The Transitory Immediate: Last Five Observations about the Moment
Pittsburgh, John Kane, 1860-1934
by Ed Simon
[Read the First Five Observations here.]
They are all gone into the world of light!
VI. Tiferet; or, Beauty
Panther Hollow hasn’t seen any panthers since the 19th Century. As Oakland increasingly became a cultural waystation halfway between Pittsburgh’s wealthy eastern neighborhoods and the frantic Downtown where skyscrapers began to punctuate the skyline in a grammar of steel and reinforced concrete, the war of attrition against nature which was replicated all across a tamed North America resulted in the gradual culling of the big cats that once stalked the jagged fissure that ran deep into the hard rock of the city. A mile-and-a-half long valley that tore a ragged gash across the terrain of Pittsburgh’s toniest new neighborhood, the hollow once played the eerie soundtrack of the panthers’ deep purrs and growls, cinematographic flash of yellow eye and sleek coat. By the turn of the century, that spooky call of nature, which had alarmed Iroquois and terrified settler, was now replaced with the clang of trolleys, hoofbeats and then automobile on cobblestone, the wild thrum of crowds clambering down Fifth, the announcer of Pirates’ games in Forbes Field, and the practice of tenors and sopranos, woodwind and brass, as musicians played in the Carnegie Music Hall, with always the bestial roar of the locomotives now thundering through the hollow itself, latticed with network of bridges and roads.
Our war of attrition with nature is always one we’re slated to lose, even in these muggy days of the Anthropocene. Essayist Annie Dillard, stalwart daughter of Pittsburgh’s once-Protestant ruling class, writes in her luminescent An American Childhood that “When everything else has gone… when all this has dissolved, what will be left, I believe, is topology.” With an eye towards those final things felt when we look at the sharp incline of mountain running down to the wide, muddy expanse of river, Dillard understands that “When the shining city, too, fades, I will see only those forested mountain and hills, and the way the rivers lie flat and moving among them, and the way the low land lies wooded among them, and the blunt mountains rise in darkness from the rivers’ banks.” No need to wait for a future Edenic millennium, for even amongst the trash accumulated in the base of Panther Hollow like so much loose coffee grounds at the bottom of a mug, the litter of tire and bottle, rusted car parts and shopping carts, the indomitable endurance of nature continues in the multiplicity of the ever-shifting moment.
Such are the details available to one who travels mindfully, the psychogeographers as that class is sometimes designated. Will Self, in his account of walking to New York City, explains that there is a “manner in which the contemporary world warps the relationship between psyche and place” but that rather “psychogeography” helps us to reclaim “personality of place itself.” Cars, busses, trains, planes, and all manner of other distraction, not to mention our addictive pocket super computers, can obscure the overwhelming multipolicy of the Now, the infinite variety of overabundance that defines the familiar. Walking above Panther Hollow on the Schenley Park or Forbes Avenue Bridges, examining the suture stiches of the train tracks from above, or the man-made lake glistening a dull blue on a crisp, sunny, October day, it’s impossible to not understand that nature never left this place. As Dillard has written, “Reality rounds… [our] minds like rings in a tree.”
Not to suggest that the vagaries of the crystalline moment are found in “nature” only, but rather to emphasize that our strict delineations between what is civilization and what is not are clearly arbitrary. Oakland rises from Panther Hollow like a glorious, ornate brownstone whose cellar happens to be unfinished. From the Panther Hollow Bridge leading over the valley between Schenley Park and the campus of Carnegie-Mellon the full breadth of the Oakland skyline is presented; the low, institutional yellow of the hospitals on Heart Attack Hill, the spires of St. Paul’s, and the red brick of the tall pre-war apartment buildings, the massive gothic tower of the Cathedral of Learning hulking in the middle like a resting golem. But beneath, the work of the Hollow continues; scent of gingko and magnolia and the electric hum that exists in the terrifying spaces between words.
The sanctuary of this symbiosis between what we’ve constructed and what was there before is exemplified in a place that Michael Chabon called “The Cloud Factory” in his 1988 bildungsroman novel The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. Technically a boiler plant in Junction Hollow adjacent to the valley, the cloud factory is framed by duel 200-foot-tall smoke stacks, that cap the plant beneath which until 2009 was capable of devouring a 70-ton hopper car of coal, all to power the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie-Mellon, the hospitals, the museums, the cathedrals, and the rest of culture’s superstructure that sat upon this oily crevice of base. The Cloud Factory is a surreal site, these two sterling white minarets gently expelling duplicitously pristine, fluffy, white marshmallows of soft perfection, these “great clouds, perfectly white and clean, white as new baseballs” as Chabon describes them.
Chabon was not the first to describe such transcendence with the phrase “The Cloud Factory;” that honor rather lay (as it does sometimes) with Henry David Thoreau, who in an 1846 description of his ascent of a Maine mountaintop wrote of “summit…cleared in a few moments” where it would “smile in sunshine,” for dwelling amongst the peak was like “sitting in a chimney…. A cloud factory – these were the cloud-works, and the wind turned them off done from the cool, bare rocks.” This is not to claim superiority of experience for either the works of man or God, but rather that if we wish for eternity it is already here, either amongst the post-industrial canyons of Pittsburgh or atop the wooded hills of Maine, for such are the same moment. Radically different and yet equal in depths of what they contain. Symbiosis of nature and civilization, indeed.
Novels, as I mentioned previously, are great assemblages of crystalline moments. All art is defined by the presence of at least one such event, but novels are as a great string of them, like hopper-cars in a line trudging coal to the Bellefield Boiler Plant. When Chabon describes “the distant figures of dogs snatching at a little passing car, a miniature housewife on her back porch shaking out a snippet of red rug” he is preserving a prosaic second of existence, and in the process elevating it to eternity – as all art must. Details are scarce, not just in minimalist prose but even the most baroque, for all representation is by definition condemned to fail. The sheer, overwhelming, charged multiplicity of existence is such that no depiction can ever correspond to the infinite texture of reality – such is the use of immanence in the service of transcendence, and the other way around, too. Language provides a symbology of such events, not the experience in itself, but the knowledge that there was once such an experience in itself. We have not journeyed into the Holy of Holies, but the architect has given us a diagram.
VII. Netzrach; or, Eternity
Eternity is a second. Not immortality, which is a myth believed by the credulous (better to tame one’s wild mind with the twin methods of carpe diem and memento mori then to believe in vampire legends), but genuine eternity as in timelessness. Eternity fills every moment to the brim and then some. Stopping that ceaseless rush of time is only a matter of observing that it moves not anyhow; the buzz of time’s winged chariot has always been something else. Go to The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, turn to page 52, and realize that that housewife will always be shaking out that red rug and that those dogs will always be nipping at the backs of cars, as they every have, as they ever will. Nu, it shall be true for every cursed and blessed second of our existence; the crystalline moment of literature is only a manifestation of that realization.
If you were to go to the truss where Chabon’s characters of Art Blechstein and Arthur Cleveland spent an afternoon above the Cloud Factory, you’d perhaps partially gather what the author represented in his own indomitable prose. For that matter, if you go anywhere described by any writer – J.D. Salinger’s Central Park, Virginia Wolf’s suburban London, James Baldwin’s Italy – you will begin to understand how you approached the reality of the thing itself without ever quite closing that distance. As with all things concerning representation we must forever “Mind the gap.” A gulf exists between words and reality, which is not a failure of representation but an understanding that the world and its map are simply two different things, similar though the later may be to the former. In minding the gap, that is letting your soul dwell within that distance, we can approach an intimation of the divine. Chabon can provide us a whiff of the Cloud Factory, but it’s impossible to convey every undulation and whip and waft of the smoke as it curls eternally upward; no novel can give every single crushed blade of grass stamped down by feet ascending to the truss its due, nor enumerate every broken beer bottle as it lay smashed at the bottom of the hollow. Entire volumes, shelves, and libraries would need to be written to provide full expression of a single slab of city concrete. Books longer than War and Peace would have to be penned to present a modicum of what it means to look at the dusty mound of a baseball diamond or a rusty chain-link fence.
George Perec in his quixotic 1974 Tentative d’épuisement d’un lieu parisien attempted to squeeze all of the thingness out of a meandering of Nows as they inhabit a particular place. Member of that idiosyncratic French literary movement of writers and mathematicians known as the “Oulipo,” the “Ouvroir de literature potentielle,” or “Workshop of Potential Literature.” Perec and his colleagues were enamored with the question of how constraint could affect expression. Known primarily in the English-speaking world for his 1969 A Void, a novel which doesn’t contain a single instance of the word “e” (and which has been translated!), An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris is his experiment in prostrating oneself before the sheer, towering, incomprehensibility of a moment in lived reality. This attempt to exhaust the sequence of presents in a particular place has Perec sitting gargoyle-like and observing the traffic of women and men in Place Saint-Sulpice, tracking the arc and parabola of sunlight and shadow across the cement, the migration of pigeons and the particularity of clouds. Nothing happens in the novel, and there are no characters other than the ceaseless representations of how a consciousness interacts with the phenomenon of this world. He observes:
A baby in a baby carriage lets out a brief squawking. It looks like a bird: blue eyes, fixed, profoundly interested in what they take in. A meter man with a bad cough puts a parking ticket on a green Morris. A man wearing a Russian astrakhan fur hat. Then another. A little boy wearing an English school cap; he crosses, making sure that he steps only on the stripes of the crosswalk.
God bless such a scripture, for as taking us as close as he can to one particular sequence of spring days in 1974 Paris, Perec approaches the mystery of all moments – and his sublime failures to truly exhaust the entirety of the moment prove what is blessed about both the representation and the represented.
Such is the nature of what literary critic Terry Eagleton describes as “the event of literature,” explaining that the “excess of a thing over its concept or common nature – an irreducible specificity which can be grasped not by intellectual reflection on what an object is, but only by a direct apprehension of its luminous presence.” The “thisness,” as the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins calls it (and which I’ve been annoyingly calling “thingness”), is what “sets off a thing from another thing of the same nature, and as such represents the ultimate reality of a being, one known fully to God alone,” as Eagleton explains. Art’s failure is that it can’t help to truly convey the “thingness” of a single crystalline moment except in approach; no talent can quit universally impart the melancholic whistle of a train cutting through the Pennsylvania sleet or the chill in the air before a Massachusetts November dawn. The miracle of art then is that at its most adroit it can impart intimations of such ecstasy, pointing the initiate towards that absolute while like Ludwig Wittgenstein kicking that ladder over once you’ve climbed up it.
Novels have sequences of such crystalline moments, and they operate the same way in short stories, albeit there are less of them. Yet what the short narrative lacks in number it can often make up for in lyrical intensity, such as the case with Willa Cather’s immaculate “Paul’s Case” from her 1905 The Troll Garden. Before her career as the prairie bard of Nebraska, the Southern gentlewoman Cather was a high school English teacher in Pittsburgh, and in her favorite short story she envisions a youthful, trapped aesthete suffocated by that city. The titular character longs for life of sophistication, grandeur, and culture, which smoky, Calvinist Pittsburgh can’t supply. After his classes, Paul works part time as an usher in the Carnegie Music Hall, only a half mile or so from where Panther Hollow is, and he sneaks about the William Penn and watches the touring New York opera singers who are performing as they enter the grand lobby of the hotel.
Paul absconds with over $1,000 of his father’s money, using it to live for eight days in the New York of his fantasy, staying at the Waldorf-Astoria, and inhabiting the boisterous, queer social scene of the city. When he discovers that his father has learned of the theft, and is coming to New York on the first train of Pittsburgh to fetch him, Paul decides that his only choice is to kill himself. In a final, narrative irony, Paul commits suicide by throwing himself in front of a train approaching from Pennsylvania, with Cather describing the crystalline moment of his death as one of “merciless clearness, the vastness of what he had left undone. There flashed through his brain, clearer than ever before, the blue of Adriatic water, the yellow of Algerian sands.” Testament to Cather’s lyricism in combining both the particularity of immanence and the abstractions of transcendence in this imagined moment, especially for one of death, which though some of us may remember ours from our past lives, is still one that is theoretical in all of our presents.
In such a moment, all of space and time is collapsed into one – a singularity. Shattered by the enormity of that devilish train, Paul is both in the Mediterranean and North Africa, indeed in all places. For he:
…felt something strike his chest, and that his body was being thrown swiftly through the air, on and on, immeasurably far and fast, while his limbs were gently relaxed. Then, because the picture-making mechanism was crushed, the disturbing visions flashed into black, and Paul dropped back into the immense design of things.
Such is the perfection of Cather’s empathy of extinction; to present the singular moment of death as a monad through which not just all of a life, but indeed all of life can be seamlessly integrated into itself, so that we understand all crystalline moments are a perennial Now, and that what the monad itself speaks of in all instances is precisely that – the immanence and transcendence of death – which is continually in our present. Remember that detail is for God, and abstraction for the devil, but despair not when choosing either. Both are sacred beings.
VIII. Hod; or, Splendor
What Cather and Chabon present, and what Perec makes literal, is both the impossibility of exhaustion and the paradoxical celebration of that fact. Such is the nature of the shifting melodies in the symphony of smoke. Each second of all experiences is so overwhelming that the entirety of literature could be contained within any instance of it, with an infinity of space left over, for the Father’s library has so many bookshelves in it (and then some). Mystical apprehension of literature informs us that every moment is thus sacred, for every moment has the implicit possibility of being made crystalline. Furthermore, everyone of those moments anticipate the grandeur and eternity of our finalities. They are as a type of death.
Monads reflect every other monad back at itself – such is their nature – the nature of singularities. Something messy about the long, slinking line of crystalline moments assembled together in novels, or even short stories. That’s why there has often been such affection for lyric poetry as the veritable Queen of Expression. So sparkles the compression of that exhausted infinitude of the moment, a parsimony of words. Joyce could give us all of Dublin in Ulysses, but how much more impressed are we when all of life is reduced to the 14 lines of the sonnet, or trite though the form may be, the 17 syllables of the haiku, all simplicity in its Zen brevity? An unfair judgement no doubt, and yet the bottled lightning of poetry’s mere existence still serves to remind us of not just the theurgy of the crystalline moment, but the miraculousness that we can even approach the moment in words. What makes poetry poetry is not the quality, amount, or even form of the crystalline moments expressed, but rather that verse calls attention to itself as trading in that last quality. This is similar to what the Russian formalist critics of the Prague Circle called ostranenie; that is “defamiliarization.” Victor Shklovsky explains in his 1917 essay “Art as Device” that poetry’s purpose is to “impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult.” This is to say that poetry announces itself by saying “I am poetry.” Language in conversation with itself, drawing attention to the strangeness of the crystalline moment, and by proxy the strangeness that we should happen to exist at all. In this way, all poetry is self-referential.
Poet Terrance Hayes used to have an office at the edge of Panther Hollow when he worked at Carnegie-Mellon, and then he had one overlooking the valley when he was in the Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh, and now I believe his office is in New York. Maybe four miles west from all of those offices there used to be a celebrated gay bar called Pegasus, right on the formerly seedy Liberty Avenue in Downtown. Hayes imagines that club, “these men grinding in the strobe & black lights/of Pegasus.” With the poetic wisdom that sees all moments as nestled into one another Ouroboros-like, Hayes is propositioned in this place of “All shadow & sound,” telling his interlocutor that he’s merely there for the music, while remembering a South Carolina youth where he has “held a/boy on my back before. /Curtis & I used to leap/barefoot into the creek; dance/among maggots & piss, beer bottles & tadpoles/slippery as sperm.” This reminiscence, of innocent (if eroticized) frisson is nestled into the present of the “edge of these lovers’ gyre, / glitter & steam, fire, / bodies blurred sexless/by the music’s spinning light.”
Hayes expresses the utopianism of the moment, the autonomous kingdom that is the second understood in all of its multiplicity. A lyric of immanence, holding for contemplation those visceral details of maggots and piss, beer bottles and tadpoles, glitter, steam, and fire. For Hayes, the gay club isn’t just an erotic space, but a millennial one which promises to abolish the constraints between the present and past. Which is to say that it’s a moment just like any of the infinite others – save for the fact that Hayes’ poem reminds you of that fact. This is the wisdom where “These men know something/I used to know… the way they dive & spill/into each other, /the way the dance floor/takes them, /wet & holy in its mouth,” an understanding of the enchanted nature of existence, even if, especially if, in the midst of the profane. Providing encomium for our world’s imagined Eden, philosophers Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly note that “The world used to be, in its various forms, a world of sacred, shining things. The shining things now seem far away.” Hayes finds shining things in “strobe & black lights;” poetry’s purpose is to find such shining things.
Poems are about themselves in that they don’t merely express such shining things, but they themselves are shining things. An electric thrum in the concision and the illusion of being able to so perfectly tame the crystalline moment, as in Ezra Pound’s modernist epigraph “In a Station at the Metro” where the Philadelphian, perhaps at a stop not far from where Perec would one day watch inquisitive babies and men in Russian hats, sees in the entirety of the poem the “apparition of these faces in the crowd;/Petals on a wet, black bough.” So much enormity circumscribed in that “wet, black bough,” as if the very face of God. Poetry’s uncanniness is in that preservation of the eternal present in words alone, often mysterious, not just in meaning, but in the sheer magnitude that such a thing as words can even exist. Poetry practiced and understood as such is like the core of a nuclear bomb; so much energy contained in such a small elemental lump of metal.
A very different poet than Ezra Pound, Bruce Springsteen, is able to present an entire epic in a three-minute pop song. The greatest of art is always reserved for the jukebox. The Boss, Bard of the Rust Belt that he is (and remember that the Rust Belt actually begins on the western side of the Lincoln Tunnel) only mentions Pittsburgh by name once in his entire canon, in the Flannery O’Connor inflected dirge “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” He sings “It’s cloudy out in Pittsburgh/It’s rainin’ in Saigon/Snow’s fallin’ all across the Michigan line/Well she sits by the light of her Christmas tree/With the radio softly on/Thinkin’ how a good man is so hard to find.” Springsteen’s selection and arrangement of detail, and more importantly those details withheld, is aching. There is something excruciating about this song, and it comes from the wisdom that understands that crystalline moments exist in relationship to one another; whether made literal in their configurations arranged together as in a novel, or merely implied as with the song, where the story must be sussed out by the listener. Monads are enclosed, of walnuts and grains of sand again, and Springsteen sings that the nameless character “shuts off the TV/And without a word/Into bed she climbs/Well she thinks how it was all so wasted/And how expendable their dreams all were/When a good man was so hard to find/Well it’s cloudy out in Pittsburgh.” Present collapses into past, endings into beginnings, Revelation into Genesis – the very engine of lyric poetry.
IX. Yesod; or, Foundation
Easy to make the mistake of seeing the crystalline moment as the provenance of the imagination only, as being a province in fiction’s empire. In reality, questions of what’s fiction or not are largely irrelevant when it comes to scrying the nature of immanence and transcendence with the sacred second. After all, the import of the crystalline moment as experienced in a painting, or a poem, or a song, or a novel is that it’s a totem of the sacred moment which thrums through all of our lives. Art defamiliarizes the moment; it is both window and stain-glass; the first providing light onto our reality, and the second illuminating it with the beauties and splendor that gilds it. But both the window of immanence and the stain-glass of transcendence provide illumination. They allow all of us to enter that world of light.
A category mistake to extend that metaphor too far (as is the very nature of metaphors), for windows are not the realm of fact, nor stain-glass that of fiction. Neither does immanence trade only in non-fiction and transcendence with the imagined. As with all things glowing, the crystalline moment is such that the experience itself must be complicated. Return to Dillard, and her An American Childhood, where she describes seeing Pittsburgh “poured rolling down the mountain valleys like slag, and see the city lights sprinkled and curved around the hills’ curves, rows of bonfires winding. At sunset a red light like the housefires shines from the narrow hillside windows; the houses’ bricks burn like glowing coals,” and though this passage is based entirely in her memory of experiences as they actually happened to her, is it not a gleaming diamond of the crystalline moment?
For the true foundation of the crystalline moment, regardless of whether we speak of fiction or non-fiction, is experience. Often read as a nature writer, and a Christian too, for those functions are similar when meditating upon Hopkins’ “thisness;” Dillard writes of wild grapevines that
…tangled the treetops and shut out the sun. Few songbirds lived in the deep woods. Bright Carolina parakeets – red, green, and yellow – nested in the dark forest. There were ravens then, too. Woodpeckers rattled the big tress’ trunks, ruffed grouse whirred their tail feathers in the fall, and every long once in a while a nervous gang of empty-headed turkeys came hustling and kicking through the leaves.
Such moments are of great import to Dillard, and she makes them of great import to us. French philosopher Jean-Pierre Dupuy writes of the “mark of the sacred,” where we’re to understand religion as a form of “collective effervescence.” Poetry, prose, painting – all of these are a form of shared effervescence. Dillard’s atoms of experience which she shares with us remind us of that sacred nature, where like Walt Whitman did we “sing the body electric,” and the moment too.
X. Malkuth; or, Kingship
February 26th, 2000 was an unusually warm winter day in Pittsburgh, before I was smart enough to see high temperatures as ominous. Sixteen years old, it was a day that my wife calls a “bookmark moment,” and which I’ve described with a far less elegant term throughout this essay. Pittsburgh speckled with melting mounds of ash-gray snow that had been dumped on the city throughout a characteristically colder January, now had that magnolia-scented warmth of promise that comes in with spring, and I wandered about Oakland, over the Panther Hallow Bridge, and through muddy, litter-strewn streets coated in melting ice crystals that refracted the low winter sun into a shining prism. That evening I went to the movies, to see Curtis Hanson’s adaptation of Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys, the former remaining the greatest campus novel ever written, and the later by proxy the greatest campus film.
I’ve seen the movie dozens of times, but one scene in particular remains one of my indelible bookmark moments, albeit one presented to me in celluloid as mediated by a director, actors, cinematographers, editors, and sound technicians. Professor Grady Tripp, following a fight with his prodigious creative writing student James Leer in a neon diner somewhere in the western Pennsylvania countryside, locks himself in his busted green Volvo, lights a joint, and reads all of his protégé’s novel, The Love Parade. As shot by Hanson the scene is eerily beautiful when viewed from above; Tripp sequestered inside the metal cage of his car, curled up with Leer’s manuscript, the yellow and blue electric glow of the diner shining bright behind; a nascent dropping of white snow falling like Japanese rose petals onto a wet, black bough.
A perfect metaphor for the crystalline moment itself, the professor in his separate little universe exulting in the interiority of fiction, whole cathedrals of experience formed in the synapses between his brain cells as initiated by ink marks on a page. The space of the car a monad, a singularity, reflecting out and containing all of that energy, all of those narratives. Important to me because I love the movie, and I remain moved by the image, and the fundamental beauty of the novel, which emphasizes the sheer impossibility of fully expressing the crystalline moment, but glorying in the try. Necessitating in it, too. These things that I have loved, and perhaps that you have or will as well, are but hieroglyphs that gesture towards the electric, exploding, technicolor glories of the individual experience; yet, though they be letters they are all the more needed because of it. Letters from divinity, telegraphs from God, scattered throughout the streets. A meditation that reminds us of all of these crystalline moments, all of these things bookmarked in our unfinished novels of experience where we’re the only ones never ultimately privy to the last page, but if we read presently enough we may be ecstatic to the potential in each paragraph.
Never forget this one fundamental thing: sacraments are real; all moments are sacramental. That bit of advice will get you through everything else. Poets merely reveal this to us now and again.
About the Author:
Ed Simon is the Editor-at-Large for The Marginalia Review of Books a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books. His writing regularly appears at sites like The Atlantic, The Paris Review Daily, The Washington Post, Newsweek, Salon, LitHub, The Millions, and several others. His collection America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post-Religion will be released by Zero Books later this year. He can be followed on Twitter @WithEdSimon, or at his website.