August 2012

Lightsey Darst


Exhausted City

The sidewalks are full and no one wants to be here. Stumbling, brushing past each other, no pleasure in the sticky, blistered touch. A little too much to drink, or a lot, sidewalk tables, squinting into the sun, tearing off bits of bread already dusty from the street, unable to eat.

Go inside: what seems at first like air conditioning fades, sitting there sweating over a warming glass of wine. Try to read but the print swims, condensation drips onto the page, and it's not my book to wreck. Try another but there's nothing I can stand, nothing from last month's ravenous reading I even want to taste. It's too hot for the dusty intrigue of the Memoirs of Leticia Valle, too hot to follow another sentence of Baudrillard's Impossible Exchange to its visionary or obscure conclusion, too hot to try to build in the mind any further elaboration on invisible artworks. Inner space crumbles. Everything merely is what it is: the sun, asphalt, the flesh. There's no aura and no poetry. I move restlessly before my full shelves, skimming spines with one finger, dull, bored.


People used to flee cities in the summer. In novels of a hundred years ago and before, heroines put their veils down and ride out to country houses where, parasols in hand, they nurse their fading capital, their beauty and their cash. A chance and surprising encounter with a heroine in summer begins Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth:

Selden paused in surprise. In the afternoon rush of the Grand Central Station his eyes had been refreshed by the sight of Miss Lily Bart.

It was a Monday in early September, and he was returning to his work from a hurried dip into the country; but what was Miss Bart doing in town at that season?

...Selden had never seen her more radiant. Her vivid head, relieved against the dull tints of the crowd, made her more conspicuous than in a ball-room, and under her dark hat and veil she regained the girlish smoothness, the purity of tint, that she was beginning to lose after eleven years of late hours and indefatigable dancing. Was it really eleven years, Selden found himself wondering, and had she indeed reached the nine-and-twentieth birthday with which her rivals credited her?

The House of Mirth -- what possessed me to take that off the shelf? I read all those books about young women once, Emma and Evelina and the rest, but I can't go back now. Make it a rule: you can read novels about virgin heroines only when you are younger than they are, or safely much older, or already picking clean the carcass of the domestic happiness they chase. Thirty-five and single: forget it. I still remember when I aged past Jane Austen's oldest heroine, Anne of Persuasion, whose autumnal romance begins when she is twenty-seven.

Once I read The House of Mirth with the detachment of a well-heeled spectator, Lily Bart's fate at a comfortable distance from mine, but now I ransack it, starved for Lily's little triumphs -- triumphs Wharton doles out with a casino manager's cruel sense for what the addict needs, how little will suffice to keep her playing and paying. But I know what's coming for Lily. I have to get away from her story.


I take The House of Mirth to an open air book swap, put it down on a table, pick up something else almost blindly, sun making a mirage of the dust jacket. I find a place to sit down, under the scattering shade of a locust sapling.

The book turns out, now that I can shade its cover with my body, to be Candida Hofer: Architecture of Absence. I'm turning the glossy, almost wordless pages of a book of photographs, pristine images of theaters, galleries, and other public spaces, all void of people. Silent, eyeless, genderless, Hofer's spaces welcome me. The single plastic chair off-center in Ballettzentrum Hamburg III, dove-white against the gray-white dance floor, looks ideal there; I don't even want to sit in it. U-Bahnstation Theaterplatz Oslo II sends light and nothing else down ruled lines of perspective toward a vanishing point of absolute rest. Arcades and auditoria, aisles and chandeliers, chairs and stages -- Hofer has returned them all to flawless symmetry, to an immaculate dream before and beyond human use. Yes: these places are how I want to feel now, these clean bones washed by light.  

I look up. It's not so bad here, under the locust. Since I'm still, I'm not sweating, and the humidity-dampened hum of the swap table doesn't bother me out here in this field. Around me, others are reading, also silent, also still but for the flick of a page every so often.            

Turning my head back to the book, I find myself looking at Bibliothek Tu Delft I, one of Hofer's many images of libraries. I see there are people in this photograph, but so small, inert, and featureless they may as well be furniture. Only the books look alive: neatly shelved in rows high above the heads of the people, glowing with the white light of the dream of perfect knowledge.


Even Hofer's name, I remember later, means white -- Candida, as in candid, open, honest; as in toga candida, the pure white toga Roman candidates for office wore to suggest their stainlessness; as in candida, the yeast, with its white flower of infection.

This last unfortunate thought leads me to look again at Hofer. Her light -- the longer I stare at it, the more it seems to me solid, animate. Rather than cool, this light could be white hot; it could be heat loss, the thermal echo of a thousand people passing through. Those two livid spots on the gallery floor are where everyone stood yesterday, flirting, bickering... The presence of all colors: I remember being surprised to learn that white was anything but pure.

When I look again at the image I love best, Ca' Dolfin Venezia I, I find it even more smeared with toil than the rest. The pink chairs are a little faded from use; the shallow room forces the viewer into the first row, like a singer projecting; the room's lines and the trompe l'oeil ceiling match Hofer's geometrical aesthetic, but in the middle of everything hangs an enormous milk-white chandelier, blooming like a ghost peony. Two floor-to-ceiling windows or doors stand open at one side, emitting slabs of light so hot they seem to have burned through the paper. Mirrors around the walls set everything to echoes crazed with age. It's too easy to imagine the woman who stepped through these doors and saw herself in these mirrors, her eyes for a moment catching her own eyes and seeing right through them.


"Why," a friend asks me, "do I sometimes love to read, and other times find nothing at all in books? Why do I go through these periods where nothing is what I want to read?"

I can't be bothered to answer. Maybe it's nothing more than weather -- external weather, internal weather. Now all I can stand to read are accounts of abandoned temples where, deep in forgotten shade, the goddesses of dispassion smile in their sleep.