“Empress” – Tullio DeSantis with Dee Shapiro – 2014
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Torn between time and timelessness, I move in and out of dreams. Everything connects. A soft gray texture suffuses my inner vision. Conscious awareness asserts itself. It penetrates like a torch in a cave.
I comprehend this nebulous space by forming metaphors. A palpable emptiness engulfs the mind. It is as if layers of thought, anxiety, impulse, sensation and emotion are becoming more tenuous and transparent. They drop away and disappear as I dive more deeply within the softening darkness. I am suspended. I contact an inner sense of self – a place of peace.
Much later now, I can sense the brilliant warmth of the morning sun. I strain toward the light but I cannot open my eyes. I fear I will never again be able to awaken. I am lost in some ambiguous space. It hardens in response to my struggle to evade it. Succumbing softens it. I drift inward, toward the ether of dreams.
I hear my voice – “It felt like the last time we would ever talk. I hung up the phone, reached for the book and wrapped it in brown paper. I sent him my copy of “The Book of the Dead.” Then he died.
The bones of my skull seem to slide beneath the skin of my cheek. Fluid pressure pulses behind my eyelids. I can’t keep my mind focused. Consciousness ebbs and flows.
I recognize this as a state between living and dying. But that knowledge disappears as soon as thought takes form. My senses move back and forth like foam on the shoreline. Waves of awareness form a momentary frontal boundary. I cling for a while to the edge of specific thoughts or sensations only to be pulled back through the turbid tide.
Layers of quiet thought, like the enfolding petals of a dark flower, encircle and close one at a time around my conscious mind. I sense an opening, a deep tunnel turning downward. My awareness drifts there as if riding a descending wind.
Faster now, down through a shimmering well of images, I pass successive stages of awareness. I hear my mantra echoing through the chamber. It is soon replaced by the ancient Vedic vibration I recite silently and subconsciously.
I pass the brilliant floral gardens, smooth cobblestone steps and forest paths conjured up while moving through realms of imagination and self-guided visualization. The sound of heartbeats merges with rushing air in a synchronized choreography of blood and breath. I come ever closer to what I comprehend as the center – the space of non-duality and pure awareness.
Silence and emptiness devoid of attributes – devoid even of the attribute of emptiness. There is no thing. It is not opaque, not black. It is not transparent, not white. It is not experienced, it simply…is…and is not.
Unbounded thought expands and generates resonant frequencies. Ethereal reverberations multiply. Layers of vibration create being, harmony, tranquility, and illumination.
Energy increases at the boundaries of infinite and infinitesimal, forming rudimentary matter. A cosmic alphabet of elementary particles, thin plumes of hydrogen, specks of cosmic flotsam organize themselves into larger and larger phenomena along multi-dimensional paths and tidal lines of gravitational tension.
Eons pass. Stellar pyres and their aggregations of orbs spin seas of planetary protein into primeval life. Trees fall in forests. Sounds are heard. Countless births and deaths give rise to increasing instability, improbability, and complexity.
New minds form, minds adrift within the vast ocean of consciousness. Awareness expands to experience the overwhelming pulsations of the surrounding space as living heartbeats.
An angelic human, speaking about a secret language of signs, stops in mid-sentence and smiles at me. We have nothing to say.
In this moment, there are no distinctions between myself and my experience. The only identity I feel is the universe itself beating like a dark star-studded heart in an infinite empty void. And the pulsations I feel are those of my own heart beating. And I am born. I am a child again. I live a billion lives. I die a billion deaths. There is nothing but this moment. There is one consciousness we share. Its nature is our desire.
I know this now. And because you are here with me…you know it too.
I am going back…back inside…back to my body…back to life.
I am born to a new universe.
Insubstantial as an apparition, I arise from a deep sleep. Gazing downward, I glimpse my body. It is not breathing. I am aware of my incorporeal existence but unaware of what awaits me. I decide to allow this dream to unfold without intervention and to simply observe events as they occur.
There is nothing. It spans endless eons – unbound throughout infinite dimensions, a deep and dreamless void. It is an oceanic stillness, a cold nowhere.
Within dead space, an infinitesimal shudder stirs. The merest ripple echoes throughout universes of nonexistence. Waves, particles, molecules, proteins warmed by ancient suns and conscious minds appear in remote atmospheres. A galaxy, a hundred billion stars, a trillion lives surge instantaneously in and out of existence.
A glint in an empty eye, wind-sound rushing past, I am spun wildly around. Momentary trails of events long passed move in liquid color through my senses. I am mesmerized by their echoes, caught up in them for the merest fraction of a saccade. I am lost in stray instants that splash up from the froth of time.
There is only this – and how it ends. The end is in the thing itself, held for the septillionth time…suspended, crystallized somewhere in the mind.
I open my eyes and close them again. In this moment, I am here. And in this moment I am gone.
“Now you know.”
The couch is cool to my touch. Through the vents, I hear the air conditioner shudder to a dead stop. My heart is beating hard. I want to speak, to call out but my jaw feels like it is welded shut.
I’m staring into the trunk of the car. My arms are sore. They’re covered with scratches. There is a fresh cut near my left elbow. Two roughed-up flashlights are lying on the spare tire. In my right hand I’m holding a frayed nylon line.
“I’ll have to pick up more rope next time we go out on the river. The cave destroyed this one.”
“That was amazing – just down there at the bottom of the hill.”
Back in the car, I tell him how completely surreal this is.
“There seems to be big gaps in what I can remember about this trip.”
“Things don’t make a lot of sense,” he says.
“For me, it started after we got out of the car.”
“I don’t really think it was yesterday. I have a feeling this is the same day we left.”
“Yeah.” That’s all he says.
“You act like this is no big deal.”
“It’s not really. It’s just the way things are.”
“OK, for one thing, this trip takes place sometime in the early ‘80s.”
“And the fact is, it’s 2014 and I’m typing these words on a computer screen. No – it’s after that – someone is reading this. And yet, here we are sitting in the Mustang – a car I don’t own anymore – and we’re driving to the city.
“That means you’re a dead man – like me.”
His smile can mean a thousand things.
“Hi Art. Can you hang out awhile? I have some calls to make.”
A young Latino man I have never seen before offers me a Coke.
I relax into the soft leather couch.
The studio is geared for mass production on Keith’s hand-made scale. Everything is within arm’s reach – markers, brushes, paint, paper, vinyl, rags, and buckets of water. There are more than a dozen painted vases on the shelf. Some are covered with subtle geometric characters, tightly locked into repetitive patterns. Others are festooned with bright strokes of calligraphy. The ambiguous shapes form symbols that look like combinations of inscrutable letters, numbers and figures.
Beside a little red maquette for a sculpture ready to be sent to Lippincott for fabrication, a pile of shiny prints forms a foot-high stack on the floor. The walls are alive with rows of brilliant red, yellow, blue and green paintings.
I consider how far he has come in a few short years. His Broome Street studio was dark and cluttered. This new place on Broadway is spectacular in every way – from the plush furniture to the glassed-in offices and entranceway.
After a few minutes he hangs up for the last time. Then he tells two assistants he doesn’t want to be disturbed and joins me on the couch.
“I’m too busy.”
This is how he starts most conversations these days.
“You’re in charge of that, you know.”
“Yeah. It’s just that all these projects right now are important. I know they’re getting in the way of our meetings and I’m sorry about that, but…”
“It’s OK, Keith. The project is…up there in the air somewhere. It’s a mental connection. It goes on. Have you noticed that?”
“I’ve been thinking about when you said you stopped believing in the real world. I talked to Timothy Leary about it. He remembers you.”
“Yeah. In college, I was writing to Richard Alpert – Baba Ram Dass. He worked with Leary at Harvard and then Millbrook. Anyway, through Alpert, I got in touch with Leary and eventually got him to visit Gettysburg College. He gave a talk and debated another professor. We were this group of beatniks and hippies gathered around in front. After the lecture, he came outside and joined us on the lawn. People were tripping – it was a beautiful day. The other students acted like a flying saucer had landed. After that, I saw him again in San Francisco – Golden Gate Park during the Summer of Love.”
“Cool. I think you’re right about the real world.”
“Yeah. You have to live in it but there’s no reason to believe in it. It’s the last religion. Even atheists believe in the real world.”
“It always seemed to me that we make up our own reality as we go. Nobody notices.”
“Until it gets strange or you’re dreaming…or dying.”
“When I died it was unreal. Then I thought…but it’s natural.”
I am looking into his eyes, yet he is no longer here.
A Jamaican street kid who’s been blowing smoke rings into the ceiling fan looks over and smiles.
“See a ghost, mon?”
Gold encircling his neck and a glint in his eye are my last memories.
An eternity later, a young Latino man offers me a Coke.
I relax into the soft leather couch.
I am able to see things from both inside and outside of the dream. Scenes shift. The velocity of consciousness quickens. Optical passageways illuminate the dark mind-space within. Cool air and hot blood collide in my lungs. Drumbeats sound in my chest. I am conscious within a pulsating chamber of flesh.
I see the searing suns of the Milky Way collapse into a vortex of interstellar emptiness and in the same instant I see a cosmos emerge from energetic emptiness.
A high-pitched sound reverberates. I do not hear it so much as feel it on the periphery of my awareness. Soon, it is painful and overwhelming.
Still reluctant, I wake up and answer the phone.
“Art, I called a few times. Did you get my message?”
“I crashed man. I’ve been asleep since I got home.
“Oh, too bad. William Burroughs invited me to dinner. I tried to get hold of you. He has this amazing mind… We talked about art and writing and philosophy. You should have been there.”
“That’s cool, thanks for thinking of me, Keith. I always thought his stuff was kind of negative.”
“He’s a sweet man, really kind. He was so nice to me. I felt an instant bond with him. His work is just…you know…his work. I think he’s trying to wake people up.”
“No doubt. So yeah, man, that was a strange trip today, wasn’t it?”
“When we drove up here…all of that…leaving the car on the side of the road… the cave.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’ve been in town for the last week. So have you – as far as I know. Are you OK?”
“Uh, yeah, I’m OK. Let’s get together soon. I want to talk about the project.”
“I’m going to Europe in a couple of days. Can you stop over tomorrow?”
“Sure. In the afternoon?”
“Yeah. I’ll tell Julia you’re coming over.”
“OK. See you then.”
Again…this feeling of strangeness, unreality…
I hang up the phone and am overcome with confusion. In an effort to feel in control, I trace sequentially through my memory of the day’s events. The fact that there is a sequence – or that I am convinced I can recall a continuous chain of memory linking one thing to the next – doesn’t change the sense of disorientation I feel about each bizarre occurrence. I am left with the knowledge that this has happened before and that it does continue.
I look up for a moment. The dark-haired girl in the building across the alley is undressing again. About a month after I moved in she started leaving the shades up all the time. Youthful and curvaceous, she is as beautiful as a girl in the window could possibly be. She moves like a dancer until her liquid eyes catch a fleeting glimpse of mine.
Looking away, I turn toward the screen and remember my dreams.
In and out of attentiveness, I’m daydreaming, recalling random scenes from my life – tropical islands, desert plains, country scenes of midnight skies, San Francisco, south of Market.
The streets of New York rouse me back to their insistent reality.
Keith is talking about Prehistoric art. We pass one of Jean Michel’s tags on a rusty iron beam supporting an overpass – a pointed crown and the word “Samo” scrawled in haste. He points at it and says “See that tag? Samo is like…the voice of God”.
We arrive at his place.
“OK, man. Thanks for the ride.”
I say goodbye and drive through the Lower East Side up to West 20th. There’s a space open in front of the precinct station – a safe place. I like looking out the window to see the Mustang in one piece down there.
In the loft, reviewing the day before falling off to sleep, I am burdened and inspired. Something is happening – moving me with insistent force.
Naked between gray sheets, I await my descent into the dream cave. The enfolding layers of linen feel like soft echoes of the smooth boulders surrounding that cavern at the bottom of the hill.
Behind my eyelids inner sight continues. Entoptic visions pulse with the regularity of ocean waves. I see phosphenes, staccato flashes, random spots of gold and networked streaks of shiny blue and green. Shape-shifting colors move like protozoan life.
There are spaces between the shapes. I make a conscious effort to send my imagination out to explore this evolving mindscape. Pear-green tubes sprout prickly spikes. Finely detailed rosettes and ultraviolet plumes feather out through a fine mist. I drift toward an incandescent horizon.
As surely as dark cumulonimbus presage thunderstorms, these events bring awareness of approaching dreams.