Views of an Imaginary City 38: Along the Nachilagolu

The Nachilagolu (“Long Canal”) connects the Juminta River just above Cherufi Falls to the imperial shipbuilding yards at Kulidaseh. After descending a number of locks near the falls, the canal runs for the rest of its course through a flat area still mainly devoted to rice farming, though a few industries, particularly garment factories and tanneries, have grown up along its banks. The print presents us with a view of the canal in late autumn. Two workmen are carrying the body of a man that has just been fished out of the water with the use of the long, hooked pole being held by a third workman. The men are about to load the corpse onto the mule-drawn cart by the side of the road, after which it will be taken to be disposed of in the Great Krokuta Pit (see n. 13).

The figure of the dead man is hard to make out, and we are not given any indication as to how he ended up in the canal. We can presume from the casual attitude of the workmen, however, that he is considered to be a person of no account. It seems likely that the artist intends us to view this death—either by murder, suicide, or an intoxicated stumble—as constituting the predictable conclusion of a difficult and painful life’s journey. At the same time, the very anonymity conferred upon the deceased by his small size serves as a reminder that his fate could potentially represent that of any number of the figures appearing in the other prints. All throughout the “Fifty-Two Views” series, the city’s inhabitants are, for the most part, depicted on a very small scale. It is easy to forget that each one of those tiny heads is carrying within it whole other unseen landscapes. Who can say what wild, tormenting waves are crashing down over those often almost antlike figures, or what lonely wastelands lie spread out before them in every direction, as far as the eye can see?

The wayside shrine in the foreground is dedicated to Todafon, the founder of Chogya, who preached the immortality of the soul through reincarnation. Its inclusion within the image can be read as a consolatory reminder that the soul of the unfortunate drowned man will be reborn anew within another life experience—hopefully, a far happier one.

Todafon taught that there is an eternal set of human lives. Although these lives exist in a chronological relation to one another, after death, individual souls may be reincarnated into lives taking place in periods that are antecedent, subsequent, or contemporary to their previous ones. Not only, then, is each soul destined to live on eternally in an endless succession of life experiences, but each life experience itself is destined to be endlessly relived by a succession of different souls. Even the very unhappy lives, such as this one that has just ended.

At this very moment, according to Chogya beliefs, another soul has commenced to live this same man’s life from the very beginning. The whole tragic concatenation of difficult early circumstances, disastrous key decisions, a truly epic unrequited love story, consistently and mercilessly ground-up hopes, and a stubborn inability to assimilate a certain crucial life lesson is destined to repeat itself again and again, for all eternity. If true, this is an appalling state of affairs, to be sure. But the vastness of human suffering is such that no belief system can ever offer a truly satisfactory justification for it. It may be counted as a point in favour of Chogya that it never even attempts to do so.

There is also an odd sort of nobility that this concept of endless recurrence seems to bestow upon even the most pitiful of existences. Their reiteration elevates them into something eternal and—potentially—to be shared by all humanity. For those unfortunate souls condemned to live through these sad lives, there is solace in knowing that others have come before and others will come after them. They are never truly alone in their private pain. All of this has been gone through already and will be gone through again. Others have understood—others will understand—exactly how it feels to feel this way.

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Video of “Views of an Imaginary City 14: The Laughing Willow”

Another “vidiette” by Jim Avis adapted from one of my “52 Views of an Imaginary City.” Many more of these coming soon!

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Views of an Imaginary City 29: Interior in Korkidèh

29. Interior in Korkidèh

We are in the well-appointed bedchamber of an upper-class Sensukan home. The residence is located in the Korkidèh district, as is evident from the yellow-and-green tiled “seashell dome” of the Rimo temple visible through the door opening in the right foreground. As is typical of the homes of all Sensukans, rich or poor, the interior is sparsely furnished. The room contains only a wooden chest, some sitting cushions, a small table, and a bed/couch known as a bromatino. The distinguishing feature and decorative focus of wealthy Sensukan homes is always their wallpaper. This can call attention to itself by the richness of its materials—such as silk or satin and gold and silver accents—or by the quality of its designs. The latter are entrusted to the city’s most respected artists and range from bold abstract patterns to elaborate genre scenes and landscapes. The wallpaper in this bedchamber features a stylized depiction of a coral reef.

The elderly woman sitting upright in a corner of the bromatino is wearing an embroidered morning gown known as a saùna. She is reading a letter, the violet paper of which indicates it to be a taratiga (“loon song,” in an allusion to the loon’s habit of calling out at sunset). The tradition of taratiga is thought to have begun with the empress Aritokèh. In the last few weeks before she died, the elderly monarch wrote out letters to a number of people to thank them for the assistance they had given her at different times throughout her long reign. This practice of sending out deathbed letters to those whom one had lost touch with, but whom one nevertheless wished to communicate with one last time, was then taken up by other members of the imperial court. Soon it had spread to women and men of the upper classes in general. As Aritokèh had written her final missives on violet paper (violet having been her imperial colour—See View n. 9), this became the standard practice for all subsequent taratiga.

Naturally enough, those whom one had lost touch with but nevertheless wished to communicate with one last time were, more often than not, one’s former lovers. Indeed, within a generation of Aritokèh’s death, taratiga had come to be associated exclusively with the communication of romantic—or at least, romance-related—feelings. They were typically addressed to a person whom one had not seen in many years, but whose memory one had kept alive within one always, tucked away in some secret compartment of the heart. Gradually the practice of taratiga writing was extended to include reaching out to those whom one had always carried a torch for, but to whom, for some reason or another one had never said anything—perhaps because one had been too shy or had always known that the feeling would go unrequited, or because it was the husband of a best friend. One had never said anything, and long ago, it had become too late. Somehow, though, it had not seemed right to leave this universe without leaving any trace of these great feelings in the heart and memory of the one who had unwittingly occasioned them. One had therefore summoned up all of one’s last energy to set them down in writing, salvaging them from the wreckage of one’s collapsing bodily existence. (It should be said, however, that it is also quite common for the drafts of such missives to be written far in advance, rather like a will. They are then merely gone over a final time and sent off at the moment when one knows for certain that the end is near.)

In many cases, the delivered taratiga arrive as something of a shock. Addressees may be quite surprised to receive such a heartfelt message from the deathbed of someone they had once upon a time had a casual affair with, and whom they had assumed had forgotten them long ago, or a former acquaintance whom they can barely remember interacting with, or possibly even from someone whom they never even realized existed. Whole previously unsuspected vistas of what might have been—of all that might have been different—may now open up before these startled readers. This can be quite a distressing experience. More frequently, however, the recipients of taratiga will simply be overcome by a vague, generalized melancholy.

But it also sometimes happens that, after having always held for certain that one would receive a final farewell message from a certain someone, one is disappointed in that expectation. It is not unheard of for the news of a person’s demise—at least if it is a foreseen one, after a long illness—to be met with a certain measure of indignation: “Passed away! What?! And she never even thought to write?”   

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“Stairway to Nowhere” Video

The incomparable Jim Avis has been transforming some of the instalments in my recent “Views of an Imaginary City” into his trademark “vidiettes.” Here is his take on “View 46: The Stairway to Nowhere at Tanaliska.” More of these to come!

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Attempted Flight

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Quattrocento Waterfall

It is a well-known phenomenon that, when one is feeling sick, all of the foods one normally finds delicious can come to seem entirely off-putting. Often at these times there are only one or two things one can bring oneself to eat, such as maybe a few soda crackers or a bowl of white rice. A similar thing happens to me with art. When I’m feeling sick with a stomach flu or something like that, almost all visual art becomes suddenly nauseating to me. No matter what I’m looking at, all I see is garish, contrived, and pointless dreck. Even many of the artists that I normally admire most–your Botticellis, Watteaus, or Max Ernsts–will set my head swimming and stomach churning. As for my own works, which I invariably find vaguely disappointing at the best of times, I mostly know better to even think of them when I am ill, so sickening they are to me. And if I were to actually cast eyes on them, the unmitigated revulsion would probably lead me to give up on art completely.

The exception to this illness-induced artistic intolerance, the visual equivalent of those crackers or rice, is for me the art of the so-called Italian “Primitives”–the Sienese and Florentine masters of the fourteenth and early fifteenth century. These are the artists I was most drawn to when I was a boy, and their frescos constitute perhaps a kind of visual “comfort food.” There is also to these paintings something elemental, unadorned, and supernaturally sincere that will always be restorative (“unadorned” should perhaps be qualified, given the abundance of gold leaf backgrounds and detailing, but even these seem to carry a note of honest materiality).

This painting is a kind of tribute to a few of my favourite stylistic elements from those trecento and quattrocento masters. That is not to say that this work is likely to nauseate me any less the next time I catch a stomach flu. On the contrary, as a shabby imitation of the genuine article, it likely holds the potential to revolt me even more than my other efforts. But it was fun to do, and a good way to observe those stylistic elements more closely.

Not all of the inspiration for this image comes from the Italian Proto-Renaissance. The composition is largely taken from a painting of Nachi Falls in Japan by an artist of the Kamakura period (1185-1333, so perhaps from the Japanese trecento?).

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Lord Shiva atop Mount Kailash

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 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.

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Les aventures de Marcel Proust : À la recherche du temps perdu

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.

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View of an Imaginary City 48: The Stairway to Nowhere at Tanaliska

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.

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Happy Holidays 2021! A Glimmer of Hope on the Horizon?

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.

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