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His Gigantic Shadow Thrown on a Cloud

The ring was lifted from below and jerked off the hook. Barbarossa’s ring lay at their feet. “Long live Italy!” shouted Andrea. throwing his hat into the air. Nobody said a word. Andrea picked up the ring, handed it to the magistrate and said: “Keep this ring in memory of me and this day, on which you did me a wrong.” He seized Gertrude’s hand and kissed it; climbed up the mountain and disappeared; was seen again and vanished in a cloud. After a while he reappeared, high above them; but this time it was merely his gigantic shadow thrown on a cloud. And there he stood, shaking a threatening fist at the village. “That was Satan himself,” said the colonel. “No, it was an Italian,” said the postmaster.


“What we have heard on this commemoration day seems to prove that the deeds of our forefathers have been engulfed in the ocean of time. One thing swims on the surface, another sinks to the bottom. Here we are sitting like the shadows of our former selves, and to you, who are alive, we must remain shadows. … Put out the lights!”

—August Strindberg, In Midsummer Days And Other Tales

In a Strange, Distorted Relation to the World

The witty woman, Madame, chooses for her carnival costume one which ingeniously reveals something in her spirit or heart which the conventions of her everyday life conceal; and when she puts on the hideous long-nosed Venetian mask, she tells us, not only that she has a classic nose behind it, but that she has much more, and may well be adored for things other than her mere beauty. So speaketh the Arbiter of the masquerade: ‘By thy mask I shall know thee.’


“There are traditions still,” he went on, “from le Grand Monarque and le Grand Siècle. But no human being with a feeling for greatness can possibly believe that the God who created the stars, the sea, and the desert, the poet Homer and the giraffe, is the same God who is now making, and upholding, the King of Belgium, the Poetical School of Schwaben, and the moral ideas of our day. We two may at last speak about it. We are serving Louis Philippe, a human God, much as the King of France is a bourgeois King.”

—Isak Dinesen, “The Deluge at Norderney”

Responsive Reconfiguration

Soon people will not be able to watch films like Theo Angelopoulos’s Ulysses’ Gaze or to read Henry James because they will not have the concentration to get from one interminable scene or sentence to the next. The time when I might have been able to read late-period Henry James has passed and because I have not read late-period Henry James I am in no position to say what harm has been done to my sensibility by not having done so. But I do know that if I had not seen Stalker in my early twenties my responsiveness to the world would have been radically diminished. As for Ulysses’ Gaze, in spite of the fact that it starred an implausible Harvey Keitel, it was another nail in the coffin of European art cinema (a coffin, cynics would say, made up almost entirely of nails), opening the floodgates to everything that was not art because anything seemed preferable to having to sit through a film like that, especially since the whole thing could be boiled down, anyway, to a single still photograph—a statue of Lenin gliding along the Danube on a barge, a petrified Pharaoh floating down the Nile of history—by Josef Koudelka.


Writer comes scurrying back like a whupped dog, demanding to know who told him to stop. Stalker? No. Professor? Not him either. It’s your own fear, Professor tells him. You’re too frightened to go on so you invent a voice telling you to stop. That sounds about right, but the thing about the Zone is that it’s always subtly reconfiguring itself according to your thoughts and expectations. You want it to seem ordinary? It’s ordinary—or is it? And at that moment something occurs to make you think maybe it’s not ordinary, whereupon it does something briefly extraordinary. (Or does it?) Whereupon it becomes quite ordinary again. The Zone manifests itself even as it withholds itself—and vice versa.

—Geoff Dyer, Zona

As Many Desires in the Will as Atoms in an Hour

Memory or thinking of any creature that ever God made, or of any of their deeds either, it is a manner of ghostly light: for the eye of thy soul is opened on it and even fixed thereupon, as the eye of a shooter is upon the prick that he shooteth to.

—Anonymous, The Cloud of Unknowing

Material Opposition between Functionality and Uselessness

The flatness of today’s standard construction is strengthened by a weakened sense of materiality. Natural materials – stone, brick and wood – allow our vision to penetrate their surfaces and enable us to become convinced of the veracity of matter. Natural materials express their age, as well as the story of their origins and their history of human use. all matter exists in the continuum of time; the patina of wear adds the enriching experience of time to the materials of construction. But the machine-made materials of today – scaleless sheets of glass, enamelled metals and synthetic plastics – tend to present their unyielding surfaces to the eye without conveying their material essence or age. Buildings of this technological era usually deliberately aim at ageless perfection, and they do not incorporate the dimension of time, or the unavoidable and mentally significant processes of aging. this fear of the traces of wear and age is related to our fear of death.

The haptic experience seems to be penetrating the ocular regime again through the tactile presence of modern visual imagery. In a music video, for instance, or the layered contemporary urban transparency, we cannot halt the flow of images for analytic observation; instead we have to appreciate it as an enhanced haptic sensation, rather like a swimmer senses the flow of water against his/her skin.

I confront the city with my body; my legs measure the length of the arcade and the width of the square; my gaze unconsciously projects my body onto the facade of the cathedral, where it roams over the mouldings and contours, sensing the size of recesses and projections; my body weight meets the mass of the cathedral door, and my hand grasps the door pull as I enter the dark void behind. I experience myself in the city, and the city exists through my embodied experience. the city and my body supplement and define each other. I dwell in the city and the city dwells in me.

In Merleau-ponty’s own words, ‘Our own body is in the world as the heart is in the organism: it keeps the visible spectacle constantly alive, it breathes life into it and sustains it inwardly, and with it forms a system’; and ‘[s]ensory experience is unstable and alien to natural perception, which we achieve with our whole body all at once, and which opens on a world of interacting senses.

The eyes want to collaborate with the other senses. all the senses, including vision, can be regarded as extensions of the sense of touch – as specialisations of the skin. they define the interface between the skin and the environment – between the opaque interiority of the body and the exteriority of the world.

—Juhani Pallasmaa, The Eyes of the Skin

Drink Full

“Why is the flower garden in the dog’s eyes?” Mother had asked. “Dogs are the recorders of history,” Dad had replied.

—Can Xue, Frontier

Sight-dominance ∴ Literacy ∴ Abstraction

But man has not always been dominated by vision. In fact, a primordial dominance of hearing has only gradually been replaced by that of vision. Anthropological literature describes numerous cultures in which our private senses of smell, taste and touch continue to have collective importance in behaviour and communication. The roles of the senses in the utilisation of collective and personal space in various cultures was the subject matter of Edward Hall’s seminal book The Hidden Dimension, which, regrettably, seems to have been forgotten by architects.


Walter J Ong analyses the transition from oral to written culture and its impact on human consciousness and the sense of the collective in his book Orality and Literacy. He points out that ‘the shift from oral to written speech was essentially a shift from sound to visual space’, and that ‘print replaced the lingering hearing-dominance in the world of thought and expression with the sight-dominance which had its beginning in writing’. In Ong’s view, ‘[t]his is an insistent world of cold, non-human facts’. Ong analyses the changes that the shift from the primordial oral culture to the culture of the written (and eventually the printed) word has caused on human consciousness, memory and understanding of space. He argues that as hearing-dominance has yielded to sight-dominance, situational thinking has been replaced by abstract thinking.

—Juhani Pallasmaa, The Eyes of the Skin

Mechanics of an Ended Empire

And the secrets of the people in these low cottages, under the dark-gray shingle roofs, behind the small square windowpanes and the wooden doors, oozed through chinks and rafters into the miry streets and even into the large, eternally remote barracks yard. One man had been cuckolded, another had sold his daughter to the Russian captain; someone was vending rotten eggs, someone else was regularly living off contraband; one man was an ex-convict, another had just barely avoided prison; this one lent money to officers, and his neighbor pocketed one third of the profits. The officers, non-aristocrats mostly and from a German-speaking background, had been stationed in this garrison for years and years; it had become both their home and their fate. Cut off from their homeland customs, from their German mother tongue (which had become an officialese here), at the mercy of the unending bleakness of the swamps, they fell prey to gambling and to the sharp schnapps distilled in this area and sold under the label 180 Proof. From the harmless mediocrity in which military school and traditional drilling had trained them, they skittered into the corruption of this land, with the vast breath of the huge hostile czarist empire blowing across it.

—Joseph Roth, The Radetzky March

Compulsive Diarist

It was a failure of my imagination that made me keep leaving people. All I could see in the world were beginnings and endings: moments to survive, record, and, once recorded, safely forget. I knew I was getting somewhere when I began losing interest in the beginnings and the ends of things. Short tragic love stories that had once interested me no longer did. What interested me was the kind of love to which the person dedicates herself for so long, she no longer remembers quite how it began.


If I considered the act of procreation as essential to the world’s general ongoingness, I could almost accept it as an obligation of being alive. I believed that parturition would honor the force that, in the nineteenth century, joined my earliest ancestors I know by name, and the forces joining anonymous procreators for centuries and centuries before that, and so on back to the beginning, to the first sexually differentiated animals. And then, someday, maybe, someone will have needed me to produce one of their ancestors, and that fact of my parturition, that fact and my name, will be the last anyone remembers of me. All the rest of me will be gone, no longer anyone’s burden.

—Sarah Manguso, Ongoingness


The essay on the Bildungsroman is actually a fragment from one of Bakhtin’s several lost books. In this case, nonpublication cannot be blamed on insensitive censors. Its nonappearance resulted, rather, from effects that grew out of the Second World War, one of the three great historical moments Bakhtin lived through (the other two being the Bolshevik Revolution and the Stalinist purges). Sovetsky pisatel (Soviet Writer), the publishing house that was to bring out Bakhtin’s book The Novel of Education and Its Significance in the History of Realism, was blown up in the early months of the German invasion, with the loss of the manuscript on which he had worked for at least two years (1936-38). Bakhtin retained only certain preparatory materials and a prospectus of the book; due to the paper shortage, he had torn them up page by page during the war to make wrappers for his endless chain of cigarettes. He began smoking pages from the conclusion of the manuscript, so what we have is a small portion of its opening section, primarily about Goethe.

—Michael Holquist, introduction to Mikhail Bakhtin’s collection, Speech Genres and Other Late Essays