Part 1, Part 2.
Time goes by like some kind of confidence trick. The shells move briskly around the table, and you keep your eyes fixed on the one which you think contains the pea. Things whittle away somehow, like children growing up in reverse. The shells move briskly around the table, but at some point you’ll have to put an end to the suspense, and rest your finger decisively on the one you have been watching all along. At that point, you might think how much better things were when the shells were still moving, when the game was still afoot, and you might yet have picked a different one. In that way, the past is made anew, and appears infinitely richer only when the possibility of actually grasping its riches has gone.
Whatever was happening to me had been happening for some time. I couldn’t tell whether it was that I was growing older, or the world itself shrinking somehow into an all-pervasive middle-age, a period of radically diminished energy and vitality. Whether it was in my mind or the state of the world, everything seemed to be retreating to the suburbs, to a quiet garden where one might sit in the evenings and imagine the emergence of wild, anomalous beasts from the hedgerows, their forms growing ever briefer and more insubstantial as the light waned.
I’m not sure if I became disenchanted with work or with Catherine first, or if the one were the cause of the other. Having long since divulged everything about ourselves which was hidden from the rest of the world, we found we had little left to really say to one another. I think that we were both disappointed, in our own way, with how things had fallen for us. The chips fall a certain way for people, usually when they are somewhere in their thirties. Most people, I think, are satisfied with how things fall; or at any rate, they are divested of the spark which breeds discontent, and kindles the desire to radically alter their place in the world. For those who remain dissatisfied, a kind of second adolescence beckons. Old persecution complexes are resumed, and with them long buried suspicions about the malign and hopeless nature of the world; there is a welling up of the keen and even morbid lusts of youth; a sense of foreboding, perhaps specifically the sense that one’s present discontents are to be the incubator of something new and alien, the cradle of an as yet protean replacement.
Something like this was happening to me, and I suspect to Catherine also.
Around the time I was looking for a new place to live, I felt that I had also made some kind of definitive break from the university. I was taking a long sabbatical, ostensibly to finish my book about The Circuitous Path, that famously enigmatic poem of alienation and eternal recurrence amongst the demi-monde of fin de siècle Europe. Privately, however, I vowed never to go back. But what was I actually doing, what were my plans? My savings would run out sooner or later. In the meantime, I would wait for something to happen. I would wait for some upheaval, some disaster, some miracle, some sign from the heavens. I longed for an unprecedented event that would shatter the ground beneath my feet, and point my life in an authentic direction, or else make a suitably inglorious end of the whole business.
Admittedly, this plan was not the most practical ever devised, and was arguably fatalistic at its core. Nevertheless, I felt a kind of overwhelming conviction in those days that something was about to happen – some transformative and possibly calamitous event on a global scale. I felt that trying to achieve anything at all was a waste of energy, because everything would soon be altered beyond all recognition. I thought that everybody really knew this, on some intuitive level – that all the world’s toil, all its pleasures and all its sorrows, were now being undertaken under a spell of somnambulistic resignation, under the pall of an old epoch trundling hazily into its own obsolescence.
In The Circuitous Path, Pendleton describes a similar premonitory sense of impending disaster and seismic change hovering over the wealthy British expatriates he encountered while travelling around Europe in the summer of 1905. Moving in a glamourous but often debauched circle of “aristocrats, swindlers, and spies”, the middle-class Pendleton detected an under-current of rootless desperation in their endless parties and faddish preoccupation with new aesthetic and occult movements. In a famous apocalyptic passage, often suggested to be prophetic of the impeding calamity of the Great Wars, Pendleton writes:
I watched them all returning, from the wine-scented fragrance
Of their evenings, and the carousel frenzy of their nights
Some in giddy stupor, others disconsolate
Eagerly willing the catastrophe.
And sometimes in a momentary lull,
I hear a sound like a great bird beat its wings
A tentative gesture, in prelude to the soaring leap
But each time I hear it, the motion has
A greater impetuous, a renewed vigour
And it beats like a drum, or a skittish heartbeat
Pumping the world’s lifeblood from hidden well-springs
To all its visible arteries; the blood will surge, soon,
And the bird out of space and time take flight
Her vast wings trampling the tethered earth.
I felt that this mysterious, precarious time had come around again: not merely the end of one century and beginning of another, but the end of a whole epoch, with the birth-pangs of a new world hovering on the horizon like signs and portents in the heavens. Of course, all of this, I readily conceded, was just as likely a product of my own mind as any real state of affairs in the world without; my mental adroitness at that point was clearly not above reproach.
Nevertheless, I could not shake the sense of an impending apocalyptic event, whether personal or communal. The world is, after all, only the confluence of all the individual minds that observe it, so that there is no thing which might be said to exist only in the mind within or the world without. All things are amphibious, and indeterminately divided between the surface and the water. The moment of mystic accomplishment, or so I have been lead to believe, is that where, in the words of Stephen Daedalus, the mystic finds in the world without as actual what had been in his world within as possible. In The Circuitous Path, Pendleton seems to suggest that when in a state of transition, the world enters a phase of communal mysticism, wherein elements of the private world within become increasingly reified as objective events in the world without. Although there is little critical consensus regarding the image of the bird out of space and time, it must be regarded as the harbinger or avatar of this period of transition and erratic communal mysticism, wherein the minds of solitary madmen and artists become in some fashion directly intertwined with that of the communal imagination, and with actual physical events in the world around them. Elsewhere, in a verse redolent of the more troubling passages in Lovecraft’s later Call of Cthulhu, Pendleton writes:
Tiny fragments of the bird’s plumage are increasingly evident,
As though scattered in a breeze, and borne hither and thither
By what trade winds serve the hidden ports of errant and dreaming minds;
A painter in Paris, who fancies himself daring, scarcely knows
The true horror of his study, for it is but one part of a triptych,
Another adorning the wall of an asylum in Rotterdam, and the last
The sketchbook of an alchemist who hangs by a rope
In his pauper’s garret in Prague;
If Pendleton’s thesis were correct, it didn’t matter how much of my convictions were imaginary, because in the apocalyptic period the imagination is no longer private – like a Noosphere account, it is connected to a wider network. My goal was to find somewhere suitable where I could wait for the apocalypse, and trawl the network for fragmentary glimpses of the bird which was poised to take flight in this new century. Traditionally, a mystic retreats to the stillness of some profound wilderness to await his revelation, but my mind was drawing back to the Harrington/Sheldrake Quarter. It was, in its own way, a desert and a wilderness, albeit one which had accrued human beings and human industry almost as an afterthought.
It was a place where one could feel the immaculate isolation of an icecap or mountaintop, while always retaining the close proximity to a well-stocked supermarket. Its austere style made it like a honeycomb of monastic cells, furnished by Ikea, and equipped with a veritable hair shirt of ultimately desultory and soul-sapping creature comforts. It was a place where you might hear the voice of God, forgotten and placatory, competing with the faint babble of news-readers and advertisers percolating through the walls. I felt a certain nostalgic and sympathetic connection with the Quarter. In the aftermath of Roger Grady’s party, both our fortunes had gone rapidly into decline, mine at the whim of whatever strange constellations steered my disposition ever widdershins, and the Quarters’ owning to its umbilical connection to the general economic health of the nation. After the party, it all seemed to unravel and come undone, private and public fortunes tumbling like dominos which were related to one another only by an invisible nonlocal association, by the vagaries of a sympathetic magic which nobody any longer remembered how to control or manipulate.
First, a score of young socialites OD’d, all aged 23, causing a wave of legal and existential panic to sweep the high-rises. Many celebrities were so spooked that they embraced parenthood and new fitness crazes as a means of escaping the now perilous party circuit; those unwilling to relinquish the lifestyle fell prey to a fog of Byzantine superstition, seeking daily consultation with an ever-expanding motely of tarot readers, geomancers, bio-energy workers, economics Ph.ds, meteorologists, astrologers, Women’s Studies graduates, horse whisperers, sensory deprivation tank savants, influencer marketing gurus, complexity theorists, soccer pundits, poker strategists, string theorists – virtually anybody claiming the possession of elusive foresight or obscure expertise was welcome in this carnival of oracular panic.
In hindsight, the divinatory frenzy which took hold that summer was an instinctive premonitory gesture, a human variant to the skittish behaviour observed in certain animals prior the advent of an earthquake. The financial crash followed soon after, hitting the country’s circulatory system with all the shocking force of a health and safety examination, sprung on a hotel which had, at some indeterminate juncture in the past, handed over the managerial reins to its vermin. Captains of industry and banking magnates, their fortunes overturned in an eye-blink, fled the country in search of more clement bankruptcy laws, like a fleet of organ grinders who had left their hapless monkeys to face the ire of the public and gather up the sputtering wreckage of their barrel organs.
In the brisk upheavals that followed, the dream represented by luxury apartment complexes like the Harrington/Sheldrake Quarter lost all of its lustre and meaning. Outside the city, there were great tracks of completed but never occupied estates which the press labelled “ghost estates”. They were an eerie spectacle, these vacant would-be commuter belts, with their rows of crushingly uniform houses amassed on the city’s outskirts like an army of sedentary Daleks. It was somehow an apt fate for places which had never really been designed for anything but the most abstracted and impoverished notion of human habitation in the first place. In the city itself, the apartment complexes, some half-finished, many lurching into receivership, were a similarly embarrassing reminder of a bygone era of precipitate enthusiasms. Their rental value declined, and landlords were sometimes forced to rent the showpiece penthouses to large groups of students. It was a strange image: children playing innocently in the castoff opulence of models and magnates, while they prepared their minds for a future that no longer existed. It meant, however, that I was able to take an apartment in the Harrington/Sheldrake at a relatively modest rent, and thus began a strange new life – comfortable, languorous, but perilously unstainable; a retreat, an escape, touched by an increasing sense of unreality, and that jittery sense in which unreality hovers on the threshold of dreams and nightmares, before plunging headlong to the embrace of one or the other.
Image: a vision of Hildegard of Bingen. Continued shortly.