Monday, October 20, 2008

The Curtained Wall

I've been back in New Zealand for less than thirty-six hours and already the trip back home seems buried in the distant past. Am I the only person to be struck by amnesia after a long-haul flight? I understand how a sudden change of routine - such as when one leaves work and abode to go on vacation - can have such effects on the psyche, and it stands to reason that travelling halfway around the world in such a (relatively) short space of time should make it a lot more so. And yet, whilst I'm always prepared for this occurrence, I'm also always surprised by its intensity, when all is said and flown.

It's impossible to look outside the window at the landmass and the clouds and the oceans so ludicrously far below, or to gaze at the nausea-inducing screen with the plane's trajectory and the mindless stats (it's minus forty degrees outside, you say?) without getting a fairly vivid sense of how surreal the experience is. And perhaps it's that very surreality, the sense of being without time and place, that focuses the mind so urgently on the now, at the expense of yesterday's experience. Even just the task of conceptualising why you're having breakfast for the third time today (whatever today might mean at this point) must engage quite a few brain cells. And then there are the lack of oxygen, the artificial night of drawn curtains enforced with polite severity by the crew, the procession of identical meals with the frozen fruit salads, and the films, ah, always the films... this month the line-up on Singapore Airlines included Groundhog Day, I trust it was chosen by the airline's irony department. And I'm sure it's all designed to help you cope, but there's always a point when it starts to unravel and you feel like a character in a Philip Dick novel. This time for me the cake was taken by our room in the transit hotel at Singapore airport, 'where people go to crash (in the good sense)'. Take a look at the far wall.

Unremarkable, you say? Yes, but allow me to pull the curtain:

It was all a gentle ruse, a simulation, a wall posing as a window that of course couldn't be there, and even if it could, what would you need it for, since you're there to sleep as hard and as fast as you can between flights? Meanwhile, isn't the airport too a simulation of anywhere, a place without culture, with the same procession of Tie Rack and BVLGARI and (overpriced) Duty Free shops you would encounter in identical airports around the world? And yet you do meander and sample the wares, if only to keep the circulation going in your automaton-like body, soon to be strapped onto another cramped seat for twelve more hours of jet-propelled fun.

I shouldn't complain, I really shouldn't, seeing as it is this extraordinary machinery of enterprise and steel that allows me to lead two more or less simultaneous lives at the antipodes, instead of having to choose one place or the other - a situation that has no historical precedent before my parents' generation. But that particular rite of travel, with its mind-warping and amnesia-inducing effects, is also a reminder that the geographical distance that we cover at fantastic speeds is oh so very real, that there is a whole world betwixt, and there is no fooling the mind that it might be otherwise. Curtain or no curtain.


harvestbird said...

As the traveller's mouth extends to breakfast again and again,
so the flying boxcar rounds the horizon,
shunting daylight before it:
Thus the world is round.

As the weight of the traveller's body secures the transit bed,
so the blind wall maintains the hotel ceiling,
nothing to be seen and no eyes to see it:
Thus the world is flat.

Anonymous said...

Part of the worry here - apart from obvious fears about what the Hollis corporation has planned - is surely to do with how memory and projects of memory construction demand spatial organisation too? D

"Prior forms, he reflected, must carry on an invisible, residual life in every object. The past is latent, is sumberged, but still there, capable of rising to the surface once the later imprinting unfortunatetly - and against ordinary experience - vanished. The man contains - not the boy - but earier men, he thought. History began a long time ago."

Philip K Dick, Ubick (Vintage, 1969), p. 132.

Grunt said...

I believe that flying home (in your case, New Zealand) is much harder than flying away.

On your initial flight you look forward to the change, to the new, to the people you will visit and the places you will see. Your mind is distracted from the little things like comfort and quality entertainment and the like.

On the way back you are only looking forward to being home. And you want to be home as soon as possible. And nothing can distract you from wanting to be home.

Going home makes flying all the more surreal. It takes it from being an exciting voyage to voluntary imprisonment.

Giovanni said...

Part of the worry here - apart from obvious fears about what the Hollis corporation has planned - is surely to do with how memory and projects of memory construction demand spatial organisation too?

Yes, although then one would have to ask, what are we being asked to remember? what it was like back on earth? Isn't that a straightforwardly numbing, dulling effect that the architects of airports and airport lounges and airport hotels are after? 'Pay no attention to the wall behind the curtain', that's the message I got. And that's the horrific in the standard PKD scenario, for the simulation is meant to help you sleep - and if you succumb to that, in his stories, your self generally dies.

But there is also a flip side in his work that nobody really gives him credit for, and it is how comfortable he was with the idea that memory and therefore identity could be interfered with in all manners of creative ways. He was much more of an optimist that a pessimist, really. Had he been part of this discussion, he might have asked: if you spent long enough on a plane full of people, would your minds start to interconnect? And it wouldn't have to be all bad.

Anonymous said...

Exactly, and that's what makes "Ubik" so much more than just an exercise in paranoia: Joe starts in despair this side of the curtained wall, so to speak, and it's only once they're in the half-life (or wherever they actually are in the end) that the different talents start to cooperate and reform.

Taramoc said...

What I cannot avoid thinking looking at the picture is what was going through the mind of the architect/designer when they came up with it.

Is it, like you said, giving illusion of a window? Why don't put a big photograph of some beautiful panorama. To me looks a lot like the curtains between the first class and the economy in a plane. Maybe the intent was to fool the occupants into thinking they are still on the plane.

Also, if the curtain is an illusion, what about the mirror next to it? Is it two way? Is someone spying on you to record your sleeping habits? Or simply it's the other side of a similar room, behind another empty wall and curtain. In that case, someone suggested window is really someone else's mirror. I'm going to stop now, before I drown in a sea of metaphors...

Giovanni said...

The function of the mirror ought to be "make the room look bigger", although sleep deprivation leads to paranoia so perhaps that isn't so wise either.

If you look at the reflected image in the photo, though, on the right you can see a floor-to-ceiling window with the blind pulled almost all the way up: that's a window onto the bathroom, and its function is rather more baffling.

I believe that flying home (in your case, New Zealand) is much harder than flying away.

I must say that the trip to Italy was actually harder, but that was due to Joseph's lack of sleep developing into a full-blown delirium for about an hour on the second leg of the flight. That was kind of scary, but fortunately he has no recollection of it whatsoever.

I've heard people claim, including a steward, that it's easier to fly eastward, in the same sense as the rotation of the earth. I can't say I've experienced it myself, but that's the word on the tarmac.

Anonymous said...

The blog is so-so, but the poems are great.

Giovanni said...

I couldn't possibly agree more.