I quit the Bar du Marché and started home along rue St. André des Arts. A dizzying sensation, brought on by the coffee and cigarettes, inspired a steady flow of images in my revery. The Café May on Roncesvalles. The narrow stairs leading up to St. Ruprechtskirche. The ancient stone temples of Mnajdra. The shores of Ammersee. I was lost in a labyrinth of my own thoughts.
The market stalls laden with roasted meats and coquilles St. Jacques soon brought me back: the smells and sights of Paris; the disorientation brought on by its narrow streets. Passing under the twinned gargoyles shadowing rue St. Séverin, I unlocked the forged-iron gate at no. 12. Once up the wooden stairs, I found shelter in my little studio on the second floor. In the corner by the window stood my easel, where the wooden panels of my latest paintings leaned one against the other. Beside it, laden with books, was my sturdy work-table with its Macintosh.
The last ten years of my life have been spent in wandering. From Toronto, my birthplace, to the small village of Mellieha in my ancestral homeland of Malta. From Vienna, with one year dedicated to studies in painting, to Munich, where my painting and writing continued in solitude for three years more. And now, with some degree of surprise, I find myself living in the Latin Quarter of Paris, in a small studio opposite eglise St. Séverin.
I started up the computer, lit a cigarette, and removed glasses from last night's gathering of friends. The twelve of us had sat, like drunken apostles, around the large oaken table, consuming patés on baguettes and copious amounts of wine, while immersing ourselves ever deeper in conversation.
Here in Europe, friendships have been forged briefly and never forgotten, though our encounters remain quite rare. But, through the meals we've shared, caringly prepared and consumed with joy, I have found a temporary reprieve from loneliness. As well, a series of relationships, each of which ended rather miserably, has offered me still its momentary passion and more enduring pain. I have immersed myself fully, almost blindly, in these experiences, though plagued always by a terrible, enduring isolation.
Through it all, only the pursuit of dreams and visions has sustained me. Their transmutation into art has been difficult, to say the least. But now, with a studio for my books, a corner for my easel, and - indeed - a wife who sleeps beside me all through the night, I am able, finally, to work peacefully in solitude. My goal has become apparent: to preserve the images of my dreams and visions in paint.
Yet, anyone who looks at my paintings may, at first glance, be daunted by what they see. Symbols from different cultures appear juxtaposed, their arrangement seemingly a mystery. And the figure of Christ, so lost to our own culture, stands always in their midsts. Meanwhile, behind each assemblage of images lies the inspiration of a dream. These images are like strange flowers spiralling open from the entangled depths of my own life. Each offers a glimpse into my life's underlying myth, seizing random moments and arranging them into narratives with strangely-stilled images at their nadir.
For their maker, each of these canvases has become a doorway slowly opened and eventually entered through to a more ancient philosophy of life. But none of this is immediately apparent. And so, with this brief account of my life and wanderings, I hope to unveil the inspiration behind my works. It is my hope to set forth in these pages the dawning awareness of a more ancient philosophy, which has appeared to me nightly in dreams, and found its expression, ultimately, in my art.
The idea which binds these images together, presenting them like the enigmatic cyphers of some ancient script, is - what I have called - 'iconologic'. Pursued without pause all these years, it describes the logic underlying arrangements of images, especially as preserved in sacred art and myth, and recurring each night in our dreams. Just as the words I now write make sense due to their underlying logic, so do arrangements of images possess within them a hidden logic. And though, each night, we sustain a silent monologue in this secret language, its ancient constructs have become quite lost to us. Only in myths or sacred works of art do its arcane workings occasionally rise to the surface.
And so here, by elucidating my own works, do I hope to trace out the lineaments of this long-forgotten logic. From the strange patterns underlying each constellation of images, I hope to seek out, moreover, their enigmatic meaning - the signifigance concealed from our modern age and so, long since lost - offering us a more ancient understanding of life. Having glimpsed, now and then, its inherent splendour, I have spent the better part of my life on a quest, wandering lost and alone, in search of iconologic.
The House on Eileen Av
Even as a child, I'd glimpsed its ancient workings now and then in my dreams - dreams which have never left my memory, because of the disturbing images they'd formed. What is the earliest dream you can honestly recall? For myself, it was undoubtedly a nightmare. As a child of three or four, I dreamt I heard a curious sound emanating from the basement. I must confess that, in the waking world of my infancy, I was terrified of toilets - particularly when they were flushed. I had to close the lid and exit the room as quickly as possible, for fear of the evil and primaeval world which opened its gates that moment.
In my dream, the sound emanating from the basement was exactly the sound one hears after flushing: the streaming of water through the pipes to fill the tank. Of course it was dark, night, and I was alone. A four-year old child, I stepped cautiously down the first turning of the cellar stairs, to see what spectacle was making the sound below.
I peered through the angle between the ceiling and steps, and beheld a most horrendous sight - skeletal beings were streaming back and forth, impelled by some mechanical apparatus at their feet. Immediately I awoke in terror, knowing I had glimpsed the forbidden world of my innermost fears.
Many years later, when I saw H. R. Giger's bio-mechanoids, I recognized the figures from my childhood nightmare. He too had glimpsed this dark underworld. Reading Freud's theories on infantile sexuality, Piaget on childhood development, Eliade and Jung on the structure of religious symbols - all of these helped to explain an arrangement of images which, once, I had known intuitively as a child.
Who was that child? For some years now, I have actively pursued my memories backward, trying to recover his forgotten world. Meditating upon memory images constellated around feelings of fear is one such path backward. So too is a traumatic experience of separation, which suddenly and spontaneously throws us back upon our earliest memories of severence and its profound pain. Yet, how can we begin to grasp who we once were, when that child had no inkling of its own identity?
For that reason, many paths wended backward always ended at the same memory:
I was sitting in the front hallway of what was, once again, my childhood home. This was not a dream. I was staring at the front door, which was white and had a trinity of windows set above in an arced semi-circle. My father was going to come home through that door (which, incidentally, he never did: he always used the side door). At that moment, I knew: it was 'I' who was having this experience. Not the despised younger brother; not mother's youngest child, or the son named after his father. It was me, and this was my experience.
Years later, I read a line from Wittgenstein's notebooks which captured that feeling unquestionably: 'I am the world'. Henceforth, all my childhood memories would be constellated around that newly-found sense of identity.
To these childhood memories I must add a few more. For all my later experiences, regardless of place and time, were repititions of these primordial events. It so happened that my only playmate as a child was a female cousin who lived next door. We moved away from Eileen Ave. in 1967, so all my memories associated with my cousin and that house go back to when I was five years of age or younger. My cousin was one year younger than myself.
One day, I went around to the back of the garage, and happened upon a most spectacular scene. Quickly placing myself out-of-sight, I watched unobserved as my little cousin and her two girlfriends took turns exposing themselves. Each, in turn, lowered her panties, raised her skirt, and then did a slow turn around. This simple, childhood ritual was my first, startling discovery of the female sex. I knew, even then, that a mystery had been unveiled. Yet, it was not in one, but in three of her forms that 'the dark feminine' had revealed herself to me - each of those forms strangely alluring in its own way.
When, as a teenager, I saw a painting of The Judgement of Paris, its theme echoed with a long-forgotten resonance: the Hellenic hero who, in silent contemplation, judged each of the three Greek Goddesses for her own unique beauty. In my childhood memory of the three young girls exposing themselves, this tri-partite theme of 'the dark feminine' had announced itself for the first time - a haunting melody that was to resurface throughout my life, sometimes bringing me great joy, but more often than not, bitter anguish.
That same young cousin was to announce another mysterious theme which would resound, for the remainder of my life, with dreaded expectation. One day, she and I were playing in the backyard, where a disused boat was propped against the side of the garage. My little cousin peeked behind the boat, then ran away screaming that 'the bogeyman' was there. As an innocent child, I went and peeked behind the boat. To this day, I do not know if what I saw in its darkened shadow was real or merely a vision summoned from the depths of my childhood imagination. But I do know that the disturbing figure I saw behind the boat would come back to haunt me some twenty years later.
I am walking towards a subway station in Toronto. It is night and raining hard. Suddenly, I momentarily lose my balance and my vision narrows. And at that moment, a figure appears out of the corner of my eye, moving fast toward me. The more I turn my gaze toward him, the more he stays just out of my vision, always moving closer. I awaken in fear. I am twenty-three years' old, sharing an apartment with my girlfriend, and studying Philosophy at university.
Another night, another darkened alley in Toronto. This time he confronts me directly. I cannot see his face or hands, which are lost in the shadows of his hat and the folds of his long overcoat. But our confrontation is immediate and merciless. In the struggle, he arcs a blade across my throat. I awaken, unable even to scream.
But his most dramatic appearance comes one year later, when he lies unconscious at the foot of a doorway which opens, literally, to my own damnation. This final dream, which I shall soon recount, fixed that figure in my mind as an archetype potent with unseen powers. Curiously, it was only then, some twenty years later, that the childhood memory of my first encounter with him was finally recalled. When, as a child, I looked in the shadow of the boat, I saw a derelict in a long coat with a hat pulled over his features. He was reclining, lifeless, and apparently unconscious.
That was the first time the sombre, dreadful theme of 'the derelict' had announced itself in my life. After the final dream in which the derelict appeared, I resolved to leave all those people closest to me, and begin wandering alone through the world. The only way to meet him was to become him - lost, unloved, forgotten.
But first, one final memory, to complete this portrait of the artist as a child. I am seven years old. Along with some distant relatives, my father has brought me to see a large abandoned mansion that is for sale. In the spacious backyard is an overgrown garden with an aged and neglected pool. While the rest of them tour the grounds, I set about exploring on my own.
Suddenly, all the secrets of this world stand before me. All will be revealed through the performance of a sacred act. This sequence of actions, performed in the right combination, is the key. I find a fallen leaf, its edges curling round. In it, I place the top of an acorn, a Y-shaped acorn seed, and - after careful consideration - a small pebble. This, I know, is me, along with all the provisions I'll need for the voyage.
I go to the edge of the pool, and set my little leaf-boat onto the water, where it starts to float away. I do not wait to see where it goes, but quickly turn round, losing it from my vision. The sacred act is complete: all the mysteries of life are made mine.
To this day, I cannot explain the signifigance of this act, why I performed it, and why I have remembered it. Of course, it was child's play. To my later, more adult self, it became a key-image for my own life-journey. But to the child, it was a mysterious act charged with great and unknown meaning. It was creative, sacred, mysterious. I believe it was the first appearance of the sacred in my life.
Through this mysterious action, the child - with his newly found sense of identity - had acquired the creative powers necessary to combat those terrifying forces which appeared always unbidden in his dreams.
Without quite knowing it, I pursued this strategy for survival all through my later childhood and adolescence. I lived comfortably enough, in a large house on Edenbridge next to James Gardens and the Humber river. But the nightmares continued. During my teenage years, I seemed to have the darkest dreams imaginable: my fragile identity always threatened with cruel annihilation. My response was to commit a sacred act - by rendering these nightmarish images into art. Although I always woke up due to an overpowering fear, my first waking reaction was, on the contrary, one of wonder and amazement. Where did these figures come from, and what was their intent?
Gothic horror and its Hollywood re-creations were the stuff of my waking passions: the Phantom of the Opera, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, Frankenstein. I devoured Edgar Allan Poe's short stories, and read American comics such as House of Mystery or Creepy, copying Wrightson and Frazetta's artwork (traces of their style remain in my drawing). But my nighttime terrors bore very little in common with these more traditional icons of the macabre. I dreamt instead of a man amputated from the waist down, who cornered me by walking on his hands. Or, of walking corpses with hollowed headpieces, who plunged me into an open grave.
Then, at the age of sixteen, I discoverd Surrealism, and especially the work of Salvador Dali. The figures from my dreams began to make more sense. I could see Dali's pursuit of his greatest fears over a series of canvases leading him ever deeper into the unconscious. I began my first drawings consciously inspired by Surrealism. In each, a strange juxtaposition of images took place. That was the first emergence in my work of iconologic.
After four years of intensive study at university, making Philosophy my main pursuit, I came away feeling much like Faust: "After all this sweated lore, I stand no wiser than I was before."(Goethe, Faust, Part I, translated by Philip Wayne, Penguin, p. 43) For I had entered with the idea of uncovering that dark world first revealed to me in dreams. This was a primordial world, in which the ultimate questions of our existence - how this world was created, of what nature is life after death - were answered through arrangements of images. Though I'd caught glimpses of the answers now and then in fragments of Heraclitus, Nietzsche, or Plotinus, I soon became convinced that higher studies were the wrong direction.
During university, I continued recording my dreams and making images in clay based on their inspiration. The walking corpse with a hollowed headpiece, for example, was rendered into sculpture, and the half-man who walked on his hands appeared in my film Psychologica. Jung's writings gave me some insight into these creations, as I was able to consider them the lost archetypes of our culture. To better understand my dreams, I made an intense study of Freud and Jung. Freud's chapter on 'The Means of Representation in Dreams' became engraved in my memory through repeated reading, as did Jung's 'Confrontation with the Unconscious'. But both sought, ultimately, to interpret dreams, whereas it was my goal to think through them.
After graduation, I continued my independent research. One fateful day in a bookshop, I happened to reach for a title that seemed pointed in my direction. It was volume four of The Masks of God. This was in 1986, and its author, Joseph Campbell, was in no way known as he was to be several years later. I distinctly remember, I was riding a train between the Canadian and American border when Campbell's insights first blazed forth before my eyes. He seemed to be steeped in the same philosophical tradition as myself - Kant, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche - but found expressions of their ideas in myth.
Through Campbell and his mentor Heinrich Zimmer, I began a more intensive study of myths. One of my own teachers at the University of Toronto, Northrop Frye, subsequently guided me through the intricacies of Christian myth, with the publication of his two books, The Great Code and Words of Power. Finally, Mircea Eliade was added to the list. Through these four scholars, the ancient mythic world opened up before my eyes.
The Opening of the Door
All the while, my personal life had taken a series of turns for the worse. This was due to the dark role which 'the feminine' was to play throughout my life. During university and for some time after, I lived with A., a woman who, though highly intelligent, was prone to fits of moodiness and even madness. I meanwhile had been brought up in a family environment dominated by competitiveness, intelligence, and accomplishment. Since there was little room for feelings in my upbringing, I saw myself as apprenticing myself to her emotions. But, it was like tying myself to an ever-turning wheel of ecstasy and woe. Finally, the contrast in our characters became too extreme, and we clashed.
This was difficult to bear, especially after our relationship had had such a beautiful beginning: we had met at the age of eighteen, when we were both involved in a theatre production. After graduating from university, she and I collaborated again, founding the Magicus Theatre: a troupe of players in which A. acted and I directed. But, our relationship was soon plagued by conflicts, insecurities, and infidelities. The perilous nature of our financial situation did not help matters.
After seven years of tumult, we went into therapy together at the university clinic, in an attempt to forestall the demise of our star-crossed relationship. In response to analysis, a darker mythic theme announced itself. I had my final dream of the derelict.
Over the course of that night, my dreams had descended into ever-earlier incarnations of my childhood self. Then, I found myself to be my present age again, and was together with Ludwig Wittgenstein, a philosopher whose thinking had profoundly influenced my own. His philosophical technique was to analyze a certain question, probe ever deeper into it, never let it go, until finally it revealed its hidden truth. In the dream, we were in a room at the university, and he was accompanied by two of his students. Wittgenstein was questioning a black-haired girl who resembled A. in many ways. This greatly intrigued me, as I felt his line of questioning would lead to some hidden truth regarding her madness.
But the dream suddenly shifted, so that we were now standing at a street corner in the rain, and I was the subject of his investigations. Wittgenstein stood around the corner with one of his students (thus fulfilling Freud's technique of analysis, in which the analyst remained out of sight of the analysand). The philosopher asked me to think of the Bible and the first passages that came into my head. Lines from The Book of Revelation immediately came to my lips: "The false prophet, who worked the signs by which others were deceived," "The hour of judgement has come," "Depart ye into everlasting flames."
Satisfied, Wittgenstein, his student, and myself walked down the street, turned into an alley, and then passed through a doorway. We were now in a section of the alley that was terribly dirty and delapidated. A very old wooden staircase led upwards to a wooden door set into the wall of a dirty brick building. At the foot of the stairs, an old man was lying on his side, wrapped in a dingy black overcoat and wearing a hat that hid his features. He was in a drunken stupor, unconscious, maybe even dead. The student and I approached this derelict, and the student pointed to an oddly shaped chalk mark on his coat, like a letter from the Hebrew alphabet. "The number of the beast," the student said. Then, as Wittgenstein watched, the student read some more of this odd script that was chalked onto the wall. "It says you are to go this way," he intoned, pointing to the stairs.
I tried to read the mysterious script, but couldn't make it out. Then, I started ascending the steps, trying to read the obscure script through spaces in the stairs, but there were too many unrecognizable characters, similar to the ones chalked onto the derelict's coat. Finally, I mounted the final step.
In a flash, all became clear to me - I was not able to read "the writing that is on the wall." The derelict was a terrible portent. Like the False Prophet, his presence signalled the end of all things. The hidden truth, which Wittgenstein had sought through his analysis, now stood before me revealed. The student said "Depart ye into everlasting flames!" The wooden door swung open, and I was drawn irresistably through it. Beyond the door was an infinite spiralling abyss. Screaming, I flew unwillingly into the depths of my own damnation.
That was the opening of the door (marked in my Dreambook, Dream of the night of February 14, 1987: 'Depart ye into Everlasting Flames').
I continued to work in the theatre. The Magicus Theatre troupe managed to stage two original productions - Reznikoff and Buried Mirrors. But I was too tempermental a director, and our last production ended in acrimony. So, after our troupe had disbanded, I began organizing a series of 'Cabarets at Café May'. This café on Roncesvalles Ave was unique, run by a fabulous Japanese woman who served excellent German cuisine. She became a good friend, dishing up free Eintopfsuppe since I often couldn't afford to eat. In return, I organized cabarets at her café, which offered music, poetry, and theatre from an odd assortment of artists, writers, and musicians whom I'd befriended. But my painting, coupled with writing, seemed to be the only way through the labyrinth of my dreams.
This too came to me in a dream. In 1989, I had a dream which, for me, signified much the same thing as my childhood act of placing a pebble in a leaf-boat and setting it sailing across the water. I dreamt I was in Malta, in the village where my father comes from. I was walking up triq il-Parocca to the house where my father was born. All the houses on this street were closed up, their wooden shutters drawn. The village seemed abandoned. I came to my father's childhood home, and there - in contrast to the other houses - all was open and brimming with activity. In particular, a trinity of windows on the top floor blazed with light. (In reality, this house has only two windows. The three windows were very reminiscent of the trinity of windows atop the door of my own childhood home, which I remembered so vividly as a child).
The brimming activity in the house was due to an auction, where all the family belongings were being sold off. None of my family were there, and the auction was organized by Germans. I spoke to one of the organizers in German, and he told me that some items would be auctioned, others could be put aside and purchased later. I felt that I must gather up as many hierlooms as possible, to preserve something from our family's past. There were jewels, rugs, furniture, tools. I gathered them all together. Then, figuring that all of these were rightfully mine anyway, I tried to walk out with the lot. But a clerk stopped me, asking me to produce a receipt. I called his attention to another clerk and, through a ruse, sent him off in search of the slip while I escaped with the goods.
Once out on the street, I examined what I was able to preserve from our family's past. Most prominant among them were a set of handtools (which, in reality, my father had used to make his living, and which he had given to me one day). Out in the street, I suddenly heard a disembodied voice - that of my father's - who asked me 'what do you plan to do with your life?' Looking at the handtools, I replied 'I'll make a living with the skills I possess'. And so, confidently, I walked on.
Due to this dream, I decided not to pursue graduate studies at university - not to use only my intellect in my passage through life (which was the strategem my brothers and closest friends had used, by going on to do graduate studies). I also abandoned my plans of working in theatre and film. Instead, through the pursuit of painting, I would also use my heart and hands. My family never supported this decision.