The Room

San Francisco, April, 1853

He considered why he should be standing in this room streaming with light, his fingertips raised to this one certain pane of glass. The possibilities were infinite that something should be otherwise. He touched the face of the glass, his fingertips retracing in the delicate ripples of its skin the wavering face of the untouched city beyond, a face as obscure in the mystery of its particular form as the hands held before him. Detached from the cellularities of its being, it belongs to the eye alone, he thought, as a sort of view, edged by the window-frame and subdivided by its moldings.

He lowered his arm, looking down at his hands now turned upward and held open before him in the ancient plainness of gesture of asking the simplest knowledge of what is before us. The ridged concave slopes of palm; the fingers flared as though in movement toward him; the thumbs, cocked, articulate, knit to the shelf of the hand by skin fluted as a crown of old roots…

The room droned in a slow blur of sound, no longer the pure touch of distant movements shaping in their image the air that moved within his ear, but the altered creation of their passage; an architecture of its own, planed, dislocated and reconstructed from the buildings by whose surfaces they had reached him.

It was the remoteness of simple fact; this was present, as it was, and not otherwise; and of it, he knew only its presence, a surface worked by his mind from the particularities of sense, the densities of substance within which he stood unknowing.

He watched a long slow flame of sun break out along the wharf-toothed nether edge of the bay, his eyes fixed by the light, and by the city’s dark geometrical carpentry held in that light before his eyes as though caught and burning in the focus of a lens.

What lay beneath remained opaque. The mysterious inventions of the city revealed only the surface that sheltered them; but it was a brilliant surface, incised and shattered now by blazing shards of light. This is what is given, what is present to me and not otherwise. That is what is mysterious: what is present and not otherwise.

“And everything shall perish except His face, Barton once said…”

He reached his hand toward a small rectangular plate of metal that ranged with others on a molding of polished mahogany that ran the length of the wall. He lifted it as though it were precious and fragile, his fingers spread wide, compressed only lightly where they grasped the hard line of the plate’s rim.

“And what to make of this?”, he asked.

In back, a neutral surface of metal indeterminate to the eye; in front, a strange dream of what lay before him now. He had taken it himself only a few minutes before, from the roof directly above him where now he stood.

It could have been a daguerreotype of Constantinople a thousand years before, an ancient mysterious thing, a certain passing of light removed from its essence as pure motion and fixed forever in the past, like thought. Yes: to represent the present by fixing it forever in the past, just the action of consciousness itself, the reflective present always in the immediate past, inexhaustibly claiming to fix the perfect antithesis of all fixity, which is the true present.

He smiled. And yet: smile, he thought, but still answer: what to make of this plate, now an object in itself, its own present ineluctably moving into the past, its image no more than a haze of iodide and mercury, more delicate on its surface of polished silver than the dust of a mothwing. He had not yet encased it; but that was no protection from time, there was none; only delay. It would tarnish and disappear. He held it before him, and before the view of which it was an image: an image fading only more slowly than his hands.

And so I am in the present, he thought, like salt in the wave, with no knowledge other than a certain view, as now the view of the city before me.

He returned the daguerreotype to its place on the shelf with the others, one in a line of unsolvable mysteries, all of his own creation.

Outside, the night’s storm had fallen loose into a light sky tossed and pitched with cloud, its pale clear sea-blue a color of air that could rise only above the sea, and only in the morning, and which fell gently through the city, softening the architecture with a fineness only a musician could have imitated.

The day seemed open, as though its shell of things were friable and could crumble suddenly, revealing the entire pattern in its protected true being.

And at that thought he said in recognition within: O yes, there it is again, exactly: and it is a beautiful thing to imagine: the persistent lure of an archetypal form of understanding, or literally of the form understanding would be obliged to take to be revealed. It would be the net that connects each point of reckoning to each other, the map, the unspoken ideal of a potential design or net of understanding imbedded in our mind as something somehow naturally latent within the rough and tumble of Being spread out before us, an invisible latent image that once developed would like thought reveal a secret frame of clarity and rational order hidden but alive beneath the confusions of the actual.

That is what we do now; we make maps, as charts, as thoughts, as systems of thought, entire alternate universes, all of them maps drawn in lines of thought; and all proceed by rigorous exclusion of everything that is actual but not to their purpose, which is to say the infinity of the actual minus the infinitesimal of their purpose. They lead us through the actual but never to it. What can a map ever be of? A map is defined by its intention; that is all it can ever be of.

He pictured Captain Mahon’s pristine charts aboard the Odysseus, charts that he himself had helped draw night after night; perfect lines from reckoning to reckoning across nothing so impossible to align as the sea, incomprehensible and unfathomable beneath them as they hung in their speck of wood above it, drawing lines of meaning only to themselves. Yet those lines had brought them to San Francisco; that was the intention, and those were the lines of that intention; so the intention was fulfilled. We are mapmakers because it serves us.

What was possible beyond? Who could understand without exclusion? What mind could see the actual and preserve it entire?

He raised the bolts that fixed the windows to the sill. He raised his hands, his thumbs together & extended so that his thumbnails centered his mind exactly at the slot where the window-frames joined, and with his index fingers he gripped the knobs on either side. Then in a single almost ritual motion, like the wings of a large bird unfolding, he lunged suddenly forward and threw the windows wide open.

He stood immobilized in the flood that engulfed him, not now the view but the breath of the living thing, the breath of the city itself, the sweat and the oils of its body, an entire city of new wood and the smell of it, hardly a building he could see more than two or three years old; a sweet pungency mixed then with the first touch of fog, like snow near the tongue; and the rich pine tar smoke of Johnson’s Cordage; and then the horse dung and mud paving the streets, leather and turpentine, food and its garbage, a thousand wood fires…

It was the carnal city itself, not removed from him but alive, unnatural, a created thing, but living, a pure artifact of human being, a construction, every surface the memory of a hand, a tool, of being laid out, squared off, hammered & smoothed; a structure of craft, the seeing, the conscious mind, the attentiveness of eye and hand and inner ear not only integral to its beauty but the cause of it, so that the eye, just in looking, entered into the process of its construction, another eye, another presence, appraising, measuring, meditating the city’s forms, as had all those before who had made these forms to be what they were, and were making them now as he looked.

It was exciting; he felt the tensions of his mind’s own constructions flowing out of him and into the energy of the city itself, as though they rightfully belonged to it; and suddenly he wanted nothing in the world more than to be in it entirely himself, all of him.

And by no more than the conscious instant of that desire, the texture of the room had already changed. The change was palpable. It was as though his presence had taken up space that now it gave back, his mind vanishing into its own unknowable nature, gone as suddenly as flame or dream, and with it the intricacies of its thought and the entire combustible field of energy upon which it fed, leaving a vacuum for the other energies of being to fill.

No longer present in the room, he left accordingly, already an afterthought. He reached out for one window frame then the next, pulled them in together and closed them, fixed the bolts into the sill, and dropped the latch in place. Then he turned to the door, took his oilcloth jacket from the hook, shook his arms into its sleeves and stepped out onto the landing, locking the door behind him. It was over.

The room, of course, remained. The clatter of the lock, the thump of his boots down the stairwell, faded like ripples on a pool, returning the room to whatever was its own, and the air resumed its own elastic breath, occupying the room so perfectly in every detail that the room might have been cast around it as its true inner form, the walls, ceiling, windows and floor only the structure that framed that particular space which was the room itself. Removed from the watchfulness of human perception it resumed the calm of unobserved being, apparently indifferent as its molecular debts to time accumulated, altering particle by particle each most minute aspect of its presence as imperceptibly from moment to moment as the aging of a face.