In the Great Hall

Saturday, September 08, 2007

After the flood.

After the events of the flood and the dream of the masked girl the qualities of the Great Hall began to leave a remarkably different impression on me. The long corridors, deep in shadows, the luminous vault of the library in the afternoon, the lunch time walks through the gardens... they all seemed to flatten out, to cease to draw me into that same intoxicated gaze through which I had up until that point observed the various dimensions of this place. As I used to imagine the building as a body, teeming with its corporeal components, the people like the flow of blood in the veins and the walls and rooms the tissue and organs, now when I sat on a clear afternoon on my bench on the terraced footpaths and looked out across the gardens and the Hall and the city, I instead saw something more akin to an ant farm. The glass wall of the library seemed only the small frame in the wooden stand, set to expose the chambers and the tunnels of the colony, to allow the intrepid observer access to the hidden world, where the workers and scouts moved about in their implicit repetitive motions.

I remember not so long ago I would wake up in the morning and instantly, abruptly, a procession of ideas, wishes, vague hopes and goals, would flit about, would rise and turn and shift before my half woken eyes. I would try briefly to trace each to its origin, the secret desire that came before me in abstract terms, in symbols fixed in my memory that related to my interior life in ways that I had yet to untangle. They were not yet distilled into words but still they existed, and something ominous and pressing was behind them. In them I became aware of an approaching dread that I had woken back into my own skin, my own life, that I was doomed today to repeat the doom of yesterday and all that saved me were these impalpable images that hinted at a second life, another field of possibility that lived beside me, running parallel to my own particular stream. And throughout the day these hopes and floating possibilities colored everything before my eyes as much as the sun did, or the little lamps that always hung above my head.

Now each morning I found myself empty, alone, in a new and vacant world, swept clean, as if the dream I just woke from, instead of opening up a portal to my dark, interior world, now only obliterated the self of the previous day, left no shards to trace. I wondered where all I wanted went. I sat at my desk and thought of the last year here in the Hall and all that I had imagined and come to discover, how each year circles are added to my sphere, my knowledge and my intuition grow... but I felt my hopes had halted. I didn't know who to reach out to, I didn't know if there was anyone to reach out towards, or if I had missed something, lost something...

But in losing that undefined thing, I had come to find these words, and these words I must sustain to sustain myself. And I close my eyes and whisper to the girl in my dream, "These are the words of my recollection that I am using to fasten you in my memory, to find and still myself in the center of motion. I cannot clamor and grasp for things that have passed, flail in my sorrow for voices and faces that have faded away. All that has passed is now a vast landscape of impressions, a skyline, a rooftop, a bridge, a mouth... I can only wait in mute patience for some spark to flare like when a match is struck in the dark and I see something of myself in the shadowy eyes in front of me. I had come such a distance from that point, I can hardly remember when I was there. But I can organize my impressions, what lingers, I can see them as songs and I can make houses out of words and places for all of them to populate and they can live with me, in me, changed as they would be, but alive, and I too could live."

And it was at this time, when I was losing my hope for anything beyond these walls, when I was ceasing to remember the dream of the girl, when the majesty and the terror of the Great Hall were diminishing and I began to feel myself wavering like a dry leaf caught in the wind, only tenuously holding on to its branch, that I got my first promotion.

A long sleep. A dream.

The morning had passed in a slow heave of hours. I stared with fixed eyes, as if in the throes of a fever, into the stack of documents that lay on my desk in front of me. My hand slowly rotated the knob that raises and lowers the voltage of the lamps. I watched the shadows leap across the yellowed page. A man hung by his neck from a tree; there were other men standing around him, they were facing the newspaperman's camera.

On my lunch hour I went to the gardens and sat on a bench high on the hill and looked out over the Great Hall and into the city. Everywhere everything was in the midst of some sort of motion. The city vibrated and hummed with cars and people; the grass and the trees moved with the push of the wind. The clouds, by that same hand, slowly and silently drifted across the pale sky casting shadows. I watched them, long like wicked fingers running across the skeleton of a building that was either being raised or demolished. The water in the fountains jumped and dove, it splashed and spun and scattered about its basins, it overflowed them and splattered across the walkway. On the limbs of the swaying trees groups of little birds sang and their beaks opened and closed as their heads darted about and they fluffed their wings and pranced on their talons.

I could hear music bubbling in all of this motion. It was bizarre and solemn. It was a dizzying convergence of events. There were bells ringing far away and dogs barking. I could not tell whether it came from the earth or the air, but as I listened I grew ever more tired. My eyelids began to feel heavy; the food in my stomach warmed me. The sun touched my forehead lightly.

I rose from where I had been sitting and found a shaded place beneath a twisted tree. A bed of leaves, orange and yellow, muffled my steps and the bare branches above bent and danced slowly. I removed my jacket and folded it and lay down on it as a pillow and watched them for a bit. But soon my eyes were shut and I was sleeping, and I dreamt.

I was following a woman up a set of spiral stairs in an opera house. I had to hurry past other people descending the stairs, twisting my body and shoulders to get by. She climbed on, much faster than I through the flow of bodies, and reached the balcony, where she disappeared behind a door. I struggled up the steep steps, clutching the golden railing and pushing through mobs of people. I finally came to the balcony and opened the door. There she was, crouched behind a rack of costumes, a prop mask over her face. I could see her eyes searching me through the hangers and the scarves. Her hair fell about the mask and crowned it with a golden bow. A harsh yellow light flickered in the corner of the room.

Then her hand hung limply in mine. It lay still, lifeless, cold like the blood had ceased flowing. I tried to speak, but my heart hesitated, halting at the heaviness of each word. And I knew not even what words were to come. I stared deeply through the eyeholes, at the little light that reflected from those black wells. Something burned through me, but I could not form it into words. I tried to speak but I coughed dry air.

And then things abruptly shifted, as happens in dreams. I was no longer among the costumes and masks with my golden-haired girl. It was a common dream I had stumbled into, one that recurs often, that I have almost come to be able to manipulate. I am walking through an ancient city, spires of cathedrals and stone buildings surround me. It is twilight, I don't know if it is morning or evening, but I am alone wandering empty streets. The dark is enough that I have to concentrate and pick my steps as not to trip across curbs or run clear into benches. There are no people about, the city is quiet and measureless in its inanition. I feel like I am a child alone at home for the first time in a big dark house.

I search the tops of the roofs and the faces of the buildings, squinting my eyes through the black at the windows of the apartments, looking for any sign that people still lived there. I hear wind rustling through the trees that I cannot see and I am so distracted by the silence that I nearly stumble over the railing and into the river. There is always a body of water, and I shiver in my dream for I know instinctively I have come to the Lethe. And there is always the dilemma of how to cross. Sometimes there is a gondola and an oarsman. Sometimes there is an empty pier and I have to swim. Sometimes I turn around and keep searching the vacant streets I've tread again and again, so as not to drink from those forgetful waters.

But today I was not to confront this. I was shaken awake under my guardian limbs by a siren. I sat straight up and for a moment could not discern where I was. Then my eyes settled on the great glass jaw of the Great Hall, sprawled there like a gaping whale on a pebble beach. Everyone was gone from the gardens, it was long past the lunch hour. And the city itself had ceased to shiver with the manic motion that had lulled me into that long sleep. I wrapped my arms around my knees and breathed deeply, the air was cool and crisp and it filled my chest and felt clean. It was good to sleep and dream, it was good to be there by myself in the gardens a moment more. I sat and watched the afternoon sun creep slowly across all I had come to know as the world. A siren, a single pitch, sustained over the calm scene. I knew that soon I would have to get back.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The Bitter River

Today the rain poured over the panes of glass in the library. It was lonely even out there, few people were at their various places. Through the grey windows I watched the pools grow larger around the flower beds in the turnabout. I was delaying my return to the filming room. Soon I found myself here anyway, a stack of yellow papers in front of me, old airgrams. Lying next to them a newspaper, brown from age, reeking of dust. I can taste it in my mouth. The tips of my index finger and thumb are silver from flitting through the brittle pages. I rub them together and watch tiny filaments glint in the light as they cascade to the floor. I listen to the hum of the ventilation system, as always, a blanket of white noise behind everything. I close my eyes and sink slowly underneath. I open them. Hanging above my desk on the post-board is a photocopy of an ancient map of the world, a disc with seven points surrounding it. It has been here since before I came to the job, fastened with two green tacks. Babylon is the center of the world on this map, and there is Assyria, Urartu, and Habban. Surrounding these lands is a body of water named "The Bitter River". Unlike the Greek's, this encircling ocean is not the boundary of the known world. There are islands beyond the Bitter River, represented by triangles set like the points of a star. One of these islands is named "Where Birds Cannot Reach". Another is called "The Light That Is Brighter Than the Sunset or Stars", another, "Where One Sees Nothing", and one "Where Morning Dawns". On the western most point, a horned bull is shown attacking a trespasser. Another island is entirely black. And from the four corners blow the four winds.

What good is everything I know? How far has man come, now that he has proven to himself that the Earth is not flat, that we are not locked in by an ocean of water, that we spin around a sun which spins around a point which we can barely imagine? Were these ancient men not as sure? And which world would I choose, each given objective consideration? Ah, this map, which stares back at me with two green tacks like my green eyes. I want to just move them down and make a face of it.

Instead I walk back out into the library. There are even fewer people now that the day has passed. It is still raining. I walk up and press closely to the glass wall, hundreds of square windows coursing with water. I look out into the vast city and imagine the rain rising through all of its streets. I see it happening slowly, almost imperceptibly. I see everything rising, floating about, sweeping away in a tremendous tide to the Bitter River. Debris and screaming people are swept by. Some grasp toward ledges and trees, others hold tight to pieces of flotsam, caught in the current. And the buildings one by one begin to give. And out in the distance, where the contour of the land rises to the sky, I see mountains crumbling into a magnificent sea, beneath a terrible glow on the horizon. All of the terror, all of the agony, along with every last human hope being sucked into the whirlpool beyond the Bitter River. All but for us here in the Great Hall. We were spared. But look, now the library is empty. I am alone on the last vestige of land, Babylon, and I am seeking out the departed Gods. They have gone across the river to become divine animals on the seven islands. The silence now is unimaginable. I feel no tears come to my eyes at the loss of the world. I wonder not where all the people in the Great Hall have disappeared to. I pull a vacant seat to the wall and sit back, propping my feet against the glass. I set my eyes on the skyline, now clear and blazing with sunset. My mind is wandering, I am going to the island where birds cannot reach.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Subterranean Routes

Sometimes I will enter the Great Hall through the parking garage. It is out of the way, but the other-ness of it makes for, if nothing else, an interesting walk. One cannot always walk in the sunlight, one must sometimes take subterranean routes. Rows of cars in the half-light, dull green that lays in lines on the polished exteriors. The side panels make odd, elongated reflections of me as I pass. I glance at my distorted form like a phantom in the bright black hood. If I always looked so distorted, like a ruined painting... or do I? How would I know? I have little time to think of what I am to others. I am almost nothing to myself. All of my energy is put into seeing what is about me, to the point that I lose all sense of having a body. Then I hover for a moment outside of myself, seeing myself as a perfect fixture in some allusive scene. And just as quickly I am back feeling my feet move across the concrete. Rivulets of oil have stained lovely patterns across the dirty floor of the parking garage, like filthy roots extending from the drain. Distant rumblings are always about my ears here, as if I were below ground during a great battle. The floor shakes now and then from another approaching machine, the tires push across the ground with the sound of a wave breaking, or wasps chewing at wood. Pipes are left bare, skeletal fingers jutting from the concrete one way, running back into it another. Sometimes, seemingly from all sides, a low groan is emitted, like a monster turning in its sleep. I pause mid-step and think of Jonah in the belly of the whale.

In these moments, when my solitude is manifested most acutely, into a temporal and physical presence, I feel deeply connected to other people. I think of decisions that we all face that lead us to inhabit certain places, however temporarily. The wheel of destiny rests directly up against our backs, it touches at all points. It moves in synchronicity with the planet's rotation, and at any moment we are free to leap and cling to it awhile. How long is up to us. My destiny is tied even to those people who I have left scattered behind me (o how I miss them!). It is tied to all the past versions of myself, that indeed are myself, that live in me as I live out lives of other people. The farther I let my thoughts drift, the more melancholy tempts me. It has dangerous depths, so easy to slip into. But once again, right alongside this are equal depths of joy, they are simply obscured at times. To know one you must withstand the other, but both hold strong to your will. Both wear masks, speak deception, and want to claim you.

If I could only see beyond my senses, perhaps everything would seem in order. But we are allowed only a small glimpse, what our eyes, ears, mouths, and fingers tell us. The sum of all of this can be considered the ambiance that we read into the world, the crafting of our perception. Perception is led, but it is also a leader. Am I approaching awareness in these moments, when I slip silently, almost unrecognizably, into the rhythm of the heart? I step into a flow of time, it washes over me with transient moments that disintegrate before the unmovable future. The future is an unmovable mountain. It is not unalterable, but it is unmovable. It is an obstruction between us and eternity, a wall between life and the unknown.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Time in the Great Hall.

I sit at my desk listening to the seconds strike out into eternity, and I think back. In the living room of my parent's house was an ornate grandfather clock, probably seven feet tall, gilded with a gold-colored metal. A set of pendulums and weights were exposed above its base through a glass window that was hinged so that one could access the inner-workings easily. The clock was wound with a special key that had a gear and teeth that locked into certain notches. Every week or so, the clock had to be wound and set. The key was fit into three distinctive places, carefully turned an exact number of times, and then the counterweights would reassume their slow descent, imperceptible to a casual observer. The intricate cogs and spokes, unseen, could be heard working just when the house fell silent, at unexpected idle times, an anonymous presence that really became indiscernible from other background sounds. Every quarter of an hour the gears would click into place and the clock would chime out a fragment of a song. At the first quarter, the first four bars, at the half-hour, eight bars, at three-quarters, twelve, and at the top of the hour the full song followed by a number of chimes corresponding to the hour. Each hour of each day played out in this ceremony. Even through the night, as everyone slept, the clock would enact this play to an empty darkened room. Sometimes I would lie awake at night, up for one reason or another staring blankly into the ceiling above my bed heavy with thoughts that would not allow me sleep, and through the wall I would hear it ring out, sad little chimes telling me again and again, "You are awake, time is moving, yet there you lie."

The clock was a complicated machine, and I most certainly appreciate the skill and labor involved in making it. There is much to be said for precision. But the concept always bothered me. Every fifteen minutes of every day, should you be in the house, you were reminded of the passing time with a fragment of a song. One song only. So throughout the day you were involuntary company to the constant repetition of a single song attempting to fulfill itself. It struggled through the hour to come to completion, and when finally the one hour ended and the song at last voiced its unbroken maxim, the chimes would follow it like a death knell. The hands of the clock passed the crest of their orbit, and again within the song the struggle to fulfill itself began anew. A little death every hour, and a little life.

I do not even wear a watch, I never have. I have purchased watches, once again, they are fascinating things, but they remain in drawers until the batteries die out. I have a natural aversion to the idea of obedience to time, which after all is only a concept, however much it is now entwined with our biology and ostensibly dictates our actions. I could never own a clock such as my parents do, that requires and actually commands so much attention that it becomes another entity in the house needing to be cared for. The watches remain in drawers. Time in the Great Hall can move as slowly as a glacier or as fast as lightning, just as it pleases, and sometimes these moments jut right into each other. There are ways for determining the time, should I need to, but mostly I just feel the day passing internally, in my dark wing where there are no windows with which to make such judgements. The emptiness or fullness of my stomach, the dryness of my lips, how far I go into my daydreams, the pattern of movement of the other people here, all are sure demarcations of time.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The Gardens

Whatever rises out of the dust eventually attracts insects. I take my lunch in the gardens, out in the sun where the song of insects can be heard and the wind in the trees and through the bowing flowers is a pleasure and a respite. The breeze touches with hidden fingers the surface of the pools in the fountains, they shimmer and ripple over the reflected face of the sky. The sun makes a heavenward path through chutes of clouds. The sound of water spilling its basin so casually, refilling and spilling, spilling and making the light dance, as I lean myself back into the lap of an old wooden bench on the highest terrace of the crisscrossed footpaths that wind the hill and sever the green field. It is absurd, the extremes of sensory experience offered by the Great Hall of Records. One can go from the darkest, most bewildering corridors to the most color-saturated landscapes within a matter of fifty steps. The giant offers, with open hands, the full spectrum of available light. Open hands? From my bench on the hillside the Great Hall looks only like a face with a great glass chin. What was going through the mind of this madman, the architect, when he conceived this monumental project? Was he employed by some maniacal Count of the Clouds?

There are statues. And one in particular draws me. It is tucked away near one of the walls, for these gardens are walled in from the city. You wander on past the babbling of the last fountain, around a low willow grove, and there is a small, I guess one would say, empty plaza, all of stone, a little circle with a Roman-style sculpture on a short pedestal. The trees here are placed in a semi-circle about the figure, and block all but a slight warm breeze that touches with a careful palm. Often, at noon, as improbable as that is, the moon, a tiny daytime moon, sits directly to the right of the head, in the sky, opposite the arch of the torch-bearing arm. And in the other arm, close to the body, a bouquet of flowers. The robes hang graciously about the body, and I never decided if it was a man or a woman. But it stares down at me, bearing a guiding light, much stronger than the light of the moon, the lonely man in the moon. But what is most lovely is how it shows its age. It is worn, streaked by rain, darkened by filth that rolls in from the city on the wind. To me, the youth of its body, the flow of its robes, the arm stubbornly jutting out its fire at the moon day and night, despite the obvious diminution brought on by time, makes this somewhat of a holy place.

But I am granted only an hour. Even more absurd because I obey this ghost command despite the fact my superiors do not even frequent the Great Hall. It has been weeks since I have had to account for myself in any way or have spoken to anyone here, but for the formal necessities. I feel as though I could disappear completely and it would be months before anyone noticed. I take my time and wander back past my bench, retrieving the book I never even opened during lunch. What would I want to read about, when I have a sunny day, a bench on which to rest my weariness, a field on a hill growing with manic colorful life, all vibrating silently in the breeze, all for me to comprehend? And there, on the other side of the Great Hall, the city stretching out like a vast petrified forest.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The Exterminating Angel

I can leave this room if I want to. I know it. I can will myself out of any situation. I can leave this room, if only in my thoughts. I can live other lives, see distant places, fall in love, bear children, die and be reborn. It is as simple as staring at the wall. But a sense of desperation overcomes me. Why would I want to live only in my thoughts? Why would I dream, when I could touch, taste, smell, and hear? There is a world outside the Great Hall. Its movements are perfected, even when they fall into disorder and tragedy. The cycles of destruction and rebirth, withdrawal and return, life for death and absence for material; more beautiful than the most fluid motions of a ballerina. More meaningful than the deepest prose. Why should I only be allowed to imagine, or worse, observe and never participate? I long to shake the answers to these questions out of every still body around me. The world is waiting for me to know it. But it is not waiting, it is passing. Passing me, passing all of these jellyfish that call themselves men who voluntarily sacrifice the best hours of each day to "earning their way".

People are growing fat with their contentment. Their minds are being dulled by work. But all of this is necessary, no? People must make things. Value must be determined, worth must be assigned, progress must be pushed on, even blindly, for what else are we put here for? Time. Time is the exterminating angel. With it comes the concept of limits. Moments are sacrificed to the God Future. Planning is valued more than enjoying. Inertia, above all, tramples thought into dust. And what has become of this angel, Thought, which certainly is no exterminator? Thought is also currency. God Currency and Angel Action hand in hand reeking their own special revelation in the hearts of us fools. Let them eat my own heart as a sacrifice, that they may never be satiated.

What wicked thoughts go through my mind. I am more alone than the man in the moon, who is only a pathetic human imagining. Sometimes, in the darkness of the Great Hall, I see myself crouched on the moon in utter isolation, eyeing the entire Earth in one glimpse. And what do I see? Wasted opportunity. Idiots competing for money, falling in love with sacrificial lambs, killing the things they love, devoting their lives to the endless construction of altars to Gods they neither created nor comprehend. But these thoughts are running away with me, they are becoming too disorganized. But did I not just say that disorder was beautiful?

Enough of this. Today I will work myself to the bone, to the point of sheer exhaustion. "God goes with thoughtless people" and that is from a genius. I will work until all of these horrible meaningless imaginings become lost to one goal: sleep. But first, lunch, and for that I will go to the gardens.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

James Baldwin's Funeral

I found myself in a cathedral, crowds of people surrounded me, thick but quiet crowds. The blue and red light through the stained glass, bruise colored, and the rhythm of drums, a deep-rooted beat close to that of the human heart, pulsed and tinted everything. Everyone was dressed darkly, it was a funeral. I found a seat in a rear pew under a column of yellow light. Behind me the murmur of the crowd dissipated in one long silencing wave, and the sea began to split. A coffin was borne through the breach. I didn't know anyone here, I didn't know at first whose funeral it was. When the coffin was placed on a sort of altar, with flowers set about it, I could hear softly, in different parts of the room, women beginning to weep. A man approached the pulpit. He was dark and solemn, the blue light gave the physiognomy of his face a deep look of reticent royalty. This odd light bathed the coffin, the pulpit and the first few rows of mourners, until it gave way somewhere in the aisle to shafts of yellow. But beyond these, the cathedral darkened to a point of complete obscurity. In fact, at first I thought I was in the Great Hall, that I had entered a wing previously hidden from me. But this could not have been. People in the Great Hall do not gather together, and emotions that can only be consoled in a mass grievance are alien to them. With the light on my brow, I felt utterly at peace. The man on the pulpit stepped toward a microphone which extended like an olive branch in front of him. I think that it was an olive branch, or at least it possessed some sort of verdure. Then the orator cleared his throat, a contemplative and anticipatory silence followed. When he finally opened his mouth to talk, not words came flowing forth, but light, great bright light came flooding from his ever widening mouth. And a dove appeared in the center of the light, and silently it grew to an enormous size. But the dove was also made of this seraphic light, and the entire cathedral became aflame with it. The dove, its head barely contained beneath the dome, turned its eyes, which were like two deep wells, and set them directly on me.

I awoke. Something like waves or drums still beat in me. I must have dozed off at my desk. The Great Hall was typically quiet and tenebrous. I took a second to gather myself, and then found a sheet of paper on which to write down the dream. But instead I wrote down these lines: "You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world. But then you read. It was books that taught me the things that tormented me the most were the very things that connected me with all of the people who were alive, with all of the people who have ever been alive." Oh Mr. Baldwin, why must everything be born out of so much pain? When will the splendor of the world renew itself?