The Metamorphosis: Snapshots of the Artist as a Creature of Change

by
Daulton Dickey.

Part I

1.

Night spills from the yolk of the sun and sprays shadows and darkness across the city. Chrome beasts slither up and down the road, screeching and roaring. I stare at a dent in the wall and go blind. Through the topology of darkness, I slip away: my mind and body drop like clothe, but the universe remains. Darkness spills shadows. Chrome beasts. A heart in the window thumps, thumps, thumps. The blinds bounce and rattle in unison with the heartbeat. A skip now and then signifies arrhythmia.

I pull the strings dangling near the window frame and open the blinds. Each blind in the scaffolding transforms into a moth and flutters away. The heart in the window beats, beats, beats. After half a dozen beats, it withers and shrinks and transforms into a dead fly, which lands on its back on the windowsill.

A bounce. Rattle. Skip.

A serpent writhes from the tip of my cigarette as I take a hit. Then I drag more serpents inside me until they fill my lungs.

I blast snakeskin through my nostrils, then my mouth. Blindness returns. I fall away and transform into the universe, each celestial body an atom in my foot. Then I’m back in my apartment, blowing out another snakeskin and contemplating sleep.

2.

If the number of books sold or readers engaged constitutes your metric for a writer’s success, then I am an unequivocal failure. I’ve not succeeded in either selling many books or engaging many readers.

In a sense, to write is to gamble: you place your hopes on several positive outcomes, one of which is to engage as many readers as possible. Some writers succeed in that regard and some fail.

In this era, in which it’s easy for writers to publish, it’s easier to get left behind, to get lost in the onslaught of weekly, even daily, book releases. If you have no money for promotion, if you can’t get websites to cover you or review your books, if you have trouble engaging readers, if you don’t posses a viable persona, then you and your books will vanish.

I’ve vanished.

So have my books.

One failure after another decimated my ego, slicing off pieces, carving it into a sort of electrochemical grid. Soon, it shattered into fragments. I couldn’t think, I couldn’t write, I couldn’t function. Nothing meant anything. Everything meant little, if anything at all.

A hollow mind deflates and disintegrates
Maggots infest a collapsed cerebral cortex
Ideas and concepts split apart and join together.
And these double helix thoughts birth rot.

Nothing goes where shadows grow and
Isolation has cultivated an alien expression
Of thought, will, perception, and persona.
Then you find yourself frozen in stasis.

An artist—one of the great social monsters—
Lies dormant inside you, and for years
It’s struggled to escape, to dominate, to
Wrest control and present the me inside me|
The me who transforms the world into a
Planet filled with possibilities, with sights
And sounds people can’t imagine obtaining
In our world, is the me who rests in me

I want to spill it onto the page and convey it to people interested in constructing models they wouldn’t otherwise encounter. I want to transfer my elation or anxieties to the reader so we could share it or struggle to overcome it.

Together.

As a writer, I don’t want to entertain: I want to create experiences, physical and mental and emotional sensations transferred from me to the future you, the you reading this right now.

Your present is my future; but when you reach the present, I’ll have caught up, too. In fact, we can only live in the present. And as an ego, that’s my mistake: I fantasize and live in the future, in a future I think plausible. And I race to get there. And when I don’t get there, I collapse. Then I have to—in a sense—reinvent myself only to collapse and self-destruct in failure again.

As few as six months ago, I viewed it as a curse. A desire to reach people without reaching people turns inward and decays. It eats you. It haunts you. It steals a part of you and races it to the void, and you’re so oblivious you don’t realize you’ve lost a piece of yourself until you need it. Then you prepare to enter the void to steal back the part of you your despair gave up.

But then it occurred to me: failure is a sort of freedom. I’m not restrained by a lack of audience—I’m free because of it: with nothing else to lose, I’m now free to do whatever I want.

There’s nothing more satisfying to an artist than the taste of freedom. And when we’re unshackled from social norms and mores, from physical reality and metaphysics, then we’re capable of doing whatever we want.

However, I’m stymied by a shredded ego. As a result, I can’t write more than a few pages.

My passions frozen, I recreate myself and my world, employing the universe as my canvas until the imagery spills onto page after page as I write in a fit of mania.

3.

I punch the keys as thunder roars overhead. My office doesn’t have windows yet I sense the grayness outside. I feel it, the gloom and the shadows. Rain rips across the outer walls. The storm had appeared in a flash, and now it’s tearing across the building; it roars overhead and scratches the walls. I convulse. My heart races and my mouth dries out. This is what it must feel like to find yourself in the stomach of a beast.

I sense my cheeks redden and glance behind me, out the door and into the doorways of the other offices. Everyone’s at their computers, clickity-clackiting as they work, work, work.

I click a few buttons on the mouse and contemplate the Bhagavad Gita. Dualism is a delusion. I am the universe and the universe is me. The universe created me and now I create it. But the “I” itself is an illusion.

Each key on the keyboard melts. Oil-black, a fluid drains from the keyboard and pools on the desk, inches from my hand.

I pull my arms back. Ripples turn the surface of the fluid into a series of expanding and interlocking concentric circles.

Fluid protrudes from the center of the middle circle and assumes the shape of a scorpion.

I slide my chair back, away from the desk.

The scorpion breaks away from the puddle and scurries across the desktop: its liquid flesh ripples. It spins and focuses on me as its tail curls in the air, hovering over its back.

I pull on a chain attached to one of my belt loops and a pocket watch slides out of my pocket. I swing it in the air, catch it, and clutch it in my palm. Then I slam my hand down on the scorpion. Blood and guts and chunks of flesh splatter everything: the desk and keyboard, the walls and ceiling and floor, the monitor and paperwork and me.

[Sidebar: Pocket watches never appealed to me. Then I met an elderly lady who told me she raised two sons to use pocket watches. She’d told them, she’d said, —Time is precious. You should make checking it a big deal. I liked that, and I always kept a pocket watch on me after my encounter with that sweet woman.]

I tap my fingers on the fluid on my shirt. Letters appear on the monitor: Bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunnt-rovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk. Thunderclaps. Outside. More rain pounds the outer walls of my office. It produces an almost Celtic rhythm, seeming to play, or sing a Joycean tune, “Tralala lala/ Tralala tralaladdy/ Tralala lala/ Tralala lala.”

4.

Smoke floats up and intertwines into an illusion of a snake twisting around an arm. Both objects fatten and break apart and evaporate over my head. I flick ashes, then I take another hit from my cigarette and lean back, propping up my trunk and head by pressing my palms into the porch.

Moonlight bounces off a nearby windshield and dyes me blue. The stars don’t move.

Not yet.

A story waits on a legal pad on the table, waiting for me to touch it. Perhaps I’ll give it a go. I should definitely do it. But the voice is wrong; the characters, stiff.

Wind slaps my arms and neck. It pulls two snake skins from my nostrils.

Coagulated blood sticking to my forehead crackles when I raise my eyebrows. I tap it with my hand, then check my fingertips: wet but no longer red.

The mirror had shattered with a single headbutt. Heart thumping in my ears, acid pumping through my veins, I had gritted my teeth and plowed my forehead into the medicine cabinet.

Nothing mattered. I couldn’t work. I’d tried and tried and fucking tried to sit down, to create something, to share the weirdest parts of my mind with other people, and no one had listened. Everyone ignored me. And it had crescendoed—and it infuriated me, and so I slammed my head into the mirror. And it felt good. It felt great. Without pain, art would cease to exist.

I crush my cigarette under my heel and light another one while I contemplate the stars: art. They spin and twirl and sway and bounce. Every star in the sky, even the vaguely visible ones, shine just for me. They create just for me. The sky is a canvas adorned by the imagery of stars.

IMG_6835I close my eyes and lean my head back. Darkness. Silence. A sensation like a cut starts in my foot and spreads throughout my body, trying to pull me back inside, back to the table back to the legal pad. To the story. My work. How can I create when I’m distracted?

5.

Through the darkness: noise in the other room, a thump. Cats, probably. They only rip and roar and bounce and leap in the middle of the night.

The wind howls as it slams into the window and whistles as it slips in through cracks in the window seal. A mist. It infects me while keeping me alive. Whistling wind. Howls.

I amble into the kitchen and turn on the fan above the stove and light a cigarette. The stars shine. Even though I can’t see them from the kitchen, I can sense them.

They shine.

Lizards emerge from holes in the cupboards. Light explodes from their eyes. The lizards crawl up the wall. They transform into cats, who hit the ground with their paws but they morph into moths when their pads hit the floor. The moths swoop up and race down the hall toward the nearest source of light.

Smoking my cigarette, I memorize a poem by pretending to type in the air, each punch and curl of the finger records a stanza. Remembering, always remembering when I move my hands: I curl my finger around my cigarette and recall Whitman or Rimbaud. I also record moments with my gestures. Each gesture affected brings to life an earlier experience or sensation. I flick the ashes into an ashtray, then I feel myself as a teenager as I curl and uncurl my finger. I was outside, smoking, wearing a baseball cap backward. The wind slammed against a window behind me, whistling as it slithered into the house.

Another flick recalls Frege; another, a line from Ulysses: “the ineluctable modality of the visible,” an experience of which I’m acutely aware as I study the cherry on my cigarette. All conceptions vanish. I experience the world not as I perceive it. Then I flick more ashes and think about night, about sleep. Time for bed. I stumble out of the kitchen with reluctance. In bed I must face myself—a daunting task.

6.

—How have you been?

—I have become light, the shatterer of worlds.

—I’ll bet. It doesn’t sound fun.

—Fun is for fools. Warping the world is the point. We can change the world and our perceptions of it, so let’s bring Surrealism out of canvases and books and films and the imagination and let’s drop it into the world. Let’s allow it to alter the universe.

—How long have you worked there now?

—Nothing I say matters. What I do matters, and what I do is choose to participate in the world I’ve created.

—Do you know if they’re hiring?

—Surreal behavior is the norm in a surreal world. And in my world, the surreal is the norm.

—Should I just walk in or …?

—And the best part? Anyone can do it. We can all change our worlds.

—All right. I’ll show up first thing in the morning.

—I close my eyelids and press my fists into my eyes: a heart-shaped lock inside a OLHJ3922diamond; a fetus develops in darkness; neurons connect and branch off; the galaxy rotates; a car behind a door morphs into a fish and swims through the air, passing through the doorway then swimming past my head; a head, free of all hair: two closed doors have replaced the face; the doors open, spilling darkness on the lower head, neck, and chest; a fist-sized eyeball emerges from the darkness; it crawls down the neck and chest and hisses and melts; the liquified eye drains through the pores in the person’s chest and stomach, returning to the darkness, and the doors slam shut as the person turns and struts away from me. In this world, there’s nothing strange or frightening. In this world, there’s no boredom or tedium or too-small detail. In this world, you are constantly amazed.

—Well, it was good talking to you.

—Surrealism isn’t an art form. It’s an activity, a way of life.

—See ya. And thanks for the heads up about that job.

—Letting go and embracing your power to control your world is a beautiful thing. I highly recommend it.

7.

I’m sitting on a couch in the break room. Controlled by sensors, the lights turn off. I haven’t moved in a while. I’ve stared at the wall for what seems ages. Shadows run into each other, joining like amoebae splitting apart in reverse, latticed, or slanting into a gradient from black to gray.

The walls come alive when I concentrate hard enough. Lighter areas protrude, as if a three-dimensional projection. The darker areas blur, then fade. I relax my eyes and prevent them from racking focus, even though every ounce of me screams, ordering me to focus, focus, focus. And that’s when it happens: I go blind. Sounds and smells fade. I see myself watching myself: a colorless person wearing colorless clothes on a colorless couch in a colorless world—a machine operated largely by habit, yet equipped with a mind to invent causation it can’t access or of which it’s unaware.

Then, through the darkness: hypnagogia. Lights colored like aged paper move and intersect or collide and merge. Shapes form. Mandalas, chain link fences, eggs, two hands holding eyeballs pushing away from a torso, the head and legs out of frame; amputated butterfly wings float in pairs; smoke, as if from a house fire, merges and creates the impression of a skull hovering in a field of black; flesh stretched from one side of my field of vision to the other contracts until it forms a human face, which smiles and moves its mouth, as if talking; shapes, unrecognizable shapes—I encounter these and more in my moment of blindness.

Then my eyes rack focus. I’m sitting in my office, staring at the wall beside the computer monitor. My eyes relax again. Lights grow and shadows fade, and my body and mind fall away. Darkness. Everything’s connected. I’m not separate; I’m the same as everything else, including the universe itself. Then my eyes rack focus again. And I’m sitting on the couch in our apartment, watching the kids play as my wife prepares for the next day’s classes.

Papier-mâché moths float around the room. Specks of dust fall from them whenever they flap their wings. The world is a product of our brains, reality is a product of our brains, which means we can reinvent the reality we experience. Let’s make it beautiful and poetic and surreal and weird in ways we can’t currently imagine. Let’s—

A moth floats near a lamp to my left. It hits the lightbulb with a hiss. Near the lamp, the kids wreak havoc on a fort on a planet in another galaxy. Enemies overwhelm them but they somehow manage to avoid catastrophe.

My eyes rack focus and I’m staring at my wife. She’s smiling—she’s gorgeous—but it’s the kind of smile she offers when she’s annoyed. —Did you hear anything I just said?

—Yes. You were talking about maybe using clay for your classes.

I have no idea how I’ve acquired this information or how I knew to deploy it here.

—So what do you think? I think it’ll look great.

—It will, I think, look fantastic.

—I have a dozen ideas.

—I can imagine … imagine … I can … I can imagine.

My eyes relax and my body and mind fall away again. Through the darkness I’m fully aware. Having accessed pure consciousness, “I” disappears altogether. Darkness. Light. People slide across a continuum, which runs through their ears. They spin and twirl as if riding a möbius-strip-shaped rollercoaster. Light. Darkness. My eyes rack focus again.

8.

I’m sitting on a chair at work, on lunch. I turn on my phone and open the notepad and hover my fingers over the keys. Thinking, trying to conjure images, trying to imagine various scenarios: I gaze at the sky, straining to think of something, anything.

I view writing as something akin to a sacrament. Also an act of communion, it enables me to share myself with the various masks behind my face. I must write; it’s a need, as crucial to my existence as oxygen. I’m miserable if I don’t write. My physiology and neurophysiology transmutes and I become a curled up and depressed Phantom, as far removed from the public me as the public is from the private me.

Art is more than an activity. It, too, is a sacrament. I think of two kinds of people on this planet as particularly sacred: a mystic and an artist. They are, in actuality, one kind—the mystic and the artist both aim to alter your consciousness.

Artists are more than myth-makers or image manipulators; they’re worldview changers. The right spectator stumbling on the right piece of art at the right time could forever alter their ambition and their point of view.

I discovered Surrealism when I was ten years old, the year Dali died the year my search for meaning began.

Several news outlets aired segments on the man and his death. Every segment showed Dali and his art. Who is this strange looking man and what do these paintings mean? A melting clock, a giraffe on fire, an elephant with long legs: they reach into me and plant their seeds.

I was drawn to Dali and spent time each day working on or creating strange images. For some reason, I intuitively understood the power of Surrealism. It can change you. If you’re so inclined, if you can dominate your mind, then you can change your perception of reality.

9.

I’ve always possessed a tendency, a need, to, at some point during the day, walk with my eyes closed. The house, the street, work—it doesn’t matter I am. If the need overwhelms me, I do it. Like now: I’m walking across a parking lot between two buildings. Rocks constitute the parking lot. Pebbles produce crunching sounds as I amble across the lot.

The need to walk blindly seizes me and I close my eyes and steady my gait and stroll forward until I sense the presence of objects, an ability magnified by a lifetime of needing to walk blind.

TKUO7424Through the darkness of closed eyes, I construct models with my other senses and they guide and caution me. Imagine closing your eyes yet sensing a shadow grow over you: the actual sensation is similar.

Time slows as I walk.

I open my eyes and the world dims as photons slow. Everything moves in slow motion: my movements, the birds overhead, a car leaving the parking lot.

The world dims, dims.

Each pebble cracks and breaks, and spills a cluster of solar systems on the ground. I’m walking across tens of thousands of galaxies until I make it to the grass, where each blade twirls and grows. My mind empty, I feel disconnected from my body, as if I’m observing myself in the third person.

Daulton walks and moves as if stunted by tension. I need to correct that. He lights a cigarette—in no wind—by cupping his hand over the lighter, protecting the flame from non-existent threats. I’ve got to quit doing that; I look like an idiot. He sits on a lawn chair and crosses and uncrosses his legs then his arms. Then he sits up from a relaxed state into one more proper, as defined by a nineteenth-century dandy. I’ve got to quit doing that. If I want to recline in a chair, I’ll recline. If I want to sit up, I’ll sit up. Instead, I allow the bugaboo of self-consciousness to dictate my behavior. Daulton closes his eyes and types imaginary keys in the air by raising his hand and moving his fingers rapidly in random sequences.

This has to change: over the past few years, I’ve found it difficult to write even though I’m always thinking about writing.

This has to change. I’m nothing without writing. It helps to create and define me.

In that respect, the writer in me willingly gives himself over to self-will and ego—and all artists are ego-driven, although some might feign the contrary.

My ego in tatters, I lack the obsession and self-indulgence to create anything other than imagery, imagery other than that found in this universe.

10.

Chaos rules the cities, the streets, the people in whose heads others’ thoughts are transmitted. People who can’t think for themselves run the show, and keep it going. Headlights cross and criss-cross outside as people shout. Television transmutes gloom and doom. And I sit on the couch, focused inward.

“Art is long and time is short,” Baudelaire wrote. He understood the power of human suffering, the kind of which inspires art, and he forecast an era in which he lay in a coffin but his voice lurks in the heads of the living. Black widows climb up the walls; their distinctive hourglass-shaped marks peel away from their backs, sprout wings, and fly away. People presume Tarot thousands of years old but no mention of it exists until the 15th century BCE. Presumption means little. It’s a trick performed by the human brain.

Our cat crosses my feet. Then it raises its paw, slaps my big toe, and hoofs it. Fucking asshole cat. I laugh and, still laughing, narrate the events to my wife, who’s sitting on the other couch. She laughs, too. In that laughter, I see a person who adds joy to my life and who wants to add joy. And in that laughter, I sense disappointment in myself: I’ve failed to give her and the kids the best possible life. It’s an outdated, masculine way of thinking, I know, but that’s the invading intuition when I see my wife smile.

But my aims aren’t selfless: I also want to build my ego so I can release the monster—the artist—lying dormant within. I have a universe to show people but I can’t figure out how to get them to look. To figure out how to persuade them to see the awe I know I possess.

That part of my ego has remained intact.

Duality consumes me; it controls me. It defines every thought and every action I conduct. From my likes and dislikes, my passions and my ambivalence, my almost pathological desire to lie, my impotence and my perversion—duality defines everything. And I allow it free reign, even though I know better. I must center myself to shed dualism, to experience the oneness of the universe. I imagine the awe and ecstasy borne out of the shattering of duality.

These ingredients form the roots of my persona.

Imagery, too, constitutes a branch of those roots. I close my eyes and picture the imagery clearly. An amorphous cloud of smoke pulls away from one person to the next, from one object to the next—this is Beauty. The smoke flows and slithers and slides toward me, then it stops. It transmogrifies into a serpent with missing eyes and decayed flesh. The serpent slithers toward me, closer and closer, moving left to right, right to left, as if sniffing, smelling. It pauses. My heart pounds and skips. Pounds. Skips. As the snake opens its mouth, it changes back into smoke and evaporates. Then a thought enters my head: the world is chaotic; it’s filled with gloom and doom.

11.

Letters tumble out of my eyes and fingertips. They collide and shatter or fuse, creating words and sentences, both of which strike me as an alien language. The walls and ceiling pulsate. Something on the window taps in 3/4 time. Thump, thump, thump. Thump, thump, thump. Plaster rains from the ceiling. More letters and words, sentences and paragraphs form, but I don’t understand them.

Each speck of plaster evolves arms and hands, elongated fingers and wings. The particles fly in unison, a cloud moving from the right side of the room, to the left, and finally the center. They spread out into the shape of a tube and spin around and around, around and around, putting in mind a turning screw.

The tube collapses in on itself and forms a ball. Then it splits and divides and merges until a kidney-shaped object floats near the ceiling. It twists and spins and mutates into a fetus, which grows into a child, then a man. The image pauses briefly and I see a rendering of me, as I am now, sitting on a chair at lunch, holding my phone as I clasp a cigarette between two fingers.

I glance up. The representation of me glances down. Our eyes meet. Then he jerks to the left, as if propelled by wind, and morphs into an older man, than an older man, then a corpse inside a coffin. The lid closed, the silence—its undoubtedly underground.

The cloud disperses in slow motion. But it creates the ghost of a final image as it breaks apart and dissolves: me, sitting on a chair at work, writing nonsense while trying to reignite the flames to write stories and novels again. Numerous ideas and concepts float through my head each hour, and I can’t force myself to latch onto one and sit down and write about. It’s a genuine form of torture for someone like me.

[Click here to read Part II]

daultondickeysurrealistSurrealist Daulton Dickey lives with his wife, kids, and pet human-lizard hybrid in a universe he created. He’s the author of Elegiac Machinations, Bastard Virtues, Flesh Made World, and Dig the Meat Music (forthcoming from Nihilism Revised) Contact him at lostitfunhouse [at] gmail [dot] com

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