The Span of Black Ladders
(Giorgio de Chirico is speaking)
Giorgio de Chirico, Appearance of the Chimney, 1917
I probe by metaphysics a fixed image in the child's brain: North African Ionia, the
afterbirth of Alexander's grand but quite absurd attempt to reconstitute a dream. Philip was not Alexander's father, nor was mine Evaristo. We both owe our lives to the
madness of the Pythian Apollo. To this madness, we also owe the recurrence of our deaths.
The day fades. The sea is near. The shadows grow almost infinitely long as they
advance. Surveyors for the railroad then leave their plumb-bobs, compasses, and tripod-scopes at the great depot under construction. Its vaulted glass and iron hall is
an almost perfect marriage of Ionic, Corinthian, Coptic, Islamic, Gothic, and Baroque styles. This alchemical althanor accepts all contributions. The fumes of Mercury do
their work, and yet the project, somehow, is still incomplete after 36,000 years.
The sky is green. A comet curves above the Polytechnic Institute.
The stone head of the philosopher is still waiting to be found at the bottom of the topless staircase.
"South wind, bring me knowledge," I said, but I was not prepared for the
displacements that would follow the first flood of correspondences, or for how strong I would grow. Like an occult sun, unseen by the human race, I had no fixed place in
relation to Earth's orbit. Thus, I was free to travel where I would. If need be, at times, my light might slip beneath a door, to observe the shapely ghosts beyond. I was
searching for the key that my duplicate had once hid in my hand. With it, I would unlock the seed whose genius gave birth to the city.
That fountain is pregnant. You will not return the same to anything you know. Love is
distant, hard. The stage set flutters, and, if just for a moment, the gears that operate the sky show.
Giorgio de Chirico, Orpheus, The Tired Troubadour, 1970
It is almost certain that the artist who created the first god did something of
importance wrong. I, de Chirico, will soon intuit the mistake. Deaf bourgeois, do you call me mad? I am. You prove my point. Have I not already said so? Do not confuse
my form of madness with the others. I, de Chirico, am from Volos. My mother was Gemma. She loved me like a mother. I laugh. I uncloud the sphere's geometry.
Parmenides once begged to be my student. Coldly, and then more so, I see beyond the edge. Am I not my own tradition?
The patriarch on his column has been issued a coral toga, as, from the square, the sea
at last concludes its slow withdrawal. And yet, it is the sea. If, for a second, we were to suspend our obsessive-compulsive preparations, it would no doubt read this as an
offer to return.
Flags flutter on the phallic tower. An egg makes demands on you.
To the dead: grow up. Though the signs were mixed, your naked mothers once threw
caution to the wind. From deep places of concealment: clouds. They caused these clouds to swirl, to boil, to coagulate. They whispered softly to them. They caused these
clouds to play their part, to tell a half-remembered story. Are not such mothers wonderful? We must offer up our thanks. Howling, sweat streaming down their faces,
they brought forth the Age of Iron. Pick your bones up! Don't litter the beach! Who knows who might be watching, what plots might be afoot, or when you might cease to
be the primary inhabitant of your body? Some high-pitched lamentation still vibrates in the air.
With their flowing manes, black horses romp among the underwater ruins.
The parental affection that once governed all of the tides has been, from the dawn of modern history, at least, almost altogether absent.
There was an aqueduct that stretched from Saturn to the sun. In those days, even the
average child could feel the outermost planets wheel. You could leap between one octave and the next. You could hear these harmonies not only with your ears but also
with your bones and skin and solar plexus, with all of the subtle currents of your body. The dead differed from the living only in their habits. You could break bread with the
gods. Vast visions, as by themselves, erupted from the mouth. Each came with a price, with some previously obscure story to act out. Such harmonies were not for the faint of heart.
There was an elixir that flowed freely and at full force through the aqueduct, from one
end to the other. It may now have become a toxin. The sonic teachers who once supported us may, though no fault of their own, have morphed into atonal ghouls.
Giorgio de Chirico, Metaphysical Composition, 1914
That which kills us does not always make us stronger.
Seaweed on weapons, dead armies march from a fault in the Atlantic. Geometers on
Saturn tremble. They had done their best. Mass murder was contagious. Their knees turn to water as they contemplate the liberation of their human shadows.
There was one world, once. That world was good. What is left of the five planets?
Spume. Against the shore: the hiss of waves, the crashing of dark powers. Rolling back into their sockets, the first Muse, Mnemosyne's, eyes. She, from herself, has stripped
away all reasons to exist. What joy is left? The tragic type. No sciences. No arts of which I, de Chirico, approve. That the sun still shines is no doubt due to Pavlov. This is
the sentence that black tides pronounced upon de Chirico: To know that she is gone. To miss her. To feel and understand the loss. To be the only one to miss her. To have
no choice whatsoever but to miss her.
Many souls cannot find their suitcases at the great Victorian train depot. They wander
here and there. Some yearn to depart. Others hesitate before descending to the womb. Rome at the end rots with its elbow on a couch. Egypt steps on the eggs of the bird
-kings of Assyria. Circling in a whirlwind, dismembered populations cry out for their mothers. Darwin argues with the yolk of the Eighth Sphere. His soul eaten by the
Archons, Adam begs for a banana on the ramp to Kandahar. A megaphone-shaped cloud announces, "SEE THE ANCIENT RACE! THE OTHERS WERE TOO SLOW!"
Vast crowds continue to surge at their own variable speeds.
The sea trusts in the power of the sea. The sky withholds the story of its birth.
No creature with a suitcase is allowed to challenge the gods' methods.
Mile after mile, a styptic scent spreads inland from the depot, with its mix of
nonsensical friezes, with its massive prehistoric struts, for which iron was—as later
archeological opinion would confirm—not the best choice of material. The terrifying light of a comet stops construction. Some few speculate that the train may not arrive at
A zone of perpetual blind anxiety is established on the coast. Giant bird skulls dot the
wasteland. Blue nomads dare not look upon the ruins of the depot. Most deny that it is there.
Giorgio de Chirico, The Span of Black Ladders, 1914
At the tracks, the spell of silence is as absolute as space. The sea holds its breath, and
only the heartbeat of the planet can be heard. A salt crust forms on the faces of those waiting. Which are passengers? Which are statues? What Djinn has alchemized the
romance of such fated incompatibles? All schedules have been taken down. The clock's hands do not move. The early race enters, blowing on their instruments, on
their ten-foot trumpets, on their delicate pink conches. Love brought you this far to one spot. Justice. You will not return the same to anything you know.