Cosmic Wordplay

When I suggested that the ruling trope of the universe is irony (Beep-Beep) I should really explain that I interpret the evidential minutiae of the cosmic operating system in ways that support my predeliction for oppositional duality - in other words this is me responding to the apparent machinations of the universe not the other way around. Although we like to believe, especially in Upper Ojai, that we ask and the Universe responds, the magic of intention, I suspect, works within the confines of our own will rather than by beaming our purpose to a breathless cosmos waiting, in the void, to respond to our every whim. Our conversation with the Universe, I'm suggesting, is limited to a microbial influence at the farthest margins of the swirling infinity of an ever expanding cosmos. Our impact: not so much. Our solace, perhaps, is that there are worlds enough within our immediate experience with which we can meaningfully engage. These worlds can stand in for the larger, omniscient, reality - not as a poor copies but as truths in their own right.

Sometimes these worlds collide, they compete in their ability to represent our notions of how our reality is constructed; one global metaphor against the other. The Country and the City, by Raymond Williams, Chatto & Windus, London, 1973, is a book that has haunted me for a quarter of a century - and I have yet to fully read it. But at Sydney University in the late seventies, I knew about it - understood that it talked about how the bifurcated environmental reality as I had come to experience it represented two world views; one the dark mirror of the other. Which represented light depended upon your temporal and geographical location and your position in the social hierarchy. Here was an explanation of all: good and evil; heaven and hell; each existed on earth in the simulacrum (as Beaudrillard would put it) of the Urban and the Rural. These were the classic dualities of western thought, the yin and yang of the east.

A central Deconstructive argument holds that, in all the dualities of Western thought, one term is privileged over the other. Derrida argues, in Of Grammatology (translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and published in English in 1976) a moldering copy of which still sits on my bookshelf, that, in each such case, the first term is classically conceived as original, authentic, and superior, while the second is thought of as secondary, derivative, or even "parasitic." His examples include:

* speech over writing

* presence over absence

* identity over difference

* fullness over emptiness

* meaning over meaninglessness

* mastery over submission

* life over death

I am indebted to Orientalia for providing a no-nonsense summary of Deconstruction. Orientalia is a vast web site that looks to have been abandoned around 2005, it now exists in the ether, slowly disintegrating as random glitches begin to metastasize in the soft-ware and its empire of meaning frays like a cheap carpet from the Tehran souk (open everyday but Friday). Orientalia is now, it seems, forever closed, its cadres of contributing academics working, perhaps, on their Wikipedia entries.

The philosophers of Deconstruction often held the most tenuous grip on meaning over meaninglessness; their work veered into the inaccessible and eccentric, but it was built on the solid foundations of Levi Strauss' Structuralism; and for Levi-Strauss, the contradictory dyad was also central to cultural understanding. The great structural-anthropologist believed that the device of binary opposition was found in all cultures (not just in Western culture) and that it was fundamental to meaning. The notion was even celebrated in the title of one of his many books, Le Cru et Le Cuit, (The Raw and the Cooked), Plon, Paris,1964. Somewhere, he suggests, between the contradictory impulses of binary opposites lies the central dynamic of a given culture - in the tension between contrary notions exists the generative flux of social exchange: in the Country and the City or, wait for it......the Urban and the Wildland.

I have chosen to live in a place of paradoxical conflation, of inherent irony and binary opposition: the Urban Wildland. Is it a cosmic joke, or a willed resolution of a long-standing internal conflict, the Country versus the City? The fact is, I have spent most of my adult life in two major Cities and short periods in two or three more; but I was born in the country (in darkest Surrey which, while not quite a place where giant oaks, "their branches intertwined, seem to form but a single mass, an immense and indestructible edifice, under whose vaults reigns an eternal darkness" (American Genesis) was still a place where dapple predominated). The City was first represented by London. Not the London of today, but a darker, blitzed Metropolis whose rows of Georgian and Victorian buildings stood as blackened teeth, begrimed in coal dust, their ranks punctuated by the empty spaces of fallen comrades - the rubble still piled on weedy lots. Into its maw I would occasionally travel as a child to visit maiden aunts to sight-see or to shop.

As a Post-World War II, Dickensian ruin, London had a certain appeal. It echoed the root world of river bank willow and gnarled oak in the illustrations of Arthur Rackham (1867-1939). Dark, buttressed underpasses, ancient niches where beggars lurked and the great railway halls, like Waterloo, where sooty panes of steel mullioned glass shed a sepia tint on the teeming masses of travelers below made a world where sorcerers might dwell as plausibly as within "the navel of this hideous wood,
Immur'd in cypress shades". I was working on conflation from an early age: the grim urban underworld and the dark Surrey understory, beneath oak, chestnut, beech and ash offered parallel worlds of stygian gloom.

It was not until I visited Vancouver, at the conclusion of a year or two of traveling, in the late 1960's, that I understood that there could be Cities of Light, at water's edge, that exist as crystalline rejoinders to the tenebrous woods (here represented by the soaring redwoods of Stanley Park). After brief sojourns in Edmonton, Toronto and then back in England, I began forty years on the metropolitan shores of the Pacific, in Sydney and Los Angeles; where broad swathes of wildland crouch at the edges of the urban infrastructure and where there truly are margins of Urban Wildland but whose urban centers are bathed in the full light of day and the aqueous sparkle of the ocean is never far distant.

As my readers will recognize, I have come to privilege the wild over the urban, the country over the city and, ultimately, the dark over the light. I have retreated from the sheen of Los Angeles, Valley of Smoke, where dawn and dusk are so swiftly banished by either the bright white haze of day or the tracery of artificial light that lies over the endless city grid, to the very edges of the civilized world. Here darkness provides succor to the animals of the wild and we humans can be swiftly immured in chaparral's shadow and slip into reveries of cosmic wordplay.