Thursday, November 10, 2005

Dreaming of Release

Steve Mumford
"The AK-47 Round, Squad from Bravo Company takes cover during a nighttime patrol after a shot is fired nearby"
Watercolor wash

Last night I dreamt that I was listening to dispatches from Iraq on the radio. By now we're all familiar with such reports: "A car bomb exploded in Fallujah today, killing three marines and injuring twelve civilians." But in my dream, I wasn't painting in my studio or cooking dinner in my kitchen while listening to the unhappy news. I was instead sitting on a second-story porch in Baghdad, with three Iraqis and an American soldier for company. In front of me, on the floor of the porch, rested a helmet. Instead of the standard steel pot, this helmet was formed from frosted glass. Realizing that it belonged to me, I anxiously wondered if all my body armor was equally delicate.

The radio reports of bombings and fire fights ran together endlessly. The Iraqi man to my right whittled at a bit of wood and one of his friends savored tea from a pot that sat on a small stool. From our elevated vantage point, I watched the bustle of Baghdad street life. Over the radio and the murmur of the people below, we could hear the crackle of approaching gun fire.

The dream was soaked in yellows, browns and whites, the muted colors of our western conception of the Middle East. Gradually, this monochromatic scheme clued me in to the unreality of the scene. This, I realized just before I awoke, isn't war. This is only me dreaming of reclaimed immediacy, a longing for direct engagement with my surroundings and the associated stretching of time experienced when the conscious being is forgotten and the animal acts alone.

I believe that the dream was inspired by three things. In the hour before I went to sleep, I admired a photograph of sculptor Joseph Zito's glass helmet in Art in America and, in the same magazine, read artist Dawn DeDeaux's account of her return to New Orleans one month after Hurricane Katrina. DeDeaux writes,
"Katrina is the indifferent manifestation of a weather pattern to be measured in centuries, not seasons. Thinking in such meteorological time, biblical scale and mythic proportion, contemporary art is the smallest speck of time, and I am wiped off the map."
I also spent some time yesterday thinking about my father's struggles with his current book project, an account of his two tours in Vietnam, his wartime work for the RAND corporation, and his experiences as a key translator of Vietnamese at the Paris Peace Talks. My father is the author of over thirty books, the majority of which deal with conservation and natural history. Some of these earlier books were long in coming, but none seemed so difficult as the current one. I'm convinced that the shift in subject matter is responsible.

I've rarely seen my father cry. Excusing tears brought on by the Hollywood dream machine, his recollections of Vietnam are usually responsible. "Over there," he sometimes found himself "in the shit," as Max Fisher would put it. Details are only reluctantly shared, but he saw some terrible things, both "on the ground" and in the control room. I've never pressed him for the whole truth, but I look forward to reading his story when the book is completed.

My father's negative experiences in Vietnam and his relatively leftist political leanings didn't stop him from encouraging me to enter the military, however. When I came of age, I gave the Army some thought - even though my father was a Navy man, I believed that I could more quickly become a trained helicopter pilot by entering the larger force - but ultimately decided service was not for me. I was not adrift; I knew that I wanted to be an artist and so concluded that the military would just delay my vocation. I finished undergraduate schooling never having joined ROTC, and I rarely second guess that decision.

But last night's dream points to an experiential void, one that sometimes haunts me in the city. In the country, at least, time spent outdoors, observing animal behavior and other natural phenomena, sustains my desire for immediacy. Furthermore, hunting, infrequent though the practice has become in my life, confirms that I am still alive, that I am still connected to the animal I murder, butcher and consume. (The move from country to city was added motivation to give up meat and fish - except that for which I am personally responsible.) Here in the city I am coddled, things feel "taken care of" and life becomes routine, punctuated only by late nights of inebriation. Silly errands take on unwarranted import in such a setting. Self importance is the order of the day and any sense of interconnectedness that one has cultivated evaporates, forcing many urbanites to turn to yoga or some other activity that might enable them to reconnect with real time.

I'm grateful that my day job is in a building which overlooks the East River. I can watch the wakes of passing ships slap at the reinforced perimeter of Roosevelt Island, pushing imperceptibly at the foundation, while the herring gulls circle and dip above, their predatory eyes on the look out for some scrap of thoughtlessly discarded food. This scene allows me a glimpse of the time scale that DeDeaux described, what she calls "meteorological time" or "mythic proportion." This moment is connected with the vast expanse.

When young men dream of war, they are entertaining thoughts of self destruction; more precisely, they dream of destroying the ego, wishing for it to be replaced by the group experience, by the animal drive, by the eyes of the hungry herring gull. This same erasure is achieved in times of crisis. That which is not of immediate relevance falls away, and the individual's decisions are dominated by the lower and mid brain, the portion residing at the top of the brain stem (including the amygdala, pons and medulla oblongata).

Recent events along the Gulf Coast of the United States and in Pakistan remind us of this reality. In her essay, "The Uses of Disaster," (published in Harper's Magazine) Rebecca Solnit addresses this precedence.
"This joy - this unspoken and perhaps unspeakable relief in disaster - also hints at an unfamiliar version of human nature...In his 1961 study, 'Disasters and Mental Health: Therapeutic Principles Drawn from Disaster Studies,' sociologist Charles Fritz asks an interesting question: 'Why do large-scale disasters produce such mentally healthy conditions?' One of the answers is that a disaster shakes us loose of ordinary time. 'In everyday life many human problems stem from people's preoccupation with the past and the future, rather than the present,' Fritz wrote. 'Disasters provide a temporary liberation from the worries, inhibitions, and anxieties associated with the past and the future because they force people to concentrate their full attention on immediate moment-to-moment, day-to-day needs.' This shift in awareness, he added, 'speeds the process of decision-making' and 'facilitates the acceptance of change.'"
I need not fight in a war - especially one that I am opposed to - to achieve such a shift in awareness, but living in the city does prioritize ego over the live animal.

I'm happy to be heading home for Thanksgiving this year. I look forward to taking a long walk and to being outside at first and last light.

Photo credit: reproduction of Steve Mumford's artwork ripped from

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