Norman Lock

The City of Radiant Objects

The first thing one sees on entering the City of Radiant Objects is a field of white beds. It is here that all the trajectories of the walkers converge: mysteriously as it came, the walking sickness leaves them, and they lie down and sleep for days, so great is their exhaustion. It is here also that the sleepers awake at last from the sleeping sickness. My God, they say, have I been asleep so long? They cast off the dreaming in which they have been mired, many for years -- cast it off without interpretation, so great is their joy in the sudden clarity of the air.

In the City of Radiant Objects, things are free of the obligation to signify. It is this that makes them radiant. And it is for this I have been searching so long in Africa without knowing it.

"It began with a vision of an iron stairway," he said, fingering the silver plumb he wore around his neck. "It made a graceful S in the air above Alexandria where I was engaged in scholarly research at the great Library." To illustrate, he traced with a finger a graceful S in the air above the tiled esplanade.

I was giving praise to the Architect of the Radiant City beneath a perfectly formed plane tree. The reason I was giving him praise ought to be obvious. Isn't it? Well, consider who he was and may very well be yet.

Standing in the Alexandrine gardens of the third century AD, he had imagined this place -- imagined it, then caused it to be built here in equatorial Africa, with a single stroke of genius. What else if not genius for he used no tools. He created ideal forms out of nothing with not so much as a speck of dust left over to mark their making. Was he not worthy of my praise?

"I started with a spiral stair and ended with a sill on which many since have placed their elbows in rapt contemplation of perfection."

"Why here?" I asked. "Why not in some more temperate zone?"

"I wanted a place devoid of associations," he answered. "And one in which objects would cast no shadow."

He lifted his arm and the wide mandarin sleeve fell back revealing a hand that cast no shadow under the vertical tropic rays.

"It's a property of the equatorial sun," he said. "Only shadowless objects can be radiant."

He looked down at my shoes, scuffed and dusty with the journey.

"You must keep them well polished," he said of them.

I walked through the City, inventorying its architectural features:

Fluted column.
Proscenium arch.
Stone balustrade.
Golden dome.

"No," said the Architect, ripping the list to pieces. "This is not the way to experience objects."

He called for the movers.

"You must immerse yourself -- not entertain them one at a time."

The movers arrived with numerous objects and piled them on top of me. Because the objects were light, they did not hurt me.

"It is the meanings people give things that make them heavy," the Architect said from outside the mound in which I lay buried. "Objects in themselves weigh nothing at all."

I rummaged in them a while.

"Do you see the radiance of the whole?" he asked.

"I see it," I replied.

I pillowed my head on a soft catafalque and rested.

"You know the phrase 'shades of meaning'?" he asked, pursuing his catechism.

"Yes," I said, stifling (I confess) a yawn.

"It is literally true. Shadows are meanings made visible. Radiant objects cast none. They are light."

I permitted several small objects to enter me for my spiritual well-being. While there was no pain, neither was there enlightenment.

"Chairs will float if one has never thought of sitting on them."

Indeed, I had seen a dozen or so chairs high above the Museum of Exquisite Machines as I approached the City.

"A sea is vast, cold, and desolate; but it is only thinking makes it so."

"Yes," I said. "There is a sea here with me now, and it is very pleasant, and so are the fish swimming in it."

"Do you fear drowning?" he asked, testing me.

"Not at all," I answered confidently, for I really didn't.

"Good," he said. "The sea in itself is not in the least frightening. It is only the idea of drowning that makes it so."

"Mozart is also here," I said.

"Of course," he answered. "His music has always been here."

We were sitting once more beneath the plane tree (not on a chair!). While it cast no shadow (how could it?), I had the sensation of shade. The movers had removed the objects. And while I had felt no discomfort beneath them, I was glad to be "out in the air" again, for it was the crystalline air of the City of Radiant Objects more than the objects themselves that amazed me.

"The air is like a --"

The Architect cut me short.

"We do not allow similes here," he said, "nor any figurative language, which distracts from the object thereby dimming its radiance."

He blindfolded me and had me identify objects by touch or smell "to strengthen you in objectness." He bid me taste certain objects, cleansing my palate each time with sherbet. Many were delicious, others foul-tasting depending on the material. The end of all these trials was an increased sensitivity to the true nature of things that remains with me even now.

"Why are there so few people here?" I asked, looking around me as if for the first time.

"People cannot resist giving meaning to things," he said. "I was sitting in that very chair when the wind arrived with the fragrance of frangipani from the south. Or, I was holding that tortoise comb when I thought of Rachel, whom I had once loved long ago. Or, I leaned against that column and recalled a picnic on the beach at Crete. And for those people, for ever after, "chair" and "comb" and "column" adumbrate qualities foreign to their nature as objects. Once that happens, radiance is at risk."

"And so you ask them to leave?"

"They leave without being told. We wake and find them gone. They understand."

"Cannot memory also make a thing radiant?" I asked.

I was thinking of Anna, whose face shone in my memory though she was now, like me, no longer young.

"Only falsely," he answered. "Memory is kind or cruel but seldom truthful."

"And desire?" I asked.

"Desire is a projection of one's need upon an object."

"And can there be love where there are no objects of desire?"

He turned and looked into the distance. What perfection he saw there I do not know.

We sat for a time in silence. I waited for the sun to set, but it did not.