Problems of an Empire : Magazine : A Public Space

Problems of an Empire

Fiction Nanos Valaoritis

James C. Burke, Athenian Beatniks, 1959: Gregory Corso, Nanos Valaoritis, Conrad Rooks, Zina Rachevsky, and a friend at Conrad Rooks's house in Athen

Problems of an Empire

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James C. Burke, Athenian Beatniks, 1959: Gregory Corso, Nanos Valaoritis, Conrad Rooks, Zina Rachevsky, and a friend at Conrad Rooks's house in Athens

A. Theories are breakable like toys in the hands of a child.
B. Two sides of the City

1. Darkness, illness, death
2. Dazzle, gaiety, and splendor
3. The elaborate ritual of multiple relations
4. Accidental cohabitation
5. The jostling noise of innumerable souls like water.
6. City and Counter-City
  The real City and the magical City

C. The Empire is now on the defensive; it cannot remember a time when it was not. The memory of its foundation is lost in the ages. Foundation by the sword or the arrow, by the blood of men, the foresight of planners, the courage, the sacrifice, the endurance of a small army, by the conquest of vast expanses, the sacking of cities, the downfall of famous rulers. In reality it was founded as a conception. From then onward it has fluctuated, crumbled to pieces, arisen in other forms like the proverbial phoenix from its ashes, it has retreated to the vanishing point or advanced too far and disappeared beyond the borders of reflection; it has continued to exist in wrath; from the corners of our eyes, disfigured or dismembered, distorted or in fragments, but always like the fixed reflection of a face in the mirror. It has been diverted to other currents of thought; alternatively, it has existed only in one person or just in a few scattered individuals across the world. In chaos or in immaculate order, it can be found. It is revealed in a flicker of a smile, in a flash of anger, in the tranquility of a woman in love, in the anxiety of the pursuit of love. It also exists in splendor. Its eagles are still carried into alien territories, among the vanquished tribes; its borders merge onto the inexistent or just end on a shallow sea. The breast of a man signifies a frontier; all is possible. But the center is still a city. Therein resides all powerful the invisible nerve. There are men who serve it with humble arrogance, with scrupulous and dignified exactitude. Beyond the relentless formality of ritual, there is squalor and endless variation, the simmering fluidity of life, the friends and enemies and fierce competition, and the law of failure and success. But there are shattering moments when it appears untouched before it vanishes, as if it had been compressed into one single image, a fraction of sound later, producing the illusion of a living thing, like a face turned inside out. Then back to normal. It will suffer total death and total revival will ensue, like the god of spring.


This is where the Empire stands; not on a hill against the sky, not in the valley among the rocks, not in the sea among the reflections of ships on the water. This is where it stands: where the two rivers meet but refuse to meet, where they run parallel in opposite directions, from source to estuary, from estuary to source; where the two winds from east and west blast an entrance through the iron doors. Where walls crumble with ringing laughter. A place where armies arrange to meet and cannot find the spot on the map. Here it stands among the rubble of consecutive civilizations, in the spirit of violence, in the embankment of fire, where sword meets lust and quenches it in blood and dust. Here it stands—traced on the earth by an invisible spear. Firm like a woman’s waist. Elegant like a sail in the wind. Unexpected like a repartee, breakable like a rock.

Today I visited the neighborhood. In vain. No trace of the Empire. I am going out again tonight. It is largely a matter of luck. Application. Another term for it: setting in order. How can it be set in order? Since its essence is disorder? Knowledge of the Empire just means one is living in it, unaware of its logic, its sequence—the pattern and the hierarchy of its tribes and the authenticity of its citizens, the identity of its rulers. Or is it that we know it only too well? That nothing is unknown, therefore we don’t bother to formulate, to recognize, to officiate, to sanctify, appoint, anoint, proclaim anyone.

Yet how important to designate even the most unimportant occurrence: What is nameless cannot exist. That is why I will propose a name. Gestina, a woman. Stolon, a man. A mountain? Palaion, if it has been seen before. Neon, if only recently discovered among other peaks.

Today I feel I can bribe my way in. To seduce with the sight of gold. I feel that they are infinitely corruptible. None of this nonsense, this myth of incorruptibility. Is it not another of those stories spread around by those whose interest lies in the untouchability of the Empire? Should we fall into the trap they set? It seems to me now that if one could become as corrupt as they, the frontier would be opened, the signal would be given, by beacon or messenger to the capital, and a relay of white horses would be laid on. Would one have to tip? On this little point one’s future reputation in the capital would stand or fall. But what does it matter? If they are really as corrupt as I believe them to be, one could always buy back a lost reputation.

Tonight I seem to be in full flight. At dusk the horses were waiting on the frontier. We mounted, and we fled. Pursued? I don’t think so. Behind us, as we look back, the Empire is visible as a huge red star, hovering on the horizon. Soon it will be invisible to the naked eye, but its long, red rays will follow us long after, over the arid plain, until we reach the City of Refuge, which is only a few miles away. There we may quench our thirst. Have a bath. Sit down in a café and watch the evening crowds walking past while we sip a cup of coffee on the waterfront.

What is the name of the City of Refuge?

The motorcycles are roaring behind us. A brilliant morning on the roads, in clouds of dust. Official secrets. By lunchtime we shall be in the capital. We shall hardly have time to change before the official reception. Is it all a mirage, or am I really as important as all that?

On a tightrope: It seems to be the only way in or out.

When one leaves a city behind, one thinks one has left it forever. But this is a mistake. If now the journey seems to be through hills and country roads, in the desert, among caves over the sea, on rocks on beaches over another sea and a cityless continent, the cities are really always there, waiting for you, ambushed, invisible like Sirens, across your path. You will escape them according to your power. But eventually the strongest one, the one that has the greatest pull, will hold you, and you will stick on its enormous, sparkling surface like a splinter of iron. You cannot choose.

From the City of Refuge, one can see nothing, though all is clear; the light is brilliant. The sea like a mirror. The sun shines, the sky is pure transparent blue. Visibility nil. The whole thing is a cage of light that outblinds what lies beyond. You are caught in it. Even the memory of the dark, enormous Empire, which lies, according to certain knowledge, due south, only a few miles away, even the memory of it disintegrates in a flash of blue.


Portrait of an empress
Troubles of an empire
The capital
Provincial figures
An evening out
On the border
A small geography
Portrait of a courtier
Change of government
Habits and Conventions
The people
Simple pleasures
Nocturnal scenes
Banquet with orgy
Lord and overlords
Metaphysical comment
Historians and histrionics
Soldiers and prostitutes
Grandes dames
Little incidents

City, city, oh city, not the city of God. What sort of a city of boredom, where happiness and despondency meet in the same breath. What is it like inside out, what does it look like—you, me, or the person staring out of a window straight into your eyes, when you are about to meet someone you had known for many years before but are now apprehensive of meeting again in case his words might reveal the unwanted sight of yourself in a discarded posture, caught like a fly in a net, fixed in that memory like an old photograph? There are these two people. The one unknown, who stared straight into your eyes behind the window, the total stranger, and the other, who knows too much about you but whose knowledge is a distortion of yourself, reflection of an image that has ceased. I choose the cruel impact of two living faces, which will release the light of what is to be known. What is it like, not the city of God, but this structure of bones, this network of eyes, this broken continuity of flesh, this potential of words like a huge, unexploded arsenal. What is it like inside out?



DEPRESSED AGAIN. Alone in the house except for the child. Asleep in the next room. Can one accept to be: bullied by inferiors, maltreated by companions, ignored by equals or superiors. Assert yourself, assert yourself; dictate your conditions to your beaten enemy; he is beaten, but you have to point that out to him. Otherwise he will consider you beaten and treat you accordingly. Show no mercy to the biting underdog. Kick him hard if he tries again. In the softest place till he howls. Then the other dogs will respect you. When someone you admire treats you abominably, ignore. He will repent.


I will.
Who are you?
I am He—Who—Will.
Where are you? Speak.
I am He—Who—Won’t.
Your name. What? No name. No function?
What are you then as designated?
A common secretary?
Why is your identity kept secret? You are kidding.
Not for official or private reasons?
Then you are nothing:
No. I am He—Who—Will.
Where do you inhabit?
No place.
No place, every place, every place.

NOTE. Who was that? Was it Despot or Distorter? How can one tell except by experience of the way they talk: it can be either or neither. BUT. It is like winning a sweepstakes or the football pool. Unpredictable.

Unpredictable. Gale warning. Twenty degrees south. Speed sixty miles per hour. Lock up your cities. Secure your navies. Bolt the doors. Reinforce the walls. Fasten your windows. Evacuate, if necessary, all coastal areas. The seas are sweeping mountain high. The multicolored storms explode in vacant air, like oxygen on a woman’s hydrogenic hair. These images are cheap. The sun sets in oriental splendor, a massacre of clouds in red and yellow behind Battersea Power Station. Ajax, the butcher in the sky, plays havoc among the innocent herds of cotton wool. Windswept, struck, shaking like a leaf in the wind, the mighty Empire totters on its base as lightning falls, fulgurant fulmine, strikes the minarets in Astrakhan, Byzantine domes in the city of Ephesus, or the cathedral peaks of Gothic glory. Asymmetric onslaught from barbaric regions. Each blow is aimed to undermine the geometric spirit. A direct assault with battery and violence, a treatise on maladjustment. Hissing like vipers, the small waves attack the passive shores. Gray-green foaming epileptic tongues, their fury is spent a few inches above the surface of the sea. Protected, we stand behind our large windows. I hold you tightly around the waist and feel your warm thighs against mine, your soft body, your breasts beneath the summer skin, your dark hair where I can hide my face. I love you. You know it. Without speaking, we have surrendered to each other secretly. Soon I will lead you into the next room. There we will accomplish, in the long hours of the afternoon, the desire that burns the tongue and stings the eyes, that shapes our limbs into the natural disposition of our bodies. Let’s hold this precious moment of equality, this rare knowledge of mutual submission. It may not come again, when the sun is out, when the balance is broken in the blinding glare, the taste of salt will stain all desire of consummation, the wind will blow it away down the narrow alleys of the sea. Our bodies will be nailed by invisible arrows to the boats, our hands to the oars and the rudder, and the sails will wrap up our imagination in swift perfection. Nothing then will be left between us, oh beautiful. Nothing except the memory of your face, the image of your golden body—the possibility of a cool, dark day in one of the empty rooms, the silence broken only by a whisper, the strangled voice drowned in desire. This is when I must stop shuffling memories like a pack of cards. The question is this: Which side are we on? The enemies or the friends of the Empire? Do we love it or hate it? Do we belong to it by natural right, as a citizen is born to his city, or are we métoikoi, elected subjects, colonists, tolerated only after a long term of service and innumerable petitions? Another problem: Do we live within or without its boundary? Are we entitled to reality? Allowed to obey the laws? Or is it perpetual exile from the loved one? Love turned to hate and tears. Vengeance on what has rejected us because we served too faithfully, but too passionately, in a world where passion is the eternal object of mistrust. Is it then that one is reduced to serving the enemies with equal passion and twisted longing to hurt the loved one? Is it Alcibiades and Demaratus against, not those whose power to serve is equally great, but those whose ability to use circumstance, whose self-gratification, is pitted against the apostate?

Empires I love. The splendid but ephemeral, like the life of an insect, Greek empire of Alexander. The stolid, practical, hard-bitten, convulsed empire of the Romans. The iron hand whose effort to impose order on a quicksand world is admirable but doomed to failure. Or is it the chemical empire of the Byzantine alchemists who sought through the great catalyst of ritual and religion to absorb the unruly element? Or is it the small, forgotten empire, ignored by the mighty because it is too weak and friendly, which history has bypassed as a lucky village is bypassed by the stream of lava from an erupted volcano that engulfs a great city miles beyond? The pocket empire, ruled by a pocket emperor, so tiny that it fits into the palm of one’s hand, a cozy corner, a narrow moment, a strip of fertile land on the Black Sea, the Empire of Trebizond.

I followed him. He stood, half-expecting someone to come and talk to him, his hand fumbling for his coat.

“I lost a watch,” he said. “And my eyeglass.”

“I disapprove,” I said, “of this behavior.”

“I will get your watch,” I said.

Here he comes. Give him his watch.

In the other room there had been an argument and some pulling of ties and pushing about the place. Nothing came of it. Except that lonely, discomfited figure standing for a second in the entrance.

Opening in the wall. The invaders rush in through the narrow gap and swell out into the city. The emperor lies beneath a heap of dead. He is recognizable only by his purple slippers, the mark of imperial distinction from the others, the common soldiers among whom he was fallen.

It is like being swung in a dream by a giant hand holding a piece of string, backward, forward, left, right, reeling in midair—so that one is aware suddenly of an island coming into focus, growing dangerously near while one approaches with giddy speed, until one sees every detail of the rock face, even the tiny flower that grows in the crevice, or the delineation of grasses, weeds, moss, and the faint traced path, then suddenly, with equal speed, the vision disappears, becomes a tiny speck, and vanishes from sight as, with one flick of his hand, the giant is now swinging us toward other shores, mountains, reefs, or expanses of sea. I have never known a city where people recede so quickly, or come into focus so violently, so dangerously near, as if to envelop one, and crash, crash, crash into your life and out of it, crash, bang, in the night, never to approach again. Who is the giant that pulls them and us about on pieces of string, thrusting us into one another’s presence and pulling us apart as if he was so quickly tired of our particular combination? Is he money? Is he hazard? Is he the flux of the great city? Or is it just us, feeling about drunkenly in the mirror that makes visible the invisible? Far less romantic. The use that’s made of others, in urgent speed and voraciousness, and then to be thrown away like a pair of old shoes, discarded like a worn-out shirt.

NOTE: It is also possible to remain static for a long time on a deserted island, a negative patch in the whirlpool of a modern city. Not a soul in sight, not even the smoke from a ship from a place where someone is.

The mind is not the world, as some think. It exists apart and against it like a great mountain that has to be climbed or an ocean that has to be crossed.

A god could be replaced by the number one if it were given equal emotional strength.

The supreme narcissism of the omnipotent man in the image of God.

The discovery that the world exists independently from the self is the first experience of pain.

The object is: To detach one’s images from it and give them the same independence enjoyed by a tree or a stone.

To discover the world through feeling is the aim. Feeling is the river. Without it, the intellect is dry like the riverbed that shaped its course and direction. Without the riverbed, the river cannot exist. It becomes a lake or disappears into the soil. Intelligence is like a chair or a ceiling. It has an existence that is particular, as particular as a man sitting on a certain chair at a certain date, in the waiting room of a station, waiting for a certain train to depart at a certain hour. Intelligence is embedded in the world as a layer of gold among the layers of rock. The mind is the spade created to reach it. Intelligence can be concentrated in a grain of sand or diffused throughout the wide world. It only functions as such when concentrated, like electricity in a wire.

Poetry is unreal. The world is real. Yet poetry, like the world, exists. It is the difference between a dream and a stone. They both have their natural positions, one in sleep, the other on the ground.

In assuming the reality of a mirage, one only assumes the existence of natural delusions, but not their reality. That does not mean that their effect cannot shake the world.

The inner world has laws of its own to which it conforms. The outer world has laws of its own, which it obeys. Who is the master? Who is the referee if there is no master? Where is the battleground on which they meet to struggle? Where is the line that divides their armies? That is what we are all searching for.

The lowest form of devil is opposed by the highest form of angel. A man who is possessed by one is also entitled to the other.

Swans on the river, moving with calm dignity, pretending they are doing something else, while all the time, like the noisy, desperately fluttering seagulls, they too search for food. They eat discreetly with beaks below water, so as not to be seen in the undignified act of feeding, which humans parade in public places without feeling any shame.

Swans and seagulls, behaving as if nothing had happened—as if the industrial age and London, its great city, had never existed, not even we, who look upon them after two wars, one that hit the world as we were entering it and the other that caught us as we were going out from it.

For the white-flaked feathers the black walls of London do not exist.

L. looking at L. looking at L. in the looking glass thinks he is L. seeing L. looking at L. In fact he only sees L. looking at himself. He is a sort of mirror. L. invents a personality for people, which he imposes upon them by force of conviction and concentration, like a distortion imposed on one by a crooked mirror. If one looks long enough at any object, face, house, or mountain, one turns its natural lines inside out and invents new ones. For all objects can be seen from within or without in their natural or their unnatural position. The second method is a form of laboratory experiment, a probing into the inside, a scientific curiosity, which destroys the lyrical quality of human beings or objects but gives them the intenseness of the operating theater, the isolation of a cell under a microscope, in which the unseen forms are intensified to show what lies beneath the skin, inside the soul. To what end this soul-disturbing activity? Is it part of an experiment or is it just an occupation? Is it an attempt to explain, to arrive at a deeper understanding of and fuller insight into human beings, or is it just malicious activity with an end to itself? A mystification. A mystery attempting to solve a mystery? Or just simply a self-protective device?

L. like one of those flies who leaves its eggs on a heap of rubbish and returns to see whether they have bred more flies or have been mutated into a new species—L. like a hornet circling around a fruit, wondering where he can attack it—leaving it if it is unripe—to come back later—when a bad spot has been developed, one swift probe through and he drops inside it a tiny amount of one of the liquids he carries, then leaves and returns to see what has happened… If something develops quickly he is delighted and then stops the experiment abruptly, for no reason, just as he had started it.

The proposition In the beginning was the Word, like the geometric proposition Two parallel lines meet in infinity, proves nothing but itself. It is a principle on which to construct a geometry or a religion.

Even if the Word was not the beginning, it was a beginning, and that is even more important. A definite attitude is preferable to none. A system is preferable to none. It is our only means of knowing the world, whether through intellect or feeling. A definite emotion is preferable to none.

A metaphysic is a kind of signboard, a checking system, a logarithmic table on which to refer the sums of experience. People without it are helpless like animals at the mercy of their masters.

A metaphysic is a means of orientation in the confusion of the world, a path on the endless expanse of the ocean’s water. An Ariadne’s thread in the twisting labyrinth.

A metaphysic is an imaginary line dividing an invisible territory. The division enables us to measure the territory and to determine our own position in it. A compass with which human beings are supplied from birth.

A metaphysic is first manifested in dreams, a mysterious language of undeciphered signs whose meaning is obscure, dictating our behavior. Then one by one the signs are unveiled to reveal the familiar forms of our experience. Then one still walks in the same forest but knows the names of the trees.

I was taught what time was by a man who said: “You don’t know how lucky you are to be twenty-seven.”

Dreams are like clear patches in the endless mist of sleep.

They uncloud the muddy waters of our slumbers.

Dream-visions are formed from feeling. They are the small branches of the tree that grows inside the spirit, whose roots spread throughout the soil of the forest of minds we belong to. But our branches only mingle with the nearby trees, even if we communicate with the whole forest in blindness, as it shudders with the rushing winds or shakes with the tremors of the earth. They enter us as pure sensation; sensation of the spirit.

To weave one’s way as one goes along, like those who lay a bridge across a river, inch by inch.

Dreams coagulate, like icicles, as the temperature drops. They melt as it rises, as we rise from sleep. A flicker from the approaching sun is enough to dissolve them in light, their enemy. Their own light is the secret source of rival light, which is kindled by feeling. The kingdom of the light of the sun invades the kingdom of the light of the soul, which perishes at sunrise.

Dreams are transmutations, like transparent glass from opaque sand.

The black web of night is woven throughout the bright tissue of day.

The eyes, forerunners of the night, sprout darkness into the day like ink on a white tablecloth.

The jasmine, like a white patch on the black cloth, guides the souls that journey through the dark.

In the middle of the long journey, they stop and listen to the music that comes from somewhere.

They have lost sight of the object.
But they listen to the tune.
A face that is not gifted will never see the moon.

Pure revolt is the attitude. The object is to oust all rivals and rally all friends, scattered all over the place, inverted romantics, the disillusioned, the timid, the half-corrupted, the twisted, the battered, the wounded, the ones who have been cut off, surrounded by enemies, the ones who are at bay, fiercely fighting back a lone battle, also those who have either not come out with what they believe, or don’t know themselves, or those whose revolt takes the inverted form, like walking on all fours at parties, or being totally negative, or who console themselves with jazz or girls, or who erect islands of defenses behind which they retire to watch and wait in bitterness, or those who split their personalities by sacrificing themselves as people to the killers and eaters, to the worm-ridden by fear and cowardice. Or even those who seek refuge in flight, in exotic islands, waiting or sidestepping, so as not to be caught in the net of terror. All those whose revolt takes the wrong form, either the inverted or the half-measure, or even the form of complaining or begging for what they can demand as tribute. The behind-the-shutters attitude, watching the street fighting from a safe place, or the aloof attitude: I am above it all. The cleansing that is necessary to the overweighted, overscientific language. The timidity of artists when confronted with scientific fact, which proves nothing. The inverted study of language, which only takes the sting out of it, the castration of words with words. The philosophical refusal to believe that we cannot only attain to, but create reality in our own image. The neutral intimidation practiced by science and psychology in its present form. The throttle on the mouth on the neck of all those who wish to speak out. The immense frustration of impulses. The sneering at the impulse that is too desperate. The neutral attitude that we can accept the enemies in our camp without polluting it. All these sins of our forefathers, the timidity of contemporaries, the well-oiled and well-organized mechanism of suppression of free expression. All this is too disgusting for words. But the counterattack must be as hard hitting as the defense is well organized. No quarter must be shown, no fallen enemy spared. The nonsense of the inverted romantic flight to the neoclassical or the academic, as if these were not the eternal enemies, the citadels to be stormed in the past, like the heavy weight of overdiscussed nonentities in the present.

A word is surrounded by undiscovered language like an atmosphere. It is bathed in the atmospheric emotion, which is composed of feeling images, meteorites of vague or hard bits of experience.

I believe intelligence waves exist. They are sent out by minds of older civilizations and can possibly be captured by a space-time receiver set. The individual mind is like a receiver set. Depending on its position and tuning, it is on the beam or off it or can receive only one set of beams and not another. With the help of an invention like that, we could recapture the past.

Wisdom is one. Yet it is possessed by all. Wisdom is possessed by all, yet it is only manifested in one (individual).

Intelligence is a reaction that needs a counterreaction.

It is not in the mind but right in the middle of the world.

At night dreams are sent out from one sleeper to another as messages but uncontrolled by the narrow purpose of the waking mind.

The ceaseless mental flux is in a state of chaos as expressed by Plato in Timaeus, when the first ideas were reflected in images back from the clear sky. Then it was still possible to see their mathematical order, because of the next mathematical order of the Greek cities with their common language. This view of the world or state of reality was replaced by the Empire, which in turn was broken up into small nations with different languages. This is the great barrier to the advance of mental civilization as opposed to material civilization. Yet the soil is even richer than before. But the mirror on the mental horizon is shattered, nonuniform, and as a result confused and obscure, with shafts of light in the chaotic unconscious of our age, as it is called. It is as if the atmosphere were full of aerial disturbances only. The clarity of the Greek sky has something to do with their clarity of thought, but particularly with the shallowness and purity of their unconscious. À fleur de peau and its unity, the role of the oracle. It was like a well-tuned wireless set with perfect conditions for reception. (In America there are today similar conditions, which explains the easy belief in preachers, quacks, psychologists, prophets of every sort.)


The trouble mainly is that these and a potential of so many more are deeply pushed and coerced by the existing order into a defensive attitude, snarling savagery, or mild retirement, or maneuvering for security, or open victimization. Also mistrust of one another and venting their pent-up fury on one another. All this cleverly devised by the successful divide-and-rule policy of the established order. Only possible action is a positive grouping of forces and encouragement of work and individual assertion before attack is launched. Also important, a total exclusion of bureaucratic spies. Allies among the older generation are to be found.

For her the real thing. (K. F.)

Invest them with epithets that would suit them to perfection.
Think of them. Think hard of them.
See them also if you can.

Example of style: To the young man who burned the temple of Ephesus I can only offer my sincere congratulations. His action will shine in the centuries, long after reverberations of the flames caused by his inspired hand die out on the walls of the neighboring houses. Congratulations, Herostratus, citizen of Ephesus, man of action. We send you our most intimate salutations. Herostratus, my dear, you behaved like a real gentleman, a man of integrity, honor, and wisdom. The Ephesians will only mourn insofar as their pockets will be drained and their purses emptied for the building of a new temple. Asses. They deserve to pay for their credulous stupidity. Every penny counted out will ring to their eternal disgrace. Let it also ring out in the ears of those who think their temples safe while Herostratus is lurking around, face in the shadow, firewood in hand as yet unlit, but with plenty of determination to carry out his design.

Joséphine. She sits there expecting to be violated, a woman sitting in her house in a conquered city. Presently the handsome conqueror knocks at the door. Trembling with fear and excitement, she rises. He greets her in a civil manner. He is very poetic and converses freely on all subjects. He falls in love with her, and departs the same evening. She is disappointed because he is too civilized and incapable of showing any signs of passion. His lust is controlled by her dignity. The conqueror is conquered. He has fallen a victim of beauty, having escaped the perils of war.

Mauve, red, and yellow bands.
Hang from Nero’s empty hands.

A thin layer of superfluous flesh covers his imperial bone. He listens to the eternal hum that comes to him from a perpetual Rome. Not the Rome he set on fire, but the other Rome of his desire. Seated on this purple throne, he sees, he feels, his empty heart like a deserted arena. He can’t stand this emptiness. From a praetorian guard he snatches a burning torch, which he throws out into the night to drown the vision of his empty heart in flames (or warm the numbness of his icy hands). The torch falls into the river and is extinguished. But the conflagration starts elsewhere. Not in Rome, which sleeps intact, but within the vistas of his dream, the fanning flames fed by an eternal wind sweep ing along immense plains of desire, blotting out the cities of his memory. A volcano erupting in the soundless sphere, at a great distance; a night in the summer when lightning is seen but no thunder heard, the noise receding before it reaches the channel of the ear. He then loves himself more than any other creature on this earth. His love is directed against his people. No woman can satisfy his need. He buries their images in the ground and orders them to be segregated from the rest like dangerous beasts. They obey. But still his lust is not satisfied, and he longs for more evidence that he is an artist. But the instruments of music break in his hands. His verses vanish as they touch the paper, his voice evaporates as it contacts the air. He has no means of expression. Not even cruelty, for he is overcome with kindness and is made helpless by power. He then becomes a child again and lives the life he was meant to live. All this takes place in one night. At dawn the smell of smoke disturbs his sleep. He wakes up and sees Rome burning. He is innocent. The city, conforming to his dream, has set fire to itself.

It is wonderful to have concrete evidence that a truth seen in its disembodied form is incarnated in the world either as a situation, as a person, or as manifested in the mind of another. To such an extent this is true, that a new bird, seen for the first time, fits into the mind as if it had been there all the time, waiting to be manifested in the air by its counterpart in flesh and feathers. And the bird in the air, having had all this time a nest in the mind, where, by the law of dialectical reflection, it is received in its own right, without it being necessary to have a name invented for it, to prepare, so to speak, its entrance into the world of the spirit.

Storm the citadels of fame
Held by powerful men in vain.

What is the secret power of concerted action that made small groups of people like 10,000 Spartans masters of Greece or 30,000 Athenians masters of the sea and culture or a small city like Rome mistress of the world or a small city like Carthage her dangerous challenger or 10,000 Macedonian tribesmen masters of Greece and the whole East? What is this harmony of soul, achieved either through discipline or the strength of one man’s mind, to synchronize the actions of one small group of people so as to give them enormous spiritual superiority over their materialistic, more powerful rivals (viz. the Jewish people—Freud, Moses, and monotheism) and defeat them in the realm of matter, only to demonstrate once more the superiority of spirit over matter?

In this case an interaction of one spirit with another (when jostling and friction, which provoke waste, are cast aside), as each individual moves with a rhythm that is in strict keeping with that of his fellows, like an army marching in uniform step, in battle order?

Two or three days ago I saw F. Tiresias, holding in his hand the light, intricate web that is woven among the families, the glittering surface of their lighter relations to each other, the juxtaposition of their names with their qualities and reactions, creating the dazzling magic of their comic, unexpected encounters as if they were tumbling out of one another and themselves like newborn puppies, in the present the past and the future, brought into focus as F. was speaking, and compressed by the force of his poetic vision in a single, instantaneous medium. Then I saw M. as the youthful Atlas before he had shouldered on his powerful arms the full weight of the sky, bracing his as-yet unused muscles rolling about in the grass like a happy giant, or weighed down already by the mere idea of the weight that he was going to shoulder in the future. The invisible world, which he had already in his imagination assumed the responsibility of holding up.


Picture of Kitty with Rose, petrified in a corner, at bay, like a frightened animal. Fear is expressed in the contracted body, the eyes looming out like those of a huge rabbit in the far end of the pen that has seen a hand opening the door. She reacts toward the hand and not toward the invisible observer whom she cannot see. She is immobilized in that position—her possible movement is only withdrawal, deeper and deeper into herself, if she could. She wants to be as small as possible, yet she is enormous, and this is her situation—the paradox that is suppressed in the picture—as in a dream, a door is too small for us to get out of it. Her self is magnified to double size because she expresses the wish, the desire that it should be reduced. From this embarrassment, the size of the self becomes obvious and creates a double space for the body, which is blown up with dread, like gas in a balloon. The relative sizes of our bodies are a real experience. There are times when we want to be as small as possible and times when we want to be as large as possible. An unkind word might reduce us to the size of a pin. A formidable opponent might give us the will to grow, to become huge like them. The spirit inside us then inflates our bodies, and every muscle strains and cracks at the attempt to be enlarged, to reach the desirable size. Kitty does not know what to do with herself. She has been seen, and she can’t help feeling like that, bigger than life, exposed to that thing beyond, which she sees and which fills her with a fascinated horror, like a bird hypnotized by a snake. A horror possibly of nothing, which is for her, no doubt, something as real as seeing suddenly a tiger’s bright eyes shining through the open door. The world she is exposed to is a jungle that possesses a sun of its own in its deeper recesses, shining on her its uncanny light, or it may be just the house on the other side of the street, seen through the open window, that motivates the terror. She is possessed by herself to the greatest possible degree. The rose she is clutching is an indication of what she wants to be. Also behind her appears, in a ruthless manner, a corner of the rocking chair, which intrudes with its inanimate splendor into her mood, and by its intense reality enhances the unreal character of her state of mind. She is in fact the momentary prisoner of a fearful spirit, which is assaulting her, which has gripped her and won’t let her go until it has satisfied its uncanny power over her being.

The style of the painting is oracular. It indicates. It only suggests what we must know, leaving out the rest, the rest that we must construct in order to understand what is meant. The technique is poetic, a supremely condensed line of poetry that explodes inside us like a hand grenade, revealing a truth. It is an almost imageless image, in which the tension of opposites breaks the truth like an arrow shooting out of a drawn bow.

No. 27

No. 27


Nanos Valaoritis is a Greek writer. Born in 1921, he escaped from German-occupied Greece​ in 1944​; moved to Paris in 1954, where he met André Breton; returned to Greece in 1960, where he edited the Greek avant-garde literary review Pali; and moved to San Francisco in 1968, where he lived for over twenty years. He is the co-editor of An Anthology of Modern Greek Poetry (Talisman House) and the author of numerous books of poetry, prose, and essays, several of which were published by ​Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Books.


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