ago; if they could listen to themselves and truly hear the music, they would not be thus surprised.

To hear, then, is be open to beauty itself: it is to see and know, listen and understand; it is embracing and believing, it is receiving.

You could close a book and forget about it,

… knowing it would not lose its contents when you stopped reading, but music wasn't the same, not for him, it was most alive when it was heard.

No, you don't close a book and forget about it; the words stay with you, and if they cut deep, they wound you forever. And like a mad patient you scratch at the scab without thinking.

Echo, ripple, ricochet: words don't end when out of sight; in the dark they come at you with greater insistence, in insomnia they come at you with redoubled strength, melding with your own words, breeding distrust.

She said the music made her wonder

Does it alter us more to be heard, or to hear? Is it better to have been loved, or to love?

Difficult questions, but the second seems, at first glance at least, the easier one to answer. Being loved is pleasure: it is flattering to know that you, mundane, fallible, culpable you, could inspire interest in another. Loving is fever, a mania you cannot shake: it is pleasure at meeting and the prospect of loss, it is sight itself, supercharged with significance. You see differently when you love, so if we modify these questions to Does it alter us more to have been loved, or to love, the answer is simple.

One recalls the statues and myths of the previous book and understands that even things that don't live can be loved. But can one be loved into being? Only if existence, or our sense of our reality and substance, requires a kind of recognition, only if we think we become ourselves only in the eyes of others. Which is not completely untrue, but utterly melancholy.

So though one cannot find a definite answer, there are clues to be considered, and text (our own days and hours, our thoughts) to be pored over. There is hope for an answer.

The first question, however, is the more elusive. Or deceptive: for how could being heard alter you? Perhaps being heard is knowing that someone wants to hear you, finds you worthy of being listened to. Perhaps it is the thought, or hope, that there exists a mind outside your own that may divine or suspect seams of meaning that you do not see yourself, almost as if this other could hear you more intensely, read you more clearly than you can. It would be, if such an improbable thing could come to pass, as if our mind and memories were a familiar and perhaps favored book pored over and examined to the point where we thought there was little else to find; as if we'd shared it carelessly with a friend, only to find fresh interpretations coming from this new reader. Thoughts which bring us back to those statues again, which had no words of their own but were granted speech by the manic monologues of madmen.

What, then, of hearing? In this text, hearing is entry, privileged and secret; it is passage into a sacred space. Zhuli thinks she sees into Sparrow what he cannot himself observe. Surely there can be no greater intimacy.

Because music is nothing. It is nothing and yet it belongs to me.

Tofu Liu's words remind one of Wen the Dreamer and Sparrow, both reduced to essentials: just clothes and a suitcase. Pianos and violins can be smashed, books and symphonies turned to ash, even the tiles of houses can't be spared: things are brittle.

Yet the dreamer can copy, night after night; though he has no words of his own he can use them to speak for him; because he has copied them over and over again their syntax and sound have cut themselves into the whorls and curlicues of his brain like so many dotted paths along a secret map, so that the smallest difference could stand out like a beacon on a windswept night, guiding the lost ship home.

Reduced to nothing, Zhuli becomes a part of Sparrow:

… it was as if Zhuli, in some invisible way, had reattached herself to Sparrow's life, to his consciousness and his being.

To his consciousness: that is not nothing at all.

What was a zero anyway?

In jianpu notation, zero indicated a caesura, a pause or rest of indeterminate length. Did time that went uncounted, unrecorded, stuck qualify as time? If zero was both everything and nothing, did an empty life have exactly the same weight as a full life?

So much unrecorded: the hours that intervene between farewell and meeting, the days that pass without comment. Months later, years, or a decade — one day I will come back and read these records, and in my surprise at recovering a former self, I may not notice that they are hopelessly incomplete. What did I do in-between each note? What was I thinking, what feelings came, knocked, and perhaps left without waiting to see if the door would open? Not every sentiment is loud enough for the waking mind to hear; their presence is but a rumour.

Note to self: here's a bookmark to remind you – you were stupid, you were dull, you did not manage to set anything down at all.

For every word written down, perhaps a hundred more, all lost now, and will be lost: why? I thought them waking up at night; I felt them crossing the road; I was with people; I was trying not to think at all. It would have been inconvenient, impolite, or unwise, to write. Or the thoughts came like a hive of bees, too maddening to remember though their echo can be felt. Was every thought important? I'm not sure, that's the problem. But they are gone, of that I'm sure, every one of them. So many zeros. Of this, too, I am certain: At end of life when I try to recall what I have thought, it will appear as if I had formed so many whole and complete opinions. Like bricks, like columns. Even this entry, this very note, seems to have a shape it does not deserve. Perhaps, if I am wise, when I read this journal again, what I will see is the silence squatting toadlike, imperious, what I will read are the blanks that huddle deep and massive as mountains, entirely white and wholly resistant.

They rushed into the Square like water pouring into a single container. “Ten thousand years, ten thousand years!” they shouted under the gaze of those imaginary animals.

Love, that simple little thing, needs to be quiet; shouted and declared, it loses the intimacy that honest and real things possess. It matters little whether a person or a country is the object. It is a personal thing too, destined to be guarded jealously like a secret; when shared among thousands, it begins to take on the shape of mania, delusion, hyperbole. There are some things that should never be put into words, much less song.

Did shoving their way into Tiananmen turn them into real revolutionaries with true love for the chairman? There is a reason why the love in this book — be it love for books, music or between people — why love in these pages blooms in little rooms, small and spare, some buried, others guarded, all hard to find. A square is a container the way verse or performance are containers; water remains water no matter whether the goblet or chalice is dross or gold. Setting sentiments to meter doesn't make them fine. Away from the grandstand and the waving flags, safe from the dances and performances, one begins to restore some of that affection and belief, some of that faith the songs trumpet.

She did not want to hear a violin and so the record she put on was Bach.

I am listening to Glenn Gould's 1955 recording of the Goldberg Variations, probably the same one referred in the text, as I re-read this scene; there are 30 variations to get through, but the first aria is what I focus on, what I try to understand. Not having learnt music, I feel incredibly stupid as I attempt this task; it is as if I were a child playing at surgery with a plastic knife. I play the first aria again and again, I look for something, anything to unlock its mystery, and for some reason I resort to images: first it's rain, each note a drop striking the street or roof; and then I happen upon the impression of someone dancing across a dark stage, each note a step. This helps; this is something I can cope with. In the first five seconds she is tentative, but still in control: first that one quiet yet decisive step, followed by another, and then a sudden tripping forwards, totalling at most three or four steps, before the resumption of control and grace, so that the earlier faltering appears to be mere coquetry, promising and then withholding passion. In the next five seconds the tempo picks up and then pauses, resumes and stops, as if multiple ripples were being beat out by bursts of rain on the even face of a dark pool. And this goes on, there is caprice here, order yet surprise, as what the ear is taught to expect descends into a muffled pause or rise, sometimes close to panic, but never quite losing composure. But through it all, there is a perceptible rise in volume: something is gathering force, gaining momentum.

Why not a violin but Bach? Because she is not interested in listening to herself; she wishes to remember Sparrow. For we know that Bach's genius is what Sparrow strives for, and Bach's music is at once what he fears and loves, because the Variations is that towering achievement which inspires him and worries him, it represents what he wants to create but fears he will never attain. She had told herself "Sparrow will understand"; in the end, the reader does not know whether Sparrow notices that record left on the gramophone, whether he understands.

Time extended inside Bach, there were repetitions and canons, there were circles and spirals, there were many voices and honest humility as if he knew that reincarnation and loss were inseparable.

Time is compressed, hurried, measured out in spoons, and stretched and quartered in the Variations. The first two variations practically hurtle forward with careless haste, like chariots or horses; the thirteenth appears completely dainty and gracious, ladylike, and consequently somewhat unmemorable. The fourth reminds one of a general marching without looking back to check if his troops are following behind. The 25th may be the slowest of all: it is elegiac and nostalgic, it is practically sadness itself; if music is to convey silence, this is how it's to be done, by the introduction of pauses long enough to threaten the integrity of a piece — the question it poses seems to be: how long can a pause be before a piece of music gets broken into two? And so I see and feel what I previously only understood: yes, the Variations contains an interpretation of the story itself; yes, there is hurry and urgency, there is work and industry, and there will be pomposity and vanity, and of course loneliness, loss, dreams deferred. And in each and all of these the same theme is at work, or being reworked; life itself, like an aria, finds itself re-formed or subject to reformation, progress or reversal, but its original shape and rhythm, sometimes sure but often faltering, in the main beautiful and rare, remains.

He remembered now how the tears on his cousin’s face had still been wet.

How long did it take for tears to dry? How close had he come to arriving in time? 

I search the book for a moment when he could have arrived in time, not to save her, but to recognize what she saw in him and felt for his mind, his music, to actually hear what she has to say, and I find this:

"My poor father. What will he feel when he comes home and sees what has happened to us all?"

He didn't answer and Zhuli reached her hand to him, to the notebook. 

She had reached out to him: the notebook was both device and veil, enabling the gesture and ensuring its invisibility. Instead of taking this hand, he proffers the box containing the other notebooks. She asks:

"Next time, we'll meet in another place, won't we, Sparrow?"

He says yes, and proceeds to read aloud a chapter to her as if reading from the Book of Records was the same as shutting and bolting the outside door. There is tenderness there, a moment shared, safety and some happiness, but nothing more, at least nothing that strikes me as a kind of arrival in time, a definite moment of rescue, salvation; at the end of this reading, she takes the notebook from his hand — there is a passing to and fro between them of a book where their destinies cross for a moment, only a moment, before striking out at opposite angles, farther and farther away.

Was it possible to walk away, to abandon him and at the same time, to protect him?

When she had turned the record over and both sides had finished playing, she took the rope from her coat pocket, removed her shoes, climbed up onto Sparrow’s desk, careful not to disrupt his papers.

One can assume that, overcome with every emotion when he first saw her body, Sparrow could not have noticed that she had exercised such care; we can imagine these same papers knocked asunder, thrown down and perhaps trampled on by the same man she has loved so quietly and delicately, so distantly and considerately, yes we can taste the bitter irony if we allow ourselves to imagine a scene that has been omitted from the story.

This detail bites: it seems to say everything she has not said to him, that he will never know and never notice; no, not even if he tries, because it has not entered his field of vision. This thought that perhaps never even made itself heard in her mind, that she should leave these papers untouched, are as real and secret as the questions she wished to ask but never did, that she will carry with her into the deepest night, away forever from his ears, ears that hear music from within and without but not her music, the real notes of her thoughts.

She wanted to tell Sparrow, “No matter what happens, you must finish your symphony. Please don’t let it disappear.”

Did it matter more to love or to have been loved? If anyone answered her question, she didn’t catch the words. 

And so, even as one pair reunites, another pair is separated: barely a paragraph elapses between the moment we see Swirl and Wen the Dreamer ride away on a single horse and the time we discover Sparrow and Zhuli taken away, one after the other. And though they eventually return to the same house again, it is Zhuli who brings herself out of her life with Sparrow and Kai, out of life altogether. Two journeys then: the long trek of Wen the Dreamer as he chases down copies of copies to find Swirl, a homeward path; and the shorter but altogether more final trip that Zhuli makes back to the Conservatory, also a homeward path, because it has always appeared more like her space.

Homeward, because at the end she makes one last mental journey back to her first secret space, a dark place hidden within the earth, womblike:

She thought of the hidden library. She opened the lid and looked inside, she saw the ancient instrument on which she had first learned to listen.

Perhaps, all she ever wanted, which was simply to play pure music, was already there: alone in the dark with an instrument she did not understand, she was at home with what she wanted. Do we spend a lifetime searching, and failing to find, what we already had before but lost and cannot find again?

Lamplight flickered behind the curtain

Lamplight flickered behind the curtain

He stood outside with his suitcase for a long time, afraid to let her see him

afraid to imagine the cessation of his loneliness, afraid of the future and also the past

Is it an accident that Wen the Dreamer hovers before the home of Swirl like the speaker of the poem underlined by the narrator's father? No, surely not: this was meant to be.

Wen the Dreamer


One day, the Master dreamt he had become a butterfly; on waking, he found that he was still himself, unchanged, so that he no longer knew whether he was a butterfly who had turned into the Master, or the Master who had turned into a butterfly.

Stare long enough at a mirror, and you begin to doubt whether you are the image or the self; study long enough into a book, quote from it and copy it often enough, and you begin to wonder whose thoughts move within this mind, whose words are speaking.

… the Book of Records was set in a future that hadn’t yet arrived.

"I have this idea that … maybe, a long time ago, the Book of Records was set in a future that hadn't yet arrived. That's why it seems so familiar to us now. The future is arriving. We've come all this way to meet it."

"Or maybe," he said, "it's we who keep returning to the same moment."

"Next time, we'll meet in another place, won't we, Sparrow?"

"Yes, Zhuli."

Time in this book is circular: the offspring of one set of characters wander, at first apparently further and further away from the route the previous generation took, only to return to the same point, tracing multitudinous paths that depict a shape already described in the name of one character – Swirl, or 漩涡.

In such a world, a book of records is at once chronicle and prophesy, history and omen; worse, a record (传) is both recount and narrative, it can be both fiction and fact. And so the story of Da-Wei and May Fourth wandering in separate worlds, deserts and cities, continues to haunt the lives of the living, containing within it seeds that flower into separation and revolution. Names, roles, places can change, because they are shown to be but details, mere details; but the pattern, the swirl, remains. There is rumination at work here on what can only be described as the human condition, or our shared destiny: always a coming together, always close but not quite within touching distance, a perpetual war that turns us against each other, a false revolution or attempt to break from the past that is always catching up with us and holding us thrall. An all-too-human vanity, the belief that we can break away from history, is the main player here.

A swirl, in essence, is both order and disorder: there is movement, a dizzying pirouette away from the centre; yet there is stasis also, a dark and stable centre of gravity to which all movement is destined to return to. The ancients among the Chinese teach us that dualism of this kind is merely a symptom of human thought, and not reality; if there is no order without disorder, no black without white, no reality without fantasy, no coming together without going away — what are we left with but relationships and patterns, what are we left with but words, symbol and music?

But all Sparrow wanted was time to sit in his room and write, he wanted to set down this music that came, unstoppable, unending, from his thoughts.

Could that be heaven for me too? A chair and a small table at a cafe by an ancient river, a book open, luminous in the fading light of evening — I remember writing about this wish earlier. To read, to balance the book against what could be seen in the world, and set thought to paper: there is safety in that, a kind of peace.

But my mind abhors quietude; I don't want this to be true, but I have discovered it to be the case. Left to itself, my mind begins to waste and fester; alive to others, it seeks out space to analyze, understand and devise. No, no music comes to me alone.

Do you know the classic song, “The Faraway Place”, well, you must, of course.







I thought I knew this song (of course, I must) but it turns out only the first verse, and its humble melody, have been echoing in my mind all this time, taking the place of the entire song, which has a whole place and world to offer, and the writer's gentle devotion. In the end, that is what memory does: giving us the illusion of understanding when all we had was a single peephole to spy upon an undiscovered country.

I had no explanation, except perhaps that I fell asleep as one person and woke as another.

Reading these lines, I want the bus I'm on to go forever, so that I can continue reading this thick book with plots that spin on without end, one copying another but never really fully imitating each other; I want freedom from debate, from the need to explain, the need to be in person; I'm staring at what I've wrought with clumsy words and feeble hands, the things I've dropped and broken while trying very hard to cherish them, and I'm dumbfounded — and if this is how things turn out, if it's true that you never can win, then let me escape into the good desert of books, stories, copies of copies of copies, characters that blend into one another, losing all identity.

So there were worlds buried inside other worlds but first you had to find the opening and the entryway.

So the girl who finds the hidden handle of a secret cellar, and tunes day by day her grandfather's guqin, has this buried world stolen from her, only to find another invisible door in the shape of a sonata.

Still, there is only room for one in this spare space, a place where we pluck at the strings of our instrument, always already old and needing to be coaxed back to life.

I am a rationalist and a scientific man. I believe the rules of life become more intricate, there are unseen wires from each to each that we cannot see, not yet.

We are here to learn and not to forget, here to question and not to answer.

Even as I struggle ceaselessly for answers, I feel that this is right. Remembrance is enough, even if we cannot help but look for meaning. And there is meaning there too: not the meaning one finds in words, neither explanation nor exegesis (we have had enough of those!), but the recollection of people and what they did, the places we first saw them in, how they came and went.

“Then what are you, my friend?” “Just a copy of a copy. A migrating soul.”

This is how the other book ends:

My writing is almost done: Vaublin shall live! If you call this life. He too was no more than a copy, of his own self. As I am, of mine.

No: no riddance.

So I left one book bearing the thought, not of art imitating life or vice versa, but of art imitating itself — auto-mimesis, two mirrors reflecting each other, sign without referrent, echoes without end; and I find myself here, back again at this idea, its double, its echo, in what I had thought was almost altogether a different kind of text.

All it takes, then, is two texts to create a labyrinth, false turns and mirrored passageways, the eerie sense of having been here before and not having taken half a step forward.

No more than a copy: in the first book then, the mouth of the maze, a copy is a forgery, a fake. There is horror there at what might be an empty core at the centre of all this noise and eloquence. A kind of giving up, a surrender. One recalls Munch’s screaming man, alone on a pier facing a sea that has melded with the sky, and the opening line from Borges: “Mirrors and copulation are abhominable, since they both multiply the numbers of men”.

Yet here, in this second book, there is no pretension: a copy is not so much a fake as it is hope of continuity; it is serious, real effort, it is service and pursuit. Copying allows the story to be told, and there is no pretence either, only necessity and endeavour. Every word copied is a step in the direction of the beloved, away from the false world of the book into the real, the place where she lives.

Why should two books, both equally obsessed with obsession, be caught up in a dialogue about mimicry and disappearance? Perhaps it is a sign of man’s fear, always there at the core of his being, that at the heart of it all is a search for something outside himself, that he alone is not enough for himself. And that the pursuit is for shadows only, that our ear both sensual and sensitive seeks out only the music that stirs us but cannot last.



And from this height, a place best described as 苦乐, a state containing both joy and sorrow, the music began to tumble down

Let us try our hand at translation then, that futile game: is this joy embittered, a happiness spoiled, or is it a commingled and confused mess, equal parts bliss and despair?

Try a third option, a synthesis: a joy born from unhappiness, from dwelling on loss, a kind of melancholy dreaming.

The mind recalls Hardy's verses:

Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me,
Saying that now you are not as you were
When you had changed from the one who was all to me,
But as at first, when our day was fair.

Can it be you that I hear? Let me view you, then,
Standing as when I drew near to the town
Where you would wait for me: yes, as I knew you then,
Even to the original air-blue gown!

Or is it only the breeze, in its listlessness
Travelling across the wet mead to me here,
You being ever dissolved to wan wistlessness,
Heard no more again far or near?

Thus I; faltering forward,
Leaves around me falling,
Wind oozing thin through the thorn from norward,
And the woman calling.

he seemed a young man, younger than they, as if his eye would never grow old and it carried him along, subtly renewed.

Can loss be that one thing safe from corrosion, the inevitable wasting away that all other things present to us are subjected to? The loss of one eye has given this man a multitude of stories: its disappearance, its creation and creator, gratitude and shame, its theft and return.

What we lose, or cannot hold onto, has floated into myth and narrative; what we have will slowly turn to dust. Living forever in the palace of memory, the impossible and foregone stay apart and a part of us through all the days, even as we enter evening, twilight, dusk.

She blinked away sudden tears

Zhuli asks, "You'd like me to go with you and Jiang Kai, wouldn't you?" And stares at Sparrow with searching eyes. Instead, he reminds her to focus on her future, to aim to go overseas. That is when the sudden tears come.

Caught up with our journeys, our packing and planning, we often do not know what others are saying, and know less about what we say to them.

Kai, she thought, you are as lost as I am.

You have no idea where this beauty comes from and you know better than to think that such clarity could come from your own heart. Maybe, like Sparrow, Kai was terrified that one day the sound would shut off, his mind would go mute, and all the notes would disappear.

Yes, perhaps one day the sound will shut off, and I will not hear the music anymore; perhaps it will happen in a bookstore, or the library; perhaps it will happen when a well-meaning friend accosts me in the street, and shares with me a cherished verse, asks me for an opinion. I will hear or read the words, and nothing will come: no note of recognition, no quiet call to interpretation, no sudden connection. Will I then remember what is said here: that beauty comes, not from our own heart, but from another? And will I remember to come back to the things I have stored and hoarded, the fleeting records and fragments, like the bread crumbs strewn by Hansel to find a way home? Will I remember to come back here?

… he crowded the open spaces of the novel with landscapes and wishes of his own so that he, too, could become an inseparable part of this new world

Yes, that rings true: a book is an infinite country with terrain to be marked out. Readers venture out onto its craggy or verdant face, like prospectors or pioneers: this one marks out a plot here, that one builds fences around a square space there. Some begin to dig, others start to build. Each one makes of this space what he or she will: there are no laws here teaching you what to do.

This land is broad: so large the residents may never see one another. This vastness of possible meanings means that they often encounter the pioneer's greatest fear: loneliness, the despairing thought that perhaps you may never share this view with another. Yet sometimes it happens that the paths of readers may meet; a chance word, a happy accident — somehow beyond the horizon you spy another visitor to this quiet land, and you hope.

To comfort himself, Da-Wei imagined listeners he couldn’t see and never heard from, he made up letters and, day by day, embroidered their lives

I imagine you: You are on a train headed somewhere to meet some people, you have your bag with you full of your life: cards, a book you perhaps can't finish, purse or wallet, maybe a diary with things to do, calendars and lists, tickets to the theatre. Things to do, a life to live, a whole future like clay in your hands! Accidents, surprises, stray encounters: some trivial, like how you got here. Maybe you never intended to read this; yes, you were looking for Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien, and somehow landed your finger on the wrong link; or you're one of the people who come here now and then.

Your eyes dart and scurry, I imagine the words I am typing reflected in the pupils of your eyes; perhaps you frown, or smile, finding something silly or comical; or you pause for a while and consider, maybe deliberate. Light from the windows casts your shadow on the floor. Outside, a world is humming by.

Perhaps what you read mingles with the thread of a thought you had just now. A ripple spreads in the quiet pool. No one can see this; surrounded by fellow commuters, your mind is a box without a lid, a shell folded into itself — I am thinking of a cave without a mouth, laden with gold by bandits who have forgotten the magic words.

When he finished copying, did he go back to being himself or were the very structures of his thoughts, their hue and rhythm, subtly changed?

No, you don't become what you copy, because what you see on the page is yourself.

Or another self, that other one lurking in the wings, rarely given the spotlight or the stage. Copying gives him words: his speech is all borrowed line and verse.

And so he and I, the speaking one and the deaf-mute, converse by candlelight, the light shed quietly by words from an author neither of us will ever meet.

Swirl had heard of such a thing happening

… a bag of mail lost in northwest China in the fourth century, preserved by the desert air. Thirteen hundred years laterm an Hungarian explorer discovered them in a collapsed watchtower. But such things were as good as fairy tales. She chided herself for her delusions. 

Ridiculous: a woman receives, as regular as clockwork, books copied by an anonymous hand, delivered night after night to her doorstep — and chides herself for believing in fairy tales. Perhaps when fairy tales happen to us, it is against the rules to realize that we have stepped into one.



On its surface

… the story was a simple epic chronicling the fall of empire, but the people trapped inside the book reminded her of people she tried not to remember

Perhaps the only way to read a book is to people it with the faces we know, hate and love; there is always that curious sensation of recognition when a book seizes us, a feeling probably not unlike the child’s happy feeling of finding that the block in his hand fits perfectly the shape of a slot. Yes, that feeling is a childlike pleasure.

But what is that feeling when we recognize our own face on a character? Fresh hope, perhaps, false but fresh: we place these masks, our faces and others’, neatly on the phantoms that walk these pages, we watch — sometimes in delight, often with something approaching dismay — them repeat our follies and hope that they will somehow escape unscathed. No, there is no true pleasure in such escapism: what in fact happens is that we hope for as exact a facsimile as possible. If they escape the labyrinth, then it is a fairytale and ironically we are not charmed at all; if they wander into the jaws of the minotaur that haunts our dreams, if they lose the thread and falter, fail — then everything rings true, everything rings true.

the words are not mine

When I realized what had happened, that the book ended, literally, in mid-sentence, I tried to write my own chapters. I tried to finish the story but I …

So he was copying chapters from a book that was never finished, and she was reading them by the light of candles she could not afford to waste. So much of what is beautiful is brief and incomplete, so much of what we love is what we cannot spare.

This is Chapter 17. It’s useless to start halfway, especially if this is the only chapter you have.

It strikes me that the chapter you find yourself in is the only chapter you have. Every encounter with a new friend is a chapter in the middle of their book, and you start halfway, you have to start reading this story from the moment you opened it, with hardly any knowledge of the chapters that have come before. And you can’t flip back there either; you have to trust the chapter you have, and hope that the pages afterward allow you to guess, to re-create the stories you’ve missed. 

The things we never say aloud and so they end up here, in diaries and notebooks, in private places. By the time we discover them, it’s too late. 

Ai-Ming was holding a notebook tightly. I recognised it at once: it was tall but thin, the shape of a miniature door, with a loose binding of cotton thread. The Book of Records.

A door again, then; like the door in 阒,a point of entry for silence, or silent things, the words we cannot say, the thoughts we need to silence. 




Watch little by little the night turn around.

Echoes in the house; want to go up, dare not.

A glow behind the screen; wish to go through, cannot.

It would hurt too much, to see the swallow on her hairpin.

Truly shame me, to see the Phoenix in her mirror.

To Hengtang I return at dawn

Fading like light on a jewelled saddle.

We learn that these verses were underlined. The marks left behind by a reader are a reminder of their thoughts, their feelings; we read into these marks a lingering over words; we can feel the weight of that mind over these words like the imprint of handwriting we leave on paper even after the page we wrote the actual words on have been removed. Holding a book full of these signs and traces is to read a secret history, to note the contours of a mind. 

In a single year, my father left us twice.

I have started on the other book: Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeleine Thein. The title declares a gap: at the centre of this story is an absolute absence that perhaps will be denied again and again.

His eyes, dark brown, are guarded and unsure; he is only 39.

So, is this chance again? To recognize at once in the same character my age and my own father's absence?

The eyelids, lips and nostrils are tinged with pink and appear to be inflamed; has he been weeping? Yet the corners of his fleshy mouth are dimpled in a sort of smile, distant, pained perhaps, without warmth.

Why should interest fall on that fleshy mouth? Perhaps because beyond the precarious contrast of emotions this figure apparently displays, fleshiness or something bodily, real and mortal, pervades both. This fleshy mask performs or suffers the emotions but cannot escape itself.

So he smiles mirthlessly despite suffering: that is certainly not news. No, we need no reminder of that. But in reading this description of the painting one must enter a false gallery where we stand before it as we might do before a mirror. Not a real mirror, but a painted one, with daubs and inks supplied by an artist we cannot trust. Art pretends to hold a mirror up to nature, it is Art's pretension to do so, to accost with moral and dumbshow as if we were all Claudius.

Back then to the question: why am I drawn to those words? Fleshy mouth — there is the suggestion of sensuality, or animal appetite. This man's suffering has not wasted him; he is not thinned out: there is the suggestion of corpulence, or passion. The mouth eats; it suckles, and sips; it talks, philosophizes, turns air into circumlocution and myth, but through it come and go all the juices of our selves.

If he hasn't let go, if he still battens upon the senses, he deserves to suffer. In saying so, I feel like I am getting somewhere.

Who has dressed him up in this clown’s attire?

For he has the look of having been bundled into his costume and thrust unceremoniously out of the wings to stand up here all alone, dumbfounded, mortified, afraid to move lest an unseen audience break into a storm of laughter; yet although for now he is lost for words, we have the feeling that at any moment he may burst out and talk and talk, unstoppably.

In the end there is only one stage, that inward theatre where one is audience, actor and play. We conjure, with the faces and hands of those around us, our parents, our foes, our friends, the people we suspect exist but have never met, we conjure out of their parts a spectral audience with which we fill the seats of an endless amphitheater, come to hear our soliloquy. It's easy to find such performances tedious when you've seen the same act before.

He seems trapped, held fast by invisible constraints. He might be in the stocks, or worse.

These lines serve a purpose beyond the purely artistic or symbolic: I have gone back to the first part of this passage and ascertained that this figure truly is standing as one would if locked into stocks; previously I had imagined him with arms hanging loosely by his sides, but no, the text says forward indeed.

Locked into a pose then, or posture. Not simply punished or prevented, or held back, or having penance extracted, but moulded and formed. Depending on our prejudices or experiences, the invisibility of these restraints could be variously seen as social, psychological or emotional. Or spiritual, if one so wishes.

Perhaps the nature of the restraint matters less than the fact that they exist, and cannot be seen. For visible things can be broken; we can be released from things with locks because someone holds their key.

He is isolated from the rest of the figures ranged behind him, suspended between their worlds and ours, a man alone.

Sure here this figure represents the narrator, isolated in two senses: he cannot properly enjoy the company of those who have come into his life, even the one he wishes to possess; at the same time, his role as the storyteller pushes him forward towards us, his readers, separating him, requiring from us a different way to read. Simultaneously narrator and character, he is neither to be trusted nor ignored, for the telling of the tale is the story itself.

But this is a mirror the text has made, and we remember that it is also always perhaps an accusation of some sort. We ask: in what way are we like this suspended man, how are we both part of and isolated from those around us? And are we alone?

Simple questions that we have answers for, that we live with.

Invitation to the Voyage, again

So much lies undiscovered yet ready for discovery, so much lies waiting for just the right key to open: there on my shelf was Baudelaire’s collection of prose-poems, which I have dipped in and sampled from time to time (it strikes me that while I do not drink, my relationship with books borders on gentle alcoholism), but I had never set eyes on this particular poem until its sister, an actual poem also written by Baudelaire, was alluded to in this book I’ve devoted this journal to.

So here it is: I am reproducing that prose-poem here so that I may return to it one day. I will allow myself to make one comment: while it may not hold individual lines that strike the reader with special power, the impression on the whole is voluptuous, maniacal and opulent. Surely, Baudelaire would have enjoyed Sade’s company!

Invitation to the Voyage

It is a superb land, a country of Cockaigne, as they say, that I dream of visiting with an old friend. A strange land, drowned in our northern fogs, that one might call the East of the West, the China of Europe; a land patiently and luxuriously decorated with the wise, delicate vegetations of a warm and capricious phantasy.

A true land of Cockaigne, where all is beautiful, rich, tranquil, and honest; where luxury is pleased to mirror itself in order; where life is opulent, and sweet to breathe; from whence disorder, turbulence, and the unforeseen are excluded; where happiness is married to silence; where even the food is poetic, rich and exciting at the same time; where all things, my beloved, are like you.

Do you know that feverish malady that seizes hold of us in our cold miseries; that nostalgia of a land unknown; that anguish of curiosity? It is a land which resembles you, where all is beautiful, rich, tranquil and honest, where phantasy has built and decorated an occidental China, where life is sweet to breathe, and happiness married to silence. It is there that one would live; there that one would die.

Yes, it is there that one must go to breathe, to dream, and to lengthen one’s hours by an infinity of sensations. A musician has written the “Invitation to the Waltz”; where is he who will write the “Invitation to the Voyage,” that one may offer it to his beloved, to the sister of his election?

Yes, it is in this atmosphere that it would be good to live,—yonder, where slower hours contain more thoughts, where the clocks strike the hours of happiness with a more profound and significant solemnity.

Upon the shining panels, or upon skins gilded with a sombre opulence, beatified paintings have a discreet life, as calm and profound as the souls of the artists who created them.

The setting suns that colour the rooms and salons with so rich a light, shine through veils of rich tapestry, or through high leaden-worked windows of many compartments. The furniture is massive, curious, and bizarre, armed with locks and secrets, like profound and refined souls. The mirrors, the metals, the ail ver work and the china, play a mute and mysterious symphony for the eyes; and from all things, from the corners, from the chinks in the drawers, from the folds of drapery, a singular perfume escapes, a Sumatran revenez-y, which is like the soul of the apartment.

A true country of Cockaigne, I have said; where all is rich, correct and shining, like a beautiful conscience, or a splendid set of silver, or a medley of jewels. The treasures of the world flow there, as in the house of a laborious man who has well merited the entire world. A singular land, as superior to others as Art is superior to Nature; where Nature is made over again by dream; where she is corrected, embellished, refashioned.

Let them seek and seek again, let them extend the limits of their happiness for ever, these alchemists who work with flowers! Let them offer a prize of sixty or a hundred thousand florins to whosoever can solve their ambitious problems! As for me, I have found my black tulip and my blue dahlia!

Incomparable flower, tulip found at last, symboli-cal dahlia, it is there, is it not, in this so calm and dreamy land that you live and blossom? Will you not there be framed in your proper analogy, and will you not be mirrored, to speak like the mystics, in your own correspondence?

Dreams!—always dreams! and the more ambitious and delicate the soul, the farther from possibility is the dream. Every man carries within him his dose of natural opium, incessantly secreted and renewed, and, from birth to death, how many hours can we count that have been filled with positive joy, with successful and decided action? Shall we ever live in and become a part of the picture my spirit has painted, the picture that resembles you?

These treasures, furnishings, luxury, order, perfumes and miraculous flowers, are you. You again are the great rivers and calm canals. The enormous ships drifting beneath their loads of riches, and musical with the sailors’ monotonous song, are my thoughts that sleep and stir upon your breast. You take them gently to the sea that is Infinity, reflecting the profundities of the sky in the limpid waters of your lovely soul;—and when, outworn by the surge and gorged with the products of the Orient, the ships come back to the ports of home, they are still my thoughts, grown rich, that have returned to you from Infinity.

He stands before us like our own reflection distorted in a mirror, known yet strange. What is he doing here, on this raised ground, in this gilded, inexplicable light?

I am back here again, ready to read these lines with proper detachment; you can sometimes love something too much to slow yourself down and do it justice, and this was what I felt when first I began to read this chapter: the words, I felt, could carry me along for the ride if I let them, and I let them. So many layers, so much possibility — yes, I had made the right decision. But always I knew that I would have to come back to them again, to place each line carefully against the light almost, and give them proper attention.

So, back to this figure, this comic and sad figure (slow down, I am getting ahead of myself): he is us, of course, but the writer wishes to introduce immediately a doubling of language — we are accosted immediately without a frame, or to be more precise, the frame of the painting. Yes, we are not introduced to this description as the description of a painting at all: what does this “stands” mean? Is it metaphorical, or real? We have to decide for ourselves. We turn back, regard the text as history, look for clues: all this happens in an instant of course, and since there has been much ado about art and theatre, we decide the description must be that of an actor or of a painting (but at this point, we might not realize that it could be the painting of an actor, so sly is the writer!), and armed with this theory, this hunch, we proceed.

The words “reflection”, “distorted” and “mirror” evoke the mirrors found in amusement parks, tilted and curved at angles designed to throw back at their viewers an instant caricature that we laugh at and walk away from without nary a thought. And indeed, one can read, laugh and walk away from a book too, even if we know the book is mocking us. Such detachment is mercy: who could live long and prosper, if every book he read gave him reason for self-censure?

Known yet strange: this is how characters operate, of course — they take a part of us and swell it up, then wave it at us. If we hate that part, we might well sneer and scoff, and not recognize its source at all. Or we might ignore it altogether, read without noting, or note without retracing, and get along with life. But no, not this one: this one stands before us, he cannot be dismissed so easily; if we have been missing the point all through the text, here we have no choice but have our necks turned and eyes almost forcibly turned so that this figure cannot be avoided anymore. This is the chapter where sentences are delivered, terms explained.


Farewell, happy fields!

Farewell, happy fields

Where Joy forever dwells: hail horrors,

Hail infernal world, and thou profoundest hell

Receive thy new Possessor: One who brings

A mind not to be chang’d by Place or Time.

The mind is its own place, and in it self

Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.

– Milton, Paradise Lost

Of course, Felix doesn’t mean what he says at all: no matter how much they wished it to be, this island held no joy while they lived on it. These weren’t happy fields; Sophie says as much when she tells the Professor she is here to take pictures only of ruins. The great god Pan has died and there are no happy fields left. 

No joy to be had: is this why here, so near the end, Felix fires off allusion after allusion to spaces possessed of much terrible splendour, at once accursed and spectacular? First Frankenstein’s tundras and ice, then Baudelaire’s land of peace and comfort, friendly to human passions decried by human laws, and now this, Lucifer when he is expelled from heaven, beholding the cauldron that he is to inherit. Impossible places for the outcast and sinner, traitor and freak, spaces friendly to their particular vices.

Yet we all know such a space does not exist; there is no room for the forbidden, the disgraced. There is only darkness, or cells. Consider then the hope that Milton places in the mouth of his Lucifer: is the mind its own place after all, able to turn horror to pleasure and forgetfulness? 

Though the mind may not be its own place, it is certainly a maze where words run into each other by accident, and commingle heartily. One recalls the following thoughts from Baudelaire, and they are apt: 

At One O’Clock in the Morning

Finally alone! Now only the rattling of some lingering and exhausted carriages can still be heard. For a few hours, we will possess silence, if not rest. Finally! The tyranny of the human face has disappeared, and now only I myself will make me suffer.   

Lucifer and Baudelaire are in perfect agreement then. There is only one kingdom we each have the key to, and it is built with the black bricks of starless midnight, empty streets and silence. There, one can be alone with one’s own maladies, watch the whole company put on a febrile dumbshow and applaud the gaudy parade; if we cannot be at peace, we can at least suffer its absence honestly, with eyes shut and the same words and scenes replaying themselves over and over and over, until mind and midnight conjoin. 

Random thoughts 

If only one could treat people the way one treated books: read closely for nuance and meaning, remember passages marked because they seemed somehow important, return to words and phrases we think can unlock a message; study without judging, value without evaluating. Find pleasure simply in understanding. 
No; in fact, we demand much from a book: if the first paragraph doesn’t seize us, we return it to the shelf; we note elegance, celebrate audacity, ask for nothing but surprise after surprise.

Impossible too, because a book is always there, alive but inert, elusive but possessed.  

Thamous! Thamous! The great god Pan is dead!

Who is Pan? Half-goat, half-god, he was confusion itself, a symbol of what should not be (at birth, the sight of this freak frightened his own mother so greatly she fled her own child, itself an act of travesty); his music seeds delirium, breeds intoxication. He was simultaneously lust and fertility, unbridled desire seeking out without the possibility of satiety the embrace of nymph after nymph, yet also patron of shepherds, yes, those watchful, vigilant ones who care, guard and protect their flock.  Yet, containing the two extremes of man’s possibilities, he is also an enduring symbol of what in fact is Man’s existence: always oscillating between good and evil, able to move between the animal and divine in a deplorable, miraculous instant. Perhaps his music itself best symbolises the irony he represents: the pipes he plays can move one to fear or desire, both uncontrollable passions, yet what is music but a reminder of man’s gift for order and art?

 One reads in Plutarch of how Pan’s death was discovered: across the sea Thamous sailed, and from a distant shore a disembodied voice commands him to spread the news of Pan’s passing. Lamentation and moaning greet the sailor when he finally tells his tale. Yet there is no mention of how the goat-god died: his passing seems curiously abstract, nothing epic or grand, as one would expect of a god; it is as if he had already left the world a long while by the time Thamous hears of it. Yesterday’s news, nothing fresh. Perhaps therein lies a reminder of what we all experience at some point in our brief lives: like Thamous, we discover that something mysterious and only half-understood, but altogether important, has passed us by while we walked and worked and played like sleepwalkers not paying heed to the signs all around us. If Pan was music, desire, fear and irony, nature and disorder, then his passing meant that such things were closed forever to Thamous; never again would he or any man be able to see (because the presence of a god is a symbol that must represent our ability to sense what he represents) and be sure of the existence of these elemental things again. And this bundle of contradictions, both fear and love and horror, so real to us all — what would we do if we woke up one day and understood that they were all erased forever? 

In the story that Plutarch tells, Thamous was on his way to Italy when he heard tell of Pan’s death; this terrible event caused him little inconvenience, and unlike other sailors whose encounters with the mystical have caused them grief, heroic grief, Thamous enjoys no much glory; he sails, just as he had intended, to shore. The cries of shock and mourning he received must have been loud, but it seems Thamous the sailor remains Thamous forever. He is not touched by the divine, nor darkened by anything profane. Like Thamous, then, we will sail where we wish to sail, continue to go on although something is lost, something both dear and deranged, beautiful and fearsome, like a dream with dark edges that plays on our mind after we wake.   

Luxe, calme et volupte 

Invitation to the Voyage
My child, my sister,

Think of the rapture

Of living together there! 

Of loving at will, 

Of loving till death,

In the land that is like you! 

The misty sunlight 

Of those cloudy skies

Has for my spirit the charms, 

So mysterious, 

Of your treacherous eyes,

Shining brightly through their tears.

There all is order and beauty,

Luxury, peace, and pleasure.

Gleaming furniture,

Polished by the years,

Will ornament our bedroom;

The rarest flowers

Mingling their fragrance

With the faint scent of amber,

The ornate ceilings,

The limpid mirrors,

The oriental splendor,

All would whisper there

Secretly to the soul

In its soft, native language.

There all is order and beauty,

Luxury, peace, and pleasure.

See on the canals 

Those vessels sleeping.

Their mood is adventurous;

It’s to satisfy

Your slightest desire

That they come from the ends of the earth.

— The setting suns

Adorn the fields,

The canals, the whole city,

With hyacinth and gold;

The world falls asleep

In a warm glow of light.

There all is order and beauty,

Luxury, peace, and pleasure.

— William Aggeler, The Flowers of Evil (Fresno, CA: Academy Library Guild, 1954)

I was frightened of myself.

I wanted now to take this girl in my arms, to lift her up and hold her hotly to my heart, to feel the frail bones of her ankles and her wrists, to cup the delicate egg of her skull in my palm, to smell her blood and taste the silvery ichor of her sweat. How brittle she seemed, how easily breakable.

A Sadean logic presides over their affairs, like an unmistakable melody half-heard as one strolls through a gallery: it is Justine all over again, the girl who goes from house to house, or is bundled from one to another, in a futile search for succor. Justine or Flora, here she inspires the desire to dominate (recall Felix and his invitation) and destroy; both, of course, are men who appear to own the house she has come to seek shelter in — Felix assumes the post of host the moment he arrives, and when Flora asks the narrator whether he has lived there long, it is a question that simultaneously shows her belief in his having a share in this magic space and also inflames his desire, perhaps because he realizes now he seems to have her in his power. And she confesses that she wishes to stay because she hates her life in the real world of work (the hotel that abuses her) and life (her parents who also subject her to torture).

What of Licht then, the owner turned general serf, disenfranchised Licht, the Licht who loses his house by turns to the professor, to Felix, even to the narrator? Licht with the flowers he didn’t dare to give, the questions he didn’t ask; Licht who transfers his desire for the girl in his house for a convenient moment, when he espies another woman revealing herself? 

Pierrot to Felix’s Harlequin and Flora’s Columbina, Licht is desire turned inwards, made into self-dissolution; his is the desire that dis-appropriates, he lingers and oscillates where the others deviate. 

On this island then, desire is possession, and power; it victimizes and unmoors. One looks fit saviors only to find captors; one looks to save, only to find oneself entrapped. Its sole antidote seems to be that soul-engrossing, liberating will to see we glimpse in snatches, scattered like motes almost too small to  see across the bitter light of these characters’ little world. Pause for a while that stream of thoughts babbling in your head, listen and see the other for who she is: yes, that way lies clarity and hope. Whether one should seek out order or distress seems a subject of personal preference.

What seems an end is not an end at all.

They have their party favors and now they are going home, after the long day’s doings, Sophie to her developments, Croke to die, the children to grow up and become other people. This is what happens. What seems an end is not an end at all.

I think of you, reader, the one I’ll never meet: where you came from and where you’ll go, whether you’ll remember these words and what you think, none of these will ever be known to me. Somehow that doesn’t seem fair.

And what if we do meet and exchange a word or two? What if we were marooned on an island, found a strange house with strange inhabitants, and passed a moment or two together, be they mundane or tempestuous? The ship will be fixed, the weather clear; the Sergeant will come snooping and we would have to leave, leave to become other people. It is not only children who have to grow up.

We meet so we can say goodbye, or we don’t meet at all. Or we outstay our welcome. The world likes to give options none of us want. 

What happens does not matter; the moment is all.

I look up from this yellow page, and as the mind lingers upon their lines, I am suddenly seized by this: how beautiful would it be if I had spent an entire day in its company, from morning when the light was blue till evening now in its auburn glow, how complete would be my pleasure if it was just this and me, alone at a small table surprised by the fading light of day? But no, I am not ungrateful for these sips and samples at the luminal gaps between home and office, little refuges I seem to have built for myself. A little poison to start the day before the sun is up, a little more just before it sets — this is really all I need or can manage. Books are a vice, like wine or gambling; they take you in and set you up, and when you’re in deep, you’re a lifer. 

a world where they may live, however briefly, however tenuously, in the failing evening of the self, solitary and at the same time together somehow here in this place, dying as they may be and yet fixed forever in a luminous, unending  instant.

If we feel a kind of love for these people, it is not because they were lovely; perhaps we feel a sense of loss, but there doesn’t seem to be anything we wanted to keep. These were not lords or princes, queens or angels; they were minor, somewhat distant, painted with hasty strokes just enough for us to know them from a certain angle. Is that all it takes to produce yearning — simply seeing them in a moment of fear and trembling, watching without a judging eye? 

Poor Licht.

He keeps himself busy; that is his aim, to keep busy, as if he fears dissolution, a general and immediate falling apart, should be stop even for a moment in his headlong stumble. He cleaves to the principle of the perfectibility of man, and gives himself over enthusiastically to self-improvement programmes. … He possesses books and manuals on all sorts of matters … all of them eagerly thumb-marked for the first few pages and in pristine condition thereafter. 

Always busy, always in motion, frantically treading the rungs of his cage-wheel.

He aims to get in shape, he says — but what shape, I wonder, is that? I suspect that, like me, he is convinced that large adjustments need to be made before he can consider himself to have reached the stage of being fully human. 

A self-improvement programme. Is that all it has amounted to, this life? As I write this, I actually feel a chuckle build at the pit of my gut, but it’s difficult to enjoy a good one when you find yourself the butt of a joke.

Is it a joke, I wonder? Is it a prank – portraying a character as something not fully-formed and something of a half-wit, and then revealing him to be the Everyman in this text, the reader’s best representative? It is as if one had spent the better half of an hour regarding with condescension the painted image of some poor clown or imp, only to be informed your portrait is ready for collection, thank you very much sir.

But wait, perhaps I am generalizing. Perhaps not every reader will recognize in this passage the mirror of his own foibles, but I have. (It suddenly strikes me that what we think we _recognize_ as a symbol for humanity is an accurate measure of how much we forgive in ourselves by token of the delusion that our fellow men all suffer from the same frailties and fetishes.) Do I not, too, have books on every matter — matters I feel sure are important enough and warrant further investigation, that I file into my shelves smugly like so many bricks in a wall? And this filing business isn’t confined to books; surely we each have our favourite thing to collect: Every book is a bit of hope, each achievement a badge of honour, every trip and journey a source of reassurance that yes, indeed, we are getting somewhere. 

I feel sure that somehow I am replicating in miniature the manic accumulation of knowledge that the whole fine pageant of our race — gurus, philosophers, prophets, poets (I’m imagining a carnival of them now, all wearing solemn masks as they file in for the ball) — has so religiously pursued since language began to be our emblem and hope. So much written! And so much pored over and subjected to elegant hermeneutics. Somewhere in all this is the story of man’s seduction by language itself, a headlong , merry descent into the idea that we can write ourselves into order, read into ourselves a destiny. 

Nor did it seem possible to speak simply.

I would open my mouth and a babble would come pouring out, a hopeless glossolalia. The most elementary bit of speech was a cacophony. To choose one word was to exclude countless others, they thronged out there in the darkness, heaving and humming. When I tried to mean one thing the buzz of a myriad other possible meanings mocked my efforts. Everything I said was out of context, necessarily, and every plunge I made into speech inevitably ended in a bellyflop. I wanted to be simple, candid, natural — yes, I wanted to be, yes, I shall risk it: I wanted to be honest — but all my striving provoked only general hoots of merriment and rich scorn.

To babble is to speak like a child, forming sounds without meaning; glossolalia is speaking in tongues, forming syllables the speaker himself doesn’t understand but knows for certain carries import, significance, maybe a meaning larger than what he presently understands. To know which one our words belong to, surely, is wisdom of a kind. 

Go further, think harder: yet to babble is not all bad, for a child’s formless sounds come from a place from which the adult mind is bereft, a source the fortunate glimpse only half-dreaming; once grown to a certain height, we hold back the utterances that have no definition, only private feeling, all subjectivity – the gurgle, the cry, and for some, laughter and moaning. 

Listen to yourself, read closely and attend to sign and nuance, fathom where this is all coming from; tell the difference between signal and  noise. Let nothing go unnoticed. 

Such beautiful statues 

he wrote in a letter to his mistress Sophie Volland, hidden in the remotest spots and distant from one another, that arrest me and with which I have long conversations ... I like to picture him, that cheerful philosophe, at St. Cloud or Marly or the great park at Sceaux, talking to the cherubs on a carved vase or lecturing a stone Pygmalion on the hegemony of the senses.

So we find ourselves imagining this man of letters and logic, discoursing upon the subject of statues in a dialogue with another desired object, a woman of flesh and blood. This letter is a conversation like the ones he imagines having with beautiful figures who don’t talk back. 

Strange devices, letters — magical in the way they give us the impression of being in the company of another without having to or being able to receive a response. In fact, they allow you to think in the presence of the other; for those who are all atremble before the ones they desire, letters are like closed confessionals — behind a screen we can say the things we cannot say when looking into the eyes of another. 

Back to the philosopher: here is the logical man describing his own madness. And to whom does he address such fantasies? A woman for whom he must cherish the same overwhelming and also utterly impossible desire. One imagines then, the philosopher’s blood running feverishly through his hand as he speaks to one who  embodies his mania about his madness for bodies who cannot speak back, the letter forming a kind of echo chamber or mirror house of the mind in love with things it cannot and should not have. 

He had no girl, he said.

He had made it all up, the hairdressing salon, the wedding plans, everything. There was no job, either, no iffy brother-in-law in the delivery business; he had been on the dole since he got out.

When dismantling his house of cards, Billy begins with the queen. For that is the fastest way to go about it: if the girl is a ghost, then every other story he has spun must surely be a vapor too.

Of course, all invention and storytelling should have, at its source, a girl you can believe in, who might believe in you. Call her any name you wish: Flora, Portia, Justine. Or be honest and simply call her the girl. Around her plans appear and futures materialize; the arrival of the femme fatale makes mystery possible, the disappearance of the princess makes rescue necessary. Because of her, there are places to go, empires to build. Perhaps she is more necessary to tall tale and fable than the hero himself.

A good time for a thought experiment. Consider the inverse, imagine a forking path: in this version, Billy confesses that there are no wedding plans, no job, no brother-in-law, everything is a sham, but maintains that the girl is real indeed, she is flesh and blood. Which is to say, they exist: Billy and this wonderful girl with the miraculous capacity for faith and belief, the hairdresser and the jailbird. Then the tragedy would be incomplete.

Why stop there? Better still: this belief in her heart – let us say that it is real and not merely something Billy imagines. Then there would be no tragedy for us to contemplate, no impression of a complete wasteland.



a humped little town clinging to a rocky foreland facing the Atlantic

I remember Brighton, quaint and hospitable Brighton, somehow gay and gaunt and windburnt all at the same time: all pebble beach and uncertain shingle, blasted by wind and harrying rain, grey little Brighton with its pleasure piers reaching out like a supplicant’s arms into the churning stomach of an angry sea.

So much is chance and impression: the Brighton the world knows seems, by all appearance, festal and fine. The one I saw was overcome by shower and swept by gale; I could not stroll along its shore without remarking how this bandstand here, that playground there had had all human mirth and merriment shaken loose by forces more elemental than our desire to forget. And everyday I saw, like a bookmark for a page with the most important passages in a book, the charred remains of West Pier staring back at me from its pointless vigil out at sea.

What a connoisseur of silences I have become over the years!

Silence is rare: everywhere you turn, there is some errant sound to seek refuge in, some rude assortment without design to find shelter in. A muffled din presides over the world like a quilt sewn together by mundanity itself, keeping the mind warm, complacent, able to work; a phalanx thrown together by a lost troop of men against a night full of enemies they have never met. 

For silence is truth itself: we might jabber on and invent stories to pass the time, or plug music like forgiving wine into us, but when silence sweeps the streets of memory, what remains is plain to see.  

Yet the silence of two is of a different type, more subtle in its designs upon our frailty. Not having much opportunity to study it (one imagines a scientist hanging over a live volcano, so rich and difficult is such silence!), I have little to remember that I might examine, like an old scholar who finds, despite his vain pretension to living in a vast library, that there remains in a familiar corner of this favourite space a special branch of study about which he has few texts. 

But I know that look of innocence the world puts on; I know it for what it is.

Everything was in its place, the roof beyond the hedge and the old man hobbling away and the back of Billy’s seal-dark head motionless in the car, as though nothing had happened, as though that fissure had not opened up in the deceptively smooth surface of things.

Take a moment to consider this proposition, this point of view. In fact, the world does change. Perhaps the change is imperceptible when viewed at the moment of the “fissure”; yet like the onset of an illness the moment of change is an invisible but real event that changes the very chemistry of things, and a fever is a flower whose seed is planted in the dead of night, without witnesses. (One thinks of satellites: they sweep the planet and survey everything like a god, but they lack the pitiless resolution of microscopes.)

A small change can lead to a grand one: that is what the study of chaos teaches us. It’s most famous myth is that of the butterfly’s wing, but I prefer its altogether more melancholy lesson: while we know that the smallest variation can bloom and snowball into unmistakable change, we cannot predict where these changes will bring us, and can understand the story and logic of this growth only through the benefit of hindsight.

And so I keep this journal as a record of change: I too cannot foretell what a line read and pondered will bring me, but perhaps one day I will turn back and look upon these musings, and understand something that escapes me now.


Why had he invented this grotesque version of me?

I felt confusion and a sort of angry shame, as if I had been jostled aside in the street by some ludicrously implausible imposter claiming to be me.

Like Vaublin then, the narrator has a double: a version of his boyhood self narrated to him by a man whose gangly arms and uncertain gait suggest that he is more imp or ogre than man. 

If one collected all the impressions, all the bits and pieces hastily grabbed and torn off from encounters both long and brief, what strange montage or glassy-eyed mannequin would accost us in a pose a foe or friend would design? 

But even this is pure fantasy, for like the doppelgänger is often imagined as a shadowy figure whose trail is ghostly and disappears when looked for, the impressions that lurk in others’ minds are kept hidden by delicacy and decorum. Better then by far to simply stroll peaceably, saunter whistling innocuous tunes, and run into your shadow by accident. Someday an old acquaintance or new friend might impart your double’s whereabouts without knowing why that might be dangerous.

For is it not possible that somewhere in this crystalline regression, there is a place where the dead have not died, and I am innocent?

Many worlds, each one slightly different from the others, each one containing variants of ourselves, that we would recognize as our selves to different degrees of familiarity. There is perhaps a world where I would be a stranger to my own eyes, another where I might as well be peering into a mirror.

There is a place among these places where I’m not me, and you’re not you; you’ll never see this page because I’ll never write it; I never read this book because I never borrowed it; perhaps in one of these worlds it was never written. 

In one of these worlds all this is fine; I think nothing of it because there is no reason to. In another place I am waiting for a book that was never written and I don’t know what it is I’m looking for; I feel the need to write but the words that will rouse and ruffle me have no home among pages folded, sentences underlined. And so the desire dies away a little each day until I don’t remember it at all, and that is all fine to him, that other me. 

Let me try to paint the scene, paint it as it was and not as it seemed, in washes of luminous grey on grey.

After all these weeks, out of nowhere, as if, as if, I don’t know. This morning, not half an hour ago, I, that is Flora and I, that is Flora, when I … Easy. Go easy. What happened, after all, except that she began to talk? 

You begin painting the scene and end up with an interpretation. A beautiful explanation, perhaps; maybe a convincing one. But the result will never match the riot and tumble of the moment itself; in the effort to convey a sense of wholeness the mind will invent a flow where there was none, patch up gaps and colour over lacunae with words, actions and meanings. And so the only sincere portrayal of the moment was the initial panic, the shocked delight put into words by the lack of words, given shape by unshapely, ungainly sentences that have neither artful start nor any semblance of an ending. 

Ungainly and incomplete, incoherent as Licht. There lies the rub for our storyteller. For what this passage represents is merely a eulogy for the encounter that came, stayed for too brief a moment, and then went away forever; a web of words spun to cage a moment after it has taken flight. (Do spiders weave their trap furiously out of regret for a bee or fly who has flown far off?) For all his learning and felicity with language he is little better than a man who reminds one constantly of Quasimodo (a half-man, a small and incomplete man), for whom bells are more expressive than words. 

Yes, better to accept both the noise and music, better to remember simply the crash and flower of things. Watch the moment without need for meaning as a child does when contemplating with satisfied wonder the flakes that pass for snow, that float and flounder in a globe of clear glass. There’s no repeat performance for these things, no exact encore. 

Listen! They are living their little lives.

And I am living mine.

I am typing this in the dead of night, perhaps a young night, and a Chinese song is playing in the background asking how long one must walk before one finds oneself in the forest; I am trying to read a book that seems somehow, important; it is with some desperation that I plow and plumb, dig and dive; so rare it is to find something worth examining!

But yes, everything is small, make no mistake about it; this life will fade to black like so many before it, this life that appears so important to me, about which I fret and vex, this life is small indeed. (What little I can give, what meagre bits remain to me to give to those dear to me, I will give. Only these bits seem a little bigger. A noble and consolatory thought!)

Let me return to the book. Perhaps it is bigger than me. Perhaps it will endure, return and haunt me, or cause pain. One year, ten, or twenty years hence, these words will remain though their readers may have changed. I am proud to have recorded them down, copied lines that I think I shall understand differently when I come back to them. I am sure they will bring consternation.

Why am I reminded of Apolinaire’s lines?

Let night fall and the hours ring

The days go by, I remain.

No, there doesn’t seem anything about me that remains. When the days go they bear me along with them; the hours have me hoodwinked. I am still that one who is buffeted; I am no master of my inner country or captain of my fate. Just today, I walked without really knowing where I would go, although I knew where I would end up at the end of it.

Re-reading what I have written, there is nothing worth keeping this entry for; but I wrote it honestly, and that must count for something, at least.




Vaublin’s double

First, a dream that seems real to us until the narrator’s confession. Now this: a painter looking over his shoulder, fearful that a doppelgänger exists, painting in his guise. He can no longer tell the difference between his own images and the forger’s.

We read into others and share back to them the stories we use to understand ourselves. If it convinces them, there is hope of convincing ourselves too. The goal is to not remember where these tall tales come from.

What if one truly pays attention, asks the real questions and listens? Dispel the glamour your eyes cast over them, denude them of the masks you make them wear! And by so doing discover fresh paths through the intractable forests of memory and delusion, line and pave them with stones quarried from another’s truth. 

Anabasis, descant

Anabasis: a word as unfamiliar to me as the terrain through which he battered must have appeared to the soldier embarked on such a course. A military advance into the interior — a useful word to remember if one ever has the occasion to describe an inner conflict. At the same time, an upward journey, an ascent, a movement towards victories of some kind, no doubt worth all the trouble.

And descant: either a treble melody played above a basic one, or talk and discussion about some theme, recurring idea. There is always a touch of frippery about this word, something light and laughable and easy to dismiss. Would it be clever to note that it reminds one of descent? Surely that is what the narrator couldn’t have missed. 

Anabasis and descant. Up and down, terrible and trivial, war and art. In the end, neither was the thing Croke sought. 

I have learnt that Croke’s death by accident/suicide happened only in dreamscape. We use, as this narrator did, the characters around us (the mind is not a picky artist, it uses whatever is at hand!) to tell ourselves the stories we dare not share by day.

What is that word? Anabasis. No. Descant. No, no, that thing, that gold thing, what is it!


In the end, does it matter that Croke topples to his death trying but failing to remember the word “monstrance”? As we follow the old man as he hurtles through a landscape of wet, squelch and confusion, we cannot help but note that he is compelled to hunt for the answer through a kind of inner wasteland — perhaps not an arid reality, not a barren place, but an ungoverned stretch of rise and fall that is over-full of stunted growth and accident. There is rotting flesh, piss, bog and rain crowding in upon him as he roams in search of “that gold thing” which Sophie and Felix had no intention of helping him discover; by the time he shakes his fist at Hatch and Pound, wondering “Why would they not help him?”, it is no longer clear if he is asking for deliverance from the place itself, or the question that taunts him.

In the end his last lucid memory seems to be of himself as a child listening to a nun “saying something about prayers and being good”; he seems to have fallen to his death reaching out for the real counterpart of that symbolic object whose name eluded him: “above him the sun was a wafer of white gold shaking and slipping at the centre of the huge blue”. Of course, what a monstrance carries in the Benediction is a wafer, the host.

Perhaps forgetting the name of a symbol can remind us of the thing it represents. Worse: perhaps remembering and using names and symbols keeps at bay the knowledge that we have left their referents and meaning behind. Of course, a monstrance has the same Latin root for the words monster and demonstrate; the root is the word “show”, or pure symbol, sign. Would Croke/Croak have stayed safe if he had remembered the name for the gold disc? Can speaking and writing sustain a cherished myth, keeping us safe from the unspeakable, the things we do not possess? What are we saying now, or asking, that is an omen for their loss, or the very sign of their absence?

Perhaps old age, that last step before the end of things for each of us, grants a special brand of desperate clarity, jerking back the curtain our youth drapes happily over our eyes. For if one could see now, see clearly and indisputably, the essential causes of our secret grief, we could set about earning their remedy, procuring their resolution. Or is that a lie? If I could see the thing that most haunts me, could I sustain that gaze long and hard enough to puzzle it out, observe it and devise its undoing? Wouldn’t I look away, find something else more urgent and far less important to fret over, so that I might celebrate another victory over an unnecessary hurdle? Even better: look to others and solve their problems. These are the real crossroads of life: not grand decisions and actions visible to others around us and ourselves, but the almost imperceptible registering of a soft echo emanating from some place we have spent a lifetime locking up and silencing, a thought and a desire.


While reading this passage in the novel, my mind’s eye replaced the setting with one from my former travels; I imagined Croke falling forwards the South Downs. I remember the fear of being lost and the thrill of arriving at the chalk cliffs with their perilous drop into the slate-grey sea below; perhaps it was Croke’s thought that “he would be all right if only he could get to the sea” that brought me back to this memory. Below, on my trek up to the cliffs, I had felt completely isolated; it was only on top that I began to find temporary colonies of fellow trekkers who had made their own way, in trios and pairs, to take in the sights and be blasted by the salt air. Save for a pair of young men who asked me for help to take a photograph, I did not speak to any of these travellers; nor did I see them mingle in any sociable way. Each small party was content to stake out a small circle of space on that infinitely broad ground, and sit and stare at wave upon wave of chalk-white rock. It strikes me that I had made my way up those cliffs simply to experience (dare I say enjoy?) the pure dream of a lonely, singular existence; I was there for the thrill of being lost while coddled by the knowledge that I could easily find my way back, for the bliss of being by myself without the fear of needing to be that way.




Is there something dead around here that has not yet begun to stink?

Surely it happens: some part of us dies, and yet we know it not. It may already have wasted away, perhaps through neglect, perhaps through over-indulgence; but it is gone, irrecoverably gone. (One thinks, of course, of innocence, wonder, trust – the usual things, and for that reason, probably true.) Yet the death of this aspect of our selves is not suspected; we may even consider it a proper strength, some reliably constant part of our person. We may draw on the phantasm of its existence for a certain confidence that lends us a strength we rightly should not possess; some day we will finally sense its disappearance, the way the stench of rotting flesh probably hits you, and the very ground upon which we walk will suddenly reveal itself to be thin air.

Suddenly he faltered, and I, not noticing, came up behind him and collided with him, or perhaps it was that he fell against me, I do not know which it was. Anyway, for an amazing moment I thought he was assaulting me.

In his dream about his father, the narrator cannot tell for an instant the difference between a falter and a fight. It is a moment of rare insight (that dreams are supposed to provide): perhaps that raised hand, that red eye and dark frown, are the marks of frailty, and not rage. 

Father: protector, creator, eater of his own children. Madman, the first horror you discover. Uranus, first father in Greek myth and symbol of the sky itself, lay so often and so madly upon Gaia earth-mother that he became afraid of the monstrous offspring he had sired and hid them in their mother’s own bowels, causing the latter to plot his death, which was finally brought to fruition by Cronus, his son. Cronus in turn ate his own children for fear of usurpation; again a mother plots with her children against the father — Rhea releases Zeus, who destroys his father. 

So much of the past is prologue then. A kind of tragic cycle exists between sons and fathers: they come into being together, for who is to say that it is not the arrival of the scion that designates his source the creator? And son repeats the flaw he murdered his father for. I know within this mind there is my father too. 

One may not wholly love one’s father (how liberating and wrong it is to say so!) but it is not easy to hate him completely either. What the years reveal upon their passing is the understanding that men try, sometimes we succeed but often there is failure snapping at our heels, failure to be a god, a perfect god, the sky itself. We are fighting to stay ahead of ourselves, to lead the way; there seems no other way. And if in so doing we appear as clowns and crazed kings, we will never know or discover it, not even in our children’s dreams. Perhaps it happens only to some, but I have never seen understanding in mine. 

These creatures will not die, even if they have never lived.

It is the very stillness of their world that permits them to endure; if they stir they will die, will crumble into dust and leave nothing behind save a few scraps of brittle lace, a satin bow, a shoe buckle, a broken mandolin.

And what of Pygmalion and Galatea? At what moment did he realize or understand that the gods do not give boons without extracting payment? For by giving Galatea life, surely Aphrodite had also given her death

Yet even without the gods, Pygmalion already condemned himself to suffering, for he had wrought for himself a statue — a beloved object that could never behold him the way he beheld it. And so we are punished by our own best art, fooled by our vain belief in our gift of imagination and invention: the finer our brush, the keener the loss. 

It will happen

some morning I will wake and know at once that she has flown, will feel her absence like a jagged hole in the air through which the wind pours without a sound. What shall I do then, when my term is ended?

How, having seen straight down through those sky-blue, transparent eyes into the depths of what for want of a better word I shall call her soul, how could he destroy her?

A man falls in love with a painting because he sees in it being itself. While trying to steal it, he runs into a maidservant; despite seeing (again) her truth, her essence, he destroys her. 

In another tale, this one by Poe, a solitary traveler who enters a house discovers a painting by his bedside. He reads a journal entry that reveals the history of this painting: its subject, a woman of rare beauty (the very flower of youth!) wastes away while sitting for her husband, who sees only his painting of her coming to life and destroys her with his neglect.

One recalls the myth of Pygmalion, the sculptor who turns away from women out of revulsion for the local prostitutes, and who then falls in love with his own creation, Galatea, brought to life by Aphrodite out of pity for Pygmalion. 

And we have already spoken much of Echo and Narcissus. 

So love is forever entwined with mythopoesis, for the creation of myth is the blurring of lines between life and art, faith and reality, illusion and imagination. A myth may be understood as a true retelling of a supernatural event, or simply an artful parable of psychological processes. The texts above tell of love that destroys, intention turned into accident, images turned into realia. Above it all, an almost occult belief in the very real power of imagination itself, made real by desire, to invert and invent, to turn object into subject. A god may be moved to disturb the natural order, or a mind moved to disorder, though this is disorder on a grand scale, striking a monstrous and calamitous note that we at once hate and wish to gaze into, like spectators at a freak show. And these stories carry alternately a cautionary or inspirational note, depending on the reader of course. 

Here the plot does not so much thicken as coagulate.

Not just one joke, but two: He kills her, isn’t that enough? And he makes his get-away. Such things were commonplace in olden times.

First a pun (blood coagulates, and this is a tale where romance turns into murder), then almost farce, a parodic turn as the writer laughs at his own excesses and taking liberties with artistic license.

Two comic moments then, but how else to read this extended “hypothesis”, save as parable or allegory of a mind for whom love seems always the prelude to sin and the impossibility of redemption? 

Yet before the bathetic turn, there is a rather serious contradiction presented: it is easy to understand the initial idea of an image that Monsieur Hypothesis falls for, a reminder that we pursue the illusory rather than apprehend the real; but soon he speaks of this image of a female as real-in-itself, and something the would-be thief recognizes: 

Obviously the need was there all along, awaiting its fulfillment in whatever form chance might provide. It is being that he has encountered here, the thing itself, the pure, unmediated essence, in which, he thinks, he will at last find himself and his true home, his place in the world. Impossible, impossible dreams, but for a moment he allows himself to believe in them.

And so desire and happenstance conspire to light the fuse of hope, hope that exists solely to frustrate the seeker and lure him on like a will o’ the wisp, but a real and visible, palpable hope nonetheless and wonderful for that moment, at least a moment. It is the kind of hope a skeptic can believe in.

That’s it, let us have a disquisition, to pass the time and keep ourselves from brooding.

Disquisition: long or elaborate essay or discussion on a particular subject.

One thinks of sublimation: mature type of defense mechanism where socially unacceptable impulses or idealizations are unconsciously transformed into socially acceptable actions or behavior, possibly resulting in a long-term conversion of the initial impulse.

To avoid brooding and to pass the time: Time and brooding must be avoided at all costs. For together they give the mind a way back to the first pain, the first schism. Action keeps us anchored to the variable present, whose sights and sounds keep us energetic, looking forward and away from the looking glass and the pool; perhaps there is a kind of tragic wisdom in what Narcissus did, he who could never tear himself away from self-study. Hence: looking forward and straining away, we achieve distance between us and our original, looking back and down on ourselves we seek a knowledge that will waste us away. A third, possibly middle path then? Oscillate between the two, make our lives a pendulum: draw on the present and snack on the past. But surely that only makes one a Jack and master of neither self nor the world. 

This thing we call life is a broad field; caught up with its exploration or sent packing upon some fool’s errand by our teachers and parents, we walk some distance before understanding what it means. Sometimes we walk paths of our own but usually we follow desire lines well-trodden by others of our ilk, or follow roads well-paved by teachers and holy men. At some stage (perhaps when fatigue has caught up with us, because the old lack stamina) we have no choice but to stop, stare and observe. And if the wide expanse and tundra carries with it more than a slight suggestion of horror, the temptation is to simply carry on walking, walk anywhere so long as one is free from that dread horizon, that fell space. 

And as she talked I found myself looking at her and seeing her as if for the first time

And as she talked I found myself looking at her and seeing her as if for the first time, not as a gathering of details, but all of a piece, solid and singular and amazing. No, not amazing. That is the point. She was simply there, an incarnation of herself, no longer a nexus of adjectives but pure and present noun. I noticed the fine hairs on her legs, a scrap of dried skin along the edge of her foot, a speck of sleep in the canthus of her eye. No longer Our Lady of Enigmas, but a girl, just a girl. And somehow by being suddenly herself like this she made the things around her be there too. In her, and in what she spoke, the world, the little world in which we sat, found its grounding and was realized. It was as if she had dropped a condensed drop of colour into the water of the world and the colour had spread and the outlines of things had sprung into bright relief.

I wasn’t ready to read this; I had simply idly skipped ahead, playing with the possibility of chancing upon something artful, strange or surprising. I am typing this down as a bookmark — to mark the day and the passage. It is a page I shall return to when clarity returns.

But first, some impressions: funny, because the page I had deserted had the narrator face to face with the death of Mrs. V, and a skip and a hop later, here is the same mind seeing Flora in all her fine detail. The contrast makes it clearer that he has not yet left symbolism behind, that for all his fine words he is still excited by what Flora represents: the Real itself, the final antidote against the pretensions and follies of Art, his real mistress. 

But let us leave for a moment the aesthetic questions. Let us address the emotions firing these thoughts. Is it possible to attain such lucidity in the presence of one who inspires feeling in oneself? If it is, then I have never achieved such peace: to be at one and the same time thrilled by the other and observe, as if from afar and a safe distance, and understand. No, not to understand — the temptation to understand is too great, the need to invent replies to words half-heard and half-understood, to sustain a stream of conversation that will keep the silence away, the silence that makes goodbye imperative … that need to invent and create is too great. Yet what is all this noise and bluster for, if not to create chances to see and learn and understand? 

Wait, that’s a surprise; do I mean that?

Sometimes my pen just goes prattling along all by itself and the strangest things come out, things I did not know I was aware of, or of which I would prefer not to be made aware, or not to hear expressed, anyway.

One is reminded of the oujia board, where one’s hands simultaneously move with and without intent: writing surprises us, its process setting in motion ebbs and flows we are not prepared for, as if we were in communion with another self, someone outside human ken. 

Hence the liberating effect of writing: liberated from ourselves, we walk into a magic circle circumscribed by the edges of the page we write on, within which our most personal voice suddenly grows loud. How else to explain this except by turning to the possibility that there can be no truer isolation and quietude than that which holding a pen and entering the flow of one’s words creates?

Writing for oneself, without fear, takes some recklessness. It is walking without a destination, searching without a goal; entering territory one believes is familiar but having no map and relying on an inconstant guide, memory.

I know, I know: the pool, and the lover leaning over it, I too caught that echo

There are men, I know, who prowl the world in search of an ideal woman, one who will indulge their darkest desires and slake for them the hot, half-formed urgings of the blood; I am like that, except that what I lust after is not some sly-eyed wanton but a being made up of stillnesses; not inert, not lifeless, only quiet, like me – yes, quiet, I am quiet, in spite of all this gabble – a pale pool in a shaded glade in which I might bathe my poor throbbing brow and cool its shamefaced fires (I know, I know: the pool, and the lover leaning over it, I too caught that echo).

There is no difference, of course. The woman who will indulge the blood or the woman who will bathe your brow: femme fatale or Eternal feminine, there is no difference. They are both Echo, sitting beside you in her reality and always being ignored, neglected because you are too busy gazing at your own image in the pool of your thoughts, images, signs. And so we remain together, yet separate: we throw our gaze, the focused gaze, the observing one with real intelligence, we throw the light of that intelligence only on images of our own making. Apart, Echo and Narcissus both vanish, the former into mere sign and duplication/re-presentation, the latter wasting away through eternal obsession with himself until he becomes pure symbol, a flower representing obsession and egotism. 

Is love then observation? And perhaps understanding. Let the loving gaze be a studious one, watching and interpreting, searching with a scholar’s zeal for what others have missed, peeling with an archaeologist’s mania layer after layer to arrive at the history of things, to understand how time wrought the core of the beloved.