|"Reflections and Repercussions" -- the memoirs of Si Lewen||
Even within “bucolic” nature and solitude, I still could not escape memory. “Escape, get away - somewhere, anywhere, elsewhere!” “Elsewhere" took on special urgency after the assault in Central Park. "I'll find and kill you...", was the last I heard from my assailant. But even travel would retain always an almost neurotic compulsion. Again and again it would drive me to the furthest corners of the world, driven on as by some internal restless gyroscope, incapable to stop. However, it is not only restlessness which propels the ever wanderer; it is also a peculiar thirst and hunger, an insatiable curiosity. It demands to know: what's around the bend, over the horizon, beyond reach, perhaps begun by ancestral, nomads through the Sinai desert, and goading restless wanderers since. I travel light, and was fortunate that Rennie, also, preferred to travel unburdened as well as quietly. "Look at that", was, most often, all that was said. A camera would however, accompany our journeys, though I sympathize with people who do not care to be "shot", to become a souvenir. But even without a camera, can a tourist ever see well, or understand? By his very presence the world turns into little more than an insipid tourist attraction.
However, we encounter not only “tourist attractions” but also ragclad beggars. They reach out bony hands, implore with haunting eyes, beseech in exhausted tones, even the smallest of children. I pretend not to see, not to hear, not to understand. "Avoid eye contact, pretend they don't exist", I was advised. I tried, I lied that I had nothing, I could not bring myself to hand out alms, to add its insult to the beggar’s. It was not charity that I felt toward the ragged poor but revulsion - against an ugliness, which as an ill clothed refugee child from Poland I first confronted the indignity and humiliation of poverty. There remained this touch of recognition, and I abhorred the tie that bound me hostage. Searching for roots and reasons for this "ugly, dirty" poverty all about and spreading, I would eventually blame not only greed, but militarism. Seductive, all-consuming in its bloodlust, the military must leave in its wake not only mountains of corpses, but also armies of destitute. And yet, occasionally, here and there, were signs of hope, of progress. Traveling some of the Scandinavian countries, I was reminded that only a few centuries past, their ancestors, the Vikings, had been among the most feared, blood-thirsty marauders, but had finally settled down to become the most peaceful and civilized. Iceland had even rid itself of its military, and achieved one of the highest literacy standards. Yes, I could go on dreaming of some bright future in some distant land.
To dream, to fantasize about some distant land must have been implanted early, perhaps already when, anesthetized with a vodka soaked gag, I was carried into Germany, but which I fled 13 years later to France and finally to America. To be “elsewhere” resumed when together with two young daughters, we traversed the length of America and Alaska in an old jalopy, camping. But even Alaska was still not far enough - Central and South America followed. Oceans needed to be crossed to put distance between myself and Central Park. Perhaps it was not even the threat itself, but that America, my childhood dream, had betrayed the dream that had sustained me. I needed to put distance, ever greater distance between myself and “America”. We journeyed to Europe, again and again, through most every country, as well as Israel and North Africa. Perhaps beyond the Pacific, the furthest Far East might be distant enough. The Himalayas of Nepal beckoned.
And so in the Fall of 1980, together with six other Americans, three Sherpas and fifteen porters we trekked along the Anapurnas, the range of the Himalayas of northwestern Nepal. We knew we had to be careful, watching every step, holding on to each other; there could be no misstep. It may have appeared comical to fellow trekkers, but especially to the Nepalese to see us, this "odd, old" couple trekking, holding on, almost clutching each other. "Gentle!" may have been our life-long reminder, especially as we watched each other aging, turning frailer, joints creaking. Along the trails of the Himalayas each day became another day conquered without a mishap, each step carefully measured. And so we were alarmed when word reached us that a woman trekker, somewhere along our route, was badly hurt.
After about a week of climbing into ever rarer air, we headed back, by a somewhat different route: From Deurali we descended toward Tolka, stopping for a lunch break at Landruk. There, sheltered by a stone wall, lay the woman who had broken her leg, waiting for help, hopefully for a helicopter. Otherwise, the injured woman would have to be carried out of the mountains in a basket on the back of a porter - ¬a two-day, extremely painful and dangerous trek. The woman, as it turned out, was part of a German contingent which had moved on, but had sent a runner to Pokhara for help. The very air around her seemed to reverberate with the obvious pain of the young, injured woman. I stared at her, but incapable to offer a comforting word. On all previous travels, whenever meeting German tourists (to my annoyance, they appeared everywhere), I could only glare in silent contempt: "Where were you and what were you doing amid the Holocaust?" was always the mute question and constant reminder. I could not forget or forgive. Even on this trek, passing German groups, everyone cheering happy greetings, I could only pass in contemptuous silence. As the rest of the group gathered about the injured woman, wishing to be of some help, offering some comfort, I turned my back; I wanted no contact with "this German".
I gulped my lunch sullenly, eager to get away, to continue the ever steeper descent toward Tolka. But I was unable to shake the injured German woman from my mind. I cursed meeting her and cursed the trek and the mountains. Angry and preoccupied with cursing, I grew careless and began slipping, sliding and stumbling. I let go of Rennie's arm, not wishing to drag her with me should I take a serious spill. Trying to grab and hold on to every root and rock, it suddenly struck me: "what am I cursing her for? She was not even born at the time of the Holocaust!" as step by unsteady step, change appeared to overtake me, and loathing gave way to remorse, at first in almost shocked surprise: "Enough already - enough of this 'collective guilt' - she is innocent, innocent!" I kept repeating, almost shouting: "She is innocent, innocent, innocent!" I kept slipping, stumbling, falling and cursing, fighting and arguing my way down to Tolka. I arrived mud-caked, bleeding, exhausted and in pain, but relieved of a heavy burden, even triumphed.
As porters and Sherpas busied themselves - raising tents, lighting fires and preparing dinner, I went off alone to the edge of a chasm, darkening into a silent abyss. I watched a Himalayan Griffin soar overhead as Anapurna South, towering above, turned an ever more fiery pink in the setting sun and then merged with clouds and sky. In the setting sun the mountains appeared as if on fire, but surrounded by a stillness I could almost feel. In this seemingly absolute quiet, I thought I heard something - distant and unfamiliar, mechanical, perhaps a distant plane. The sound grew louder, nearer and clearer and finally, through the darkening, purple shadows of the valley, I heard and then saw - the helicopter. "I think it's the helicopter" I shouted, and the entire group rushed forward to the edge of the darkening abyss. It was indeed the helicopter - it made its way up the valley, up to where we had left the injured German woman. I held my breath and waited and watched as the helicopter fell silent. But it returned, and I knew: the woman was safe, her ordeal was over, and everyone let out a cheer. We all cheered and waved, and I had difficulty choking down tears. "I'm very sentimental", I tried to explain. How could I explain the miracle that had just happened: how a door to a dark, inner cell had opened and an old dam had broken.
Returning from any journey, I would resume work by first reviewing recent paintings, to see them in a new light. Often, this would be the time I might begin by cutting up some previous work and transform the fragments into new images. This time, upon my return from Nepal, reviewing some of my black and scorched images of the Holocaust, something happened I had not foreseen: I began to paint - in colors I had not touched in a long time. Very tentatively at first, I started adding a bit of cobalt blue, a touch of pink, even a little chartreuse to the former dark images. Brushstroke followed brushstroke until my work seemed to explode into color - a transfiguration from out of the mountains of the Himalayas.
Returning from Nepal, I felt almost victorious. But I could not banish memory, not entirely. There still remained the gnawing vision of Hiroshima, a specter which, like the Holocaust, had also troubled my imagery. Some day, I knew, I would have to confront it. Within a year after returning from Nepal, in the Fall of 1981, we were off again - to Japan and, especially, Nagasaki. During the night of our arrival in Tokyo I had a dream, as recorded into a journal: "Together with Rennie, I am hiking through a desert-like landscape where, atop a hill, I discover the cadaverous remains of a goat, lying on another dead animal. We move on, but looking back I see the goat back on its feet and feeding on the remains of the other animal". I awoke, not very disturbed about what, in a lifetime of dreaming, did not appear as a particularly troubling nightmare. The next night, however, I had another, more disturbing dream.
All previous dreaming had always been composed of images, occasionally also of dialogues, but in that second night in Tokyo the dreaming began as: "A dull pounding, like distant drum beat coming closer and louder, a mix of march rhythm and ‘Rock’. Behind a parade of goose-stepping marchers follow a long line of cattle, kicking up a cloud of dust. I follow along, as band and cattle move up a ramp and through portals into a large building. Inside, brawny men grab each animal, crack it across the head with a sledge hammer, and as each animal collapses, with a resounding thud, it is hauled up, head down, hooked to a moving conveyer belt. Another man steps forward and cuts its throat, as the beast bellows a piercing shriek. Its belly slit, guts cascade onto the floor. As the carcasses move on, down a long hall on the conveyer belt, they become transformed - into human beings, dangling face down. Though empty of entrails and blood smeared, their faces appear to cry out, but no sound emerges."
My journal goes on: "I run down the hall, trying to escape along a floor slippery with blood and entrails. Past a door which opens into another hall, the conveyer belt continues to move with its now human carcasses over burning embers, becoming roasted and unrecognizable. But eyes, straining from their sockets, follow me as I rush on, and loudspeakers blare out music to a Rock rhythm. I run on, past a small foyer and beyond - toward a neon lit 'Exit'. In the foyer, behind a counter, grinning men offer chains of frankfurters, wursts, sausages and slabs of roasted meat: 'Roasted, toasted, spicy and delicious!' they call out. I run out the door marked 'Exit', screaming. I try to reassure myself that this is but a dream, to wake. With arms stretched out I run, yelling "Rennie, Rennie!" An almost disembodied hand catches mine: 'it's all right - everything is all right now', a woman's voice seems to repeat over and over again. She leads me away from the slaughterhouse - but it is not Rennie. 'Everything is all right now', the voice keeps repeating as we seem to float over a landscape reminiscent of a desert".
I recorded what seemed too vivid a nightmare, certain that it was triggered by possible dread of going to Nagasaki. Cattle transformed into people probably reflected also my long preoccupation with metamorphoses - those part man, part beast assemblages. The following night, almost as soon as I closed my eyes, dreaming began again, picking up at almost the precise moment where it stopped the previous night: "The woman who had dragged me from the slaughter house continues to reassure me: 'it's all right - it's all over now', and proceeds to lead me through a landscape which appears scorched, bleak and drained of all color." Most of this third night of dreaming consisted of a constantly droning voice: about a holocaust which had decimated most of mankind and how life finally was restored by women, establishing a worldwide society - ¬the Sisterhood. My guide, I realized, was small and delicate, of golden skin, indefinable age, with almond eyes in a large bulging head, but without hair or teeth. I was equally shocked when I saw myself - totally naked.
My guide, insisting that "we will meet again", I was not surprised when she reappeared the following night, leading me toward a city composed of "iridescent bubbles, stretching almost from horizon to horizon and reaching up to the clouds". Night after night, dream following dream, I was led through what she referred to as the "Sisterhood", replacing the "ancient rule of man". But this nocturnal tour was filled with arguments as well: I could not accept Utopia. In Kumamoto, I was then pleasantly surprised to wake out of the following dream: "A luminous form appears and expands into a great spiral galaxy, slowly rotating. Long arms of myriad of stars turn faster and faster until it becomes one great blur. As if by some centrifugal force, the center pushes out until there is only a bright spinning ring, which gradually slows and reveal itself as a translucent serpent. Still rotating, the great serpent seems to swallow itself, down into its own now pulsating belly. It begins to spin again, expanding into a flattened, increasingly brilliant disk like sun. I am not sure whether the sun is expanding or whether I am falling, flying into the sun".
What must have contributed to my recall of almost every dream on this journey through Japan, was that I kept waking throughout each night. A pain in both legs, at first barely bothersome, increased as the tour progressed. During the days of sightseeing, often groggy with fatigue, I walked as in a daze. Several times, the dreams appeared to continue during short periods of rest and I feared to be hallucinating. Returning home, the disability was diagnosed as two "herniating discs" in the spine, as well as “spinal stinosis”, pressing on the sciatic nerve. It might have started the year before, when I stumbled, slid and fell, in the Himalayas, descending from Landruk to Tolka.
Finally, we arrived in Nagasaki, the goal of this journey. Descending from the bus my legs seemed refuse to go further. I must have spent the entire day in the Memorial Museum, slowly dragging myself through the holocaust that was Nakasaki, in a stupor, holding on to Rennie. Along the museum walls, photographs stared back - of children staring, in shock, horribly burned and in pain, uncomprehending, mute, beyond even a cry. Photographs of bleeding survivors, bones sticking out of skin, blackened and blistered and in shreds, groping their way amid desolation, stupefied and uncomprehending. Photographs of the desolation: a blackened, rubble strewn desert, seemingly stretching beyond Nagasaki into nothingness. Photographs need not beg credibility, unlike paintings which, often, reflect the artists' vain pretensions. A recognition of failure - art can never be as convincing as the black on white evidence of photographs? The artist must then go elsewhere, where no camera can record. What the camera recorded in Nagasaki was that even the rain that fell was black. There was no color left, and it was deadly still, engulfing every visitor, afraid to speak, even to breathe, afraid, perhaps, to wake the dead. Finally, outside the museum, a rain was falling and all appeared cloaked in silence along the streets of Nagasaki. Ghostlike, silently, people appeared and disappeared. Silently, slowly, like a somnambulist, holding on to Rennie, I groped my way back to the hotel. I had seen, not a museum but Nagasaki at the moment of its ordeal.
Two days later, when we left Japan, all dreams, nightmares and hallucinating stopped. Recuperating in Hawaii, I had time to reflect: not only on what I had seen by day, but especially during the long nights; one seemed as real as the other. Something happened in Japan, but which I could not accept, certainly not as rational. Dr. Greene, a Jungian analyst, I met soon after returning home reassured me: “Sequential dreams, though rare, do occur, as well as "guides". Dreams of some Sisterhood may well have reflected my own daytime fantasies in which women had become the prime decision makers on earth. Housekeepers and homemakers, childbearers and nurturers - women, I often reasoned, would be far better at keeping the world in peace. It might be a very different, lovelier world and better even for men.
No matter how real and clear dreams may appear while dreaming, in retrospect they turn increasingly elusive. Not only elusive, but ethereal and ephemeral, dreams possess a quality, a texture, a life and disembodied reality, which can become confused with reality; or vice versa. Sometimes, I become conscious of dreaming - "lucid dreaming". There is a special quality to the tone and color of a dream: translucent and luminous, more like a projection - upon the mind? While most of my dreams are in color (at times extremely brilliant), some appear monochromatic in black and white, often shifting back and forth. Despite the sense of verbal communication in a dream, nothing, evidently, is spoken, yet some understanding emerges. Vague, elusive and often incomprehensible, much of dreaming cannot be reconstructed accurately.
Analysts should be aware that the reconstructed dream can, at best, be only an edited approximation, especially when hallucinating, or in that strange twilight state, past sleep and not yet fully awake. This twilight state often produced not only vivid dreams but also memorable imagery for my art. In a lifetime of dreams, the dreams while touring Japan were, however, like no others. But there had been strange incidences before which I could not explain. For instance, one night, sometime in 1974, I woke out of a nightmare with such a start that I found myself sitting up. I dreamt that I entered a room where a nurse pulled back a bedsheet - to reveal my brother Isaac dead. The dream occurred a year before Isaac actually had the first symptoms of what eventually was diagnosed as lymphoma, a form of cancer. When, two years later, and almost three years after the dream, Isaac died and I rushed into his hospital room, the exact same dream in all its details became reality.
Reluctant to consider supernatural explanations for my dreams - as well as the many other strange occurrences throughout my life – reflecting,aps, a fear of not being in control, but pulled and pushed and also inspired by forces and circumstances which seemed beyond willful, conscious control, or "reality". There may, indeed, be a world which is super-natural and extra-ordinary and beyond easy explanation. What if “reality” is but a very realistic dreamscape? No matter how I view the world - and reality - it seldom seemed quite real, or even material. Often, my world would appear more ethereal than solid, more dream-like than what I encountered in dreams.
However, anxious to find "reasonable" explanations, I searched for more acceptable causes. I was certain that I could explain away my dreams, especially those in Japan, by my past: to seek some rational explanations: To retrace a past which previously, I always felt, had best be left buried, and search for clues I thought had best left undisturbed. I could not entrust this search to others, recalling the aborted psychoanalysis of years before. "Self analysis" may be viewed rather skeptically; Still, if pursued relentlessly - nothing suppressed or held back - it could provide answers, perhaps even provide some sense of peace. Suspicious of strangers, I had to undertake this alone, except for Rennie - typing out page after page, recollection after recollection. "Three Journeys" was to describe the official day time tour of Japan, the mostly night time journey of dreams, and the inner journey of mind, trying to retrace memory and recollection. Thus began the process, step by step, descending deeper and further into a past, dredging up one remembrance after another, revealing possible connections to the dreams in Japan. These dreams had, perhaps, become inevitable - one big, exotic flare-up after years of buried but smoldering debris. This is, also, how these pages, this Memoir (or Self-Portrait) had its beginning.
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