Wednesday, December 17, 2008

All that had animated him

In Thomas Hardy's novel Tess of the D'Urbervilles, there is a fantastic and grotesque passage which has riveted itself into my memory. It describes the immediate aftermath of Tess's carriage being struck by the mail-cart, traveling the opposite way just before dawn. The shaft of the mail-cart pierces the chest of Prince, the horse pulling Tess's carriage, "like a sword." The result: Prince bleeds to death shockingly fast as Tess looks on, frantic, helpless, as the dawn slowly arrives. It is some of Hardy's most vivid writing:

"The atmosphere turned pale, the birds shook themselves in the hedges, arose, and twittered; the lane showed all its white features, and Tess showed hers, still whiter. The huge pool of blood in front of her was already assuming the iridescence of coagulation; and when the sun rose a million prismatic hues were reflected from it. Prince lay alongside still and stark; his eyes half open, the hole in his chest looking scarcely large enough to have let out all that had animated him."

Wicked Imagination

"And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually..." -- Genesis 6, verse 5.

Oh, the wickedness of imagination! Without a vivid internal monologue, my childhood would have become unbearable boredom.

I often think of all the public space around New York City, much of it simply used for traffic between one place and another. Imagine if we used spaces more creatively, more often... The example that I always think of was a play called Roam, performed in Edinburgh Airport in summer 2006.

I caught a part of it one day when I went to pick a friend up at the airport. An immaculately turned-out flight crew walking through the terminal, as though striding towards their plane, suddenly and deftly performed a routine about flying, identity, and the effects of traveling on the imagination.

It was delightful: at once the sour-looking assembly of people in the terminal was transformed into an audience (we all applauded together after the five minute routine) and it injected profound thoughts: when at an airport one is placed in the weird situation of being tightly constrained and closely scrutinized, while also completely freed from the bonds of normal, everyday life: if we are there as passengers, we get to fly, thousands of miles, perhaps to places unimaginably different: as playwright Ben Harrison said in an interview, "imagine what Bogotá would be like and you could be there in 12 hours."

Now, think of those enormous subway stations here in New York, such as West 4th Street and 145th Street, where the A, C, B, D, trains all converge. When you stand on one platform and look across at the broad swath of the other platform, imagine it as a stage. Imagine actors performing 60 or 90 second vignettes: I am sure it's been done already, and we're long accustomed to thinking of commuting as taking part in some great, mundane but never-ceasing human drama. but wouldn't it be wonderful to see performances in public more often?

Seventh Avenue looking south from 35th Street, December 5th, 1935

Tuesday, December 16, 2008