The last thing I want to do is confuse the Earth with its worlds. The globe is spherical, – it has a shape! – but worlds are changeable and formless. Our planet has a face – we can take off from and land on its surface. Our worlds, on the contrary, are absorbent: we sink into and slide between them. Most of us know that we’ll never leave Planet Earth (dead or alive), yet for everyone there is always the possibility to escape the world in which they live.
I was transported from one world to another by the tolling of bells. As I slept, the chimes of Shanghai seeped through my eardrums, but my jet-lagged dreams, with their absurdities and bewilderment, made of them a disturbing vision. The sound ofLondon’s bells, I dreamt, had gone completely insane: the famous old melody – “oranges and lemons, say the bells of St. Clement’s” (can you hear it?) – was being played to the same rhythm as always, but now bizarrely out of tune. Pitches were sharpened, flattened, and painfully tweaked. Major lifts reached only sadness, minor falls fell further…and further…and further. Whoever was watching over me at that point would no doubt have seen me tossing and turning between the sheets, searching for an answer in the depths of the incredible. But inside of my body, or my brain, or my mind, or my soul, or wherever it is that dreams take control, it was as if an evil villain had decided to play a cruel trick and, having snuck out into the darkness of the night with a blowtorch and hammer, had disfigured the curves of the city’s bells one by one. As a result, London’s famous old tune – “you owe me five farthings, say the bells of St. Martin’s” – had become slanted, obscure, upset, wounded. And it was there, in the playground of sleep, in the warmth of disorientation, that I felt myself swept up by the sounds of an unfamiliar city and carried into light, with the sweet taste of the ridiculous still fresh on the tip of my tongue.
I was not carried into daylight, but nightlight. Things are often brighter in the darkness and in the midnight hour Shanghai is radiant. I’ve never seen a bird’s-eye-view of the city, but I believe that on a starry night, from way up there with the angels and jet-planes, its financial district would resemble the pulsating central hub of a gigantic electric circuit board. The view from street level, however, from the embankment of the Huang Pu Jiang – the Shanghai Bund – allows for a depth of field one cannot find in the vertical, downward gaze created by a map. It was from there, with my back to the architectural relics of French colonialism, beside a thousand fellow onlookers peering through screens and lenses, that I let myself become hypnotised by the mad circus of neon lights in the distance. So distorted is the illumination created by that place, so fragmented is its glow, that in my mind the skyscrapers became enormous bulbs that had been shattered and smashed, before being glued back together like mosaics, screwed back in to their sockets, and switched back on.
Hours passed at that spot by the water. I thought of the skyscrapers and especially about how they loomed over me. I thought of their signs and of what meaning they were trying to communicate. I thought of the arrangement of it all – of the positions, angles, and relationships – and wondered if there was anything accidental left in my life. Most of all, however, I thought about reflections. I remembered the Swedish wordmangata – ‘the road-like reflection of the moon in the water’ – and tried to find a reflected pathway in the rippling stretch of navy blue separating me from the shining towers of commerce. But I couldn’t find anything resembling a road. Quite the reverse: Shanghai’s mangata was incoherent – it did not lead from one place to another (from the water’s edge to the moon). Instead, I saw façades of splintering light, shapes forming and disintegrating, dancing illusions created by the wake of a tugboat. There was no road-like reflection at all, but a starling-murmur pattern of flickering colour. Perhaps, somewhere, in a language of the past, or of the present, or of the future, there is a word to describe what I saw that night in the waters of the Huang Pu Jiang: ‘the maze-like reflection of the man-made world in the darkness’.
When the earth turned and the sun rose I was able to see the smog. They say that it’s a destructive force – bad for the lungs, bad for the environment. But as far as I can tell, the smog is creative, bringing into existence new versions of reality that I’d never experienced in cleaner air. Mornings are cloaked in a mysterious haze in which everything seems somehow heavier, more serious and expecting. It produces vertical horizons in the sky, where the tops of buildings disappear into a type of swallowing thickness. Because of this density, horizontal horizons feel closer, and along them are scattered the vague outlines of unknown cities. I think I am drawn to the smog’s slight of hand not because it conceals the truth, but because it plays with and readjusts it. I am charmed by its trickery.
At 299 kilometres per hour, I tried to count the repetitions that passed by on the other side of the window: clusters of high-rise apartments, advertisements, red and gold, villages, workmen, freshly dug graves. What I noticed most of all, however, were the never-ending lines of black telephone cable that cut through the sky. Connected by silhouetted pylons, which stood lonely like steel skeletons, these wires, I thought, are the webs spun by the spider of civilisation. I didn’t understand how they worked at all – I know nothing about the science of telecommunication – but I knew nonetheless that rushing through these rather boring, non-descript black lines, at a pace impossible to imagine, was the richness and vitality of human contact. It was haunting for me to consider, but I couldn’t escape the fact that within these electric fibres, somehow contained in their digital signals, were the currents of conversations; the broken dreams, the devastation, the suffering, the pleading, the despair, the voids, the tears, the silences. There was a great vastness to this idea in which I felt uncomfortable and lost, and inside my head I tried to hide from the knowledge that life is reducible to naughts and ones.