Richard Beckett, Ring The Bull, 1982, encaustic on cardboard, 55 × 91 × 9½ inches.
The following are abridged sections from a longer work of the same title which comprises Book 1 of the novel, At Night.
The Night Of The Last Fairy Tale
As the desert is one of his habitual homes and dawn an especially uneventful time, the Jinni is often mindlessly circling under the morning star in the form of a stray bird. From up there it’s easy to catch sight of a line of dust kicked up by a column of asses and camels plodding across the sand. He’s careful to keep out of sight, the better to follow without causing a commotion. That way, toward dusk when the steward signals for camp to be pitched, he can move in closer among the calm and unsuspecting women; the women who sometimes accompany the tradesmen for their long desert crossings. Sometimes the Jinni likes to get them flapping by upsetting tables set for dinner, by blowing out the lamps in a single blast. At other times he enjoys the thick atmosphere of the women’s tent and is content to compose his presence in the subtle vapors that tickle their noses, the hemp smoke that makes them sleepy, even to merge with the night music they play on their flutes. But in either case, flapping or serene, he’s always the visitor in each of their 3:00 AM dreams, the loving dreams peculiar to that hour.
What’s not so peculiar is this. Loving doesn’t mean much unless it’s real, another story altogether—that one in a thousand nights out in the desert, silent and still. As usual the Jinni was out there breaking up that calm spell of desert; coming in as a cold gust of wind to swirl the stars around, a crack of lightning to charge the neutral air. And as a matter of course he moved on, drawn by the presence of foreigners, white ones, actually two of them lying there side by side in the back of a Jeep. Parked at the edge of the desert just where the sand begins to blow across the road, there was a sleeping man and a restless woman who grew calm the instant he caught hold of her hand and pulled her gently into the fabric of the night. Ordinarily there’s a little struggle, if only for the sake of appearances. Only this one was different, she made herself comfortable inside his great cloak of darkness, not at all surprised when he told her, “Angels are formed of light, men of the dust and earth, I of the subtler substances in between.” When he set her down out there on those wasted stretches, she was neither alarmed to witness the permutations of his existence from a lion to a wolf, a jackal, scorpion, snake. Nor was she particularly impressed when he kicked up a storm; first hail, then rain. By slow, steady degrees the sight of the night unfolding in the bright desert moonlight made her grow calmer and calmer and … it made him wonder, “If only I could prolong the effect.”
By morning he had acquiesced to his fate.
Being human she belonged to the level, solid world and there she would stay. Being of subtler substance he realized there was nothing for him but to belong to her, become part of her, be the breath of life to her, so he came out of the distance as a pillar of sand dancing around her in a wide circle, closing in, lifting her, carrying her back to the Jeep. He heard a distant echo. He was fading to a soft whisper, a wisp of breath passing through her lips … lips which for the first time began to move and to speak, capturing his attention and holding him there at the back of her throat. For it seemed that he was back at the beginning, that with the sound of her voice he had arrived at the source of his long untold existence. It was spellbinding, really—that voice of hers that made words that were him, the Night always unfolding into other nights, beings, entities, shapes that piled up, a dizzying and dumb-founding edifice that spilled over into an intricate system of spaces, a world within a turning world of hours, eons, time fanning out around him, the One-Upright among the horizontals, the Visitor, the Man of Women’s Dreams as she called him. She called him in a breathless voice that ran on, “Oh you desert night! One minute you are all and everything and in an instant, I’m here. What can it mean? It’s been said that these things happen, that there’s chance, lucky stars, meetings at the hour of destiny … over and over it’s been said until in an instant it rhymes with drop dead. I’ve had it, I’m done with you in a word. Actually two of them: THE END.”
Stephen Mueller, Monk and Bedding, 1982, acrylic and raw pigment on canvas 63 × 64 inches.
The Voice That Makes The Night—Charlotte Snow, According To Her Friend Francine Rose
The first time she came over there was rain, one of those soft gentle rains that go deep. “Fine for the country,” Charlotte said; but we were having lunch under my skylight where that gentle April rain became a steady drip, drip, drip. The next time it was the sun, a sickly glare I never noticed until we sat there under the skylight unable to move without sending up clouds of dust. It was under the pretext of eating that we kept on meeting, circling slowly and fixedly around lunches, dinners, late-night snacks, meals ever later in the night. She liked the night because it was always young. She liked eating in public places where for hours we could sit unnoticed giggling like girls—girls who had no need for the likes of a boy. As if to demonstrate this, Charlotte penciled on a mustache and ordered a big cigar. She liked only restaurants where cigars could be had, cigars and clean bathrooms. Eventually, she liked only the restaurant, “Lady Astor’s.” It had a corner booth with velvet curtains which, for a price, the waiter would close with a smile. She liked this best of all: privacy in public. And in there, a girl I was not. Neither was I a woman. I was all legs and arms; bumping legs and arms always knocking over the wine bottle. I was eyes, they got caught, locked in the longest moment, the moment of recognition. I had a mouth with words flying out of it, words that collided with hers. The collision produced a startling mutation of a language; the deepest of privacies was this. This gave us more than food, than sex, more than a body knows. We were indistinct from our mutated language, our intricate system of intimacy … that was who we were. To exist like this we had to meet more, more. I made the arrangements, made the “Lady Astor” waiter smile really, really big. And there in our curtained booth we evolved, producing a mutation of the mutation as our dialect gave way to crypto-speech. With initials we encoded vast subjects. Initials, our dots and dashes, also tapped out the lesser topics—the C.G.‘s (cute guys i.e., a witless soul trapped in a good body) and the occasional A double C double S (academic clothing covering some-kind-of structure i.e., not dumb man). When Charlotte was in between jobs she made a living practicing O.C. (outfit control or designing clothes for the fashionable set). And when she had to leave town unexpectedly she sent me a telegram: “Everyone in the C is on I.P. Not my I. of L. Not even, C.B.N.C. K’s x 10, P.S.” Or, “Everyone in the City (New York) is on image patrol (modern narcissism). Not my idea of life. Not even, close but no cigar. Lots of kisses, P.S.”
(According to Francine, Charlotte always signs her messages P.S. to indicate there will be more coming.)
Christof Kohlhofer, Dark PeptoBismol #5: The Dogs Dream, 1982, acrylic on canvas, 70 × 58 inches. Photo by Lisa Kahane.
Alpha-Speak Spells Trouble
The telegram fell into the wrong hands, when “fell” gives off an appropriately offensive and fishy smell. The telegram was removed from Francine’s garbage can along with several other messages from P.S., some drafts of replies, all pilfered by a Federal agent assigned to keep an eye on Manuel Lamotte, a tenant in the basement of Francine’s apartment building. Lamotte was new to New York’s Lower East Side but not to Intelligence. He would always be under surveillance for his work disseminating communist (pro Cuban) literature and for the likely chance that he was involved in something more … something.
It was a long time since contact agent, Rickey Dent, had been active in the Anti-Castro division, had approved of such proposals as infusing Castro’s shoes with a chemical compound which would cause his hair to fall out. But once Dent was re-activated by the Lamotte assignment, it was no time at all before he closed the gap between Lamotte in the basement and Francine Rose on the top floor under her skylight. His leap in logic was assisted by evidence; Lamotte’s 24-hour courier service and Francine’s personal correspondence, a handful of “documents in code.” There wasn’t anything fishy when eventually Dent waved his documents under Francine’s nose. There was only his desperation, fanaticism and, the confusion. Had Dent concluded that coded messages descended to the basement to be disseminated into the world or was it the other way round—Lamotte scurried back from his contacts to the woman upstairs who disguised secrets in the letters of the alphabet? Francine’s attempts to make heads or tails of it belabored her conversation with friends whose attention span had been taxed already by efforts to grasp what had transpired behind the velvet curtains. As for grasping the Dent affair, they began to raise questions or talk among themselves: “Was it likely that so complicated a plot would all depend on the cooperation of one mercurial young woman who suddenly flew to England?” Or, “Francine Rose? An obsessive personality! Always making a federal case out of her own personal problems.”
No one said that what one really is is knowing oneself as a product of a historical process to date which has deposited in you all infinity of traces without an inventory; the job of producing an inventory is a first necessity. Or, that many people find their way to the general through the personal, the individual. These were quotations underlined in books Charlotte Snow was reading in a bed-sit in the Islington section of North London where she’d taken up residence. She’d described the situation in a letter to Francine, “I’m becoming a repository, a compendium of quotations that’re being committed to memory. Someday I’ll be like a vast, indexed reference book that can flip to its own pages at will. Naturally there’s a trick, a system. I’m using one described in The Art of Memory by Frances A. Yates, a medieval system … too intricate to go into here. But essentially you image a building constructed of rooms and each designated room is a subject heading where particular material’s stored. So, the material’s not just conserved, it can be found in a flash. Among other things one has to keep the imaged structure from becoming more dizzying and dumbfounding edifice that will topple over, that means starting with a sound foundation. Sound looney? So is living in an Islington building crawling with arm-chair radicals tossing off buzz words and received ideas, pearls before the American swine, me, who meanwhile is wandering down the hallways of medieval metaphysics. Still, the system seems to be working. My imaged building is a house and when I got your letter about upstairs, downstairs Dent, I wandered into the closet room and flipped directly to Conspiracy, A. Summers: “The American intelligence community is so sprawling a creation that it spawns compartments where not even those in charge can be sure what can be going on. One such was its anti-Castro division, consisting in 1962 of 600 Americans, most of them case officers, plus upwards of 3,000 contract agents in and out of Cuba. The Americans no less than the exiles were committed to their cause. There was the proposal, for example, to infuse Castro’s shoes with a chemical compound which would cause his hair to fall out. (Once bald and unbearded, his charismatic charm would disappear.) Also a specially treated cigar, to make him incoherent during one of his speech-making marathons. Or spraying LSD in his broadcasting studio for much the same effect: Actually, Francine, when you first sent word of the Dent business I just rolled my eyes and stuck there on the back of my eyelids was the old question we always used to ask: I.T.I.L.O.E? If your Alpha-speak is a little rusty, I’ll spell that out when you get here, I am dying to see you again. Please try to bring some news of Stephen Ross and some all cotton sweatshirts. With love, Charlotte.”