THE TWINKLING LIGHTS OF THE CITY
In Chinese Tang Dynasty poetry (618-907) there is an image of internal struggle which I share. This is the dilemma: An old wanderer feels frustrated and stifled by their annoying village fellows and yearns to break free from their petty gossip. So they escape from the safety of the village into the wilderness of the mountains. Finally they feel free, back in nature and able to breathe and tell their sorrows to the winds and the trees. After a while they realise that the trees, though soft and gentle, have nothing to say in reply. They gradually realise it is getting dark on the mountain and as evening falls, they notice the twinkling lights of the city below. They are getting cold and lonely on the hillside and yearn again for the company of people, hot soup and companionship, and so, with a shrug of their shoulders and a sigh, head back down to the village again. This ‘basic conflict… between… conscious desire for solitude and… unconscious need to have other people around’¹, or yearning to break free and then yearning to return again is something I experience. It is ‘the paradox of isolation’² and can be found in the Tang poetry of Wang Wei and also Tao Yuanming, who was ‘reassured by spirals of kitchen-smoke from distant villages’³. Perhaps it is similar to a hermit-like need to retreat temporarily into a cave.
I see a parallel here with the desert fathers of early Christianity; their desert isolation became isolation in the European forests in medieval times, which became isolation in the sea, and islands; Irish monks thought of the ocean as a kind of liquid desert. There is a long tradition of monks and sailors seeking something (wonder, enlightenment, escape) from Sinbad right back to the Brendan voyage (for more info see full thesis on Floating Islands which can be found on my website under ‘Articles’). In my twenties, living alone in my flat in Bethnal Green, if I ever felt lonely I’d go up to the roof and look down over London at night, or sit in my window with a cup of tea, gazing at the city. In the film Hugo, the eponymous boy takes a girl up to the top of the train station clock tower in Paris and tells her: if he ever felt lost or alone he’d come up here, and realise that just as each part of the city below had a purpose and interacted with every other part, so each and every person has a purpose, too, a place and a role, and then he didn’t feel quite so lonely. Being high up and solitary, seeking solace in nature gives you some perspective. It’s not for nothing that mountains are places of meditation; indeed, the famous Court of Gayumars miniature painting I studied at The Prince’s School of Traditional Arts for my MA sets this king high up on a mountain rock. It takes me right back to my childhood in Hong Kong growing up from an island separate from the main island (Hong Kong island), where we lived on a hill, upland – and at night, you could see the twinkling lights of the vast city beyond across the water. This was my nightly view and is also the subject of my work Drive In.