footnotes, appendices and apparatus to the anatomy
grouped loosely by subject
5. on Fragmentary Lives
Losing your job is, naturally, a good way to start anything, but it is not necessary to go to these lengths in order to glimpse this disconcertingly familiar world.
Civ Clarke, Green Man of Norbiton, tells the story of a man he taught some years ago, a Sicilian banker working in Rome, who was left on his own in his house one weekend when his wife and child were away, and all his friends were on holiday or busy. He was an intelligent and able man in his late thirties. When Clarke asked him about his weekend on the Monday, he ran his hand over his nut-brown face and laughed at his own perturbation. It had been, he said, a peculiar and worrying experience. It wasn’t just that he had been bored (he had), but that he could no longer remember what he did when he was alone. When he was young, he said vaguely, he had been interested in things. He read, he played the piano, he did some sport. But all that had disappeared into the roles he had adopted over the years – banker, boss, father, husband. In saying this, he might have been defining his own success.
The house, he went on, had, in those 36 hours, become inimical to him. It was like a malevolence he had ceased to notice. In his words, it was a dead place. The rooms were muffled, dark, resentfully silent. He had walked, not from room to room, but from doorway to doorway, peered in at places – his son’s room, his own bedroom, the kitchen – which, in their abandoned state he no longer quite recognised. He shook his head, laughed. It had been insane.
But it wasn’t insane. It was a version, I suppose, of Sartre’s nausea: things, places, reasserting themselves, thrusting themselves against you, disgorging you.
And it was a version of Petrarch’s accidia, a secular and philosophical predicament which has more recently been described as melancholy, ennui, Weltschmerz; and which we might recognise as a form of depression; but which also lay contiguous to the scholastic's sin of spiritual neglect or lassitude (acedia). Acedia could be variously anatomised, but frequently comprised the notion of hurry, of busyness; an anxious scurrying which allowed no time – for God, if you were Thomas Aquinas, for the vita contemplativa, if you were Petrarch, or for a little basic self-sufficiency if you were this Italian banker.
Clarke, however, has a different theory. He says that this banker - his name was Gallo - had glimpsed the alternative; squatting in Plato's cave, he had turned his head a fraction, and seen something disturbing - another form of life.
And some of them can see you.
Civ Clarke told me that when he was living in Rome he had known a renegade English Benedictine monk called Laurence (Brother Laurence? Clarke couldn't remember his surname) who had a job there as an English teacher, in the same school as Clarke. Clarke didn’t know he was a monk. He dressed with guilty elegance, cufflinks and buttonholes, a walking memory of the way an Englishman of means might still have dressed at around the time he had taken orders.
After a few months, however, his suits got shiny and his cuffs frayed and he started to touch people for small change; and so Clarke invited him out for a drink, and learnt after a couple of beers that he was in orders and on the run, having committed the sin of falling in love and consummating that love – with a nun, he claimed, but they understood with a brother; he was having a sort of half-arsed and regulation mid-life crisis which under the unusual threat of excommunication had grown rarefied and peculiar.
He had somehow, in this mess, decided that Rome was the best place to hide. Under their noses, he said; and Clarke didn’t enquire too closely into the psychological imperatives which had brought him there like a lonely stalker. And he told Clarke this story: late one night he was waiting for a bus and he had seen another man looking at him furtively, and he had realised, instinctively, that this man was also a renegade priest; and they had got talking. Rome, said this priest – an American - was crawling with renegades. Then their buses had arrived and they had melted each into his own night. That, at any rate, was as far as Brother Laurence told the story.
What looks like fossilisation might not be. It might be someone standing very still.
Clarke, for instance, says that he finally learnt to stick rather than quit when by some accident or other he got the DISTRIBUTION roughly right, and he doesn’t want to upset it. By distribution, he means the complex balancing act between competing forces and energies in his life. His life has become a motionless but fraught circus act.
And in this context he tells a story about a man he knew in Rome, an Englishman called Ray
Bartley. He said that Ray Bartley didn't know how to drive until he was 50 or so. He got about Rome on a 50cc scooter, a Honda, which, unlike a car was a projection of freedom. A car was something else, he didn't know what exactly but it was a big heavy object and it belonged to you, adhered to you. You would need to wash it, park it, sit on your arse in it and look out the window; you would be forced to offer people lifts in it or take your girlfriend to the sea or pick your teenage daughter up after a night's dancing when she couldn't remember how to get a cab and watch her vomit in the back of it, or drive to the big out-of-town supermarket and stock up on tins of tomatoes. And worse than any one of these, you might enjoy it, you might look forward to giving it a wash or going for a drive, you might spend a portion of your life reflecting on how good it was to be able to drive out for your tomatoes and, you know, stock up. It would, one way or the other, alter the balance of your life which was, at best, precarious, like one of those Alexander Calder mobiles.
That was the whole point. You don't simply add something, he would say. You don't just gain some extra stuff for free. Everything new that comes into your life, you have to buy space for it. And it will exert its own gravitational pull on everything else. The bigger the thing coming in, the more gravity. And a car was big. Big and heavy and stupid.
In the end they made him learn to drive, saying he needed a licence of some sort for his scooter, and he didn't want to get a teenage scooter licence. He learnt, passed his test, got his licence, and has never driven since. He bought himself a bigger scooter, however, a 150cc. He could calculate the effects of that, he said. Still fighting, then. The man must be a sticker, resistance in his blood.
A failure will quickly find an opportunity to tell the story of his failure, its involutions, its logic, its fascinating inevitability.
For instance, when I was ten, I was made captain of my football team at school; some months into the ‘job’, I quit. I don’t remember the exact circumstances, it could be I was pushed; it could be that the teacher who appointed me forgot; but I do remember that I went home and told my parents that I had quit because it was too much responsibility. My brother stills laughs at my characteristic ineptness.
One side-implication here is that I had clearly picked up the phrase too much responsibility and deployed it at hazard. All children do this, although it is not so obvious that all adults do it too.
A second a more substantial implication is that I do not remember what led up to my resignation. The phrase too much responsibility ousted the events it purported to interpret. All I remember is the phrase; everything else has become a story supporting that phrase. The whole is now one or my originating myths of failure.
We lived adjacent to my father’s place of work, offices and factories producing street lights and concrete lampposts. There were a number of dumps dotted around the site, and on summer evenings and at weekends my brother and I would make a round of them, pick them over for god knows what. Our teenage world aspired to the quality of a gentleman’s library but was furnished with light-industrial detritus.
In the course of the 1980s the factories that produced the lampposts on that site were closed down. The land was sold off and they built a housing estate. There was a period of a year or so when our evening walks were through abandoned and broken down factories, crunching broken glass and the last of the spilt aggregate; and over the scrubland that surrounded and interspersed the factories and sheds and workshops, where stacks of abandoned concrete lampposts were rapidly brambling over. The desuetude was so natural and apt that they furnished the battle sets of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket with some of these crumbling posts.
I don’t know much about football. Clarke knows more, and assures me that if I knew more myself I wouldn’t write about bronze-age spectacles and the Odyssey in the context of a football match. Just like the middle classes, he says; you have to justify it to yourself, or piss all over it, appropriate the territory. Next thing I’ll be writing about Greek theatre and the agon.
We can take it for granted, I think, that his comments about the twelfth man being the Pazzi chapel are ironic and at my expense.
My experience of football as a spectator is indeed limited.
My father, who used to work for GEC, designed the lighting scheme in the mid-1970s at Stamford Bridge and got a lot of free tickets on the back of it. I used to go along, a small boy, and watch second division matches – I remember watching games against Fulham, Huddersfield Town, Carlisle, Watford. The ground was half empty, and, with the running track around it, the pitch was distant. We sat in the director’s box, my father, pleased with himself, pointing out Eric Sykes or Richard Attenborough or Elton John; and I remember looking out from my vantage across the windblown terraces dotted by men in flat caps leaning on the steel crush barriers.
At Stamford Bridge I saw Bobby Moore play for Fulham against Chelsea, but don’t remember it. My father assured me many years later that he was rubbish. I saw Butch Wilkins awarded the Young London Player of the Year trophy on the pitch before one match, and didn't think it strange that this young man was called Butch. It was the 1970s.
Since then I’ve only been to handful of games, a few in Italy, a couple in England. I’ve never been back to Stamford Bridge. I hear they’ve taken the running track away.
It’s true what Clarke says, I don’t know an awful lot about football, but I know what the curious warmth, like a cattle shed, of a crowded stand in winter feels like; and I understand the transformation of the spectacle when the floodlights are on in the second half and there you all are, crowded into this one spot of light, like, well like Athenians at a performance of the Oresteia, barbarism or winter darkness held at bay for a moment by the agon being played out in front of you and around you.
I always imagine that architects wash their hands to the elbows before and after work. Like surgeons or lawyers, architects are megalomaniacs, even if the gene lies dormant.
Architecture is a profession, not a calling. Whole schools of architecture exist which turn out thousands of architects every year, more than any civilisation could ever believe necessary, and yet I have never known a failed architect. Incompetent architects, but not failed architects.
The woman I knew in Venice, the lover who some years later nearly destroyed me, was just such an incompetent architect. She told me a story about her first job. She was freshly graduated and working for an architectural practice, and her first bit of work was to see to the removal of an internal wall in an apartment building. She consulted the original blue-prints and oversaw the removal of the wall, only to receive a call in the middle of the night from a structural engineer informing her that the ceiling was about to cave it. When she arrived on site it was sagging and groaning on giant metal legs. She double-checked her work and found that there had been numerous and substantial changes to the original plans over the years which meant that the wall in question was now load-bearing.
She told me this story, laughing at her own youthful twittery, the first night we went out together. I should have read it as an ugly threat, a confession of culpable negligence that might – in the event did – extend to the care she would take over our relationship as it too started to carry weight.
Walking is the surest antidote to tedium. I am never bored when I walk. Or I’m bored in a different way.
Tedium is a function of stasis, broadly speaking. It is a suffocation of the soul through silting.
Edward Fitzgerald (1809-1883) had a privileged and peculiar upbringing in which he and his sister were frequently left to their own devices, hour after hour, in their big house in the country. There was nothing to do. He relates (if my memory serves) that he would lie in the middle of the floor of their playroom and bellow like a bull for pure tedium. They would spend hours sitting at the window looking out at the unchanging country, waiting for something to happen. Nothing ever did.
My own adolescence was marked by a similar rhythm. The school I went to was a sort of inverse panopticon, where the indifference to what you did in the long off hours somehow managed to exert an invisible control over you - as though licence were the surest and most Jesuitical route to boredom, to compliance, to devotion.
Whether that was the intention or the established habit, or even just a beneficial side-effect of the accumulated crises of the teaching staff, it partly worked and partly misfired. My resistance, such as it was, was always of the sullen variety. But at seventeen, eighteen you shouldn’t be stuck in a silent cold room with your overcoat on and the window panes rattling, reading Emma.
Little wonder that I hyper-vividly recall the intense blur of incomprehension on my last school day - a day in early June - confronted as I suddenly was by that Serengeti of freedom, so long concealed from me, and otherwise known as The World.
The entrance hall of my school was called the Ambulacrum. It was paved with vast uneven stone flags worn down by the generational traipsing of boys. There were also bench seats in the windows, and when I was 13 this was where the psychotic sixth formers - the deranged Copping brothers (three of them), Wingrove (a sallow youth nearly seven-foot tall), and other Dickensian toughs - would gather. You ambled, in my day, at your peril. Scuttling for pure terror more summed it up. The Scuttelarium.
Why did I make this map?
I don’t remember specifically why I thought I had to get it down on paper – no doubt to clarify some ordinary doubt; but I recall that my brother, now 17 or 18, had been studying Milton’s Comus at A-level, and I suppose I was about to start my own A-levels; and he impressed upon me in his lordly way that it was essential to know your Greek Myths as he knew his way around every myth in Comus, which he treated, in retrospect and perhaps appropriately, as a compendium of knowable objects.
This was why I made my map: as an adjunct to the reading experience. That the form of enquiry, the map, would rapidly became its own object of knowledge was a risk I was unaware of running; obsession, for a teenager, is how you get things done.
I’m sure I never produced a finished version; I may not even have produced a complete one.
I recall one, or perhaps two, copies of it rolled up in the attic of my parent's house. Whether these were the most recent or relics of earlier attempts I do not know: I never looked at them.
They stayed there until my parents moved house after my father's retirement: a sheaf of Failed Objects, in the attic.
Not to mention the forms of religious observance.
Chakotay, for example, the Native American New Age mystic first officer of Star Trek: Voyager, no longer takes peyote to kick-start his dream quests – he has a medicine bundle containing various hoodoo rocks and sticks, and a hyper-technical 24th century bit of apparatus which provides a more controlled, possibly more mellow, hallucinogenic stimulus. When his crewmates accuse him of being ‘a spiritual man’, he modestly concurs. In his trances he converses with his spirit guide, a timber wolf, and encourages Janeway to encounter her own (a lizard?).
I attended a Roman Catholic secondary school where we were annually invited to venerate the relic of our titular saint, a fibia or tibia or leg bone of some sort, which was contained in a glass tube resembling a piece of apparatus from the chemistry labs. We venerated the relic to the talismanic drone of the school hymn, a dreary 40 verse epic in Latin, O beate me, Edmundo!, which was studiously copyedited by generations of schoolboys to O beat me Edmund! in every hymnal ; it didn’t scan but we would attempt to sing it anyway. It was just a moment of resistance, a last clutch at a mouthful of air, after which the oceanic hymn dragged us to the bottom; and so we mumbled and sang and processed like wraiths of the deep to the side chapel and kissed the glass tube; an altar boy (hirsuit young greaser, typically) would wipe each boy’s slaver off with a cloth. There was incense and hyper-vigilant surveillance as teachers and prefects nervously marshalled this departure from the well-oiled routines of control (and the president of the college would be present, an elderly bishop notable for his asceticism – I remember pondering, like Kublai Khan listening to Marco Polo, or perhaps a Minoan child being told that the Minotaur could crunch the bones of an uncooked child, the remarkable intelligence from far away that the bishop (who lived in a remote and carpeted corridor of the college, and was very seldom seen) ate salted toast for breakfast); we processed, then,with the docility, not of a devout cloister, but of a prison yard: this was all a bit of a change before we returned to breaking rocks.
I want to scream at my young self, shuffling along in that insane procession, this is the 1980s. Just walk out of there. You don't have to do this. But that young self, arrogant, complaisant, on the inevitable road to Grand Failure, would not, in the best tradition, have heard a word.
Clarke relates that when he was in Rome his girlfriend the artist had, on her kitchen wall, a number of postcards which she had collected over the years of paintings she liked, cramming, in that demotic way of postcards, vast canvases or frescoed walls or sculpted peach stones or miniature ivories into the same format, as though in these latter days we had finally lighted on a golden aspect ratio.
Clarke doesn’t recall what the individual painting were, but she liked Titian and Veronese, Rubens and Velazquez; Caravaggio, Stubbs, Turner, Ingres. And he says that once or twice she wondered aloud to him what the connection was between them all. There must be something common factor, she speculated, which prompted her to take these particular cards down and post them back up again in every house in which she lived. Not something deep, necessarily, perhaps something superficial, some tickling of the eye, some particularity of hue or form. But there was something, she was sure of it. Some pattern to all this, which she could perhaps hope one day to learn to read: it could be that the key to her life’s work, her struggle to understand the world in paint, was staring at her day after day on her kitchen wall. She might be able to harness it. To take an audacious short cut and end up somewhere remarkable.
Clarke says he tried his best, for her own sake, to piss on her bonfire. He volunteered that the cards had a history – she had bought this one here, that one there; there was no pattern to her trips, so there was no pattern to the cards on her wall.
This made her simultaneously sorrowful and disproportionately angry, as though the two of them were locked into some drama of conversion, and he was dumbly resisting, settling his vast weight into the mud and flicking away the flies with his ears. She allowed that these were not the only cards she might have bought, not the only museums she might have visited. She wasn’t stupid. But there were enough cards up there now: this was real-world data, accumulated over years. It seemed, if nothing else, a question worth asking.
She was engaged, Clarke realises now, in a form of sympathetic magic, insofar as magic overlaps with psychology. Arranging and rearranging familiar objects, furniture; cleaning, gardening. It was a way not only of reading your world, recording the traces of your interactions with it, but a way of taking control of it.
He himself has postcards on his wall, or stuck to his fridge with Grand Canyon magnets; objects that he values, that would be impossible for anyone else to understand. He spends time thinking about the connections. He says that his point about the contingency of his girlfriend’s having picked up postcards here and there was an irrelevance; her life was anyway a contingent pattern: you worked with what you had.
No, there was something here worth pondering. The girl was right, but not in the way she thought. There is a connection, but the underlying topology is complex, polycentric; some of the data is corrupt, meaningless. But there is a connection.
I know of a man who developed the habit, in early retirement, of eating curry for lunch and curry for dinner, in the same curry house, every day. He ate a lot of curry, and drank a lot of beer, and was dead at the end of a year.
If death by curry was his object, as it seems to have been, can we say that he had established for himself a routine? I don’t know. I suppose there is no reason why a routine could not be tinctured by destructive anxiety, just as so many of our habits are. I think it matters, though, whether he sat at his table in the curry house awash with guilt and sadness at the satisfaction he was taking at gorging himself, at the pain he was causing his wife, at the amusement he was giving the waiters; or whether he positively enjoyed playing out an endgame of sublime absurdity, relished his food, mused on the vicissitudes of life as he chewed his lamb tikka jaafrezi, took another sip of Cobra, lit a Rothmans between courses; folded his newspaper under his arm and strolled home in the mid-afternoon, suffused with well being. It matters, because the routine is managed not only in relation to some end, but also in relation to some here-and-now, insofar as the here-and-now and the end are linked. The here-and-now, to put it differently, might very well be the end.
When he died, his curry house catered the funeral, and I like to think that his wife, who presumably made the arrangements, knew what she was doing.
In this case the student, in whose world the distracting minutiae of life loom impertinently large; and this is perhaps at the root of Alciati's whimsy, such as it is. Close that browser window! he says, you do not need more tea! There is no such thing as a power nap!
But it is too late, the remora has you invisibly, you are not virtuous, you will fail.
I used to know students (in the days before everyone had a laptop) who carried boxes of index cards around with them. I would from time to time notice one of my peers flipping through a box of index cards in the library, say, and would idly wonder what the object was for, how it might be used; but, like an Aztec watching a Spaniard ramrod his gun, I would fail to draw the correct conclusion.
And, indeed, was so read by me in my Great History of Ornament (working title: The Roots of Ornament: Cosmos and Cosmetics; unpublished).
I recall that I found myself for some dark months grappling with the implications of the idea that there was, or might be, a gravitational system in play between, say, a painted surface and its (ornamented, decorated) frame (or in the case of fresco its architectural situation); or between a building’s structural, material and decorative elements; or between a sculpted object and its plinth. And so on. I do not really (care to) recall the details. But I am confident that in the paintings of Giotto and Michelangelo, to take an obvious example, we are witnessing what can only be described as a gravitational crisis.
Needless to say, when we are talking about the weight of objects on a painted surface, or indeed their mass, we are using a metaphor. Berenson talked about the tactile values of a painted object, meaning I suppose that the perceptual sub-routines that a painted object calls in a viewer include, if successful, a phantom touch. He makes it the test of a painting’s verisimilitude. He derived this idea, I think, from the Stilfragen of Alois Riegl. Riegl conceived the whole history of art as a move from what he called haptic or tactile values to optic or visual ones; in other words, the move from the virtues of physically present objects to the virtues of painted, absent ones.
However, my central point was that a painted object is nevertheless physically present, that its frame, its architectural location, even its function and audience can work as opposing forces, counterbalancing weights. I made great play of the Maestà of Duccio being hauled through the streets of Siena, I recall; I talked a lot about saints in niches, sculptural or painted, about caryatids and architectural load-bearing structures. I also felt compelled to sketch out chapters on the relative weights of actual paints - the disparity between the multi-layered glazes of oil painters and the light-wristed daub of tempera and the buon fresco, for instance – and on the means (and gravitational implications of the means) by which the paint was transferred to the ground (a history of the brush, a history of the palette knife, a history of the splatter).
I was also persistently aware that in the construction of my Great System – of which the weight of painted objects in art was only a sliver, a fragment – I was in turn building an object of great apparent weight that in reality would weigh no more than that the half-dozen half-kilo volumes I was tacitly proposing to my publisher.
The visitor to the Anatomy of Norbiton might wonder how I come to know anything, in fact, about Hunter Sidney or Civ Clarke, or the rest of them. It is a reasonable question, one not without its own interest. In short, my knowledge of my fellow citizens is characterised in this particular case by what could be called, I suppose, an epistemological triangle, wherein Hunter Sidney tends to tell me in the abstract about some facet or detail of understanding derived from his own experience, an experience which he typically withholds; he then tells (or more likely has already told) Clarke the facts of the matter without the philosophical apparel (apparel of which Clarke is impatient); Clarke then relays the facts to me, usually in the interest of puncturing some abstract construction of my own. And so I write down and publish a more or less redacted and conflated version of what both have told me, in the near certain knowledge that they will either not read it, or if they read it that they will not challenge me about it.
I have elsewhere called us Cyclopes, or compressed sea creatures; but our monstrosity is perfectly real.
It is, I sometimes think, a tidal phenomenon: twice daily we are forced to confront the wreck of ourselves at some low tide of being, once in the morning and once in the evening, staring into mirrors, studying and prodding and testing the collapse of our body.
Twice daily then, when I brush my teeth, I spit blood. My teeth are falling out.
I went to the dentist for the last time a few days before I quit my job; this itself was my first visit for ten years. The dentist, an agreeable quietly spoken man, talked me through the accumulated dints and degradations of a decade. The account could well have been worse. My teeth, he explained, were in passable condition, although I had lost a lump of one of the back ones at some point and that needed filling; but there was such caked scaling that a series of clean-ups was scheduled: I would need to be numbed, he would be scrubbing down towards the root; and here was the turning point of his argument: while bone damage in much of the body can be repaired, bone damage at the root of the tooth cannot. It is a ligament joint, and any degradation is irreversible. I had sustained a certain amount of such damage, which explained my bleeding gums, and all I could hope now would be to slow any further deterioration.
The hope was a false one; it was akin to saying, if you eat right and don’t smoke perhaps you will die of something other than cancer before cancer kills you. I had the opposite of cancer: a refusal of the material of my teeth to replicate. But it amounted to the same thing. Perhaps you will die of something before your teeth fall out, before you are a mumbling wreck. Perhaps, with work and injections and a coal chisel we can flatline your death for you a little. You’ll be able to forget about it, for a while, it will, in the best cases, seem, locally, to recede; you will occupy grottos in the garden of life, you will smile, with your teeth, upon the sunlit garden of your motionless life; those breezes are of no consequence, ignore them; but you know in your heart, you will still be sitting here grinning like a toothless fool when winter is upon you.
I did not go back to the dentist, not because I didn’t want him to scrape my teeth, but because I needed to economise strictly once I had quit my job; I foresaw a few brief years of life, in which I would always have sufficient teeth. I would keep a fund against the emergencies of acute pain, but forgo immortal enamel.
Eating together in comfortable silence might not be an obvious form of conviviality, but if we accept, as we must, that good talk is predicated upon good and contemplative silence then it follows that it is a valid one. The convivium extends beyond any given meal.
I think we could go further with this idea and consider the properties of a solitary conviviality.
I shared a flat for a few months with a man in Venice who was divorced, and employed from time to time on the transport boats; otherwise he was a musician. He had his hair cut with quiff and sideburns like an Elvis-impersonator; but unlike Elvis, I suppose, every day at lunchtime he would prepare himself a bowl of pasta or rice or whatever, and he would lay the table in his living room as though he were in a trattoria – knife and fork, bread basket, carafe of water, cruet set, napkin in a ring. And then he would sit down by himself at the table in silence for twenty minutes and studiously munch his way through his repast.
He said that the meal should be a moment of pause and reflection in your day.
The logical extension of my argument would be that conviviality is a virtue fostered as well or better in solitude than in company. The hermit, or Venetian Elvis, is in that moment of quiet absorption, a fully convivial being.
Convivial with what, is another question entirely.
A speciality of mine. My economic circumstances do not allow me to eat particularly well. I live for the most part now on pasta and tomatoes, toast, tea, and occasional cheap vegetables. But in spite of my parsimony in matters of gastronomy, or perhaps because of it, I am not feeling well. I sag, I bloat; I am a pasty, a slug.
Clarke tells how once, when he was living in Rome with no money for rent let alone food, he broke out in acne for the first time since he was fifteen.
He went round to see his ex-girlfriend and she laughed. But the next day she appeared at his door with a cardboard box in which she had packaged an emergency food drop: fresh vegetables, bags of pasta, tins of tomatoes, sausages, potatoes, fresh fruit, tobacco, bottle of wine. A box of ingredients, he says, with some bitterness. The last meal of a condemned man reimagined as a celebrity chef's trip to Borough Market.
I do not want it to be understood from this that I was in love with Veronica de Viggiani. I was, however, strongly reminded in her presence not only of the former lover in question, but of a particular region of mental geography, if you like, which I had once known well but which had recently been submerged, taken on the status of mythic land, a hazy island on the immense ocean – and that region was, I suppose, associated with love. She reminded me of love.
It was, to put it differently, as though an aged Marco Polo, long since returned from the East, his limbs creaking with rheumatism, dwelling mostly on the ruin of his vast ambitions, the modesty of his estate; as if he were now shown a good map of the lands of the Great Khan. He would trace with a hesitant but wholly absorbed finger the journeys he had made, recall the cities he had seen, marvel at how much he had forgotten. And if that map were a person? An acquaintance from that land, someone who could stand witness for him that what he had seen was true, that what he had related had in fact fallen out as he told, whose own memory varied from but stimulated the workings of his own? His general idea of the East, this complex mental token, but a token nonetheless, would be analysed out again into its constituent elements: the East, in his head, would live anew.
Veronica could neither bear witness for me that my supersaturated love had been well founded, or returned; nor could she show me a version of the evolutions of that story. But she did remind me of the specific draft of love I had taken. If, I now realised, I had cheerfully disregarded the want of love in my life in recent years, it was because I remembered love only for its generalized chemical properties. But any given love will in fact be stamped with a unique signature. This, I suppose, is why when an affair ends badly you see the beloved several times daily for weeks, months – in my case years – after, in glimpses of strangers rounding corners, the backs of distant heads, a brisk gait or flick of the hair at five hundred yards: the whole world is bent to the specifics of your case. You do not hallucinate your love, your bereavement, you merely project its overwhelming veracity, as though your head were a battleship crewed by missionaries.
So, not in love. No reason to be. But contiguous to it, suddenly aware of its absence.
This was before the foundation of the Ideal City, and subsequent to quitting my job. It was a time, in other words, when I can be said to have floated free of all social ties. I knew no one, saw no one, and spent up to 22 hours of every day sitting in my room.
So it was that I grew tired of looking at the bulging remnant of my intellectual dreams, the files and notes and false starts and printouts. I stuffed as much of it as I could carry in a rucksack and walked it down to the allotments, where I left it in a pile and came back for the rest. I burnt everything I had on my computer pertaining to my academic life on to a DVD, a little pre-inferno, and took that down too, with the rest of the papers.
Clarke says he saw me that evening, a sorry Viking in the firelight, in the mud of the allotments, watching a conflagration of papers. He knew, he said, that something was ending, something else beginning, down there. He had seen it before. We burn Guy Fawkes, after all, at the outset of autumn, in order that it may help the crops.
Hannah Arendt points out, accurately if dourly, that all art works are dead: “We mentioned before that this reification and materialization, without which no thought can become a tangible thing, is always paid for, and that the price is life itself: it is always the “dead letter” in which the “living spirit” must survive, a deadness from which it can be rescued only when the dead letter comes again into contact with a life willing to resurrect it, although this resurrection of the dead share with all living things that it, too, will die again.” The Human Condition p.169
I am moved to speculate that if a photograph is acheiropoietic, then a digital photograph is doubly so. Unlike Hunter Sidney, I have numerous images of my former beloved buried on defunct drives; like so much flaking papyrus, those pure and hieratic registrations are no doubt steadily losing information, corrupting, degrading.
They retain, however, in consequence an augmented totemic power. Those radioactive fragments of holy text are enough, you sense, to conjure from any minor psychological affliction a malevolent and largely fictional goddess.
As did my father.
My father as a young man took considerable pride in his instinct for interior decor. At some point in the 1960s before I was born, perhaps before he was married, he bought a carpet of Greek Key design. It was a dark blue key against a dark green background, if I recall. We moved house often in the first decade of my life, and the carpet came with us each time, being cut again and again to fit its destined bit of floor; so that by the time we settled on a house in the late seventies, it was dispersed in offcuts here and there, some under a bed, some filling a blank space at the end of the hall, bundles of misshapen oddments rolled up in the attic against any future move.
Piecing the carpet back together might have had some sort of (insane) therapeutic value for my father, had he ever grown tired of his whisky and cigarettes; he could have traced his life back along the labyrinthine dismemberment of the Meander motif to a point where he could confirm that once, before the threads of organisation got lost, he had cared about the material organisation of his life, standing there on his Greek Key carpet, a modestly suave bachelor with his Quad hi-fi and his Conran furniture, and his whisky and cigarette.
Plutarch (AD 46 – 120) lived many years after Virgil died (BC 70– 19), so I mean that he referenced the dance, not the description of the dance.
However, clearly I have confused and anticipated matters in my own head – a properly labyrinthine befuddlement of scholarship in this instance. The Crane dance anticipates the Virgilian carousel by several centuries and Virgil makes no specific reference to it, nor does he describe the Trojan display as a dance. All of these elements are in fact drawn together in a description of Catherine de’ Medici’s Ballet des Polonaises by Jean Dorat which I know through an article by Thomas M. Greene in the Renaissance Quarterly called ‘Labyrinth Dances in the French and English Renaissance’ (Vol. 54, No. 4, Part 2 (Winter, 2001), pp. 1403-1466). Everything is constructed backward from that source, so to speak.
Elsewhere in Ludic I quote a different description of the same dance, by Pierre de Bourdeille, Seigneur de Brantôme; Dorat's is in Latin, Brantôme's in French.
I say this in the hope of anticipating further confusion; but it is by now clear to me that adding detail and refinement in this way only multiplies everyone's bewilderment. It is a useless instinct in me, the hopping of a galvanic frog.
Life is a series of impossible and incomplete projects.
In our early teens my brother and I conceived and started work on a secret nuclear fall out shelter - more of a command and control centre, really - in a corner of our garden; the shelter was to be a concealed and handsomely furnished warren, something between Stalag Luft III and Tracy Island.
We began by constructing a vertical shaft, and made a considerable hole behind a coniferous tree that stood near the shed. We could stand in the hole up to our shoulders. I can remember the awkwardness of standing there, scraping at the earth around my ankles in an emblem-book representation of futility.
I remember also that we developed a harness system, tied it to the tree that concealed our labours, and would take it in turns to be lowered head first into the hole, legs kicking in the air; but it is uncomfortable hanging head first in a hole, scraping at dirt; like pearl-divers, we could manage a couple of minutes at the bottom before coming up for air, purple-headed and spluttering.
This was as far as the project got. I have a recollection of my father peering gloomily into the hole upon discovering it some weeks or months later (he rarely bothered with the garden’s obscure corners, even though they were mere yards from our back door); he wasn’t angry, he was used to this madness and perhaps at some level he understood (yes, an impossible project; they’re tunnelling out. Perhaps they’ll take me with them). He just asked us to fill in the hole. This was a man, after all, for whom unfulfilment was a Greek Key carpet he carried like a burdensome jigsaw from house to house [for my father's Greek Key carpet, see above].
My glasses do not have pebble lenses.
However, I do need to put my spectacles on to look at paintings. I wouldn’t say my eyes are failing, but I have a slight astigmatism which almost imperceptibly blurs detail, and which requires correction for proper full-on fine-grained looking.
I sometimes find myself wondering, in consequence, if I really am seeing what I am looking at, or if I am experiencing only an artfully deviated and tinctured stream of photons, a mimicry of the correct functioning of an eye.
With van Eyck’s Canon Joris the difficulty is exacerbated by the presence of a protective screen of glass; your view - my view - is inevitable if fractionally compromised by a misaligned sequence of smutched layers.
You can take your glasses off and peer around the side of the protective glass, assuring yourself that you have now seen Canon Joris with your own eyes. You can rest easy. But all you in fact see is an unreadable slab of painted matter, your eye at an angle of incidence to the canvas of about five degrees. So far from resting easy, you now need to account for your own Byzantine superstition, your need to be in the unmediated presence of the holy icon.
No. You must accept that seeing is always thus mediated, a composite of visual and psychological events.
I have to that end occasionally stood in front of paintings with a pair of binoculars. Similarly painters often use mirrors to check the progress of their work, its proportions and symmetry. Perhaps this multiplied looking is a condition of understanding. Glasses on or glasses off, I should not worry.