Sunday, 13 July 2008

boats on their way to a dream

‘Imaginary air is the hormone that allows us to grow psychically’ (Gaston Bachelard 1988: 11).

Of the great contemporary sky-writers - Jabès, Milosz, Berger, Cixous, Ondaatje, Tarkovsky, Greenaway – one of the most compelling, to my mind, is the South African painter-poet-novelist Breyten Breytenbach. He has reflected on his 7-year incarceration during apartheid in terms of prison’s enforced deprivation of sky, sun, weather, or at best restricted, fleeting glimpses of the sky as ‘happening-horizon’ (Breytenbach 1984b: 139).

One half of his autobiographical True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist is entitled ‘A Memory of Sky’. Breytenbach’s sky becomes a space for more than meditations on the oppressive heaviness of institutionalisation and attendant, wil-ful dreams of flight (1). For this dissident inspired by Zen Buddhism, it becomes an element for exploring the dynamic immanence of the imaginary in the real, the parade of the mobility of images (2) that cannot be policed, a means of survival in ‘No Man’s Land’: a resistant, blooded politics of the imagination.

‘On summer days when you were cleaning your corridor you could see through the grill clouds passing along the blue highway above the yard wall facing you: boats on their way to a dream, bit actors always dressed in white being taken to an empty space where Fellini would be filming a saturnalia, a wedding feast. There was wind which you never felt on your face but which you got to know through its aftermath – the red Transvaal dust you had to sweep up. There were the most impressive summer thunderstorms tearing and rolling for miles through the ether, slashing and slaying before big-rain came to lash the roof with a million whips. It was like living underneath a gigantic billiard table. Behind the walls with no apertures to the outside, behind the screen of your closed eyes where you hid from the boer – you still saw the stabs and snakes of lightning. There was also the defiance of those singing their death’ (Breytenbach 1984a: 124).

(1) Writing about Nietzsche and ‘the ascentional psyche’, Gaston Bachelard reminds us that: '"I want” and "I fly” are both volo in Italian. There is no way to investigate the psychology of will without going to the very root of imaginary flight’ (Bachelard 1988: 156).
(2) Breytenbach’s imaginal dissidence offers a politicised revisioning of a Bachelardian poetics of dynamic reverie and ‘material imagination’. Compare e.g.: ‘A psychology of the imagination cannot be developed using static forms. It must be based on forms that are in the process of being deformed, and a great deal of importance must be placed on the dynamic principles of deformation. The psychology of air is […] essentially vectorial. Every aerial image is essentially a future with a vector for breaking into flight’ (Bachelard 1988: 21. Emphasis in original).


Bachelard, Gaston (1988). Air and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Movement (trans. Edith R. Farrell), Dallas: Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture
Breytenbach, Breyten (1984a). The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist, London: Faber and Faber
Breytenbach, Breyten (1984b). Mouroir: mirrornotes of a novel, London: Faber and Faber

(Painting by Breyten Breytenbach, from his series 'Dancing the dog: paintings and other pornographics', 2001)

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