[ fiction - december 04 ]
A man should take care of his wife. Why did Stet's wife, Lilya, not prevent Stet from ruining their lives? She wanted him to do what he most wanted to do, and she felt what he felt. When they were evicted from their flat (for running a private junk business, propagating a firetrap) they decided to give all their objects away, and even the directors of the communal house they'd lived in willingly entered the dangerous firetrap with blank faces to take away the choicest hazards. But objects never vanish, and are not dispersed. Even the destruction wrought by flame is really a way of shining light. The unbelievable beauty of ashes, the ninetynine shades of gray fragile petals, these grays are in continuum with that white light always mentioned by those who have died and then temporarily returned. Did Lazarus's second illness find him relaxed and glad, did he laugh to get back in the deathbed? Stet and Lilya sat on the bank of the reservoir in possession of each other's faces, voices, and awareness of the value of still water.
Now the larger house of the out-of-doors adjusted to fit them. Even supposing this husband and wife to be misplaced in the ideological sphere, isn't it possible that the still water of a reservoir is more important than shelter? A pebble can defeat the categories of economic philosophy simply by being beautiful when wet and beautiful differently when dry. So a futile gesture, an invisible impulse, might alter the decay of orbits. Yet orbits decay only according to law. The law demands that a firetrap be abated, the ultimate tendency of mankind is toward firetraps, thence to destruction, simplicity, emptiness, correctness. Stet and Lilya are helping, by gathering the stuff into one place, where with greater ease it can all be suddenly exalted to nothing. Much, much of the junk in their room was too worthless for even scavengers to take. It is time for Stet and Lilya's greater injuries to begin. They join their remaining possessions in neglect, and cart them all out, out of the building, down the gully to a place beside the water.
What are we looking at? Rags and sacks of junk, balanced in the wet gravel of a fabricated lakebank. This gravel was recently broken from billion-year-old bedrock - it saw nothing all that time but itself, and now it sees wind on a dead lake, and acts as a prop for a malacca walking-stick that was already ruined, splintered on its earth end, even before this old stone was shattered to gravel. A rock can look into itself and has plenty of time to decide. Stet has lines in his forehead. Lilya is sleeping. The frightening biscuit-headed doll, bald, thumb missing, watersoaked, has no wish to jump into a fire, because it thinks it's still rather elegant. Children (doll-masters) live and die but the doll still stares. A normal man will not attempt to preserve the doll of himself. Stet allows his lungs to darken (dust is the universal breath of abandoned objects). He permits the neighbors to evict him from his rightful house. As it is hard to argue and hard to defend yourself, hard to have children, hard to go to work every single day, those who do these things have rights over the citizens who only stand in the dark trying to protect relics from darkness. Today we have caught up with Stet, we too are not so important, we value collectibles more than our lives, the value of a tintype of a homing pigeon, the value of a celluloid toy chicken from 1931, the value of a steel clockwork peacock from 1961, the value of the paper labels carefully removed from tinned beef - these things are in museums, protected by men with guns, just because they help us remember being seven years old. Remembering how we used to feel before we were aware of criticism is the most valued thing, apparently.
And then it rains, the water, they have to move all the stuff further up the lakebank, some agency is trying to keep people dead. Everything in nature wants Stet to get rid of this crap, move to a new apartment and paint the walls, save his money, work like others do, eat well, forget the souls of plywood dachshunds and ceramic pessaries. The rain peels deal from the tea-table, this only ruins it as a tea-table - in Germany a girl is suddenly famous for her ability to destroy, onstage, old furniture, using nothing but the power of irony - in America a used-car dealer has lowered a perfect white Deuesenberg coupé into a giant glass tank of green Jell-O, because what is the earth for if not to be plowed - in every era weeds are pulled mercilessly, there's no such thing as a beautiful or worthy weed, a weed is anything you can't grow for money. The Deuesenberg, admittedly expensive, was actually worth more money in Jell-O as an "attraction," the way a gallows execution will always draw an audience - there is perfect sense in the fact that slow starvation would be unappealing to the same citizens, they would pay nothing to see a man kneeling on a gravel riverbank, his ear flat against the top of a broken-legged teatable - the thin plywood a soundingboard that amplifies what whispers are always passing through the air - this idiot will never improve (for example). Suppose the breath in our lungs is not ours, and the owner of the air takes it away - then the sounds that are amplified by the bones of our skull will lack medium, speech will fall from the mouths of judges like kopeks on the moon - without air the judges' robes hang like cold crepes - these judges were once the kind of gamblers who always knew they should not bet anything ever and so hold it all, keeping a pocket mirror to shine quotemarks back on to any source of light - but once they too are deprived by a general loss of the general bet, their gavels will tap soundless.
He awakens with Lilya, they eat the tomatoes which are their bread, they slowly walk through this hidden part of Leningrad, receptive, without wanting a home, enjoying everything, lifting still more objects out of the trash, new signs of lost life, and dropping them in the burlap sack. And within the hour they've found an entire forgotten yellow building.
The abandoned theatre - formerly an abandoned church - before that it was an abandoned moviehouse - a crappy building throughout its history, inadequate to its owners and disagreeable to its patrons, now lacking audience and management, no electric, waterpipes broken, reoccupied by the brown spiders who were forced off the empty lot when the pit was first dug a hundred years ago. True character is revealed through conflict, but Stet and Lilya love each other and are grateful to the world. A yellow building, a brown spider, these are more vivid than Gilgamesh. Vegetables are good for the eyesight. When you can see, no building looks abandoned, you sense the muscles even in a building that cowered all its life. The seriousness of an unsuccessful building - each brick ashamed, yearning to live up to its Taj Mahal neurosis, each brick hating its own yellow color, while the whole facade, knowing how squat it looks, seems almost illuminated, inwardly white, tensed by self-criticism, whiter every time you look at it, unsuspecting how good actually a yellow brick looks.
Yet in the whole cul-de-sac of Commune Street this is the oldest building. Its neighbors all were put up after the war, built by people who were thinking about something else. What surrounds the theatre now is a neighborhood of temporary stucco and lath, so depressing that even the few misdirected cars that drive past here look more noble and self-assured than these cheap housing blocks. Yet of all the buildings here worthy of demolition, it is the yellow building, even considering all the lives it has already led:
Little Rus Movie Palace
Rev. Yablok's Petrograd Baptist Hall
CritPo (Academic Union for Critics of Poetry)
People's Museum of Soviet Heroes
People's Thrift Bazaar
A clandestine, unnamed Lutheran church
Abandoned (dust, resonant ceramic shell)
The Museum of Everyday Life (curated by Stet and Lilya)
Abandoned (Stet having been taken away)
even with all this history, it is precisely this building which will be condemned to demolition by LenAbCom (the North Leningrad Abatement Committee), leading to the last piece of history,
Construction site (destruction), creating a parking lot (uncreating).
What use to think of the future, to worry, when time will destroy at its own pace? A person such as Stet, who is able to forgive even men who like to destroy things unripe, he is not a worrier. If he could only leave the past alone, he would be the first Soviet saint; as it is, he is absolutely static, incapable of miracle-performance. To him the miracles have already happened, they appear to him in layers, for instance the accretion of human wishes on the inside walls of this abandoned yellow building: the ceiling painted with mandelas in milk, the statues of Jesus and of a jewel-wearing boy in blue Baghdad silks, reliefs of Giselle, of Solor, of Sylphide, a top hat and cane crossed, the giant crucifix painted over with black paint, naked barbarians within gilt robes that unfold from above the altar like the gates of Heaven accepting everybody, windows shaped like the Chinese Star, a black-letter slogan THE PARTY HAS GIVEN THE SOVIET POET EVERYTHING, AND TAKEN FROM HIM ONLY ONE THING - THE RIGHT TO WRITE BADLY, and above an arch the additional, earlier slogan KEEP WATCH MY SOUL, the floor tiled with repeated images of an owl clutching the reversed swastika that is supposed to signify peace of spirit - all this is here, a hundred opinions and tosses of the dice. The sum of this history is noise, a kind of merry cancellation, a celebratory null, the statement "you have no sins to confess."
In Germany when you're on trial, let's say on trial for your life, they call that a "process." Now three processes were taking place simultaneously: Stet's little museum opened its doors; also Stet's yellow museum-building was condemned by the Abatement Committee; and also the first phone calls and pieces of paper came into being that would end up creating Stet's arrest. When three sentences are served concurrently, you get released much sooner, and are able to survive into the next era; this doesn't apply to three life sentences. A normal man will marry one woman at a time, and his soul will have time to develop. With three things going on at once, however, the goal is achieved faster, unless the goal was to avoid the ending. Stet did not insist on making his films, he will not demand the continuance of his little museum either, but he did want to stay with Lilya. You will always be deprived of what you are attached to most. In fact, all right, you will be deprived of everything.
The Museum of Everyday Life is not necessary to life on this planet. It features a broken roof, to let nature in, including bits of sunlight that speckle and beautify the exhibits. Lilya has built walls of fabric hung from strings, scarves and bedsheets and quilts of tapestry and rags, these hung walls create exhibit rooms, where each room is a place of communion for the patrons who enter there. Anything can be said or felt in these flimsy zones, permission is granted. No spy satellite can look in through the little holes in the roof and read lips that whisper, or see the expression in the eyes as they examine the ostensible exhibit, the supposed occasion for this solitude. At this museum you can see:
a cedar mockingbird
a jar of marrow
an unworkable puppet
a glass bubble
an empty violin-case
a miniature wax museum
a toy scepter
robes for a priest
the souvenir postcard of a mirage
a non-reflecting mirror
a battery-powered parrot
a rubber chameleon
a celluloid matrix
a smashed mimeograph machine
a child's magnetic theatre stage "Thimble City"
a book about the philosopher's stone
a toy model of a wheel and rack
a gallows made of toothpicks
a guillotine in a child's drawing
a ship-to-exile in a bottle of vodka
a jail for hamsters
a leather turtle
an etching of Echo
a shoe last
a plasticine wig
coins from disbanded republics
a shape-shifting cloud in a flask of incompatible liquids
a taxidermed mole
a slice of lemming-bone
and a room with nothing. A nothing which has, even, nothing in it.
To say the museum contains all humanity is only to say it's dusty in here. Dust allegedly consists of floating bits of human skin from every living and dead body since creation, and each speck knows who it came from but not who it is now, all interpenetrated as they are. Every man has an opinion, and each opinion is a speck floating alone in a sun ray, while the opinions of the state, too heavy to float, are under the rug. There are rugs here too, such that Stet has found discarded, and fabrics on the walls like endpapers, he's painted linens with faces lined in rows, all waiting for some answer, the faces of those who don't mind waiting, and above them outlandish planets and stars shine without expecting to be noticed.
Micronesia, Irkutsk, look anywhere, noplace will you find a place with people and no things, noplace without the rubble we circle ourselves with, and leave behind. Is Stet attached to his Museum that nobody visits? Does he have plans for the future of this institution? Does he look at his hands and say, these are the hands of a Curator now? No, and what will we do with such detachment? Is it right for a man to remain defenseless in such a land as this? Stet is elated by the smallest things. We call a dream a futility; futility, too, can be dreamlike. He acquires a bit of plaster from the demolition of the old Academy of Poets building- - and a box dating to 1921 that held shortbread - and a bedsheet so old and filthy you can drop it and it will assume the shape of a quince tree or a Buddha or an owl's nest - Stet arranges marbles and string, but we are wrong, he is happy but not dreaming, his face is like he's laying out the breakfast tray for the king of all the earth. Lilya meanwhile creates devices out of paper and limewater that are not, themselves, equivalent to electricity or plumbing, but which create cleanness and light. Stet finds false walls in the theatre that open to closets like small alternate theatres, and then finds a crypt like an alternate church. Lilya hangs the hummingbird on the wire, and shines candle-flickering magic-lantern slides at the windows to invite night visitors. But with their gifts and their patient energy, Stet and Lilya have achieved the indifference of millions of Leningrad residents. On Tuesday nobody comes to visit the museum from nine a.m. until midnight, when two drunk young couples burst in laughing, and are stopped cold by the strange place - they whisper, and touch the leather turtle. Stet and Lilya asleep in their chairs like old people, they are not old yet but they're unresisting. The two girls, Marina Ivanovna & Anna Andreievna, take barrettes out of their hair and walk all throughout the maze of bedsheet galleries, looking for a place to contribute them. Marina's boyfriend Efron leaves the oldest kopek from his loose change on a tarnished shaving mirror, his friend Khlebnikov arranges lint from his pocket against a framed snapshot of a man in a fedora, head turned away from the camera.
Obviously Khodasevich, who lives across the courtyard, should never have telephoned his niece at the Abatement Commission and complained for forty minutes about the parasite couple who have now commandeered valuable living space for an illegal museum. But the fact is that everything would have happened the same. The white mouse falls dead when it is introduced into an unbreathable reality, and this has nothing to do with his beautiful fur or his skill at mazes, not even with his friendship with a treacherous black mouse. After he's dead there will be more cheese for the rest of us, though of course cheese is never distributed in a predictable fashion. You could cooperate with the authorities all they demand, and still starve. Forget mice and neighbors, there is already a meeting taking place at the Commission of Abatement and Improvement for Northern Leningrad, up on Guro Street. It seems they know all about this part of town. They never forget anything for long.
The niece Stet's neighbor spoke to, as you would speak to any friend to complain about another friend - asking her to be on his side, asking for her sympathy, her judgment of the character of this complained-of party - she is not the daughter of Abatement Commissioner Oblomov, nor is she the cousin of the man who cleans truncheons at Lubiyanka Prison, nor is she a loyal party member. She doesn't even report to anybody on occasion to deliver a stack of handwritten notes and vanish again. No, she is actually trustworthy. Did Stet's neighbor consider this before he spoke? For what reason do we need to ask this question? It is so we can determine the guilt of Stet's neighbor. Cause and effect are invaluable to the justice system in most places, but we have special courts here for which no causal link is necessary to establish guilt, in fact no effect need have taken place at all. In that sense the system here is deeply enlightened - entirely comfortable with the philosophy which states that nothing we do or neglect to do could possibly make any difference in our essential beings, our courts only err in their verdicts, since they don't quite understand that everyone is innocent. Here in this court we will declare Stet's neighbor Khodasevich innocent. No, honestly.
It's not easy to maintain forgiveness and simplicity. It will take us some practice. This filthy neighbor Khodasevich is appalling, let us admit that, but he may someday realize it himself, and that would be a gain. There, is that neutral and kindly enough? If a man can create years of suffering for two people by one action, should he be forgiven? Well, what do you want, to kill him? Oh, you want him judged and punished. Yes, and we have already had a lot of that thing here.
The Abatement Commissioner Oblomov, should he be condemned too? What should he have done instead? All he knows is, there is a derelict building with some squatters in it, on Commune Street, part of the same cul-de-sac that has plagued his commission for years. Every time there is an attempt to inspect some piece of property there, it turns out the paperwork is wrong. The property is not where the survey says it is, in fact it was demolished already, or was only a proposal that never did get built. The commissioner almost fears the words, but speaks them: "With regard to the abatement of the property on Undefined Sector F," and that means he is a brave man, the brave are not to be judged badly. Leave him alone, let us leave everybody alone, it will be better. The ocean floor is covered with the wrecks of ships whose captains believed in Heaven, and if we tear down a theatre perhaps it, too, will reappear on the bottom of the sea.
Lying right atop the trashbarrel is a violin-case covered with alligator-skin - presumably broken - so unnecessarily gorgeous (taking all its beauty from the dead beast) that Stet knows without looking that there's no violin inside, and that there never really was one - maybe a steel one, gold-leafed - Stet passes by without taking the violin case. You might decide he's passed judgment on it, or you might decide he's finally opened his new museum, called Light, which includes in its collection nothing.
A total of thirty-six people passed through his museum while it lived. Despite the experience of those thirty-six people, Stet's museum was a laughable dead-end and will not survive even as a tendency, and Stet's name will disappear from the history of museum-keeperdom.
A yellow theatre is made of yellow bricks. Bricks are famous for having no opinion, they stand atop each other until the value that people attribute to them collapses, then these bricks plunge (wrecking-ball) out of the system of brick-philosophy (building), and each separate brick loses its place, forgets what a brick is for.
A yellow theatre is demolished, all right: but a single yellow brick subsequently flying through the dacha window of Commissioner Oblomov, if cause and effect are unimportant, need not have been thrown by anybody. The brick, an individual now, is going where it needs to go. Diogenes said "In a rich man's house there's noplace to spit. Except in his face." Commissioner Oblomov, his housekeeper out shopping, is alone when the brick crashes in, he will have to spit into his own face. Well, but now he can spit right out his broken picture window. Greece left us Diogenes, Egypt left a sphinx. This brick on the sitting-room floor is a questionmark. A brick's religion of persistence can be voted away by a commission of eight men whose voices are stronger than the ancient pyramids. Perhaps this brick only wished to fall at the feet of its god. Oblomov speaks to it, shuffling around the broken glass in his slippers, saying "It diminishes - standards fall to nothing - all the best people die - nobody is left now who could appreciate a real accomplishment - the young people drink and whore and then in the morning they throw bricks." He says this, who never saw a film or a church service or a museum exhibit in the yellow theatre that he ordered torn down, he never even saw the yellow theatre. The brick asks "What's going to be left in this town eventually?" "Parking lots!" replies Oblomov, cheered up, he once spent a lot of time with girls in cars, to him a parking lot is as beautiful as love, he starts to sing the college song about the girl who becomes a virgin again by deciding to close her eyes. It is the past which is important to this improver, this demolisher of buildings, and when he dies perhaps the state will pull his dacha down, but that is not how he imagines it. He imagines everything being preserved after his death, everything, the dacha an Oblomov Museum, the bicycle he rode across young corn-stalks in Vokhma when he was nine will be here, the fruitwood hammer he liked to thump at dinner in his fifties and gavel silence in his wife. If it could all be saved - every piece of food ever eaten by this great man in his 80 years now raised fresh and incorruptible, buckets by dozens of his mother's milk, a swimmingpool of apricot soda fizzing again, a totem pole of mashed potatoes, a spiral staircase built of steaks medium rare, and all the bright candy of his youth found again and stuck across the ceiling of the dacha like a galaxy of kindness.
Buildings are connected by shadows. This dacha knows it will neither be pulled down at the death of the commissioner, nor will it become a monument to his life, it will just be cleared out for the next deserving bureaucrat. It will be made "clean." Ghosts contend for haunting rights to a dacha like this, there are so many ghosts, in Leningrad they even haunt the streets, homeless, there being no room in their old flats for even a ghost able to live between layers of paint. Where are the occupants of demolished buildings supposed to go? Ask the Commission on Abatement, the eight members of which look unhappily out the little window of their conference chamber, craning their necks, unable to see Everything.