The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2014

All Issues
JUNE 2014 Issue
Critics Page

The Cracks in the Pavement

Children play in the street near me in London, chalking the outline of a ladder to heaven, hopping, skipping, and jumping, each player going out when they tread on a line. As in Snakes and Ladders, this way of playing encapsulates an old folk cosmology, in which the cracks in the pavement open to ghosts and dangers, bogeymen, and bears:

“ Whenever I walk in a London street,
I’m ever so careful to watch my feet;
And I keep in the squares,
And the masses of bears,
Who wait at the corners all ready to eat
The sillies who tread on the lines of the street
Go back to their lairs... ” — A. A. Milne, When We Were Very Young, 1924

Some trace memory colors this make-believe of finding buried bones when turning over the soil or fairy hills tunneling into fairyland; the game throws a plumb line down to the ancient topography of the afterlife, with devils down below, Satan fixed upside down in the flaming magma at the very center of the globe.

The unknown beneath the pavement seeps up today through the writings of haunted psycho-geographers, who pursue the unseen dimensions of a place and its story—W. G. Sebald and Iain Sinclair, Tacita Dean and Mark Dion. They stop to listen as, out of the ground, rise people from the past. These artists and writers are setting out to disturb the dead; they’re actively wishing to be haunted—they’re stepping on the lines of the street with a sense of mission.

Such colloquies with the dead give voice to the unconscious of a place, and the artist/writer journeys into that archival dust. But a place can also possess features and dimensions that are proleptic, not retrospective, that have the quality of prophetic dreams, stirring premonitions, or igniting wishes and hopes, rather than keeping record. Places can be instilled with the potential to inspire dreams, they can be supplied with significance, which spreads through the unconscious of its inhabitants. The model for this kind of haunting then becomes poeisis, making, or art—not archiving nor archaeology.

In the past, dreams often led the way to new building, or so the builders claimed: St. Helena, according to her legend, saw the True Cross in a vision and set about building churches to house the relics she then hunted and found. In this way, she provided Rome, Constantinople, and many other cities with a backstory. But the historical connection the relics established were in effect a future plan, directed at leading the imagination of worshippers; it drip-fed into the unconscious the symbols of Christianity; these then continued to pulse through the bodies—and the minds—of the inhabitants.

 One of the spurs, I think, to the increased appeal of “outsider,” “organic,” or “psychic” artists is that their often idiosyncratic imagery and symbolic languages offer a way out of the traditional lexicon; such artists choose alternative underworlds and unfurl different maps, which can seem to promise a new world.

The only endeavor of this kind on a grand scale that I know of is the city of Canberra, which was laid out according to the teachings of anthroposophy by the husband and wife team of architects, Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin. They won the international competition to design the new Australian capital in 1913, largely through Marion’s dramatic, visionary watercolors (she had worked with Frank Lloyd Wright in Chicago as his chief draughtsman).

When I was in Canberra I noticed straightaway something strange and disorientating, but exciting, mysterious, and baffling. I soon learned that the scheme embodies many principles of sacred geometry, radiating by design from a central point to act as a mandala, and split down the center into two halves—like a brain. The pair had formed their own theory of mind in response to Rudolf Steiner, and they mapped it onto a new city, which had little past but an ambitious future. One name mooted for the city had even been Paradise.

It’s a shame that Canberra doesn’t beckon as a destination like Delhi, Rome, Beijing, or Isfahan. It offers an unexpected instance of an artistic artifact deliberately designed to conform to unconscious structures at a microcosmic and macrocosmic scale. Its layout was designed to enhance the lives of those in daily contact with it—at a deep unconscious level. Whether it does so I was not there long enough to know. The whole magical foundation of the architecture is not discussed, and caused perplexity and embarrassment when broached. This dreamed-up city is an example of an obscured current in modern design, and offers a test case for a certain kind of wonderful weirdness—the kind of art that tries to hop, skip, and jump to an imagined future heaven.


Marina Warner

MARINA SARAH WARNER, CBE, FBA FRSL is a British novelist, short-story writer, historian, and mythographer. She is known for her many non-fiction books relating to feminism and myth. Her most recent book, Stranger Magic: Charmed States & the Arabian Nights, won a National Book Critics Circle award. She is currently a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2014

All Issues