The following is an excerpt from William H. Gass’ recently published essay, “Abstractions Arrive,” available here. (Note: presently it is only available for IPad 2 users. I’m told the publishers are working to widen the net eventually.)
The essay as a whole is very good, as is the interactive features with the astonishing artwork of Michael Eastman. I will perhaps have more to say about it later. For now, though, I want to feature this bit about cities. Arguably, it is about as optimistic as Gass ever gets, but is so in a way that gets at something more than wishful thinking or hope. There has long been talk about beauty in ruins & decay — typically with a series of artful forward and backward glances, both in their respective ways aiming to turn the object into a static, crumbled icon, and thus tending too often to neglect the movement this very moment, amidst even the dust and bones, taking place. This, it seems to me, is what Gass has in view.
I appreciate the publisher giving me permission to post this. I hope you like . . .
* * *
American cities are almost as abandoned as occupied, not simply in certain blighted areas, although these are certainly, among the ignored, the most notable. Abandonment, however, is ubiquitous. Just as we leave behind loved ones, parts of our past, old debts, parts of ourselves, we litter the landscape: a small hutch here, a garage, a warehouse, a closed school, an emptied shop or silo, a cottage industry, a de-animaled barn. When elevators fail, the upper stories of tall buildings fall empty; a widow may begin to live in only one room of her house; half-finished buildings, like half-held hopes, are soon overtaken by the homeless, who help themselves to what is left; and alleyways and passages and porches and outside stairs and stubbled fields drift into idleness and obsolescence. Asphalt lots are reoccupied by weeds. Fences sag, posts rot, wires rust. It is the abandoned lots and streets and buildings that teach us the most and are often in their poverty most wealthy. It is better, they tell us, to fall into the hands of Nature than to remain in the hands of Man.
Just as the corpse has been a dangerous contaminant and dreadful bother to almost all societies, so are the dead bricks and decomposing boards of abandoned buildings. Often, like bodies sometimes, they are cut and scattered, blown up, burned, or even buried, fed to thieves who steal their skins or their intestines, their cornices and colored glass and decorated doorways, and dispose of them in the Sun Belt somewhere like the rest of cold old age. Many peoples leave their dead in trees, or they offer them to the mercies of hyenas, vultures, sharks, or other sorts of sweepers in the streets. Many, however, just walk away. We leave the fields to weeds, the woods to their underbrush and fallen trees. We motor from our cities more often than not, turn a cold shoulder, banish all thought of docks and rail yards; and the face of the city becomes pocked with little lifeless hollows, spaces that are sealed off from sight and unavailable for any use. Then we speed by barn yards and out buildings that are their own tombs. They live their death as if it were another life, and nothing tells us more about a region than those places so lost and impoverished they have pushed away even their own poor.
Outcasts and pariahs, no more concern is felt for them, for the histories they had, the living that once went into them, than is felt for any faceless and forsaken rag of man or woman stretched out on a bench, huddled over a warming grate, or curled up under a bridge. These human beings live on themselves and grow thin from that diet. They live in the only interior they have as though that inside were their overcoat, and consequently we can see sometimes, as though through a flung-open door or raised window, their consciousness spill into the public world they are now so unaware of as they gesture at ghosts and declaim their pain for the balm of a passer-by’s snicker. Eventually, they become simply the last layer of dirty clothes in the bundle, a mutter like the wind’s, a nearly bodiless movement that’s yet as far beyond futility as disconnected stoves their former fires.
The surfaces of spaces which have been abandoned, and which know only the touch of the tramp, the spray can of the vandal, the trash of the vagrant; where a cheap Tokay’s sweetness lies shattered like the bottle, and the tin-can stove threatens to scorch the mattress that’s been flung like a self into a corner; or where the calm insouciance of forgotten furniture can be encountered, or the eloquence, though hardly heard, of one shoe or a left-over word: they combine to create a Dorian Gray-like image of the city’s soul or country-cousin’s character: a landscape of spiritual self-loathing and suicidal hate.
Yes, these are the spaces where strange animals rest: machines left in the tombs like the retinues of the pharaohs. These are spaces where a bulb may still burn, the light as neglected as the darkness. These are spaces that return their boundaries to the physical world, and only the mice and cats come, the pigeons perch. This is where otherwise only dripping water moves, and mildew is time’s measurement, rot rules, rust too, and decay becomes constructive because the orderly and equal ministrations of Nature, indifferent and patient, crack the plaster with beguiling lines where pipes poke forth and their shadows flash; they peel paint more seductively than underclothes; they subdue vulgar colors until they harmonize like the lyrics of a master — the raucous red of a discarded watermelon rind, for instance, reaching a pink more tantalizing than a tongue’s tip, at least to some developed, though depraved, tastes. Here our metals curl like paper, and stones we had let fall — oh, anywhere — out of idleness, now stand above our better feelings to mark their burial place beneath cliché and faddish slogan.
The qualities that finally constitute the surfaces that define such spaces are so rich, so various, so intense, yet so subtle and delicate, that they rarely could be realized by any artist; and the most humble materials, the plainest places, left to the routine actions of Nature, achieve a kind of elevation in their downfall, a tubercular beauty in their final fever.
And they lay there, in plain view, waiting for the photographer to make them immortal. They weren’t in motion; they weren’t hidden away in exotic places; they didn’t charge by the hour to pose; they also weren’t charming, immediately attractive, stylish, shocking, or outrageous; they were ordinary, commonplace, banal, ubiquitous… and revolutionary.
A weed grew here. — Exempt from us,
Weeds turn no wheel, no run;
Radiance pure or redolence
Some have, but this had none.
And yet heaven gave it leave to live
And idle it in the sun.*
* The anonymous author of Herman Melville’s epigraph for Weeds and Wildings