Thanks to Isis Bakker and Jeroen van der Hulst
Review on Metropolis M
The following text is written by Christine Bax:
When one writes about a work of art, is it possible to have interpretation A both together and separate from interpretation B? In Tales of Mystery and Imagination, Edgar Allan Poe illustrates, in a footnote to his reader, how they could describe a room:
“When I write about a room, it is not enough to just describe a series of objects. Let’s say, the main character walks into the room. He sees white walls (except for one wall that is painted in different shades of brown). He sees the floor, the white plastered ceiling. On a diagonal white wall in the middle of the room, there are a few wooden staves connected to this wall vertically. On the other wall hangs a drawing of a skull. All these things can exist individually, and together they form the room. But if I would describe my whole story in the way I just did, it would become incredibly boring.”
I was alone in the village where I lived the summer that I wrote my first piece of text. What I wrote was not very special, but by then even the action of writing seemed like something of great importance to me. To explain this better, it might be a good idea to describe the situation I was in. It was incredibly hot that summer. All the people in the village were on holiday (except for me). The only thing that moved in the main street was the trembling hot air above the melting asphalt. For the rest, it was quiet. The main street of the village was on a hill. The grass next to the main street was yellow and the ground was cracked, because it hadn’t rained for weeks.
The houses in the village were at the bottom of the hill. They were all very much alike. Every house had two (withered) plants in its front window, or two small sculptures. Everything was symmetrical in an unofficial, but omnipresent way. My daily schedule was a routine as well. Every morning I woke up, wrapped in my sweaty blankets. I dressed, and walked in circles through the streets, without a purpose. In the middle of the day, there was no shade in the village, and my eyes would go slowly blind from the light. For the rest, I did nothing, except for read books. I lay in my room and read Poe for the hundredth time, and when I finished the book I stared at the white plaster ceiling. I thought the boredom would make me mad. I knew the contents of all my books by heart.
TRUE!—nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous I had been, and am, but why will you say that I am mad? The burning light of the sun had sharpened my senses—not destroyed—not dulled them. Above all was the sense of seeing acute. I had the feeling I saw all things in the heaven and in the earth. I entered the room. Inside it was hot, like an oven. The tiny bits of melted asphalt underneath my shoes created footprints on the grey floor. They faded away like the traces of a lost person in the desert. The walls seemed to breathe, to live. The walls were white, except for one of them. This wall was disorderly painted in different shades of brown. Slowly a landscape arose in the colours on this wall, a desert. I grinned. A desert was very appropriate. Because there was nothing out here. (And yet, I couldn’t let go of the feeling that there was something, maybe someone else, present in the room.)
I wanted a summer job, but I didn’t know where to look for one. The only place where one could work in my village was a little store at the end of the main road. Unfortunately, because of the holidays, the store was closed.
It was this summer that I sent a letter to a magazine that we read at home; a magazine about food styling. Strangely enough I got the job. Maybe a lot of the magazine people were on holiday, or on maternity leave. Maybe they found the childish clumsiness of my letter endearing. It was my job to rewrite recipes from different chefs, for instance Jamie Oliver. I had to rewrite the recipes ‘deliciously’. It wasn’t quite clear to me what they meant by that. That’s why I decided to follow Edgar Allan Poe’s writing advice.
According to this advice, it wouldn’t work to just say “add a carrot to the tomato sauce,” or “put the pasta on a plate.” Nobody is going to get hungry like that. I decided to see the ingredients of the recipe in the same way as Poe describes a room. All ingredients can exist individually, and together they form the recipe. But if I would describe the recipe like that, the text would become extremely boring. Something had to be added.
Maybe I had sunstroke. Maybe the boredom of the preceding weeks had turned me obsessive. I went to work like a crazy person, on a text that wasn’t even of great importance. I knew that I was only writing down a dull recipe, but you should have seen me. You should have seen how solemnly I proceeded, with what caution, with what foresight, with what dissimulation I went to work! I sat in my room with the white plaster ceiling, and I wrote. Drops of sweat were rolling down my forehead. It was so hot inside the room that the walls seemed to live. To breathe.
At a certain moment, I felt that there was actually something else present in the room. In the corner of the wall, I saw something move. It was a slight, and very unclear change. Maybe it was nothing but a tremble in the air, or an unevenness in the white plaster. It is impossible to say how the idea first entered my brain, but, once conceived, it haunted me day and night. I became absolutely sure that there was an eye in the wall, the structure of bones. A nose. It was a skull that looked down on me while I was writing.
I wrote so much and so obsessively, that it seemed impossible to eat or sleep like a normal person. It was as if I dried out inside, or became part of the furniture of my white room. My arms felt like wooden sticks leaning on the bare table. I couldn’t let go the feeling that there was somebody else present in the room. The skull in the corner had become part of my reality. I caught myself talking to the skull from time to time. In my mind it had become the skull of an old man that had been plastered inside the wall, in a state between life and death. The other wall, painted in different shades of brown, changed into a desert. I grinned. There was nothing here except for me and the old man’s skull, sending me mysterious messages through the trembling hot air.
I didn’t turn mad that summer, I’m convinced of this. After so many weeks of absolute boredom, with nothing to do, it’s not so strange that I became obsessed by the only small piece of work that I had to do, right? I wrote, and this I did for seven long days and nights. And every morning, when day broke, I went boldly to my desk and spoke courageously to myself, and started to write down how I had passed the night.
When I had made an end of these labours, it was four o’clock—still dark as midnight. As the bell sounded the hour, there came a knocking at the street door. I went down to open it with a light heart—for what had I now to fear? There entered three men, who introduced themselves, with perfect suavity, as officers of the police. A shriek had been heard by a neighbour during the night; suspicion of foul play had been aroused; information had been lodged at the police-office, and they (the officers) had been deputed to search the premises.
I smiled – for what had I to fear? I bade the gentlemen welcome. The shriek, I said, was my own in a dream. The old man, I mentioned, was absent in the country. I took my visitors all over the house. I bade them search – search well. I lead them, at length, to his chamber. I showed them his treasures, secure, undisturbed. In the enthusiasm of my confidence, I brought chairs into the room, and desired them here to rest from their fatigues.
The officers were satisfied. My manner had convinced them. I was singularly at ease. They sat, and, while I answered cheerily, they chatted of familiar things. But I felt myself getting pale and wished them gone. My head ached, and I fancied a ringing in my ears: but still they sat and still they chatted. The ringing became more distinct: I talked more freely, to get rid of the feeling; but it continued and gained definiteness – until, at length, I found that the noise was not within my ears.
No doubt I now grew very pale – but I talked more fluently, and with a heightened voice. Yet the sound increased – and what could I do? It was a low, dull, quick sound—much such a sound as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton. I gasped for breath—and yet the officers heard it not. I talked more quickly—more vehemently—but the noise steadily increased. I arose, and argued about trifles, in a high key and with violent gesticulations—but the noise steadily increased. Why would they not be gone? I paced the floor to and fro, with heavy strides, as if excited to fury by the observations of the men—but the noise steadily increased. Oh God! What could I do? I foamed—I raved—I swore! I swung the chair upon which I had sat, and grated it upon the boards—but the noise arose over all and continually increased. It grew louder—louder—louder! And still the men chatted pleasantly, and smiled. Was it possible they heard not? Almighty God!—no, no! They heard!—they suspected!—they knew!—they were making a mockery of my horror!—this I thought, and this I think. But anything was better than this agony! Anything was more tolerable than this derision! I could bear those hypocritical smiles no longer! I felt that I must scream or die!—and now—again!—hark! louder! louder! louder! louder!—
“Villagers!” I shrieked, “dissemble no more! I admit the deed! – break down the walls! – here, here! – it is the beating of his hideous heart!”
(translated by Marnie Slater)