Friday, December 16, 2016

Good Grief!

Two Planes

The Bay

Marseilles, a dazzling amphitheater, rises around the rectangle of the old harbor. The three shores of the square paved with sea, whose depth cuts into the city, are lined with rows of facades, each one like the next. Across from the entrance to the bay, the Cannebiere, the street of all streets, breaks into the square's smooth luminescence, extending the harbor into the city's interior. It is not the only connection between the soaring terraces and this monster of a square, from whose foundation the neighborhoods rise like the jets of a fountain. The churches point to the square as the vanishing point of all perspectives, and the still-virgin hills face it as well. Rarely has such an audience ever been assembled around an arena. If ocean liners were to fill the basin, their trails of smoke would drift to the most remote houses; if fireworks were to be set off over the plane, the city would be witness to the illumination.

No ocean liners fill the bay, and no fireworks are coasting down; there are only yawls, motor launches, and pinnaces, resting lazily at the edges. During the sailfishing era, the harbor used to be a kaleidoscope dispatching moving patterns across the quays. They trickled off into the pores; the gratings of lordly mansions, set back from the shorefront, glistened. The splendor has lost its luster, and the bay has degenerated from the street of all streets into a rectangle. Its desolateness is shared by a side branch of water, a forgotten rivulet that does not mirror the stark houses.

The city keeps its fishing nets open. The catch is collected in the harbor's new basins, which, together with the coastline, describe a mighty trajectory. The arrival and departure of the ocean liners, aglow as they disappear over the horizon, constitute the poles of life. The bleakness of the bare warehouse walls is an illusion; their front side is what the fairy-tale prince would see. In the spongy depths of the harbor quarter the fauna of humanity is teeming, and in the puddles the sky is pristine. Outdated palaces are converted into brothels that outlive every ancestral portrait gallery. The mass of humanity in which the peoples of different nations blend together is flushed through avenues and bazaar streets. These define the borders of the districts into which the human tide disperses. In the shell-like windings of one of those districts rages the eternal mass of small-time tradespeople.

Unfrequented amid all this, the bay lounges about lazily. Its very existence prevents the arches from closing. The streets dead-end on its banks; it bends straight ones into curves. In its public space the obvious vanishes; its emptiness spreads to distant corners. The bay is so mute that it surges through the shrieks like a respite. The filled tiers of the amphitheater spread around a cavity. The upright audience turns its back on it.

The Quadrangle

Whoever the place finds did not seek it.1 The alleys, crumpled paper streamers, are laced together without knots. Crossbeams traverse the soil wrinkles, rubbing against plaster, plummeting into the depths of basements, then ricocheting back to their starting point. A backstairs quarter, it lacks the magnificent ascending entrances. Grayish-green smells of sea waste come smoldering out of open doors; little red lamps lead the way. In the spaces that afford a view, one finds improvised backdrops: rows of flying buttresses, Arabic signs, stair windings. If one leaves them behind, they are torn down and reconstructed at a different site. Their order is familiar to the dreamer.

A wall heralds the square. It stands sleeplessly erect, sealing off the labyrinth. A gully accompanies it with canine obedience, plodding alongside every step of the way. Hatches have been blasted into the wall, small holes at large intervals that admit no light into the spaces behind. Other walls of equal length foreshorten like railway tracks; but not this one. Its vanishing points diverge, either because the gully drops down or because the crown of the wall steadily rises. Suddenly, next to the gully, the square unfolds.

It is a quadrangle which has been stamped into the urban tangle with a giant template. Blocks of barracks fall into formation around it, the rear wall painted red. An apron shoots out from the wall, stops, breaks off. The horizontal lines are drawn with a ruler, dead straight.

On the deserted square, something happens: the force of the quadrilateral pushes the person who is trapped into its center. He is alone, and yet he isn't. Although no observers are visible, the rays of their gazes pierce through the shutters, through the walls. Bundles of them traverse the space, intersecting at its midpoint. Fear is stark naked, at their mercy. No bouquet of palm trees capable of swathing this bareness caresses the edges. On invisible seats around the quadrangle a tribunal is in session. It is the moment before the pronouncement of the verdict, which is not handed down. The sharpened arrow of the apron points to the one who is waiting, follows him, a moving indicator. The eyes of notorious portraits constantly follow the viewer in this way. The red rear wall is separated from the plane of the square by a crack from which a roadway rises, hidden by the apron.

In this tangle of pictorial alleys, no one seeks the quadrangle. After painstaking reflection, one would have to describe its size as moderate. But once its observers have settled into their chairs, it expands toward the four sides of the world, overpowering the pitiful, soft, private parts of the dream: it is a square without mercy
-Siegreid Kracauer, "The Mass Ornament"

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Major Thom Seeks the Disco King

Everything that was directly lived has receded into representation.
-Guy Debord, "The Society of the Spectacle"

Friday, December 2, 2016


A winter's day
in a deep and dark December...