Time, Space and Ghosts of Form: Giorgio de Chirico’s Hebdomeros

TIME BEFORE TIME, SPACE BEFORE SPACE

What becomes of time and space when an adequate language to describe them does not exist?

Throughout the twentieth century, it has been precisely this question which experimental writers have wrestled with above any other (Alfred Jarry, ‘imagine the perplexity of a man outside of time and space’). Confronted with being on the cusp of history, one step beyond the cresting waves of time, works grappling with the ‘new’ have demonstrated and conceptualised this crisis of identity. Vast spatial blanks, like the terra incognita of maps, have undergirded works from Tristram Shandy to Moby-Dick to The Cantos to The Maximus Poems to House of Leaves. In isolating and describing the impact of the ‘new’ within these works and others like them, it is not sufficient to rely on the common tautological bind which equates and justifies their form precisely by their form, their experimentation by their experimentation (Ezra Pound, ‘to break the pentameter, that was the first heave’). There can only be so much system smashing before the smashed system becomes the system anyway (ad infinitum), and the printed page can only look different so many times. Language in this construction, dangerously, becomes a resource, there to be exploited until hollow, governed by facile laws of primacy and property, a territory to be taken over, regulated and controlled. Attempts to do away with this problem by making belatedness the key condition of art’s ultimate transcendence must be seen to have failed (albeit often gloriously) precisely because they necessarily reconstitute and reaffirm the conditions of their own antitheses, leaving us in a wilderness of broken, crumbling forms, mere rusting arrowheads pointing out from the loam.

If the ‘new’ is to survive, then, a reappraisal of the dynamic and unstable forces that generate the moment of the experimental is needed, a reinvocation of the nodal and ghostly electricity which circulates at the point of composition, and through this, a redefinition of what we might call history, both literary and otherwise. What we find is that loosely avant-garde works do not, in fact escape from time and space, but instead exist in a different relation to them.

HAUNTED HOUSES

Giorgio de Chirico’s only novel and masterpiece Hebdomeros (1929) opens with a strange imposing building casting a long shadow over the title character and his band of disciples as they drift through the labyrinthine and shifting streets of a nameless city. As they enter, climbing the stairs of the eerily hushed place, a dream-like topography unfolds: Doric columns, unsettling sculptures, gas lamps and asbestos mantles. Feeling increasingly disorientated and spooked, Hebdomeros tries to do away with his ‘uneasiness by reminding himself he was not alone, that two of his friends were with him.’ Slowly moving upwards, a creak in every tread, ‘they saw they were coming to the floor which they had been told had a history of being haunted by strange apparitions’ so ‘they slowed down and began to climb on tiptoe, looking more warily around them.’ What de Chirico might have said was a floor of apparitions haunting history, for what unfurls in the house is a vivid dissolution of both traditional and Modernist conceptions of time and space, and the creation of a realm, which to quote John Ashbery is a ‘dense medium containing objects that are more real than reality.’ Childhood dreams mingle with anecdotes of shoes, the ghostly appearance of a bear generates for Hebdomeros the dislocative sense of a ‘leap through the window into empty space (suicide in a dream)’, and Leonardo da Vinci sketches compete with Victorian furnishings occupied by fighting gladiators. Clearly invoking the stark haunted houses that troubled the fevered minds of Gothic romancers, de Chirico in these opening pages creates the structure of the space in which the entirety of the rest of the narrative takes place in. Not so much unstable as fluid, it is saturated with long-gone times and places, which coalescing without comment, generate a wildly fluctuating and layered tableau where the laws of logic are suspended, and images wash over the page like vast collapsing waves. Yet this leads to the realisation that we are not witnessing ‘the new’ per se, the avant-garde Holy Grail, but rather a different space for its iteration, a different mode for expressing its temporalities. Which is say that Hebdomeros and his disciples are not mythic questers on the forefront of the known world searching for a long-lost ideal, but rather spirits, flitting throughout all history, without self-knowledge, without direction, waiting in the ante-room of an eternity that is but dimly and half-perceived.

A WORLD APART

Those within de Chirico’s haunted house, we are told, ‘lived in a world of their own, a world apart; they knew nothing about anything; they had never heard of the war in Transvaal or the disaster in Martinique; they did not recognize you, for they had never met you; nothing could disturb them or have any hold over them’. They enact a movement away from History, from the laws that govern, shape and narrate distant times. More broadly, and importantly, in so doing they encode an implicit rejection of the governing principle of historical and realist fiction, that of fidelity of representation, the well-wrought but exact recreation of circumstance. Relying on essentially Enlightenment principles of causation and flat determined teleologies of the simultaneous, these modes simply operate in a different time zone. Hebdomeros (and any modern experimental novel) cannot and does not attempt to invoke these structures. Instead it pushes through representation to an alternate and more densely realised imaginative terrain, generating with it its own numinously figured laws, its ‘world apart’. What this does not involve however is the rejection of the past. Simplistic accounts of experimentalism tend to assume that the works exist in a vacuum of some sort, condensed and absolutely refusing to tilt their faces even a fraction backwards. This is wrong – history is rejected, sure, but the past is not, instead it is intensified through the refractive and glittering prism that constitutes the surface of the fiction, creating a dislocative questioning of what ‘pastness’ might mean anyway.

‘It was one of [Hebdomeros’] principle weaknesses always to have a certain nostalgia for the past’, a nostalgia generated by his need to find a foothold, a way to return home, in the new fictive world he finds himself in. Dinosaurs, classical antiquity, prodigal sons, the Flood, Pontius Pilate and geological creation are mixed together in the vortex of the narrative. ‘Vortex’, though, is not quite right. Vortexes tend towards an entropic, deleterious chaos, a threatening annihilation of order, but they still are tending, where Hebdomeros tends towards nothing, is fundamentally and brilliantly directionless in a world where direction does not exist. There is a flatness in the narrative surface that pushes the images right to the front, strips them of the shadowy presence of the symbol or sign. Far from being mythic, the temporalities of the piece are rendered malleable by being dispossessed of ontological intent, are manifested with a concentrated subjective vividness that does away with order even as it deepens and reaffirms the fiction’s relation to the dynamical laws of the world that has been created. ‘All these young people’ we are told, ‘were living in a never-ending present’. Similarly, ‘men in shirtsleeves who had been playing billiards suddenly stopped playing as though they had become immensely weary, weary of their past life and of their present life and of the years that still awaited them, with their long procession of hours, sad or sunny, or simply neutral, neither sad nor sunny, just hours!’

Yet, how can we unite these invocations of timelessness with the clear saturation in the work with forms of the past? How can we explain the presence of the historical in a work that suggests that time generates no wake? Simply, we cannot, nor do we need to. As we read on through Hebdomeros, we realise not only do multiple times exist in a single space, but that multiple times coexist in multiple and plural spaces. Or we might phrase it thus, that although time is denied meaning beyond itself, thereby becoming a continuous singularity, within that singularity is a fluidity, a multiplicity, a depth, and a charge, that undermines the conditions that formed the singularity in the first place, where we need, to quote the final words of the novel, nothing more than ‘a long sacred procession of heavenly birds, of an immaculate whiteness, fl[ying] by singing.’

‘THE DIFFICULT GAME OF REVERSING TIME AND SWITCHING YOUR ANGLE OF VISION’

‘What one seems to want in art’, says Elizabeth Bishop, ‘in experiencing it, is the same thing that is necessary for its creation, a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration.’ And that is what you get in Hebdomeros. Like the characters, the reader becomes without memory, drifting through the fiction, barely rippling its surface. Questions of physical place within the book become meaningless, as the plot is essentially non-hierarchical, coterminous, tending towards a simultaneous apprehension of its entire meaning at all points. It is ghostly, uncanny, with interruptions of the past on the present, the future on the past, and the present on the past. A dynamic moving space, the canvas that Hebdomeros creates generates a model for thinking about how the experimental novel might move forward, even as it makes you long for better words than ‘experimental’, ‘new’, or ‘avant-garde’. And it is no coincidence that challenging works of the twentieth and twenty-first century have had recourse to similar imaginative spaces, whether trains (W.G. Sebald, Michel Butor, Mathias Énard) or houses (Georges Perec, Raymond Roussel, Mark Z. Danielewski, Marilynne Robinson); nor that the first quakings of imaginative modernity, which is to say the first fractures in the ‘real’ as a meaningful category, took place aboard deliquescing, aqueous ships (Herman Melville, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Edgar Allan Poe). The question of originality becomes less a formal one, than one finding an adequate way to conceptualise the ever-alive and changing forces of time and space that structure the experimental, discovering the terrain where the new can be given its full rendition. Hebdomeros has the final word: ‘what is needed is to discover, for in discovering one pays tribute to that minotaur that men call Time’.