Thursday, 9 June 2005

Reykjavik

Usually a place defines itself by contrasting itself with its antithesis. The village prides itself on being withdrawn from the friction of the city; the town hovers between village and city, and so regards itself as having the ideal position of being sub-urban; the city defines itself as being more ‘progressive’ than both the town and the city, and so confers the term ‘centre’ upon itself.

Earlier, I read that between June and September there is constant daylight in Reykjavik; that the sun never sets despite the continuity of time. By way of compensating for the unending sun, heavy drapes were a substitute for the absence of darkness. During the day, meanwhile, most Reykjavikians (I also read) spend their afternoons in the darkness of the cinema if only to gain the contrast between night and day. It is true. 3am in my hotel room, outside the bright light broaches the heavy drapes; it might as well be a Tuesday afternoon. Here, daylight is unremitting.

A conference: I'm to speak on the anxiety of dwelling. It’s appropriate. Without a space to withdraw in, a city becomes imbued with an anxious quality. The curtains do little to dissuade me of the daylight. True: there is much to be said for a city that is without darkness, if nothing else it dissolves clear and definite boundaries between repose and activity. Yet, without a means of refugee, daylight becomes an object of phobic resistance, domesticating the environment into a homogenous mass of undefined space. How does a city define itself with darkness?

The manner in which dwelling is secured rests on a distinction between home and non-home. We require the presence of the non-home in order to guarantee the identity of homeliness. The dialectic is obvious, and as Bachelard says, ready to be reversed at any given moment. Daylight which is prolonged creates an uncanny dynamic. Bachelard would describe it as ‘unsettling’ since it undermines the clarity of intimate space. Inversely, when the sun is eclipsed, then we gain a sudden glimpse into this dynamic by creating incongruent shadows that appear displaced from their context. Only, whereas the eclipse is pleasurable for the reason it is momentary and so novel, continuous daylight reduces the novel to the normative.

Reykjavik is quiet even during the day. Against the cultivated gardens, Lutheran churches and Hungarian style houses – brash colours, solidly constructed despite appearing flimsy, mild undercurrent of decay, etc – nothing in particular makes itself known but a general sense of congeniality. I go to Dillon’s Bar, if not for namesake alone. Existing somewhere between 1986 and 1989, it’s the sort of place I’m attracted to. Shut blinds, black and white photographs of obsolete rock stars on the walls, absurd music with lyrics alluding to empty highways, long shadows and regretful lives. It’s farcical but sublime. Outside the window: Iceland’s black mountains in the distance, whilst down below Laugauegur is devoid of activity. I could just as easily be in Minsk. The Icelandic language resembles Russian just enough to emit a similar impression. In Dillon’s however, the bar is completely empty.

The city comes alive at ‘night’ I am told. The beer, they say, is so expensive that most natives are forced to get drunk before leaving their house. I like this idea very much. I think of the pleasure of afternoon drinking in a dark pub, only to come out a few hours later to find it’s no longer afternoon, but rather somewhere between afternoon and evening. Time is disorientated, has the appearance of being compressed. In Reykjavik the beer is expensive, but no doubt part of the reason for drinking before leaving is rooted in the desire to create a temporal distinction whereof an outward one lacks.

I wonder though: is it reassuring for the insomniac that the night is never met? Waking from sleep in the afternoon is often met by outright depression. It has the feel of being wasted time (as when one sleeps in a hotel during the day, especially when it is particularly sunny on the veranda – it implicitly demands that repose ought to be resisted). An enforced mood (whether it is joy or misery) is obnoxious. For the insomniac, night, not day, becomes the object of resistance. Thus, insomnia is impossible in Reykjavik. What occurs at 3am in lieu of sleep? There is no discontinuity, only a re-continuity of broken daylight. The demand to disrupt restfulness is annihilated since both repose and inactivity lost their definition along with day and night.