Mount Kailash stands 6638 metres above sea level in the Tibet Autonomous Region of China, near the borders of both India and Tibet. In Hinduism, the mountain is identified as the abode of Lord Shiva, God of Destruction and of Time, and the primal Self of the entire universe.
The idea of depicting India in foreshortened perspective from the Himalayas comes from a similar view of Italy from the Alps in a cartoon by the Italian comics artist Andrea Pazienza.
Marcel Proust’s seven-volume magnum opus, À la recherche du temps perdu, is often cited as the greatest novel of the twentieth century. Four completed volumes in, I feel this is an assessment I could definitely see myself subscribing to. Long before I braved the first line of its first volume, however, Proust’s novel cycle had already won me over to its unquestionable greatness through the words that the reader encounters even before the first chapter: Those of its title. The greatest novel of the twentieth century may very well have the best title as well. I have always found “À la recherche du temps perdu” to be one of the most evocative, musical, and poetical phrases imaginable. And yet, it is so simple, so seemingly straightforward (even as it subtly plays on the double meaning of “temps perdu” as “wasted time” or as “time gone forever,” as well as, perhaps, on a double meaning for “recherche,” as a spiritual quest and as a kind of methodical investigation). And then there is just some intangible mystery and incantatory magic conjured up by those few words that I would need Proust’s attunement to the subtlest shades of aesthetic and emotional experience to properly put my finger on.
I’m fairly sure that the first time I heard the title as a child, it was in its Italian translation, “Alla ricerca del tempo perduto.” This literal transposition is, to my ears, perhaps even more beautiful than the original (This may have to do with the fact that the translated title constitutes a hendecasyllable, the principle meter of Italian poetry). The standard English translation of the title, on the other hand, is unfortunately far less successful: “In Search of Lost Time” retains none of the poetic rhythm of the original, and also somehow fails to replicate the poignant sense of irretrievableness evoked by “perdu.” This probably explains why Proust’s novel was first translated into English with the less literal and in its own way admirably straightforward title of “Remembrance of Things Past.”
(Interestingly, my encounter in two stages with “la Recherche,” first through its title and then only many years afterwards through actually reading it, resonates with one of the main themes developed throughout the novel. This is that the image we first develop in our minds of a person or a place is determined in large part by whatever qualities or associated ideas and images that their names connote for us. Later, when we actually become personally acquainted with those persons or places, we lose that initial conception of them in our imagination, which in some ways will always have been more captivating to us than the experience of the real thing. To underscore this theme there are two sections early on in the novel titled “Noms de pays : le nom” and “Noms de pays : le pays” (“Place names: the name” and “Place names: the place”). In the case of my own experience of the novel so far, I can hardly say that it has been a letdown when compared to the image that I had built up of it in my head from the title. It is, as I say, as deeply satisfying a masterpiece as one could hope for. On the other hand, there is no actual novel-reading experience that could quite materialize that mysterious power which Proust’s title has held out to me from a very early age.)
Another, wholly unrelated thing that has long struck me about Proust’s title is the way that, in its basic overall structure, it could almost be the title of an action-adventure film (perhaps an unusually slow-moving and introspective installment in the Indiana Jones franchise) or else of an old-fashioned adventure comic, such as a Tintin album. It is this last association that is made explicit in this little divertissement.
According to Chogya beliefs, it is possible for individual souls to reincarnate into lives chronologically antecedent to the ones that they have just lived through. This would seem to open the door to a number of potential temporal paradoxes, were it not for the fact that the soul is reborn with the memory of its previous life wiped clean. Thus, one relives the new life in exactly the same way that that particular life has already been lived every other time before. It is notable that Chogyans do not view this state of affairs as limiting one’s free will. This is because one’s own free will will have become that of the new person one now is (This can feel a bit counterintuitive to the uninitiated).
A few esoteric Chogyan sects, however, believe that it is possible to preserve some memory of one’s present life in one’s next reincarnation. Generally, these sects believe that such a feat has never yet been realized, or only very partially. However, once the person (referred to as a Manyabi, or one who is doubly living) is born into this world with a somewhat complete memory of his or her previous life, it is thought that this individual will then be able to begin consciously manipulating the settled historical order of things, reconfiguring the world into a better place. This can be accomplished either by bringing back lost knowledge from the past (if the Manyabi is born into a future era) or (if the Manyabi is born into a past era) by striving to correct or eliminate those things that the Manyabi already knows will have negative consequences on the future. Moreover, the Manyabi’s manifest ability to remember a previous life would encourage others to also devote their lives to preserving their memories for use in their next reincarnation. Thus, in due course, the world would be filled with other Manyabi, and life on Earth would eventually be completely altered, systematically transformed into a living paradise.
The methods by which these “manyabic” sects go about trying to preserve their memories differs from one community of devotees to the other. Some advocate writing down in a notebook every last detail of one’s day at the very same moment that one is living it and then rereading all these minutiae to oneself before going to sleep each night. Others seek to constantly expose themselves to a specific smell or taste. This, it is hoped, will then serve as the catalyst, upon encountering it in the next life, for the reconstruction of an entire edifice of memory. For the monks of the Tanaliska monastery (located on the small island of Tanaliska, just to the west of the larger island of Rateliska in Rejoma Bay), the key to not forgetting the life one is living now after one is reborn into the next one is to attempt to experience every moment as much as possible on two levels of consciousness: On one level, monks will try to engage with and act on their train of thoughts in what one might think of as an “ordinary” mode of consciousness. On a simultaneous second level, however, they will attempt to observe their every thought from an “outsider’s perspective,” as though their conscious thoughts were being “participated in” by another consciousness. This mental state, which is obviously extremely difficult to achieve, is thought to resemble the one that one would experience as a Manyabi.
A key element in the Tanaliska monks’ spiritual practice is the ascension of a structure in the monastery grounds popularly referred to in Sensuka as the “Stairway to Nowhere.” This stone construction is indeed a free-standing staircase. Its steps, while quite wide at the base, get progressively narrower as they go up. The last step, which faces onto a twenty-five-metre drop, is barely wider than a thumbnail. Once every week, each monk in turn will walk up the staircase, mounting as many of the steps as their confidence in their sense of balance or lack of attachment to their material self-preservation will allow, before making the decision to turn back. While making the climb, monks are at all times in a mode of extreme focus both on the present moment (maintaining their balance) and on weighing what to do next (whether or not to risk each additional, progressively more precarious step). In this manner they experience—if only temporarily—the mode of double consciousness which is their constant objective.
The stairway at Tanaliska is very famous in Sensuka. One often hears it evoked in conversation as a metaphor for a multitude of things, including life itself. As the monks are fond of saying, however, the stairway should by no means be thought of as leading to nowhere: Its ascension will, at the very least, lead to a better understanding of one’s own present limits. In the most extreme eventuality, it will precipitate one’s reincarnation into a new existence. And if one should happen to pass from this life into another in such a state of heightened awareness as is experienced just before falling off the staircase, how much greater are the chances that one’s soul will awaken into its new existence with its former consciousness still intact. In that moment, one will enter the state of grace of the Manyabi, in which an entire lifetime of experience meets the infinite possibility of a life only just begun.
This year again I was commissioned by the Montreal financial services firm ASSURART Inc. to create an image for their company holiday card. The scene is set at the intersection of rue Hickson and rue de Verdun, a few blocks from where I live in the Verdun neighbourhood of Montreal.
The earliest inhabitants of the region of Sensuka were water worshippers. They looked upon the clouds as constituting the genitals of the Great Divine Water Being, from which all waters originally sprang forth. It was water’s floating, condensed form that was thought to constitute the initial state from which the eternal hydrologic cycle—the prerequisite of all life—was first set in motion. Furthermore, the chaotic, ever-shifting clouds were viewed as the crucible in which individual clusters of water particles were assigned the particular shapes they would later manifest on Earth. Once they had been implanted in the ground through the life-giving rains, these waters would then re-emerge from the earth in a multiplicity of solid, animate forms. This process was thought to constitute the origins of all living things, including human beings.
This ancient belief in the role of clouds in determining human destiny lives on in Sensuka in the modern practice of cloud divination—the foretelling of future events through the observation of the shape, movement, colour, and position of clouds in the sky. (Also known as nephomancy, cloud divination is not to be confused with the wholly unrelated and notoriously inaccurate practice of meteorology.)
Owing to the number of variables involved, cloud divination is one of the most difficult of the prophetic arts. It is consequently the exclusive purview of a caste of specially trained priests. Though their “readings” of clouds can theoretically be carried out from any vantage point, there are certain sites that are held to be especially propitious to this purpose. In Sensuka, official cloud prophecies are always obtained from the cloud temple atop the hill of Marikora, at the city’s northwestern limits. The actual viewing of clouds takes place on a raised circular platform at the front of the temple, overlooking the Bay of Rilito. At an appointed time each day, a temple priest will take a seat at the centre of the platform. He will remain there for a period of up to several hours, dictating all significant observations to a scribe sitting beside him. These nephomantic annotations are then brought to the other temple priests, who set about properly interpreting them.
Because cloud divination relies on so much specialized labour, its use tends to be reserved to the imperial authorities and the very wealthy. For ordinary Sensukans, who will never profit from its prognostications, it appears to be just the general idea of the practice that is found to be oddly soothing. When, in the midst of all the day’s fretting and rushing about, people happen to look up at the clouds, and for a brief moment become aware once more of the marvelous, otherworldly spectacle that forms the backdrop of our lives, it serves as a reminder that the real game is elsewhere, that, ultimately, it’s all out of our hands. This month’s earnings, the coming harvest, the people our children grow up to be, the way our heart breaks, the hour of our death: Everything has already been determined; it is already written up there somewhere, in the tumbling battlements of the cumulonimbi or the rippled dunes of the altostratus. Our fates are sealed; there is no point in worrying about anything too much.
The view is from a hill in the Peleosti district, overlooking a skyline dominated by the dome of the Chogyan Temple of Tofa, the Luck Goddess. Occupying the majority of the picture plane, however, is a close-up depiction of what is known as a dimadini—a “bird temple.”
Although Chogya is the official state religion, all faiths are tolerated within the empire, provided they do not proselytize. The ban on seeking converts was put in place by the empress Nanèh, whose reign saw the beginning of the empire’s deliberate inward turn. It is an injunction that presents a particular challenge for the few surviving adherents of the Liùkeh religion. Followers of this ancient creed believe that the qualitative conditions of the life into which they will be reincarnated after death is determined by how well they accomplish a specific set of religious duties, and these include securing a certain amount of converts to the faith.
Liùkhites have found an ingenious way around this problematic situation, however, one that takes advantage of the vagueness of the definition of conversion as presented in their sacred texts. Unlike the Chogyans, who believe the transmigration of the soul to occur only between human lives, the Liùkeh faith also countenances the possibility of humans reincarnating into animals, and vice versa. Since animals are thus included in the ever-turning wheel of existence, it makes sense to think that they too might take an interest in the cultivation of their eternal souls. Liùkhites, therefore, have set about proselytizing to animals. The hope is that the animal converts will later be reincarnated as human beings. These newly born men and women, it is thought, will then be naturally predisposed to spontaneously converting to the Liùkeh faith. Once this happens, they will in turn work to win more animal followers. And so on it will go, until the day that Liùkhism is the religion not only of all human beings, but of all living creatures on Earth.
In Sensuka, the Liùkhites’ conversion efforts are largely directed at birds, for which they build intricately carved miniature wooden temples. These structures are then suspended from the boughs of trees and filled with seeds, so as to entice the birds inside. The two men sitting cross-legged on a carpet and looking up intently at the dimadini are two Liùkhite devotees. They have been appointed with the task of determining exactly how many individual birds attend this place of worship on a regular basis. These they will then enumerate as official converts in their sacred records. To those amused Sensukans who point out that the birds are clearly only visiting the dimadini for the seeds, the Liùkhites reply that religion must always endeavor to meet individuals on their own terms.
I recently sat down (well, on Zoom, so I had probably already been sitting for a while) for a conversation with Charity Hill of the podcast Bright Wings: Children’s Books to Make the Heart Soar. Our exchange centered around the relationship between comics and poetry and the notion of beauty in comics, particularly as compared to the more traditional fine arts and to literature.
We had so much to say on the subjects that our conversation spilled over into a second installment of the podcast!
Orepi Tower is perhaps Sensuka’s most iconic building. Even those foreigners who know next to nothing about the city may recognize it as “that barber’s pole tower.” The tower was built under the empress Nanéh as a monument to her deceased predecessor, Bulodi I, the founder of Sensuka. This very narrow cylindrical structure is over 90 metres tall and decorated with two bands of marble, one white and one red, which wrap themselves in a spiral all the way up to the slightly overhanging cupola at its summit. The bas-relief sculptures that ascend along the white marble band depict the many exploits of the Eunuch Emperor through his rise to power and reign. Those on the red marble depict all of the native terrestrial animal species found throughout the empire, chasing after one another in a descending order from the tiger at the summit to the gnat at the base, in a kind of didactic illustration of the food chain.
From the time of its construction, however, the citizens of Sensuka have always suspected that Orepi Tower serves more than just a commemorative purpose. The tower is integrated into the corner of a government building at the northern end of the Orepi peninsula, near where the Juminta River empties into Sensuka Bay. It therefore stands on the least elevated ground of the city centre, and Sensuka’s three main hills, Labeosti, Labetachi, and Peleosti, rise at a more or less equal distance from it to the West, North, and East respectively. Given this fact, it is easy to see how a person positioned behind the narrow windows in the tower’s crowning cupola, particularly if equipped with a powerful telescope, would have an unrivalled view over the goings-on in the entire amphitheatre-like valley within which the great majority of the capital is built. Soon after the tower’s completion, word spread that the structure was manned by a watchman—or a rotating guard of watchmen—whose task it was to survey the city at all hours of the day (and even at night, taking advantage of any illuminated windows).
Jim Avis’s video adaptation of my comics rendition of John Philip Johnson’s beautifully unsettling poem, “Stairs appear in a Hole Outside of Town.” The poem is read by the author himself.
Side note: I’ve recently become very intrigued by the aesthetic and psychological concept of “liminal space.” The term–from the Latin “limen”(threshold)–refers to those transitional spaces of modern life, such as corridors, stairwells, parking lots, shopping mall atriums, and so on, which we move through without really noticing them, but which, when seen in a slightly different light, such as in a photograph devoid of human figures, may fill us with a strange kind of unease. One may even get the feeling, when experiencing these spaces in this “slightly off” fashion, that they hold another kind of liminal quality, that they are hinting at some kind of vaguely apprehended transition point into a different reality. There has been quite a bit of interest in this concept on the internet in recent years, although (not surprisingly) I’ve only just become aware of it now. Anyways, it occurs to me that this poem is quite a striking demonstration of the uncanny pull of such liminal spaces.
Jim Avis has put together a haunting animated version of my comics interpretation of “Not Waving But Drowning,” a poem by the English poet Stevie Smith (1902-1971). The excellent reading is by Janet Harris.