An organ concert at the Mainz Stephanerkirche was to bring the day’s tour to a close. Duties at an end, the guide bid the group farewell and left with the sound of clapping strong in his ears. At the ready stood the Stephanerkirche’s pastor who shepherded us inside. He followed in short order and closed the doors on our group and the other, which had preceded us through the city’s landmarks.
At that point, the pastor invited us to examine more closely the church’s different features, the contrast between the white walls and the red columns, the stern, dark wood pews, at last, the blue stained glass windows overhead. After a time, the pastor brought us back in and called our attention to those windows directly surrounding the altar, of which he went on to remark that they came from the hand of none other than Marc Chagall and numbered among his last glass works.
Even from the distance set out by the altar, the windows exercised a strong attraction over the group. I watched smartphones emerge from pockets and cameras rise to eye-level as each person sought to transpose the windows’ Biblical figures from their native setting to new contexts. Heads nodded here and then, and appreciative sighs and grunted suggested that the transposition had proved successful. Humans, angels and wildlife alike had found a home in the digital, a space open and accessible to all and thus strangely unhomelike.
Unable though we were to tear ourselves, I could not be certain how much my fellow visitors genuinely took in of the windows. Whether their brains’ visual centers had sufficient time and light to process each of the figures’ tints and shades, histories and body language, I could not say. I know that, in my case, I was unable to pull colors and lines into a coherent vision of distinct figures and so remained dazzled by the sheer wash of detail above.
My photographs from that day, captured by smartphone, faithfully reproduced my inability to make sense of the figures contained there. Through the backlight and strong grain of the pixels and comparison with other photographs found online, I can just make out certain of Chagall’s choice subjects, found here in different form and hue than those in another St. Stephen’s church with which I was more than passingly familiar. So do I find again the crucifixion and its inexpressive attendants, Noah before the Ark and Flood, Elijah bowed beneath weighty dreams, David playing on his lyre. Some new subjects work their way in, among whose number I counted Creator and Creation, as well as a lesser host of yellow-feathered angels, greenish-blue plants and blotted faces.
Yet the comparison betrays my own photographs in that those found elsewhere more clearly portray those stained glass subjects. In contrast, an inescapable graininess mars my own, and so they lack focus and remain closer to my experience of the windows that day. In my photographs I thus find the reproduction of perception, rather than of the thing perceived, and hold in my hands an imperfect mimesis but truer for that.
During one of his trips through the Massif Central, Chateaubriand says of one rocky cleft that nothing grew so well there as ruins. Farmhouse, shrine and shed given over to the elements, to the point that a keeper must have watched over them, what he deemed a “fermier de ruines”. On my worse days, I think to join the ruin farmers in the hills around.
The better part of a morning spent walking will take me no farther than the edge of my small city and the pockets of communal gardens whereafter I can leave it all behind. Yet an hour more will find me hemmed in by suburban homes, peering through a steel gate at a rapeseed field. Then I can only wonder how I lost my way in that mediocre human habitation of which I am unquestionably a part.
Few people have the chance to see their own ghost, but I number among them. My mother once revealed the near existence of Brendan Skidmore, my would-be name for another though present life. Since then, I, D.B., have become an other to myself and can only recognize that he is the origin and I merely dead on feet intended for another.
He had made the sacrifices and therefore could do no wrong, because he had given so much up and she had not. All of which he made to weigh on her, as he would burden a horse, now saddled with a debt never discharged, so that she might remember and be forever grateful. Her strain was his trust.
Back in the streets, the guide felt the group to be sufficiently warmed up and so launched into the final act. First, he called our attention to the two street signs affixed to either side of a corner building, noting of them only that one bore a red background and the other a blue. Good showman that he was, he invited his audience to elaborate any number of theories as to why civil authorities would feel the need to color code their streets. Some hazarded a guess at different municipal divisions; others wagered that it owed to historical preservation. The guide was on the verge of declaring victory when I put forward that the blue-signed streets ran the length of the Rhein whereas the red-signed streets instead ran into the river. He looked a touch crestfallen but confirmed that blue connoted “parallel” and red stood in for “perpendicular” and muttered something to the effect that someone had plainly read an online entry for Mainz before arriving.
In fact, he had the right of it. I had read up on the city and its history before submitting to the conference. Were I to go through the trouble of writing, registering and travelling, it would naturally fall to me to determine whether the host city and institution were worth my attention. Eager to reestablish his unquestioned authority with his listeners, he decided to flesh out my description with a few words of his own. So he added that Mainz had long served as an important stop for river traffic and had, accordingly, bustled with sailors and river travellers in various states of mindfulness, even clearheadedness. As such men often lacked for bearings in unfamiliar settings, the street signs’ color enabled them, at least in part, to orient themselves with respect to the river though they might still trudge off away from the river depending on the hour and lighting.
Ordinarily, I avoided rote presentations, but this was plainly a master of the craft, little different than a living breathing guide book. The thought stuck with me for some time, and I later entertained how one might go about making a book of a person or a person of a book. Such processes undoubtedly belonged to the obscure, if not the occult, for I could only imagine them involving, for instance, tattooing a person’s entire “text” on his skin and stripping him bare to be held lifelong within a glass cage, ready to be picked up and discarded at the reader’s whim. Or perhaps they might require incorporating flesh and blood into the book, making the book’s “spine” and the writing’s “body” more than mere metaphor but veritable substitutions.
Returning to the task at hand, I at last committed to the role of gadfly and held my thoughts together long enough to challenge the guide on one lingering question that had bothered me no little amount. Early on, I had noted that the squares bore signs just as the streets did, complete with a blue or red designation. Yet I had seen no clear criteria by which to determine whether a square, not a line but an extension, runs along or into the river. While I had my own theory on the matter, I laid my question before the guide as the witless would before the wise.
He paused a moment, as though caught off guard by a question which it had never occurred to him to consider, but found in short order both a retort and a hypothesis. For the first, he commented, to the audience’s general amusement, that it was a mere philosopher’s question; for the second, that squares ordinarily had one dimension greater than the other such that civil authorities could deem it either parallel or perpendicular. He closed his explanation with a smile.
For onlookers, I seemingly contented myself as well with the given explanation although, in reality, I knew it to be a mere invention on his part. For the square in which we then stood bore a red sign. Its greater dimension was not, however, perpendicular to the river but parallel. According to the guide’s take on the matter, either the sign should then have been blue or the perpendicular dimension the greater of the two. As the others marched on to the Pfarrkirche Sankt Stephan, I crouched in order to get a better look at the ground and noticed that the square in question showed a slight slope towards the river. Perhaps I had the right of it; perhaps I had the wrong of it. All the same, a mere philosopher’s question can prove of more worth than a mere guide’s answer.
Before the conference resumed, there remained the matter of the city tour to which we gave ourselves after half an hour of sparkling wine and soft pretzels. In due order, the city representative slipped through the events room door to collect us for the early afternoon visit. Once back out through the maze of exhibition spaces and garage stairwells, the city representative split the group between a middle-aged woman and an older gentleman, the second of whom was to see our safe passage through the streets and squares.
Our guide, balding but sporting a short, bristly white beard, braved the gusts in little more than a windbreaker and spoke in a French not untouched by his native German. This came out, in particular, in his stilted pronunciation of more advanced architectural terminology which he would not otherwise employ in more mundane conversation with visitors. Still, he carried out his task and rote repetition and handled inane questions with aplomb. He had evidently spent some time on the circuit, given the ease with which he rattled off the list of buildings razed during the Allied bombing campaign, largely on the night of February 27th, 1945. He acquitted himself just as well in reciting the dates at which both rebuilds and new builds had been raised in the years after.
Our tour inevitably led us before the city’s thousand-year-old cathedral from where archbishops had maintained their spiritual and temporal rule as one of seven Kurfurster, or Prince Electors, within the Holy Roman Empire. Only with the Empire’s wane and Mainz’s transformation into democratic republic, stillbirth though it might have been, did the last cracks show and then splinter the administrative work of centuries. Though outwardly of red sandstone and fitted with several drum towers, the cathedral inwardly resembled others which I had set foot in. Dead, stone archbishops looked on our seated group from chapels and nooks while the guide recalled for his listeners that a cathedral presented a neverending worksite, a sort of architectural open sore which never fully healed.
As the guide fielded questions, I quietly rose from my seat at the rear and stole away to examine the cloister, indicated by a nearby sign. Passing through a wooden door of considerable heft, I found myself in a typical Gothic cloister: covered walkway surrounding a square court, at its center a stout well, geometric footpaths running between archways and hedges. The place projected the enforced calm that one expected of a cloister, and I took a seat in one of the windows to bask therein. It occurred to me after a moment more that the sandstone here was of a deeper hue, the red more saturated, than that found in the cathedral’s exterior, as if the few visitors had lacked the numbers necessary to sap the stone of its natural color or, alternatively, the cloister, being a later addition, had established a parasitic relation with the cathedral and, over the years, drawn the cathedral’s color out to its own benefit.
The group found me there, some minutes later, still contemplating the walls and swept me along in its wake.