Translated from the French by Jeanine Herman
Here is the first issue in a series of “notes” on weaving, meditations that I will force myself to bring to the surface of the water and that I will send toward you and the shores of the Mediterranean, that you will keep, so that one day we will reproduce them together on the brutal machines intended for our citizens (those who survive the multiple impending, suspect, and irreparable misfortunes the South is preparing for us like fire, war, and miracles, for it must be said, from all these signs a miracle will emerge, which is to say, a moment of clarity, that little moment of knowledge, that eludes us on a world scale). A series of notes, then, a treatise on weaving to be assembled starting today, me swimming toward nothing at all or, rather, toward early December...
Maybe you understand. After two years of back and forth the college has finally hired a woman with black, rather limp hair, and slightly fearful eyes, not too opaque, rather transparent, slightly red around the rims, something Mexican or Spanish in the eyes, the bronzed skin, a glimmer of something that has remained in this light brown with yellow in it, which is not racial but has to do with the liver. She came to teach a series of ten classes, every Monday at the beginning of the week (or the end of the week), from one o’clock to three (in the midst of digestion), a class in so-called primitive weaving, weaving without a loom, on pieces of wood, the beginnings of branches that form a Greek i, or quite simply a fork.
She began by passing a skein of natural green wool under our noses, a green that young leaves wear like a badge of honor, so that we could guess what smell the color came from. It came from the bay plant, a cousin of the eucalyptus, from an acorn that she showed us, a velvety acorn with something Shakespearean and reminiscent of childhood in this half-alive ball. And then there was a big American Indian basket, in which there were all sorts of samples: wool, thread, cotton, silk, jute... and another Mexican basket, poorly made, in which there were bits of branches, some of them with roots, and Spanish moss, the parasitic plant that affects the oak trees here and gives them the air of weeping when one walks in the stifling, wooded hillsides of the California foothills. There are fourteen of us sharing three huge tables covered in formica, surrounded by rectangular windows, occupying the first room of the art school where all these mysteries will be evoked.
That first day, we started by eliminating: we had decided not to preoccupy ourselves with the pretty, or the beautiful, or the ugly... she, Ida Grae, had decided that we would not rush to make art with the first bit of thread, but that we would work humbly, knotting one thread at a time on the stiff piece of wood, that we would leave the threads hanging, the weft completely free and floating, and that we would begin with other threads to do what she called twisting, not weaving but knotting as much as we wanted for the rest of the afternoon, that being the first lesson.
There was a heavy heat. The heat of early fall. The fig tree outside, all knotty, ready to explode. You should have seen the light come and go through its broad leaves and all the rigid waves the sap turned into in this tormented trunk. You go into the classroom, the workshop, as they say, and your eyes still retain this confusing vision of the fig tree in the light: for it seems cool and almost cold and yet it’s one more source of heat.
On the tables, there are two very simple tribal looms used by the Ojibwe Indians (the Indians of the East Coast, related to the Algonquin tribes). There are two vertical bars held by two horizontal ones. And you weave all around it. She told us: You can go into the garden and plant two pieces of wood and weave around that (to have a tubular fabric, the famous seamless tunic?). I thought two swords could be planted.
She recited some poem, being here and not being here, she didn’t know if it was by Eliot or Conrad Aiken, and then she said: The one who said the women come and go / talking of Michelangelo and everyone shouted: Eliot! Eliot!
We made Gordian knots. The knot of Persian carpets. I saw the carpets go by in Damas, the red currant carpet, blue by virtue of being red, we had at home on the sofa, which we took out in the winter, and just seeing it we saw the season turn, the world turn, the sun turn, the universe turn...
We began by talking about dyes. In the meantime, we had begun to make triangles, three pieces of wood, gathered in the garden (the garden is the college campus), and the triangle thus assembled is called a lark’s head... God knows why (maybe they were strangled for some sacrifice with the best wool of the tribe...).
For dying, the wool has to be clean. The wool, or the cotton, the silk, the jute, the sisal, the poil. It’s best to use rainwater. Be sure, she says, that the atmosphere has not been contaminated by atomic testing. And you immediately see the large eyes of the sad Indians of New Mexico, all around the Los Alamos atomic center, somewhere not far from Santa Fe, where I saw a dry landscape studded with bushes in earthen colors, like those Navajo carpets that recall the victories solid plants achieve over the greedy minerals of the soil. And I see, with this remark, the extent to which the Indian—cousin of the misfortune and grandeur of the Bedouin—feels fragile, which is to say civilized, when he sees himself surrounded by these foreigners whose ferocious weapons are made of an invisible rain from a material that desiccates, burns, shatters, annihilates, making the entire world a fissure. So, you use rainwater.
You have to use steel or enamel pots. It’s a question of not creating new poisons. And here are the instructions (for non-synthetic vegetable or mineral dyes): There is a wild cherry tree in the garden whose fruits stain the concrete. There is a Japanese peach tree whose leaves are a deep red until turning mauve and that at dawn forms a giant stain against the sky...
We can use the bark of the eucalyptus or the leaves of the same tree. There are a lot of them in the area. There is a whole forest of eucalyptus on the highest hillside that sways in the wind. What tree? We’ll see. For the moment, she has forgotten. We can pick raspberries, red currants. We can use roots. You see, we press, mix, crush, torture, visit, and frequent all the plants. We collect them and we let them dry, in a dark, clean place (no rot. It’s a pure art.) We have to assist these processes with alum. Alum is also called cream of tartar. The Tartars ate potassium, thus they were intelligent and invaded all of Asia. We also heard about proportions. A pound of wool to twenty liters of water. A pound of coloring material to a pound of wool. Three ounces of alum to twenty liters of water...
In the meantime, the workers were working. There were threads that flowed like a new light, a wavelength fabricated by some mysterious machine invented by one of those nuclear-physics professors circling the cyclotron at Berkeley. The afternoon rose from beneath the fig tree, passed over the quince tree and the fairly wet creek that passes under the little bridge that leads to the workshop... the afternoon was tiring.
We’ve gone back to dying. Vinegar in the wash brings out the reds and pinks. The tapestries will have a burgundy background that will intoxicate men of prayer. Vertiginous poisons will be released from the carpets like herbs. We have pressed blue grapes to soak them later in ammonia.
In this unusual pharmacy we absorb these lessons the way telegraph poles receive their messages. As always, the light in the room is amazing, it moves like a brilliant painter turning the most nondescript women into potential angels and the dirtiest walls into cascades of water and the worst drawings into sacred codes and the middle of the room into a sort of cold furnace where the imagination of each person can dive in and cool off, be lost and found.
Dyes are very sensitive to water. The material is faithful to its scientific laws, whether placed in a cyclotron or found in one of the metal cans that once held Colombian coffee and in which we carry out our experiments. The water of Santa Barbara, for example, mixed with onion skin, makes green, though we have never gotten it to make anything but pale yellow, like the tea at the bottom of a cup.
I think of the weekend of jazz in Monterey while we continue weaving in circles on our hanging frames. Seven thousand people dancing on their metal chairs to the sound of the blues. Muddy Waters, Big Mama Thornton, people of color in the aisles, Blacks dressed in Nigerian fabrics, couples Africanized this way coming and going for hours like the king and the queen in the poem by Rimbaud who declared themselves royalty on the marketplace one morning of vision. The whole afternoon of moving fire of trembling light of swaying bodies of vibrant music of shifting hours consume me still while I fall back into this world of wool. I’m not at the party. Yes, do not forget that iron saddens, darkens, attenuates the greens when used for boiling, recall that the most fragile flowers like the dahlia, the marigold, produce the most resistant colors, and that the silvery leaves of a certain eucalyptus, cooked in tin, produce an orange stolen from the dusk. That’s all.
We have, here and at home, in California as in an Arab country, an overabundance of light. So much light, enough to blind, consume everything, discourage, burn everything. The rains are late. The trees are a little anxious, as if they had a skin condition. It’s an unsettling late September.
Nothing, or almost nothing, happened today. Weaving can often represent what we call dead time. I think of Rilke in front of the Lady and the Unicorn, starving, fearing disease, fleeing his own death in order to arrive in front of this tapestry... around me, students are like little cows in a pasture, they come with branches, almost grazing, having attached wool around these pieces of wood, reviving all sorts of images. It’s at such moments that I begin to think we’re at the beginning of a new millennium, a new vocabulary, a very new perception.
Spent the weekend at the home of a young artisan who makes tapestries. He lives near Sebastopol, the forest, a forest of redwoods. He has two litters of cats, and his cats, like little goats, get lost in the forest and come back, in a row. From afar it’s both epic and hilarious. Like America. The day brings me back to the spirit of those Donovan concerts, where his audience comes with flowers and fruits that these young people place on the stage, candles and incense, adoring him as a visible god, no less sacred for being present...they perceive him much more through the myth they have made of him than through the few meters of space that separate them... anyway for the most part they have their eyes closed. Yes, a weekend at an artisan’s, in a forest, and Sunday, coming back to the city, a café in San Francisco with pink lighting, Bonnie Hampton playing Bach; beer, after the concert, in the same pink lighting, and the proprietor’s idea to play records of Marlene Dietrich singing in German, as no one was listening.
The fifth lesson almost doesn’t exist. It was a sort of parenthesis. Everyone was tired.
The Sunday that preceded this fifth Monday was a day similar to an ongoing miracle. The morning, the sermon of the Unitarian service, very close to my house, consisted of a lecture given by Eldridge Cleaver’s wife, Kathleen. Yes, all this is disconnected. Read yesterday that schizophrenics do not organize their texts and that they take themselves for James Joyce or William Blake, who themselves had schizophrenia, which led them to compare themselves to Nietzsche and Shakespeare, who had schizophrenia, which led them to compare themselves to Suleiman the Magnificent and to Dionysius, who, never having existed, could only take his schizophrenia from interplanetary space. Where was I? Oh yes, the Black Panthers.
Kathleen Cleaver—with Papuan hair, a face too white for a black woman, heels too pointed (like Ingmar Bergman), heels that too obviously wanted to plunge themselves into the soul of Whites, this audience of Whites seated in a room splendidly surrounded by yellowing hillsides—spoke to these people. The more she accused them, cloaked them in insults, hurled accusations at them in which history became mythology, the more they applauded. They were so tired of being guilty that this indirect confession relieved them, gave them happiness, crushed them in their solitary confinement to the point that their secular Protestantism was finally slipping into the gutter...poor America, which has a taste for guilt that is not ordinary, a love of suffering that is antiseptic; the soul must suffer with order, the heart must bleed without leaving traces, the brain must be snuffed out without too much smoke. Mrs. Eldridge Cleaver got back into her Cadillac with a bit more contempt for these Whites than she had when she arrived.
The second event on the same day was the John Handy concert at The Museum of Modern Art. Around three in the afternoon, John Handy took his saxophone and launched his unforgettable notes every which way: notes of bitter lemons biting copper, some night shot through with illuminated cars, an incredible luxury pierced by anguish, an ephemeral victory like the ocean.
This Monday, therefore, I’m tired. The human body is indeed this weaving loom, the frame these bones that try to stand in this illusion that is space; and perpendicular to the frame is this thread we call time, making us the invisible crucified... in this way vertigo comes to be supported only by a thread, to have an elastic fate like the wool, imprisoned in such flexible chain mail you feel covered in sheepskin and protected against the dew of evening and morning, the vertigo coming from the fact that you are a tapestry that can no longer be undone and that no wall can contain.
This new lesson was itself permeated by an event that, in a way, sent it on an unexpected track. Apollo 7 came back from Space after a trip of eleven days. It returned bearing a virus, illness, upheaval. We followed the images the astronauts sent back on television. A strangely Anglo-Saxon exploration, the images sent from the spaceship all resembled Hamlet if he had been locked in a cage, in the middle of the universe, with the specter of his father. I saw them floating in their cabin, their movements as if in slow motion, as if they were floating through each other, a prophecy of things to come, for one day we will walk through people, as if by accident, not even seeing them.
We read the Funeral March for the First Cosmonaut at the college. It was captured on tape, the voice captured directly at first, then over the telephone. It all happened in a dark room with about forty people, from which rays of light came at times. We had recreated the chloroform atmosphere of absent spaces.
And weaving in all this? It’s an intimate world as hypnotic as the infinitely large one. This effort to begin again at the root of plants, at sheepskin, to press seeds to extract color in its pure state, is in the end the fundamental response to decadence: we are living on meat aging in refrigerators, we listen to vulgar phrases on the radio, we have an electoral campaign to make you vomit, outdated and corrupt people in office, we breathe in thick soot and guzzle gas to the point that gasoline more than wine is our daily drink, so, to survive, to remind ourselves that there were once angels, which is to say, Indians and Bedouins, we stop, tears in our eyes, eyes blinded in any case, before a camel skin, a sheepskin, a vegetable peel, and then, for a second, we find a remedy for all our miseries.
The rain has come. The deck is like a mirror and on it there is a stone that was found on the beach in the shape of a heavy baby bird. The trees on the street are yellow, but haloed: they still have a green heart and golden edges, such tender vegetal icons. We know that on vast beaches the ocean advances from a single repeated wave. I think of that verse by Gérard de Nerval “et de papillons blancs la mer est inondée” (“and white butterflies flood the sea”), a fantastic verse, because millions of butterflies are required to fulfill this image-equation: Gérard immediately saw the power of the infinitely small when accumulated.
There is no denying: In Beirut it is the sea that appeals to intimacy because it often resembles people’s eyes. The sea creates a desire to experience, in dimensions that are ours—walks, encounters, romantic or nonchalant wandering—the despair that annihilates you because the green of the sea is even more translucent when it appears behind the cactus bushes, a single tear in a solar plant. The ocean pushes you toward absolute solitude.
We have had, under these damp skies, on this earthly peel so attracted to the stars, a vocabulary lesson: on the blackboard we have written all the words related to weaving, old words, mostly Anglo-Saxon, words that belong to the Middle Ages, bizarre centuries we associate with the cruelest metals and wool... words that should be kept in their original sounds: warp, pile, twill (diagonal weaving), herringbone (twill in the opposite direction), houndstooth (which is to say, double twill), plaid, pattern, pick-up, sett, and then thread, fiber, fabric, cellulose.
All this knowledge to weave astronomy in the future, like the comet with eight tails in the Bayeux Tapestry.
We have boiled blackberries and obtained the most brilliant mauve. If we still have blackberries in our mountains you should try it: it’s a color that has something iridescent, and I would say rustic, about it.
Today I will tell you about Harrania: Harrania is a village south of Cairo. It makes dry mud, a kind of mud, the gamoussa shares the house with families, chickens are everywhere, goats live amidst the children, and there are the saddest dogs. The adolescents seem to dream sweetly, their gestures full of meditation.
It is a lively place but also solemn. The land is flat. The Pyramids rise in the background. The road runs alongside a canal heavy with reeds and countless ducks come and go.
We find a two-story building, square and topped by a few domes, the whitewash slightly scuffed by the mud. We enter. We get the animal smells in the face along with a compression of Time itself: it is as if Prehistory, the Middle Ages, Byzantium, and Baghdad, by some electronic phenomenon, succeeded one another in a single second.
The children are working. The two little girls we see first are weaving. There is no pattern in front of them. Heaps of wool, on the ground. They apply themselves; slowly, their images arise. There are bigger looms where the big boys weave. One of them already has a large surface completed: boats and fish move in the middle of wool tinted on-site with natural vegetable sources: dyer’s-weed and reseda for yellow; the discreet bush in the courtyard giving indigo; madder for brick red and cochineal for pink. Two young girls make a dye in a bucket: all the odors are strong.
It’s a hive; we see the white teeth, the marvelous smiles of young Egyptians, the quick hands, the brown hair blending with rough wool the same color as the sheep. Carpets absorb the passing shadows. The children come to the workshop however they please, in pajamas, long robes, blue shirts. They disappear if they want and come back with fervor. They go to the village to live with their animals and their plants and return to tell their secrets in spontaneous designs... a spontaneity that sometimes lasts the season. I want to say that there is no prior pattern and that the internal image is sometimes sustained for a very long time.
The birds, the trees, the canal are motifs that return... everything in the garden is brought to life on the looms without ever dying. The children only know archetypes. When I asked them why there was no pyramid in their work they shrugged their shoulders and said that those triangular objects just attracted tourists. The smell of strangers invading the funerary monuments of great kings is indeed an indiscretion and the soul of the fellaheen are sensitive to these things. Before my eyes on my wall I have a rectangle woven by Samiha when she was eleven years old: Through brown and pink grass she has made a dreamy donkey and mule above which two birds rest in branches. But in the middle and at the very top of this universe there is a bird exiting the frame and pulling the whole composition toward its desperate gesture: it is an Incan bird in middle Egypt, trying to pull the earth out of its orbit on its own.
There are all sorts of events in these tapestries taken from street life. Ramadan works its magic. There are fires captured by red flames that rise and burn still, similar to sources of light in Nubian frescoes. These children, who owe their life to the same sun that makes the plants of the Nile grow, seem to move constantly in an incandescent liquid. These tapestries have a volcanic lineage. They come straight from the Coptic experience and the Islamic subconscious, from two worlds made mostly out of roots.
I saw the large church Ramses Wissa Wassef had built, the two fifteen-meter long tapestries his workshop produced and placed on either side of the altar; on the left is the tree of life; on the right is the vine of the Egyptian Dionysus. I saw Ali make a large tapestry in which he showed the cousin of the Prophet, whose name he bears, in conversation with his two sons, Hassan and Hussein. I also saw Zeynab, face bright and eyes narrowed by some religious mutation, eyes so used to visions they are almost unmoved, full of stillness, intimacy, looking at her masterpiece: a tapestry recounting the test of Abraham, the old man of Koranic legend, who walked through fire while the entire village was stunned, and in the midst of this sacred event a tree appears, the lightest of trees of Harrania, the tree itself a bit metallic, mineral, possessed by the dance, while above, to the left, this young female product of the Nile Valley has woven a high city, the divine city as her village must appear to her in incessant experience.
One Friday afternoon I was with all the children in a large bus, at the dam, which is in the delta about twenty kilometers north of Cairo. The idea was to refresh the visual universe of these kids. They all played on the grass, saw the feluccas go by, ate, and ran. All along the way, Ramses looked at the banana trees hoping one day they would also grow in the work of his workers. But they looked away, desperately. They were looking for something else. It was, once again, a new bird flying, a shadow shifting, a cut in the sky. Everything but banana trees.
“Tomorrow,” said Zeynab, my Zeynab with eyes of fire, “I will make a big sun!” The sun was setting as always in the papyrus of the Delta. We all bathed in its velvet. It went out and lit back up, it trembled and slid without moving. It went from one eye to another and came back in its boat. It traveled.
I came back from Harrania. I looked at the row of weavings that covered the walls upstairs for a long time. A whole row of animals, donkeys, goats... in the happy sanctuary that the big room was, there was something prosaic, as if the sacred had been rubbed out with an eraser and only the stubborn traces were left. There is in all this neither a horizon line nor an official perspective, but also no wavering. The goats woven this way remain in a naked space located at the point of intelligence. These children are the only ones among us to live out the reality of life at all its levels because they alone know, as no one knows any longer, that plants elect their government and animals draw flowers, they are the only ones in our century able to give us the totality of the experience of their small world, the smallest of concentric circles. They know that life is a weaving.
Before my departure, Ramses’s wife took a very long tapestry out of a box and placed it before my eyes. There was a red sun. There were trees to the side that entered the frame. And there was a bird that had flown very high and approached the sun, before burning the edges of its wings, and its head, like Van Gogh’s ear, was suddely cut off, felled, annihilated... Ramses’s wife told me it was the work of Nicholas, a nineteen-year-old boy, who was found drowned one day in the Nile. Like Egypt.
As I have always thought Mondays begin on Sunday (and well before that but then we are in the darkness of time, and age-old memory requires bad dreams to start those deep shifts that rise to the surface, not the surface of the sea but the surface of this system of fluids that dominates our past: the bad dream that rose up last night, the night from Sunday to Monday, was a prophetic dream of Monday, a dream in which a body and the head that belonged to it were detachable, like those sculptures in two phases, that of the permanent and that of the shifting; the head took itself in hand and walked and went back to the stretched out body and reconnected to it, getting along perfectly, having its own life and at the same time solidarity with the rest, perfectly united and perfectly autonomous, like each person’s existence, whether we like it or not. This dream, as you will see, is connected to what follows.)
A northern California Sunday is always an adventure: that day the countryside awakens differently, sounds are different from the night before, the respiration of the plants is affected by new rhythms, yawns, cries, sighs, hallucinations, vague desires; everything, for one day, changes. And in autumn all the hesitations of life are read in all their simplicity: there are green spots and golden spots, trees completely red and others eternally young, the side of a street where it’s warm and the other side where it’s freezing. Went down Highway One, a stretch of road that goes from Alaska to the furthest outpost of the Andes mountains, the prince of freeways. Went across San Francisco and then south to Half Moon Bay, an arc of a circle visited by the ocean, the mouth of some large wave that withdrew.
In the middle of the bay at the edge of the road, a wooden structure with a pointed roof and a fireplace overlooking the ocean and the sunset houses the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society. There is a deck, a rectangular veranda, and two armchairs rotted by the wind. We stop there on Sunday afternoons to listen to electric guitars, the recitation of Hindu texts, or a jazz concert. Yesterday, it was John Handy’s band, without the boss. Mike Nock ended up playing piano with his elbows, Michael White on the violin seemed to recall the suffering of every pig he’d had to slaughter in Chicago to feed the country, Jon Wilmeth played his bass, without moving, and Eddie Marshall held forth on drums.
What we call the audience was revealed to be a bunch of druggies, a few young people proud to be in somewhat forbidden territory; there were also irreparably damaged women. They smelled like a pharmacy. They were already mummified by the asphalt roads of this country and the fluorescence they absorbed. At one moment, outside, on the beach, a beach so flat and wet it made a perfect mirror to the cold and light-filled sky, the kind of light reflected by nickel and aluminum, we could hear the jazz. The whole thing had the quality of those films produced by Hollywood, films in which America defined one of its many faces, its eroticism made of nerves, a vertigo determined by the world turning.
That Monday, at one o’clock in the afternoon, when I entered the hallway of the art department, I found myself faced with the dream I had had the night before. The exhibition by Ida Grae was on the walls.
As every ceremony requires an introduction, there was one, on the wall on the right at the entrance—the work of the students, everything we’d made since the first fateful Monday. Constructions of wool that were purely imaginary, a child’s first steps, the first movements of Being. Neither useful nor weighty, these things can only be described as things. So much imagination expressed itself, its paths, its freedoms, its joy. Everything was vibrating. It was: forked branches that had become a mask, a rusted car part serving as support and counterbalance to a whole fragile scaffolding, lines ending in buttons of eucalyptus, a bag that was a blue band on an invisible ray.
There was also an introduction of a different sort: the presence of a world that had withdrawn from this world, whose traces are in us, similar to the shadow of condors perched in the Sierras after the birds’ departure. I must speak to you of Peruvian fabrics: I spent the afternoon with Ida Grae; the conversation took this tangent. This Incan art is strangely contemporary. I think of the sacred writing that the Indians of Peru established, a system of hieroglyphics, symbols ordered, structured, inserted into weavings. Writings woven into shrouds accompanying the deceased or rather opening the doors of death for them.
To ripen the wheat and protect the high priest from any vengeance, possibly occult, from partisan forces of the victim, trophy heads in sacrifices were placed on tombs surrounded by sacred fabrics: a funerary butterfly attached to the black hair. The trophy heads were to serve as catalysts. Old Peru (like old Egypt) trusted in fabrics, ribbons, the purest linen, the power of passing from life to life, from the visible to the sensible, from certainty to the absolute.
Ubbelohde-Doering finds a sacred tapestry on a skull in a mausoleum: “he hears the dead man singing the old songs of the gods in his ethereal voice,” the gods with square heads covering the fabric. On other fabric snakes with antennas slither, a body is covered in crosses, birds hover. The eye is the cross, the cross is a star, star, cross, and eye are interchangeable. They denote celestial movements. All civilizations thus reach their apex thanks to people who are crazy about space, when they write painstakingly about their madness.
Civilizations decompose like bodies. The ashes of those dead bones are indeed the lousy objects of our storehouses: poorly designed fabrics, so-called European carpets, jewels made of papier-mâché, buildings blocked like tombs, our newspapers that sell lies, people full of dust. Peruvian tapestries speak of a sacred that has fulfilled its role and left the premises. When I entered Ida Grae’s exhibition space, it was a cool breeze, a new magnetic field, a nascent world. Yes, on the wall there was a king we got rid of, a wool sculpture called The Discarded King. There was a mask: a curve of a violet-brown palm in which a bobbin was an eye, broken glass the other eye, purple yarn made the cheek, rows of pins made the hair. There was a huge trophy (its voice in the room barbaric music), the body a hard circle of wood placed on a table. It was covered in string, a sort of rudder or very elementary sundial, coarse orange wool rolled or hung to the ground, other yellow and orange yarn rose toward the head, the head being a triangle or rather a pyramid, woven and pierced with holes, the battle having exhausted the monster. But it was not quite a monster, it was perhaps an alembic, the laboratory of magic as much as the magic itself... And then Trophy 2, Trophy 3, Trophy 4, Trophy 5... in these works revealed to our eyes there was an extension of the emanations of the sacred, similar to the golden mist that moves over the surface of the ocean when a languid sun prepares to rise.
The world begins again here, in the center of the center that is California, in the so-called minor arts (minor in the way of music, in harmony with our melancholy as people on the road). On this California land, radioactive, threatened by earthquakes, a space inserted into gigantic spaces, we witness such stunning germinations: the slow birth of specific forms, unheard-of inventions in ceramics, glass, wool, leather, metal, bronze, granite... There had not been a new language for a long time until the past few days, the past few hours, this moment that we are in the midst of experiencing, the here and the now of this fermenting California.
Spent the night on the beach (Cronkhite). Between here and San Francisco. Right in front of the Golden Gate Bridge. It was early evening. The sky very present. The clouds in large fans. A straight luminous line, the trail of jets flying over the area, which is covered in Nikes, the white domes that house the whole coastal defense system. Cronkhite is also military land. But all that is fairly hidden. Arriving, the sun was setting. A slightly coppery pink caught the tips of waves. Coming from the south and going along the water I was caught more and more in the roar of these waves, like a plane in a sea of other planes, sound covering everything, united with the wave, and I was surprised one could so easily travel alongside such a powerful beast: the ocean, which moved forward with all its mass and stopped itself, as we knew, such regulated power, so predictable, in this moment... then the idea came to me that at one point, suddenly, something could happen at the heart of this creature with furious horns, a mutation, a radioactivity, a change, something like the birth of consciousness, and what if this ocean suddenly rose and walked, if it only uttered a word, a single word, we could all die amazed (what if it spoke to you, dear Claire...).
There is, on the one hand, all this formidable innocence, this monstrously transparent water. On the other, on the shores of this same ocean, a haggard people with untold suffering. A few hundred meters away, in the middle of the city, in a faded museum, an exhibition called 68 untitled, a Kienholz in the middle of this building which is a tomb: a montage that one could call sculpture (these words being dead for a long time). A café, an aluminum table, a papier- mâché couple, a compressed space. A Coca-Cola machine is hidden in a sordid metal booth: if you go in and bend over and compress yourself, you can drink this terrible liquid without paying because it is served warm by design. This is our center of gravity!
This pure salt, this divine kinship, the sun, all this is full of rot: because the most spectacular fall ends in seedy stores and in the eyes of millennial merchants: the end of the season in nature is a fire, the irradiation of dying saps, rains of red and yellow leaves, skies full of love for the shining ocean; it ends in universal greed, a perverted feast until the absolute.
Yes, the last lesson has arrived. Last night we went to visit one of the communes that are sprouting up in the region: Harbinger. A commune of a hundred people living in a deserted spa. Something of the original casino remains. The men had long hair, a downcast gaze. When they were naked they were a dirty white, sometimes three colors. They had neither the robustness nor the grandeur of the trees. The women were blissful, living day to day, with less presence than the various objects that surrounded them...
These centers continue the hippie movement. Their followers think they are making themselves Native American, but they look more like the Germanic tribes of yore. Their sense of the dream, of the strange, of what is peripheral to domestic life, they satisfy in puttering around, what they call scientific invention. This return to the land is only a half-measure: they bring their chemistry labs with them, into the forest and volcanic lands of the backbone of California. They are also at Harbinger, disciples of a certain Hamrick, a former seminary dean, a defrocked priest, a chemist then alchemist, working and making his whole troop work on a project extracting platinum from less precious metals. He told them that his mission had been revealed to him by an agent from space. He found himself in the desert, behind the Sierras, when an extraterrestrial being sent him a communication, a message in the form of a radioactive ray. He understood that it was a being who had come from another planet, a being who wanted the best for the people of Earth and had come to warn them. He understood that he had to change his life. His disciples said that the authenticity of his vision was proven. Of course, they took their certainty for evidence.
We, the visitors and the community, ate together. I left wondering why these hippies had rejected the image of the father represented for them by the government in Washington to then follow a sub-par maharishi like Hamrick. Why did they speak of love and life and make their daughters have abortions? How could they be pure with a brain bathed in drugs? They must, it is true, represent the most acute case of the messianic need of the American people: we, in the Arab world, are saturated with prophets and the West has never forgiven us for it. They in America are desperately searching. They only have heroes. A hero is not a prophet.
In the meantime, fall has dissolved. The month of December looks like a swampy shore, those places where the ocean gets mired, where the land erodes. All directions have exploded in a disorder that is still obscure.
In the classroom open to all light we do nothing. No one is doing anything this winter. Everyone shows what they’ve done. A season of weaving rewoven in itself, the thread bent over the frame, the whole thing impeccable. “I have been patient so long...” said Rimbaud. Visions. Tapestries. Happiness. And without knowing how, a great sadness.
Etel Adnan’s books include Sitt Marie-Rose (Post-Apollo) and To look at the sea is to become what one is: An Etel Adnan Reader (Nightboat).
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