I wrote this last night after reading a passage in Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy – where he writes so beautifully it makes you want to give up trying – on the subject of an unrequited love. But it got me thinking about the phantasma that is the imagination and specifically about the water and powder of fantasy and memory…
I have a fantasy about lying in the summer grass with a girl – we lie at right angles to each other; she rests her head on my chest, and plays with a piece of grass, laughing sporadically and gazes, twisting her head back, into my eyes which focus on the skies above. One hand rests, cradling her head; the other, holding a straw, casts a swathe across the heavens. I’m talking into the soft evening twilight, speaking gently of Cassiopeia, of Cygnus, of Cepheus. As the pink fades into violet velvet, the stars pick their patterns through this tapestry thrown across the horizon. Summer suffocates our senses and the evening releases a hundred herbal scents into the air, the earthy planet warms our bodies and the softening grass supports us.
Did this ever happen? No – but it has been carefully built up over the years from memory, imagination and desire into one of my most powerful sensory dreams that brings a great feeling of calm, of peace, of love, of a oneness with nature that pervades my every desire and sums up my dearest wishes of life.
So talking to you about the stars whilst camping on Lipsi was the fulfilment of one of my deepest desires and definitions of love. Of course these dreams, fantasies and desires never quite come true – I haven’t a clue where to begin looking for Cassiopeia, Cygnus or Cepheus – but those nights together were about as close as it’s possible to get I’d say: climbing over the mountain path, speaking softly over the sounds of gentle exertion, the slight sound of our steps, brushing close together, but not touching, the breeze rushing through the grass, the shuffle, snuffle of the dismounted tree goats. The only lights that guide our way past the quiet church on the bend and up to the ridge are the stars and the moon; we’ve left the town twinkling far below us. We turn the corner and the earth falls away and, suddenly, stretching out between the unfathomable depths of the wine-dark sea and the untouchable glory of the heavens, there he is, inconceivably luminous: Orion. The closeness of the warm night embraces us, envelopes us, draws us into its oneness; it makes us whole again, a part of the cosmos again; peace. Orion. We can see his studded belt, his skirts, his bow; we can see the strength in his arm as he draws the bow back and there, from peaceful Lipsi he fires his deadly arrow into the night-sky. Yes, he fires his poisonous arrow to pierce my heart wherever I roam, for all eternity. From the days of Gilgamesh, the days of Achilles, the days of Saladin he’s been drawing that bow and the barb will always lodge in my heart: a merciless wound that, never fatal, will bleed whenever the night draws in.
I hope you can accept this for what it is: just a gift, a souvenir if you like, from a time in my life.
On private reflection though, I am astounded: the fantasy is stronger than the reality! But of course it would be! – It has had longer to root in my consciousness, longer to build up and more and more significance laid upon it; it is not burdened by imperfections, by the sweat, the tears, the aches and the pains of the real. It is a pure memory; crystalline; with no future and no past to sully it: the kind of memory I imagine the aged create, time having sanded down the rough edges of their personal narrative; memory mixing freely with creation.
These imagined memories are swaddled and swelled by real experience; diverse memories stitched together by the imagination to create one mega-fantasy that instantly recalls a desired emotion – in this case one of eternity, the cosmos and sublime love. The question is: does a subsequent real event, a fulfilment of the dreamed desire, perversely sully this carefully fashioned imagined memory? Can I think of the stars without thinking of Lipsi and the pain that has since been wrought; can I access the idealised fantasy without imperfection intruding? How sad it seems if the only way man can live happily – or happiest – is within the confines of his own imagination.
Yet the fantasy too is a real memory of sorts. It is a potent memory of a feeling; and, like all memories, it is tied to a time of life – in this case my teenage years. Surely now, with my experience of life, I cannot pretend to be that young lover lying in the grass? Lamentably I have grown old, I am not innocent enough to imagine that such a girl would lie with me and hear with pleasure my laughably limited perorations on astronomy. But does this lamentation defame the real memory – did I not talk (laughably and with great limitation) on astronomy in such a way and share a moment that could not fail to move both she and I? Is she not worthy of just as lofty place in my memory alongside the fantasy?
It is close enough to the ideal form of the memory to merit cogitation from time to time, even though it now dredges up feelings of wistful sadness and nostalgia.