Archaeology was something that loomed on the edge of my horizon without ever emerging into a definite shape. Even in the Geography of Lost Places, where I concerned myself with the archaeology of imprints, my preoccupation was mostly with the cartography of traces rather than a study of those traces themselves. I knew the time would come for the latter sooner or later, and indeed it has done so now.
I was catapulted somewhat forcefully, but entirely of my own volition, into this realm of dust, fragments and patience – by mirrors. Mirrors at the edge of history, these crossing spaces which I am so fond of exploring. In this case Japanese mirrors, given as grave-offerings to those buried in the (sometimes quite massive) kofun tombs.
I will not lie – I knew not of the mirrors. My aim had been to study the dead, and I was firmly determined to chart the recondite recesses of the netherworld. I set my mind on the Great Below, so to speak, without, however, setting any fixed starting point, being a believer in the wisdom of formless beginnings. Indeed it came by way of the suggestion which led me to the mounded tombs and to a time where history claimed its beginning. I found torn pieces of legends, ink-drawings, holes in the ground. Bones, too. But the dead eluded me.
The unearthed remnants were only too living. I saw in them the wants of those who searched, dug, found. Tombs, so many tombs, and no tales of those gone. The proximity of the voices of the living drowned out the distant whispers of the dead. Banality, the clearest sign of mistake, threatened to overcome my wanderings. The only view of the mirrors was from the back, which does not reflect. I found only non-mirrors and un-dead. I gave up.
Happily it was soon shown to me, again, that a wrong turn in the path does not mark the end of the journey. I came upon two books1 in quick succession which sparked again the dormant interest in the science of fragments.
I must admit that my motivation was first and foremost literary. One look at the index of the first was sufficient to seal the decision of continuing the walk:
The Book of the Statues
The Book of the Pyramids
The Book of the Towers
The Book of the Temples
Books that Cannot yet be Written
How could I resist? The last item so perfectly expressed that which I had unfruitfully sought in my excursion through mounds and tombs that I had little choice in the matter. Another factor of attraction were old newspaper clippings tucked between the pages. Curiously, both books contained them. It seems that Ceram’s work succeeded in arousing the interests of such linguistically, chronologically, and perhaps physically distant readers. Those yellowed pages hold a special charm, a fragile corporality of times past, the mark of those who came across these words and were touched by them. The mark of people, people which now could be no more. In these marks I found what I was searching for, the traces of absence, the tales things tell.
I found archaeology.
1 C. W. Ceram’s Gods, Graves and Scholars and Götter, Gräber und Gelehrte im Bild.
May it be that at each waking hour we are bound to the weighty confines of routes and routines, the dust of streets, the hollows we inhabit and claim continually, restlessly. May it be also that places, an expression of boundary, essentially know no mercy. How is it, then, that both the throttling grasp of location and the uplifting lightness of belonging are called home? Where, and what, is home?
House and hearth and canvas on poles, the scent of bread at dawn or the hum of thoughts at dusk, cursive letters above a faded portrait: to each his own. There abides in their difference the shade of underlying kinship, manifested in the common certainty of endurance, if not in the ephemeral transparency of presence then in the colorless solidity of memory. To pose the dispersed uncertainty of the eternal stranger as its opposite is something I will refrain from doing, for two simple reasons: one being the personal aversion to the dark, narrow recesses of egotistical affection, which have the unfortunate tendency to act as a contagion on the moods of all but the most guarded of readers. The second is rather more straightforward: to equate the wanderer with the homeless is simply not true.
The heart of the nomad, eccentric and exile has a very clearly defined space of its own, even more than that of his settled brethren, for it permits not the slightest deviation of its established limits. Expansion is a privilege granted only to the returning, which, by nature, is denied the true wanderer. This does not amount to restriction, however, for mobility is at the core of the traveler’s heart and guides his every action. A common mistake is to attribute to this motion a territoriality when it is, in fact, a factor of time.
No-one knows time better than the wanderer. His is the domain of change, of impermanence, of dissolution, and history is his companion, though begrudgingly. His passing bears the mark of emptiness, for only the tourist accumulates. It is no wonder to see melancholy as one of the hallmarks of his character, though whether it be cause or consequence of his roaming shall remain a matter of debate. In the particular case expounded here disposition precedes action, rendering unfamiliar sights into a mirror of the self, an emblem most fitting to describe the work which crossed my path under circumstances not unalike to those it narrates.
It is (…) [a] fine indistinct piece of poetical desolation, and my favourite. I was half mad during the time of its composition, between metaphysics, mountains, lakes, love inextinguishable, thoughts unutterable, and the nightmare of my own delinquencies.1
Who knows why books choose one to be their bearer? It is sufficient to accept that they do and succumb graciously to their will, for they too are a mirror. Remembering the considerations of the uqbarian heresiarch2 and other illustrious figures3 beside, it is my opinion that to engage with reflection (or shall I say portent?) is a worthwhile endeavour. It can yield the monstrous, yes, but also the sublime. It was with these thoughts that I set out one quiet afternoon with the intention to seek, perhaps, a glimpse of the latter. What I found, and that I found at all, is a testament to will; but whose it was I shall not enquire today.
The writings of the son of Captain Mad Jack Byron and successor to the Wicked Lord need not be expounded here. Gone is the man, long gone, and only the words remain, chosen, selected, trimmed by others. The torments of the netherworld expect those who trim a man, still none can avoid doing so – each gaze is a knife, each word a sickle. Yet here there are traces of a great, bloody cutting, one I innocently ignored when I carried the gilded volume home close to my breast. May the gods forgive!
Have I, by taking the tome from the shelf, kept the fire burning, the paper tearing?4 The book sits and is silent. Perhaps this is its gift. I had walked the empty streets seeking an answer to solitude, unaware that it is not, and has never been, a question. Willingly or not, I am now part of a tale I have not begun and I shall not end. Wandering through one and a half centuries, this book has carried the dreams and hopes of those whose path it crossed, and now it carries mine. Its words may be regarded as its beginning, but they too hold the weight of life, of many lives, of all lives. One day the pages that bear these words shall share the fate of their author’s memoirs and turn to dust, but will the weight be gone? Will it dissolve and scatter under the force of the inescapable finality of time?
I remember the last flicker of the candle on the previous night and the subsequent startling, though not unexpected, darkness. I remember my place of no returning. I had lost myself on twisted, thorny paths of unmoving, unmovable certainties, when my ancestral home, time, lay always in plain view – for time is not an answer. Time is and shall always be a question.
1 Lord Byron talking about his experience on writing Childe Harold’s third Canto. In: Lord Byron. Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. London, 1859. P. 124.
2 Borges, Jorge Luis. Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.
3 Idem: “Descubrimos (en la alta noche ese descubrimiento es inevitable) que los espejos tienen algo monstruoso.”
4 The infamous burning of Byron’s Memoirs is, of course, mentioned in the publisher’s Wikipedia article, among many other places, but here there is also a very curious article of the 26/05/1854 edition of the New York Times about Moore’s involvement in the whole episode (PDF). Here there is a supposed scan of the 24/05/1824 edition of the London Times, featuring a letter in which Thomas Moore explains himself. An interesting read in any case.