HEART OF TERROR by David Punter


Systems I

The house. The multi-levelled castles of Peake, Moorcock, the official life only a receptacle for the groans of confinement. Freud says the house is the dream-body. If we differentiate our dream-houses in various ways, if one has brocaded chambers and filthy kitchens, one spaces without specification … In some dream-houses, we have been the architect, have known the plans according to which these monstrous constructions of the self have been effected, sometimes only partially; though even there, the extent to which we have retained control over, knowledge of, these plans and preconceived systems varies.  Through some structures, or some parts of the structure, we move on tracks, knowing the doors and shifting spaces, even if we cannot conjure the sources of our fragmentary knowledge. Through some we move in search of the plan; knowing only that it has been usurped; knowing that between the conception and the execution, placed in the shifty hands of those entrepreneurial parts of the psyche, those internal agents of unrest, has occurred a more or less monstrous slippage between the cup of intention and the curled lip of effect.

Dream I

I climb. As I climb, I am aware that I do so on the wrong staircase, on improbable spirals, that elsewhere in this rambling house there are others with easier, more jocular modes of ascent. It is not at all that difficulty is all I must face; alongside the difficulty, there is promise, that the space into which I shall emerge will be one to which there could be no more convenient access. At a turn of a covered stairway, sounds can be heard, sounds which denote specificity; that room which I am passing (barred by the incommensurability of dimensions) is set aside (incalculably aside) for a purpose; it is a representation of bounded space. There the others dance; there they eat; there, perhaps, matters of politics and statecraft occur. But here, on this unspecifiable staircase, such purposes are forever projects for the future; this is a stage on which may occur … onto which may be suddenly projected, from behind an arras, a corpse whose meaning will have been left behind in the room from which it has been extruded.

Yet that, of course, would be consummatory; would give even Rosencrantz or Guildenstern, Gog or Magog, a purpose which would burst the confines of their roles, and break their poor hearts. I am filled with self-pity, contending with the vibrant emotions of the exile; the self-pity would drag me from the walls, propel me onto the hidden stage of signification; the sense of exile moves me forward. I am hit with an awareness of the past; as if the staircase sways (solid and enclosed stone though it is) and reveals momentarily all those thousands of previous expeditions which I have made to the top. For a second I lunge at a recollection of what is to be revealed, at a paradoxical memory of the future; it is gone, and I tread water, moving as the staircase unrolls beneath my feet. I cannot move from the unfulfilled, impregnated present, am at the brink of consummation, but now my purposes have narrowed and become smaller; I am reduced to problems of survival. I look to an avalanche from above, but instead the sounds of laughter from the grand chamber I am perennially passing start to become louder. A door will be opened, a curtain swept aside, and I shall be revealed in this ignominious condition, uncertain, not even upright, unready yet unable to avoid penetration by the systems which exist alongside this world of indeterminacy. Something opens, although I am not sure, until the last moment, whether that which is to open is within or without …

Systems II

The key and the lock. System through complexity, the ‘key to all mythologies’, itself so vast that time shudders. Here the meaning can come only through insertion, yet full insertion is at the same time obscuration and death, for at the moment of absolute interlocking there is no differentiation left, the boundaries are obliterated, the locksmith’s task and orgasm, the dream work which keeps us happy, which pretends that to every illogicality, to every free sign there is an interpretation; and thus as we insert the key in the lock, make as if to turn free the symbols of our confinement, we know the momentary pause, are instantly aware that this freedom is fatally embedded in our self-bondage, that the possibilities flow evenly out in both directions, sending echoes down to the dungeons which signify our previous hopeful experiments with liberation. And down there, who can remember what lurks, what half-formed shapes of optimism now wizen as we turn to fresh avenues? And there is that other pause at the moment of unlocking, that pause during which we experience a curious hope, that in the very instant another hand will descend on ours, around ours, enveloping our puny fingers; that a mostly unheard voice will whisper behind our neck, that we will be distressed and will not, after all, have to know which way the key turned. And thus, between the determinacy of the mythic father and the determinacy of manipulated material, there will be no space; that unspecifiable space, to fill which we spill our life’s efforts, will disappear, be totally enclosed, and we shall not have to move, just watch as the key begins to turn on its own and, for a last second, we wonder whether we are inside or outside, and where we might be as we hear the succession of tiny clinks and engagements which signify that somebody, somewhere, appears to have remembered the plan.

Dream II

This place is huge. It is almost certainly underground, and large parts of it have been unused for a very long time; or if used, then for purposes which have few points of contact with mine. I recognise, with an irony by no means prohibited by anxiety, its component parts: over there, a landscape abstracted from an unlovely set of school urinals, locked unwelcomely within my memory; over there, an imagining of the surface of the moon, as described somewhere by H.G. Wells – but with this latter, I know that it is my confined and faulty response to Wells which I am here recalling, not anything more substantial, or about which I may feel any less guilty. Somewhere in this place, perhaps (but more probably not) at the centre, it has a contiguity with the world, and I can even put together aspects of that world – I can see that outside here is a particular hillside. But as I figure that, standing in this peculiar place, hearing sounds of water, rushing and dripping, and watching smooth stone and ceramic discolour and rot before my eyes, I know that this figuring of the outside is not the solution to my quest. Heavens, if it were, it would be now that I would awake! I strain against the outer surface of my dream, but the meniscus holds me and, after a moment when I almost stare up through the surface of the water, propels me back further down, and I know again that I have to find the plan, which in this case is a flow chart. I move around, and find the navel, the point from which this underground landscape (this dream) was spun. There is an opening in the roof, and below it, winding down, is what at first apprehension might be a staircase; the flow is the problem; I cannot go up it. I know that one cannot go up it; I smile cynically at some shadowy ones who try, and they are blown down into a deeper vortex, and I see now that the hole in the roof has a counterpart, and that to venture onto that staircase is to risk being blown downwards, to risk joining in the unwelcome discovery of some haven lower yet than this region of water, excreta and shame. For shame has strong dominion here. This is a place which should not be visited, a place which represents bad habits, ritualisms which should have been left behind. Glancing around nervously, I see children, adolescents performing those unspeakable and unspeakably trivial acts which still make shiver in case they prove their contiguity with my adult life, and my pity scuttles away under a smoothed stone, smoothed by who knows what excesses of self-love? I panic now, and look for another exit (another orifice), and spin myself from this destructive centre out to the walls; and as I race with increasing speed, and as adolescent fascinations turn into team games, I am rushing around just inside the boundaries of this now dreadful place, and although if I run fast enough I can glimpse the hillside outside, I am increasingly and horribly aware that it is no free rural scene but a particular piece of scrub below my school playground. I want to stop now, for I am becoming increasingly vertiginous and desperate; but as I slow myself, my surroundings themselves speed up, and I am about to be thrown off an accelerating train …

Systems III

It could be said that it all started with the Minotaur, all this usage of system as a device for obscuring power. For the king can reign without fear or hope while a greater force lies sleeping in the maze, and every night, as he turns to rest, he can throw the endless dice: 28 virgins = 1 monarch, 40 young men = the multilayered palace, until tired old eyes decline their sums, and as he closes the world in sleep he knows the truth about sacrifice, that it is only a way of postponing the inevitabilities of narrative, a sequence of verbal and arithmetical devices for heightening suspense, and he already knows the future. His gnarled hands close on orb and sceptre, breast and pump, and all the old detailing begins again, until his cries ring through the palace, and reach even those far-flung elements of the psyche which are still crawling endlessly upwards through the walls, the symbiosis of timber and woodworm. The Minotaur giggles, for his future is his past, and what is born of fear will wreak fear, and all the systems and all the mazes are his, for ever and ever, until death refuses this apartness and closes all the gaps, and brings him close to the king for whom he longs, and all these virgins and fresh Greek lads, these structural and rhetorical devices, lie side by side like stepping-stones, or like the lumberjack’s log raft on which he will float down to meet his oceanic opposite.

Dream III

At this peculiar corner of the spiral staircase, which, I remember, I reached last night, or last year, there is indeed, yet to my surprise, a choice. The stairs go on up; but on my left a door is ajar, and I move into a room which belongs to the house proper, and not to this squeezing and encumbering hinterland. I know that I have passed to a better approximation of reality, for I can see artefacts: old robes, a tool-box, useful objects of some kind hanging from exposed rafters. Yet as I float across the floor, which would bear up under no conceivable tread, I see that this is not the present; that no real other, with his or her validating touch, has stamped these things for centuries past. This is the setting for a giant reliquary, and again I find myself propelled towards the centre. Judicious and more than usually in control, I see there the huge glass box, and I am able to know from a distance what it contains; and similarly, I am able to take the decision to refrain from articulating to or within myself what it, undeniably, contains. Reassured by my power, I find that I can in fact rest my tired feet on this floor, and that it is sound. Refusing the danger of the centre, I return to the outer edges, picking about in these remnants which I know to have belonged to my dead father. This feels alright; these things are mine by right. Although I find a piece of wood, a cut but untreated plank, beside which I find I have to sit down to think. And I remember that, when my father died, my mother would no longer go into the loft of our house (although I do  not know that she ever had), and that, although the house was a tissue of petty-bourgeois over-decoration, she would not paint the trapdoor which led to that place of memories, squirrels, deceptive surfaces … As I visualise the trapdoor, it transmutes, swirls, turns vertical; through it I glimpse daylight, the sign of my near arrival at the top of the world. I bolt through the door; or rather, I run until I find myself precisely on the threshold. And there the world inverts. What lies beyond that door is simultaneously farther out and father in (father dead and father resurrected); a return to the endless staircase, a leap, somehow, across it, to a patch of sky, but that patch of sky is framed by a window with the fearful contours of a living-room bay I remember well. I cannot move; but as I stand, my being stretches, seeking to encompass options, seeking to embody the fading plan, the dying system, the key which would permit death, that system which would move beyond the enclosing binary, for there are now three worlds, that which lies behind, that below, and the incommensurable beyond. And as I watch and stretch and yearn, the beyond fades and dies, and my feet are hard against the threshold, recalling the familiar vertigo as having gained the loft, having come into the realm of my memories, all safety goes, and I am aware for a moment, before I fall, that I am standing between the rafters, with nothing between me and the drop, and I am carried down on my tears …

Systems IV

It is possible to envisage a system in terms of macrocosm and microcosm. What is difficult is to shed the naivety which claims that these worlds can live in unsullied separateness, reflecting, growing wiser, offering images without Interesse, the one enabling the other to fade away and radiate. Space, according to this liberal fiction, is limitless and without friction; but that which is limitless and without friction is also devoid of pleasure and of motive, mobility. Frozen by lack of difference, we stare at dwarf and giant and experience mere cancellation. In practice, the bringing into being of a minor world is an act of several movements: there is surprise, then shortly fear, of several kinds: the forcing apart of accepted spaces, and then the horror of waste. What was all this large space for, this sprawling life, when all can be presented, represented, in a smaller system? How can a parenting space continue to be inhabited without rejecting the intruder? And along these incommensurable boundaries (for the distinct measurements belie and petrify each other) what wars may we expect? The fear of the open field confronts the fear of the closed system, and we wax and wane in disgust and envy.

Dream IV

I am aware first of a lack of mobility, of a knowledge that this time which is being proffered is only an illusion of time, that this dream is a construct of infinite correlates, that … no, not that I have been here before, but that I am still here afterwards, that I am here all through the limitless intervening time, fitted like a key into the barrel of a lock, without room for manoeuvre. And then, gradually, the dark fades away, allowing an inescapable light to supervene, a light without source or direction. This is a room, without particular size, square. It contains an old, horsehair sofa. I do not know what a horsehair sofa is (nor have I ever dared to find out), but this is one. It bulges and leans, and within its surface yawn gaps and holes through which extrudes unspecifiable and knotted matter. It has some of the properties of a leather thoroughly impregnated with time’s excretions. There is also a television. The television is on, but shows no picture, not even an old-fashioned test card; instead, on the screen is a flickering, a flood of moving static. It twists my eyes, but only in a regular and systematic sequence; but I do not know what the secret of that system might be. I am at one end of the sofa, curled and small. At the other end is another figure, much larger than me; it seems I can see them both, so part of my consciousness must be free of my sofa-self, must be floating. The room has no windows and no door. The figure at the other end of the sofa has many of the properties of Mickey Mouse; and some of an overstuffed teddy bear. It has huge ears, and an ambiguous smile. It is not, in its present state, capable of emotion. However, when the flickering on the screens stops, it will spring on me. I can do nothing; perhaps there is a kind of activity, but it is only a desperate wish to escape my sofa-self into my floating self, and a continuous pull back to the leather and the giant mouse, this carnival figure who is slowly becoming transmuted into total threat. I am not all mesmerised by this relic of a childhood toy; I am mesmerised by the flickering screen, and I have to sustain this state of thralldom to avoid a worse condition, although I am conscious of these ambiguities: might the prospect of that state – which might be absorption, or dismemberment (like a discarded teddy bear) – become gradually preferable to this anticipation? I shall know, however, only when the flickering stops, and this suspension is superseded by the suspended realm of consequence.

Systems V

But there is no space. Let us try to conjure a particular moment of interface. Let us try to do it together, or otherwise you will have to wander unaccompanied in an instant of shrill sound and tension; and on your own, you will not have the equipment with which you might send a message back from that realm. Together, perhaps we can approach that interface, and record its horizonal existence; without feeling the tug of negation which is, after all, its essence and its reason. You have awoken, shall we say, on a particular morning, and have dreamed many dreams. You review them; not especially because you want to, but because they are there. You are aware, of course, of the changes: that behind this and that dream element lurk less easily told images. At some of these elements, you feel a little irony: their interpretation is too obvious, too clearly rooted in the preceding day, in oft-felt phobias. A little later – it might be eleven in the morning, you might be on holiday, and pottering around a campsite in a damp heat, wringing out tea-towels soaked in last night’s yellowish dew – you remember that Wembley, Middlesex and Boise, capital of the State of Idaho, are not the same place. How are we to depict the dimensions of this realisation? For it is not at all that you ever thought to equate the metallic and scalding suburb with the droughts of the Rockies; not is it entirely or simply your memory that, for this particular dream, they had become elided, although indeed they had. They are intermediate stages. For all your previous activities of the morning – eating two croissants, shall we say, or removing a large black and bronze slug from the flysheet of your tent – have taken place in the light of the identity of Wembley and Boise, an unthought identity. And how close, then, shall we dare to draw to that moment of change, that instant in which one of many curtains was drawn back? And close as we go, what will then kindly prevent us from seeing the massing of curtains, the endless vistas of false connections, mismatches in the mind? And at that moment of inversion, how much of our world has capered joyously, luxuriating in our discomfort, our stupidity, and again and again pointed to our poor little flaccid ego, stuck firmly in the pillory, pelted by flowers and stones, roses and small daggers, the deadly detritus of which it so fondly and so proudly asserts itself to be the master?

Dream V

All is peaceful. I am three, or nine, or some such age, for it is not this kind of specificity to which this dream aspires. I am playing in a well-known living-room (living in a well-known playing-room). I am near to the bay window, through which I would be able to see if I stood up (but I am sitting, or kneeling, so that my head is at least a foot below the windowsill) a blank, bright, textureless suburban afternoon. I am aware that those afternoons, unpopulated, like a smile full of gold teeth, unnerve me; but this is not important, for my attention is caught within the room. A narrow and peripheral band of my consciousness (its dream simulation, of course) is recording minor changes. For instance: the  main area of the room is growing darker, while the bay area, which is a perfect semicircle on a radius of about 4’6”, is becoming brighter, and at the same time clearer. Those isolated segments of the world outside which appear in each of the bay’s seven major windows glow more strongly with the amiable and terrifying colours of a suburban autumn: green and gold, interspersed with the metallic pale blues and scarlets of parked cars. My own attention is focusing, or rather, it is being focused on the area of wall running round the bay below the sills, which are perhaps 2’6” from the plush carpeted floor. The area seems to be my size. And now, the specificity is becoming even greater; I am being focused on the square of wall (covered in a silvery and tasteless embossed wallpaper) below the sixth pane from the left. The wallpaper there is shimmering slightly; not all of it, but a one-foot square. And then, as I look, the one-foot square becomes a neat opening; as though a door has opened, but there is no door. I am, of course, surprised, and principally on this count: that through that door, even on the briefest glance, I can glimpse complexities, yet I am aware that the wall is only the usual two bricks thick. I try to resolve this by looking up, through the pane above: but it shows, as is usual from my angle, a patch of stainless sky, an opposite gable, part of the porch (our own porch) which abuts onto these last two windows. And then, as I look down again to the doorless door, something happens of which I am not (ever) sure. It is as if something, perhaps, emerges, going very fast. The image it gives me is of the White Rabbit, but I cannot see it; it is, as it were, a being made up of lines of force, faintly visible electrical paths. Or it has, perhaps, some of the qualities of a dog-track mechanical hare. Possibly, it moves on a pre-ordained track; possibly, it might suddenly reappear as a movement of reversal into the wall. I become aware of metaphysical difficulties here, which almost make me smile; but also, I draw closer to the hole, and look inside. It is as I had feared: this inner geography embodies a conflict (the geography of my body is my inner conflict). There are three passages leading from a tiny cubic lobby: one goes straight to the left, but is quite short and ends blankly. The second goes right, and climbs at an exact diagonal. This worries me for it should, of course, cross the window-panes, but it does not. It is not clear to me whether the floor of this climbing corridor consists of steps or a steady slope. The third passage goes dead straight ahead of me (out, in a sense, into the street) and I cannot see its end. But as the right-hand passage climbed into darkness, this one recedes towards a shimmering light. This light, as I look at it, appears to be about to precipitate into a visible shape; and I become aware that this might again be the rabbit, and that if it were to become fully solid, it would shoot out, or be projected out, along its corridor and through the door …

Systems VI

The Lance battlefield missile can go anywhere the Army needs to go. It’s rugged, it’s accurate. It’s easy to operate. And … it’s mobile. It can be moved into action by helicopter, air-dropped by parachute or carried by ground vehicles over rough terrain under all weather conditions. The Lance light-weight launcher can be towed by some of the smallest vehicles in the inventory, down to the ¼-ton size. The basic launcher frame and missile frame and missile fit into a full-tracked carrier for land or water surface mobility. And, it only takes a six-man crew to operate each Lance system. It is propelled by a storable, pre-packaged propulsion system – the first Army system so powered. Lance is almost as portable as its ancient namesake, the basic weapon of the warrior since time began.

No Name

I don’t think I can get this one. Cool, and dark, and lean. It might not be a dream. There are so many other modes: the dreamt memory-trace of a previous fantasy, the constructed and consoling ‘memories’ of dreams we wish to have had. At any rate, it won’t hook into the systems, the machine. Sparks of light, fast, disturbed, and the cool answer to thirst. Throbbing. A longed-for image, but imposed, overlaid. Epaulettes, flashing medals, a glimpse of a high, stiff shoulder – which scene does that belong to? Something about borderguards, staccato bursts of very loud noise, shouted orders – but inaudible (unorderable). A stiff, moustached face, visible only downwards from the lower rims of the dark glasses. No, no, this is all getting between, this is spun out of the machine, not solid; these are the agents of deflection. I strain to see what lies beyond; these are lies, beyond is the straining, the tensing of cool, lean muscles. I saw her – like an after-image, a badly patched retina, tensed in the fear of sudden light. Now this is a train, each passing image discrete, broken up by the moving windows. I can’t leave. Thirst. Cool, and dark, and lean. I ride a mail train … Florence, Vienna, the Danube – going East. Some kind of cavalcade, credentials demanded in the night. She was three stations ago, at the cross. But these are not my images – these fields, this field, somebody else’s. Beyond, she is growing dimmer, but still tight-muscled, cool, slim, to fit against my slackness, lock against the key. The Minotaur is grinning – all those identical virgins. I twist with loss. Something comes back; I grasp harder at the pain, to wring from it some density of image. I see her nakedness, smooth and dark and oiled. Laughter from somewhere – a circle of armed men, a man encircled in your arms – not me. Who is the fount of my images? Perhaps that’s it – not the penetration of the flesh, the moist glimpsed wound, but for me to be your Other, for you to be reflected in the waters of my spring. I could feed you from my thirst; but if I close the gap, there will be no more story, no more extension in time. And then I shall never know the plan, the incorporation will be complete. Small, dark breasts lifting as she stretches – is it you? I peer into the viscous darkness, it curls and swathes. To seize, to clutch, to penetrate – how could I not hurt you with these claws of gold? I swing round, appalled; for as you come closer, I see my inhuman self reflected in stricken eyes.

© David Punter 2012

(David.Punter@bristol.ac.uk)

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