What’s most worthless about dreams
is that everybody has them.
Fernando Pessoa, 1888-1935
He was a painter who didn’t use colours.
In fact, he had never painted anything. Other people didn’t consider him a painter. Those who knew him personally even had the impression he hated painting and they were right.
To him, the process itself, or the result, meant nothing. He saw no difference between an idea being born and that idea being formed. He cared only for the idea itself and all his life he had such an idea, a concept of a painting which, would he one day be able to conceive, his work as a painter would be over.
Sitting in a chair in the middle of an empty room, in perfect solitude, he felt it was finally time. He realized he had been postponing this moment for his whole life, as he was always too busy “living” and had no time for such metaphysical activities as truth-seeking and Zen painting. That’s what he called it, Zen painting, because, frankly, it didn’t involve painting. Everything was meant to happen inside the head and that was supposed to be enough.
He was old and lonely and had forgotten most of the things he had lived and the rest didn’t matter. He used to have a pretty ordinary job, one that didn’t require imagination and thus was unimportant. He had often tried to erase his unpleasant and unnecessary memories and he had often been successful.
He could remember planning his magnum opus, the work of his life, the painting of no colours, ever since he was a child. What had happened between then and now? Not much and nothing inside him had changed.
The passing of time was supposed to bring him closer to his goal. It didn’t. Life itself was expected to contribute. It didn’t. The experiences of a lifetime, the hundreds and thousands of books that filled his personal library and his head, the things he had heard, seen and felt – and even those he had imagined – nothing helped, none of these got him anywhere nearer the achievement of his life.
He had fallen in love many times, he had fallen in hatred even more, and every time he had travelled around the world, he had always found himself back to where he had started, his mind almost suffocated with the overfilled Thought-Albums of the images he had witnessed which turned out to be a burden rather than a pleasure-storage, as they were originally thought to be.
How could he ever see the One Picture, if between him and the empty painting, the armies of past experiences and blurred memories were marching triumphantly in the name of King Headache the Eternal? And how could he ever even conceive the Thoughtless Thought he was after, if the gardens of his mind were occupied by such parasites as the Fear of death and the Remorse for having lived?
He had to empty his mind. He had to gather his memories and hopes in one large pile of garbage and set them all on fire and watch the smoke vanish. Then he would be free. Then he would be ready.
Like a madman, the madman he was, he started dancing around the big white room, his hands the moving fires of deathless death, fighting against the life-consuming life, and all the illusions it brings to the eye, to the ear, to the flesh. For too long had his heart been treated as a slave, obeying such masters as temptations and habits and addictions of the senses, and for too long had she been used as a mule, carrying on her back the burden of contradictory feelings, and suffering underneath.
She was a woman made of fire, his heart, and she was tired and weakened and on her way to faint. And yet she was a loyal heart and had refused to stop beating before her beloved’s dream would be fulfilled. She patiently waited for the moment when her beloved would finish his work and be finally ready to die, so that she could also rest in peace. And she was prepared to wait forever.
There was almost nothing there. All there was, was a big white wall in a big white room, opposite him. Himself, in the centre of the room, the room which was a box in a box called a building. Yet he had to think outside the box, see the big picture.
Though a painter, he had no obligation to paint what he would see, or in any other way to expose it to an audience, by expressing it or describing it. Express or describe what? He had no right to paint, write down or talk about, a picture he had never seen in his head, a thought he hadn’t been able to conceive, a dream he hadn’t dreamt, a truth he hadn’t known.
He had a name for his painting-to-be. Utopia. Having a word for something he couldn’t think of, was allowed. He wouldn’t go any further than naming the thing though. Had he allowed his mind to build a personal utopia in his imagination, his vision would have been blocked by the garbage of personal ambition and prejudice, and the fight would be lost.
In his quest to imagine the Image, he saw there was the way of dreaming and the way of meditating, but he wasn’t yet certain which was preferable in order to communicate with the inner mind.
He attempted the later at first, and in a simple meditating stance, without still leaving the comfort of his chair, he closed his eyes in front of the empty painting on the empty wall, and let the silence guide him to a desirable higher consciousness.
It didn’t work. The old man fell asleep instead, and his mind was now active in the Dreamworld where a room, much similar to the one his body was in, was awaiting for him and a new painting was exposed, naked of colours, on the wall in front of him.
His obsession was once again haunting him in his dreams as it used to in the old days. He felt he wasn’t alone in the room and the presence of Another, an unknown and indefinable Other, was making him increasingly nervous as he hadn’t yet realized he was in a dream, and was slowly walking towards the picture-less frame, which seemed wider and wider, expanding as if to include the whole cosmos.
Instead of the blank paper, he found a void, much like a gate that led to another world. The presence of the Other was by then too powerful to ignore and, though he couldn’t turn his head to look, he felt the need to enter the gate to the other world and escape.
To escape, through the gate of the dream, through the painting… He never got there. The feeling that whatever was behind him, was after him, was the last he recalled when he woke up.
The gate. Utopia was a gate. That was the impression he got from the dream.
He was not alone.
In his head, he had two contradictory desires, as if the dreamer and the painter were two separate people occupying the same body – the dreamer was A, the original, whose wish was to know the truth, to enter the gate. B, the other, he merely wanted to paint the truth and was determined to complete the painting with an image his limited imagination would produce, regardless of whether the conceivable utopia would be a true or a false one.
He had to immediately disconnect himself from that part, letting it live separately since he could not kill it. A new chair was brought for B, who sat right between A and the painting.
That was rude, thought A. He tried not to be distracted at first, but was soon annoyed by B who was already planning what colours to use for the painting he had in mind, definitely a bad one.
“You cannot just start painting!” shouted A. “You don’t even know what you’re going to paint!”
“I have an idea of how Utopia would be like” said B.
“Your personal interpretation prevents you from seeing the actual thing. Even worse, your delusion becomes a distraction for the rest of us!”
B had turned, and the two of them were now standing face-to-face, each the enemy of the other, their faces almost identical, their eyes completely different.
“I am allowed to dream of a better world, you know” said B. “You can’t take that away from me!”
“It’s impossible. Even if your dream feels good at first, you’ll soon find it full of contradictions – it could even be a nightmare for other people. The question is – can you imagine a world that is perfect for everyone?”
“I don’t think I can. My imagination is limited, as is my reason.”
“Then shut up your reason…” said A “…your dreaming too. Until you have crossed the gate, how dare you talk of what lies beyond? Has either of us been there?”
“Then we are not in the position to know.”
B stood up. He moved his chair to A’s right and sat by him. They both looked at the empty painting from a similar distance. They continued their conversation, trying to reach an agreement, seriously considering the possibility of a future collaboration. They gave up the thought. It’d never work.
C arrived the moment the new debate began. He was in fact born from the debate. As soon as he entered the room, he stood with his back to the painting, refusing to even think about it, let alone doing something. He believed that the truth was inconceivable not only in our present state of consciousness, but in all states. He was a pessimist and a loser and his sole philosophy could be summed up thus: “If I cannot conceive of perfection, then no-one can. There’s no utopia, because if there was such a thing, I would have known already.”
The rest of them – their numbers growing fast as more and more utopian painters arrived – almost ignored C’s existence, as he had no communication with them and refused to join in their activities.
D was C’s alter ego, the positive pessimist, who shared exactly the same mind as C’s, and had exactly the same opinions – the difference was, he thought they led to happiness. Of the two, he was the sociable one. He would write and publish the one manifesto after the other, an active dystopian thinker who preached that the man who sees the emptiness of life is a happy man, and that the future of humanity is the monkey, and the ape, and the dog. The law of the jungle was the only law he respected and as for the painting, he thought he was the only one in the room suitable for the job.
“I am the most enlightened of you all!” he shouted. “I shall be the one to paint Utopia!”
The others seemed sceptical about this statement.
“You remind me” said B. “…of the monkey-thinkers who claim they can explain Buddha and Jesus and Life. Who talk of such thing as the road to happiness and the other monkeys listen!”
D didn’t like that comment. B continued.
“The problem when you explain wisdom is that you have to be wise yourself otherwise with what authority do you claim to understand, let alone explain? Writing on Buddha is claiming you’re a Buddha yourself, which is arrogance, unless of course you have denounced the world, like a Buddha! Have you?”
“That is the problem” said E, who was strangely taller than the rest. A started to get worried. They were now different in size as well, he observed. He worried that if too many interfered, he would never finish his quest. E continued.
“I think the real question is who the Utopianist is. What makes a person able to conceive Utopia? Unless already achieved, Utopia is a work-in-process, a plan, but whose plan is more credible?”
“Are you examining the idea or the person behind it?” asked F. F was new.
“I’m not sure. But doesn’t the dream come from the dreamer?”
That was debatable. The metaphysicians would probably claim the opposite, that the dream happens to the dreamer, yet the more reasonable ones were certain that the dream is connected to the dreamer’s personality and that it’s born out of his own unconscious.
E’s argument made sense. The new law was instantly accepted by the majority: “Thou shall judge a Utopia by the Utopian who thought of it!” Even the metaphysicians had to agree that the tree was responsible for the fruit, and not the other way round.
The symposium went on and the room was now growing wider, eager to welcome new arrivals. A was not sure anymore if he was awake or in a dream, alive or dead, or perhaps was there another state of “being” he ignored? Ah, too many distractions, he thought, and tried to clear his mind.
Alas, Silence was in itself a Utopia!
D hadn’t spoken for a while. He was writing something, maybe making notes of the things he had heard or maybe drawing early drafts of what would be tomorrow’s masterpiece.
Of all the painters in the room – and they were by now quite a few, all of them similar in face and different in thought – not one had touched the painting yet, or even went anywhere near the frame.
A had been trying to meditate yet it was impossible. The noise was unbearable and there was little to do but wait, inactive, as he was all his life, growing older and weaker every second, unable to do anything but wait and wait and wait. He had no idea how many separate discussions were taking place in the room now, and if any of them was truly useful or if there were all noise and nothing but.
He turned his head once, out of curiosity, only to see C, the passive pessimist, holding his face with his hands, crying, probably thinking how the news of a future suicide would affect his relatives and friends. A’s attention was again distracted as he heard D, who had abandoned his drafts and was now standing on a chair, preaching the super-Man to a group of newcomers, quoting directly from popular thinkers.
As some observer rightly pointed out, their Utopian dreams were all problematic because they were based on the society they themselves would like to inhabit and not on the society they ought to. But they just liked and disliked what was, at their time, popular to like and approvable to dislike and even though they all had a different menu of opinions, these opinions were all picked from a greater Opinion-Menu which was terribly limited to include only those opinions currently acceptable by the modern up-to-date version of the Middle-Ages.
Even the most controversial thoughts they’d be encouraged to think, were suspiciously promoted by an important part of society, and there was little value in re-producing and presenting them as if they had any originality. Very few people, however, could see this.
D, who had gathered a group of teenage versions of A, was teaching them the godlessness of the universe, the random meaningless universe in which, he taught, they would only be happy if they saw its randomness and its meaninglessness.
He recited Nietzsche to support his argument: “If there were gods, how could I tolerate not to be a god! Therefore, there are no gods.”
“Do you believe this?” said F. “So is this how we really choose our beliefs?”
“If I can’t dream, there are no dreams!” shouted C who had been listening to D’s speech, forcing a war cry that had the sense of triumph.
That was helpful, thought A. He stood up and everybody stopped talking and looked at him. The oldest man in the room, the most mature of the Thoughts, though not necessarily the truest, he was the first and the last, and the source of them all.
“That’s how it is, then” he said and coughed, as if he was sick. He was. The old man was but a step away from his death, and this made his time more precious than theirs. “We don’t choose our beliefs based on what makes sense to us. Instead, we choose what makes sense to us based on what we want to believe!”
That made sense, thought everyone.
“People dream of a society that’s good for them, or the group of people in which they belong. Thus, we have scientific utopias, religious utopias, feminist utopias, hippie utopias, etcetera! No-one ever attempts to consider that the True Utopia may not be the fulfilment of their personal ambitions and unsatisfied needs, but that it may not even include them! You know the problem with the pseudo-utopians, whose dreaming is like thought-masturbation? That though they want a new world, they want to keep the old self. But how can you see Utopia, unless you become a Utopia yourself?”
After the pause that followed, and after having confirmed that A had made his point, people resumed their earlier conversations, adding new, more or less, commonplace concepts, such as “the painter must become the painting”, art for art, utopianism for utopianism, and so on.
In a new despair, A collapsed under the recurring noise, and put his hands on his chest, as if trying to hold his breath from running away or, worse, from running amok in there.
He shouted “Silence!” but there was none. He shouted a second time and a third and then he closed his eyes, and wished it was a dream, and opened them again, and looked around, and saw that either it wasn’t, or if it was, it wouldn’t go away.
Eventually, it got late and more and more of his fellow Zen painters gave up all hope and left. Luckily, there was some silence again during which an exotic beauty, a woman in red bearing a face of her own and not a version of his face, entered the room.
“Hello, my heart” said everyone.
His Heart sat on A’s lap and kissed him on his cheek and his cheek turned red. She then got up and walked slowly to the big white wall. He realized she was crippling. A broken heart, he thought. Not too broken, but still…
She threw herself on the wall and her body melted on the picture. The wall was now colour red as the woman disappeared inside it. Was Utopia red? That was also debateable.
Some understood that a Red Utopia meant a bloody one, one that required bloodshed to be created or to be maintained, others that it meant a Communist Utopia, a society founded under the sun of equality, and others that the colour red was the colour of love, and that all Utopia needed was love.
But all these were debatable, some of the plans too simplistic to be taken seriously, others too complicated to be used for anything other than academic self-satisfaction and thought-recycling.
The last thing the painter could remember from the dream was a picture being formed all by itself on the wall. The Great Ego Utopia, which was a third-dimensional asshole emerging from the frame, and this was the gate to the selfish utopia, where common desires and pop culture ruled.
He refused to enter the gate to the modern Dark Age which promoted itself as the fulfilment of mankind’s future, but was nothing but mankind’s Primitive Past made digital reality.
He woke up in the big white room of eternal silence, where his thoughts were loud enough to take their own formation and come to life. But he had succeeded in his dreams and meditations to silence them all and was now literary on his own, in front of the finished painting which he named “Utopia Zen.”
It was his magnum opus, a painting of no colours, a big blank paper, on an empty wall, in an empty room. It was his dream come true and the gate of his dreams was now wide open in the wall, and he would enter and depart.
The time came when people worried and started looking for him. They found his clothes in the white room. His body was not found.
Christos Callow Jr. has a BA in Acting, an MA in Playwriting and is currently studying for a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Lincoln, for which he is researching Utopian/Dystopian fiction and is writing a collection of short stories, exploring utopias of perception such as the Buddhist Nirvana, the “Kingdom Within” and the Lovecraftian Dreamlands.