After two years in Toronto (during which time I drank too much and slept too little), I finally returned to Europe. I came with the firm resolution that I was here to stay. I shipped my books, my easel, and my unfinished paintings, but otherwise sold off the rest of my belongings. My destination was Malta, which I reached after a three-week stay in Rome. Although I'd visited Malta several times during my childhood, now I was going there to live and work as an artist. I envisioned it as my first step towards life in Europe, and hoped to eventually settle somewhere north on the continent. How could I have guessed, as the boat pulled into the beautifully illuminated Grand Harbour at night, that I would pass the darkest, most difficult moments of my life on that light Mediterranean isle?
My first week in Malta was spent at the Parish House of my uncle, who was the Kapillan of Lija. From there, I was able to stay at the family house on triq il-Parocca. (The house from my dream). Then, I had to move to a number of other temporary accomodations. Finally, a friend of mine from Vienna was able to put another house at my disposal. I moved into 5 triq il-Madonna tal-Ghar in Mellieha, my father's former village.
The entire village knew me as the nephew of the priest. To one old woman, I was introduced as Leili ta' Leili ta' Guiseppa (Laurence whose father is Larry whose mother is Guiseppa). 'Ahhh,' she repeated, nodding her head, 'Leili ta' Leili ta' Guiseppa...' While my late grandfather had bequeathed his laqam (village nickname) to the rest of the family (we wereta-Tobi - 'of the fat man'), I eventually acquired my own (ta-Topu - 'the one with the ponytail').
At last, I was able to set up a studio. I even began working on a novel set in Malta, banging away at an old, beat-up typewriter that a friend had lent me. The landscape of Malta, its unique architecture, and the strong Catholic faith of its people - all of this inspired my novel as well as my painting. I'd hoped to pass my afternoons and evenings in solid work and solitude, after the mornings' work at the school teaching English.
Then, M. came into my life.
By appearance alone, she was a very desireable woman: not only beautiful and ambitious, but also very articulate and intelligent. She possessed a most penetrating gaze, tremendous acuity, and an instinct for survival. What I only discovered later - after we'd fallen in love - was that her past was extremely traumatic, and her present was still haunted by those experiences. Still, within nine days of meeting each other, we'd both abandoned our partners (hers in Holland, mine in Vienna), and had fallen so deeply into lust, love, and the abyss within each other, that we became engaged.
It is hard to believe that we'd resisted each other during our first meeting. But the walls fell swiftly and unexpectedly after that. By the morning of our first encounter, we were lovers. Over the next nine days, we each descended deeper into the other's past, secrets, insecurities, and aspirations. By the time I'd proposed and she'd accepted (both of us kneeling naked on the bed), we'd each exposed the most fragile aspects of our existence, and found another who'd promised to always offer the other shelter.
M. returned to her native Holland, but was back within a fortnight. The next two weeks remain engraved in my memory as the most unusual celebration of life ever experienced. Even the entire village was in an uproar, celebrating their festa. Again she returned to Holland, with a promise that I would join her there shortly. After a month, I flew to Vienna (where I had to make reparation for the damage done to the earlier relationship) and then on to Holland.
In shocking contrast to the celebratory times we shared in Malta, the three weeks that I spent with M. in her native land were an unbelievable descent into the darkest realms of Hell. She had, in her past, come face to face with the Devil. And even in Malta, she had warned me to leave her before the demons within her emerged. At the time, I said I'd met the Devil before, and was not afraid. But now, I was struggling to hold onto my sanity, as we battled through the worst of her torment, madness, and delusions.
While her childhood seemed to be relatively idyllic (the photos she gave me bore this out), she had quickly matured into an attractive but rebellious teenager. With her father in prison, her frequent fights with her mother soon resulted in flights from home, and her eventual incarceration in a home for teenage runaways. It was there that Hell's gates first opened wide and she plunged into its spiralling depths - rape, sexual abuse, attempted suicide, and - to cope with it all - substance abuse. In her dilirium she heard the Devil's cloven-hoofs clacking through the corridors. When she re-emerged, it was as a determined, experienced adult with a will for survival and sharp intelligence to get her through.
And, it seemed that for the five years before she met me, she was able to work her way up and even prosper through these latter qualities. But our relationship, our quest for love through each other, caused us to expose all of our past, with its unresolved fears, longings, and hopes for resolution. Having already experienced this in my earlier relationships, I knew I would not be able to cope with that responsibility. I demanded she see a psychiatrist, and work it out with him. (And indeed, she did begin analysis again. He diagnosed her as suffering from 'Borderline Personality Disorder' - meaning that she was condemned, for life, to borderline psychosis.)
But, in the small room she'd rented for the two of us in Holland, there seemed no way out of the spiralling descent into each other. Every word, every gesture, every act of love resonated into the darkest depths, and drew us further down. I even escaped to Amsterdam for a day, to regain a sense of balance and perspective. Perhaps it was this event that, in a moment of clarity, made her decide I should return to Malta. But the night before my departure, our words and gestures somehow sounded new depths, and I plunged unknowingly into all the trauma of her past, reliving it all. We came face to face with her devil, and I was it.
Once back in Malta, I was actually relieved to be alone. We still felt the greatest love for each other, but had promised to work out our innermost fears and longings in solitude. My own task was to confront the derelict, the abandoned child, and the abyss - all symbols deepening into my wandering, my feeling of being unloved, and my near-hopeless quest for God.
October 29th, 1992, I had a terrible night; I couldn't sleep. I rose and read Eliade until half past three. An hour later, I rose again to chase a moth out of the room. Finally, I slept, only to to experience the most horrible nightmare, filled with anxiety mounting to overwhelming fear.
I was in a very old Maltese house, not dissimilar to the one where I was now living in Melieha. It felt old, ancient, and very Maltese. For the whole of the dream, I floated through this house, propelled by whatever feeling I was having that moment.
At the beginning of the dream, I was on the balcony of a room from the upper storey. Strangely aware of my own levity, I began to wonder if I was going to float upwards or downwards. To my surprise, I began to float upwards in a slow ascent. I felt somewhat unbalanced, and feared falling over. But, as it was, I made a slow and gentle ascent to the roof of the house.
At that moment, I felt fortunate, because it seemed I was rising in my life rather than falling. But then I thought of M., and how she seemed to be falling ever further. I remembered the promise we'd made to each other, to confront our innermost fears. And so I realized that I musn't be afraid to make the descent. (I was not lucid in the dream, but possessed an unusual clarity in regard to my own feelings).
And so, I began to float downward through the stairwells of the house, until I arrived in the cellars. These were dark underground passages hewn from the rock, not unlike the Phoenician tombs and Christian catacombs one finds in Malta. But there was also a sense of the cellars and crematory ovens of Auschwitz (which I had visited once in Poland). A terrible fear and anxiety came over me as I saw dead bodies laid out on top of each other in rows, reposing in the cradle-cut rock tombs / sliding crematory oven drawers. The corpses were somehow the Christian dead that hadn't yet awoken, or dying Häftlinge that hadn't yet died. I thought to myself: these are the ancestors of the house, kept here below in the cellars. My fear began mounting as I hovered closer to them - so close that one could reach out and seize me if it fully awoke. And I was convinced that one - bordering between life and death - would awaken.
This conviction and its accompanying anxiety became so overwhelming that I started to depart from this place. I floated into another room in the cellars, where I saw a few old objects stored away - jugs, bowls, furniture, tools. I figured I could return later and take these things, as the old owners of the house no longer needed them.
But, in response to this thought, a figure suddenly flew toward me from the cellar I'd just exited. The figure was slender, with fair skin and blond hair - much like M. But it was a man, approximately my own age - and he was one of the awakened dead. In fear, I flew out of the room. He began following me, chasing me. Like me, he was able to float through the house. I quickly flew up the stairwells, through the upper rooms, until I came to the roof. I landed on the edge of the roof and - for the first time in the dream - I felt the weight of my existence on my feet.
I thought to myself, the only way I can escape from this figure is not to fear death. Therefore, I willingly jumped from the edge of the roof to my own death. As I fell, I knew the fall would carry me down to my death. But there was also a feeling that I could alter the fall, should I wish it, by floating. This would then arc my descent into a circle, passing me through the cellars, then up again. Instead, the fall ended with my awakening.
The weeks that followed, approaching Christmas, became increasingly more difficult. I had trouble with the Immigration Authorities, since my working papers still hadn't been approved. I lost my job, and soon ran out of money. The house was unheated, and became unbearably damp and cold (a new layer of mould would grow over the egg-tempera of Christ Alchemist every couple of days). Because I had no money, I ate almost nothing for two months except canned tuna with Maltese capers, bread and wine. I lost contact with all the people I knew, and isolated myself totally. And these were the least of my problems.
Contact with M. was becoming increasingly difficult (my house had no phone), while her life continued to crumble round her. I had no money to visit her, and couldn't even if I had wished to. We had each promised to work out our problems in solitude - become worthy of each other. Meditating on the dream, I slowly realized its meaning: I had to plunge into my own abyss. I had to undertake an underworld journey, and confront there my own greatest fears, even if this journey led to my own death. I commited myself to an intensive inward-turning and self-analysis for the three weeks preceeding Christmas. Then, on the day when, symbolically, darkness lost its battle with the light, I would re-emerge to embrace M. - whatever the cost.
Entire days were spent analyzing my dreams, recalling childhood memories, and writing up conclusions in my journals. I also struggled to complete Christ Alchemist. One evening, after M. said some really callous things to me on the phone, I wrote a letter full of anger, challenging her to be stronger. As a result, I came to some startling conclusions. I realized that the child within each of us was not something abandoned and abused, but a source of all-powerful light, because a child can smile with absolute joy untainted by any knowledge of evil. If we can but descend into our own lost memories, and recall that childhood feeling of joyful innocence, then we can conquer any subsequent evil or darkness that may have arisen later in our lives.
My unfinished painting of Christ Alchemist took on a new meaning for me, as I could see the child glowing with light as never before. I also discovered at the time, quite by chance, that the Cyrillic text in the open bible read: "I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life." (John 8:12) I decided to paint this light surrounding the Christ-child on December 25th - the Winter Solstice - the day when, symbolically, the light came into the world.
Meanwhile, M.'s letters arrived less often, and were filled with foreboding silence and despair. Our once-a-week phonecalls (on the neighbour's phone) were filled with tragic pleas, screaming accusations, and tearful promises. Then, she disappeared on a three-week work-assignment on a ship somewhere near Greece. During this period when all contact was severed, I plunged further into my own depths, questioning her role in my life. M., I realized, was only the latest - yet undeniably most powerful - incarnation in my life of 'the dark feminine'. I journeyed backward through all her earlier incarnations, questioning each in turn. The 'Anima' figures in my dreams were analyzed in detail. Days passed relatively peacefully, but nights were spent in anguish.
The week arrived when M. and I were supposed to meet up again, but she was nowhere to be found. As each evening drew to a close, I felt myself on the verge of a breakdown. The internal image of 'the dark feminine' rose up like never before. All the women from my past - mother, cousins, lovers, and childhood friends - rose up in my memory, swirled round each other, and coalesced into one terrible image of the Goddess. This image, so palpably real, shook me to the foundations of my being.
Suddenly I realized that, though I had sought all my life, through Christ, to find the love of God, I had never even come near to succeeding. Meanwhile, unknowingly, I had been seeking something else with every woman I'd met - I'd been seeking the love of the Goddess. The sacred Mysterium took on a new mask - a more ancient form, uprising uncalled from the depths of my being. Here on this ancient island resplendant with fragmented images and ruined temples dedicated to her, I accepted that it was the Goddess, and not God, which I had been seeking most of my life.
This realization consoled me for awhile. Of the seven demons emerging from the depths of Hell, I now had recognized the Great Goddess among them. But, fate had other surprises in store. On Christmas day, I attempted to paint the light surrounding the Christ-child - and failed miserably. The more I persevered, the more the work came undone. Finally, in tears of defeat, I destroyed my painting of Christ Alchemist.
On January 11th, after endless anxiety as to M.'s whereabouts, I finally received a letter. It was short, concise, and devastating. She could not accept the challenge our relationship had proposed. Her things were now in storage somewhere in Utrecht. She'd left her hometown for good, and was working on another ship somewhere in the Adriatic. There was no way for me to contact her. She had severed all ties - permenantly.
I suffered then what can only be termed a collapse. The one woman in my life who had plunged to the very depths of my loneliness and promised to offer me shelter, now had disappeared - abandoned me in fact. Figures from my dreams - the wandering derelict, the child - rose their ugly heads once more. Whatever depths I'd plumbed in the last weeks suddenly seemed shallow and worthless. My hold on reality disappeared. I lost control over myself, over my own thinking. In particular, the image of this half-insane woman emerged from my soul's depths and raged through me out of control. Her substance abuse, her suicidal tendencies, her hallucinations and madness all became my own. I felt myself infected by her madness. And so, alone in that house in the village, I slowly went mad.
The most frightening aspect of that experience - and contrarily, the most enlightening - was accepting the undeniable reality which our inner images possess. Waves of feeling were bursting forth from within me, and the only way I could prevent them from annihilating me utterly was to accept the images in which they had spontaneously taken form. But, due to their overwhelming emotional power, these images possessed a dangerous potency. Indeed, they possessed reality.
I saw M.'s Devil everywhere. One evening, he emerged from under the stairs and claimed he wanted something from me - to make good on an oath I'd once sworn. M. had already taken him up on his offer - and tried to kill herself. Was I now too afraid? Of course I was hallucinating. If I'd had access to narcotics, I would have taken them, because I would rather have blamed my hallucinations on these substances rather than on my own emerging madness. Instead, I consumed copious amounts of alcohol, to conceal from myself my actual state of being. But the psychotic episodes - spontaneous and uncontrollable - were the only way I knew to contain the flow of my feelings, and somehow stem the flood that was threatening to destroy me completely. I accepted, with a depressing sense of defeat and entire loss of self-worth, that these hallucinatory images possessed a greater potency than the image, somewhere within, of myself. I lost, entirely, my once-conscious hold onto the world.
Memories from childhood also uprose unbeckoned from within. For reasons I couldn't understand, I regressed unwillingly to my childhood, even my earliest infancy. For days on end, I had these spontaneous recollections, accompanied by uncontrollable crying fits, making it impossible for me to leave the house. Due to my excessive feelings of abandonment, these memories acquired a terrible presence. Lost thus in my memories and hallucinations, I slowly descended to the very depths of my mind's swirling abyss.
I reached, as much as is possible, the nadir; the turning point. Somehow, I put myself in the care of others. A Maltese friend of mine, who had just returned from Germany, took me under her wing. She got me out of the house as often as possible. We explored Malta together, its many hidden places, its charming villages, its beautiful sister island of Gozo. One evening in particular, we sat by the Mnajdra temple and admired the sea as it was suddenly touched ablaze by the setting sun. Malta's countless caves, shores, and cliffs all became known to us. Through these open spaces and the gradual passage of time, I somehow recuperated. But I never saw or heard of M. again.