An Introduction to Fortress Longing
The interior campaign for the safe and complete return of the Sleeping Egyptian
Originally published as a podcast episode of Thomas Bailey’s Belsona Podcast, Sept 12th 2009
Click here for full recording
Fortress Longing is a direct response to my profound, obsessive anxiety regarding aging and death. Particularly my own aging and death.
For the duration of my conscious mind I have been unable to move beyond the wall of sadness. There is a seemingly impermeable indignity that repels all objective investigation of the event – the terror that defines the meagre limitations of my time.
During the spring of 2009, however, there came a breakthrough in this most stagnant of emotional sieges. I was in London. I walked in to the British Museum. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular. Just something of note, something of beauty. A distraction or a surprise.
I came upon the Egyptian rooms. These people seemed to share my own hysteria at the very idea of death. They developed profound strategies for avoiding decay and applied it seemingly with gleeful abandon to all living things. Owls, pigeons, cats and dogs. All were treated to their intensive, laborious, love filled process of preservation, embalming, mummification.
I found myself developing a curious sketch of kinship with these distant dreamers and their pictograms, hieroglyphs, and their obsession with preserving life. I sensed a real defiance in their refusal to accept the natural and inevitable process of death and decay.
There is, in one of the rooms, a predynastic body – 5,000 years old. He lies on his side, knees pulled up. Sleeping like a baby, surrounded in his desert cot by pots and charms. Little baby toys.
Here are the things that I made. Here are the things that I continue to love in the eons after my own passing. Where is my blanket of sand? Mother?
The first thought upon seeing him, curled but exposed to us all, is “Oh, baby”.
Every parent knows the surge of emotion that arises at the spectacle of a child in discomfort. It was that feeling.
More curious, however, was that I sensed for the first time in my life a vague sense of consolation and readiness to receive death.
Where the whole western tradition of coffins and prayers, ashes to ashes and the life everlasting had left me at best cold, at worst indignant, insulted, bitter, alienated and raging, this simple scene, encased in glass, on the floor of the British Museum resonated deep, true and inexplicable.
At the end of life you curl up like a little baby and return to the earth, surrounded by the simple things you loved and made, the product of your little life here.
It suggests the full cycle. It makes no promise. It is potent, and it is, somehow, a comfort.
Of course, the only thing that was wrong with the whole scene is that he was here, in the British Museum. So far from home. A numbered artefact, plundered by the Empire in the last hours of a 5,000 year sleep.
Now, here I sit weeping in the window of a rainy café in Edinburgh. I hereby commit myself to the INTERNAL CAMPAIGN FOR THE SAFE AND COMPLETE RETURN OF THE SLEEPING EGYPTIAN TO THE DESERT
A rainy café in Edinburgh in the autumn is no place to forge an assault on death itself. You need to go to Spain for that.
I m a 43 year old man approaching a Spanish hotel. The day has been measured in portions by trained hostesses. I have the source texts for Fortress Longing in my pocket. When I get to Lorca’s room I will summon all of my talent to devise a sound so great as to chase death itself from the shadows
Image of barefoot Indians hitting pots and shaking strings of cans to flush the big game out og the forest
My noise will chase death into a clearing from where he can be held to account.
The Sleeping Egyptian is stirring in his case. Bernardette, too, deep in the vaults of Masiabelle is beginning to warm beneath the wax that preserves her virgin skin.
In Lorca’s room I spread the texts around the desk and floor, summon the sources of inspiration and try to make them harmonize…
Here is the photograph of the sleeping Egyptian – looking, unfortunately, just like how you would expect a 5,000 year old corpse to look – grotesque,
Here is Leonard Cohen weeping backstage in Jerusalem in 1972, blown away by the sudden communion of voice and song and audience.
Here is the score for Arvo Part’s Summa. A piece specifically designed to suggest eternity.
Here are a series of playing cards. Elvis photographs on the back. On the front, in thick black pen scored over the cards are the chords for Fortress Longing. F#M is written on the six of spades, D is written on the three of hearts
Here is a silkscreen print of an emperor moth. The lifecycle of the emperor moth comprises a period of youthful consumption, followed by a reflective period of encased pupaic solitude. When the moth breaks the husk of its cocoon and dries its rice paper wings, it has but a moment of wonder at its own beauty before the realisation emerges that this beautiful form comes without a mouth. Without a mouth, the moth has only a brief opportunity to seek a mate and procreate before dying of starvation.
Here is a photograph I took of the bath house in Auschwitz showing the paintings the prisoners drew of young boys riding horses through waves. This hit harder than the hills of shoes and spectacles, the hair and the accounting chitties.
Here are Cage’s instructions for preparing a piano.
The only bad thing in the room is the mirror. It shows a charlatan. Now in middle age but still keening out for opportunity and a name to adopt. Another reason for volume to enter into the brief. Another demon to chase from the woods with your tin cans, canes and screaming.
Same as it ever was. Everything an alibi, a strategy, a scheme, until you get to the desperate end of your rope delineated by the limitations of your talent/ Only there, dangling by a perishing thread. There, with only your fear of death and your dismal, hopeless sincere prayer for salvation does the pure voice come – does the pure sound come. The only fragments that remain true through the years and ring true like work are the impressions captured on paper and tape in these desperate moments.
Later, in the Spanish hotel. Greasy fingers from iberica ham. Mind consoled with cruzcampo.
I write on the wall of the room the full list of contents of the fold down table from my airplane seat – transcribing from the original notebook:
The Wire – Sept 2009 issue
J.G. Ballard’s Atrrocity Exhibition
This notebook (altered to This Wall)
Spectacles case from Madrid
Empty mini bottle of Merlot.
Full mini bottle of Merlot.
Plastic cup, half full of Merlot.
I stand bck to look at the list on the wall, but my attention keeps drifting up to the dusty Analucian mountains.
I write on the naked back of an unknown girl swimming in a dream of young men.
“D” and, lower down in the cup of her spine, “F#m”
Looking at the picture of the emperor moth, I whisper “Are my wings open, mother? Do I have a mouth – and will I live?”
“Hola, guapa” The voice of death rustles like the evening wind in the plane trees.
I lift a woman into the branches, smell her in the passing. Her body lotion working hard to keep her sweat sweet. “Me allegra”
I phone my wife and speak to my sons. I feel myters boil my eyes. I suddenly want to be home. I need to do push ups. I did not come all this way to become distracted by daydreams and longing.
The dogs are barking in the dusty foundations of a hotel that will never be built. I close my eyes and contact the Sleeping Egyptian, taking careful note of the sounds that accompany the process. I am looking to rub death out. Yet I am looking for some kind of peace with death. The dichotomy is robust, the paradox near complete, It is, therefore, a true work of art.
There is a guidebook to Andalucia provided by the hotel. I look up the Lorca Poets Path tour. They have a picture of an olive tree and a line about it being the tree where Lorca died, now marked with a commemorative stone. They wash over the details of Franco’s thugs shooting him in the balls and leaving him to writhe for a while before killing him and dumping him in a ditch along with all the other little souls. They tell me some of the rural police stations round here still hang pictures of Franco on the wall.
All his life, Lorca confronted death in his work. It was part of his tradition and heritage. His work foretold a violent death. They say that this haunting presence of death informs and elevates all good love poetry.
Close your eyes
Think of death
There’s nothing left for you to do
Maybe hold this girl the whole night through
And hide from death in that darkness
As sweet morning gives to noon
You stir her fragrance from the bed
To lie among the dead
Is all you want to do
Your life is this speeding blur as you hide from death and you hide from life
Be brave, Pilgrim
Take notes, little heart
Books rain down. The hugs from your sons and the tight embrace of your wife curl about your grateful heart like an anaconda
Come on, Breathe Love