The Lure of the Artificial

May 24, 2021
The new Little Island on the Hudson River Waterfront, NYC

I took a look at the new addition to the Hudson River waterfront, the Little Island, and it set me off on an extended internal riff about illusions and the artificial. Coincidentally, I finished up my little foray into the Chelsea district of Manhattan by visiting the Museum of Illusions, a sort of “chain museum,” in that it has sites in many cities. It was very well done, and a lot of fun.

Shades of The Lady from Shanghai, et al…

As for the new park, it is certainly in the grand tradition of 18th garden follies, as the review in the NYTimes commented. The planting is lush, the views are spectacular, the engineering is amazing (although I have had a hard time finding out just exactly how those “tulip” buckets were constructed), but the whole thing is just a little bit…weird and kooky. There is a strong Disneyland feeling, and maybe that’s intentional, but the place feels like a an expensive bauble strung to the waterfront necklace of NYC. Good thing that Diller is footing the bill for maintenance for the next twenty years, because as the Times noted, it’s likely to cost a “king’s ransom.”

I suppose you could say Little Island is more E.A. Poe “Garden at Arnheim than Disneyland, but in any case, we’re firmly in the realm of the artificial. Not fake, mind you, but the product of artifice. And that’s art, with a capital, or maybe lower-case ‘A’. If it were a a little bit on the perverse side, it might have pleased Huysman’s Des Esseintes in A Rebours, but it’s definitely a family place. And after all, it’s no more ‘naturalistic’ than this favorite space for tourists the world over:

Bethesda Fountain in Central Park

Olmsted gave us a little bit of rus in urbe, nature in the city, but in this more European section of Central Park, he leaned Continental and gave us a little bit of the (Italianate) city in nature, in the nature in the city… Yeah, it’s all how you look at it.

Not too far from this spot is what may be the most visited location in the park, Strawberry Fields, a mosaic in the pathway memorializing John Lennon, near the street entrance across from The Dakota (home of Rosemary’s Baby) where he was murdered. And we know what John Lennon said about reality…and was he just echoing something he’d read?

As I rode public transit across the GWB and downtown on the A-train, I was reading this book from the 1970s that I picked up from the NYRB:

This book is one sustained illusion, a piece of artifice that is amazing to contemplate. It is the story of an empire that existed somewhere in the near east, somewhat contemporaneously with the Roman Empire, except that the Roman Empire is never mentioned, and it seems to be the Roman Empire, except not. Maybe it’s the Eastern Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, and the geography seems to match that better, but it really doesn’t matter, because it’s all entirely invented.

The book is a novel, an elaborate historical invention that parallels historical reality, or what we think of as historical reality, or what writers tell us, or have told us, is historical reality, and so on, and on. It is deeply and delightfully ironic and satiric, includes a raft of footnotes that are either completely invented, with authors, sources, journals, and books cited, or sometimes partially invented, and often somewhere in between, requiring a bit of research to determine just where they stand on the line between reality and illusion.

The tone of the book is familiar to anyone who has read a lot of history of the Middle Ages or the Roman and Greek periods of Western Civ that is now slightly old fashioned, that is, stuff written before 1970, say. The cover of the NYRB paperback features an engraving by Piranesi, that consumate re-inventor of the imperial past: his painstaking historical accuracy sometimes gave way to incredible flights of fancy, as in this image, and sometimes it’s not easy to tell if he is giving us reality or fancy, but of course, the reality crumbled to dust long ago.

Reading this book, I had a vague sense that I had heard it all before, and not from the history that I had read, but I didn’t identify the source of this feeling until today. It’s Star Wars! That inexhaustible film franchise is another form taken by the lure of the artificial.

In Star Wars, we have a totalized artificial history that is the mirror of The Glory of the Empire. The novel looks back in time and creates an artificial empire, the movie series looks forward. The novel creates an artificial history that mimics and borrows from actual historical reality and seems as if it could have happened just as the author wrote it. (Of course, the conceit of the novel is that he is writing it as other authors, chronicleers, wrote it, so we have texts written on top of texts…all quite in the manner of J. L. Borges.) In Star Wars, we have a fantastical future realm that lifts all the historical cliches wholesale into an imagined sci-fi future that nobody could believe is real, and that the creators don’t intend anyone to take as real: it’s fantasy for fun.

Star Wars begins from a hazily imagined pas and present, and projects into the phantastical future. What’s so disconcerting about The Glory of the Empire, is that it starts from a perfectly observed present, and imagines a past that we almost feel must have existed given what does exist now. One passage that uses this technique so well is a description of the reunion of the Emperor to-be Alexis with his mother, from whom he has been separated for twenty years. We are told of frescoes by Piero della Francesca that depict this scene – and we can almost believe they exist, especially when we read the footnotes! – and given the paintings by the master that do exist, shouldn’t these be among them? Not to mention the fact that the text goes on to tell us of the immense influence of this narrated/imagined scene on the subsequent history of western art. The passage concludes with a “quotation” from one of Proust’s novels in which a character dies on viewing the frescoe by Piero.

Personally, I have no taste for Star Wars. I prefer my fantasy, my illusions, my artifices with a heavy does of irony and satire. Why would I want to see all the cliches of politics and human folly simply reenacted with high-tech impossible gizmos? But that’s me.

Speaking of artificial islands sculpted into paradisaical gardens, is there ever anything new?

Isola Bella on Lake Maggiore, Italy.


First

December 30, 2017

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Painted by the artist known as Duccio about seven hundred years ago, this could be considered the “Ur image” of Renaissance art: Vasari recognized it as such centuries later. I always visit it when I go to the Met.

I rather like this snap of the picture; very meta 🤓.  Picture of a picture that initiated the Western preoccupation with illusionary pictorial space. The parapet at the bottom edge is key, nicely heightened here, strangely, by the photograph’s flattening of the whole image.  Other pictures intrude into the picture of the picture.

The original frame is burned along the bottom by generations of devotional candles.

 


Sacrifice of the Sun

September 9, 2013

click to animate

From the first part of Fritz Lang’s The Spiders (1919).  It’s an Indiana Jones kind of tale.

I find it incredible that I can watch moving figures captured almost 100 years ago.


Flying in a Dream

December 1, 2010

flying-dream

I began to walk down a steep path, winding like a serpent amidst the forest: at first in a light, elastic step; later, passing into a brisk, happy run which became gradually faster, until it resembled a gliding descent on skis.  I could regulate my speed at will and change course by light movements of my body.

This passage is from the end of a chapter called “Cinnamon Shops” in a book of fiction by Bruno Schulz called The Street of Crocodiles.  (Originally, it was titled, Cinnamon Shops).  I have this dream sometimes, and it’s always very pleasant and positive.  I don’t think I’ve ever read a description that so well captures the feeling and nature of my imaginary whooshing down the street.

Labels such as surrealist, magic realist, symbolist, etc. don’t do justice to the depth of feeling, the poetic atmosphere, and the richness of imagery and situation that Schulz creates in his stories.   His father gives a metaphysical exposition of the significance of tailors’ dummies; he keeps an aviary in an attic room, and believes he can fly with the birds; a puppy named Nimrod; a glimpse of Pan incarnated in the person of a homeless wonderer surprised in an overgrown garden… I read on.

I don’t know how I found out about Bruno Schulz, or how I missed him all these years.  I may have first seen one of his prints – made on scratched glass – from his suite called Idolatry.

  

Here is an excerpt from the conclusion of a chapter called The Gale.  Father is lost in the storm.  Two men go out to get him, but don’t get far.  An aunt visits, has an altercation with a fowl, and shrinks to nothing!

Wrapped in great bearskins, they weighted their pockets with flat-irons and kitchen mortars for ballast, to prevent them from being swept away by the gale.  Cautiously, the door was opened, leading into the night.  Barely had the shop assistant and my brother taken their first step into the darkness, their overcoats swelling, when the night swallowed them whole on the threshold of the house.  The gale washed away all trace of their departure in an instant.  Even the lanterns they had taken with them were nowhere to be seen through the window. 

Once it had engulfed them, the gale abated for a moment.  Adela and Mother tried again to light a fire in the range.  Ash and soot blew out through the tiny door, and their matches were extinguished.  We stood by the entrance and listened, seeming to hear amid the gale’s laments all manner of voices, persuasions, exhortations and gossip.  We thought we could hear Father, astray in the gale, calling for help, or my brother and Teodor chatting lightheartedly, just outside the door.  So convincing were the gale’s deceptions that Adela flung the door open–and in fact we did catch sight of Teodor and my brother, struggling into view out of the gale, in which they were immersed shoulder high.

They fell breathless into the hallway, struggling to fasten the door behind them.  For a moment it was all they could do to press themselves against the door, so powerfully was the gale assaulting the entrance.  But at last the bolt was shot home, and the wind hastened away. 

They spoke incoherently about the night and the gale.  Their furs, impregnated by the wind, now smelt of air.  They fluttered their eyelids in the brightness, and their eyes, still full of the night, bled darkness with every beat of their lids.  They had not been able to reach the shop.  They had lost their way, and barely managed to find their way back.  The town had been unrecognisable, so disarranged were all the streets.

Mother suspected that they were lying.  That whole scene, in fact, gave the impression that throughout that whole quarter of an hour they had been standing by the window, and gone nowhere at all.  Or perhaps there really was no town or market square any more, and the night and the gale had merely surrounded our house with dark coulisses, full of howling, whistling and groans.  Perhaps there were no such enormous and doleful expanses as the gale had suggested to us.  Perhaps there were no such lamentable labyrinths, such many-windowed passageways and corridors, played by the gale like long, black flutes.  We became increasingly convinced that the whole storm was merely the quixotism of the night, imitating tragical immensities in the narrower space of coulisses, acting out the cosmic homelessness and orphanhood of a gale. 

More and more often now, the door to our hallway was opened to admit guests, grey and muffled in cloaks.  A breathless neighbour or acquaintance would struggle out of his scarf and overcoat and exclaim in gasps, in a breathless voice, discontinuous, incoherent and fantastically magnified words which unreliably exaggerated the immensity of the night outside.  We all sat in the brightly lit kitchen.  Beyond the hearth of the range, beyond the wide black hood of the chimney, a few steps led to the attic door. 

On those stairs sat Teodor, the elder shop assistant, listening intently as the attic rang throughout with the gale.  He could hear in the gale’s pauses how the bellows of the attic’s ribs arranged themselves into folds, how the roof grew limp, and sagged like enormous lungs whose breath has escaped them, and how it drew breath once more, rising up into palisades of rafters, growing like a Gothic vault, spreading out into a forest of beams, filled with a hundredfold echo, how it reverberated like the box of an enormous double bass.  But later, we forgot about the gale.  Adela was pounding cinnamon in a chiming mortar.  Aunt Perazja had come to visit.  Small, mobile and thrifty, the lace of her black shawl tied around her head, she began to bustle about the kitchen, lending a hand to Adela, who had plucked a cockerel.  Aunt Perazja lit a handful of papers under the hood of the chimney, and broad sheets of flame rose up from them, into the air, into the black abyss.  Adela, holding the cockerel by its neck, lifted it over the flames in order to burn off its few remaining feathers.  Suddenly, the cockerel beat its wings in the fire, crowed, and was consumed.  Aunt Perazja began to shake, to curse and shout abuses.  Shaking with vexation, she shook her fists at Adela and Mother.  I had no idea what had so upset her, but she worked herself up in her anger into an ever rising state of frenzy–she became one great cluster of gesticulations and execrations.  It seemed that she would gesticulate herself to pieces in that paroxysm of vexation, divide, and disperse in all directions, into a hundred spiders, and branch out across the floor in a black, twinkling burst like the paths of crazy cockroaches.  But instead, she began to grow rapidly smaller, to contract, trembling more and more and pouring out profanities.  Suddenly hunched and small, she tottered to the corner of the kitchen where the firewood was stacked.  Cursing and coughing, she began to rummage fervidly among the resounding wood, until she found two thin yellow splinters.  She seized them, her hands fluttering with agitation, and measured them against her legs.  She mounted them like stilts, and proceeded to walk around on those yellow crutches, clattering over the floorboards, running faster and faster, back and forth in an oblique line across the floor.  Then she ran up onto a pine bench, hobbling along its clattering planks, and from there onto a shelf of plates, a resounding wooden shelf running the whole length of the kitchen wall.  She ran along it, her knees propelling her stiltlike crutches, finally–somewhere in the corner, growing smaller and smaller–to blacken and curl up like shrivelled, charred paper, smouldering into a flake of ash, crumbling into dust and nothingness. 

We all stood helpless before that raging fury of vexation that had consumed and digested itself.  We looked with sympathy on the sad course of that paroxysm, and returned to our everyday tasks somewhat relieved when that woeful process had come to its natural end. 

Adela once more clattered her mortar, pounding the cinnamon, whilst Mother continued her interrupted conversation, and Teodor, the elder shop assistant, listening to the attic’s prophesies, pulled comical grimaces, raising high his eyebrows and chuckling to himself. 

Translated by John Curran Davis – Draft of September 2010 www.schulzian.net


Sweet Dreams of a Slaver

November 11, 2010

From Eugene Sue’s novel, Atar-Gull:  The Slave’s Revenge

THE MYSTERY.

Brulart had carefully closed, bolted, padlocked, the door of his cabin. Without, not the slightest sound was to be heard, except at times the whisper of the breeze among the rigging, the rustling of the sails, and the murmur of the waves as they beat gently against the vessel’s poop, and opened in her wake into a long furrow of phosphorescent light; no more.

Again he listened; again gazed eagerly to see that no one was watching his movements. Then he advanced toward his great chest and opened it.

At first, you would have thought that the old hutch contained nothing; but, on examining it attentively, you would have discovered that it had a false bottom.

He raised the false bottom, and from one corner of that secret place drew out a little coffer covered with Russia leather.

That small casket, which was richly ornamented, bore a handsomely-emblazoned escutcheon. . ‘ It was, perhaps, Brulart^ coat armorial.

Brulart hermetically closed the curtains of the cabin window, and placed the precious casket upon his foul and greasy table, which he drew up toward the cot .

He stretched himself out in a half-reclining posture, after having disdainfully cast away the hat, the crown, the vest, and the trousers, of the late M. Benoit. Then he lifted the lid of the casket, and his eyes gleamed with a singular fire.

His face, ordinarily rude and savage, seemed to clear itself of its coarse and thick mask, and his powerfully-marked features appeared really handsome, so sudden and inimitable an expression of sweetness was displayed on them. He shook his thick hair, as a lion who scatters his mane from his eyes, parted the long, wild locks, and drew forth from the casket a little flask of crystal beautifully cut, and almost entirely concealed under the gold and jewels which adorned it.

Then he placed that marvellous toy close to the smoky and ill-savored lamp, and by its ruddy light observed its contents.

It was a thick, viscous, dark-colored liquid, at once deeper hued and more brilliant than coffee. It would seem that to him it was almost above price, for his eyes beamed with a sort of celestial joy, when he perceived that the precious flask was still nearly three quarters full.

He kissed it with unction, almost with affection, as one would kiss the hand of a virgin, and eet it down, not on his filthy table, — O, not so!— but on a little cushion of black velvet, all embroidered with pearls and with silver.

He also drew out from the same casket a little cup of gold, and a large flask of the same metal.

But during all these operations, there was on the face of Brulart as much reverence and adoration as there is on the face of a priest who is producing the sacrificial chalice from the tabernacle.

And delicately opening the little phial, he passed out drop by drop the seductive liquor, which fell in gouts brilliant as rubies.

Of these he counted twenty. Then he filled the cup with another liquor, as limpid and as clear as crystal, which thereupon assumed a ruddy, golden tint.

And he raised the cup to his greedy lips, drank it off slowly, with his eyes closed and his broad hand pressed upon his bosom. After this was done, he again locked up the cup and flask in the small casket, and the small casket in the chest, with the same reverence, the same care, the same adoration.

And when he arose, you would almost have lowered your eyes before his glance of inspiration, which seemed to dim the lustre of his lamp. He was handsome, magnificent, nay, admirable. His rags, his long beard, all were forgotten, all seemed to disappear before the incredible consciousness of bliss, which glowed over that brow, of late so dark and frowning, now smooth and pure as that of a young maiden.

“Farewell earth! now come heaven!” Such were his words, as he cast himself into bed.

Within ten minutes he was buried in deep sleep.

He had just taken his nightly dose of opium.

Now, by a singular phantasy, which can, however, readily be explained by custom and the continued practice of taking that drug, Brulart had come at last to take the factitious existence which he procured to himself by means of opium, with all its marvellous poetical creations, all its delirious imaginations, all its ravishing visions, for his true and actual life, the vague and confused memory of which seemed to glitter at moments through his spirit, in the daytime, amid the frightful scenes which were the usage of his days, even as the consciousness of some day of happiness will at times cause our hearts to expand even in the midst of some horrid dream. While, at the same time, he regarded his real life, — the life which he spent in the midst of his brigands, of robbery, and of murder, — almost as a dream, as a hideous night-mare, into which he allowed himself to be carelessly inveigled, and which he mechanically urged onward into the darkest horrors, according to the impulse, the whim of the moment, without reflection, without remorse, nay, even with a sort of secret enjoyment, like that of those persons who say to themselves vaguely, in the midst of some hideous dream, ” What matters it to me ? I shall awake, and all will bo well.”

In one word, it was a life reversed.

The fantastical had taken the place of the positive.

A dream had taken the place of reality.

It is difficult to believe,I know it. But try opium, madam, and you will believe me.

Moreover, it is well to put some confidence in a man of experience.


Mirrors

September 1, 2010

In Second Part of Don Quixote, chapter LIX, p. 845 in the wonderful translation by Edith Grossman that I am reading, we are nearly at the end of our journey, or the Don’s journey.  He and his squire, Sancho, find themselves at an inn that is, or the proprietor claims it to be well supplied with foods of all kinds.  Sancho is elated, but when he orders dinner, nothing on the menu is available.  He and the Don settle for a simple rustic stew.

While they are eating, they hear through the thin wall a discussion next door.  Some travelers, well fed by their own private cook, are discussing how to entertain themselves.  One suggests that they read the second part of Don Quixote.  “Why does your grace want us to read this nonsense?  Whoever has read the first part of the history of Don Quixote of La Mancha cannot possibly derive any pleasure from reading this second part.

They refer, of course, to a false edition of the Don’s adventures, that was circulating.  In fact, there was a true-false edition.  The Don makes his presence known, and they, delighted to meet the real Don Quixote, invite him to their table.  He takes a quick look at their edition and pronounces it utter trash: there are so many basic errors, one must assume that the entire book is false.  For instance, it refers to Sancho’s wife, Teresa, as Mari Gutierrez.

A translator’s note informs us that this fictionalized error, a jab at the true-false edition, was not true, or completely true, since Cervantes himself, in his own First Part, refers to Teresa Sancho as Mari Gutierrez!


Queen of the Silents, Queen of the Night

August 30, 2010


A dangerous woman living in a strange environment.  Scenes in the mansion of Sunset Boulevard by Billy Wilder remind me of Blue Velvet – that strange, suffocating weirdness that seems to exist outside of time and place.  Not as weird as the fact that the story is narrated by a man who is floating dead, Gatsby-like, in a swimming pool.

And another dangerous woman, fatal avenger, wicked (not-step) mother, queen of darkness.  Such a dazzling tune.  Who’d know she was threatening her daughter with death if she doesn’t assassinate the prince of the sun?

Actually, I was watching the HD video of the production, outdoors at Lincoln Center.


Correspondences

August 10, 2010

Another visit to a museum after Spanish class – this time to the Frick.  Madame d’Haussonville is ever watchful, and I still cannot figure out how her eyes follow one no matter from which side you look at her.  My brain was very much softened by the oppressive heat and humidity here – I saw correspondences everywhere!

Do I imagine them only?

Looking at the Old Testament stalwart by El greco brought Samuel Beckett, a very different sort of seer, to mind.

The pictorial source for the famous pose of the female at the center of J. L. David’s Rape of the Sabines has been documented as deriving from my favorite cartoonist, James Gillray, but did Gillray get his idea from…Fragonard of all people?  Can you imagine a more bizarre commutation of ideas:  rococo Fragonard  —>  acerbic, TORY, and hilarious Gillray —> righteous revolutionary propagandist, David??!

And just what is the meaning of the gleaming white silk dress that George Romney has painted onto Lady Warwick’s otherwise unimpressive figure?  An entire painting about a fabric?  Do you get to be a Lord or a Lady if you can illuminate your surroundings that way?


News from late antiquity, early modern

July 7, 2010

 

Moving along in Saint Augustines massive City of God, I think he’s pretty much laid to rest the charge that the adoption of Christianity by the emperor and the citizenry of Rome was responsible for its sack by Alaric and its other troubles.  He gives a thorough review of the calamities that befell the Republic and the Empire long before Christ walked the earth and asks sarcastically, why didn’t your gods protect you?   Obviously, it was not the fault of Christianity, since it hadn’t appeared yet.  Morever, excellent rhetorician that he is, he points out that if Christians had been around during the bloodshed of the Gracchi, the various Punic Wars, the civil wars, and so on, the pagans would have immediately argued that it was the presence of Christians that was bringing down the wrath of the gods on Rome.  So since there were no Christians, shouldn’t they blame their own gods?

It’s entertaining to see the lengths to which Augustine will go to make his points, but we have to recall he was writing for an educated audience that was very interested in these ‘spiritual’ questions, and not above enjoying some sophisticated repartee at the same time.  So, he dwells with glee upon the burning of one temple and the incineration of its sacred idol that claimed the life of a high priest who tried to save it.  What!  Your all-powerful gods not only could not save themselves from a mere fire, but couldn’t even lift a finger to save the priest who tries to save them? What sort of gods are these, he asks?  I’m waiting for the clearcut demonstrations of the beneficent power of the Christian god that comes later on.

1200 years later on, I’m halfway through Don Quixote, the novel, or is it a chronicle?, or maybe just a daydream of a bookworm on drugs, and an argument is underway.  The Don, his squire Sancho, and a few local people with some learning are discussing the first part of The Adventures of Don Quixote which was just published.  Everyone’s talking about it!  The second part is coming soon.  [I am reading the second part.]  The characters compare themselves to their depiction in the novel, pointing out inaccuracies and complaining a bit of how they are shown.  The author of the second part will, it is hoped, be better than that of the first.  After all, it is known that there is another version of the story circulating that is a downright fraud, a blatant ripoff of the idea, written and published by some hacks.  For his part, Sancho is peeved that the story is a little too accurate for comfort regarding his humiliation at the inn, when he was hurled into the air on a trampoline-blanket by some tricksters.  Some verbal trickery from the Don assures him that he wasn’t really there, even if his body was.