The moment he realised he was a hero was the exact moment when he knew he would never be a hero again. It was at that instant he knew that what was necessary was almost certainly that which was furthest outside the boundaries of possibility.

As a young man, Stephen had travelled the world, rapidly, and with abandon—fearlessly, some said. Idealist. Schtick. He was big on other people’s dreams. And fulfilling them: To expose them as nothing more then received aspirations – the third-hand smoke of a disinterested Empire: To spite them.

He’d followed the trail, strung farther and farther out across the third world like a garland of adolescent spittle gobs, hiding behind a Lonely Planet – glossy shield against the appetite of some diabolical gorgon.

A pair of low green hills were shaped like a pair of breasts in the Transylvanian mountains when he was 18. He remembered wondering to himself at the time what exactly the point of travelling could possibly be:

If you could go there, why the hell would you want to go anywhere else?

If truth be told, that ambition had never really left him.

Proust reckoned, “the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” Pico Ayer has it that, “one really travels in one’s head”. Colonial Belgian explorer of Central Africa, Jérôme Becker identified the cause of his departure as, “nostalgia for the unknown.” Rimbaud was all about, “traffiking in the unknown”, in his aimless wanderings around same.

In a warped psalm ninety-one to the hard-on of Moses; in the mistaken belief someone wanted to share his sleeping bag for the red-granite sunrise, Stephen sprinted 2000 metres up Mount Sinai with the gold meridian of the sun at his heels.

He crucified himself on a swift and frantic Siamese emigration, like a trans-hemispheric Saint Valentine’s Day martyrer – marking the anniversary of a purple and orange Balinese high with cold memories of a hot rainstorm. He wound himself round the thread of a ballet-dancing Ariadne, tearing himself out of her eyes—Theseus abandoning himself on the beach instead of her. He eclipsed his existence for a glimpse into the diamond life of a Japanese actress with lips like the plumula of an orchid.

He wandered the art galleries, museums and religious monuments of the world, flattening the ostensibly wild, varied and fascinating continuum of his existence into a psychedelic gestalt of unending indulgent stimuli:

If there was ever an aesthete, it was Stephen Darlington.

Nursing Spanish hangovers, he lusted after the Reina Sofia with Picasso’s bent eyes. He saw the womb in Anish Kapoor. He paid for Ubud primitives over the mystery of the feminine. He broke his mind on Vietnam—hallucinating that he wasn’t even there, man. By New York, he couldn’t even look at the walls: Every minute he spent not desperately trying to inveigle himself into the lives of the genetically-stellar made him feel like he had wasted his entire life.

In flight, he escaped on the wings of opened books — delving into the recesses of esoteric knowledge; mining compensatory sapphires.

It didn’t matter that everyone else’s dreams were not his own, he followed them anyway. The long, slow pixel degradation of his unarticulated ambitions exposed the dark fissures in his life, like the black papyrus absences threatening to eclipse the hieratic on the Egyptian Book of Dreams:

British Museum recto 10683

“The dreamy blue of Italian skies, the dappled shade of summer woods, and the sparkle of waves in the sun, can have accorded but ill with that stern and sinister figure.”

-James George Frazer, The Golden Bough, 1890 – 1935

Freud believed that neuroticism is the inability to tolerate ambiguity; that contagious magic is a delusion of the neurotic – that things once in contact with each other do not continue to act on one another after physical contact has been severed.

Keats wrote that poetry is the ability to hold equal and opposite ideas in the mind at the same time—that an equal propensity for the greatest ecstasy and the greatest despair at one and the same moment is eminently necessary.

No wonder those men had a go at the face of the sphinx: The inscrutability of the silent and unknowable ancient enigma is impenetrable and absolute. But Oedipus beat the riddle with his head, didn’t he? He didn’t rely on torso alone.

“The mind is what one must consider, the mind. What is the use of physical beauty, when one does not have beauty in the mind?”

-Euripides, Oedipus, fr. 548

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Andy is a freelance magazine writer and editor from the North of England. He has rapidly divested himself of his life and reassembled it so many times in so many different countries over the last several years that he feels like his hair is on fire. He is at work on a novel ostensibly about the British Empire.

10 responses to “She – A History of (Miss) Adventure”

  1. Kip Tobin says:

    Borges. Jose Luis. This very much reminds me of him. I picked up Ficciones yesterday and started reading “El jardín de los senderos que se bifurcan”, then flipped to a couple other stories and vignettes of his. And you, good sir, remind me of him, especially in this “travel” entry.

    Borges has always represented for me an otherworldly intellect, on a plane with the most esoteric of writers (such as Joyce, Pynchon, Nabokov), and I must admit that to read him is to require multilple re-readings coupled with some criticism of the work and a dictionary of symbols and arcane references, in order to get deeper into what exactly is in the page that I’m reading. I need a ruler to read Borges, as is the case here with your entry. I feel that I could benefit from reading or at least getting a summary of: Pico Ayer, Jérome Becker, Anish Kapoor, Ubud history, JG Frazer and, of course, a refresher on Oedipus.

    This piece has the makings of some autobiography? Stephen has traveled to where you have, seeking out something vaguely representing a dream. It’s also interspersed with (what I believe to be) your intellectual pursuits, classic mythology and lasting writers. It is fiction mixed with nonfiction? Or is it just all nonfiction? I can’t tell, really.

    Is this the opening of Empireland?

    You and I have always gone back and forth regarding heart/soul and head in writing, and I see no need to go into it here. I will say that I think that what your writing here, no matter how cultish and esoteric it may come off at times, will always find an audience.

    • I think the first stuff I read which I really did not fully understand was Lewis Carroll, then Kafka, then Borges; then Joyce and all the modernist nutters; Becket, and on to Pynchon… I think what all of these writers share, to a greater or lesser extent, is the ability to create a unified stream of ideas which really does not make complete logical sense outside of the mental space the writer actively creates, and, most importantly, actively trusts. They manage to produce a seemingly unending gestalt which is an absolute joy to take part in, or even just to sit in front of. I can only really liken it to the experience of psychedelics (which is possibly another reason why I love all of them so much).

      The inter-textuality, of some modernist stuff especially, is so esoteric as to be a massive joke—an infinite jest—and most often, intentionally so – especially Joyce and Pynchon.

      How anyone could possibly know what the poet is referring to in the following lines from the middle of ‘The Pisan Cantos’ is totally beyond me,

      Sirdar, Bouiller and Les Lilas,
      or Dieudonné London, or Voisin’s
      Uncle George stood like a statesman ‘ΡΕΙ ΙΙΑΠΤΑ

      What restaurants Ezra Pound remembers going to in Paris, or what that Greek expression means—or even how you pronounce it—really doesn’t make any difference to how much pleasure the characters on the page transmit into a strange liminal space in your head, somewhere between understanding and total perplexity—between concreteness and ambiguity: between autobiography and poetry—which can’t be easily located, or explained. Doesn’t life also constantly hover precariously between these things? It certainly does for me.

      David Foster Wallace referred to his footnoting as his way of experiencing a fragmented, overstimulated reality. All of the above use their own techniques to communicate differing degrees of existential perplexity. David Lynch, quoted in the latest The Point (which you really have to get hold of, Kip), refers to his own creative process thus, and it don’t get any clearer than this for me:

      “It’s a risk, but I have this feeling that because all things are unified, this idea over here in that room will somehow relate to that idea over there in the pink room.”

      Oh, and yes, it’s a sketch for ‘Empire Land’.

  2. Simon Smithson says:

    Andy, I’ve come to enjoy your pieces very much. Left of my usual reading, and yet triggers for some wonderful new thoughts in my head (although the phrase ‘and yet’ is probably poorly-used here).

  3. chas says:

    I love Borges, amazing ideas in his ficciones, and the golden bough is certainly interesting but I think this entry suffers a little from trying to be too wordy and sophisticated…

  4. Andy Johnson says:

    Agreed, on Borges. Indeed, possibly too wordy – there are at least 700 words here. How many is too many, sir? 😉

    Not sure if I’m trying to be sophisticated, I just think I am sophisticated. The gulf between reality and ego is an interesting area – which is basically what the book is about.

    I am trying not to be obvious, mainly. Ambiguity is much more interesting. All that terse, declarative subject+verb+object minimalism drives me round the bend. Cormac McCarthy’s sentences are so minimal, a lot of them don’t even have verbs in them for christ’s sake!

    Let’s hear it for Proust! Borges! etc!

    • Kip Tobin says:

      I personally think both types or writers are valid, and both angles that (at least to me) represent the type of psychological fragmentation in which we spend a lot of our lives. I think a Borges story can be jam packed with so much information, much of it obscure and not immediately accessible, and I think McCarthy can weave a bleak almost seemingly monologue-ish tale laden with just enough hope to keep you going.

      I don’t think one is better than the other, just different. And obviously they have different audiences. Borges and Proust are read by a small minority, usually comprised of intellectuals and academics, and they’ve been kept busy for decades trying to eek out more meaning in their texts. And Cormac reps a sort of modern-day Hemingway on the border, a life imbued with horror and fear, with very matter-of-fact description. But his writing still carries a beauty within.

      To prefer one over the other reflects more of what one person’s tends towards in their artistic and intellectual proclivities.

      That’s all.

  5. Andy Johnson says:

    Agreed. Both totally valid. I’m referring to the prevailing fashion of language more than the language itself.

    I just think that the ubiquitous idea that simpler is better is wrong. It would be stupefyingly boring if everyone tried to write like Proust, or Joyce, or if everyone tried to write like Hemmingway, or Cormac McCarthy. The problem I have is that, so often, the second of those two options seems to be the default setting for most writers – perhaps mainly because it is thought (wrongly) to be “easier”. It has been acceptable, and fashionable, to decry syntax that has any more than a couple of clauses for quite some time, and I suspect it’s a sign of the times. Who has time to read Proust?

    “Get there, Marcel – faster! What do you mean, exactly? Come on – quicker than that, I haven’t got time for this fannying around, I’ve got stuff to do…”

    I still think McCarthy is Hemmingway with leprosy. By no stretch of the imagination is this a sentence:

    “Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before.”
    The Road

    I have yet to see some kind of mimetic justification for the strident verblessness. Is it an expression of language itself breaking down in the teeth of the apocalypse? If so, I’m not sure it totally works.

    However, for balance – I do think this is an incredible sentence:

    “He ate.”
    No Country for Old Men

  6. tip robin says:

    So, are you malcontent with McCarthy as a writer or the writers who imitate him/his style in terms of simplicity? This is not clear based on what you wrote.

    Constance said she didn’t like McCarthy because it reminded her too much of Faulkner, albeit stripped down. And all this brabbling is rather humorous because between Hemingway and Faulkner there was a rather vitriolic rivalry: Faulkner thought Hemingway’s prose was too simple, too easy, whereas Hemingway thought that a reader shouldn’t be obliged to go to a dictionary in order to read a writer’s work. I think both of their geniuses were valid, and I think this comparison serves well enough to allude to the styles of McCarthy vs Borges/Proust.

    You constantly decry the nonusage of verbs, as if every single sentence should be structured noun+verb+object (or clauses substituted for each one). Without varying them with longer and shorter sentences, they too can get old (see or listen to the Building Great Sentences lecture I sent you). I’ve always been told that breaking grammatical structure can have its place if it is to emphasize or illuminate something. And so, while I admit that the McCarthy sentence that lacks a subject is not grammatically correct, in the context of a larger paragraph, it could be very useful to reinforce or add on to what else he was saying. In fact, for me, his writing has to be taken in a larger context, and for the story he told in The Road, I thought his style was apt if not ideal for it. That wasn’t a story any other contemporary writer could’ve told. The simplicity of the style served the bleak, blurry picture of the environ very well. For me.

  7. Andy Johnson says:

    I just think it’s a bit of an ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ situation with McCarthy… Just because dropping verbs from your sentences hasn’t been done before doesn’t necessarily mean it is worth doing, or has to be done. I think if a writer is that bold with breaking the rules – they have to be able to justify it. I’d really like to hear McCarthy’s own justification for removing the verbs. I found ‘The Road’s verbless sentences intensely annoying to read, just as I did the argot of ‘A Clockwork Orange’ or ‘Trainspotting’, until the realisation hits home about 50 pages in that there’s a beautifully realised reason for the conceit, bubbling under the esoteric surface of the language.

    I only agree with Hemmingway obliquely – a reader shouldn’t be obliged to re-read a sentence to get what the sense of it is. But different readers will have lesser or greater ranges of vocabulary: Some will possibly have to use a dictionary, some will not. Anyone who has even a moderate grasp of a language can work out what words are verbs, adjectives and nouns, even if they have never seen them before, and they can choose if they want to look them up or not. Arbitrarily legislating for relative degrees of ‘reader ignorance’ aforethought is to ameliorate communication, and to pull a punch instead of to really deliver it.

    In the writing I really like, language is employed for rhythm, sound, look and feel, as much as it is for exact conveyance of meaning. A great deal of Borges, Pynchon, Joyce and the rest is mere psychic kaballa; wild midrash conveying experience rather than logical precision.

    What on earth does this really mean, for example?…

    “Morituri years later in the street, over the radio, they never failed to bring back the unwritten taste of that night, the three of them at the edge of a deepness none could sound … some last reprise of the European thirties he had never known … which are also for him a particular room, a salon in the afternoon” etc. etc. etc.
    -Thomas Pynchon, ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’, 1974

    It is no accident that a full stop is also known as a “period”. There is a temporal experience to be had before the capital and the full stop, and every sentence should be made as enjoyable as it possibly can be for the period during which the mind is subjected/exposed to it, from “He ate.” to the least sentence of ‘Ulysses’.

    Doesn’t it increase the richness of a piece of writing if the language is unconventional? A piece that points towards new areas of learning is arguably all the more valuable, isn’t it?

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