the city beneath the city.


Roland Topor, illustration for “The Tenant.”


Where is the city beneath the city, the kiss beneath the kiss? There is no depth, only a limitless series of excavated surfaces. It’s surfaces all the way down; there is no primordial foundation, no ultimate point of tactility. You grope and scratch the skin of your partner, hoping to paw down into something more real – the substrate of existence, of love – but you never find it, it is always like a dream that has fled the scene of the crime when you awake.

We look for an embrace beneath the embrace, a truer embrace buried beneath the real one, like an ancient city interred beneath the ground of a mundane strip of tract housing. Everything is too much, Sartre said, but neither is it quite enough. Life is like a corpse, which, if you attempt to cut it open like a mortician to perform an autopsy, reveals nothing but an endless succession of dermal layers. The muscles and organs, “the real stuff” of life, are a constantly-vanishing point, always winking off into a distance that never gets closer.

The only solidity is pain, and it could be said, to borrow from Marx, that all that is solid melts into pain. There is no solidity in pleasure, no bone-structure in it from which to stitch together the days into a scarecrow semblance of a life. But pain is a pin to stick a butterfly against a cork board, in pain there is a foretaste of the city beneath the city, the kiss beneath the kiss. Pleasure is a mean, little thing, measured out by the centimeter; pain is measured by the foot, doled out across the days with astonishing consistency.

(A stuttering, slurring inarticulacy spreads over the days like a film over the mouth after many hours’ sleep. What is a day but a thing that leaves, and whose leaving is never really apprehended as it happens, as it is happening? One wishes the other’s body near yours, its own wetly humming silence softened by its sub-cutaneous eloquence. It says nothing, other than that it is here, here – while the day pushes forward its leaving.)

* * *

One can stand on a staircase leading out into an emptied living room after a party and hear a solitary note sounding from the upright piano, even though everyone has left. This will not be the work of inventive gusts of wind or malignant, malingering spirits, but a sprite-like creature that lives inside the tangles of piano wire.

It spends its time skittering across the steel wires when they are in use, plangent and violent and enormous, hooting and hollering manically in a frenzy, unheard by anyone above the racket. When the instrument, (the voice of its god, the ruler of its steel and wood cosmos) is silent, and it senses that only one or two people are around, at a certain remove of distance, it will gather all of the strength in its tiny frame and make a note. If one notates the notes played over a period of time, in those muted evening hours, it will be observed that a sonata is being formed, slowly spooling out over the months, fitfully brought to existence. (Or maybe an adagio or an allegro.)

These are the life’s work of these creatures, the individual prayers sent up to their strange god with its mechanical tongues; their strange god of dark corners and a silence that wheezes with former blasts that continue to ring in their pin-sized ears. Once completed, they die, whether or not their work is observed by those in alleged possession of their god.

When they die, they shrivel grayly into a corner and appear to be nothing more than squashed flies or pillbugs.

It remains uncertain, however, what they think of their listeners who stand by themselves in odd moments of the night, out in the vast universe of the house which the piano sprites cannot even conceive of. For they cannot imagine anything other than the body of their god, and its sound which nourishes their bodies like food. What do they think of these visitors they play for, do they think of them as the tatterdemalion ghosts of angels? Perhaps they are simply symbolic points of contact with their god, like splinters of light or crucifixes. Vessels or vehicles for communion.

Are there those pessimists and materialists of the species that conjecture that the listeners have nothing whatever to do with them or their god, and are perhaps not even aware of their existence? More than this though, how would they feel if they knew these visitors were the ones that brought their inert god to life – that without them it is nothing but a hulking fallowness?

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