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Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, Editors

Describing Writing Describing

Alberto Perez-Gomez, Polyphilo, or The Dark ForestRevisited, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1992.)

Ellen Zweig

1. The Architect In A One Way Mirror. Polyphilo wanders in the dark forest, the airport, the beginning of the text. He rules the context and is ruled by it. He describes a path, transcribes a mental image into experience, into the details of sensory data. He retranslates description into lived space. He reverses the trajectory of mundane architecture, goes backwards from building to writing. Everything collapses. He carries his desire in a crystal locked in his suitcase. He looks through and sees the body of his body.

2. A Description Of Description. Description, an excess, a guided tour, an incarnation. Description is orderly, systematic, but has been traditionally under suspicion for its impulse towards the chaotic. Lacking the linearity of narrative, description can go any which way; even the reader can resist it, can skip over it, or reorder it. Its essence will not be destroyed by this intervention. The detail becomes overloaded, becomes the sign or the allegorical figure. Description is said to make something visible and description encodes the hidden. Description means, literally, to write down; and also means to delineate or mark out a shape. Thus, description is a writing of a journey, a tracing out of language. Like architecture, description creates a space, and marks it with the body of its writer and the bodies of its readers.

3. Don't Forget The Banquet. In De Oratore, Cicero recounts the origin of the art of memory. Scopas gives a banquet and insults Castor and Pollux. Simonides of Ceos who has recited a poem in honor of the gods, including the insulted twins, is called to the door just as the roof caves in. As the only survivor, he is asked to identify the mangled corpses. He remembers their places at the table. The building is destroyed, the bodies unrecognizable; but the poet visions the architecture and the bodies regain their names.

4. A Translation. Enter now into a dark room. As your eyes adjust to the lack of light, you begin to see small models of architectural forms. In each model, there is a human figure made of light. This figure climbs the stairs or enters a door, sits in a chair or paces from wall to wall. On one side of the room, the models are reversed. The human figure is made of wood or clay, and the architectural form is made of light. In these models, the architecture is fluid; it flows around the figure, changing with hidden rhythms of its own. Could I translate the book Polyphilo into these models? Looking more closely at the descriptions of each scene, I find that the details elude me. This is not description that can be made material; each detail is allegorical, each scene an instance of philosophy. The book itself, the physical object, written and designed by Perez- Gomez, is a visual object. The collage photographs are slit and split, running along the bottom of the pages in parallel with the text like a movie reversed — the subtitles visual, the image in the text. The table of contents and the subsequent counting of hours in the text imply a temporality that is belied by the text's implication that we are no place in no time.

5. Body And Building. I am sitting in a room in the front of my house. Why would I want this room to respond to my body or my body to respond to this room? It is true that I have been having a great deal of trouble adjusting the temperature of this room today. For a while the air conditioner made me too cold. But outside it is 90 degrees and very humid, so when I turned it down too far the room became oppressive. Now I have fiddled sufficiently with the controls and the room feels right. In fact, this rightness has made the room go away. It is true that this room has poor light. I must keep the shades drawn to keep out the heat of the afternoon sun, and the overhead light is insufficient for my comfort. So, I have put a lamp on my desk that lights the small space at which I am typing. That and the light from my computer screen serves me well and, in fact, they have made the room go away. The space that I occupy as I write is very small. It is true that this room provides for my comfort. It shelters me from the heat and gives me the ability to control such things as light. My fingers are engaged in typing this text, on my gray Powerbook 180, which I think is a beautiful object. It pleases me to touch it. But it is this computer that has made the room go away. Where has it gone, this room that I inhabit? It has fallen, collapsed, down into writing. It is description. We cannot make this room from what I have written, but we can make this room from the needs of your body and of mine. I want this room to respond to my body as I want my body to respond to this room because I want this room to go away. It is this paradox that Polyphilo must transcend and the secret of this paradox lies at the center of Perez-Gomez's text.

6. Little Theaters Of Desire. In Polyphilo, description itself has been made dramatic. Like Roussel, Perez-Gomez fills the space of the book with the event of language, the tableau vivant of erotic detail. The flow of description and event in Polyphilo is like the gem the protagonist carries in his suitcase; time and space seem to be collapsed by a containment. This containment, this theatrical space, is in excess of narrative. Like the protagonists of de Sade and Mirbeau, Polyphilo travels only to find the places in which his body becomes entwined, entangled, always at the brink of action, in the depths of the ceremonial, ritual play of the erotic. The guided tour of description is also an initiation, a mystical path (like Loyola's Spiritual Exercises), and a pornography. For writing, like dreaming, is linear; language is temporal. It releases the unconscious in an unfolding performative theater of the evidence of the senses. Yet, description collapses the temporal into the spatial and the senses explode in a systematic chaos of their own. Using a methodology akin to Roussel, Perez-Gomez hides the source of description in language. These are not descriptions of real things, but descriptions of texts and images, descriptions that hide esoteric knowledge, a list of cultural texts and artifacts that range from Rilke and de Chirico, Eisenman and Boulee, Pare and Diderot, Heidegger and Joyce. The text is a game, a puzzle, a conversation, an art of memory, a secret teaching. Descriptions of a motel room, an airport, an airplane are transformed into a metallic forest of architectural follies; the man who wanders in this place, urgent for the satisfactions of Eros, is himself transformed. Encountering not the airport or even the temple, but rather the hidden meanings, the cultural matrix that underlies all architectural space, Polyphilo becomes a body in an embodied space. Philippe Bonnefis has written that description should not be seen as a mirror or a window, but rather as a screen. This screen, which for Bonnefis, shuts out and covers over, for Perez-Gomez becomes a projection screen. The cinema of the unconscious of architecture, the dream of buildings, the poetics of the material, is projected for Polyphilo. The performative nature of description is the key to the erotic mode and opens the door to relationship. Description transforms where narrative merely drags us along in its wake. The narrative in description is the way in and the way out; the transformation of Polyphilo, the result of paradox, takes him (and us) to metalevels of understanding. The book, Polyphilo, itself performative, an exploration of description as technique, creates, as Gregory Bateson might describe it, "an evolving interaction" between book, writer, reader, and context, continually transforming them, taking us out of the book and into the world.

Ellen Zweig works with text, video, installation and performance. Her current piece, Hubert's Lure, is on West 42nd Street in NYC.
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