Apr/May 1999 Salon


by Stanley Jenkins

A tree must suffer from the rising of its sap and not feel the falling of its leaves.
Jean Cocteau, 1929

Heading into the millennium, all I want to do is look back. Am I alone in this? More and more I seem to be in love with that provocation that we somehow call the past. The ever-retreating. (Oh! It is more present than any merely wished for future!) It is very nearly erotic. Cold. Sharp. Still.

I don't think it is just me. Indeed, in America, at the turn of the century, it is as if we dream—if we permit ourselves to dream at all—in images from silent films. Our heroines all come in black and white. Our heroes are known only in the high mythology style of old melodramas. And when we cry, it is always for that moment of revelation in Mr. Chaplin's "City Lights" when all good blind girls see their true benefactors—and it hurts.

I first noticed it in the eighties. The ubiquity of icons. The ubiquity of Elvis and Marilyn and Max Headroom. And to tell you the truth, even now, I think I would rip tender flesh to kiss such poignancy. Such virtual existence. All the lost flowergirls haunting the mystic chords of memory. But that's the rub. Our forever presence in the forever present. Neither idols nor ghosts exist.

Nonetheless—and this is the true moment of fear and trembling—I do not know if I am prepared for the alternative. For the brute violence of regeneration. The opening of tombs. Millennium. The sheer terror of really being here.


(Let's face it. The future is the place where we just don't have no choice—no, none at all—but to endure the obscene stretching of static stone—noble statues!—into screaming screeching caterwauling life. The violence of liquefaction. The scandal of photosynthesis.

(It's true. I have—in anticipation of the coming age—witnessed life's violation of several public sculptures—which by any definition of justice—though perhaps not compassion—should have been left to the kind continence of stone stillness and rest. Stasis. Yeah.

(There is one in Tompkins Square in the East Village of New York. It's not stone. But it might as well be. It's a bronze monument to some long-since dead man of the nineteenth century whose name escapes me. The legend on the base reads unrevealingly: "The Letter-Carrier's Friend". He rests at last from his labors.

(And I have seen him—this static man of another time so respectfully dead and memorialized—and I have seen him—this statue—in anticipation of the age to come—with an effort that no man ought see—lean into excruciating animation—and in his unspeakable frozen molten ravishing—look to me in agony and shame—like a dog observed taking a shit—and I have heard him—this statue—call out to me in the anguish of his re-vivification—the sorrow of his flowering—upon a late and purple Lenten night—on which I had no right to be out and about—and I can assure you—my fellow lone pilgrims—that I felt defiled in my witnessing—like seeing Noah's nakedness—like seeing your father's weakness. Shame.

(And this is the future. And this is the future. The indignity of glaciers in a forced march. Biology.)


And what about you? My friends, my accomplices, my fellow penitents of the present? Do we have the courage of our irrepressible desires? (Because that's really what's at issue, isn't it? Desire.) Do we have the courage of our most hardwired vegetable love?

What do you say? Shall we will the violence of rebirth? O the future! Shall we turn from our turning back? Refulgent? Lithe? Become ourselves exploding plastic statues leaning forward to greet St. Vitus—or Columbus? Again?

Hope. It is a terrible terrible thing. It is so beautiful and cruel.

From the same desert, in the same night, always my tired eyes awake to the silver star, always, but the Kings of life are not moved, the three magi, mind and heart and soul. When shall we go beyond the mountains and the shores, to greet the birth of new toil, of new wisdom, the flight of tyrants, of demons, the end of superstition, to adore—the first to adore!—Christmas on the earth.
(Arthur Rimbaud, 1873)

Desire. O millennial! And, who knows? Perhaps the redemption of the present. That's the thing, you know. Yes, come closer. Come gather 'round. This is the thing. I think this might be something true. As if it had been revealed. Something I really know to tell you at the turn of the century: Between speed and the absolute extirpation of motion, the millennium is the question of our desire. The question of desire in the present. The question of the present itself: Is it better to freeze or to burn?

And this question too: what manner of creature must we become to walk in our own day, on our own feet, perfectly content in our walking to be motionlessness itself—and to somehow embody, for the great enjoyment of God, the sheer inevitability of a flaming glacier?


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