Head in Water Natalie d'Arbeloff. Oil on canvas. Collection of Karl Genus, New York

Head in Water

I was eighteen and in Paris, staying at my aunt’s place on Rue de L’Université on the Left Bank. It was what they call a “studio” but nothing like the romantic concept of north-lit scruffy splendour above the rooftops. It was a ground floor room off one of those typical Paris courtyards entered by pressing a buzzer that sets off a Pavlovian reaction from the concierge sitting in her lodge just behind the heavy pre-Revolutionary doors: her head pops up and the investigative powers of generations of concierges snap into action in her brain, confirming primeval suspicions that everyone is hiding something, even those who have grown frail pushing the same door open for twenty years.

My aunt had lived in this room for about that length of time and her days flowed in slow, steady rhythm from home to work and back again. She was a civil servant in one of the Ministères in the neighbourhood. Her studio, which I had been invited to share whilst deciding what to do next, was small, dark and comfortable, nostalgically furnished with reminders of the past. The yellow satin-covered bed fitted into a mahogany surround which could by some sleight of carpentry convert from single to double divan. There were mirrors and glass bibelots and an art nouveau lamp-stand with two naked brass figures languidly leaning and lots of gilt-framed family photos, and there was an aquarium – yes, I’m almost sure of this – a goldfish tank, to separate living from cooking space. Kitchenette and bathroom were windowless nooks squeezed into the layout but somehow everything had its place and you didn’t feel cramped. Two tall, barred windows looked directly onto the street so you had to draw the curtains and close the wooden shutters at night, but you could still hear snatches of conversation as people walked by. I liked this room and had it to myself most of the time, as my aunt was at work all day, and on weekends she would usually go and visit her mother – my grandmother – outside of Paris.

The first time it happened was like this:

It might have been morning or afternoon but without a lamp on, the room was, as usual, in chiaroscuro. I sat at the dining table that doubled as a desk and closed my eyes. I decided to make a mental list of every single thing that was bothering me and then to put it aside. Quite a lot of things were bothering me but I obeyed my rule of simply naming, listing and putting aside, resisting the ever-present temptation of filling in the details, joining up the dots and jumping to invariably flawed conclusions. I began by naming my most superficial concerns – shoes too tight, hair looks awful, etc. – and moved on up the hierarchy of things, people, events or emotions which, singly or in combination, made up the state of unhappiness I was experiencing at the time. With such strict instructions to eschew embroidery and explanation, it didn’t take long to complete my list. The next step was to mentally fold it (I didn’t want to be bothered with an actual paper list) and put it somewhere out of sight. My aim was not to deny or solve the problems by this method, but merely to see what, if anything, would happen if my mind were temporarily cleared of them. The word “meditation” never occurred to me and had not yet become fashionable in the West, so my approach was strictly DIY and innocent of all Eastern influence. Surprisingly, I found it quite easy to be a blank slate once the list was out of the way. The next task I set myself was to listen intently and count every sound my ears could pick up. One by one, with the meticulous attention of a train-spotter or bird-watcher focused on the job, the smallest auditory signal was perceived and logged: individual cars’ engines, a more distant traffic hum, the clatter of heels on the pavement, voices passing by the window, some kind of boiler noise, a creaking, a rustling, a crumpling, a tooting, fragments of music from a far-away radio, my own breathing, and so on. The process was more absorbing and demanding than I could have imagined and all sense of time vanished, so I have no idea how long it was before I opened my eyes (I had kept them closed from the start of the experiment). That’s when it happened.

Everything was different. I mean literally, visibly different. I don’t know how to describe this difference without having it labeled as a “psychedelic” or “out-of-body” experience. I was absolutely in my body and in that room but it was as if someone had enhanced the focus, sharpened every outline, made it all crystalline and hyper-real. It felt both ordinary and miraculous, as if I’d been seeing the world through cataracts before but now had 20/20 vision for the first time.

Wanting to know if the Effect would continue outside the room, I went for a walk. It did continue. Every single thing became miraculous – what other word can you use when the ordinary world, without changing anything of its familiar appearance, becomes “other”? Transubstantiates? Transmutes lead into gold while still remaining lead? I vibrated with every person, every building, every object I passed. I was the strings on a violin on which the world was playing an extraordinary fugue. I walked down Rue de l’Université to the Rue du Bac and into the Boulevard Saint-Germain and sat down inside the cool, high, solemn beauty of the Eglise Saint-Germain and then I walked some more. The Effect, the amazing grace, didn’t stop but gradually became fainter as the day wore on and after that first time, I realised that it wasn’t a once-and-for-all phenomenon but would happen only after I’d gone through the ritual of list-making and sound-counting. So I began to do the ritual every day and each time it was easier and quicker.

Then other things started to happen. I would be sitting at the table in the room after doing the ritual and my mouth would open of its own accord and my throat would stretch, as if something that wasn’t me wanted to speak. I observed these things calmly, detached, like a scientist engaged in an experiment. There was no sense of panic or abnormality even if, by certain criteria, something far from normal was going on. I decided that I would try to paint while in that state and, taking advantage of my aunt’s absence during a holiday, I set up my easel, my palette and some blank canvases. I must tell you that, for me, drawing and painting anything figurative is usually a slow process and nearly always requires a model – i.e. something to look at, human or otherwise.

I sat in front of a blank canvas, oil colours laid out on the palette in their usual arrangement, brush in hand, and waited. Very soon I began to tremble as if shaken by strong winds, heart beating fast, driven by something beyond my conscious control. I began rapidly dipping the brush into paint, mixing colour combinations I never used, stabbing at the canvas with feverish speed, creating forms which appeared and disappeared before my astonished eyes in a style that was not mine and which I have never replicated. When it was finished I was exhausted, disoriented, didn’t know that hours had gone by. I’m including a photo of the first of three or four paintings I did while in this trance state.

After a while, I began to realize that the Effect and the trance, while probably related, had different sources, one positive and one negative: the Effect was good for me, the trance wasn’t. I didn’t fancy being a “channel” for some obscure occult forces, even if they wanted to use me to paint some quite interesting pictures. I didn’t like all the trembling, the heavy breathing, the sense of being possessed, drained. Magic tricks don’t appeal to me.

Perhaps, by opening a valve in my mind, clearing out the clutter and becoming completely open for a time I had allowed the miracle of the world to be revealed but simultaneously became vulnerable to invasion by less salubrious elements floating around in some other dimension. Or maybe I was just a hypersensitive eighteen year-old. Take your pick.