Sunday, May 31, 2015

The Bird Out of Space and Time (Part 6).


Though my delusion of being the only inhabitant of the high rises was not destined to last too long, that drear, interminable February saw the onset of my newfound agoraphobia.  The Harrington/Sheldrake was located on the quays of a river that runs straight the length of the city.  The Quarter was some distance away from the heart of the city, a short walk from the humming industry and slanting cranes of the port at the river’s mouth. 

There was two directions in which I might walk: along the river to the east, towards the port, or back, westward, into the city.  Either side, there was really nothing, only mazes of old housing estates, desolate warehouses, and junk-yards.  I tried walking through these old estates at first, but their sense of seclusion and insularity oppressed me.  They were places where the people and the streets were of one character, hewn together over long generations, forged into a language and intimacy which was theirs alone.  Hearing snatches of conversation, eyeing people at bus stops and lounging outside bars to smoke cigarettes, I felt the weight of separation, of the totality of time and experience which remains unconnected to our own, and which we intersect with only briefly, at the impersonal whim peculiar to city streets.

I felt more comfortable in the Quarter, in its spartan, clean architecture, which suggested something freshly assembled.  It was a place without a past - an open community with no connections to the world around it, or even between its own separate units.

So I kept moving eastward along the quays to the mouth of the river, and the expanse of the ocean.  It was a short walk to such an illimitable cul-de-sac.  The ocean, flattened and foreshortened by my perspective, seemed to combine with the sky to form a vertical plane or wall – the flat edge where the world ceased.  This, at rate, was the feeling it evoked in me: that whatever creative agency generates the various appearances of the world became exhausted, and ceased its activities at precisely this point.  The ocean was its final act, an undulant, slumbering dream of creation where all colour and form lost their fixity, becoming liquid and protean, motionless as a whole, yet everywhere astir with the tiny scintillations of some dimming purpose, before ceasing altogether in the whiteness of the sky. 

This sense of a precipice or impassable barrier was accentuated by the diagonal arms of the cranes, which resembled the skeletal frames of an uprooted bridge, and the funereal slowness of the large container carriers that moved across the port like leaden clouds.  Throughout the month, thick fog banks drifted in from the ocean, as though the world’s exhaustion, the final diminution of its creative powers, was spreading slowly back inland, softening and stealing away the solidity and texture of things, drawing everything towards the glazed pallor of the sky.

So I walked westward along the river, towards the city centre.  This was a longish walk, which could take up to an hour at a decent clip.  The quays were a disorientating mixture of very old and very recent architectural developments.  The newer additions, like the Harington/Sheldrake, were modernist gentrification projects infused with a vague air of science fiction utopianism.  They had revoked the idea of being mere buildings, aspiring instead to a sense of rooms floating disembodied in sheets of glass, rectilinear hives wrapped around supple new curvatures, like soap bubbles straining to take flight.  They emphasized pristine whiteness, soft, fluorescent neon hues, and the absence of colour in the milky reflection of polished glass.  All in all, they embodied that ubiquitous aesthetic whose centre of gravity is the unadorned screen.
All borders around the screen were vanishing - the building had become a window, and the television itself, almost imperceptibly, had ceased to be a television, becoming instead merely its screen.  These new structures reflected a post-industrial ethos, a world in which ideally nothing was built, and hence the architecture sought to make the actual trappings of building and construction invisible, and the finished structures as sleek and diaphanous as possible.  They were, I suppose, intended to be like information in the current regime: content without a physical container; soul, or some intimation of the presence of a soul, without a physical body to situate it within the levelling flow of time.

These new developments appeared incongruous, almost like mirages or will-o-the-wisps, in the context in which they had been marooned: old streets whose concrete and stone showed their ruggedness and age, the muscle and sinew of dormant industries and freight routes, abandoned warehouses and tracts of weed-mottled wasteland, housing estates built in the 70s in the style of unpoliced prison-yards, occasional town houses of the 18th and 19th centuries, further marooned, whose interiors might have housed insular and highly evolved breakaway civilisations of squatters, artists, scavengers, and revenants.  Marinas crested the gentrified districts, like pictures from second-hand books that memorialized fading aspirational horizons, old dreams grown keener and more distant in an aging and neutral landscape of middle years.  As I walked, I always felt a peculiar sensation, as though my own past were falling after me like a trail of breadcrumbs, but the breadcrumbs would not lead anywhere, because they were cast up in a breeze and scattered, or picked away with mechanical briskness by seagulls.  It felt as though my mind were being wiped clean, and my identity nullified somehow, so that my impressions had a cold, pristine quality, like the world perceived by a somnambulist: a mysterious, discontinuous landscape, haunted everywhere by dim intimation of the slumbering awareness which would make sense of it all. 

Memories came to me then, but of a peculiarly detached quality, as though they belonged to somebody else.  In the most persistent of these fugitive memories, I am a child, staying in some great old town house in a leafy estate by a canal.  I am exploring a cabinet in the alcove of a dimly lit hall.  An old woman, whom I am desperately afraid of, is asleep in a nearby room.  The cabinet contains a book of strange heraldic symbols and allegorical emblems.  I always pause at one particular image.  Two children, a boy and girl, are setting off on an open country road, their possessions bundled in sticks over their backs.  To their right, an amiable looking peacock stands at the gate of a meadow, apparently talking to the children.  There is a sly, languorous serpent curled up at the feet of the peacock.  In the sky above the winding road, a cobbler hammers at a pair of shoes, his head downcast and absorbed in his work.  Beneath the image, the following is written:

By this point, I would usually be arriving at the financial district, and the beginnings of the city proper.  But I could never go any further.  I was tempted to revisit some of my old haunts, but the prospect always intimidated me.  I’d been living a strange, solitary kind of existence for some time at that point, and was troubled by the possibility that I might have changed in some fashion, unbeknownst to myself.  Perhaps, by increments of degradation too gradual and subtle to register, I had become some kind of dishevelled, wild-eyed Crusoe.  Or, worse still, perhaps my outward appearance remained unchanged, but my mind had gone so far outside of the pale of routine existence as to be exposed as sheer bedlam when reacquainted with ordinary society.  It was possible that I’d replaced the shared world of everyday reality with a private world of concepts and phenomena entirely of my own invention, again in a process slow and cumulative enough to have evaded my awareness.   If I met an old acquaintance out and about, I might endeavour to keep the conversation in the safest, most banal territory – the weather, for example. 

What if, however, there was in actuality no weather?  What if the atmospheric conditions and temperature of the earth remain always in a perfectly static equilibrium state, and “the weather” was merely a delusionary system of my own invention, an elaborate persecution fantasy of some sort?  Worse still, perhaps it was an entirely commonplace delusion, a well-known foible of the most unimaginative lunatic: sufferers of this type of delusion, writes Konneigan, are subject to the belief that the entire earth is prone to fluctuations in temperature and atmospheric condition, almost like mood-swings or tantrums.  The entire lifestyle of the patient is structured around ritualistic attempts to placate and curry favour with this belligerent atmospheric daimon, most notably through the periodic alteration of diet and attire.  During periods of the “weather’s” sterner, more vengeful incarnation, the patients dress in attitudes of extreme modesty, huddled and covered-up like penitents or nuns.  Walking around, they are often seen scowling, grimacing, and shivering, as though embroiled in an internal struggle with their “weather.”  In contrast, during its lighter, more benevolent incarnation, the patient becomes a virtual libertine, shedding the excess clothing, and frequently presenting themselves in attitudes of carefree, sensual submission to the “weather.”   

Clearly, the “weather” serves a very complex series of functions in the mental ecology of this type of patient.  It places them in an intimate relationship with the world, solar system, and cosmos as a whole.  In their delusionary system, the indifferent atmosphere cares enough to subject them to personal punishments, or lavish warmth and a sense of well-being upon them.  As such, the “weather” allows them to project an intertwined parental, religious, and erotic psychodrama onto the canvass of an indifferent world.  The delusion is so thoroughly engrained in their mental ecology that it is normally the first thing they discuss with strangers, as though it were the most universal, quotidian subject imaginable. 
 These thoughts, which I found on the whole rather gloomy and paranoid, tended to stop me in my tracks.  Then I would consider the city itself, reconstructing it like a vast memory palace whose various streets and structures concretized my own moods and desires, the fitful, meandering course of my destiny.  The city had been like a deck, shuffled and re-shuffled, bearing emblems of desire and failure, presages of abundance and disaster, certain longed-for cards that remained invisible, almost forgotten, ever sought after; streets of chance that I went down endlessly, seeking after somebody whom I believed I’d once vowed to find again, somebody who also sought after me, so that we traced blind orbits around one-another, serene and hopeless, unable to relinquish the quest or ever reach its final object.  That seemed all finished to me now; whatever I had been looking for, I would not find it.  I would not thread the streets of chance again, until something had become fixed in myself.  This, or so I imagined, was what I was doing in the Quarter.  I had been called there, to remain absolutely stationary and detached from life, to become an observer of a process which was underway either in my own mind, or the world, or in both. 

Formulating these conclusions, I found that I had been gazing idly across the river at a tiny antique store sandwiched between two imposing derelict townhouses.  The place was called Kazanian’s.  The letters formed a yellowing arch on a window rimmed with a coating of brownish grime that lent it, as though by design, the texture of an old photograph.  Beneath the lettering, a lovingly arranged tableau of bric-a-brac: an art deco clock in the centre, surrounded by wax flowers, porcelain dolls, snuff boxes and miniatures in precise disarray.  Something about the shop caught my fancy, and even moved me to a certain indefinable sympathy.  Located as it was in the midst of such dereliction and emptiness, it gave the impression of a hopeless persistence, as though the whole world had come to a stop around it, and it had simply carried on, opening its doors dutifully each morning, hopeful each day of fresh custom in a silent, ravaged city.  I imagined its proprietor as the last man on earth – a harmless, hapless individual who rose every morning in squat lodgings to the rear of the shop, talking eagerly to an adopted wild cat that munched scraps and eyed him suspiciously, every day without complaint, every day with the impossible hope of the doorbell chiming.  The antique shop was itself the ultimate antique, the last vestige of a vanished civilisation, persisting by a blind, spectral habit as the world’s decay ripened around it like a fecund garden.  Moved more by this imaginary scenario than any actual circumstance of the building itself, I hastened across a bridge, and went within.

The arrangement of the shop was typical of such places, in that it was constituted entirely of its wares.  Other shops had their own shelving, displays, and so forth, but the antique shop such as Kazanian’s could be entirely functional: its smaller items were displayed on tables to the centre, and cupboards and cabinets along the walls, which were themselves for sale.  Kazanian’s went further than most in this regard, in that even its antique cash register had a price tag.  A wealthy individual could, if such were his whim, walk in and empty the premises at a stroke.  It wouldn’t have surprized me too much if the proprietors’ own garments were also for sale, and I imagined the scene, after some playful profligate had brought out the entire business, either as an act of kindness or some prank: the proprietor seated in his long johns in the bare room, his face rapt with the peculiar humiliation of arbitrary triumph.

Of this proprietor, I should say a few words.  He was seated, if seated is the right word, in a rocking chair against the far wall, between a grandfather clock and large globe whose continents were barely legible beneath a thick mildew.  He was one of those extremely tall, slender old men whose white, unwrinkled faces have reverted to a childlike air of buoyancy and simplicity.  He beamed at me when I entered the shop, but said nothing, rocking back and forth on the chair with a boisterousness which was unseemly and disconcerting.  I took an immediate disliking to this seller of antiques.  It seemed to me that to use one’s wares in this fashion was hardly conducive to sale – it could only be the most doltish of bed-salesman, for example, who would copulate vigorously with his wife or mistress upon the emporium’s centrepiece, without expecting some adverse effect on the customer’s ability to browse or desire to purchase, however the display made ample demonstration of the product’s durability.  That elderly gentleman’s rocking had a similar effect: even when I turned away from his serene, almost simpering expression, the metronomic creak of the chair engendered an atmosphere of heightened tension.  I would have left the shop immediately, but my eye was caught by a book in one the cabinets: an original Shadwell’s imprint of The Path Out of Malkuth by W.E. Pusey.  Though I had never read it, the collection of short stories and essays was instantly recognisable to me from my erstwhile Pendleton studies.  The two men had been friends, after a fashion, prior to Pusey’s disappearance.  Although I had long since repudiated those studies, the book exorcised a certain fascination, and I knew that the Shadwell originals were as rare as rubies.  I took the book from the cabinet, opened it at random and began to read:

“At evening-rise, Kadmon stole nimbly into a large square.  The atmosphere of the square was melancholy and eerie.  At its centre was a dry, sand-clogged fountain, and all about it remained the tables and chairs of long abandoned restaurant terraces.  Rising up to an immense height at each side of the square were stone apartment towers, with all their windows and balconies in darkness, so that the entire square was shrouded in an immense gloom.  In the older times, it would have been a scene of considerable gaiety and boisterousness, with musicians playing by the fountain, youths dancing, and the migrants seated at the terraces, eating and drinking as was their want.  The great faces of the stone towers would have danced with the fires of candles and lamps, and lithe, indistinct figures lounged on the balconies that reached up into the evening colours of the firmament.”

“Now the walls of the towers were densely twinned with the thick, flowerless limbs of that strange plant that grows out of the desert floor, and wraps its limbs around untended places as though to strangle them, or pull them back beneath the sand.  A group of five elders sat by a fire at one of the terraces; their eyes were fixed either on the fire or the old fountain, and they barely spoke.  Kadmon resolved to move swiftly away from this dreary scene, but his eyes lighted on something peculiar as he passed through the square.  In a window about half way up the eastern tower, the reddish glow of a single lantern was visible.  This was a strange thing, for it was the city ordinance that while a tower was abandoned, every floor above the third must be rendered inaccessible by a stone barricade, so as to prevent infestation by undesirables and criminals.  Kadmon observed two shadows in the gleam of the lantern: one appeared to be an emaciated man seated on a couch, and the other a child that capered and danced around the room.  Those shadows, vague and phantasmal as they were, caused a little chime to echo through the halls of Kadmon’s memory, for thieves never wholly forget a tale they have heard of some treasure worth stealing,or weird adventure worth risking.”

“He sauntered over to where the elders were seated to inquire into the mystery of the single occupied apartment, and was greeted with typical coldness and suspicion.  ‘Good evening-rise, friends,’ he began, ‘and please excuse my interruption of your leisure in this palatial square, but I must own that my curiosity, much exercised and keen through a lifetime of honest travel through our great city, has been considerably sparked by the mystery of that light that burns in yonder tower.  What kind of man or fiend, I wonder, would live so high up in an empty tower, and how does such a creature even accrue to himself the means of subsistence, marooned up there at such a height?’” 

“There was a long pause in which the elders fixed their eyes everyway but in Kadmon’s direction.  Finally, the woman who sat nearest him spat vehemently on the ground, and began to speak:  ‘The apartment has been occupied by a hateful old wizard since I was a child, and in those very old times, he was often seen going about the district.  He carried himself with great haughtiness, as wizards do, and insulted and abused people as was his wont.  But then there came into his possession a certain magical hourglass, and turning that hourglass and gazing into the falling of its vermillion sand became all his pleasure, and no more did he leave his apartment high up in the eastern tower.  The years past, ill-fortune came to our district, and gradually the towers became derelict, but that wizard, ever absorbed in the visions vouchsafed him by the hourglass, paid no heed to the world’s comings and goings.  He has a little trained monkey, a creature of abysmal cunning and malice like its master, and each day that monkey climbs down from the tower and steals what little food the wizard requires to sustain his worthless and sedentary existence.  He is a pest, stranger, and there is no doubt that his nightly turning of that unholy hourglass has brought no luck to this district.’” 

“The stirring of Kadmon’s memory had been correct: he had heard in the past of a decrepit wizard who possessed a powerful talisman of the lizard people which was called the Hourglass of Aeons.  ‘Friends, I am the thief called Kadmon.  If you have heard the tale of how the Elephant God’s Nimbus was clutched from the yellow-robed priests of Yanni, then you know of my renown.  Tonight I will pay a visit to your wizard, and perhaps earn some readdress for the prolonged nuisance he has brought to your district.”  There was another pause, until again the woman spoke: ‘The tale of the Elephant God’s Nimbus is a good one, stranger, but is it true?’ 
“Kadmon, however, was already striding in the direction of the eastern tower.”

Absorbed in my reading, I’d failed to notice that the chair had ceased to rock; finally I registered with a start that the proprietor was standing over me, his stature almost prodigious.

“Are you interested in buying that one, sir?” he asked in a mellifluous yet distant voice.  “I only ask because you seemed quite absorbed in its contents, sir, like one happily drowning in ambrosia.”

A rather ominous display of bric-a-brac, Nantucket, 1880.

Continued shortly.