Saturday, May 17, 2008

Wish you were here

So you think you can tell
heaven from hell,
blue skies from pain.

(Pink Floyd - Wish you were here)

Going home, am I not? Or perhaps just wandering further, towards the ends of the Earth, following that urge to nomadism that is deeply ingrained in the collective unconscious of the human species.
Yet even the Wanderlust needs a point of return, an origin to the coordinate charts of our wandering. I am trying to establish my fixed point in the most unstable ground on the Earth crust: moving continents, shifting grounds, mountains, desert, ocean - a focal point of archetypal symbolism.

There are no answers for a returning Ulysses, only questions. The stories of nostos of the Iliadic heroes are never simple and often tragic. From the madness of Ajax to the domestic banality of the former Argonaut and Troy War hero Nestor, after his own nostos back to Pylos. Odysseus wants and does not want to return, and in Dante's rendition of his last voyage beyond the pillars of Hercules, he frees himself finally of any desire of return. De Chirico captured well the futility of all nostoi when he painted his claustrophobic "Return of Ulysses", who navigates endlessly around in an enclosed apartment room.

A different sort of mythological voyage is the fall of Lucifer in Milton's Paradise Lost. With great clarity and vision Lucifer accepts the destiny of his fall:

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.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then hee
Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th' Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav'n.
(Milton, Paradise Lost, Book I, 251-263)

It is, in this case, not a return but a one way ticket to a new world, where the one who was cast out reinvents himself to a new life. In Milton's rendition Lucifer is the hero of the mythical story of the fall from Paradise. He is the one who stands up against the "tyranny of heaven" and its unchallenged consensus, the inquisitive mind that rises in arms against the divine oppression. So I like to think of Milton's Lucifer as looking more like William Blake's Newton than as one of the many mystical demons he painted around the Paradise Lost themes. Yet can we tell heaven from hell? It seems all a complicated pattern of multiple reflections in a kaleidoscope of mirror fragments: a jigsaw puzzle of pros and cons that casts one choice against another, picking one among a hoard of different possible futures. What matters most in the end is what remains with us, even at a physical distance, what gives continuity to life, a mind unchanged by time and place. Is there permanence through change? The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell or a hell of heaven, which perhaps means that all in all we just cannot escape from that deeply rooted self, no matter how much change the circumstances of life provide. Permanence and change formed one of the fundamental dichotomies of thought, since the time of the Presocratic philosophers of ancient Greece, but when is either heaven or hell, I don't think we really can tell.

Can you tell a green field from a cold steel rail?
A smile from a veil?
Do you think you can tell?

(Pink Floyd - Wish you were here)

When Stanislaw Lem wrote his novel "Return from the stars" he managed something that no other science fiction writer was quite able to achieve: presenting a truly bewildering and incomprehensible future. The main character is a cosmonaut who returns to the Earth after an interstellar trip. Due to relativistic time dilation, he lands almost two hundred years into the future of his own internal clock. In a civilization of rapid technological development, as we have witnessed increasingly in our time, this means that most of what he sees and experiences upon his return is utterly alien and incomprehensible. Lost in a city where pathways, buildings, and people present themselves in completely unexpected ways, amidst artifacts of unknown purpose, and incapable of understanding the modes of interaction between people, he is the ultimate alien on a strange and foreign world. Rather than taking the point of view of the omniscient narrator, Lem plunges deeply into the personal point of view of the main character and relays the world solely through his astonished and incomprehending eyes, leaving the reader as much as the character fumbling in the dark and in vane search for meaning. He does not give away easy solutions: the world of the future, in a phase of rapidly advancing technology, is simply beyond the comprehension of the people of the past, whether fictional characters or real flesh and blood readers.

This is the ultimate experience of the "return": finding a world one ought to know transformed into something new and incomprehensible. Every return is partly like this, because the changes that happen within us and in the world we leave behind do not proceed in tune with each other, and with time a gap forms, a divide that grows larger the more we wait or the more rapidly events evolve, between what we are and what we used to be. I had my own experience of displacement when I first returned to spend long periods of time in Europe after several years of nearly total absence. It was less than ten years and not the two centuries of Lem's novel, but they happened at a time when the great currents of history run through rough and troubled waters and change is swift and irreversible. I never fully adapted, never managed to fit back in, like Lem's returning cosmonaut destined to remain suspended between an irretrievable past and an incomprehensible future.

Every transit/relocation/voyage/displacement/migration, whichever way one wishes to call it, is made of three movements: going, staying, returning. In the "states of mind" series, Futurist painter Umberto Boccioni portrayed, in a famous pair of large canvases, the contrasting moods of "those who go" and "those who stay behind". He never attempted to portray those who return, perhaps because of the interspersed lapse of time the return requires breaks the simultaneity of the moods, and perhaps because returning is a much more complex affair than either staying or going. I imagine those who return as an image that exists simultaneously on many different planes, at impossible angles to one another. A figure that no longer resembles itself and yet somehow still does: it bears confused traces of many pasts, it is whole and fragmentary, natural and yet not fitting in the background. The capacity to navigate our surroundings, to tell what is what (can you tell a green field...) depends on belonging, on long acquired familiarity with places, words, people's habits. Displacement is the lack of such adaptation to the immediate surroundings: return is a state of permanent displacement.

Did they get you trade
your heroes for ghosts?

(Pink Floyd - Wish you were here)

On the face of it, the concept of "return" is a logical impossibility. There is no such thing as circular time, nor Nietzsche's eternal recurrence of the same, and we are bound to be always on foreign territory, unless we choose to live a life of eternal immobility. Thus, any choice of return is illusory, it is bound to crash against the fundamentally inextricable conflict between a nomadic existence and the civilization of the settlers. Society as we experience it through the institutions of national states, family structures, established roles of behavior, is dictated by the needs and the experience of the settlers, of those who live their life mostly in one place, where they establish their roots, their history and credibility, where society can classify them into a convenient labeling system that gives them or denies them access to benefits and privileges. Society does not know what to do with nomads: they don't fit in their grid of values and classifications. From the point of view of the settlers, we, the wanderers, simply do not exist. We are an inconvenient nuisance that is better ignored if not actively suppressed. Yet how many migrants, displaced multitudes, invisible crowds of unregistered individuals exist in the world of today. Our world is, and will more and more be, the world of migration and nomadism, no matter how much the civilization of the settlers will try to hide and suppress this fundamental truth. An existence that is a ghost existence perhaps, but no less real than the one that is sanctioned and approved by society. This is the modern "specter haunting Europe" and the world at large, the ghost of an existence that dares to be different from the approved canon.

I have a vision of the Songlines
stretching across the continents and ages;
that whenever men have trodden
they have left a trail song
(of which we may, now and then, catch an echo);
and that these trails must reach back, in time and space,
to an isolated pocket in the African savanna,
when the First Man opening his mouth
in defiance of the terrors that surrounded him,
shouted the opening stanza of the World Song, 'I am'.
(Bruce Chatwin - The Songlines)

Did you exchange
a walk on part in the war
for a lead role in a cage?

(Pink Floyd - Wish you were here)

So am I trying to trade the nomadic existence I conducted for the past ten years or so for the one of a settler? It is highly questionable whether the society of settlers will consider me desirable. I slipped for so long in the cracks of the walls of the nation states fortress that I managed to move about freely in their world leaving little trace behind, but in the logic of the settlers it is these tangible traces of interaction with the established society that are sought as proof of reliability. Fat chance.

Settlement and nomadism are both valuable expressions of deep needs of the human nature. It is their contrast and complex interaction that brought about the dawn of the great civilizations. It is both "those who go" and "those who stay" that build the advancement of the human species and there should be more tolerance and acceptance in the society at large for both modes of existence.

How I wish, how I wish you were here.
We're just two lost souls
swimming in a fish bowl,
year after year.
Running over the same old ground,
what have we found?
The same old fears

(Pink Floyd - Wish you were here)

Pink Floyd
Wish you were here: lyrics etc.
Pink Floyd - Wish you were here (Wikipedia)
Milton's Paradise Lost
William Blake archive
Giorgio de Chirico
Umberto Boccioni
Australian Aboriginal Artists
Sandy Skolund