It is easy to believe there is another language always present at the edge of hearing, some slight, altogether bewildering shift in what we thought the finite reality called music, a colour no one has seen yet, familiar perhaps to some other people but hidden entirely from us, words with a nuance another tribe would grasp immediately but, to us, forever incomprehensible, something that could have lifted the whole of our lives into another truth, another intensity of joy and coherence and depth, the lost key that would redeem so many wasted years, so much bitterness. It was always so close and simple, like the fragrance of a certain sweet burnt on windy nights when the temperature drops to a level almost but not quite that of snow and the streets hold sound in a different way. For such things enlist no deities. Their truth is all in their simplicity, the richness they give to living, the richness that assures us living is always just a beginning.
Made of the softest wood and manifesting at every step how perishable it is, the star-stair winds upwards and upwards from the dirt floor of the marketplace, a crowded chaotic space where pigs roam at random, beggars and thieves are always jostling against wide-eyed strangers, small girls cradle baby sisters. The tower that houses the star-stair is a thin soaring structure of perhaps 29 or 66 floors, reaching almost to the clouds. The young child named the Goddess of Dawn is said to live there at the summit and on a few occasions has been seen by visitors. All the tower’s passageways are remarkably small, designed perhaps for five year olds while adults need to hunch over tightly to make their way up the stairs. The intervening floors are said to contain the world in miniature.
Every three years the building is first emptied, then burnt to the ground so that a new offering to the sky can be created – either because the wood perishes or because of a fear that magic slips from everything faster than water glides through the fingers of our hands. A new child is then found to be the Goddess. The mysterious thousand rooms that symbolize the world must be shaped once more. In this way the sea that goes away comes back once more.
Returning by boat from Egypt and the Kingdoms of lower Africa I felt listless and ill at ease to be once more on familiar Italian soil. Then in the nightmarkets of Brundisium I came across an at first scarcely intelligible treatise on geography. Carefully inscribed on its front cover was its date of publication: MMMXCV: but from what era or what land? Slowly I began to accumulate a library of books from the future. In them I read of a sequence of world devastations, of the disappearance of the human species not once but several times and, connected to this phenomenon, of the philosopher Irenaeus of Chalcedony who taught that the chief error of the ancients from Socrates to Aristotle, from the cynics to the malcontents, was to imagine the ethical word belonged exclusively to man and not to life. “All imagine”, he says at one point on page 77 of a vanishing treatise on the Interpretation of Sand, “as if individually they would die yet somehow the human species, the human word would survive forever. Let us suppose, instead, it is life not mankind that survives. Let us imagine that the ethical, the beautiful survives forever despite – or because of? – our perishing. Suppose one day in the wider trajectories of the cosmos the ethical, the beautiful will summon back snails, hillsides dotted with yellow flowers and birds with gracious wings, and perhaps, out of a lingering yearning for what passion brings, a young man and woman in their most intense lovemaking, their faces opened entirely to each other as if in those hours they could read in one unbroken gaze all that life utters, the infinite scripture of the world there in the tender curve of a beloved’s face. In that scripture is the totality of surrender, a rippling outwards, what does not seek to clutch but to give.”
We were on the highest terrace where the image of the sea glittered in a wide endless sweep. I do not know how long it was since the last flight of birds had gone, tracing their way beyond the horizon of the visible. Certainly for what seemed an immense trajectory of time nothing stirred or changed beyond the narrow world of the terrace with our few movements of the head or an arm, our slight leaning towards or away from each other, perhaps the momentary gesture of touching a plate of food only to draw back from it. The woman who sat beside me moved forward at one moment as if to kiss me only to draw back, just as our hands, though exquisitely shaping the same air, remained separate. I do not know her age exactly but she seemed very young and kept slipping backwards into the unguarded instant of being an adolescent, almost a girl, ready to love and go on to marry, have children, while I, whatever my real age, drifted steadily into being an old man, half paralysed, my face creased and life-worn, with only a few brief years left. It was a transformation she sensed in me over which I had no control. But a delicacy of absolute longing and stillness held us enraptured for those hours that were at once, though neither our words nor our gestures said this, one unbroken outpouring of love and leave-taking. For so many years, the long years of bitter aloneness, I hated myself for this shame, this desertion by life when life had summoned me. Now at the ending of days I sense only the beauty of her face, the mutual truth of blessing.
Facing the dark and naming it, I remind myself, doesn’t mean wanting to live there. The beauty of the earth is seamless and obeys no logos. It prepares its own remedies – the dream cure, the writing cure, restoration through music. So the return of the sea follows the charter of the moon and tenderness lets life flow back. Inwardly we walk the earth as many people. Outwardly in dimensions visible and invisible our speech, when it has left demands and grievances behind, continues
(from Lucius of Ocampo, Interrogating a lost life – notes towards an autobiographic philosophy)