Sunday, March 09, 2008

Vermilion sands of California

California is the last Thule, the last shore of broken dreams, the ultimate boundary of the world. Beyond that there is only water, an ocean expanse covering half the planet, a separate world within a world, ocean half a way across until the distant Asian shores. On the other side of the water world is our deepest memory, the most ancient vestiges of human civilization on Earth, while on this side, after slowly tracing its course around the world, civilization is stripped down to its essentials, the capacity to dream. To dream and project our last hopes onto the immensity of the water, over precarious shifting ground between ocean and high mountains, a stretch of land for piling up humanities largest collection of dreams. A reservoir of wild hopes, unfulfilled desires, visionary schemes and shady cults, but also the propelling force of scientific vision catapulting us at great speed into the future, with no heavy load of history to carry along. Unfulfilled possibilities generate a warp of space in this overcrowded narrow stretch of land, where nature looms large like the Rockies, deep like the ocean, over fragile human shoulders that have already dumped the weight, too heavy, of culture. Water and sand resemble one another, dark, shifting, vast.

When Ballard wrote his collection of stories "Vermilion sands", he envisioned a community of artists settled in a village bordering the desert, in what appears to be an indefinite location of Southern Californian flavor. Amidst singing sculptures, poetry generators, houses that change shape according to the mood of their occupants, the recurring theme, story after story, is the sense of a life that justifies itself purely by its capacity to conceive dreams. No useful work is ever done, none of the characters seem to need to "make a living", the whole existence acquires the quality of a fata morgana in the desert haze. The whole purpose of this remarkable collection of stories is to capture the underlying sense of fatigue of this apparently energetic land of dreamers, the sense of being stripped bare down to one's own soul, with no protective layer of culture and history to provide comforting certainties. Only the capacity to dream the unknown into existence provides sustenance and continuity.

I spent a good period of time in Southern California a couple of years ago, a remarkably interesting and productive time at a research institute overlooking the ocean. Kelp forests moving silently beneath the waves, long bike rides down mission style villages, some smooth and relaxed thinking, which generated some pretty cool stuff, a good amount of reading of beat generation writers.

Through one of those twists of fate that are the real movers and shakers of our lives, it so happens that I am now possibly contemplating the idea of moving to Southern California in the maybe not so far future. I started packing my broken dreams, the most valuable possession on such a journey, and took one more look at the Ballard stories, with their universe of fragile and yet flamboyant characters, like a delicate equilibrium of glass hanging sculptures moving with the wind.