Not that I’m a great fan of epiphanies or anything. I’ve read of other people having them though. James Joyce, for example, made them must-have experiences for writers, who have been tiresomely talking about them ever since. Perhaps I’m more interested in epiphanies as breakdowns. Not, I hasten to add, in a nihilistic Sweeney Todd sense, but maybe there have been moments in your life when you realised – I’m guessing – that True Love didn’t exist and you understood that you were going to have to invent something a whole lot better.
Or perhaps it was the moment after Copenhagen when you understood that the combined leaders of the world were going to do precisely 100 percent of sweet nothing about climate change. Or maybe it was just that moment when someone you loved died and you understood that they weren’t coming back, no matter what. And so on.
Anyhow, not long after my last birthday, I went down to Nimbin for the Sunday markets, markets I love because of the surprising books I have picked up there. Every month Nimbin sprouts a huge variety of tiny illegal street stalls that spill over the worn, disordered footpaths on both sides of the main street and continue down to the ‘official’ market in the grounds of the community centre. The stalls snake haphazardly around trees and there is a smell of coffee, and tobacco and dope smoke. On a stage under a camphor laurel tree, there’ll be a harpist accompanying someone monotonously reciting a very bad poem. On this wintry Sunday, everything was sleepy as though emerging from a vague early morning dream. People nodded absently to each other. I went looking for books.
Parked in the middle of the ramshackle trail of stalls, in the deep shade of a fig tree was an old Toyota LiteAce van, doors wide open, from which spilled piles of ancient suitcases, all laid out on the grass looking like the discarded luggage of wartime evacuees. Their open mouths held a strange and chaotic variety of objects: pulp-paper 1950s booklets on 1950s scouting, threadbare hand-embroidered tablecloths, a doll with a porcelain head and papery Edwardian clothes, a pair of alligator-skin boots hazed with scratches, books thrown about randomly, and scattered rags of antique clothing and collections of teaspoons and barbed-wire.
My eyes lit on a battered hardback copy of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, Thompson’s account of his pursuit of the thuggish Richard Nixon. On the book’s yellowing flyleaf, filling half the page was a scribbled signature gouged across the paper like the signature of a witch written with barbed wire dipped in muddy water. And the date, 1974.
The suitcase vendor sat in the doorway of his van wearing a grey water-stained trilby and picking his teeth with a matchstick. He eyed me speculatively from beneath his hat. Behind him placed with religious care in the van’s interior were more objects for sale: a scarred walking stick with a brass animal’s head, a rare John Coltrane LP, a dusty crystal ball.
‘How much are the books?’ I said.
‘Depends. From one dollar to one thousand dollars.’
When I looked up at him he said, knowing I was about to ask, ‘The Hunter S. Thompson. He signed it for me in Sydney in 1974.’
It was a weird moment, being asked to pay a grand for a book signed by a celebrity suicide, but as I stepped out of the shade and turned and glanced back at the little van and its circle of suitcase-middens, something strange and momentary and unsettling seemed to shake the air, and the line between me and the remnant of the disordered past. I remembered reading Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas when I was seventeen or eighteen and took quite a lot of drugs. The first few sentences, as a red convertible speeds out of the Nevada desert with a bootful of drugs and a deranged Thompson shrieking at bats, were like a sudden vision of Hell, a vortex of paranoia and hallucination feeding back through itself in the heat and the dust as the glittering city of Vegas begins to mirage on the horizon.
‘All of us, I suppose,’ wrote Aldous Huxley in Grey Eminence, his strange book about the horror that religious epiphany can visit on the world, ‘have woken up all of a sudden from the sleep of everyday living into momentary awareness of the nature of ourselves and our surroundings … suddenly to realise that one is sitting damned among the damned.’ And in the tone of a man chilled to the heart he adds, ‘It’s most disquieting’.
In the middle of the Nimbin market amid the Sunday morning buzz of the winter sun, looking at that little van and its piles of suitcases, I was struck by the feeling that I was living through a kind of aftermath of an apocalypse. A time where we trade in terminally ruptured meaning, in broken objects of memory and desire, a few people flogging off the leavings of whatever it is that comprises daily life, each item loaded with some kind of unmeasurable significance – the porcelain doll, the reptile-skinned boots, the weird curios, the book with its gouged signature of an American celebrity suicide telling of unimaginable times and places long gone and nearly uninterpretable, like folktales from a culture of dreams and night terrors.
After all, if two World Wars, the Holocaust, the genocides of Rwanda, Armenia and Cambodia, irreversible global environmental destruction, species extinction, Stalin’s Gulags, global warming, the starvation and murderous wars of central Africa, the pan-continental annihilation of indigenous cultures, an AIDS pandemic, the graves of Srebrenica and Halabja, the destruction of the Tibetans and the Palestinians and a major nuclear accident in Europe don’t constitute an apocalypse, what does?
Whatever else the twentieth century did in its apocalyptic convulsions, it also destroyed the idea that we were free from barbarism and created the vision of barbarisms so thorough and sophisticated, so pervasive and unending and demonic, that they make the Thirty Years War look like the efforts of amateurs. In the cataclysmic beginning of the 21st century, on September 11 2001, it seemed to me as if linear time started to acquire all kinds of slippages and elisions, as though this could be the Year 200 000 or the Middle Ages.
Anyway, I was so weirded out that I went home, bookless.
When I stand and look across the valley below my house, resting for a moment from both the distraction and absorption of whatever work it is I might be doing, I am gazing at the Nimbin Rocks – spectacular in their setting, humble in their immense age – where the local Widjyabal people used to bury their Clever Men.
At sunset each day, the rocks blaze for a few seconds with a roseate light that is almost too bright to look at, even as the Rocks themselves cast long dense shadows across the valley and the light lies horizontally across the sky. The balance of light and shadow suspended, the massive silhouette of the Rocks, the bowl of the valley with its odd distinct twist, skews the perspective so that it seems as though I am simultaneously both gazing down on the landscape from a great height and across its width. It is like looking out from the corner of a William Robinson painting.
The Rocks are as if suspended in the Dreamtime and something unimaginable and impenetrable still clings to them, as though they are cloaked and cannot really be seen in their entirety. It is an odd feeling to gaze at them and still have the sense that you cannot see them. Whatever it could be that makes Dreamtime sacred has become so occluded with visions of horror that even if it were now revealed nakedly before us, we would be in no more condition to respond to it than Hunter S. Thompson besieged by a headful of bats and visions of the truth.