Content advisory 18+ (Restricted content) Long ago I stood atop the Empire State Building and peered down at Manhattan far below. I don’t remember my feelings precisely, but I am sure that I was in awe of where I was — you know, the mere Fact of it (“Damn — this is really the top of the Empire State Building!”). I do recall that we were securely fenced in, just in case anyone got the cool idea of leaping over the edge into his/her 15 minutes of fame.
Speaking of which, you should take a look at Robert Wiles famous photo, ‘The Most Beautiful Suicide’ –which — if Artem and the copyright laws will allow me, I will reproduce here:
The photo may look false, but I assure you it is real (it happened in 1947), and it is part of the lore of what I will call ‘Skyscraper Mythology’.
As for me, I remember little human dots and toy cars racing about on their ant-like errands way down on the streets – how everything was happening all at once, but nobody on one street could have the faintest idea of what people on the next were doing. Really — a mafia hit could be happening here and a romantic kiss shared by lovers over there, and no one would be any the wiser: the tightly intimate yet profoundly excluding anonymity of modern city life.
Had I been standing atop Mount Everest or, even better, on the summit peak of The Matterhorn (in the Swiss Alps), I am sure that my sense of awe would have been similar but based on entirely different impulses. And, as with almost everything in life it seems, one is forced to base one’s conclusions on the perspective through which the vision is transmitted, I vaguely remember asking myself which was truly the more impressive view: standing in the street and looking up at the top of The Empire State Building, or actually going up to the highest level and looking back down.
I am still not sure. I recall a short but very powerful poem I heard long years ago from one member of what were known as ‘The Liverpool Poets’. It went like this::
‘One thing I have learned about life:
you cannot possess the citadel from the outside.’
Only that. But again the question is based on perspective, and if — as my brief relationship with the Empire State Building revealed to me — these perspectives take the form of opposite mirrors, each evoking the other as a distant vision harboring what the imagination might crave as its desired reality, then… no matter at which end of the spectrum you find yourself, your restless dreaming wish will be to achieve the other.
In cities we live our lives in the midst of great noise, such as that which riots every minute in the thoroughfares, but…many of us, in our secret selves, long for silence — the kind you would surely find atop The Matterhorn, and indeed of a kind which is possible to feel atop a skyscraper — or even a tall apartment building where you can escape onto one of the upper balconies and gaze down.
At such times, when no one else is around and we are surrounded by only the gull-like wails of mental sirens signifying total Silence — one can view the human race and its doings for what I suspect it all really amounts to: tiny creatures on a tiny planet involved in microscopic activities — shouting and screaming small shouts and small screams to a limitless, uncomprehending, utterly uncaring cosmos that goes on forever.
Yes. We — especially in the Modern City — not only welcome, but demand, insist on, noise, Noise, NOISE! It is our instant cure for the disease of loneliness, a kind of blurted out answer to drugless and soulless boredom. The quick fix.
Listen. There is nothing. My soul is tired. Please, someone, MAKE A NOISE!!!
And yet…something larger than noise in us asks for Silence. Begs for stillness and, receiving it, is transfigured from the megalomaniacal to the monastic. We want to be left alone to contemplate our fate amid the great distances. I think that this…need…occurs even to Fools..sometimes.
It was this silence that I felt that time when my Dad took me in his small airplane across the early morning skies of Manhattan. At least I remember it as early morning. Probably it wasn’t because, on checking my mental records (which is all I have), I cannot imagine why we would have been flying across Manhattan at daybreak. Most likely it was in the afternoon.
But I want the memory to be in the dawn — the Great Sleepy Time even in cities, gray and rosy and dreamlike — so that is what I have fixed in my waking dreams. And so I remember the silence of the Empire State Building as it towered above everything else.
Tall like a beanstalk that crazy children or obsessed pilgrims might have the urge to climb, ominously reptilian like some exotic serpent poised to strike; stark and phallic like a symbol of modern, unreflective sexuality — it was all that, but…
….really, The Empire State Building was nothing more than a great, rising Temple of an Ancient Silence. It’s sky-going peak reached its limit but kept pointing.
Skyscraper. The ultimate shout of human greatness; the ultimate, majestic symbol of human loneliness.
Back then, there were not so many, and that’s what made them seem like something out of a circus upon first glance. A skyscraper was a novelty.
But all that has changed. I had a student some years back who went to Viet Nam on holiday. On his way, he stopped over in Hong Kong. He had taken a lot of photographs, and naturally I wanted to see them — not so much the ones of Viet Nam (although I was curious about that too because of my memories of the “Viet Nam period” in American life) but most particularly those of the great Chinese City, which I had long held some fanciful emotions for, dreaming of it as some ancient wisdom-permeated haven retained from a magical Chinese past.
Forget THAT. The photos revealed a skyline jumbled with ENDLESS skyscrapers. It was almost as if they were some kind of tall-stemmed virus which had learned to duplicate itself over and over. I was annoyed, vexed, disappointed. It was somehow even scary.
My imagined Hong Kong had become something like what I suggest in the following analogy: you hear a woman singing some profoundly evocative, soul-twisting, heart-probing, melodically enchanting song, and you think that SHE is the SONG. And, of course, she isn’t. She has sold the song to you, that’s all. She isn’t really anything like that. So the song was just an act, a farce, a cunning trick designed to pull at your heart-strings. But never real.
Our whole lives are crammed full of this play-acting, and it is made more agonizing by the fact that the SONG remains beautiful even when the SINGER rides off in her limousine to meet her Oil Man.
But hey, that’s life. So Hong Kong became, for a little while, nothing more than an annoying hodge-podge of elongated skyscrapers. This perception, which I now discount, lasted until I started working in “Moscow City” (the skyscraper section of Moscow’s business community).
Of course, I had seen that huddled collection, tall bleak mass of edifices from the distance — standing out like stainless steel noodles borne erect by some great electric shock — and I had given a private thumbs-down. But when I went to work there, I changed my tune.
For one thing, you can know nothing of its magnificence from the distance. Only when you are right there smack-dab in the middle can you appreciate the prodigious mass and power which those beautifully crafted buildings can generate. A fantastic hive of modernity. —-
— As if Moscow City were this grand corporate party that you could get invited to ONLY if you were good enough to deserve an invitation. So then I understood why the architecture had been so demanding and had successfully produced such wondrous form: twisting, tortured, heavy, massive, yet so graceful and limpid…
I looked up and saw that the modern skyscraper is an icon of our times. Men and women, men and men, women and women, whatever their relationships and/or desires, spending their professional lives in cubicles extended far, far above the city streets below.
An angelic pornography, a stratospheric cry of Success, eagle-like beaks that rise above the mega-polis in a suggestively predatory way — these are the cathedrals of modern greatness, tall, sinewy-stiff and always virile, but at their highest points, never designed to reach into the Truth of things, but only to hint at such possibilities…
… even as their proud towers lapse away in the human mind, and both — tower and brain — succumb to Silences as if they were merely two ancient singers joining at the edge of Empires’ oldest amphitheater to share songs about Heaven and Nothingness.
===Eric Richard Leroy===