Insanity & mystical experience
This is the first chapter of Yvette's novel Tangier, copied from Portland Writers -- http://portlandwriters.com -- a free website for writers. She said she wrote the novel to explore a philosophical question: if you have a mystical experience during an episode of insanity, is the experience valid? -- L.P.
1 - allegro
FIFTY-ONE YEARS EARLIER
Yes, I know from where I came!
Ever hungry like a flame,
I consume myself and glow.
Light grows all that I conceive,
Ashes everything I leave:
Flame I am assuredly.
-- Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science
You will not hear the music.
There, I've said it. That's off my chest. You will not hear the music because music cannot be described; music is, as is all art, about feelings. It must be felt and cannot adequately be talked about in any sort of pictorial way. I have always maintained so, at times most vehemently. Music appreciation begins in the belly. Anyone who has known me over the eons can verify this as always having been my stance on the subject. So, you will understand that I have ontological, epistemological, and yes, professional misgivings about even attempting a portrait of the exultant event. It is bound to fail. You will not hear the music. You will not feel the music. That said, I raise my baton and write.
The day Penelope Quintain first discovered she had a buddha living in her head was quite possibly the most memorable of her life. Rain fell relentlessly from an enormous cloud-enshrouded sky; the rainy season had dashed in and the heavenly waters lashed the green and gray city with lachrymose drops, like the tears that filled the Han River, an unrelenting cycle. "Isn't the rain heavenly? It's been so muggy," Betty, the new recruit at Land of The Morning Calm Language School, had said that very morning, the day of the revelations.
The day of the revelations, weaving her way through the midday throng of Korean pedestrians, Penelope left the coffee shop in Jong-ro to head home to her apartment in the Shinchon district of Seoul. Earlier that morning, in that same apartment, with water running like tears down the window pane, she had been sipping her second cup of getting-ready-for-work coffee, sitting at her desk next to the weeping window, when she had her first mental aberration in the form of a vivid vision that clicked into her head like a camera's shutter opening and closing, as if her brain had severed itself and then reunited. A buddha in five poses suggesting sexual proclivities; shocking the prude in her, one would have thought, this nasty buddha snapping into view in the middle of her forehead. But she wasn't appalled by this flagrant display. She was enlightened. Now, that in itself might seem perfidious, might seem blasphemous, but Penelope was awed by the implicatory force of this cerebral resident. Awed to the point of enlightenment. A vague, wispy enlightenment, an enlightenment of delusional proportions.
No warning. Just instant, unannounced insanity. The information accompanying these graphic stances of the buddha was that the lessons of her life had been absorbed through the emotional underpinnings of eroticism. This revelation carried with it a feeling of well-being, a sense of joyful understanding. She dressed with this in mind, selecting a black-beaded necklace, looping and draping it so that it hung in the phallic shape of a lingam. It was an acknowledgment of life's instruction. The message was a private communication with her buddha,...
**********It was an inner communication of sorts, this play running in her head. Penelope was pressed against the wall. Joeng Dhoh's body was like no other object she had ever encountered, the pressure elicited the sensation of immediacy, a profound awareness of now. She could feel an attraction, a force all engulfing like gravity, that seemed to emanate from his sinewy muscles. The desire she struggled against rose from her core. His kisses alternated, fierce and tender. The combination drove her mad. An ineffable scent rose from his body, something from her childhood, something safe. Something like a promise.
A peddler wheeled his huge tricycle through the alley, calling out his melons for sale. Penelope woke out of her reverie. Time. Time to rinse out the wash soaking in the sink. Flakes of exfoliated skin floated amongst the dying suds.**********
...an affirmation. It is not, she realized, just that things are symbols of sex as Freud claimed, but sex itself is an emblem. She didn't understand the intricacies of the lesson, how all the pieces fit together. Time later for analysis. Somehow she had passed the final test. She had made contact with the teacher smack dab in the middle of her forehead. She had graduated. All prerequisite courses had been taken, all course requirements met, and the final examination passed. Her necklace, a scarlet letter of merit, was her diploma. What caused her to return home earlier than usual later that afternoon, battling the sea of umbrellas, neighboring spokes brushing her shoulders, was a piece of music. That culprit! The episode had been haunting, rhapsodic, and, again, enlightening in a bananas sort of way. The song playing in the coffee shop she frequented every day, except weekends, a coffee shop with the strangely prosaic name of Coffee School.
In Seoul, there is a coffee shop on every block, sometimes two or three. A caffeine lover's dream. This one was across the street from the English school, Land of the Morning Calm Language School, where Penelope worked. She had discovered it the first day in Seoul and adopted it as her place of refuge. As she walked up the concrete stairs, she had thought, "What a strange name for a coffee shop. Coffee School?"
It had an open space in the center with a few tall plants separating a couple of tables with chairs and secluded booths stationed around the perimeter. In the front, two tables looked out the upstairs' window. There were narrow stairs on each side leading to balconies running the length of the shop where partitioned tables with attached bench-like seats, allowing for immersion in thought and fancy, were stationed.
She had mulled over her predicament in that very same location over and over again, listening to the music, drinking her coffee, the tendrils of her curly hair bent a few inches from her scribbling pen, taking her notes from the tome of philosophy she lugged around, wondering why she had to have fallen in love with someone so unattainable. And so beautiful. Beauty personified. Achingly, divinely beautiful. She also mused about the shadows of Eastern philosophy in Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling's assertion that the Absolute is the all-comprehensive reality permeating and returning to itself through subjective representation. But that's another avenue, we'll not saunter that way. So the name was appropriate because she was in school; she had a lesson to learn, a final test to take. And much of that final had been taken in the Coffee School.
The music playing on the tape machine that sent her home earlier than usual that fateful day of drenching rain, and of the revelatory buddha, and of the lingam-bouncing- on-sternum, and the coup d'épée of the umbrella dance had been French, C'est La Vie, That's Life! Right before it, Let's Just Kiss and Say Good-bye. Sitting at one of the front tables, she had ordered her coffee and was watching the proprietor fast forwarding the tape recorder with the fumbling that accompanies that procedure, wondering what he was trying to drum up. When these songs came on, Penelope read them as a message from Joeng Dhoh. Suddenly the world seemed brimming with messages whose import had before gone unrecognized. Penelope was plugged into a vast network of information where the slightest raised eyebrow, the message on a box of cutlery, a song from a tape player, all were portentous deliveries coming in from the information speedway of the cosmos. Moving on from one sex object to another, the song warbled. This was Joeng's way of breaking off the relationship, a relationship that was only a mental construct existing in her mind. The lyrics pronounced, Ain't that life? To get the owner of the coffee shop to select this music and play it for her edification would have constituted a conspiracy.
This is exactly what Penelope suspected. Life's too short to be wasted on one body...So long, baby, the crooning proclaimed cavalierly. Penelope, her foot swinging in time to the anger that had arisen with her comprehension of the lyrics, said to herself, "You can't 'C'est La Vie' me! I'm the other half of your soul." And she paid for her coffee and headed home.
The streets were packed. The rains had brought out all the souls in Seoul. The umbrellas made little whistling noises as they jabbed and careened across the shiny fabric of her khaki raincoat, kind of a shushing plaint. Shuusssh, shuusssh. Koreans love the rainy season. Repression gives birth to deviousness. Surreptitious proximity. It's the time to share your umbrella with the one you love, a time to be physically close, together.
Alone. Penelope was alone to the eyes of the curious Koreans on the street. But not in her head. Once home, realizing that something enormous was happening to her, she called the ESL director of Land of the Morning Calm Language School to claim that she was sick and wouldn't be able to conduct afternoon classes. Faking illness; not knowing she really was ill.
And then her madness became full-blown. Revelations began coming rapidly. Wild and woolly revelations. She realized that the conversation she had had with Joeng Dhoh the day before had a whole other meaning from what appeared on the surface. She saw that she had been speaking from both the conscious and subconscious mind at the same time, and that the subconscious is always listening and reacting to what is going on consciously. Monitoring. This was a very powerful revelation of divided loyalties within.
All the time she had been speaking on the conscious level, her mannerisms were speaking from the subconscious, talking up a storm. The rainy season had marched right into Penelope's mind. Sitting at the table with Joeng the day before, in the Puzzle coffee shop not too far from the school, when her cigarette package had become empty she had folded and bent it into shapes that resembled, she realized now as she sat on the floor of her apartment with its toasty, sub-radiated warmth, female and male genitalia. She had maneuvered this object and toyed with it, depicting all of the raunchy sexual stances the visional buddha would display the following morning as she prepared for work. Uncanny. She realized that this must be going on all the time, this connection, this chatting commentary of the subconscious mind. A pas de deux in the mind's dance.
And then she really went mad, so to speak. The agnosticism her mind suffered from was rent and she discerned, or had a "revelation" as she would say, that this was her last life on earth, that she had lived many lifetimes and this was to be the culmination. She had achieved release and relief from the wheel of life.
She was also informed that there was a ceremony to be conducted when one reached this important stage in existence. Penelope wasn't sure if all this was Hindu or Buddhist or a melding of the two. This rite was to be conducted in a temple and involved a priest or monk, anyway some kind of religious personage who would blow out a candle which would symbolize the blowing out of the fire of earthly life. Penelope had no religion, she belonged to no temple, no church, no nothing. But she wasn't going to let that stop her. If blowing out a candle was the ritual, and if there was no one to do that for her, she would blow out her own goddamn candle. She lit the tail end of a candle in a brass holder sitting on the lacquered tea table at her side and watched it burn; then, as per the illumination, blew it out, embracing her future, which meant an existence that did not include this Earth. Freedom!
She was very excited and got up to pace across the floor in a state of euphoria. The one window in the living room looked out on apartments across the way with a walkway running the length of the complex. A Korean man opened the door to the opposing apartment, holding a tall, thick candle lit. He blew out the flame and closed the door.
Amazing! "He blew out my candle," she said aloud in awe. "No return. It's over at last!" Now if this Korean man had not opened that door and blown out that candle, for whatever purpose, undoubtedly Penelope would not have gotten it into her mind that the whole neighborhood was in on this. This was truly a cosmic event.
The next revelation was that, not only was this her last endurance run, she had located the other half of her soul and, if she played her cards right, she would be able to take that treasure to paradise with her. Two for the price of one. The revelation told her this was very rare. And that this was part of what the sojourn of the embodied was about, finding the other half of your soul, and knowing what to do once that had happened. Penelope had located her other half and attained release. The trick was to become reunited with her yang half. It was conveyed to her that union with Yang was to be of spirit and not flesh.
We are nearing the music. We are not there, yet, but very soon.
Baroque. And the Broca's area is broke, words are frail notes. The music originated from behind the veil and there it has returned. Ah, but there is immense light behind the veil, perhaps we can at least see its silhouette. It is worth the attempt.
To return, Penelope had three red candles, new, uninitiated, one tall, the other two short and stubby. She hacked at the candles until they had been cut in two, severing the wick that ran up the middle of the tallow, like an artery. This was in response to the knowledge she had gained from those ethereal archives she was plugged into. An incident from her early twenties, in art school, had been an attempt to steal her away from Joeng Dhoh, she realized, to trick her into thinking she had found her other half. Jeremiah Norman. His emblematic genitals lay in chunks of red, raw-edged in white, crumbling candlewax, the knife buried with the symbolic flesh, his shroud an issue of Life magazine. "That's life!" she had said as she closed the magazine used as chopping block. Then she saw the title. Cosmic humor, cosmic justice, cosmic puzzle, little pieces fitting together, here, there, everywhere. That's life!
The most phenomenal, and beautiful, event was the music in the sky, triumphant and full-blast. Holed-up for three days in her apartment, she had seen the same signals telling her what to do. She saw a woman from across the way come out of her apartment, lean against the walkway rail and look around as if she were assessing the day. From this Penelope read that she was to open her door to let fresh air sweep away the stale. She saw an elderly woman come to the garbage can and deposit her little bundle of trash - all refuse in Korea was always bundled up - as if a gift - and then tap the dustpan she was carrying against the gray stony wall. She always tapped two times, every time the same, tap tap. Penelope could have sworn she looked directly at her. This was the sign to sweep her floors. These directives were the neighbors' way of carrying her through the cleansing ritual which was necessary for the attainment of purity the spiritual union required. She watched as each day a woman sauntered along the walkway carrying plastic bags. This was the announcement to bundle up all loose objects into plastic bags so that any evil emanations could not escape. Then, on each of the three days, she observed a woman walk briskly along the walkway twisting her rings, a message to take off her rings in preparation for union with her husband. And so she would, placing the rings on the cardboard box that served as her night stand.
On the fourth day, the day of the incredible music, these events all occurred again, but this time Penelope did not automatically heed them. She said, "Oh yes, must sweep that floor," but she continued to sit on top of her desk at the streaked window watching all the signals and commenting on them. Then she realized the meaning. This was a play and this was play. Just as everyday we repeat our actions day in and day out, in every life we repeat ourselves, like some long-running farce on Broadway. The real message here was: wake up, stop making the same automatic repetitions, the same inane motions toward a light-less life. Wake up and smell the coffee, so to speak. Then she noticed something. There was no lady-of-the-rings. Where was she?
I can hear the conductor tapping his baton on the edge of the music stand. They are at the ready, they are poised, a muffled cough. Always the muffled cough. Oh, yes, how I remember! One must not begin until the muffled cough. I wonder who invented the muffled cough? Oh well, that is beside the point, isn't it?
"Where's the lady with the rings?" asked Penelope out loud. "I liked her best." Just then she realized that this was the exact same thing another person who had reached buddhahood had said on his deathbed. "Where is the lady with the rings? I liked her best." Meaning that she had played her part most convincingly. "Last one to leave, turn out the lights," another enlightened soul had said before expiring. Penelope found that one funny, too. She was suddenly aware, like an itch, that all finally make it out, make it back home.
Buddhahood was very comedic. "Where's the lady with the rings? I liked her best," Penelope giggled. At that moment, something flipped up in her brain, like a circular blind being snapped up sharply, smartly. The view split in two and came back together as if there were a camera's aperture operating in the middle of her forehead. Then the most glorious music swung out from the sky, celestial music, music like no other she had ever heard. Indescribably perfect.
Baroque, with throaty brass instruments sweeping the soul to euphoric heights. Each instrument of unparalleled competency. Harmonics reverberating around each note and catapulting into the next and on and on. The vibrations, like a key to the gate, pulsed through the atmosphere, riding the waves as atoms surfing the ether, and found Penelope's soul. The sensation began in an area just below her uterus, was a tickling. It began rising through the womb, up the belly, now a faint vibration, picking up strength at her heart, strong vibrating surge past the throat, up into the middle of her forehead, now full spectrum, it spiraled and came to rest in the top of her head. As if she were an instrument, it had played her. She and the music were one. With that heraldic display coming from the firmament, she was whole, complete, finished.
Now, humor took over and Penelope saw the comic aspects of this life that is simultaneously earnest and mechanical, and thus wasted. Wasted rote actions. Looking at her big plastic bag of "contaminants", Penelope wanted to open the window, stand there with broom and dustpan in hand and give her proclamation to the conspiring neighbors: "I come with these gifts, for I know of your profound fear of dust."
But she didn't. They might think her crazy.
By the time they came to take her to the hospital, she had thrown everything, except for large furniture, out of her second-floor window, done a thorough cleaning, all potential pollutants rounded up, and was naked, wrapped in a shower curtain, the brass candle holder, snuffed candle also out the window, a receptacle for cold, gray cigarette ashes. The old life had been consumed, the new was about to begin.
Outside, tears ran in rivulets down the window pane. Whether the weeping was in sorrow or joy was unclear.
"Isn't the rain heavenly? It's been so muggy."
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