There is a man standing in the middle of the desert, and his teeth are chattering.
Two things tell me that he is in the middle of the desert. Firstly there are dunes on all sides, similar to the one that he appears to be standing on top of; a marbled panorama of sun slopes and shadow faces and elegantly coruscating peaks, the whole scene feathering endlessly outward towards the horizon. This is the first thing.
Secondly, the man’s clothes – ragged strips of what was once a white shirt trussed about his shoulders, khaki trousers hanging in ribbons around his ankles, everything stained with dust and sweat. No shoes. Unshaven, of course – cheeks hollow behind a rough beard. Face and forearms burned to the point of looking almost scaly, as though he were only half human, half returned to some slithering desert animal. His wild eyes kaleidoscopic, and his teeth chattering, the hollow clatter of bone on bone echoing in the heat haze.
This man has been appearing to me for weeks in what I warily refer to as visions. There has been nothing sudden about his appearances: there have been no spilled coffees or embarrassing screams; I’ve not glanced in any mirrors and found myself looking instead into those spiralling eyes. It’s more a transmission than a visitation, something I can tune into at will on quiet tube journeys; as though he is there waiting, and always will be.
The more time that passes, the more convinced I become that this man has no history; that there was no plane crash or prison escape, no archaeological expedition from which he became separated. I doubt that he belongs to any nation or century, and were I capable of looking down to inspect the sand around him, I doubt I would find any footprints leading to this place.
I have begun to think that the man is instead a symbol of what it is to glimpse something so enormous and absolute that it renders the human body a broken vessel, the functions of sight and speech redundant, the world in which we once lived an endless plain, beautiful and terrible and ultimately uninhabitable. Perhaps he is a warning against accidentally unlocking a part of our unconscious minds capable of understanding that which we call the universe: to go from flippantly meditating on the scale of the cosmos to tripping a switch in the brain and suddenly seeing the whole thing in parallax: the nebulous star factories and the spiralling arms of pulsars stretching light years into space, the twisted forms of galaxies colliding, innumerable worlds simultaneously being and not being, countless civilisations raised and returned to dust.
Perhaps the man symbolises what it is to leave behind notions of time and space, the tinnitus whine of a few centuries of superstition and religion, and to momentarily stare at the whole thing in an awful ellipse of simultaneity. I think of Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett, of a description I once read of those early days in which he and his friends would sit in their London flat tripping on LSD, each moving closer to a vision of the universe unravelling, the star heart of the whole thing beckoning them inwards until one by one they would shake themselves free and claw their way back to what they had previously known as reality. Except Syd, who would be smiling and weeping, eyes still closed, skinny limbs sprawled awkwardly as the infinite part of his mind unlocked and he floored the controls into the flowering heart of the sun.
Syd who ended up a broken man, his brain ‘fried’, as the papers like to put it, locking away his adult life in his mother’s house in his hometown. Looking like a ghost in those few pictures snapped on the grey streets of Cambridge, his bicycle with a basket, his once wild eyes seemingly empty.
A warning then, but a warning applicable to the human world only – a world measured in minutes and described in diaries; a world in which a car can be referred to as ‘big’ or ‘small’, where the sun appears to sink and then rise behind the horizon. In the grander narrative of star factories and spiralling galaxies, such warnings are presumably just more white noise drifting into the ether along with Hitler’s speeches and NASA’s proclamations of peace; in such a world perhaps it makes mathematical sense to sacrifice the faculties of speech and sight to stare momentarily into the spinning eye of the universe. But this is not the world we live in.
Our lives follow an emotional trajectory. We carry with us the memories of the people we love until we ourselves are just memories in the minds of others. We stare at the undulating grey sea and picture ourselves as children; we look up at the stars and smile, then look away. We embrace our friends warmly, shake the frail hands of our fathers for longer than we need to. We watch Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler and weep, believing that we have seen a man encapsulate the human experience on screen. Perhaps we have.
As someone only marginally less sceptical of science and sense perception than religious dogma, I’ve long believed that the only promise of an afterlife I desire is an assurance that all this will go on long after I’m gone. Yet more recently I’ve been cradling a small flicker of hope that we might, in the moment of our death, be granted a single, totalising glimpse of the universe in its entirety, shedding the shackles of emotional consciousness and understanding existence in ways that cannot be put into words. By that point there will be no more diaries to keep, no more dinner parties to attend, no further need for the faculties of speech or sight. The man in the desert will no longer be a vagrant, no longer a fugitive from society; against my better judgement I indulge the image of him smiling, his eyes no longer wild, teeth no longer chattering, the sands around him no longer hostile or barren, but blossoming with the beauty of everything that lies above and beyond and within them, all of which is his, all of which may one day be ours.