Years ago when I was doing post-graduate studies on the ivy-clad campus In Cape Town, a university set right up on the slopes below Devil’s Peak, I was standing at the end of a corridor looking down through a large plate glass window on the second floor of the Leslie Building for Social Sciences. It was the most modern building on campus, split-level hyperbole with slabs of raw concrete juxtaposed with red brick. Its only hope was the ivy scrambling up and over the brutal frontage.
As I was standing there, waiting for a seminar or to see a professor, a bird, perhaps a pigeon, flew into the plate glass. It smacked into the glass with a cracking noise and dropped to the ground two floors below with a broken neck.
On the glass was a tiny starry fracture where the beak had struck the window. It looked lik the crystalline formation of a snowflake, fine cracks radiating out from a glittering puncture mark.
I began shaking and had to sit down, feeling suddenly faint and overtaken by an emotion I could not name. It was not the death of the bird that had stirred me beyond a moment’s compassion, but the sight of that death star in the glass, an etched symbol of violence.
I understood that something had irrupted from my own Unconscious, something archetypal and nameless, triggering an abreaction, sparking a deep fear and dread, an unwanted knowing, within me. The incident has stayed with me through the years although in conscious terms I remain none the wiser.
Not that long ago another curious and inexplicable archetype entered my life and I am still trying to make sense of it. I had a dream in which I was in a schoolgirl hostel in a wood. I wanted to escape and go to a party held in the boys’ hostel, so I escaped out of the girl’s boarding hostel at night, crawled down a tunnel that resembled a narrow well, and travelled in the dark below the forest floor, hoping I would reach the boys’ hostel in time for the party.
Somewhere within myself I began to step out of character, prompted by that dream.
Some months later I was on a business trip to KwaZulu-Natal, a very difficult journey in heavy monsoon rains. I found myself a witness to distressing conditions among people living with AIDS. On an impulse quite unlike myself, I wrote to a man who was almost a stranger, telling him what I was going through. He replied and we began a complicated, intense and ultimately unsatisfactory love affair. That is now over, and we are slowly becoming friends.
But there is another subtext or concealed narrative that puzzles me in all this. I began to dream about this man and call out to him in my sleep, something that bewildered my housemate. I have never talked in my sleep, but now I began sobbing and pleading and whispering wordsof love aloud during the night. Even when I was with him, I dreamt of him, dreamt he was abducting me from my father’s house, that I was unable to resist him, that I was helpless in his arms. That I loved and hated him, that I was enslaved by need and desire and fear of him.
And once I had left the man in real lie and returned to Africa, the dreams of the demon lover continued, dreams of pleasure or humiliation, dreams of being led underground like Persephone, or peering into a well in the hope of seeing his beloved face in a distant dark pool far below. Half-awake, I find myself roaming his house at night, standing over his bed, searching through cupboards, waiting and watching. Haunted and haunting.
It is such a strange experience and I cannot account for it during daylight hours, the conscious mind repudiates this hidden enthrallment. The Unconscious simply goes on with its own preoccupation. I do not want to resort to the tempting Jungian or Freudian explanations, I want to understand this as felt experience. I want my Unconscious to reach the end of the quest, the story unfolded, the love requited or transmuted to another feeling.
Th mood of this haunting has something in it of the trembling and pain expressed in a poem by the English mystic William Blake:
- Never seek to tell thy love,
- Love that never told can be;
- For the gentle wind does move,
- Silently, invisibly.
- I told my love, I told my love,
- I told her all my heart;
- Trembling, cold, in ghastly fears,
- Ah! she doth depart.
- Soon as she was gone from me,
- A traveller came by,
- Silently, invisibly;
- He took her with a sigh.
But there is nothing more I can say with any certainty. It is a puzzling event on the edge of awareness, a tale belonging to the night.