Thursday, May 26, 2011

the horror of the fixed

The air conditioning for this building is powered by a machine in the room next to this room, and when it starts up, and for as long as it runs, I can hear a long mushy detonation of rushing air, always the same speed and constancy and flatness, on and on and on.

Outside, the wind hisses through the cactus spines, and (listening to one and thinking of the other) I believe that the air conditioning machine is more aggressive than the wind, which sometimes meanders and sometimes takes a deep breath and blows and then dies again; the machine shoves the air constantly, it doesn't let it rest, but in spite of this pushing and force it doesn't sound energetic; it seems monotonous, dutiful, and bored. It needs Macbeth's porter, coming in to change the mood (which is his role, and he has been waiting for his chance since the witches), "But this place is too cold for hell," says the porter, "I'll devil-porter it no further," and at this point "Mind knocks," writes Harold Bloom in Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human, "and breaks into the play, with the first and only comedy allowed in this drama. Shakespeare employs his company's leading clown (probably Robert Armin) to introduce a healing touch of nature."

A "touch of nature," with its variations and changes and its sense of three-dimensional space (the birds making their noises outside provide you with an aural map, one noise high, one noise low, one noise close, one far away, as if they're marking out the corners of a geometric shape with thousands of sides; the name of this geometric shape is probably Robert Armin) is the thing that gets smothered out of the atmosphere by this machine.

Its appearance doesn't change, no matter whether it's on or off. In the desert the stiff spines of the cactus vibrate a little as the air passes through, and the dangling leaves of the mesquite tree stream up from vertical to horizontal. But there is no sign that the machine is making the noise. "Oh," I think, "The noise might as well not be part of the machine," and then I start to believe that I would find this situation inspirational if I became a composer of musique concrète, if I could be Francisco López, who samples the noises of cities and makes albums out of the samples. In 2001 he released Buildings [New York], in 2008 he released TDDM, "based on sound materials recorded in factories in Asia," and recently he masterminded a series of projects named Sound Matter Cities. I've been listening to his Untitled #244, which is a single track, almost an hour long, put together from the sampled sounds of the Paraná and Paraguay rivers. "The air conditioner is an ingredient," I would think, if you turned me into Francisco López.

Untitled #244 has been left as one long track, not broken up, because envelopment and immersion are important, says Francisco López, the album envelops and immerses; he wants his music to fill the ear and head as fully and envelopingly as Dunsany's Elfland in the King of Elfland's Daughter fills the valley where the parliament of Erl sits, wishing for more magic in the world, and this air conditioning machine is like Elfland too in its monotonous endurance. "[N]othing stirs or fades or dies, nothing seeks its happiness in movement or change or a new thing" in Elfland, and this changeless mood is created by a sound, by elvish "incantation and song."

I would be more interested in this machine's blank white noise if I could think of it as an incantation preparing to create an Elfland, or as a partner to Gormenghast's timelessness, or even as the weird suspended atmosphere that William Hope Hodgson writes about, although he has to make the world end first, either supernaturally, or by removing the reader to another planet.

If I were Hodgson I could find a story in this air conditioning machine. The noise would begin, time would be distorted, my dog Pepper would turn into a heap of dust, "there came a faint and distant, whirring buzz … [it] reminded me, in a queer, gigantic way, of the noise that a clock makes, when the catch is released, and it is allowed to run down," the sun would rise and set at an insane speed, a hundred lightning flashes would flood downwards, "the world-noise was drowned in the roar of the wind," I would totter to a window, the sky would change, an enormous stream of luminous spheres would pass me at an unvarying rate, then a jade sun, then two suns, then no sun, then a terrifying Arena, then a Beast-God, then an Eyeless-Thing, and finally I would realise that the house had gone green. "All at once, there came a bewildering, screaming noise, that deafened me," and I am sitting in my chair again, the room has been restored, but the dog is still dead.

(This happens in The House on the Borderland, chapters XV to XXIII, right after the attack by the Swine-Things.)

Or if I were Dickens I would be vivified by the monotony, I would be roused and provoked, and Chesterton would state after I had died (stating because Chesterton liked to state), that I couldn't abide boredom, and I couldn't create it when I wrote. "The one thing [Dickens] did not describe in any of the abuses he denounced was the soul-destroying potency of routine. He made out the bad school, the bad parochial system, the bad debtor's prison as very much jollier and more exciting than they may really have been."

I read this and wish that I could be like Dickens, who did not abide boredom but rang a stranger's doorbell and lay down in the doorway, or else raced away to France. Why do I sit here bored? I wonder. Why can't I rush away to France? I spend too much time wishing that I had the good qualities of famous people, M tells me when I let him know that I want to be Hayao Miyazaki. If I became Dickens then the machine would excite me, I would write a book with it as the villain and have the rest of the people in this building picking up their pitchforks to exterminate that whooshing devil.

Chesterton writes:

As long as low Yorkshire schools were entirely colourless and dreary, they continued quietly tolerated by the public and quietly intolerable to the victims. So long as Squeers was dull as well as cruel he was permitted; the moment he became amusing as well as cruel he was destroyed. [ie, in real life the schools were closed] As long as Bumble was merely inhuman he was allowed. When he became human, humanity wiped him right out. For in order to do these great acts of justice we must always realise not only the humanity of the oppressed, but even the humanity of the oppressor.

I would realise the humanity of my oppressor, I would give it the energy that Dickens gives even to a building of Furnished Apartments in Calais, a "dead sort of house with a dead wall over the way and a dead gateway at the side, where a pendant bell-handle produced two dead tinkles, and a knocker produced a dead, flat, surface-tapping, that seemed not to have depth enough in it to penetrate even the cracked door. However, the door jarred open on a dead sort of spring; and he closed it behind him as he entered a dull yard, soon brought to a close by another dead wall, where an attempt had been made to train some creeping shrubs, which were dead; and to make a little fountain in a grotto, which was dry; and to decorate that with a little statue, which was gone."

This house, which is a list of the same word, or similar words, is not like Mr Pickwick's bright street, which is a list of different words, and dissimilar words.

'The principal productions of these towns,' says Mr. Pickwick, 'appear to be soldiers, sailors, Jews, chalk, shrimps, officers, and dockyard men. The commodities chiefly exposed for sale in the public streets are marine stores, hard-bake, apples, flat-fish, and oysters.'

Pickwick, states Chesterton, is light itself, it is vitality, it is primeval. "It is the splendid, shapeless substance of which all his stars were ultimately made. You might split up Pickwick into innumerable novels as you could split up that primeval light into innumerable solar systems." Chesterton is thrilled by Dickens as Annie Dillard was thrilled by creeks, "an active mystery, fresh every minute." She wrote: "Theirs is the mystery of the continuous creation and all that providence implies: the uncertainty of vision, the horror of the fixed, the dissolution of the present, the intricacy of beauty, the pressure of fecundity, the elusiveness of the free, and the flawed nature of perfection."

Meanwhile this machine churns on in the next room, unvarying, perfect, and outside a ground squirrel crossing the road tosses up a plume of dust, and I see that the fecundity of the natural dusty road, its numberless mass of dots and specks, has given the ground squirrel a chance to make its mark in a way that an impenetrable and constant surface would not: the dust spreads and hangs, the surface of the earth is impressed with footprints, and another ground squirrel on the other side of the road, startled, manifests its personality by deciding to vanish down a burrow with a cheep.


  1. Perhaps the noise you hear the machine making is actually a long and vivid story - Dickensian in many respects - that it is telling, in a language you can't follow, to an audience you are unable to perceive. But perhaps not.

  2. Which would explain why it doesn't run constantly but only starts up every half hour or so and goes vshhhhh for maybe ten minutes. It's laying out the story in installments. Genius.