Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Intermundia Airport (Chapter 3).



Chapters 1 and 2.

They were sitting on a bench in a large plaza adjacent to the platforms.
'Did you work out the route last night?' Giacomo asked Eddie. Eddie looked sheepish. 'I thought it was your turn.' Giacomo growled. 'Every time, every single time!' They took out notepads and started scribbling furiously, their eyes darting from the platform sign to the route display. He looked at the platform sign and noticed something peculiar: the number seemed to be changing at a regular interval.
'What's going on?' he asked.

Eddie looked up from his notepad. 'The system is....a little complicated. The number of the platform changes every twenty seconds. So, platform 1 changes to platform 2, and so on, and the whole system of stops moves like a wave, back and forth throughout the day. Now, the problem is that the number of the trains also change, every thirty seconds. So the train you get on will be a completely different train, with different stops, by the time you get to your destination.'
'And your destination will have a completely different name by the time you get there,' Giacomo interjected.
'So you have to run two different sets of calculations, to insure that the train you get on will stop at the platform that your destination has become by the time you get there.'
They returned to their scribbling and bickering.

'Platform 4b will be platform 2b at 4.15p.m., right?' Eddie was saying. 'If we take the 25C train at 4.15, we should get to Central Command at 6.30. So at 6.30, the 25C will be the 48A, and Central Command will be Terminal 123B, right? Does the 48A stop at 123B?' 

Who could have composed such a tortuously bewildering and perverse method of organising rail schedules? And to what end? It made him nauseous just to look at the security guards with their furrowed brows, poring over endlessly revised diagrams that floated in a sea of scribbled computation. Was this how Intermundia Airport controlled its workers? By insulating them from the rest of world, and brow-beating them with a system of absurdities that made the simplest thing an ordeal? Did they really pass their entire existences here, in this hub of ceaseless motion, still points fixed in a sea of transience? He felt almost sorry for them, if that were the case. They seemed like rodents, or some other poor beasts, that eked out their living on the interstices of a teeming motorway. No scavenging rat or fox could comprehend the meaning of cars and trucks, or fathom who had built them and what function they served. Yet the system of the motorway enclosed their entire being, imprinting itself in the seat of their instincts and reflexes. They lived off the scraps of this system, which never ceased its motion, and was as inscrutable to them as nature is to us. 

'We've got it!' Eddie said with a bright smile. 'And a few minutes to spare as well. Are you hungry?' He went off to a little kiosk to buy coffee, pastries and a newspaper. The Moroccan in the kiosk seemed to know him well. They made jokes about their wives, and the general dissatisfactions of existence. 'Yesterday it finally happened,' the Moroccan said, 'I am fatter than my wife. That was the only thing I ever had over her!' Giocomo passed the time by glancing at women with a lazy, non-committal gleam of lust. He had trained his facial muscles to hover on the periphery of a smile that never quite appeared, a sly apparition haunting his eyes and the edge of his mouth. 

Eddie came back with breakfast. He refused a pastry but excepted a Styrofoam cup of coffee. The cup was branded with an image of two crudely anthropomorphized coffee beans, a male and female. The male, with large, bulging eyeballs, was accosting the female: “I'VE GOT A CRUSH ON YOU”, he was saying. 'We better get moving,' Giacomo announced, and they took off briskly through the plaza, weaving around its maze of stalls, kiosks and terraces. The people who staffed the kiosks were from all over the world: Europeans, Asians, Africans, South Americans. The majority, he noted, carried out their work with quiet, disengaged patience, and seemed to glance at intervals to the left of their peripheral vision, as though something hidden were progressing behind the ordinariness of their lives, and the routinised bustle of the station. 



As they got closer to the platforms, the roar of the trains drowned out every other sound, and the whole scene assumed a distant quality, as though it were underwater. The vendors and their costumers communicated adroitly with hand signals. He had gulped back his coffee greedily, and the caffeine and sugar hit him in a sudden, ecstatic rush. For the briefest instant, he felt rapturously happy and alive. In that moment, the lack of a past was a blessing that rooted him firmly in the present instant like a virgin seed. Similarly, the absurdity of his situation felt like a kind of liberation: in a world without reason, he was free to exist fully in each instant, without hopes or expectations of any kind, only the neutral purity of his sensations. The world was alive with the power, the speed and the sound of the trains, hurtling off in unimaginable directions.

That wondrous sensation evaporated in a flash, leaving him only with a image: he saw himself, lead by Eddie and Giacomo through the crowd, suddenly become incandescent, as though some ray of the sun had pierced through the vast fortress of steel and concrete overhead, and turned his body into a brief avatar of the stellar heavens. Then he was returned to the jittery awareness of a living nightmare. Eddie motioned towards a train. Sleek, gunmetal grey, the design of its front carriage resembled the snout of a bloodhound or shark, some metallic predator that strained against the brief stasis imposed by the stop. They embarked, and the doors snapped after them as though to nip at their heels.

They took their seats at a table. In contrast to the train's gleaming and vigorous outer shell, the interior reminded him of the mournful decrepitude of the Intermundia Overnight. The materials of the seating, the fabric and designs of the carpet and cushions all shared that sad quality of a thing which had never been new, a place prematurely soiled by cigarette smoke and the intestinal anxiety of endless bad dinners and portentous appointments. It had the ambience of a hospital cafeteria, of the blanched aesthetics of a failed bureaucratic regime whose utopian dreams lingered on only as an ancestral spirit that whispered hollowly in the bite of the wind. He was lost for a moment in a reverie of such a world: a wintry city of concrete geometry and faded furniture, where the people had, over generations of perpetual paranoid vigilance, evolved into silent, industrious and inscrutable masks, working and eating and bearing their children like automatons. Inside each of them there must have been fugitive dreams and fantasies, imaginative worlds vast and discontinuous as their public lives were solid and circumscribed, luxurious desires that far outstripped the cold formalism of their marriages, heresies, hymns and obscenities sung beneath the affectless composure of their visible lives. And yet none could ever know for sure if they alone possessed these riotous inner kingdoms, and all others were precisely as they appeared on the outside, such were they all subject to the perpetual fear of a vigilant bureaucracy which might, for all they knew, have ceased to exist many generations ago, for there was no outwardly discernible difference between the total success of the regime, and its complete absence.

Eddie looked relived. 'Well, we're on the right train anyway, look - ' he said, pointing in the direction of a table towards the rear of the carriage. The table seated four individuals – two men and two women – who were clearly distinguishable from the rest of the crowd by virtue of their dress and bearing. The women and one of the men were Caucasian, with the fourth having an African appearance. They were all tall and lean, with beautifully symmetrical features and a kind of coltish quality that suggested superior breeding. They wore sober, finely tailored business clothes, the women with blouses of a lustrous, delicate silk, and the men with crisp suits that looked fresh from the rack. The group weren't speaking, and the two that faced him had lazy, slight grins fixed on their faces, as though savouring a private joke.

There was something unnerving about this group which was difficult to pin-point. As he watched, it occurred to him that they didn't seem to make the slightest movement – they were as still as a photograph against the rushing terrain of the window. It was as though they had fallen asleep with their eyes open and alert. Their detached, patrician bearing suggested beings who inhabited their bodies with the evanescent casualness of tourists.
'They're technocrats,' Eddie explained, 'on their way to Central, no doubt.'
'Are they case officers?' he asked.
'No, the case officers tend to be a little older. I would imagine that they are traffic controllers, or some lower functionaries of the technocrat class.'

He was thinking again that it was surely all a dream. It didn't feel like a dream, but was that not after all the nature of dreams? It was supremely comforting to entertain the fantasy that he would soon be waking up in his own bed, luxuriating in that keen sense of relief that often comes in the wake of a disagreeable dream. Would he be married? Rich or poor? Happy or miserable? Perhaps in his real life he knew Eddie and Giacomo, or some or other of the technocrats, in an altered guise. It was almost blissful, for a moment, to imagine the whole situation vanish abruptly like a swollen soap bubble, and become no more than a fragmentary riddle he would carry around for a day or so.

The train passed through a monotonous expanse of concrete tunnel illuminated by large yellow and orange sodium lamps. Occasionally, they passed an embankment where crews of workers toiled on construction sites, welding large iron girders and wheeling concrete blocks about. After longer intervals, they arrived at various stops, and the personnel of the carriage morphed rapidly, with the exception of the technocrats, who remained poised in their seats with their strange half-smiles. Each of the stops had its own distinct architectural style, as though belonging to a different country or temporal period. The passage of time and distance became difficult to gauge. He felt that they were going deeper underground.

'How long have you guys been working together?' he asked, to break the silence.
'Well,' Eddie replied, 'that's a difficult one to answer. How long is a piece of string?'
This seemed to set Giacomo off again.
'I hate that one!,' he growled.
'What one?'
'That expression “How long is a piece of string.”'
'What's wrong with it?'
'Well, show me the piece of string!'
'What?'
'Show me the piece of string, and I'll tell you how long it is.'
'That's not the point. There is no piece of string.'
'Then why ask how long it is?'
'It's a figure of speech. It's not a specific piece of string, it's a notional piece of string. It's any piece of string. How long is any piece of string? Who knows?'
They were both getting red-faced.
'There is no such thing as any piece of string, there are only specific pieces of string. And if there is a specific piece of string, it can be measured. It's the easiest thing in the world to measure.'
Eddie looked away from Giacomo with resignation:
'You want to know how long we've been working together? An eternity. That's how long we've been working together. An eternity!'
Giacomo shrugged. Eddie, perhaps aware that he was becoming weary of their endless bickering, passed him the newspaper. 'You can read this if you like,' he said, 'to pass the time. It's always good to stay informed.”


The paper was called the Intermundia Chronicle. The masthead featured an image of an airplane ascending diagonally in a circle, and the slogan: “BEASTS ASK FOR MERE FOOD AND SHELTER; MEN ASK “WHAT NEWS?” In lieu of a date, the paper was simply designated TODAY'S EDITION. He read the lead article:


Mankind's Moment of Triumph Turns to Eerie Tragedy: Returning Astronauts Replaced by Lifeless Mannequins.

Drake Space Centre, Cape Canaveral, Florida – We all watched in awe and suspense as the American astronauts Mike Summers and Budd 'Slingshot' McGinty became the first men to walk on the surface of the moon. On the day that the world was due to welcome back the heroic Mithras 5 crew – Summers, McGinty and Command Module pilot Frank Logan – the assembled world press discovered only grief, confusion and macabre horror. We knew that 3 days ago (July 23) the command module Mercury splashed down near the Utirik Atoll in the Pacific Ocean, where it was met by the recovery vessel USS Philadelphia.

Then came the silence – and the rumours. For two successive days, the press men who had gathered on Florida's Space Coast were kept in the dark about the circumstances of the Mercury's re-entry and splashdown. During today's sombre press conference, chaired by USAF General Tyrone McClinton and Mithras 5 CAPCOM Duke Toynbee, the world finally learned the truth.

As journalists assembled in the Drake auditorium, audible gasps were heard. The seats reserved for the heroic astronauts were occupied by an eerie trio of store-front mannequins. General McClinton explained that Mission Control had lost radio contact with the Mercury Module some 14 minutes before the scheduled splashdown. “We weren't too alarmed, and felt that things would go according to plan without further communication at that point,” Toynbee added. However, when divers from the Philadelphia investigated the floating capsule in the early hours of July 23rd, they noted that Summers, McGinty and Logan had been replaced by the mannequins present at the conference. According to McClinton: “The men who made this grim discovery are still in a distraught condition. Whether or not they will return to active duty, it is unlikely that they will ever be able to pass a department store without experiencing extreme distress.”

Next, Florida state pathologist and noted ethnomusicologist Lonnie Vargas spoke briefly about his examination of the mannequins carried out with the assistance of a Sears and Roebuck window dresser. “The figurines themselves are quite unremarkable. They are constructed of a terrestrial wax and plaster composite which is standard for the industry. As you can see, no attempt has been made to mimic the actual appearances of Summers, McGinty and Logan. Rather, they have the unnerving, doll-like quality common to the mannequin – I would call it the suggestion of a distant, anaesthetized happiness. In lieu of genitals, they have the smooth, rounded protuberance common to the dummy.”

Investigation of the phenomenon is advancing on two principal lines of enquiry: scientific explanation, or possible sabotage by the Russian Comrades. Toynbee explained: “At the present time, we know of no conceivable naturalistic mechanism as to how the flight to the moon and subsequent re-entry might cause the transformation of living human tissue into plaster-based lifeless simulacra.General McClinton suggested that the uncanny mystery bore the imprimatur of the Kremlin: “This is precisely the kind of transformation the Comrades would gladly enforce on the entire planet – turning free men into standardized dummies!” He added, however, that there was at present no plausible scenario for how the Comrades could have made the switch in the available timeline.

The mannequins were dressed in checkered wool flannel shirts and half wool cashmere slacks, a sneak preview of the Sears and Roebuck autumn catalogue. Pipes had been provided to complete the rugged, rustic look. Despite the intensely sombre and portentous nature of the occasion, all agreed that the ensembles were quite becoming. General McClinton praised the versatility of the new line, noting that “everybody would feel comfortable in these, from college Johnny to retiree Joe!”
Puzzled by how such a blatant flight of fancy could be presented as an item of factual journalism, he scanned some of the other headlines:

Department of Health Warning: Physical Acts of Intimacy May Be Catalyst for Invasion of Little People – Home Office: “First they take Your Identity – Eventually they will Bury You” - Conservative MP: “The Little People are Inculcating the Ethos of the Welfare State in Every Home.”

'But this is nonsense,' he finally blurted, pushing the newspaper away.
Giacomo sneered. 'Sorry, Einstein.'
Eddie seemed upset. 'The Chronicle has a superb reputation, I can assure you.'
'This paper has a reputation - '
'Yes, yes, the Chronicle is really above reproach. Their diligence is outstanding.'
'Their diligence - '
'I wouldn't mislead you, sir. They have excellent fact checkers, really tireless.'
'Fact checkers?'
'Absolutely. If they discover that any factual content has crept into a story, sir, they immediately issue a retraction. That happens very, very rarely – but whenever it does, I can assure you, the offending content is retracted immediately.'
'But – newspapers are supposed to be factual!'
Eddie and Giacomo regarded him as though he were drunk.
'Where did you get that idea from?'
'Well – I don't know – I can't remember – you mean that they're pure fantasy?'
'What else would they be?'
'But – don't people want to know what's happening - what's going on around them?'
Eddie look at him incredulously, and then sighed: 'Well, why would they want to? Nothing happens here, nothing at all really. People arrive, and then they go away' – he moved his hand from side to side – 'arrive, then away. What kind of news would that be? It would be the same paper, every single edition: “Yesterday, Some People Arrived in Intermundia Airport, and Some Others Departed from It.” Not very simulating news, is it? Not very edifying work, either for the journalist or the reader. But delusions and flights of fantasy – well, sir, they need not be so static and predictable.'
A look of mournful longing came over Eddie's face as he continued:
'Well, for most people, I suppose they would. They say, sir, that the average chimpanzee who is taken from the wilderness to the zoo soon forgets the forest, and dreams only of the bars of his cage. And that's the way it is for most of us. But the journalist is an exceptional creature – he has somehow cultivated the temperature of his imagination, so that it is a hothouse where strange, luxuriant things blossom.'
Giacomo nodded at Eddie with a look of sardonic cruelty:
'He wanted to be a journalist when he was younger!'
'I did – I still do. But – oh, it's too late now. Too late. I wouldn't even get a job as a stenographer in one of the papers now. But what a life – what a wonderful life! The journalist doesn't sleep much at night. What does he do? Well, I imagine he wanders about, talking to the people who work the night-shift, looking at the planes in the night sky, having adventures in a world that the rest of us don't see. The journalist, you see, must be awake and active while most of us are dreaming. This allows him to dream while while the rest of us toil away in the workaday world. The busy news office is a work environment like no other. It is make up of rows of hammocks, which serve as the journalists' desks. And when the reporter clocks in to work in the morning, he lays himself out on his hammock. It is considered professional to wear pyjamas or perhaps a dressing gown, but the occasional maverick arrives to work fully clothed. There are hookahs positioned by the hammocks, and some of the journalists consume narcotics to insure a greater accuracy in their work. Imagine it! Everywhere else, there is noise and bustle and busyness. But in the newspaper office, a blissful silence, a languor, a porous, dreamy atmosphere, plumes of smoke swirling into evanescent patterns above the recumbent workers, the Sandman lulling softly to sleep those strenuous, invisible weavers who knit our thoughts together into rational and coherent sentences. The journalist, you see, in order to file his stories, must drift into a trance-like state, neither fully conscious or asleep. A place between the two states – an airport, if you like, which is not really one country or another, where the point of departure and the destination are blurred together. And when he becomes thus inspired, the journalist begins to speak in a low whisper. Crouched at a little desk beneath the hammock, his head aslant so that his ear is close to the whispering mouth, the stenographer records each journalist's dream, editing factual and biographical material out as he goes. What a strange place – a gaggle of hushed voices, distant and unfamiliar, and keys clacking to catch them in ink before they vanish forever – the place where the daily news is made!'
Eddie had an awestruck, faraway expression as he contemplated the life of the journalist. Giacomo continued to goad him:
'But you tried, didn't you? You tried to be a journalist - '
'Oh, shut up Giacomo - '
'But when you lay down on the hammock, and drifted off into your trance - '
'SHUT UP!'
'The only news stories you could come up were events from your own life - '
In low voice: 'Only the bars of my cage...'
'Trivial little episodes – broken hearts and roast dinners - '
'Only the bars.....'
' - that the stenographers instantly edited away into nothing.'
The pair fell silent, Giacomo apparently satisfied at having humiliated Eddie. Nothing happened for a long time, and he felt an unbearable tension, as though one of them would soon have to become hysterical or violent. Then Eddie's face brightened.
'I think we're here at long last!' he said.

The train was stopping. Eddie and Giacomo got up briskly from their seats and headed in the direction of the doors. He followed then reluctantly, becoming aware that his nerves were mounting again now that the journey was completed. Stepping out on the platform was the most awesome shock he had yet experienced in Intermundia Airport. The station was a vast cyclopean enclosure, more redolent of an ancient temple or mausoleum than a train stop. The structure's brooding air of antiquity and scale, so incongruently juxtaposed with the poised, illuminated train, took his breathe away. He had that quiet, eerie perturbation of soul that a person experiences when they cast a rock into a dim abyss, and only a prolonged silence follows. The technocrats glided away, the clack of the women's heels echoing through the vast space like tumbling pebbles. Then the train took off again, departing into a tunnel so small and dim that it seemed to simply pass through the stone wall. Its sound died away slowly and a profound silence filled the cavern, like a vigilant animal resuming its habitual watchfulness having just swallowed the last morsel of a meal. 

Eddie and Giacomo remained immobile, leaving him a moment to take in his surroundings. The outer walls were constructed with huge, misshapen limestone boulders, fitted together in a haphazard fashion which made him recall – for some obscure reason – Eddie's earlier discussion of a putative asymmetry in the human mouth which implied senility or malice on the part of the creator. Nearer the tracks, a series of pillars, terminating in cornices at the roof of the cavern, suggested a later, more sophisticated addition. The pillars were carved with abstract decorative figures of a sensibility so obscure that it felt almost impious to contemplate them in the harsh light of the orange sodium lamps.
Finally, Eddie nudged him gently.
'Your case officer is over there.'
He turned and followed Eddie's pointing finger. High up above the tunnels where the train had just departed, a massive, brooding face was carved into the limestone where the wall met the roof of the cavern. Indistinct in terms both of race and sex, the features were austere and expressionless with the exception of the eyes, which were fixed with fierce concentration on the platform floor. It was, he thought, the perfect epitome of a primitive ruler of infinite power and eternal, implacable judgement, a ruler whose silence and immobility contained the clap and the rent of thunder. He became conscious of Eddie and Giacomo's bodies shaking behind him. Turning, he found that they were laughing silently.

'Sorry,' Eddie said, red-faced, 'sorry – I can never resist that one. Parts of this underground are very old. Who knows who that fella is up yonder? He wouldn't make much of a case officer though.'
Giacomo was sniggering. 'We're going this way,' Eddie said, having composed himself, and they made off away from the platform. As they neared the far wall, he noticed that there was a single kiosk in the gloom. The kiosk sold pretzels, pastries, coffee and newspapers. A wizened, heavily made-up woman with a sullen expression sat inside smoking a cigarette. A good half of the cigarette was untipped ash that seemed always on the point of falling away. 

'Busy today Maria?' Eddie enquired as they passed. The woman in the kiosk extracted the cigarette from the side of her mouth in a distasteful manner, as though it were a thermometer. She grunted, rolled her eyes slightly, and returned the cigarette. Her bulging eyes and rhythmic inhalations reminded him of a fish in a tank.

'She's one of those women who can smoke an entire cigarette without tipping it once,' Eddie said, 'it's a skill that the older generation have. I used to watch my grandmother doing it.'
'I had an uncle,' Giacomo interjected, 'who could smoke an entire cigarette without exhaling any smoke! I was fascinated by this as a child, and I asked my father where the smoke went. He told me that my uncle farted all the smoke out of his asshole like a chimney before he went to bed. To this day, I still want to know where all that smoke went!'

They reached the far wall. The lichen-mottled stone had been excavated, and a modern structure built into the wall. Eddie opened the glass door, and they entered what appeared to be an abandoned work station of some kind. It was a dingy complex that branched off into offices, store-rooms and a canteen where a fluorescent lamp flickered and buzzed. Tools, hard-hats, Styrofoam cups and old newspapers were scattered on the floor, and a thick smell of kerosene and disinfectant hung in the hair. 

'This place,' Giacomo said sourly. They walked through dimly lit corridors for what seemed like an age. Occasionally, they encountered other security guards escorting New Arrivals back through the complex from Central Command. The New Arrivals had haunted, perplexed expressions, and appeared dissociated from their surroundings. He was troubled by the awareness that this situation would be reversed in a short time – he would be returning, and encountering others on-route. Finally, they arrived in the main electrical distribution room, and Eddie typed a code into a steel door behind a row of switchboards. He was smiling. 'I hope you're ready for some exercise.' The three men entered a narrow, dark metallic shaft. Giacomo shone a pen-sized torch, revealing a steel ladder fixed to the wall. 'We have to climb,' Eddie said, 'I'll go first, and you can go in the middle. That way, if you fall, Giacomo's thick skull should cushion you.' Giacomo grunted.

He looked up, but it was impossible to determine the extent of the shaft in the darkness. 'Is it high?' he whispered. 'It's not too bad', Eddie said, 'just take it one step at a time.' Eddie started climbing, and when his feet were a few rungs above his head, Giacomo nudged him to begin. He felt strangely powerless and fixed his hands on the railing. Soon all three were ascending the ladder at a deliberate pace. The darkness of the shaft became nearly complete, and he orientated himself by means of Eddie's heavy panting above, and the sound of Giacomo's feet below. His arms became fatigued, but whenever his pace slackened, Giacomo's head butted brusquely against his feet. His hands were slick with perspiration. He wanted to tell them to stop, to turn back, but his mouth was dry, and he seemed to have lost all volition in the arduousness of the climb. 

'We should sing a song,' Eddie said above, 'Giacomo, would you like to sing a few bars of something?' Giacomo grunted. 'Well, I suppose I better sing one.' They continued climbing. Eddie started to sing a lullaby in a strange, affected lilt which was completely unlike his speaking voice:

Train whistle blowin',
Makes a sleepy noise,
Underneath their blankets
Go all the girls and boys.

Rockin', rollin', ridin',
Out along the bay,
All bound for Morningtown
Many miles away.

Eddie paused, and his breaths came in thick, wheezing gasps. 'Come on gang, join in', he said finally, and continued:

Driver at the engine,
Fireman rings a bell,
Sandman swings the lantern
To show that all is well.

Giacomo joined in the second chorus, and the combination of their discordant and poorly synchronized voices was eerie and terrifying:

Rockin', rollin', ridin',
Out along the bay,
All bound for Morningtown,
Many miles away.

He was getting more exhausted and faint-headed, and his mind entertained grimly elaborate conceits. Perhaps the stern stone visage had really been his case officer after all. Perhaps it had, in that instant, judged him for sins that he would never remember, and consigned him to this punishment: to climb the darkened shaft for all eternity, trapped between two madmen, perpetually on the brink of total exhaustion. Above, Eddie continued to sing:

Somewhere there is sunshine,
Somewhere there is day,
Somewhere there is Morningtown,
Many miles away.

After another bout of choked spluttering, Eddie stopped climbing. 'Slow down a bit there!', he shouted. He struggled for a moment with a latch, then lifted himself up. There was a heavy clang, and then white daylight coursed through the shaft, like water through a sluice. With the light came brisk, revivifying fresh air, and a gentle sound that stirred something in his memories. Eddie had clambered out of the shaft, and he followed with a sudden burst of energy, lifting himself over the edge of a steel trap-door, and rolling over soft ground to lie on his back. 

He was looking up at the blue sky through a dense canopy of coiling branches and fluttering leaves. They were in a forest. His senses were ravished by this first encounter with nature since arriving in Intermundia. He inhaled deeply the scent of soil, grass and bark. He knew them so intimately that they were like a childhood memory, or the memory of childhood itself, come back to him. He stood up, and his eyes delighted in the colours and forms of the forest, so vivid and alive after his journey through the steel and concrete landscape of the terminals, runways and underground.
Giacomo was emerging nonchalantly from the shaft. Eddie sat against a tree stump, wiping sweat from his brow and smiling boyishly. 'It's easier going back down,' he said. 




 "Morningtown Ride", lyrics by Malvina Reynolds.  Continued shortly.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Intermundia Airport (Chapter 2).


Chapter 1 here

 
Back inside the terminal, he knew his next move would have to be to find a bathroom and take a proper look at his features. He lacked a mental image of his face, and this blank space where his thoughts were lodged unnerved him so much that he was reluctant even to touch it. But he had to look – if anything at all could jog his memory, it was surely his face.

Nothing, it turned out, was easily found in the peculiar geometry of the terminal. The persistent curvature of its design made him feel like an infant orbiting a new kind of womb which had been designed by mathematicians and sculptors. All its lines were curvilinear, and all its structures nestled neatly into the whole in a manner which suggested an aesthetic abstraction of the beehive or wasp's nest. Here and there, long corridors branched off from the main building. Their carpets were a rich, fleshy red, and the smooth, white arch of the ceilings gave the whole the appearance of a whale or shark's famished gullet, through which the people moved like snacks fleeing the digestive track.

Finally, in the atrium of one of these corridors, he found a bathroom. The bathroom was long and narrow, and smelled of a citrus disinfectant. The people at the basins all seemed to pause in their ablutions, and regard their reflections with a melancholy warmth, as though the images in the mirror were people to whom they were bidding a fond farewell, after long, tumultuous shared adventures. A jaunty, repetitious melody was piped into the bathroom, but he found that there was a peculiar sense of irresolution or absence in the culmination of the figure, such that the melody created in his mind the looping image of a beautiful face slowly brighten to a wide smile, only at the last to reveal a toothless and cankerous mouth.

Having paused for some time at the cubicles, he edged nervously to one of the wash-hand basins, and regarded his appearance in the mirror. He was, he guessed, about thirty-five. He had brown curly hair, short and untidy, and large blue eyes which he thought were the colour of a declining evening sky, reflected in cold water. Besides the slightly piercing quality of the eyes, his appearance struck him as unremarkable. He was pale and slender, with the look of one of those introverts who strike most people as passive and emotionally neutral, an impression owing not to a lack of passion but rather a certain waxen, inexpressive quality about the physicality. He knew that type of person vaguely in his own memories: the type who smiled detachedly and kept their own counsel, having seemingly resolved that life was a boisterous party at which they knew nobody.

It was not mere disappointment in his looks, however, which troubled him so sorely. It was that his reflection stirred neither the slightest memory, nor inspired in him any discernible emotion whatever. He knew that the reflection in the mirror was his own, that the appearance which returned his searching looks was in some vital sense himself, only by a logical necessity of spatial correlation. Beyond that, his physical body was a stranger to him, and looking at his face elicited no greater connection than that of a passer-by on a busy street. Had his reflection abruptly turned its back, and proceeded towards the door of the bathroom, it would have had engendered no great shock of dissociation.

This estrangement from his body filled him with a sorrow which felt unprecedented to his dim recollections. They had taken everything from him – his entire past, and any connection to his physical selfhood, was utterly lost. All that he had to hold onto were his present stream of thoughts, knotted as they were in the unravelling of a pervasive nightmare logic. In the mirror, his body was convulsing slightly, and tears streamed down its face. An elderly Japanese man, dressed in a funereal suit, patted his shoulder gently – that gesture again. He turned and glared at him.



He made his way up to to one of the elevated footbridges that spanned the perimeter of the terminal. Observing the scene from this particular vantage point, it was clear that the crowd broke down into two separate groups. There was a smaller minority of people like himself whom he called “New Arrivals.” The New Arrivals all exhibited varying symptoms of extreme disorientation and anxiety. He had to assume that they were all in the same position – that their memories had been wiped and they had no idea where they were. The second group he called the “Departees” and the “Comforters.” The Departees had come to be at peace with the circumstances of their abduction and were now leaving Intermundia Airport – back to their old lives? They all had that peculiar, almost mystic placidity which they tried to impart on the New Arrivals, by way of reassuring glances and that insufferable petting.

Clearly, there was some kind of process at work whereby frightened New Arrivals were gradually transformed into contented Departees. Their minds were first wiped clean, and then remade so as to completely acquiesce to the process whereby their identities had been stolen, and remoulded as self-effacing model citizens. Perhaps Intermundia Airport was a kind of re-education camp were everyday people were indoctrinated, and then sent back into the world as the hidden operatives of an ideology or agenda so vast and esoteric that their activities went everywhere unnoticed. Whatever the case, he had now at least acquired a goal and a purpose: to resist this process with every fibre of his being. They had made him forget everything, and that fact alone he would not forget. To have found a goal and a provisional plan, even one composed entirely of rage and opposition, brought on a mild cessation of his churning nerves. A fire which had blazed in his nervous system cooled to to a more patient simmer.

He then felt yet another pat on his shoulder, this time with a considerably less friendly import. Turning from the railing, he found that he was accosted by two security guards. The guards were an odd couple indeed. One was middle-aged, small and paunchy; the other youthful, tall and lean. The middle-aged guard was balding, with grey, wet-looking hair. The sides had been scrupulously combed back, and the remainder on top formed a near perfect rectangular peak at the dead-centre of his forehead. His face, closely-shaven and filmed with perspiration, was plump, boyish, frog-like and endearing. He had the air of a perpetually harried yet good-humoured uncle.

The younger man had a shaved head, tanned complexion and handsome Latin features. He looked sleepy and arrogant. They stood facing him for a moment, the older shifting nervously, the younger man's body immobile, his eyelids flickering as though he was falling asleep.
'Hello, sir', the older one finally began, 'if you'll excuse me, sir. My name is Eddie. This is my colleague Giacomo. Your case officer, sir, would like to see you now, and it is our privilege to accompany you to his office.'
'What if I don't want to go?'
Giacomo edged closer to him, his manner more languorous than insistent.
'You'll see your case officer,' he said, 'one way or another. Don't want to go now is fine with us. We get to take an hour off. You wanna make life difficult for yourself, and easier for us, you're welcome to.'
Eddie cast a reproachful glance at Giacomo.
'What my colleague means to say is that you can see your case officer any time you please! There's no obligation, none whatever. It's up to you! The thing is, though, it's really better – better for you – if you see him sooner rather than later. It's like – like the dentist! Nobody really wants to go to the dentist. They put if off! And the rotten tooth, the pain, you see, it just gets worse. So eventually they have to go. And then – just a little prick, a bit of yank, and all the pain is gone! And then they're kicking themselves, saying “I should have to the dentist ages ago!”'
'I don't have a toothache.'
Giacomo seemed to approve of this remark. He looked at Eddie with a smirk.
'You see? He doesn't have a toothache. Why would he want to go to a dentist?'
'That's not the point. I didn't say he should go to a dentist, I was simply drawing an analogy - '
'You and your analogies, you're just confusing the issue! The man is disorientated, he needs to get his bearings, and you're telling him he has a rotten tooth, he needs to go to the dentist - '
Eddie turned away from Giacomo, and looked at him imploringly.
'You see what he's trying to do? He doesn't want you to go! He just wants to take an hour off. I'm only trying to give you good advice! I have your feelings at heart. He just wants to have a drink.'
Eddie and Giacomo continued to bicker in this farcical manner, eventually wearing his patience to the point where he submitted to attend the interview. Eddie beamed. Giacomo shrugged and gave a little yawn. They sauntered off briskly and he followed them down the steps. They seemed to forget about him instantly, becoming absorbed in their own conversation.
'Did you know,' Eddie was saying, 'that dentists have the highest rate of suicide among all the professions?'
Giacomo shrugged.
'They do. Its a very strange thing, if you think about about it. I mean, it's a respectable middle-class profession, well-paid, secure, steady. Not as respected as the doctor, but less pressure! The dentist never has to tell anybody they've got a month to live, or that they'll never walk again. So why do they do it?'
Eddie glared at him.
'Do what?'
'Kill themselves!'
'All the bad breath seeps into their brains?'
'You make a joke out of everything, but it's an interesting conundrum. I have a theory about the whole thing. There is something, I suspect, in the mouth, that only dentists see. Think about it, how often do you actually look into the inside of your mouth? Nobody does! It's like this undiscovered country, you know, that we carry around inside our faces, this landscape of pink flesh and naked bone and rotting chunks of grizzle and the calcified residuum of an endless stream of words, a lifetime of words that flow profusely out like bile but never really say anything at all. And nobody looks into this world for any sustained length of time, nobody except the dentist. But he looks! Day in and day out, he wrestles with the ungovernable tongue and probes the private parts of a thousand faces, until humanity becomes in his dreams a single gaping mouth! What does he see in there?'

They were passing the bench where he had woken up. The old woman was awake now, sitting up and shaking with a piteous expression of terror on her face. Two other New Arrivals, a man and woman, sat either side. The woman cradled the older woman in her arms like a child, and whispered close to her ear. The man looked like he had suppressed his fear in deference to the older woman's worse plight, but his eyes, wide and bird-like, darted frantically. Both looked at him suspiciously as he passed with Eddie and Giacomo. It occurred to him that he must already look more acclimatized to Intermundia Airport, a change in his appearance perhaps brought about by his first concession to the security guards.

Giacomo regarded Eddie with a look half indulgent and half exasperated.
'Do you say this shit to your wife?'
'No, no, of course not. She's a wise woman in her own way, but not intellectual. She likes her creature comforts, and no noise or stress. That's wiser than most women, I can tell you. But this stuff would be far too deep for her. I only share this stuff with you, Giacomo, because I sense that there are deep, deep currents hidden beneath your boorish veneer.'
'Nope, no currents here. Please don't.'
They turned into one of the corridors that branched off from the main terminal. The corridor was empty, and its peculiar acoustics seemed to amplify the absurd conversation of the security guards.
'There are currents, yes, I can tell. You are a thoughtful man. Now – where was I? Yes, what is it that the dentists see? It seems to me that there could be something in the mouth – some hideous asymmetry – that points to a greater truth about the human condition. Perhaps the mark – the scrawled initials – of a cruel or senile creator. And the dentist, by virtue of the nature of his profession, is forced to face this mortally dispiriting truth every day of his professional life, along with a rouge's gallery of misshapen and rotten molars, swimming in a dank miasma of the halitosis. It drives him to despair, you see. He begins to question the whole premise of his profession – that one should fix that which was designed, after all, only to give pain and yield to decay.'
Giacomo snorted.
'Your brain is a hideous asymmetry.'
'Did I ever tell you my theory about why plumbers and pipe-layers tend to be extremely fertile?'
'Please don't.'

They paused at a stairwell. Eddie turned to him. “We're going out to the Central Command Complex, so we have to get a train.” They proceeded down the first of several stairwells. A crowd started to mill around them again, like a tumbling stream. He glanced at the posters on the wall while they descended. They were advertisements composed of a mishmash of religious, historical and commercial iconography. A jolly, rotund Oriental sage demonstrated the virtues of a water-resistant wrist watch. A benevolent, bearded youth enjoyed a carbonated beverage after he had been scourged by a group of soldiers. A collapsing tower emphasized the importance of comprehensive life insurance. Others suggested political and militaristic themes: mobilization of war efforts and nationalistic projects, fomentation of xenophobic panics, evocations of the transcendent power of vast crowds, or a single, abstracted fist clenched in the manic idolatry of an idea. Some of the posters were more abstract or elusive in intention. “TODAY IS TOMORROW'S YESTERDAY” announced one, over an image of a family of skeletons enjoying a summer picnic.

Finally, they arrived at the concourse of a vast underground rail network. As they descended a stately granite staircase, his senses were once again overwhelmed by the scope and bustle of Intermundia Airport. There were five separate train tracks, linked by a system of overpasses. People ascended to the footbridges on escalators, and were then carried smoothly across on mobile walkways, giving the overpasses the appearance of relentless conveyor belts. The tracks moved to a similarly breakneck pace: it seemed as though there was always a train either departing or arriving at each track, producing a vertiginous feeling of panic like that of the old variety show gimmick of spinning plates. He noticed with a kind of sickening jolt that a huge percentage of the crowd was made up of New Arrivals accompanied by one or two security guards. They were hundreds, perhaps thousands of these groups in the underground.

He was momentarily stunned. 'Are all those...?'
Eddie nodded, grinning with fond awe. 'Yes, all new-comers, just like yourself. It never stops. The turn-over is amazing.'
Giacomo regarded him smugly.
'Not so special now, eh?' 

Continued shortly.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

The Weird, Haunting Art of Graszka Paulska.


Graszka Paulska is a Polish artist based in Warsaw.  Her work is very striking and brilliantly executed:








More at EMPTY KINGDOM.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Intermundia Airport (Chapter 1).



By a route obscure and lonely,
Haunted by ill angels only,
Where an Eidolon, named NIGHT,
On a black throne reigns upright,
I have reached these lands but newly
From an ultimate Dim Thule-
From a wild weird clime that lieth, sublime,
Out of SPACE – Out of TIME.

Edgar Allen Poe, Dream-Land.

Chapter 1.

He woke up and found himself huddled on a bench in a busy airport terminal. If he hadn't been so drowsy he would probably have been alarmed, for he had no memories of anything prior to the intense disorientation of his dreams. He couldn't remember his name, or anything that had ever happened to him, before waking up in that airport terminal.

Holding his nerves at bay, he attempted to get his bearings. He sat up on the bench, and looked around. The terminal was a vast, ovoid-shaped structure, with its latticed ceiling curving high above the activity on the floor. Every surface was white, gleaming and reflective, and through the curving lattice work of the ceiling, and glass walls broken into cubes by white frames, he saw a pure, pulsating blue sky.

In contrast to the sharp clarity of the terminal's appearance, its sound was distant and diffuse, like the low, steady hum of a hidden machinery. Feet clacked on the tiled floor, the walkers becoming upturned shadows that arced across its polished sheen. Their voices coalesced into a happy, bee-like static that ebbed and swelled in waves across the terminal. Behind this sound, a woman's voice rose intermittently to make announcements on a tinny intercom. Her language and accent were so unfamiliar to him, and the effect of her voice so mysterious, that he could only picture her hidden behind a musty black veil, fingering the beads of some forgotten heresy as she made her muffled announcements.

He marvelled at the hive-like bustle of the terminal, its suggestion of a factory that produced steady, minute permutations in the global pattern of human dispersal, and in the private, intangible allotment of human destinies. People moved this way and that, across the busy floor, up escalators and away out of view on mobile walkways. They were all charged with the mingled anxiety and giddy excitement of imminent departure. Here and there, he saw other individuals who appeared, like himself, blear-eyed and disorientated, as though they had just awoken in an unfamiliar skin. He was struck abruptly by an oddity in the whole scene: nobody was carrying luggage of any kind.

Taking all this in, it occurred to him that he had a perfectly adequate memory of the most generalized things. He know what airports were. He knew what airplanes, taxies and buses were. In the broadest strokes, he know what the world was, and how one functioned in it. What he lacked completely was a memory of particular things. This extended beyond his own identity. He tried to remember what year it was, and found he was uncertain which decade. When he tried to remember who was the president of America, no particular president emerged, only a kind of composite image: an energetic, middle-aged man in a suit with a gleaming smile. This happened, again and again, with popular music, fashion and technology. His mind seemed to possess only rough templates, or an awareness of the precursors of things, rather than their present, living instances.




Growing more troubled, he turned his attention back to the terminal. The benches were arranged in rows that faced the terminal's massive electronic display, a black rectangle affixed to the downward curvature of the ceiling. Some of the destinations were immediately familiar to him, evoking second-hand memories of famous landmarks and national stereotypes. Others, he was certain, he had never encountered before, and their names affected him like pieces of music or passages of recondite poetry.

At the bottom centre of the display, a smaller screen was tuned to what he assumed was a news channel. This news channel, however, was subject to an instantly notable and deeply alienating peculiarly: there were no people in it. It alternated between long, static shots of a studio in which two empty chairs regarded the viewer portentously, and wide, rapidly cutting shots of urban locations equally devoid of human presence. When the news programme broke for commercials, he was initially relived to find that these, at least, contained people. However, just as the news reportage lacked its crucial human element, the advertisements were rendered stark by the absence of the objects which were their chief subject. The beaming actors mimed the various pleasures and utilities of absent, notional consumer products, producing an effect which he found almost as forlorn as the empty spaces of the news programme.

Turning back to the people milling about beneath the display, he began to notice other things. There were, as far as he could see, no children in the terminal. He estimated that the average age was somewhere between forty and sixty. He saw one teenager, and some who were in their twenties, but they were outliers. Their clothing had the same indefinite quality which characterized his memories. Most of it was impossible to pin down to any specific decade. Where the clothing did evoke a particular period, it did so in an unconvincing fashion, like a much later recreation for a television show or magazine spread. Finding nothing in the scene to place the terminal in either time or space, he resolved that he had to speak to somebody.

Standing up, he found himself initially dizzy and nauseous. The use of his body felt peculiar, as though his mind floated in a jittery, pliant suit of rubber. After a few steps, however, his body gradually regained its sense of solidity and continuity. The queues to the check-in desks were far too long, so he decided to accost the first person that crossed his path. This turned out to be a women whom he guessed to be in her mid-forties. She had the general appearance of an academic or solicitor: a small, stoutish figure, short brown hair and a kindly bespectacled face.

'Excuse me,' he said, 'please, pardon me, do you speak English?' She paused.
'Yes, yes I do.' A French accent, he thought.
'This will seem like a really strange question. Could you tell me the name of this airport?' She smiled indulgently: 'This is the Intermundia Airport. Or one of them, at any rate.' She was beginning to move away again.
'But, I'm sorry, I really don't know where I am. That name doesn't mean anything to me. What country are we in?' She touched his shoulder gently.
'We aren't in any country, really. Look. I can tell that you are new. All this is very....disorientating and overwhelming at first. But it's okay, you will get used to it. You need to relax, take a deep breath. I assume that you haven't seen your case officer yet?'
'My what?', he enquired, becoming impatient despite himself.
'Your case officer. Have you had a session with your case officer yet?' He could only shake his head. 'Well, you'll be called very soon, to have a meeting with them. They will explain everything to you. Really, it's okay, they'll explain everything.' Her owlish face was beginning to drift back into the crowd. He looked at her imploringly. She patted his shoulder again. 'I can't help you now. But don't worry. Just wait for the meeting. Things will be clearer.' She turned, and walked away.

It was becoming increasingly difficult to stave off his mounting anxiety. He was troubled now by two things. First of all, he was suffering from extreme amnesia. Perhaps worse still, however, his memory was still sufficient to emphasize that his current situation was utterly bizarre and even sinister. Was he dreaming? Though the most desirable solution, he ruled this out almost instantly. He had no doubt that his perceptions were veridical – had he been dreaming, his awareness of the wrongness of everything would have nudged him to wakefulness long ago. Was he going mad? Again, though this might have been an almost reassuring explanation, it seemed untenable. His reasoning felt completely lucid and clear-sighted. What troubled him more than any temporary foible or malfunction of his brain was the conviction that everything around him was real. His amnesia, and the unnerving oddities of the airport terminal, were a related phenomenon.

Was he a political prisoner of some kind? The woman's reference to a case officer suggested that he had fallen under the jurisdiction of some bureaucracy or other. He couldn't persuade himself, however, that the situation was merely political. The airport's unnerving air of insularity and timelessness suggested an order that existed aloof from politics, operating in a place untouched by the world's fluctuating values and fortunes. His suspicion was that something had been done to his mind to render it as neutral and indistinct as the airport itself.

He turned to make his way back to the bench and discovered that the precise location where he had been sleeping was now occupied by an elderly woman. She too was curled up asleep, her face obscured by wan, diaphanous hands clenched as though in prayer. He had to get out of the terminal, and far away and fast. To the right of the benches, through the milling crowds, he saw a row of automatic exit doors bathed in sunlight gleam. He ambled towards them, trying not to let his pace betray his urgency.

Outside in the glare, he found only a vaster sense of confinement. The airport was marooned in an aesthetically spartan landscape of transport hubs, served by a wide, teaming motorway. People were disembarking from taxies and busies at a ramp, and again he noted that none of them carried luggage. Squinting airport staff wheeled empty luggage trolleys along the concourse, imparting a peculiar sense of theatre or ritual. Across the motorway, accessible by an overpass, there was a long, five-story concrete structure, composed of a lattice of narrow conservatory balconies. Elevated above the roof, large unlit neon letters identified the building as the “I  N  T  E  R  M  U  N  D  I  A    O  V E  R  N  I  G  H  T.” The conservatory rooms contained identical furnishing: a two-seater couch and wicker-table facing the glass, and a bureau with a seat facing the wall. A painting hung over the bureaus. Although he couldn't make out the details, it was clearly the same study in each room.

Even from that distance, through the gasoline haze of the motorway, everything in the little conservatories seemed faded, decrepit and somehow mortally dispiriting. Though he had no precise memory of any other, he felt certain that the Intermundia Overnight was among the least welcoming of all hostelries. Many of the conservatories were occupied. The distribution of those who sat facing the glass, and those with their backs turned at the bureaus, formed an eerie binary code. He felt as though the people seated at the wicker-tables watched him with a kind of unwavering intensity, like individuals who have been brutalized by a regime of boredom to the point of cultivating cerebral, highly specialized homicidal tendencies.

Beyond the Overnight, there was a vast parking lot, and after that what appeared to be an exact facsimile of the terminal he had just existed. The harsh concrete terrain of motorway, overpasses and expansive parking lots stretched as far as his eyes could register. Trying to escape on foot was pointless.

Up to that point, a kind of premonitory anxiety had kept his attention focused on the surrounding buildings. Now he looked fully into the blue sky, and his brain reeled. The pulsating quality he had earlier noted was a result of the exhaust fumes of a staggering volume of airplanes. The sky was full of them: the nearer ones like flocks of birds, and those further off like swarms of locusts. Their flight paths seemed to extend indefinitely into the horizon, becoming at the limits of visibility like tiny evening stars. It was a beautiful and terrifying spectacle, a dance of metal fuselages becoming liquid and molten in the sunlight, rising like scattered motes against the crisp, boundless blue.

Continued shortly.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Sunday, March 20, 2016

A House is a Machine for Living In: A Warm-up for Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise (Part 2).


2. Civilisation and its Discontents.

Something in all men profoundly rejoices at seeing a car burn.

Jean Baudrillard.

When considering this possibility, we come up against a contention that is so astonishing that we will dwell on it for awhile. It is contended that much of the blame for our misery lies with what we call our civilisation, and that we should be far happier if we were to abandon it and revert to primitive conditions.

Sigmund Freud, Civilisation and its Discontents.

In the previous part of this essay, we looked at how influential modernist architects like Le Corbusier believed that a radical new architecture and urban design could produce a stable, happy community of people whose behaviour ultimately emulates the harmonious mathematical order of the buildings in which they live. In Shivers and High-Rise, however, we find the opposite happening. The residents of Starliner apartments (in Cronenberg's film) and Anthony Royal's high-rise (in Ballard novel) do not replicate the mathematical balance of their environments; rather they surrender to the inherent disorder and chaos of their deepest instincts and most primal impulses. There is a double irony at work here: we observe not only anarchy breaking out in a built environment of idealized mathematical simplicity, but also a kind of atavistic reversion taking place in an architecture which was designed to embody the modern, and act as the incubator of the individual and community of the utopian future. Here is the ultimate riposte to the modernist utopia: instead of going boldly into the idealized tomorrow, the residents of the high-rise are regressing back, to the infantile stages of human identity and civilisation. With a vengeance.

We also argued in the previous section that modernity signalled a radical new juncture in how we perceive time. Previous epochs were often enthralled by the myth of the Golden Age – the belief that the past was infinitely better – nobler, more elevated in manner and wisdom – than the present. The present, in this view, was a failing away or degeneration from a prior, more exalted civilisation, destined either to be lost forever or to come back again according to some grand historical cycle. The return of the past is thus something to be welcomed. In the modern era, all this was reversed. Once we conceive of the present as the pinnacle of civilisation, and the future as the potential Golden Age, the return of the past becomes a danger, a creeping menace. We begin to conceive of modern civilisation as a grand albeit precarious achievement, constantly imperilled by the threat of some kind of reversion back to its well-springs in the primitive and barbaric. This attitude developed from a variety of sources: not only the modernist utopianism which we discussed in the previous chapter, but also from a climate of fierce chauvinism and belief in the superiority of western civilisation which flourished in the Victorian period.

The Victorian period in particular was characterised by a widespread anxiety regarding the stability and permanence of civilisation and the hard-won fruits of progress – a fear of the ‘resurgent atavism’ in cultural terms. In biology, an atavism is a throwback, an ancestral trait or characteristic which returns in individual cases after it has been lost for several generations by the species. It is the anomalous return of some characteristic of a prior stage of evolution and form of existence. The concept of the atavism has enjoyed a rich life in the cultural sphere as a metaphor for the sudden resurgence of primitive forms of thought and behaviour in the context of modern civilisation. In its inception, this concept was often aligned with ideologies of social Darwinism and racism; in time though, it has also come to express ambiguous attitudes towards the value and validity of rationalistic modern civilisation. In Shivers and High-Rise, we find a breakout of resurgent primitivism in the modern apartment complex: in Shivers, a return to a greedy, unbounded infantile sexuality, and in High-Rise to both the prior infantile forms of the individual and of human society in general. To contextualise both works, we will look at the theories of Sigmund Freud, a considerable influence on both artists, and in particular his 1929 essay Civilisation and its Discontents


Das Unbehagen in Der Kultur (“The Uneasiness in Civilisation”) was written in the aftermath of World War I, which had been to many a profound blow to the notion of human progress and rational civilisation. What is interesting about the particular unease with civilisation which Freud posits in this essay is that it was not – as in the case of traditional fears of the resurgent atavism – something extrinsic to civilisation. It was not something which civilisation had progressed beyond, something external and alien which might still be observed in the customs of the “less developed” cultures. Rather, Freud argued that a conflict between the primitive and the civilised might be an intrinsic part of the very relationship between the individual and civilisation itself. For Freud, civilisation offered the individual something like a Faustian bargain in reverse. The traditional Faustian bargain offers its recipient the capacity to indulge themselves to the maximal degree – to have no limits placed on their capacity for self-indulgence and self-expression.

Civilisation, on the other hand, offers the following bargain. You will enjoy ever greater levels of security, comfort, hygiene and health. The bounty of intellectual and aesthetic “high” culture – art, philosophy, the sciences – will be yours to enjoy. Your home will be warm and the provision of your food require no foraging, hunting, or sowing. For the greater part of your life, you will be shielded from physical privation, violence and mortal threats. These are the fruits of civilisation. However, in order to maintain them, we have to give something in return: a great measure of our freedom and individuality must be sacrificed. Most crucially for Freud, our instinctual being – our naturally unbounded desires for the gratification of our sexuality and our individual will – must be repressed:

“Thirdly – and this seems the most important point – it is impossible to overlook the extent to which civilisation is built up on renunciation, how much it presupposes the non-satisfaction of powerful drives – ‘cultural frustration’ dominates the large sphere of inter-personal relations; as we already know, it is the cause of the hostility that all civilisations have to contend with.”

To understand Freud’s view of this tension between the individual and his society, we need to briefly sketch out his well-known structural model of the psyche. Freud saw the outward social individual as the mediation between two conflicting forces: the Id and the superego. In this instance, the Id is the atavism: it is the throwback to our infantile stage as an individual, and pre-civilized state as a species. A confluence of our instinctual desires and urges, the Id desires only instant pleasure and gratification, and recognises no law, no limit, no reason or compromise:

“It is the dark, inaccessible part of your personality, what little we know of it we have learned from our study of Dreamwork and of course the construction of neurotic symptoms, and most of that is of a negative character and can be described only as a contrast to the ego. We approach the id with analogies: we call it a chaos, a cauldron full of seething excitations…It is filled with energy reaching it from the instincts, but has no organization, produces no collective will, but only a striving to bring about the satisfaction of the instinctual needs subject to the observance of the pleasure principal.”

The id is held in check by the superego which is the voice of conscience, the authority of the father, the police force of the individual psyche. Out of some kind of compromise between the clamour of our instinctual desires, and the authoritarian stop-brake of our superego, our public, social persona, or ego, emerges. However, as Freud saw it, this compromise, particularly under the demands of advanced civilisation, is rarely satisfactory for the individual. Inside every humble, self-effacing bourgeois lies a violent, priapic barbarian waiting to claw its way out. Inside each of us, like a buried archaeological stratum of private and evolutionary history, resides an infant and a primitive, a creature of unfettered appetite that swells and seethes with every compromise and accommodation to the adult, civilized world.

In this regard, we can see that there is a neat parallelism between Freud's conception of the individual psyche and civilisation as whole. In terms of mass civilisation, the superego corresponds to the coercive forces by which a society maintains its ideological equilibrium and order – not only the physical force represented by military and police, but also the more crucial invisible forms of psychological coercion and conformism which lead individuals to police their own behaviour. The ego corresponds to the outward appearance of society as a smoothly functioning, cohesive whole whose various parts are content with their societal roles and the overall moral structure of their society. Under the surface, however, there remains the society's id – the seething cauldron of individual discontent, of repressed but unvanquished instinctual drives, which constantly threatens the stability of the society from within.





The marvelous lithographic illustrations for Ernst Haeckel's Kunstformen der Natur (Artforms in Nature) - via Wikipedia.

Freud's ideas in this regard were influenced by the recapitulation theory of the German biologist and polymath Ernst Haeckel. This theory, roughly stated, holds that the embryonic development of the individual contains within it and repeats in its individual growth the various evolutionary developmental stages of the species – ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, ontogeny referring the development of the individual, and phylogeny the collective evolution of the species. In Civilisation and its Discontents, Freud argues for a similar conception of the psyche, using the metaphor of an imaginary Rome whose entire history remains permanently present in its current form:

“Now let us make the fantastic assumption that Rome is not a place where people live, but a psychical entity with a similarly long, rich past, in which nothing that ever took shape has passed away, and in which all previous phases of development exist alongside the most recent.”

Though discredited as biology, the recapitulation theory has as a certain elegant, resonant quality: the individual organisation becomes a fractal of the species as a whole, and a living museum of its own vast evolutionary history. The idea clearly fascinated Ballard; in The Drowned World he utilized as a “literary device” the notion of the spinal column as a vessel containing “the details of the entire evolutionary development of the human race”:

“I tell how human beings likewise regress into the past. In a certain sense, they climb down their own spinal column. They traverse down the thoracic vertebrae, from the point at which they are air-breathing mammals, to the lumbar region, to the point at which they are they are amphibious reptiles. Finally they reach the absolute past, which on one hand represents the birth of life itself in the hot womb of the primeval jungle, and which in another sense represents their own origins and birthplace in the mother's womb.”


Whether strictly accurate or no, Freud's conjoined notion of the psyche and society as a placid veneer or facade, perpetually threatened by atavistic impulses and instincts that remain perfectly preserved below the surface, was perhaps the most enduring and influential of his ideas throughout the latter half of the twentieth century. It is certainly this central idea informs the narratives of both Shivers and High Rise. Partially funded by the Canadian Film Board and apparently shot in just 15 days, Shivers remains the most extreme, forceful – and “Cronenbergian” - of all Cronenberg flicks. Its first five minutes, in fact, are so gruellingly warped and unsettling that it was almost as though the auteur was trying to instantly jettison any viewers who weren't in it for keeps. The rest of the film is a sustained assault on every orifice the film's bodies and the viewer's mind has to offer – it isn't every film that features a faecal-phallic parasite as its antagonist – perhaps for the best.

Cronenberg's early films have a unique atmosphere which derive partially from the imperfections and artefacts of their production milieu. Shot cheaply with actors of variable ability, and shot through with a chilly, insular Canadian quality, they have a kind of sinister sterility which is increased rather than off-set by soundtracks of gentle, lullaby-like library music. They feel like mutant public information films. It is interesting that Cronenberg's early cinema often focuses on medical scientists whose well-intentioned experiments produce horrifying consequences. In the 50s and 60s, the well-intentioned monster D. Ewen Cameron carried out a series of appalling experiments in psychological conditioning (under the auspices of the CIA's MK-ULTRA programme) in Montreal's Allen Memorial Institute. Some years before, an estimated 20,000 orphaned children (the Duplessis Orphans) had been falsely certified as mentally ill as part of a scheme in Quebec and confined to psychiatric units. Whether a conscious influence or otherwise, these events make Canada an apt location for the emergence of a chilly, medical variety of horror.

The first of Cronenberg's messianic dabblers is Dr Emil Hobbes in Shivers. Like Freud, Hobbes believes that civilisation creates a fundamental cleavage between humans and their natural and instinctual being; he describes man as “an animal who thinks too much” and “an over-rational animal that's lost touch with its body and its instincts.” However, whereas Freud believed that the repression of the instinctual drives was a worthwhile and necessary sacrifice to make in order to maintain civilisation, Hobbes is a libidinal anarchist who believes that western civilisation is itself a mass neurosis that must be cured at all costs. To this end, he develops an artificial parasite which is a combination of aphrodisiac and venereal disease. This parasite, he hopes, will unleash the libidinal id on a mass scale, and transform the world into “one beautiful mindless orgy.” In this sense, Hobbes follows in a strain of sexual anarchism which developed out of conventional Freudian theory. The first of these outlaws was the equal parts brilliant and demented Wilhelm Reich, whose championing of orgiastic potency as a cure for neurosis lead to him being labelled the “prophet of the better orgasm” and the “founder of a genital utopia.” 


Since Cronenberg is making a horror film, Hobbes' plan to initiate a genital utopia goes Horribly Wrong – as plans which involve the creation of artificial venereal parasites are wont to. On the surface, it might appear that Cronenberg's film expresses an essentially conservative viewpoint: unleash the id, and you open a Pandora's Box of uncontrollable violence and chaos. This was how Robin Wood, a trenchant early critic of Cronenberg, interpreted the film when he saw it at the Edinburgh film festival: “It's derivation is from Invasion of the Body Snatchers via Night of the Living Dead, but the source of its intensity is quite distinct: all the horror is based on extreme sexual disgust.” To take such a view, however, is to misread the very ambiguous nature of Cronenberg's sexual apocalypse in Shivers. The director has often said that he identifies more with the characters after they have been infected – which is to say that a world of sexual anarchy, violence and wanton destruction is somehow preferable to the dull, routinised existence of the middle-class professional. 



Although our modern connotative sense of the word apocalypse is a negative image of total destruction, the literal meaning of the word is a disclosure, an unveiling; a revelation of the true nature of the world. “Something in all men,” Jean Baudrillard wrote, “profoundly rejoices at seeing a car burn.” Cronenberg is by intellectual temperament very much a modernist, but he rejoices in seeing the orderly and antiseptic world of the urban bourgeois thorn asunder. For him, the parasite simply unveils the true animal nature of the high-rise dwellers; like the car crash in Ballard's fictions, it reconnects them to their bodies, to the rich, precarious corporeal existence from which they have become disengaged. In Crash and Shivers, disgust in an intrinsic part of the body and sexuality. This idea is expressed in Shivers by Nurse Forsythe (played by ethereal exploitation movie queen Lynn Lowry):

Roger, I had a very disturbing dream last night. In this dream I found myself making love to a strange man. Only I'm having trouble you see, because he's old... and dying... and he smells bad, and I find him repulsive. But then he tells me that everything is erotic, that everything is sexual. You know what I mean? He tells me that even old flesh is erotic flesh. That disease is the love of two alien kinds of creatures for each other. That even dying is an act of eroticism. That talking is sexual. That breathing is sexual. That even to physically exist is sexual. And I believe him, and we make love beautifully.

Continued shortly.