This is the first half of the preface to Alchemy of Revolution, a hybrid that mixes the genres of memoir and philosophical treatise. What emerges between memories spanning from the Carnival against Capitalism in 1999 to the Occupy movements in 2011-2012 is a story of revolution that begins from a transformation of the self and leads outward to a re-definition of community. The primary inspiration for the book is Raoul Vaneigem’s Revolution of Everyday Life, which is re-read and re-assembled through a prism of the heretics of philosophy (Spinoza, Nietzsche and Deleuze), antipsychiatry (Jung, Reich, R.D. Laing), and different esoteric traditions.
During all the years we were together and apart, separated by distance or circumstance, thinking of you always evoked in me the singular memory of the day we met. Perhaps because it was a memory that wasn’t just a memory. Whenever I recalled its details I didn’t feel transported into an actual day that belonged to the past but into the feeling of the encounter, which has remained with me as an enduring presence beyond the flow of space and time.
The first time I saw you, it was through the lens of my camera. I had arrived at Liverpool Station at noon. There must have been more than 10,000 people, the concourse and surrounding streets were packed tightly with colorful bodies. Fairies with pink dresses, punks with mohawks, red-haired nymphs wearing golden bras and straw skirts, metropolitan indians with long dreadlocks, drummers with white cocktail gloves and a samba band dressed in green and yellow and purple. It was impossible not to touch the crowd, our sense of space had dissolved in the nearly unbearable proximity. As I walked outside the concourse, the sound of rhythmic booming was still vibrating in the air, even without amplifiers. In the open square, people were climbing up the walls of buildings and street lamps, to hang banners. One of the banners read: “Revolution is the only option.”
I was given a green mask and I started marching with my group through a city I didn’t know on streets whose names I can’t remember. Despite the 8000 masks that were distributed, which were supposed to create a sense of connectedness in the midst of anonymity, almost no one was wearing them. Some people had placed the masks on top of their heads, like baseball caps, fully exposing their faces. It was as if we wanted to encounter each other without artifice, and to glimpse the universal as it revealed itself in our individual expressions. Our group was following a bicycle-powered human butterfly flapping its transparent wings against the sun. We walked past a McDonalds, where there was a spontaneous jam of what sounded like ancient Celtic music. A guy with long black hair was playing a 4-foot flute-shaped instrument that resembled nothing I had ever seen before, two other men were strumming violins, and a nearby crowd had joined in with drums. Just ahead of me I saw a wooden placard with the words “Naked Protest” and a group of 5 men dancing stark naked, except for their shoes. One of them was singing, but it sounded more like a creature howling at the moon. At the intersection in front of us, a tourist bus had come to a standstill, blocked by the sea of bodies. A naked protestor climbed up the side of the bus and handed out pamphlets to the tourists in the open topside, who stared back in disbelief.
As we approached the heart of the city, past the archaic London wall, on our way to a final destination which most of us didn’t know, I saw riot police on horseback coming up the smaller side streets. I parted from the crowd to film a surreal scene unfolding in a cul-de-sac that opened up from several narrow alleys. Everything seemed to move in slow motion through the shutter of my 8mm camera. It was a hallucinatory landscape that recalled another time and place, when medieval armies would advance against each other in the field of battle. The police and protestors approached with the speed of turtles and stopped a few feet away from each other, as if there was an invisible line that could not be crossed. And then I saw you break that line as you took a step forward to touch the horse in front of you. The animal was snorting and stomping, obviously agitated by the presence of the crowd. You placed your hand on its head and leaned your forehead against its nose, as if you were trying to communicate in a telepathic language of the heart. I heard you speak, although you didn’t move your lips. You said: We stand as equals, eye to eye. The master that sits on your back also straddles our own bodies. Mute and unmoved, he cannot understand that our magic lies in the power of life itself. The image affected me profoundly; in it I saw the abstraction of power unmasked and witnessed a bond that transcended even the differences among species. The vision produced a strange sensation in me, as if when you touched the horse I could feel your hand against my own face. Not in the sense of solid matter against solid matter, but as two ghosts passing through each other’s immaterial bodies might feel the subtle vibrations of air moving through space.
I put my camera away and pushed forward through the mass of bodies, making my way up to the front of the line. I came up beside you and placed my hand alongside yours on the horse. You raised your head and looked at me in surprise. I tried to explain how deeply the scene had moved me, but I remember the words all came out wrong. But as you nodded, I felt you understood what I wanted to say despite my incoherence, which was the incoherence of language itself. Suddenly, a woman to my left also moved forward and touched the horse of the next policeman. And then the whole line of battle took a step forward, as if the invisible boundary had collapsed in an instant. The police began to retreat, slowly, as plastic objects and bottles began flying all around them.
After a moment that seemed to bridge an infinity, we began to walk together in silence, slowly rejoining the larger crowd. We passed an old gray building, on which someone had spray-painted “Live without dead time.” When you saw me smile in recognition of a secret language belonging to an unfinished revolution, you whispered the missing half, “Enjoy without restraints.” We approached the bank of the river Thames, where it looked like a fire hydrant had been opened or someone had broken through an underground pipe. A fountain of water danced 30 feet up in the air. People were laughing and shouting that the river had been liberated. The sunlight was streaming through jets of water, like a rainbow glimpsed through a kaleidescope. I saw a man standing motionless in the middle of the downpour, naked from the waist up, his shaved head bent down, his eyes closed in a trance, arms outstretched, palms turned upward to the sky. It was the second enchanted image I filmed that day. You asked me what I found so interesting. I said, here is an embodiment of the words scribbled on the wall, he has conquered the tyranny of time and is living the joy of the moment, feeling the warmth of the sun on his back, the cold trickle of water on his face, the sounds of the crowd vibrating all around him. And the merchants staring from shop windows with disapproval, the businessmen looking down from the heights of their office towers, they are disconnected from everything that lives, like automatons guided by mechanical hands on the clockface of death. Unlike them, he has no thoughts of the alarm that will ring the next morning, of the drudgery of work, of the vacant stares of people huddled together on the tube during rush-hour. It is only when the ticking of clocks stops that time comes to life.
After leaving the downpour of the liberated river, we walked to a nearby park and lay in the grass to dry off. We ate all the fruit in my backpack and drank the last of your water. When the sun began to set, we followed the crowd to Trafalgar Square. There was a truck with a huge sound system blasting techno and hundreds of people were dancing with wild abandon. In the middle of the square there was a large fountain with two tiers. A crowd had climbed in and was splashing haphazardly in the bottom half, and in the top half 6 people in various stages of undress were dancing rhythmically in a circle. It was the last image I filmed. When the film ran out, we took off our clothes and climbed in the fountain to join the dancers. You kissed me as as the last rays of light disappeared and dusk settled over the square.
The most striking thing I remember about that day is that we didn’t feel the need to speak about each other, to present our birthplaces, histories, family dramas, or ideologies. We didn’t engage in the small talk or big talk that people usually make when they first meet, in order to impress each other out of a need for approval, or to decipher each other under the microscope of judgment. It was as if we felt that we knew all there was to know about each other in those brief moments of poetry that broke through the muteness of everyday speech. And the knowledge that possessed us was more intimate than anything we could have revealed by reciting our life histories. A clandestine truth had transpired in the brief lines we spoke to each other and through the glances and touches we shared. Making love that night felt like a continuation of the ecstatic communication we had already experienced throughout the day. I had felt the same abandon when I dissolved into the crowd, when I watched the dancers in the fountain, when you touched my hand and whispered in my ear. It wasn’t the kind of oneness with the infinite that mystics talk about, but more like an interweaving in which our boundaries became permeable. I felt like I had seeped out of my skin and merged with your hands and thighs, with the folds of the sheets, the softness of the pillow, and the blanket of darkness that began outside the window and stretched to the edge of the sky. And in the drunkenness of our connection, my sense of self expanded, and overflowed all around me.
With the intrusion of the first clamoring thoughts that woke me the next morning, I knew that the veil of immediacy had been pierced, and I was beginning to feel myself from the outside again. And to see the world through different eyes. We returned to the Square Mile, where the streets were littered with glass from smashed windows, empty bottles, fliers, newspapers, lost bandanas… Cleaners had arrived on the scene and were already sweeping the residue into the trashcans of history. As we wandered aimlessly through a desolate and abandoned city, it felt like we were crossing a space of mourning. The intensity of the carnival was over, and we could only survey its remnants from the distance. And the space where communication happens in a flash no longer seemed possible. We spoke to each other as familiar strangers, with the tools humanity has invented for quantifying and capturing life, like butterflies caught on the heads of pins and added to collections of dead objects. As the memory of what we had lived the previous day faded, perhaps we felt that an excess of words had become necessary. When I had seen you touch that horse, I felt a wave of love, without demands, without judgment, without knowing your name or anything about you. The feeling evaporated on the next day, as we were transported back to our everyday identities and began to measure each other against the yardstick of the commonplace.
[to be continued in part 2]