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Primal States, First Men

Christoph Peters

Translation from German by J.W. Gabriel


Let’s say nothing exists; as always before the beginning, there is nothingness, only empty desert, a scene in an absent light that knows no darkness, and above this, hovering states of unknown things. Every potential can come true, even though there is no space, neither heaven nor earth, neither land nor water; but there is a division on the flat plain that extends – horizontally and vertically, separating light from dark, sharp from blurred, colour from non-colour, matter from energy from form. Then in fact light breaks in, enabling something to become apparent, at the same moment, delimited and recognizable as such: darkness. In it resides fear. There are vaults, above, below, passageways, caverns, folded out, warped, stratified. Precursors of landscape, lakes, seas, oceans, filled with primal ooze, out of which ideas and connections emerge, things thought before thinking came into being. This brings time into the work, whose beginning seemed just as inconceivable; it appears, will appear, like its absent beginning. Only now can one thing emerge from another, gradual transitions from before to after, permanent change of all structures, incessant exchange of all substances, nowhere coming to a standstill. Only within the extension of a point would complete standstill become possible, were it not for the fact that every point plunges into its own mineshafts of infinitely branching abysses. Not the slightest fraction of anything will cease moving until the end, which is just as inconceivable as the beginning.

Night and morning. The first day.

“Choose a point.”

The gaze wanders from here to there, bridges the width of a hand, a foot, an ell, distances increasingly beyond one’s own scale, comes up against edges, establishes markings in order to avoid going astray, assures itself of its own existence, looks back for the first time, still without memory.

We are long since in the midst of things. Harshly lit, we cast shadows in every direction. Before us, at most a vague idea based on little more than suppositions of what is not there, never was there, no trace of absence per se, just the retrospective image of the extreme distant past, when the crucial impulses were given, out of which everything that was and is still to come emerged.

You, I, we. Without a clue, ignorant.

We were not good.

A voice, let’s say.

“Speak to me.”

“I imagine us as human beings at this place that is not a place, merely a slight bump, a hilltop that has raised itself above the boundless plain. We are the first here, spirited out of what went before, where everything already was, furnished to our tastes, nice to look at, perfumed, the liquids sweet tasting, well-formed creatures, friendly to ourselves and others. But here the conditions are different.”

“Take my hand.”

Carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, flesh, skin, hair, fingernails.

“What I feel seems unfamiliar to me.”

Around us, behind impenetrable veils, hot springs bubble, mud fountains, sulphur is ejected; deep below, there are tectonic shifts, crunching plates in an incessant drift. Minerals and metals combine, set further energies free, crystals, rock formations blossom, form stalagmites, stalagtites, rugged massifs, mountain chains pile up, collapse back on themselves.

“Give names to everything: calcium carbonate, sodium choride, copper vitriol.”

From the place the horizon would be, rolling thunder, electric discharges, the flickering of iridescent lightning reaching from the rising in the east to the setting in the west. Unimaginable masses of atmosphere are torn apart, intermediate spaces momentarily appear in which future things take shape without becoming fully real.

“We must learn to see, hear, smell, taste, feel, while the forms gel, contours grow solid.”

Pure and mixed substances, precursors of things, form orders, are mutually attracted, rejected, amagamated, fission products, processes of decay just beginning. Bitterness and sharpness in what is known as “air”, numerous substances that are hard to digest. We feel queasy in our skin, it’s too hot above, too cold below, too damp to the left, too dry to the right.

“Expect the worst, get used to the idea of poison.”

Nowhere an exit.

Everything that is becoming reflects us, we are reflected in everything. My face, her face, his face, your face. For a moment they recognize each other, we recognize each other in the midst of the completely strange place, are tangible and a world distant from one another, only a voice, then more familiar, two hands that grasp each other.

“Tell me what direction we should turn, where we can settle, with what feet on what ground when everything around us is insecure before we reach it, might already have ceased to be what it was.”

We take steps, one after the other, hesitant, fearful, because the ground under us is not solid, we do not know the ground under our own feet.

“Try to remember.”

In the cracks in the vault we now call “sky”, more and more images appear that seem familiar to us. Drops penetrate surfaces of liquid silver, of lead, spread, then congeal; above them, mirages of our origin, which never was. Yet it did exist. The flats we walk on become more and more solid, we no longer sink in with every step, we raise our head, cast glances forward, survey the area around us. High above us there are openings in the black, out of the midst of the blackness. This is where the unknown has dissipated; behind the border of everything we can name. Yet it is still there.

We follow a path that does not exist.

“Say what you see.”

Snow and white noise, blurred surfaces that fill up from within, are filled, form contours, take shape. For the first time there is warming light above us. Something like what we used to call “trees” breaks through extended planes. Mountains and valleys.

“Do you remember?”

Roots snake through the damp earth. Branches and twigs intertwine with atmospheric currents. Things grow, sprout, green. Each leaf finds its negative form. Giving rise to a suspicion of what a compete image would look like. Forest, alive and shady, inviting us to stay. Clear streams of water and swampy pools. In the rustling of the foliage we hear, more clearly than anywhere else, what silence might be. We grow more sure of what lies ahead, what can be walked on, grasped, made useful for our kind of life.

“Your hand in mine has become like a part of me.”

But we have to separate and begin our work. Things cannot stay as they are, because this is too strange a place for us. We take possession of everything that lies in front of us. If it’s not enough, we lay log roads, leading to places where there is no going on or turning back, and get what is missing. Day after day we pour water into leaky barrels until the swamps have been drained. From the trunks of trees we build cabins, roofed with tiles of fired clay, to protect us from the worlds that are still passing over our heads. This is how we learn about exhaustion, weariness, and call it “well-earned”. When night falls, we wrap ourselves in blankets of felted animal hair we have collected from rough bark and thornbushes, and do not freeze any more. Under the protection of the roof, our fear of the darkness will ultimately pass.

“Close your eyes now.”