In the Land of Ice and Snow

Although I could not quite bring myself to name the dream country I wrote about in the last post, I can say this: it is curiously reminiscent of the landscape of my father's childhood and I think perhaps that when I go there I am not so much wandering in my own hypnogeography as in his; if such a thing can be. There is another dream country I visit that is more my own - the mountain that stands over the town in which I grew up. I went there last night. In this incarnation the mountain was vast as ever, more conical than in fact it is, and I was toiling past oddly shaped granite outcrops, through snow and ice, heading upwards around the bulge of the peak towards an alpine lake that was always just around the bend. Along the way I found a lost archive assembled by previous explorers, amongst which there were many open receptacles full of moulded figures like dolls that were in themselves examples of various forms of cultural miscegenation. In their mixed expressions meanings were expressed, for instance the bitterness of racial hatred combined with the self-contempt such feelings can engender. And, at the other end of the scale, the exaltation of true understanding along with dread insight into the arcana of sorcery. I can still see some of these wizened faces, with their wild and tangled black hair, like something from the profligate pen of an artist (Tony Fomison comes to mind; and Ralph Hotere) uninhibited by previous or protected views of the way ahead. The same man who'd made the dolls, I learned as I went on (I could now see silver glints from the lake ahead) had published many pamphlets and these too lay before me in laminated stacks that I was avid to sort through. But there was no time so instead, not without trepidation, I took one to read later and went on towards that seductive silver lake. Some ghostly interlocutor intervened at this point and I turned back from the lake's shores to speak with him. I think I was trying to justify taking the pamphlet, and in so doing pointed out that my own father's book was included with those others in the archive of explorers' journals. I found his thesis and opened it up; learning to my surprise that it was a four volume work, not the actual single book in only three extant copies, one of which I own. I cannot now recall volumes 2 and 3 but #4, which was smaller, contained poems he had written that had certain affinities with the moulded doll-like figures mentioned above. In other words my father's poems, which were structured like a family tree, gave voice to those who had no other, to the silent and forgotten among us, those who lived and died and left no record of their activities and experiences. He had somehow extracted the memories of these forgotten ones from the recall of those who had left account of themselves behind; and although his poems were made of words, as poems are, I could also sense between or behind the lines the actual faces of these unknown ones. I say this is a place I have visited before and so it is; but this is the first time I have been allowed to look into the archives contained there, high up on the mountain, on the shores of the silver lake, among the ice and the snow and the whistling wind.



lost horizon

There's a place I keep going back to in dreams. It is a land between two ranges of hills, the sea to the north, the sea to the south, and a complex pattern of creeks and ponds and lakes threading the flat green plains which are not uninhabited but not populous either. I can remember specific parts of this dream geography: a long, narrow apartment under a house on the eastern flank of the western hills where I lived and to which I have since tried to return - though only to recover elements of the library I lost when I moved precipitately away from there. In the shadow of the eastern hills I once, many years before, embarked on an expedition with my youngest sister, in quest of what precisely I cannot now say, if I ever knew; but I remember, as we made our way north through the blue ponds and the green marshes, that we came to a place where the colours bled from the landscape, the features of the map we were on faded to white, surmise replaced navigation . . . in the way of such things I cannot return there except involuntarily, neither will nor desire is enough, and so those parts of the country I have not yet explored remain unknown though I can sometimes sense their contours. Now I think that when I have flying dreams it is always this land that I am flying above; and when I crash, as inevitably I do, it is here that I fall to earth - except that I always wake just before hitting the ground. Where is this place? After a conversation I had yesterday with a friend who lives across the road, during which the question of hypnogeography was raised, and I told him about this place, and he asked me where it is . . . suddenly I thought I knew. And then, just as suddenly, thought I must never say. Even writing this bare outline down here now makes me fear that I will not again be allowed to visit this land between two seas, this green valley amongst low craggy hills, this placeless place, this shangri-la that I feel I know in my bones as much as I do in my dreaming mind.



another view of the lakes of titan

. . . that's Kraken Mare to the left of Ligeia Mare and the smaller lake to the north is called Punga Mare (Maori Latin); while elsewhere, but I don't know where, is Mayda Insula, named after the legendary island in the North Atlantic ocean on our beleaguered planet . . .


titanic sailing

One of the places
on the world wide web I like sometimes to go is the Gazetteer of Planetary Nomenclature. There you will find, among much else, that the geographical feature pictured above is called Ligeia Mare, a hydrocarbon lake towards the north of the northern hemisphere of Titan, Saturn's largest moon. Ligeia Mare is about 500 km in breadth and has a sister lake, Kraken Mare; they are fed by rivers that wash down valleys whenever it rains - huge pools of methane, ethane, propane and (probably) other hydrocarbon compounds which remain liquid in the frigid Titanian temperatures. NASA's epochal probe, Cassini, has photographed sunlight flashing from Ligeia Mare (see below) and its Huygens lander in 2005 reached the surface of Titan near the equator, sending back a picture of some orange rocks; now there is proposal to land some kind of craft on, or in, one of the methane lakes. Boating on Titan . . .


Authenticity is the abiding perversion of our times. It is indulged as a vice, worshipped as a fetish, embraced as a virtue. Like a deity it is pervasive, rapacious, and demanding: authenticity is the underwriter of history and culture, the guarantor of social legitimacy and personal integrity; it is the theorist of truth. Everything it touches turns to gold - or is at least burnished with a scrape of lustre - and in that sense it is the mark of genius, the Midas touch, the apotheosis of capitalism.

As a vehicle of thought and critical idiom, authenticity carries to the very heart of culture the aesthetics of Romantic authorship - the conceits of genius, creativity, and especially that of originality . . . in doing so it carries falsehood and fraudulence there as well. This is a straightforward ideological contradiction . . . that maintains the primacy of the authentic and so authenticity shimmers rather than falls. Hence the streets are packed with counterfeit goods; the galleries are replete with forged paintings and the archives threaded with fraudulent documents; copyright law is entranced by the worldwide web; a sheep is cloned (and neatly turns out to be a fake); resting actors find work posing as citizens on television chat shows, documentaries are revealed to be staged fictions or, perhaps worse, comedy shows; a troupe of imposters don clerical vestments and charitably cock their ears to confession; Faux Art is cooed over by faux women; prize-winning authors shrug off accusations of plagiarism; theme parks replace museums and the cinema rewrites history; credit card fraud is booming; and on the internet and elsewhere, everywhere, identities are blurred, swapped, falsified, multiplied, invented, dissolved.

The thirst for authenticity is nowise slaked by this superfluity of copies. Jeans and software now carry the same security measures as paper money - from signatures to holograms - false signs; artists make cults of themselves and register as trademarks; television turns to protracted fly-on-the-wall documentary soap operas; the issue-memoir becomes the degree-zero of literature, judged primarily not by quality of writing but by the truth of the writer's testimony; politicians cock-a-doodle-do their personal provenance to confirm policy and win votes.

In art criticism, the authentic becomes the synonym for taste . . .

from The Forger's Shadow : How Forgery Changed the Course of Literature, by Nick Groom (Picador, 2002), p 292-3



the nelson mail


chalk & cheese


I was on a two day visit to Auckland for reasons that were both specific and unknown: some kind of business. While there I went to the art gallery and saw a Philip Clairmont painting that I'd never encountered before. It was a floor painting: not painted on the floor but spread out upon it and designed to be viewed in that way. Irregularly shaped, like a jigsaw piece or something torn from a map perhaps. At first sight abstract, patterned, rather more like a late Jackson Pollock, which were of course painted on the floor before being hung up on the wall. I remember repeated motifs of red and black bars. A curator, who was in fact an art gallery owner I met here in Sydney a week or two back, told me this was one of two (I never saw the other) and pointed out that there were figurative elements to the painting: concealed profile portraits of women in Phil's life, a quite startling bird's-eye view of the city, in black and white, that recalled the 1974 War Requiem #9, The Destruction of Germany, which has in it collaged elements from a book called Early Engravings of German Towns. There were a few people lounging around the painting, stretched out on the floor and with some surprise I realised that Phil was among them - even though he died in 1984, knowledge of his death was not part of the dream. I went and sat down next to him, we exchanged greetings and he asked me to come and visit him at home. A few hour's conversation with you will keep me going for weeks, he said. When I said that because of other commitments I wasn't able to do that, he took from his pocket a small pair of scissors and said, with a crooked sort of grin, Oh, well, I'll have to try the van Gogh solution then. While it didn't look likely that he'd be able to cut off any part of his ear with the small plastic handled scissors, I still insisted on taking them from him. Later in the dream, after I'd left the gallery, I realised that I'd also taken a small plastic sachet of white powder which I knew to be speed. I started going back, to return Phil his drugs, but then in a doorway paused. The seal on the sachet was faulty and some of the grains had escaped onto my fingers. I rubbed the gritty white powder onto my gums, fearfully tempted to keep the sachet and take all the speed myself.


I had discovered a formula, perhaps a spell, whereby I could make the right word appear in the empty white space previously apportioned to it. Enthralled by this new skill, I began to practise it, watching delightedly as a series of words, all nouns I believe, were conjured into view; but then the telephone rang (the real telling bone), waking me up. And in the waking I lost cognisance of what exactly this formula, or spell, or technique, consists of. All I had left in memory was the last of the half dozen or so words I had called up: Emmental or Emmentaler; Swiss cheese.

Image : Study for Head, Philip Clairmont, 1970 (?)

addenda : peacocks are so vain


Glen Oak Farm

pics by the redoubtable Maggie Hall



The first step is to release breath from the inflated lobes of the lungs into the branched tubing of the respiratory system. The main channel, the trachea, is about eight inches long, rigid and segmented, a conduit for the breath toward the vocal cords, those twin infoldings of mucous membrane stretched horizontally across the larynx. They are thin muscular flaps, reminiscent of labia, that block the top of the trachea; when we breath, these flaps are loose; when we want to speak, they form a barrier by pressing together and sealing off the throat from the breath, which accumulates until the pressure becomes intense enough to release the cords - not all at once but fluidly, periodically, in a rippling motion. As the breath makes its dash upwards, the pressure below the vocal cords decreases, they seal again. More breath creates more pressure, another release point is reached, the pressure drops, the cords seal and so on in a rapid alternating dance of advance and retreat . . . in addition to the vocal cords, the respiratory system has a series of muscles, the depressor anguli oris, the posterior cricoarytenoid, the sternocleidomastoid, whose purpose is to manipulate the flow of breath as it passes out of the body. And then of course there are the tongue and the teeth and the lips. After crossing the lips, the breath collides with the air outside, its energy transforming into molecular movement. The air molecules in front of the mouth compress and open in pulses tuned to our words. These pulses travel forwards and outwards . . . if there is an ear handy, its pinna - those folds of cartilage that jut out from the sides of the head - will capture these pulses, this voice, and direct it into the auditory canal, where it will gain speed until it collides with the taut sheath of flesh called the tympanic membrane, or ear drum. The membrane booms, it vibrates and echoes, mimicking the complex vibrations of the air. Beyond lie three ossicles, little bones that rest lightly against each other so that the movement of one causes movement in the next. The hammer (malleus) strikes the anvil (incus) that strikes the stirrup (stapes) that strikes the cochlea - like a pin striking a bell. Very little energy is lost. The cochlea is snail-shell-shaped, hair-lined, fluid-filled. A spiralled, hollow, conical chamber of bone. Here molecular movement is converted to electricity, as the movement of fluid within the shell causes the hairs along its twisting length to vibrate. This vibration in turn stimulates the slender cells of the auditory nerve, the pathway to the brain, which transports the electrical signal of speech across the axons of its component neurons into that upper section of the brain known as the primary auditory cortex. This absorbs the incoming electrical impulses, somehow converting them into the comprehension of a voice. The exchange, from the lungs of the speaker to the brain of the listener, takes about one second to complete; but it is only a prologue. A voice does not begin its true existence until after the brain of the hearer has absorbed and converted the electrical signals of the neurons. We copy the external signal, discard the original and then remake the copy in our own image, based on the meaning the voice has for us. We mould and remould the voice over and over again, the copy deviating from the original that produced it and at the same time becoming inseparable from what it is stimulating. A voice has spoken and we have heard.

(Adapted from Daniel E Smith : Muses, Madmen and Prophets - Hearing Voices and the Borders of Sanity. Smith's own account depends upon Brian Moore's An Introduction to the Psychology of Hearing and a website: www.voice-center.com which, he laments, no longer exists in the form in which it was when he accessed it.)