When they were wild
When they were not yet human
When they could have been anything,
I was on the other side ready with milk to lure them,
And their father, too, each name a net in his hands.
Birth, by Louise Erdrich (1989)
Memoirs of a Utopian1
[…] find the point where we begin. Name it as beginning. We know very little about before. We know that there was madness, pain, cruelty. Before was scarcity, and war, and hunger; oppression, alienation, and feverish desperation. We know after, there was purity.
Utopia: it began. The after begins with Utopos: lightning strike that ruptured our lives and made us strangers to ourselves. Before, we were like the angel; flung headlong by the winds of time, impotent spectators to the chaos we wrought. We dreamt, in our strife, of a tranquil past, and a future where the winds changed, but those dreams only gave shape to our ruin. We know it was terrible, and that is all we know. Until he came, that impossible breach: One-Eyed, One-Armed; Magician-Emperor and Jurist-King.
He caught us and named us: Utopians, and in that name he cast us. He carved our island like a god, and carved our crooked timber straight. The angel rejoiced, finding herself suddenly in an eddy. We all spun around our new being, a thing of nature: at peace in our dwelling; gratifying to our gods; implacable in our righteous joy. We worked the land and watched the island bloom. Our cities grew strong and prosperous while we were kind to each other, and spoke of educated things. We were pure, and would produce only purity.
Of course, it was not to be. We should have known from the beginning. Those that were conquered were severed in two by the lightning; a mess of instinct and torn culture. As if a thin line of humans could seal the borders of redemption! Many were a sorry sight, not often spoken of; a huddled mass of Mephistopheles turned inside-out. Suicide became commonplace, and sacred prohibition swiftly followed. Our Priests granted permission to some, too dangerous to be saved. Others they denied, and when they found them dead they called them dirt, and sank them in the swamps. Others still were enslaved.
That unfortunate generation died lonely deaths, surrounded by children they didn’t understand. Children of the event, blind to the deformities of the past wrestling the present, who couldn’t know the life that shaped their elders. Children who despised those relics for their weaknesses, and never saw their diversity as strength; who never saw the weakness in their own purity, nor the hard cruelty of it. They marched over other nations, and stole their land with clean conscience. Broken legions begged for their property at the feet of our Priests.
Because we never ceased to move. Now we realize, as we stand victorious over this subdued world, that we never ceased to move. Time’s true arrow did not die but twist; became Time’s helter-skelter. A hurricane grew, blowing a wind more fierce than we had ever known. Many remained impervious, placid in the confines of the gentle centre. But many others were flung into the violent gyre to join those strangers we despised; the world swallowed in Utopia.
We had thought our fearful sphere would be without circumference; that its perfect heart would encompass everywhere. For a time it seemed true, while the process was extinguished in conquered lands and contented stomachs. But gradually its limits became clearer, as our means were picked out in suffering for all to see. With each passing generation, more people stamped as scum are spattered on the walls by our dreadful purity, and we begin to wonder what monsters we have become.
But you want something to hold on to. I understand. You want a bit of stability in your life. You like routine. You like to walk the same steps every day. I could capture your vital statistics in a time-lapse photo.
The Sayer of the Law 2 vs. Tadashi Harai 3
When I spoke, it was the Law that spoke through me, and it was He whose will echoed in that Law, and it was we who were made. He was Master of the Island, whose power was transcendent and touched us basely, grossly. His was an implacable reason and purity of vision; it could only touch this aberrant world as a knife touches unwrought flesh, and this world could only ever disappoint Him.
We know nothing of you and your dreams, but we know they are not our own.
Moreau caught us and called us Men. Within His House He tore us from our sleep of savagery and opened our unwilling eyes. We awoke to pain – such agony of nerve and sinew – and the terrible fear that we knew not what we were. In His mercy, he bound us with the Law, taught us the shame and guilt of our own desires, and made us what we could be.
Hear the rhythm of the Law that confines us – are we not men? The repetition that pretends reality – are we not men? – is naught but skin and air. The plea that pretends to assertion, sealing in plain sight the truth that we are all taught not to know – for are we not men?
A king’s word is our command. Our freedom is to control that word.
We were men, and had to learn the Law, to be men and to bear that Law. Yet those shackles could not save us from ourselves. We tore them from us with screams that echoed through the jungle. Moreau was overmastered by the brute; a thing too monstrous and free for His nets. In our revolt we found our freedom, but in our freedom we found ourselves caught, still.
We are our own visitors and ghosts.
This place is now an isle of specters. We cannot slip back into forgetfulness, and so we struggle, forever distant from ourselves. I am the only one who holds to His faded edicts, these ill-fitting clothes, though some I have discarded, and others still created, to suit. With my second birth I became a ruin that only now I recognize truly.
We survive among elements of our own demise.
The promise held out to us, the promise with which, in our fear, we so gratefully chained ourselves, the promise of understanding that spoke to us from the clear and calm eyes of our Creator, is now laid bare as wicked dissimulation. The crumbling House, where we were opened up and given over defenseless into knowledge – in Its own decay from creeping life and pernicious time the House casts in mocking relief any dreams of past or future peace.
Reason promised much, but in the end led blindly, forever restless and incomplete, and we were ill-prepared for such a heavy burden.
We are beyond death, for we are already ghosts, and we live, even now, against the skeleton of our emergence into the past by these, our undeniable words.
Are we not men? And as such, are we not defaced? Perhaps if we were not the end of our kind, perhaps if we could be more than an impossible and effaced beginning…
If you ask “Why is Thekla’s construction taking such a long time?” the inhabitants continue hoisting sacks, lowering leaded strings, moving long brushes up and down, as they answer “So that it’s destruction cannot begin.” And if asked whether they fear that, once the scaffoldings are removed, the city may begin to crumble and fall to pieces, they add hastily, in a whisper, “Not only the city.”
[…] “Where is the plan you are following, the blueprint?” […] Work stops at sunset. Darkness falls over the building site. The sky is filled with stars. “There is the blueprint,” they say.
(from Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino)
Notes on approaching certain Cities (a political aesthetic) 4
At the heart of order, power squats, knotted in mutilated motley. A two-state solution, licit and ill, the counter-power’s naught but simple repetition, no escape there. But within each thing a crisis rises, life-force driving life-force driving, scaffolding shakes as the building burgeons free of long-despised impositions of form and use and propriety. Rebellion foments among intestines on slick-floored abattoirs where hidden presses print pamphlets that open up Leviathan, and enumerate its guts. This life-blood turns and carries some to yearning, to hatred, fuels some to split in two, slip between the nets of names and come out in the sewers, freer. So around and in-between they find the Rat-Man, new breed, smiling in the rot and caught – never now – by neither piper, play as they might, threaten as they might. Their melodies are incomplete, his desire more than they can contain. But how to live without such trapping comfort, how to think? The work is hard, and the outcome uncertain; who knows where the train goes? But they know it lays tracks of its own.
|[...] to alwaysbegin. And never efface beginning. To be a ruin and acknowledge the ruin as truth, not as more-or-less corrupted impossibility. Not to dismiss the past as pathology. To know the savagery within the civilized. To continue to build with imperfect materials on crumbling foundations, in full dismissal of failure as a foolish measurement against an infinite goal. To confront our own partiality and our ultimate inability to confront it, and endeavor not to mask it under nacreous dreams. To know that life is not a story, though we tell it like one, and to grasp this telling with both hands, against dictation. To reject the given language of Truth, and know yourself as an equal participant in its creation. To relish the slippages and the ambiguities that excite. To understand that purity is both the motor and the death of life, and the limit point by which equality and love are seduced and suffocated. To know, finally that there is no paradox or dirt or pollution but what we ourselves perceive. And nothing new under the sun without these fertile soils.|
Imagine our little Eden, our closed whole; pure in its rhythm of eternal return. So long a looping feedback of death and birth, reaffirmation, reinforcement – set loose like burst and flailing hoses. New forms gush out, and the old sink in their deluge. Suddenly there is growth and change, history and ruin.
Our own creations outpace us, turn and confront us, and we dream of the rest that never was. In our flight, we lament for what we lost when consciousness took us.
Now we run from the eternal return, looking for a life that will bear repetition. But never will there be a clear beginning to this return. Only perhaps a return that, in returning, marks this impossible beginning.
1 Utopia by Thomas More
2 “I am the Sayer of the Law,” said the grey figure. “Here come all that be new to learn the Law. I sit in the darkness and say the Law.” (From The Island of Dr. Moreau by H. G. Wells)
3 A madman, founder and solitary inhabitant of the utopia Kanzennashima. (From Slow Action; dir. Ben Rivers)
4 Perdido Street Station; The Scar; Iron Council; King Rat; Embassytown by China Miéville