THE CRUCIFORM ENGINES
I have never been this fit or strong before in my life. My stomach is a generator unit, my lungs inflate well beyond what I once thought was their capacity. Distant limbs pump below me like steel machinery. I cycle enormous exhalations out into the freezing night air and they escape in jets of boiling steam that catch orange in the street lights that pass along my route. Even small cuts and abrasions heal more quickly than they used to; I have seen bruises shrinking in real time with just the naked eye. I drink at least five litres of water a day, and as I run I fantasise that my vapour breath is really that aqua pura rushing into contact with whatever burning Hephaestus core it is that I have nurtured into life inside my guts by obsessing over words like ‘rigour’ and ‘discipline’. So this elaborate programme of physical improvement that I have been following over recent weeks is obviously working out in concrete biomechanical registers. In my mind I have sketched out a hybrid character built from equal parts Joan of Arc and Rocky Balboa - I have traced this using nothing but an overwhelming hostility, wholly interior and directed like a blowtorch against any compassion for personal weakness. Picture me possessed of that grace that turns limbs into battering units and jaws into a steel trap that devours other, weaker bodies. It is only by association with this predatory femme that my own rigour is sustained and I know from long experience that it is only by her dispensation that I can keep from slipping into that familiar place of pain where dignity is stripped away, and where real abjection (measured by closeness to fantasies of death and maiming) begins to slip again into visibility. Visibility here is enough. Like a metal splinter in your eyeball that if you cannot find a way to remove will occlude every future that you attempt to organise visually - all attempts at love or communication infected in advance.
If there is a city that is still appropriate to these fantasies of punishment it is London. More precisely London’s glass centre, at night (like 2am), running and running along the banks of the Thames like the hound of the Baskervilles with tongue lolling down at least a foot from my mouth. There are only a few others out this late. I imagine that they cross the street when they see me in the distance coming closer like something from a nightmare or a stress dream, but really it is difficult for me to be sure of this. And if I am really honest there is still something in their blank disregard that scares me and spurs me into closer contact with the stripped figures of grace that afford this whole blood and body play. That push me in my most private moments down; into darkened rooms and the soft light along needles points, and the programmes for choking, programmes for petty crime; that push me into intimate betrayals of friends lying back in the darkness too high to defend themselves, too high to understand this exhaustion (and maybe too kind or too young to understand the source of this panic). Young bodies cracked open. These are mechanisms that manufacture trust only as the abject condition of the cannibal feast to come. All of those beautiful and pristine jackets, dresses, capes and chokers that I have been using to try to barter passage into this community really are only the conditions for the good meal. They were only ever an apparatus and what you called your taste was only ever it’s necessary precondition. There is an absolute opacity to this tough skin of mine. But I have not been able to follow this programme to the letter laid down by the Graces, and so there are still days when I am opened up by shame; when I become vulnerable again somehow to the blank disinterest of those people who move through the city at night and whose names and job titles I will never know. I wonder how anyone could survive this vulnerability intact.
The arc of my trajectory begins to circle away from the river. Knotting further into the density of built fabric. Movements catch and distend under white light, steam breath is replaced by the belching oil smoke of heavy industry. I notice that P has messaged to say that he cannot come out tonight to meet me after all and this actually comes as a relief. I am so sick of his presence, of being his only true support - of the sheer number of hours that he tells me he needs to unspool from neurosis and deep introspection. He apologises and says that he has been painting, and that he will see me soon. These are coded messages that we have developed together over the period of our closeness; I do not reply and this is also a part of the code. I know exactly what he is painting (and painting and painting): that famous scene of Benito Mussolini and Clara Petacci’s execution and public display - painting and painting from every angle the hanging bodies of BM and CP, starting with the fixed perspective from the historical photograph but growing more and more speculative as his little painters bravery swells inside him - every possible vantage, sometimes strung up in different and ahistorical arrangements. The first time he tried this trick the composition was in some ways even more austere than the original photograph - both fascists unbeaten and dressed in their respective uniforms (of Duce and of glam starette), and hanged from the neck off of a wooden scaffold (rough wood grain bucolic and almost quaint and not at all appropriate to Milan's municipal zone), a basic, democratic execution carried out by the rational state. But the pictures get stranger. In one small canvas that I remember from the last afternoon we spent together hanging around in P’s studio BM and CP have been disembowelled and their red, mutilated bodies chained to the blade of a monstrous bulldozer, one of those engines used on automated mine sites, piloted by remote and as tall as a block of commission flats. The gory figures in comparison to the machine are tiny, almost invisible, and the blade and empty cab emerge from a dense cloud of black smoke. The ground that the tracks crawl across is obscure, black and twisted up like still-wet tarmac, or some oily and semi-liquid petroleum byproduct. Blazing spotlights adorn the monstrous engine in clusters and their beams cut up the composition so that it looks almost futurist. The painting is like a still from a nightmare. I remember looking closely and seeing that even at that micro scale P had taken the time to detail the Duce coat and the pearls of the mistress so that they were recognisable after being cut to pieces. In one larger canvas the two are in the process of being drawn and quartered. The horses dominate the foreground and are painted much bigger than they should be, white and with blood around their snorting lips and nostrils. In another they are being boiled alive in glass tanks while an anonymous and subdued Milanese crowd gathers to watch. In this image CP faces the viewer directly but the strokes are not fine enough to track her features with clarity, only the way that the shadows fall across the planes of forehead and jaw, only the qualities of the late evening summer light.
The streets around me have become unfamiliar. I do not know which part of the city I am now moving through. The river must still be around somewhere because there is a light reflected onto the tower blocks in front of me the with that instantly recognisable watery effect that makes you think of being in an aquarium. It is extraordinary how much anxiety you can expel form your guts in a single exhalation. I process weeks and months of badly repressed fury with every one of these punitive midnight sessions. No other programme is as sustainable. One day I will have processed it all and my chest and my forearms and neck will have the chance to shrink back down into a domestic frame - one day I will be scraped entirely out. I will no longer move through these streets in fear of attack from men I do not know. I will have that stable position from which to cast a rational executioner’s judgement. There will be others like me and together will we do this breaking work - we will maim those whose desire is obscene, those who hate women, muslims, the poor, black people, homosexuals; and I know that their public maiming will be that symbol that holds our community to account.
But as I run I think that no comrade of mine would ever treat even their most hated enemy the way that P has punished the fascists in his paintings. We have practiced our utilitarians rigour - the guillotine, the pistol propped along the ridge of the spine - you can make allowances for the expedience of wartime but you must never slip into THEIR barbarian aesthetic programmes. We punish and are punished together, in common, and beneath the sign of an absolute dignity. The biggest painting that I remember in P’s studio is on a thick sheet of aluminium like a Pamela Rosenkranz picture. It is stripped back down to essentials. Two wooden cruciform structures emerge from a landscape of ragged clouds, smoke and wind. The earth beneath them is reduced to three or four dark strokes - only the barest suggestion of whatever mythic ground supports the scene. Neither structure is the classic christian cross; there is a wooden X (the crux decussata or cross of Saint Andrew), and a T-shaped scaffold (the crux commisa). The fascists hang from each as in the rest of this series but in this case I could not tell you which is the Duce and which the mistress because in this image the bodies have somehow become completely invisible. It is this painting that no matter how much I run or lift weights I cannot make myself forget. The bodies are invisible but I know (and understand in some more profound and embodied way) that they are not simply absent, that the two fascists are hanging correctly crucified, that everything is in place as expected, but that the skin, the muscle and bones and clothing of BM and CP have somehow been turned perfectly transparent, without even one tiny break in whatever the mechanical process is that facilitates this illusion. I am as sure of this as if I had actually reached in through the empty space between the frame to touch the cold skin, the wetness and swelling, the saturated clothing; as though I had felt with my own hands the two invisible bodies hanging there. So it is only a light trick, and they have not been removed or taken down. It is the picture or the framing that is paranoid and not the commitment of the partisans.
I track along these brushed and shining streets and am surrounded by the facades of buildings, and each one is identical and affords an identical cruelty. The streets would be familiar with people around even this late at night, but there is no one here at all. Only the empty scaffold, the facade at back of frame, the hard light, the close amateur crop and blurred focus. It does not matter what light hits the surface of these buildings, it does not matter how complexly it is arranged; it does not matter how many bodies the projections occlude or illuminate, or what particular special effects are mobilised; every single one of these facades can be opened up by paranoia and read backward into infinity like the face of god. When the bodies disappear it is the mute architecture that begins to work its address to history; a brutal address to a history of brutality, one from which I cannot escape as long as I have the city laid out around me and as long as I continue these lateral night time movements over it’s slicked glass skin.
The glow on the buildings around me is changing now, growing brighter, and when I look up I can see that the sky has also begun to brighten - but this is not the dawn, the clouds have simply begun to reflect light in the same way that the buildings do. What is the projector unit and where is it housed? From what vantage could one technocrat change the light that falls over the city? My body is beginning to stop and drag and slow down. I realise that I can no longer take in enough air. The smooth circulation is becoming blocked and it will be a long time before I am able to exercise like this again. There is a smell on the wind around me; woodsmoke and petrol. London is opening up, unfolding into a second form more appropriate to this theatre of surfaces and transparencies. The form is the scaffold, a modular and repeatable series of configurations that will in time come to truly replace all of these architectural sets that only looked like apartment complexes, only looked like they might offer you shelter… Even when you cannot see them understand that it is only the light that has changed, and that if you knew the precise arrangements and compositions you too could use seeing hands to reveal the broken bodies that hang in ranks along the thoroughfares of the city.
I will be honest: I no longer have the energy to keep this faith. I cannot take the time to verify the commitment of the partisans in every instance. The regime of disappearance means for me a descent into terror. But this is only my punishment and there is no reason why you should be infected by it. And besides, my faith is really not important to the progressing forwards of this system into its new phases and permutations - I know that even as I speak with you here the city is on the brink of a beautiful transformation. The machines themselves are invisible - they use the same light tricks that P has employed to animate his painting show - but I know their forms. I have, just once, run my hands over one of the enormous engines as it sat in front of me primed but mercifully inert. I will try to describe it to you as best I can by memory of touch. Imagine an engine block the size of a station wagon. The whole mass vibrates almost imperceptibly. The surface that my hands feel over is solid steel and the bodywork bristles with controls and mechanisms whose purpose is impossible to determine by touch. I find tracks like a tank for transportation and know that these run absolutely silently, so that the engines are undetectable even when moving from point to point. On top of the chassis sits a type of steel ram. I could barely bring myself to touch the thing since I have no idea what stimulus sets it off, but I know that when fired the mechanism is spring loaded or pneumatic: it punches forward as quick as a riveters piston but a thousand times as powerful. I feel ill when I picture the impact with a human body. There is no wall on this planet built strong enough to withstand even a single blow from one of these invisible ramming machines, and it is not buildings that they were constructed to tear apart.
I had only a few brief moments to feel over the contours of that machine before it was deployed into the streets of the city. There is no way of knowing now how many of these fascist-killing drones have been seeded through the boroughs and suburbs of London. Maybe they will be our partisans and maybe they will hold us to account. You will never know walking in the summer warmth or running at night how close you are at any given moment to having your stomach ripped out or your head smashed from your neck by an unstoppable invisible blow. There is no possibility of prediction and no defence. Multiplication of the engines is now my only true wish. And that we will be able again to discipline the space around us, the space that we thought was empty or neutral, that P and his disciples have appropriated in the name of hysteria and theatricality. As I run now I can feel naked vulnerability like heat across the stretched skin over my gut muscles and belly, and I wonder if there was ever really anything that I could have done to keep myself safe.
Original text published in How To Sleep Faster #9, November 2018