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.

Nimbin Rocks

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.

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  1. I’ll go first.
    What makes the dreamtime special for me, is the same as it is for Hunter S.: a headful of bats and visions of the truth.

  2. Epiphany is paying witness our own part in the apocalypse. No wonder we feel La Nausée, panning and zooming in and out of these perspectives…
    Kinetosis, sea sick, adrift, we are no more looking out from the corner of a painting than we are acting on a stage. Where life mimics art is does so forgetting that all these feeble gestures clutch at is just another gauzy veil.

    1. Ta for this. There could easily be a whole lot weird ontological discussion resulting from this post – ‘weird’ in the sense of hard to grasp. I don’t really know what epiphany is, I just think we get a glimpse when things fall apart of something other. it’s not that I think that there’s some kind of irreducible reality lurking behind this one, of which this is only a transient veil etc etc, but that wherever we are now is stranger than we have thought. And I don’t mean in a Fringe/X-Files kind of way.

      1. No worries Stephen. I often wonder whether ontologies aren’t a bit like ‘temperaments’, so often do I find myself at the mercy of the idea of the noumenal, something that I keep returning to ‘like a dog’.

        I am inclined to think that epiphanies expose the profound strangeness of our lives; momentarily rubbing at the friable veneer of meaning, purpose, and order. Perhaps I am merely exposing another consititional predisposition?

        1. yes definitely – whatever epiphanies are, they expose ruptures in the familiar, revealing our lives to be, as you say, profoundly strange. Perhaps you are exposing something constitutional, or perhaps something contingent. I’m not sure about where to find the noumenal. The closer I look, the lass there is of it. Practically nothing in fact.

  3. Mr Nut
    It’s an interesting question isn’t it, because it is pretty much impossible to answer. To the local Koori population the Rocks are extremely important in ways it’s difficult to qualify without using somewhat weaselly words like ‘sacred’ and so forth. As you say, ‘a headful of bats and visions of the truth’ may be as close as we get, in the sense that quotidian reality is all we have. And that reality very often is full of bats, visions et al.For the Bundjalung people, the significance of the Rocks, still apparently guarded by the Nmbinjie spirit, was a mundane thing. It’s just the way the world was/is. I look at the Rocks every single day, the first thing I see as I exit my bedroom, and every day I still feel as though I’m setting foot on a strange planet, the language of which I could never learn, not if I lived to be 650.

  4. I don’t need an epiphany to tell me that this is a beautifully written piece, Stephen, thank you.

    Very old places know stuff and shrug off people and people’s people-made calamities – my experience of the Macdonnell Ranges at Alice, certainly.

    Long ago in a very different headspace, a friend and I read Fear and Loathing out loud to one another … fearing and loathing it, between guffaws.

  5. Hi Clare: I still grapple with the idea of place and why it can be so powerful. I am a fairly dis-located person myself and Nimbin is about as close to anything I will ever call home. But there’s something about natural spaces in themselves, and natural places that have been thought about by others that can be very disturbing in an epiphanic ‘I don’t understand what the hell is going on here’ way. Living smack in from of what is still an important Koori sacred site is somewhat confronting at the best of times. The Rocks are on private land – some on another commune – and care of them is pretty much under the direction of the local Bundjalung people who prefer nobody to go there. But I wouldn’t go up there for quids.
    Thompson is an interesting writer. I mentioned him in my last post too, partly because, like John Lennon, he was roughly the same age as my father and I was reading ‘Kingdom of Fear’ around the time my father kicked it. ‘Kingdom’ has some fantastic and hilarious writing in it, particularly polemics against the Bush regime, and also the most boring anecdotes of self-praise. He reads like a man on the edge of a breakdown, which of course, he turned out to be.

  6. Hi Steven,

    Here is a poem that came to mind, from one of my books:

    the feral woman

    i rest among rocks and boulders
    i breathe to their rhythm

    gradually they reveal themselves to me
    premordial women and their children

    i look at my son among them and laugh

    i swim in a creek with turtles
    feel a sense of homecoming
    the kangaroos and wallabies keep me company
    as if we have always known each other

    and i
    the feral woman
    am back

  7. Hi Stephen, I’ve just noticed I’d misspelt your name yesterday. Apologies. I also don’t know if it is clear that the poem came to my mind, because it had been inspired by what I had experienced as an epiphany…

  8. Steve, I have a question. You seem to seek out, find, create, value etc strangeness and weirdness. Your attitude to the horrors of the twentieth century, however, seems to be ambivalent. At times they are weird and strange and at other times they occlude strangeness, perhaps because their horrors are all too real and naked. Could it be that you do not unconditionally accept weirdness? The twentieth century was very weird but but also bad. The suffering is not acceptable. Then when you turn to the rocks you don’t find them weird enough unless you invest them with some redemptive power. I don’t see how this enchantment of the world can possibly be revealed nakedly before us.

  9. Mr Nut
    Thank you for this excellent opportunity for discussion. If I accepted weirdness unconditionally then it wouldn’t be weird. The Rocks are always too weird, even as I look at them now from my window, for me to think about successfully. I don’t think they have redemptive power. The Rocks are defined as ‘sacred’ by the local Bundjalung people. I don’t know what that means, and I have no way of knowing. But even if that weirdness could be revealed somehow, we still couldn’t understand it because of……well, because of a whole load of perspectives to complicated to talk about here. From my personal viewpoint, now, the Rocks look unimaginable even though I can see them before me. If that makes sense.

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