by Eric Miller
My grandmother’s last dwelling smelled especially of aerosol hairspray and black currant preserves, a pair of odours that could epitomize, in a pinch, the domestic fragrance of provincial Ontario in the twentieth century. Toward the end of her independent life, she lived in a little box, a suburban tract house, and there I often sat plying a pencil on newsprint sheets cheap enough they threatened to flake and almost to burn up under my hands, so responsive was their yellow to the acidifying suggestion of time. Bending at her table, holding a ruler in hands revealed by this act to be minutely tremulous, I drew legions of little boxes—myself shut, the whole while, inside her own mere carton of a house. My diagrams, however, were simpler far than the design of her bungalow, for—remotely affected by some concept of modern architecture—I was going through a siege of trying to draw cubes and other parallelepipeds. I aimed for perspectival accuracy, exercised persuasively from many vantages on an attractive visual problem: the hexahedron. It happened the paper tore under the stiff pink frustration of an ageing eraser, or (after I had pared my implement’s tip) the lance-like point of sharpened graphite poked right through and broke on the grain of the tabletop. Now and then, a tear smudged my straight lines: a humble mammal dab, expressed helpless from brim glands to blur the incorruptible angles.
In labouring thus over these basic solids, I must have had in mind the precedent of a particular architect. Although at last my grandmother’s house and my ideal drawings embodied the same repertoire of forms, I sought after a great elegance missing from her address. It was surely Mies van der Rohe, evangel of glass and the perpendicular, who inspired me, since his structures, for all their glistening giganticism, stood within range of even my representational ability. In fact, the new Toronto-Dominion Centre, downtown, provided a model. Fifty-six storeys tall! Just think, what is a Mies van der Rohe building?
It is a box.
A box of what?
Of windows, and therefore of light.
But does the box contain anything else?
According to its herald and conceiver, it is supposed to exemplify, not to contain, the truth.
What, then, is the truth?
Mies van der Rohe offered several answers to this important query. Glass is one rejoinder he provided, supplemented by steel. We must be timely, and we inhabit the age of glass. Is there no greater modern pleasure than to sit behind a wall of this elegant stuff? We have known this pleasure, and we know it. I had it yesterday. I have it today. Ours is the epoch of the screen, after all. We carry it where in my youth I could not carry it, everywhere screen hails screen without remission. Of course, window and screen are not quite identical.
But truth was our topic. Van der Rohe was interested in it. He cited St. Augustine (though I think he may have meant St. Aquinas) in the course of supplying, in 1938, some further illumination of the theme: “Beauty is the splendour of Truth.”
I confess I often have the burdensome feeling that almost everything is splendid. Is it all therefore true?
Troubled in the same way (perhaps), van der Rohe elaborated on the point: “We must have order allocating to each thing its due according to its nature.” Now this behest clanks, to my ear, like a winch hauling up the Great Chain of Being: nothing very modern. But what could suspend its loftiest link today? A construction crane?
He must mean that glass ought to be used in the glassiest way, steel in the steeliest. Here is honesty. Yet can we elicit such superlative expressiveness without provoking the concussion of irreconcilable powers?
“Nature” is a word van der Rohe rather liked. In 1950, he proclaimed: “Nature, too, shall live its own life.” I am sure that nature was glad to hear of his resolve! Van der Rohe clarified, “we should attempt to bring nature, houses and human beings together in a higher unity.” A higher unity! Presumably, our former unity was lower.
Van der Rohe movingly appealed to Kant as well as to St. Thomas Aquinas. The phenomenal world—glass, steel, tables, pencils, grandmothers, black currants, birds—reflects, with vitreous fidelity if you will, a super-sensible system: the noumenal world.
A scholar of van der Rohe, T.J. Gorringe, usefully points us to Aquinas’s claim that essence, not accident is our right preoccupation—that the conformity of intellect and things defines truth. To know this conformity is to know truth.
But what if the essence of glass is unforeseen accidents? The visible and invisible infringe uneasily upon each other. Van der Rohe sought what he called the immaterial, and he sought what he called the general. May we be brought into conformity with the image of things—not with the life of things?
Mind you, I don’t mean to stand here like an extra in a philosophical epic, holding up a mirror of polished bronze to reverberate yet once more, like a sort of gong or crashing cymbal, the Socratic reproach to the licentiousness of multiplying imitations. I will draw your eye to something more banal. It is that the bird flies toward its likeness, and is annihilated when they meet.
Van der Rohe hopes, he says, for “unity.” What unity? Adequatio rei et intellectus, “The equalizing of thing and mind”: or, as van der Rohe himself put the case, “Truth is the significance of facts.” Glass should behave as glass, steel as steel! That is the International Style: a label that could apply, even better it may be, to those immemorial cosmopolitans, spanners of continents and climates, the migratory birds.
Regardless, van der Rohe’s kind of talk quite excites me. It is as smooth, as seemingly transparent, as pleasing altogether as glass. It is a mental espresso, I love it, I quaff it. I gulp, I do not sip it: even at the risk of being scalded. It is a heady concoction. For we are born to adore crystal. It appears to us at once the transmitter and the possessor of light. Our sun, which fates us, shines through the blue window of the sky. Whether you take the form of a plant, an insect, a bird or a human being, your destiny is phototaxis: adoration of light, attraction to it. The old notion of unbroken praise of God is but a figure for our phototactic prostration at the altar of the sun and its semblables, be they never so feeble or artificial.
Words, like glass, can gleam and seem transparent, and (to our pride or instinct, which custom calls “reason”) to relish the presence of transparency is to experience the sentiment of enjoying the good fortune, the superior gift, of an adequate—a matching—lucidity. We have such bright unimpeachable clear-seeing brains do we not? When we wipe a window, we purge ourselves of impurities. As I pass through the neighbourhood, for example, how many of my neighbours polish glass! They affirm their clarity, their truth thus. A windowpane is a category of matter or amenity in which the apophthegm “cleanliness is next to godliness” approaches plausibility. Its brilliancy becomes, by physical association, ours. By our windows are we verified. What are we to believe? Our eyes!—whose lenses, in their haphazard, jellied way, aspire to glass. The things we put our trust in!
Unity, we can see now, is the satisfying interposition of a pane of glass, a sensible manufacture verging on super-sensibility. Glass equalizes mind and thing on a single plane.
I have spent many a meditative hour in a van der Rohe reverie, beside an undivided window overlooking a rectilinear pond, watching the glassy-winged insects visit and the glassy water ripple: calligraphic sunlight rocks, flows or spins across the window-like water to parallel, even ratify my scintillant daydreaming. The spectacle is mesmerizing. I would even say: it is improving. Yes.
Permit me to revive the old-fashioned idea of edification, architectural in itself. I am edified; you are edified. At the base of the window, true, you may find a seeker after unity who failed to find it, a thrush, a sparrow or a warbler. Like a withered leaf or an unstrung spider-web, some specimenal vanitas perfects our sovereign mood. Veritatis splendor! (Aquinas.) Splendor ordinis! (Augustine.) The lustre of the true. How beguiling order is. Here lies a bird not a feather out of place, a seemly extinction, well-groomed, odourless, modern. It makes a picture. So does everything else.
It is our tired tendency to regret the individual bird, to mourn it a little self-cherishingly (perhaps running a finger down its soft front). Poor thing! Poor us! We consider the accident not cumulative but distinct, as special to our life as the candle the Catholic mourner lights in the church in remembrance of her dead, not ours. Surely the grave small pleasure we caress overwhelms any dissonant impingement. Do not be retrograde, or scolding, or dishonest about the measure of your democratic joy, your contemporary joy. You try to arrest pleasure and progress, all in the guise of regretting the interruption made by a bird, which received an insult to its weightless brain. People matter more than birds which is to say, the people whom I designate matter more than birds, it is never everybody; and mattering is a matter of aesthetics at last. This is nice, I like it. It has sent me into raptures, or has given me a steady glow. I am sublime and I am comfortable. My feelings centrally signify, as sun or moon in sky.
“Less is more” is the maxim most often associated with Mies van der Rohe. A perplexing motto, once you subject it to a touch of structural stress.
I hear it as an equation: less = more. Presented in this way, it fills me with foreboding. Every time we try to simplify, to purify, to transcend (verbs that inspirit the burnished exegetes of glass), we ignore, we complicate and we befoul. That windows kill birds is a commonplace, and dismissed on grounds of sentiment—as though any bird were sentimental. A grosbeak is as fierce and as ancient as any creature that ever roved our earth. Even in its destruction it will exact its revenge. Some say the chief substance of our era, glass, slays in North America twenty-five million birds yearly. I think they exaggerate (not a good idea), but who can deny that something is happening?
Van der Rohe did not intend to raise Toronto’s unpredicted Stonehenge, ignorantly teasing a small portion of enormous chthonic forces. It is hard even to be trivial, though we try and try.
When did birds begin to migrate? It is an aspect of the aptitude that allowed them to outfly the extinction of the dinosaurs maybe sixty-seven million years ago: defunct creatures with which (we all agree) birds have such affinity that they may be accounted their emissaries to this day. Experts think migratory patterns developed in the Americas not in response to a single ice age, but a plurality. Twenty such glacial maxima have occurred within the last two and a half million years. A Mies van der Rohe tower, almost super-sensibly beautiful, Kantian, Augustinian, catholic and ecumenical, has its closest natural analogue in the chill prisms of glaciation. Not his fault: or anyone’s. When we make things, we are not ourselves. The patterns hypnotize us as light does. We are divested of our qualia, including responsibility. Who really wants to be a weeping, sweating, swearing, dying person, all the time? We think we are questing, but in truth (that word!) we are being drawn along. Hunting of one kind or another is all we are grown for, a creature of light seeks another in a sunny or a starry distance.
What bothered me, however, as the hours advanced there—at the base of Mies van der Rohe’s last great project, the Toronto-Dominion Centre—was: they were trying to sweep it up. Sweep them up, I mean. They bent to their wide brooms, which are a susurrous pleasure to push, and, beating me to the spot, closed jawed dustpans—the kind with retractable metal fronts—clicking like old-fashioned cameras, not old-fashioned then. I had to get there before them, and since it was a circuit of darkly shining blocks, it looked like pursuit and it looked like being pursued. Appearances! Everywhere was taking a look, given the upright lakes of glass, bronze infused into Mies van der Rohe’s famous stacked ribbon windows (first used in the Ulysses year, 1922): mirrors, and views, and phantasms, and nihility, all mixed up with the gridded pulse of snorting and humming physical plants, with the plaints of the birds of passage. Keeping ahead of the brooms was keeping behind them. Scouring round and round right-angular corners, on the pattern of our half-palpable, elbowing companions, the dust devils!
The aim they had was, get it out of sight before day began. They were guards, you see, and among their duties was to shield everyone’s eyes from it. I was their rival but not their antagonist. Sometimes—forgive the phrasing—it is always the 1970s. I am still there.
When I walked from the warehouse to the towers, I had the sense I was penetrating to holy ground. The voices in the air were hundreds of thousands of years of the Americas. Here was the polar opposite of a fossil’s arrestation, here was harmony sounding as though stars sang and moved, no fixity. I was (my hearing was) in a literal yet almost impossible way in the middle of the night, in media nocte, in the meteoric midst of the long-rumoured orchestrated spheres. Phototaxis, our common deity, condemned night-migrating birds to collision with tall, lit buildings.
Why was I there? An ornithologist had advised me that I might find study-specimens dead in plenty on Bay Street, in the spring and the fall; a bird rehabilitator taught me basic care for injured migrants; and a painter I met in the early hours of the morning showed me the phenomenal world might be transposed—stroke for stroke, by a sympathetic preening motion of the brush—into the noumenal world. On my right hand, a flock of Ovenbirds—huge-eyed, pink-legged, green-backed—crashed against a pavilion; on my left, a flock of White-throated Sparrows struck higher strata and fell. They made sounds as thin as light on a strand of hair. Thrushes slapped and pattered against the glass.
Back then—even in the thick of the city—more people slept all night. Therefore, despite the shock at the centre of it, the night (from August through October, from March through June), opened to me a kind of reserve. I was blithe to be its ranger at thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, at two in the morning, three and four and five and six and seven in the morning (the bells of Old City Hall clangorously reckoned the time), at the age when, had it been the eighteenth century, I might have been a midshipman, deputed to climb masts. I loved it, I believe we are doomed to love. The wounded and the slain precipitated out of geometry warm into my hands, and each species burns distinct to me now (almost half a century later) as a divinity to the sleeper who undertakes incubation in the shrine: as a saint to the eremite in the grotto: as the bush on the slopes of the mountain in its plumage of un-consuming fire. The flaring of successive niches and sconces in the midst of eclipse might embody this serial, perennial singularity of acquaintance. Every idiosyncratic life glitters, gutters: a cresset illuminating what other than darkness?
Let me tell you, whenever I reminisce in this way I do enrage people. The fury is always disproportionate, as if I had made, and not without reason, a personal accusation. There is a mighty rummaging for a counter-accusation, yet (not least because I myself offered no charge in the first place), the hot riposte whirrs past me in search of a symmetry that it only invented, and I can hear its wings beating in the dark. Likely enough, it perishes by collision with something as sheer as the face of Mies van der Rohe’s boxes. Why the indignation? Theories float like stars, or vapour. Panic fretting an audience makes a raconteur a terrorist—I guess. If it does not matter, why does it matter so much? This is not, this never has been and this never will be a secular age. Trust me, I’ll write more about the whole thing later. To me it is inexhaustible. But now I must shift my gaze.
On the night in my teens when, afflicted with a muscle-wasting virus, I almost died, my heart slowing below thirty beats a minute, a dream took mercy on me. I have heard that in such circumstances dreams tend to, generally. A part of its compassion is, it has not ceased to be dreamt. I stale and I fade, yet this does not. I try to betray my life, and my life will not be betrayed. Exhilarated, I lean into hypocrisy: it insists on a candour my worst efforts cannot sully. Others try to betray it, and they likewise fail. Any mockery that seems applicable—even just—gains no purchase on it. The debater’s mouth that forms the devastating objection is distorted into affirmation. So a dream may afflict a dreamer, but to others of ill intent it swings a lantern like a wrecker and draws their armed and eager fleet upon the fatal shore. A mercy: yet a demand.
I can see now that the case is commoner than I ever supposed. But how others manage I do not know, and it would not assist me.
The virus which was the agent of the dream, let me explain, was imparted to me from handling night migrants which had died or been injured by collision with the strongly lit glass of what Torontonians call “Bay Street,” a massif of glass towers, many of them—unlike Mies van der Rohe’s—imposingly, presumptuously mediocre. The dream? It’s simple.
Dreams foster a further migration, do they not?—into night, distance. Between waking and sleep, a more permeable substance than glass yields to us while we yield to it. By surrender, we vault past it. So I was given, my will resigned, my life almost resigned, to see a woman. She shone as bright as sand, with a dash of the transparency of sand blown from a dune-crest—with the transparency, too, of hair drawn out by gusts that have already crossed great lakes or seas. She waded just where the water came to the shore so that her feet glittered alternately immersed, emergent. She walked an empty, far-extending shore with, also bright, cliffs beyond. The dream invented this latter promontory: yet upon waking, I could recognize its affinity with something familiar, the Scarborough Bluffs of all things which, degraded, ordinary, front Lake Ontario east past the Beaches district of Toronto.
This image, which should be insipid yet remains unfathomable, has recurred to my imagination. People I know have taken it for real, which—concede—is fair enough. The dream world has to be this world. With eyes shut we inhabit it, eyes open. For a time we have evaded or transformed the dominion of phototaxis. Like the front between land and water, any distinction erodes. You might say sand is glass in a wild state. The woman waded between water and the loose, sifting though palpably firmer land, which took at times her impression. People, I say, think there was a real woman on a real beach, and that is to the credit of the real woman in the real dream who keeps walking on sometimes waving to me (a gesture like the waves’) and sometimes entrusting words to the wind that become the wind’s voice and just as comprehensible and just as incomprehensible. Fortunately for me, this woman’s intelligence surpasses mine.
Admit it. None of us is equal to the cares we undertake. Why, we can hardly care adequately for the one dog we have, whom we say we “care for.” To allege the capacity is not precisely to lie; but any such claim amounts to the announcement of an intention more than the report of a demonstrable fact. Our efforts have a palliative cast, at best. All this prefaces, I am sorry to say, an anticlimactic detail: my dog had died. That happened many years after my sickness, a great many years after my dream; it was already 2007. I had not even lived in Toronto for a decade.
As we hear the voices of migrants coursing in the hovering night and by hearing them we join them with that single sense of ours—the ear’s—, once I had laid down the shovel with which I had buried the dog, she hankered to join in art (if not in life) the woman of my inveterate vision. That November I began to write a story. Agents, presses and periodicals have declined it scores and scores of times. The figure, were I to tote up for you the sum of my disappointments, piles so high that I would be a braggart to disclose it. In its way, it towers like the Toronto-Dominion Centre. Testimonies of frustration are delectable: fine pastry for Tantalus! One Canadian fictioneer, meaning no affront to my literary amour propre, genially declared my work “unpublishable.” Jessa Crispin—taking a fragment for her magazine, Spolia—proved this judge, by her appreciation, incorrect.
The point here is: I owe the opus to my dream. And, because I owe that dream in turn to Mies van der Rohe and the Toronto-Dominion Centre (strange patrons!), let the woman on the beach herself speak briefly in her own behalf, from the very opening of her tale. Flip the calendar back to 1791.
There is a sort of precision to opacity. I mean (she thinks to herself) there is fog to see even when fog prevents us from seeing. Still fog makes away with what (conventionally) we call a “view”.
—Do you think you can see? she murmurs aloud tasting the ocean on her lips.
She answers herself, You can see that you cannot see. Which makes you the wisest woman in Weymouth.
Salt fog erodes the reach of her thought, like the exaction of centuries. The beach here, however, beneath us: its qualities are as emphatic as rock is. And grant proximity to the bodies ingrained with them, dyes—though faded—can be fast, be definite, even on a day such as this one. Mist stains now: it’s a dog breaches the blank. Object and observer give substance to each other. Fetching screams, birds affirm the veracity of an event.
White wings, whiter than fog, break on the sky like surf. Gulls strike free of their simile, the beating sea. Do they haul at long, running rigging? They crew the top yards that only their hovering makes conjecturable. Themselves spread like sails, they hail one another. They look lively.
Whistling precedes further incarnations. Plover and sandpiper start. Alarm, inhuman, charms. Seaward in melody the alarmists vibrate, and break from the fate to which their trajectory would destine them. Their panic and synchrony swerve, stoop to the Lady, alight close enough to grab as shoes, amid bursts of crawling bubbles. The dog skips. Sandpiper and plover skitter. Then fire themselves off so near her she can evade the idea of them. The water exchanges its wings with birds’. A snout, refining its pattern with each leap, pierces the vaporous distance that swathes it. Copper reddens a black muzzle. Paw-falls quake the loose mask, and white whiskers shake. Spit pearls black lips.
She says, The animal’s blear amber is ours. We see it better than it can see. A dog’s eyes only stand for the sense in which the beast is defective, relative to us. So dim pebbles roll under the superior inspection of a radiant breaker.
—But (she reproaches the stranger) you don’t even stop for us.
Elizabeth Simcoe in the anxious sumptuousness of her idleness therefore sets herself, like a philosopher, a solacing experiment. How long are you audible? A query organizes everything else. Whistle, hiss, scuff, thump, moan and rasp: parse them. Audibility pales like driftwood, is scoured and compacted with the level of the shore. Shell-bits and feathers mosaic the water-mark. When her index-nail scratches in the concha of an ear, sand-grains grind—a gratification—in the wax. I have visited the beach. On the strings of her straightened hair, wind will harp on the commonplace, Forlorn. Lack (vain of its capacity) guzzles the gulfy brine. Brine glistens like tears. “Brackish” is not “mawkish.” It is our composition. A tear distorts the scene disparately from fog.
Note: Since the late 1980s, the management of the Toronto-Dominion Centre and other buildings on Bay Street has cooperated with an organization called FLAP (Fatal Light Awareness Program). Casualties are much reduced by this happy change, assisted (it is true) by the fact that so many bird populations have in general dropped since the 1970s.
I painted the illustration, “Night Construction on King Street,” in 1983.