March 2023

Early Days in the Vortex/ Part One

Brian George

Victor Brauner and Roberto Matta, 1957

Is the logic of a dream different from that of the external world? Certain experiences have led you to conceive that the one is a slow-motion and more solid version of the other. The laws of physics keep things from happening all at the same time, so that you are better able to focus on the next step you must take. Then again, these laws are none too rigorously enforced. Rips can appear in a hologram, for no good reason, for good reasons that do not make sense to you, or at the discretion of a bird-like judge. Objective events can unfold with the uncanniness of a dream, as though you watched instead of acted, as though you had seen it all before. You have come to suspect that an original does exist, for which the actual event is but a makeshift reproduction.

Having lost your privileges at the Akashic Hall of Records, you have been forced to see through a cone of 55 degrees. Once, before the Deluge, you could see by simply entering into the depth of the world body, which meant, of course, that you should be fearless in exiting from your own. Your current methodology is more cautious. Still, in spite of your amnesia as to origins, by some natural blind reckoning you can sense when you are doing what you should, when chance is cooperating, and when all is moving in accordance with the preexistent death-flash video. This is, at any rate, a good description of your experience when your life is going well. So you tell yourself at the time.

You will probably choose to overlook the fact that several days have gone missing, along with several continents, and that there is no way to un -brand the barcode from your forehead. If only the world body had not been turned into a shopping mall, in which there is no way to tell if you are product or consumer. If only your guides were more consistently supportive. If only no other forces were at play. If only you could interpret your harsh punishment as proof that you had taken a wrong turn. If only Pollyanna were omniscient. To the extent that you can judge, the operative principle is as follows: if you are good, you will get patted on the head; if you are bad, you will get spanked, or vice versa.

Beneath black domes, the all-seeing eyes of the video-cameras watch. They are motion activated. They come equipped with the latest in backscatter x -ray technology, which does only minimal damage to the chromosomes, or so your masters say. There is no point in pretending to keep secrets! There are few embarrassments that are not yet part of the archeological record, few atrocities in which you have not yet indulged, including those about which you are dreaming at this moment. The cameras move with you, step by step, as you attempt to probe more deeply into the mystery of the labyrinth.



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Philip Guston, The Porch, 1947

There are those who say that Worcester, Massachusetts, is a city. It is more like a collection of discontinuous neighborhoods. It is a place of factories and colleges, of Gothic spires and freight yards. Worcester was the only
U.S. city that Freud visited. Robert Goddard, the inventor of the first liquid -fueled rocket, was bounced out for scaring the cows. There were trees to climb and hills down which to roll and corner lots where friends could throw a last-minute baseball game together. It was a city where men might work for the same factory for most of their adult lives, where schools taught them to sit up straight and not complain, where molten steel could put a sudden end to a career. It was, in retrospect, not a bad place to grow up. I get sentimental when I think about the twilight of the American working class, about the culture that formed me. Yet this was also a city in which it was possible to get stuck. At the age of 18, I was ready for adventures. I was willing to travel light. I would bring only a few books and some clothes and a sleeping bag and a radio. From Worcester to Boston it is only 45 miles. A bus can take you from one to the other in an hour. I am puzzled that it should have taken me two years.

Even now, there are times when I wonder if there are pieces that I left, if it was only the subtle essence that I took, if these last 40 years have actually taken place. It is possible that my imagination is more powerful than I know, as well as more deceptive. Beneath an upright oar, I may be peeking through the soil in the yard of my three-decker, breathing slowly in and out, with a view of the Seven Hills. There is not much left of the industrial powerhouse that I knew and towards which I once felt so large an amount of ambivalence. I am no longer tempted to pass judgment on this place, this city of filled-in canals, this navel towards which railroad tracks converged, this target for Nazi bombs. The city blinks to let us know that it is there. As Anonymous, I now just barely have such an urge. I am in the world but not of it. In passing, I take note of how desperate I was to prove that I had talent. I smile to see how eager I was to say goodbye to my home.

I still remember, vividly, the excitement of my first few months in Boston, in the fall of 1974, when I had finally escaped Worcester to go to the Art Institute. The first and most important fact is that I had managed to escape Worcester. The second important fact was that I had once more taken possession of my body. After graduating high school, I had been eaten by an ocean. This was not entirely a bad thing. I could swim a bit. It was nonetheless an ordeal, a labor-intensive test of my powers of self -deception, at a time when most of my friends had already gone off to college. No three-d teachers had appeared to me, reclining on their waves, only teachers of a subtle, a more problematic sort. I did not have any external network of support. Upon my return from a period of near paralyzing transport, a return that was provisional, at best, I spent a year and a half cleaning ink from all the surfaces at the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

This was less a job than an enactment of my state of mental solitary confinement. The solidity of the land beneath my feet was not at all reassuring. Rather, boundaries blocked my view without offering any guarantee of safety. My goals had once been cosmic. Now, I only wanted to make it to my next 15-minute break, to get a Coke and a bag of Fritos. My life did not get bigger; it got smaller. A small crack could nonetheless swallow the wall in which it opened. "When you stare into the abyss," writes Nietzsche, "the abyss stares back at you." I could not meet its eyes. I kept my own eyes fixed, a few feet just ahead of me, on the floor of the Worcester Telegram & Gazette. I was not going anywhere fast. For that matter, I was not going anywhere slowly. It was clear to me that I had become a hungry ghost.

As in the mechanical trauma of a dream, a dream which, if we have had it once, we have had it 10,000 times, ink smeared itself on all pieces of equipment, on all ductwork, on all stairs and railings, on all fire extinguishers. There was no way to keep any surface clean. The end of one task was the beginning of another. A just society would regard such "work" as a form of legalized torture. I was the chosen youth, marked for dismemberment, the lobotomized genius sacrificed to the idol of wage slavery. Florescent lights threw shadows; they provided no illumination. No exit sign could be trusted. Each exit was an entrance, to a corridor that led deeper into the bowels of the Underworld. Some unseen enemy had removed the hands from every clock. Time was as motionless as the curse of the black ink. I was Sisyphus at his boulder, Ixion on his wheel.

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Andre Masson, The Labyrinth, 1938

My main consolation during this period was my work as a volunteer at the Worcester Crisis Center, a low-budget suicide and drug abuse prevention hotline, where I could transform my sense of alienation into empathy for others. It did not hurt that the work provided reassurance that I was not myself too disturbed to be of use. Our technique was mostly to listen and to ask questions and to paraphrase and to clarify and to make connections and to support. Oh, and to keep people talking. This is not to say that we knew what we were doing, although we did receive some instructions at the Worcester State Hospital, a grandiose gothic prison complex, built in 1873, which would not look out of place in a horror movie. This was a place of peeling paint and ripped wallpaper and drugged inmates and bored orderlies, who looked at all outside observers with suspicion. Our goal was simply to enter, to not inhale too much of the smell of disinfectant, and to leave.

We were total amateurs. I think, though, that we filled a niche that might not otherwise have been filled. I can only hope that my good intentions had some value, that I did more good than harm, and that I was, perhaps, crudely effective. That I was wounded, I knew. I had just discovered that there were many who were even more wounded than I. That this woundedness could be a source of insight and of strength was an idea that struck me with the force of a revelation. Like a snake-skin, my narcissism was beginning to curl up at the edges. I was able to get a hold of it, and to pull. How strange and intricately patterned was this artifact! My small efforts as a healer had prompted me to test out a new vantage point, to view these patterns if not from above then from a less personal angle.

Gurdjieff argued that true consciousness is objective. He did not mean this in any scientific sense. It was his way of speaking about the state that Vedantists call "Turiya," the fourth state, the state beyond waking or dreaming or deep sleep. There is no way to form an image of this state, to grasp it by a process of addition. Rather, this state must take us by surprise. A series of misadventures may cast doubt on our belief that we are special. We would far prefer to believe that our wishes should come true. It may be , however, that the ends of this fourth state do not correspond to ours. In breaking us, it may accidentally teach us how to heal. If it "takes from our eyes the day of our return," this may prompt us, now and then, to see with other eyes. I spent a year and a half working at the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, smeared with ink and wandering in circles through the corridors, my eyes stinging from the harsh fluorescent lights. That I was led, I began gradually to suspect. "Get out!" said a voice, "Do not turn to look back!" This is what I thought I heard. I would have laughed if the voice had said that this experience was a gift.

Let me note in passing that there were other consolations in this period—madrigals at the art museum, lunches with poet and coworker Nick Karcasinas on the steps of Our Lady of Fatima, an introduction to a pre-Men's Movement and still edgy Robert Bly—consolations that I am choosing to underplay, for they did not significantly alter my sense of claustrophobia, my conviction that all was not right with the world. I would sometimes ride my bicycle up the hill to Worcester Airport, a steep climb. I would then let go of my handlebars as I plummeted, at 40 miles-per-hour, to the bottom. At no point did I feel that I was not inside a prison.

Much free time would be spent in a cubicle at the Clark University Library. There, subject by subject, I did my best to come to terms with the vast extent of my ignorance. From my perch in a fourth-floor window, I could gaze down at the miniature students with their backpacks, their eyes fixed on some shiny vision of the future as they scurried to cross the cratered moonscape of the quadrangle. They were so convinced that they were seeing a damp lawn in the spring, not the dust of Babylonian birds, that mist and not toxic gas was swirling around the statue of Sigmund Freud! I would not say that I grew; that would be too generous. Somehow, though, I changed. I was amazed to observe that, week by week, my contempt for the human race became just a little bit less. I somehow became more tolerant of others. I somehow became more open to myself. By the time that I left for Boston, this contempt was more like a vestigial organ, an appendix. 


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Brian George is the author of two books of essays and four books of poetry. His book of essays Masks of Origin: Regression in the Service of Omnipotence has just been published by Untimely Books at
https://untimelybooks.com/book/masks-of-origin. He has recently reactivated his blog, also called Masks of Origin at https://masksoforigin.blogspot.com/. He is a graduate of the Massachusetts College of Art, an exhibited artist and former teacher. He often tells people first discovering his work that his goal is not so much to be read as to be reread, and then lived with.
For more of his writings in Scene4, check the Archives.

©2023 Brian George
©2023 Publication Scene4 Magazine






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