Douglas Penick – Dreamers and Their Shadows (2013)

I voted for the losing side, but then: “The world is not arranged for your benefit, you know. The world has continued this far and will continue without reference to you. You may wish to believe that your perceptions, feelings and all your responses are part of the world’s consciousness of itself. You may wish to feel that your actions are part of the world’s continuous evolving. Say what you like, but nothing is saved. Certainly not you, or me for that matter.” (p. 100)

One of the influences of art is its illumination of one’s own thought and experience. The illuminations are not necessarily what the creator of the work intended or considered. For the individual upon whom the creation has its influence, it is more in the form of a private monologue of commentary on the self, rather than a public need for explanation, and hence a proclivity to judgment, of the creation. The former is discovery, the latter presumption; though it is necessary to recognize creations that in themselves are only presumptions, without artistic merit, and that do not arise from the creator’s awareness of discovery, nor from the artist’s role as “a responsible commentator.”

“He was like that small indistinct traveler in the lower part of a Chinese painting, moving on the twisting path upward through an unfolding landscape of looming mountains and pines swathed in wisps of cloud, a landscape that he could never see entirely or comprehend. And despite the pain, occasional delirium and the general tedium of a journey that often seemed pointless he could not turn back.” (p. 98)

Kuo Hsi, Clearing Autumn Skies over Mountains and Valleys, Northern Song Dynasty c. 1070, detail from a horizontal scroll. [33]

Kuo Hsi, Clearing Autumn Skies over Mountains and Valleys, Northern Song Dynasty c. 1070, detail from a horizontal scroll.

The book deals with the awareness of illusion, and how this awareness is as much one of the present of what may have been the past. And how the nature of memory coalesces with inspiration, neither of which, though they continue, “cannot be owned or possessed.” But this goes further; for “spiritual practice and the arts have been interwoven since the very beginning….”

“So in this moment, we should take our time and recognize that we are living in the outstretched hands of millions of men and women who have reached out from the past to touch us here and now.” (p. 99)

Dreamers and Their Shadows

Dreamers and Their Shadows

The work is a five-part structure comprised of annals and continuities, in which the annals are the narrative and poetic contents of scrolls and the continuities observations of the present. There are five annals and 23 continuities. Each annal is told from the perspective of a different character. All the continuities are observed from the same character. Each annal is associated with a continuity. Annals 2, 4, and 5 have one continuity each. Annal 1 has nine, annal 3 has 11; hence, they have elements of exposition; whereas the other three exhibit elements of induction.

The scrolls that give the 16th century texts written by the five characters are found in the post-war devastation of Tokyo. In time, the scrolls are found to be fraudulent, but the lacquered container in which they are held is found to be authentic. The contradiction is not evaded.

Aftermath of WWII US Bombing of Tokyo, 9-10th March 1945 (Courtesy:

Aftermath of WWII US Bombing of Tokyo, 9-10th March 1945 (Courtesy:

““I can’t stand all the politics any more,” I said quietly. I felt suddenly overwhelmed with sadness. ¶ “But it’s better than religion if you want to know about reality.” The Prince smiled softly.” (p. 58)

The author, in a 2013 interview with Rev. Danny Fisher, commented that Tibetan Buddhist, Orgyen Kusum Lingpa, “in a famous quote, said that the essence of all Buddhist meditation is not following thoughts. In other words, practice involves an exploration and refinement of our experience beyond ego, beyond the limits of our conventions and concepts. The challenge in art is similar. Self-expression is the conventional limit.” The author gives Bach, amongst others, as an example of this transcendence. If one looks into the music, such as the 20th fugue, in A minor, of the first book of The Well-Tempered Clavier, this example can be accepted, and, if accepted, then understood as true.

“But you should have more confidence. The world of inspiration has its own continuity.” (p.121)

“Then I thought: How quickly reality becomes our dream.” (p. 71)

Dreamers and Their Shadows was my second encounter with Penick’s work. I came to his short story “Imprint of a Bird in the Sky” in Descant 162, which appeared in the fall of 2013. Its narrative centres on an artist, a gifted and accomplished sitarist from Delhi.

The teacher says to the sitar student in the latter’s youth, “You must understand, Ananda, that as a musician, playing well is not a matter of copying or expressing. One must go to the heart, to the heart of oneself, to the heart of everything.” And as the musician approaches the end of his life and is renowned, he observes, consistently, that his art “is merely a prayer taught to him by [his teacher] which he plays to weave his love, as strongly as he can, into the fabric of this world.”

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