Peter Hammill - The Message

He knew that the end was coming. No more were there aficionados to buy, steal, hoard his paintings, interviewers from glossy magazines to probe his psychological motivations and sexual quirks, pilgrims to sit at his feet, attempting to distil knowledge from such sweat of his brow as fell on them while he worked. He had known all these: known, accepted, enjoyed, been discarded by and discarded in turn. There were other idols for them now, with stranger and more labyrinthine forms of expression to relate to the world; now, for him, there was no world left to which he could related in the old manner. That era which he himself had in some way expressed and epitomised had passed; he no longer had either the inclination or the desire to push open the shutters on his innermost thoughts and feelings. The light neither entered nor shone out.

It is true that he had revelled in his fame almost to the point of self-idolatry; he had felt and savoured that sense of exquisite freedom and security--albeit of the zoo--which approval by one's peers confers. Dipping his toes into the water, he had found the sensation and temperature to his liking, and so had dived headlong into it, again and again, always from a higher board and always with greater e'lan until a moment arrived when it was impossible to differentiate between dive and diver, so great was the height from which he plummeted. Even in this madness, he could have retained control over his own life and death: seeing the cushioning and absorbing water draining from the pool, he could have twisted away in mid-air; a final act of individuality. Again, he could simply have stayed wallowing in the pool; this would have been enough, and comprehensible...yet there was more. He stood at the crossroads, unsure even of the nature of the decision which now faced him: to go on along the road on which, long ago, he had set himself, ever on towards the horizon of glowering clouds? Or, repenting, to turn his back on that hungry, inviting vision, to begin the long and desperate march back to whatever remained of his starting point? He knew that the end was coming; and he knew that he did not know.

It had been two years since he had done any painting. In the intervening time, as the strength of his will waned and his moral incertitude waxed, he had presented to a dwindling public the stockpile of his last years' work, passed off as contemporary. Poison arrows of criticism and malice were drawn and fired on the canvases as they emerged, but the effects did not touch him; already he was distanced in time and mind, already too concerned with groping for an end which would satisfy his beginnings to be hurt by this present invective, directed at labours only he knew were long done.

His life had drifted from him, and his friends: the former, lately, in aimless meandering; the latter with all too clearly defined speed and direction. If friendship and love are based on the reflections from others of what we wish or imagine ourselves to be, then when the mirror clouds, not to be reburnished by whatever fresh life we breathe onto and into it, we quickly shroud the surface, pass on and forget. He had made it his vocation to be, to provide, a looking-glass for humanity' the effacement he suffered was all the more total for that. Perhaps--we could try to be kind--he might have felt that the reflections he gave out had become too perfect, too vivid, as unbearable for those around him as for those on and by whom his name had been built; such self-absorption might have made him more human in pride, might at least have given him some measure of consolation and self-justification in the years of increasing solitude and isolation. In truth, though, such thoughts never occurred to him at all: the disappearance of his friends meant as little to him as did that of his erstwhile laudors and protogees. The absence of those who had once crowded round him did not even raise in him that flicker of feeling which men who are alone often see in themselves as ultimate proof of their individuality. He had simply ceased to care.

He had spurned success, and yet forgotten its meaning.

He had, finally been rejected by his peers, and yet, having already disassociated himself from them and their judgements, such rejection was meaningless to him.

In the sense that creation is the evocation of the unknown for presentation to, and condonation by, one's fellows, he had ceased to create; yet the sense is as shallow as the word is presumptuous. He was already half-dead: he had foresworn his stake in presumption. As his friends and fellows stumbled away from the darkness which increasingly surrounded him, the lines which joined them to him slipped through his numbing grasp.

He clasped darkness and negation to himself; yet, within, he had never before walked in such positive light. Becoming paradox, all mere means, all sideshows, all irrelevancies fell away from him; he had seen the end in time to make his own ends clear. Now his every energy was directed towards one goal, his every drive channelled into a single current. His ambition, ego, religion, certitude, will for communication, craving for love, his intelligence, intellect, training, toil and patience all became enmeshed in a single dream, in a monopoly of purpose which can only become manifest when it is known that the absolute end is drawing irresistibly close. Now, though ceasing to care in and for all mundane terms, he was driven by the utmost dedication, and urgency infected his every though and action: urgency born out of a sudden knowledge of time.

He had owned the cottage for many years; in the first flush of youthful prosperity, he had followed the advice of accountants and worldly-wise friends and bought it as tangible possession and security in a transient world. He had had his own, more romantic reasons for the purchase, too: primitive, isolated, half-derelict, he had seen the place as being in touch with the roots of Nature, and thus of Man. 'Back to Nature' had been one of his (often contradictory) watchwords, as though Nature were a constant, not a perpetually shifting axis of reality by which Man is both challenged and measured. At first, he had had thoughts of setting up home there permanently. ''Free from the city,'' he had once said, flushed with drink and enthusiasm to the point of voiding intellect, ''I can find and know myself, and create from the bowels of my being.'' Soon after moving there, he found that he had taken the city with him to his retreat among the chalk hills, and that all that came from his bowels was fear of meeting the unknown alone. Though this was, in some measure, self-knowledge, it sickened him.

When summer came, he tried to assuage his fear by inviting his hedonistic friends--mirrors to his mirror--to stay, and they spent the days in a drugged and drunken haze of lethargy. The summer was long, hot, sterile; in such moments as he raised his head above the morass of self-indulgence, he sustained himself and held back the baying hounds of conscience with the thought of a winter's work and contemplation. The weather turned, his solitary life resumed, the feeling of sterility remained; now he knew that it resided not in the summer heat, not in the social excess, but in his own ideas when faced only by himself. The mirage was dispelled, the dream--that by merely changing the geographical location through which he walked he could change the nature of the burden he carried--shattered. The isolation, the stark images of self which were all he encountered there were too much for him: he left the cottage for the pleasure palaces of the world, for the self-affirmation which only success, adulation, and the tangible applications of wealth would bring him. Thenceforth he worked as, when, and where he could, and his inspirational circuits were flooded only with feedback from the glittering public world in which he was resoundingly successful and--for an artist--revoltingly rich.

Now, as he rejected that shadow-play of a life which he had himself espoused, the cottage was there to come back to: he had never seriously thought about selling it. At first, to have done so would have been too much of an admission of failure, of the fact that he was capable of self-delusion; and he would allow of this possibility neither to himself nor to others in those days. Later, when he owned plush homes on three continents, the place was consigned in his memory to the dustiest of back shelves. Now, at last, it was to serve him well, its isolation matching that which had bred internally in him. The external, romantic idealism of his youth, the cultivation of pessimism and despair in which he had then indulged--if only to nurture the kernel of self-celebration at both their centres--were long gone; by now, he had come to know and accept true solitude, an aloneness still vital, still throbbing with life...his own. So now, attuned to its nature, he had come back to the cottage; come back to make his final and greatest work.

There would be no comparison between this and what he had previously done; there would be no point even in relative assessment. In the growing rejection of his way of life, of the use to which he had put his time, he had also rejected his previous painting; he could no longer own it even in his memory. In reality, it had passed out of his possession in those moments when it first adorned the walls and corridors--as clinical, almost, as those of hospitals--of the museums of modern art; the salons of those hostesses who, rich in temporal terms, sought spiritual wealth in the acquisition of 'culture'; the bedrooms of those friends, acquaintances and parasites who, acknowledging his mortality as mirror in which they could shine, substituted his work for him and for whatever relationship they had with him--a more permanent, more reliable surface in which they could examine and display the symmetrical perfection of their warts and blemishes. As for him, he had traded his paintings for pride; that, too, he had relinquished as it tarnished in the light of self-realisation. For him, all that now remained of his work was the incremental change which time and vision had wrought, within him; the cavasses [sic] themselves seemed to him as dull, lifeless and flat as forgotten dreams.

Once, he had drawn rigid lines within himself between his work and his life, the former being a separate manifestation of, if not justification for, the latter; now the two began to beat in the same rhythm, to become indistinguishable. With the realisation that his life was gathering itself up by the moment there came further intimations of its very nature; as twilight came on with stealthy geometrical progression, his life became more and more identifiable with his search and will for final expression. Such time-frittering concepts as importance, relative truth, artistic honesty no longer gnawed at his comprehension, for such things were devoured by, implicit in, the effort he was now making; the present, its infinity and time fell away. With ultimate patience, born of haste, he began to assemble the forces of his life and, in so doing, willed them into transcendence of himself towards a goal and a vitality which could outstrip the transient egotism of 'creation' and 'Art'. Now, drawing on forces older, deeper, more intuitively felt than any he had hitherto called upon, he ceased to be concerned with the mere expression of the self: he strove for its encapsulation. Against this purpose, all the efforts of his past life, all his past paintings, were as dust in the wind. His final work had become, for him, his only one: it was to be filled with the whole essence of his existence.

This in itself, though, would not be enough: paradoxically, in the course of dissociating himself from his past he had grown more aware of his place and nature in the overall scheme of things, and it was some intimation of that universal awareness he now wished to convey. A mere monument to his own life and vision, however much imbued with them, however free of the taint of ego, would not suffice.

He groped for clear sight of his own intentions; they throbbed in his veins, beat at his temples, inhabited his mind in every waking moment and cast half-glimpsed dreams like pebbles into the millpond of his sleep. Eventually, the barest of outlines was formed; although still without specific definition, it offered some hope at least of the work in prospect achieving a longetivity and universality beyond his own, mortal, imagination. He would try through this, a man's work, to pass on some intimation of Man's state, balanced between two orders: civilisation, or mankind in time, and Nature. He knew that he would have to express opposed concepts simultaneously: transience, analysis, intellect against immutability, intuition, spirit. As a man at a specific point in time, he realised that trapping time itself in its vestments; nor, indeed, could he accurately represent the rate of change--in terms of knowledge, action, faith--of civilisation. Somehow, though, if he could only find the right image and method, he could encapsulate the balance, the tension; and then, if the work lasted, it could show future men, of whatever time, that others before them had at least tried to see, to express what it meant to be alive.

At last, he had found the parameters of his intent: now the days formed themselves into ranks of weeks and months as he searched for the image which could embody the totality of his vision. He did not bemoan the passage of time itself, since all was now waiting; but frustration gnawed at him constantly. Sometimes, like a frustrated child, he would rush out onto the hillside which flanked his cottage and hurl stones as far and as aimlessly as he could to give vent to his anger at himself, his inadequacies, his inability to find the icon he sought. Later, these same hands which had thus fashioned themselves into the fists and catapults of nihilism would unconsciously moved in the depths of aspiration, struggle, striving and search. These hands...finally, he knew, they would have to do the work, make sense of his unfashioned ideals, make reason of their own irrational power; sometimes, mesmerised, he would stare at them, wondering if they could posibly [sic] conform to the discipline, achieve the control which would be necessary to fashion the uncontrolled. Then his darkest moments would come, when it seemed that he had avowed too much, had steered too close to blasphemy. He wished, after all, to make the ultimate statement of which he was capable, in the most encapsulated form. Yet he knew that there could be no other way: if this was blasphemy, then he must blaspheme. Having forsaken his past existence, renounced his past and primitive efforts at self-expression, his only reason for living now was this work, this goal as total as any he could envisage; and he was left with the knowledge that only in its process and completion could any true and final understanding ever come to him.

At times, his cogitations had seemed to have no end; but finally he settled on the image he would use. The subject was age-old, but could bear representation with modernity; its life breathed into inanimate substance, all the necessary elements would be fused, and the eternity of his idea transmitted.

At first he had to sketch it: only thus could he materially formalise all those wishes and intentions which his mind had catalogued and, in the imagination at least, bound into a whole. Trial after trial, form after form flowed from his pen in every manner he had ever learned, from slapdash speed to meticulous patient craft. Each in turn was rejected as being too inanimate or too vital, of too universal a view for his specific purpose or too minute a one for its breadth, of too classical or too modern a form. Finally, his hand, mind and eye came to rest, and on the paper before him lay the lines for which he had searched for so long, towards which his whole life had been directed. Now it remained only to transfer these lines into his chosen permanent medium, one which would withstand the ravages of permanent medium, one which would withstand the ravages of time, retain these unmistakeable marks, suffer no deterioration of essence of confusion of intent. Now only the physical labour had to be done.

The weeks passed into months, and the earth was blessed with the sweat of his toil. His hands became gnarled and hard with blisters; his biceps throbbed with effort and energy; his hair grew long and matted, his face creased with the lines of outdoor work; his eyes smouldered to permanent coals in his furious haste. He wasted, and he grew: he had never been so strong as he was in those final days, yet he had never looked so utterly drained--his whole life-force was fed into the completion of the work, and he paused only to sleep and eat. Time held its breath for him.

And it was finished.

He stood back and viewed it: there had been no mistake in his inspiration. It was dynamic, yet immutable; urgent, yet in a strange repose; it summed up his passion, his individuality, but was simultaneously universal; in both subject and execution, it was of now and all time past and future. The subject was one men would have seen almost since they began to see, but the rake of the line was unmistakeably modern; and also--he had not, he reflected, suffered the purgatory of the salons and art galleries all those years for nothing--unmistakeably his. The being had life, summoned up thoughts of flight and speed, yet suspended in frantic motion, would remain here forever.

The body arched forwards, a widening curve to the shoulders, and the limbs seemed to flow out from it in smooth arcs, not as appendages, but as intrinsic part; the head, straining forward, was merely hinted at by shape and outline, and in its centre one staring eye bulged with the effort of chase. Each stroke of his pen in the original sketch had been magnified hundreds of times, and in the simplicity of these few lines he had captured the life of his subject; captured that, and more. Not only was the work infused with, and a summation of, life, but also, suspended between Nature and mankind, it captured something of life in his time. There had been no margin for error, and here there was none; the work was that which he had dreamed, for which he had prayed.

The simplicity of execution, the elimination of all but the barely essential, the thoughts and implications of speed, haste and vigour which the work embodied, all these were codes intrinsic to his civilisation. The lines, so unlike those of its subject in reality, still captured its essence. The work belonged to, could only have been done at, a time when Man was no longer content simply to observe what the saw, but was determined to strike to its roots, its skeletal discovery, of quest, of life continued, expanded, enhanced; now, as mankind began to reach for the stars; now he, with this subject of simple, unequivocal grandeur, had here encapsulated not only his own feelings and aspirations, but also those of the age. Life, light, hope; the surge at barriers and boundaries which exist only to be penetrated; the first glimmer of understanding of what lies beneath the dull tridimensionality of outward appearance--here and now, he had intuitively captured all of these; he had grasped them in, and fashioned them with, his mortal hands.

And so he sat upon the hill, his end almost upon him, drained of all but the satisfaction of having done; and looked across at his final, his only work. In the centuries, in the aeons to come, men would return to this spot, look upon the results of his labours, and be sure to receive the message. By the figurative sparsity of line, by the capture of essence in dimensions other than those we fully understand, they would know that it was created by a man in an age when Man had truly begun to live, and not merely exist. Perhaps (who know?) by then the Earth might be a barren waste, left behind in the spawning of the galaxies, and only a chance cosmonaut would come upon the place--but he, too, would know and understand that here it all began.

His mind spun in pure, humble, exhilaration: the message that he had carved out for the future could never be misinterpreted. So, joyfully without further reason for life, his breath slipped away as he lay on the hill, his eyes resting forever on the white horse he had cut into the chalk above Uffington.

The white horse has stood the test of time; but its meaning and message remain, for us, a mysteries, and we can only guess at the culture, civilisation, hopes, fears and intentions of its maker or makers. Have we not come such a long way from these things?




Russian Peter Hammill / Van der Graaf Generator Page
Sergey Petrushanko hammillru@mail.ru, 1998-2017