by Gerald Majer
In the café, it seemed everyone was smoking, everyone taking notes, everyone pondering an interesting question along similar lines. At the bookstalls along the Quai des Augustins, I had seen in the markdown bins the French editions of various motion studies pursued by authors whose names themselves seemed animated, to an Anglophone ear something of circus and carnival in the likes of Jean Baudrillard, Guy Debord, or Paul Virilio. Surely by now some fresh account was in the works, as in a recent American book revisiting Lucretius and the clinamen, the originary swerve or stumble of matter, arguing that motion itself might be the universal phenomenon most worthy of reverence. Bracing the great panes of café glass were long steel ribs, forming an arch at the top. It was nine o’clock in the morning and with the continuous stream of pedestrians and bicyclists and taxis crowding past, just a few feet or yards away, sitting there was like studying a microscope slide. It was arresting—the forward grace of hundreds of bodies per minute passing through that minor intersection that nonetheless seemed as dense and motionful as Times Square or Piccadilly. A lightly-bearded young man darted his gunmetal bicycle in front of a taxicab moving equally rapidly. Thrown to the pavement, within an instant he was back on his feet and, with a swift glance over frame and tires, tightening his backpack and remounting the bike. The taxi driver however was upon him just as fast. With a single step forward, he delivered a shout to his face and a solid uppercut about where the beard was. For a second, the young man reeled. A four-lane line of buses and taxis waited for his next move. The line pressed upon the scene in a way that made sounding horns beside the point, and no one bothered. The taxi driver marched back to his vehicle, the young man pushed off on his bike. Everything once again was moving.
Nietzsche wept over a flogged horse and those tears were the end of him, so the tale went. Or after writing Zarathustra, so much life had poured from him that he was an emptied-out, susceptible creature, a skeleton man carrying around a burst golden heart. The merest touch had moved him and he exploded. Nietzsche’s aphoristic design, his short-circuit dialectics, the blazing spaces in between those stony and tender blocks of prose, all of it stripping itself bare: skeletons dancing. Somewhere else Nietzsche had talked about concepts and skeletons. We are spiders spinning webs to protect ourselves amidst the great surging dances of life. We spin webs that look like us, that mirror our image. Progress, salvation. Pusillanimous and cowardly, those human projections of comfort, property, and appetite. Fleshless dead things, those metaphors, tangling us in skeleton shrouds.
They seemed to be everywhere in his paintings, maybe an affectation, maybe a gesture acknowledging his early inspirations Rembrandt and Bosch, or maybe in keeping with his apparent fascination with masks of all kinds—the masks of carnival, of satire, and of himself, as in the self-portrait representing him in his studio, James Ensor wearing a light-blue suit and, brush in hand, grinning from a skull face. Or the skulls perhaps followed from his interest in skies and clouds, certain flying effects of color and light, although in a turn that isolated him for much of his career, he had foregone the path of the Belgian Impressionist school. For a long time, his work was neglected because it was said to lack consistency, focus, an arc of development. But Ensor’s skulls may have marked a different sort of line, his art dedicated to other sorts of motion. His adversarial sense of the business of art might have made the skulls something like a defiant trademark, a preemptive branding. Or the skulls were a reminder of how chromatic fragmentations of luminous atmospheres might be refined altogether to stark bare-bones structures hollow as ribcage and sockets, and for mysterious reasons it was impossible for him to decide whether to pursue the former or the latter vision wholeheartedly and so Ensor’s skulls and skeletons made their strange appearances in one painting, another, and another, cameos and main figures, in the middle or on the borders, maybe his entire corpus serving to make a surface where they could be imprinted like graffiti or tattoos.
Alfred Jarry considered the bicycle a marvelous prosthesis. It was a second skeleton, one which made it possible to move the human frame into new dimensions. In the midst of the great city, exposed to its ever-changing motion and oneself a minuscule particle of that motion, one’s mind would revolve like a kaleidoscope absorbing all the minute qualities and textures of color and sound and light and shadow. Edvard Munch, painter of the skull-swirl visage of The Scream, in his Self-Portrait underlined a luminous, haggard face with one bare bone. Wyndham Lewis, writing of Cezanne and Cubism, imagined a new art that would lose the fat and expose the bare skeleton in shifting, dynamic planes. In Joseph Conrad’s late novel Victory, men are gone to hollow and bone: Axel Heyst in search of saving grace and, in gorgeous dressing gown and utter moral decrepitude, the bony Mr. Jones haunting him like a savage skeleton. Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons stripped the flesh of language itself to the bone, Hart Crane sang the skeleton frames of bridges and skyscrapers, and in Ash Wednesday, T.S. Eliot heard the dead bones of rats’ alley chirping an unlikely song of faith stripped bare. Paul Valery wrote that all works of art must die but those with a skeleton live much longer than those that are soft all the way through.
The dream of a skeleton key that unlocks all doors. The ornate edges of the stock, the familiar but slightly dizzying feel of its grip in the hand, as if an infinitesimal amount of its mass has been removed, its gravity corrected. The teeth of its cut both singular and universal. Perhaps a skeleton key of the modern, the latter word suggestive of emptiness, vacancy, the blank or the schematic and at the same time of an incipient motion, a modus not linked to any one thing in particular but to movement itself. The Great War, Europe marching over its graves, Weimar Germany and the skeleton icons of Otto Dix, the bony trees of Murnau’s Caligari and the fleshless machines of Dryer’s Metropolis. At the watering-place, he changed into his bathing suit and walked out near the pier. There he met his father in his own swimming outfit, a middle-aged man of solid flesh and bone, beside whom Kafka felt his body had the appearance of a rickety skeleton. In Plastique magazine, 1935, a collaborative text including among its authors Jean Arp, Paul Eluard, and Leonora Carrington: The Man Who Lost His Skeleton. The liberated being hangs out on boulevards and in cafes. On one occasion, he orders ink and pen as if to write a poem but instead guzzles the fluid, which runs down his carcass and makes spatters and splotches on his elegant white bones. In the night sky above him, the Milky Way appears a vast host of skeletons dancing and leaping and turning somersaults. Those stellar ossuaries await the dead, to whom they will give solace and instruction.
Terrible beauties. Men without qualities. Perhaps a desire to get one’s hands on structure, a fundamental spacing on which all things hung. Or even to become structure oneself, skeleton becoming exoskeleton. Carl Stallings, the composer and sound designer for Disney’s “The Skeleton Dance,” recalled the idea for the film coming to him from childhood memories of vaudeville skeletons, between the acts at the theater or the cinema various avatars of Mr. Bones and his foil Tambo chasing and being chased around the stage. When he was a boy, he had admired the skeletons so much he obtained his own toy version, the paper cutouts that dangled from strings and allowed their owner to make them swing and jump and dance, to crumple to the floor in a dead heap and then instantly to rise again to life. Maybe like him, or maybe like those later thinkers down to the bone, Lacan, Levi-Strauss, Barthes, Foucault, elegant and subversive and demiurgic, I wanted the diagram and the schematic, the outline and the blueprint, and along with the sketchy promises of order and clarity hovering around them, other, maybe impossible things—zero degrees, primary powers, ghostly frictions and manes and animations. And a step beyond, out at the edge of vision or dead center inside of it, a power messing with me that also might be me, me as other, me as imminence and immanence, locations and definitions as mobile and shifty as a host of skeletons dancing and reeling.
Outside on the sidewalk, a crushed insect. I saw there was a quiver of life still possessing it though it might equally have been mechanical movement, a last trembling confusion that was simply corpse molecules undergoing some thermal adjustment to the cool air of the morning in which it was dying. I guessed it was a night moth caught out in the daylight. A fragile, frail, speckled object. And as though somewhere a loose bone had been plucked into vibration, I felt I could weep over that downed being.
The skeletons seemed to offer a track to liberation but at the same time they were stripping me, reducing me to gawky raw sentiment. It was as if I must not only move but also be moved.
Gerald Majer’s poems and creative nonfiction have appeared in Crazyhorse, Field, Georgia Review, Quarterly West, Yale Review and other journals. His creative nonfiction book The Velvet Lounge was published by Columbia University Press. He lives in Baltimore, Maryland and teaches at Stevenson University. “Bare Trees” is from the book MS The Animism Experiments.