Literature is anamnesis. Genres as varied as haiku, biography and epic share in a common effort to defeat loss and defy oblivion. If the ultimate figure of amnesia is death, literature’s bid for lasting form is an attempt to cheat mortality itself. Sometimes, though, a writer doesn’t try to escape mortality but instead claims its power in his own name. When an ageing Shakespeare incarnated himself in the figure of Prospero, he cast his character’s near-infinite powers as beholden to the Dark Arts.
There’s something of this secret craft in the work of Sam Smart, whose Counterfeats marshals oblivion in the service of his self-portrait. In so doing, the author makes his writing not a foil to death but an art committed in advance to forgetfulness.
Death is often portrayed as an endless sleep. But each day of death’s reprieve we wake with the power of oblivion. What’s more oblivious than someone who, having flown in the clouds, turned back the clock, or played again as a kid, wakes from his dreams and promptly forgets them? Consciousness obliterates. It wipes a rag across existence (19).
An amnesiac’s autobiography, Counterfeats aspires to such an obliterating state of mind, the writer’s consciousness present only in the act of writing and voided of memory. Words likewise become intransitive, indexing things rendered null by amnesia. Only in this way, Smart says, can the writer’s work be true to the fallibility of conscious recollection. Many people have had the sobering experience of poring over keepsakes and photos in which they hardly recognize themselves. In Smart’s case, such souvenirs of forgotten times might be as recent as last week. They may even belong to events others would call unforgettable.
Counterfeats’ first chapter tells of how Smart fulfilled a lifelong wish to visit Uluru, the sacred mountain in the heart of the Australian outback. The dream of seeing Uluru dates to Smart’s boyhood, when he read an adventure tale in which a young explorer gets lost in a dust storm on his way from Darwin to Alice Springs. An aboriginal girl saves the man and opens his eyes to the stark beauty of native lifeways and the sacred “dreamtime.” A romance ensues before the girl and her tribe strike camp and retreat deeper into the outback, away from the invading whites. Or perhaps, the story suggests, the girl and her people were only a dream in the young man’s feverish mind? Smart dwells at length on this haunting childhood story as well as on other adolescent inspirations, including the stock images and bland copy of a well-thumbed National Geographic. For pages on end we watch over Smart’s shoulder as he consults the yellowed texts. As for his own journey, however, Smart has nothing to tell; the author had all memories erased through hypnosis on his return to the US. As a result, it’s as if the journey never happened, or it were a dream forever lost to memory. Apparently, though, Smart may have had a romance of his own in the outback; letters sent to him by a young woman in the Kimberleys suggest that Smart had promised her he’d return to start a new life. He may even have proposed to the girl. The author quotes from these private letters as if they were mere fables to be shelved alongside his childhood reading.
In one of Smart’s most elaborate “counterfeats” the author devoted six years to mastering an obscure language only to unlearn it afterward. Smart specifically chose to study Breton, a Celtic tongue and linguistic anomaly in France, due to its threatened and declining status. A common thread links these two “counterfeats,” for in Brittany as in Australia Smart pursues the far-flung scraps of his Anglo-Irish heritage. In each case, though, the journey of discovery is only a prelude to its abolition. Three years after he lodged with a Breton-speaking family in the town of Néant – the name, improbable as it may seem, means “nothingness” – Smart returns to stay with them, utterly incapable now of verbal communication. Reduced to a state of “bestial immanence” (94), surrounded by meaningless human sounds and stupefied by self-imposed restrictions on his activity, Smart comes closest to his desired condition of placid ignorance. In this way, Smart outlives his Breton self, anticipating both his own future end and that of the language itself, possibly doomed to disappearance or at best a folkloric limbo.
Such willful forgetting may seem pointlessly cruel, part selfish and part self-defeating. In all of Smart’s exploits, however, the author commits himself to a rigorous discipline in the service of a higher muse, Fate or Necessity. This muse is elusive, but the reader finds clues to her occult presence throughout Counterfeats. In Australia, for instance, Uluru is invoked as a “Fata Morgana” in the desert, a mirage mountain floating in the air, while Néant, located on the edge of the ancient forest of Brocéliande, is famous for Merlin’s exploits. Closer to home, Catalina island off the coast of Smart’s native Long Beach is invoked as “Avalon” – the name of the island’s lone town, which carries legendary overtones inherited from the Arthurian cycle. The sorceress Morgan le Fay is connected to each, whether as traveler’s bane, conjurer of fateful illusions, or as faithful guide to the dead king Arthur, who she ferries to his island grave.
There’s a touch of the romantic in these evocations of mystical sites and fantastic illusions, highlighting the contrast between Smart’s determinedly unsentimental tone and the grand futility of his project. There will be no resurrection, no voyage or consecrated burial for Smart; in his devil’s pact with death, he manages to outlive his own existence, but only by becoming an empty cipher. His past life may be definitively lost, but in a feat that accords him a kind of perpetual afterlife, he wills each forgotten day to a kind of immaterial permanence.
From the coast you can see thirteen miles out to sea before the rim of the ocean curves away. Avalon is twenty-two miles distant, so when the hazy peaks are visible from the mainland, the island itself is standing below the horizon. Planted in another day, appearing now at the whim of the weather: an image in silhouette, pale as a faded postcard. Maybe I’ve been there after all. I forget (103).
Flaubert once dreamed of writing “a book about nothing”: a book, as he said, with “almost no subject,” and which would be “suspended in the void” like the earth itself by the sole power of the writer’s art. Smart’s mirages seem to inherit this role of the artist as demiurge. More radically even than Flaubert, however, Smart makes himself into a non-subject seemingly authored – and erased – by another: Smart’s muse, whose power of oblivion he folds into his writing. This muse is the countersignatory of Smart’s book, a Dark Artist conjured by the author to outsmart his own death.
Sam Smart, Counterfeats: A Life in Words (Los Angeles: Purgatory, 2015).