Dead, Shed Moments

Michael now took to science and would engage with any of the teachers in religious, philosophic, and logical discussions; his long years of fanciful reasoning had given him an agility in argument; he found himself in his words, the schoolmen’s world, the world of pure verbalism. In Botany, once, having drawn thirty diagrams of the stages of union of two cells of the gutterweed, Spirogyra, which is thin and long like a green hair, a kind of frenzy took hold of him. He looked through the microscope and saw that not only was the series, taken as a series of poses, like a cinematograph, infinite, but that even wit all his care and preoccupation he could not seize the important moment of change. It was not there, it seemed to him mystic. When he saw a person going downstairs and compared the last appearance of that one’s head with the empty space when he was no longer there, the change seemed to him infinitely great, even impossible, a freak that could not take place in the natural world in which he breathed. In his imagination a thing was, and then disappeared, dark remained, and in between was a space of dreams, of nonentity. He held up his mind, a cracked and yellow mirror to reflect the machinery of the world, and in that dark space the world ceased for a moment to exist.

But at these times especially, he would fall back against his seat or lean on his elbow looking out of the window at the trees, and powerful visions would pass through his head; he laboured automatically to increase and perfect these visions, to make them logical, grandiose. He believed in intellectual miracles. He suffered states which were ecstasy, although they were not joyful but rapt and inhuman. In those moments he gave out cold as a genial person gives out warmth and love. …

“I see no will or obedience in anything,” he said, “only the abrupt, spontaneous will and generation; to a certain point water is water, then it is steam or ice, there is no slow change, as I used to think, it is abrupt, and it is mystery. How blunt our senses are, how many thick veils hang between us and the world. How will we ever refine our eyes to see atoms and our ears to hear the messages of ants? … I wish to watch the ordinary movement of life and I see only a succession of dead, shed moments without interrelation: like a man walking through a hall of mirrors and seeing a thousand reflections of himself on every side, each one a shell of himself, and insubstantial. Time, tide, order, I cannot understand; I would go mad.”

Christina Stead, Seven Poor Men of Sydney