Ars Longa, Amor Brevis
He: The end of a love affair is like the destruction of a homunculus. Once it ran and sang, showing itself in joy to the world. Then suddenly it disintegrates into a pile of dried rose petals and ashes.
She: Yes, our time together was like homunculi. To Norbert everything is homunculi. Our love was homunculi. The piano tuning service is homunculi. The Intrados Radio Tower is homunculi. Not coincidentally, Norbert makes homunculi.
He: You always did that. You denied me my idiom. And anyway, what about the time you said the cherry blintzes at Radner’s reminded you of the advance of cinema in our time?
She: Norbert always has an agenda. Always. There is not a word he says not connected with the revival of homunculi tableau and specifically with trumpeting his latest success in homunculi tableau.
He: Like you don’t do the same with your damn camera. She’s just bitter. She’s been bitter since the day we met.
She: I was not bitter. I was exhilarated to discover the unique interactions capable between lower souls and moving pictures.
He: That’s what got us thrown out.
She: That’s what got me thrown out. You were desecrating the corpse.
He: I was only doing what Stephen asked me. See, we had a mutual friend, an actor, named Stephen, and Stephen had an accident.
She: He went to catch the Tarot Avenue cable car, and it caught him instead.
He: He was looking at the transforming billboard for Darow’s Hot Dogs and stepped right on the tracks. That was Stephen all over. A great actor. A good friend. Dumb as a bag of plaster.
She: His family came in from Hookston to arrange the funeral. They were a very rigid exhorter clan.
He: Very staid, very bourgeois. Stephen completely rejected their way of life, but there was nothing anybody could do.
She: What I hadn’t known was that they were of the Tranquilan Rite. My friend Margot mentioned that the psychopomp would be performing the entire old ceremony, exalting Stephen’s upper soul and banishing the lower. When I heard that, I just had to capture it on film, to use the footage in my next montage.
He: The funeral home was this cramped, old-fashioned place off the Canal. Lotsa dark green velvet. Smelled like old magazines. The psychopomp, a tall, washed-out type, stands over Stephen’s coffin, waving his doll and wailing. And get this: Stephen’s upper soul rises and presents itself—and completely ignores the guy. Starts walking around the funeral home like he’s not even there.
She: While everyone gawked at the psychopomp trying to get the upper soul under control, Stephen’s lower soul, in the form of a six-winged butterfly, came out of the coffin and started flitting around the room. The wings had the color of the lights you glimpse behind your eyelids sometimes. You don’t typically see a lower soul on the loose. Half the psychopomp’s task is to dismiss them. But Stephen, bless him, was dancing over the mourner’s heads, and skittering over the flower arrangements. I began filming.
He: Apparently lower souls are attracted to movie cameras, because it flew right over—and disappeared into the lens.
She: His mother—this short woman with enormous silver hair—started screaming at me! I’ve never been spoken to that way in all my life. She had no appreciation for anything I was doing. She started hitting me with her handbag and accusing me of stealing her son.
He: The ironic thing is Stephen hated his mother.
She: I had no idea what had happened, and to have this woman yelling at me so...
He: With all the chaos, I decided I was never going to get a better chance to fulfill my promise. Stephen, years ago, asked me that if anything ever happened to him, I should make a homunculus using his remains, to carry on his work in life.
She: You could have asked.
He: People like that? They would have refused.
She: The undertaker caught you going over the corpse with your penknife.
He: All I did was take some nail parings and hair, too tiny to notice. It was a complete overreaction.
She: The next thing we knew, we were both out on the sidewalk. We brushed ourselves off. I checked that my camera was undamaged. He asked if I wanted to go to the Lapping Angel to get a cup of coffee. We did, and then proceeded to bed.
He: That was the start of the affair. We got thrown out of a funeral together. I was a bag of nerves.
She: You were awestruck.
He: I don’t recall that.
She: You said I was the most beautiful woman you’d ever met.
He: But I didn’t mean that as an intellectual judgment.
She: What the hell else could it be?
He: It was merely how I felt in the moment. It wasn’t a careful analysis tied to a serious theory of aesthetics.
She: Allow me to posit a counterthesis: you are a lying ass. The truth is we were ecstatically happy at first. We took an apartment in the Masorate, the new skyscraper at the corner of Tarot and Strangelove.
He: I never had the money for that kind of place, but the Duchess was paying for it.
She: You know I hate it when you call me that. If you insist on referring to my title, I am not a duchess, I am the Dame D’Isodoir.
He: Sorry. Go on.
She: After my discovery at the funeral, I pursued the trapping of lower souls in my camera. By re-exposing the same reel of film, I found I could gather multiple souls into the same work. They flailed their wings against the lens, crawled over the screen, blank shadows of mortal life. I knew I had my entree into the first rank of the art world.
He: While I finished my magnum opus, “Foundatia.” It’s a tragedy about a steelworker who has to choose between his radical union and the factory owner’s wife, who he’s in love with. It portrays the lives of men like my grandfather and uncles through a traditionally high-culture form. I made the homunculus for the lead role with bits of bone from my Uncle Ike.
She: He perched his collection on the mantel. The whole pack of them stared at me all day.
He: The set for “Foundatia” required a working, scale-model blast furnace right there on the stage. I’d been working on the project for three years and still didn’t have the money for that steel foundry.
She: So I paid for it.
He: She freely offered to pay for the foundry materials, and I freely promised to introduce her to major critics and patrons. It was not a quid pro quo deal. It was something lovers do for each other.
She: He says it that way because he never came through with his side of the bargain.
He: We met with Meret Evan at her gallery. There was coffee at the Commando D’Amour with the editor of the Review of Current Art.
She: I remember. I remember hearing all about homunculi tableau. I remember long lectures on the future of homunculi tableau. I could barely get in a word set in this century.
He: Well, I’m sorry it wasn’t a court ritual like you’re used to.
She: He always took out his resentment of the aristocracy on me.
He: I never did anything like that. You just felt guilty about your class privilege.
She: When we made love, you would shout “Take that, your grace!”
He: The latest theories of psychology teach us that sex releases the subconscious. My mouth was bypassing control of my super-ego and channeling that recurring dream I have about impregnating an archbishop.
She: Your mouth is channeling the 2:50 fertilizer train for Gertham Downs.
He: Oh yeah? Well, she always thought of me as her insurance policy with the masses. You know what she said once? “Come the revolution, I don’t have to fear being put up against the wall. Norbert will vouch for me.”
She: Let me tell you something: Norbert has a pitch perfect sense of humor—except when he’s being deliberately obtuse. That was said in jest.
He: Now who’s riding the fertilizer train? I was your nostalgie de la boue, the escape from your cloistered upbringing. I was your great proletarian fantasy.
She: Darling, if I was looking for my proletarian fantasy, I’d have taken up with one of those steelworkers you write about, not your skinny ass.
He: As you can tell, everything was going fine for us—with a few hiccups. I never had any warning anything was wrong until one day I opened up the letter column in the Gonfaloniere and there was a diatribe condemning homunculi tableau, saying they “suck up funds better put toward more modern forms.”
She: Many artists hold that homunculi tableau are obsolete. It’s not a rare opinion.
He: The letter was signed D.D.
She: Which are not my initials.
He: But it could stand for “Dame D’Isodoir.”
She: Congratulations, inspector. You cracked the case.
He: But I ignored it. Until the party.
She: Leon Garheidt was in town. The greatest critic of all.
He: A touch overrated, I think.
She: We threw a soiree to welcome him. The elite of the Intrados art world was there.
He: The bootleggers made house calls. Everybody got tanked.
She: We were having a marvelous time, and I had managed to corner Garheidt in the smoking room, when I heard raving behind me. At first I thought someone had brought an angry myna bird to the party, but it turned out to be my lover.
He: I heard you that time! I know I did! You were condemning homunculi tableau! Running me down in my own home!
She: I was telling him about your work.
He: You called me a leech affixed to the scrotum of art!
She: You still didn’t have to throw your drink on me.
He: I didn’t throw anything. It was an accident. I slipped on the rug and it fell over you.
She: Oh, then it was an accident when I picked up your lead homunculus from the mantle and rammed him into the fruit juicer.
He: Poor little guy. He did not deserve that.
She: The gears jammed. There wasn’t much left.
He: The other homunculi ran to me like children. They can sense emotions, and they were upset.
She: I had reached my limit. I banished Norbert from the apartment.
He: I thought it was our apartment.
She: I paid the fucking rent!
He: Now we see how it was.
She: The party was ruined.
He: It was her fault.
She: It was his fault.
He: I collected the homunculi, got my things, and left. I moved into a flophouse by the Canal. At night, I wept.
She: You weren’t weeping when Margot spotted you at L’Enfant with that whore.
He: I wept privately. Later. After she left.
She: Well, you certainly got your revenge, didn’t you?
He: What’s that supposed to mean?
She: You scheduled your vernissage right opposite my opening. The same night!
He: That wasn’t revenge. I just wanted to make the choice stark. Between art forms. Between a rich, historic tradition of the city, and somebody putzing around with a movie camera.
She: The collision of our two events was the biggest thing to hit Intrados since the war ended. People chose sides.
He: People chose destinations.
She: Everyone said they would come to my opening.
He: Everyone told me they wouldn’t miss mine.
She: It was a hot autumn night. The crowd was dressed to the nines.
He: I hate tuxedos. They’re upper class and they chafe.
She: I looked damn good in mine.
He: The Zauberburg Theater was full.
She: So was the Magic Science, right opposite across Question Street.
He: People were sneaking back and forth.
She: Leon Garheidt ended up on my side.
He: Only because he was going back and forth, trying to review both.
She: Finally it was time. The lights turned low. The flickering light showed the souls on the screen.
He: On my side of the street, we set things off right: with an overture. Then the curtain parted, showing the working steel foundry.
She: Steel. Yes, that’s art. On my side of the street, the audience contemplated death and the unknown. On his side, they were brushing soot off their clothes.
He: Halfway through the tableau, the blast furnace tips over, like a pregnant woman giving birth. That was supposed to happen. Then my line of steelworker homunculi started jumping into the molten iron. That wasn’t supposed to happen. That’s not normal behavior for a steelworker. It was like they were swimming off the Porcine Street Bridge. One even held his nose before hopping in. When they came out, they were on fire. People started screaming. The little guys ran off the stage and into the crowd. There was a stampede.
She: Meanwhile my crowd was murmuring and gasping. Images of the very essence of mankind capered on the walls. Granted, a few walked out. It was somewhat repetitious, but repetition is important for art. I had no idea what was about to happen.
He: The homunculi beat a path to the door, out to the streets, and across to the Magic Science.
She: You ordered them to do that!
He: I was yelling at them to come back!
She: They respond to your thoughts! You wanted them to destroy my work!
He: Not consciously.
She: We made the projection room by screening off part of the back of the theater with an old blackout curtain. I couldn’t see anything. I heard screaming outside. They’re overcome by my art, I thought! The next thing I know, there’s these tiny flaming men running around my feet.
He: Celluloid film stock is extremely flammable.
She: The projector went up like an incendiary bomb, and I was engulfed in a cloud of butterflies. All the souls I’d filmed escaped into the theater, buzzing the heads of my patrons. Between them and the smoke, the place emptied up with great celerity. And then who shows up, but him?
He: I came to demand my homunculi back. I wasn’t going to let her take them.
She: I didn’t want them!
He: We were both pretty choked with smoke by the time we made it out to the pavement.
She: The soul butterflies filled the neighborhood.
He: My flaming homunculi were dancing in the street.
She: The cream of the Intrados art world got drenched by the fire department. This was my chance to amaze the world and you ruined it! You ruin everything!
He: I will not allow you to put this on my back. Everything that happened was your fault!
She: You hidebound little git!
He: You bloated, castrating poseur!
She: Shit. Here’s the latest Gonfaloniere.
He: I’m getting my copy right now.
She: I can’t bear to look at the review.
He: No use delaying, it’ll just make it worse.
She: “To manipulate the skein of public and private expectation is to play upon a harp of nerves.”
He: “Burren and Von Moina set a magnificent trap for the jaded participant, crushing the audience between the countervailing elements of fire and water.”
She: “The camera opens a gate to death...”
He: “...the puppet-men dance in glorious mockery of life...”
She: I guess Garheidt didn’t really understand what was going on.
He: He was fairly drunk by the time the fire started.
She: But it’s not negative.
He: Not in the least.
She: I think he was right when he said you epater les bourgeoisie.
He: Thanks. I thought it was true what he said about you exploring the city limits of existence.
She: He make it sound like we’re collaborators.
He: He certainly does.
She: It’d be embarrassing to make him run a correction.
He: That it would. Listen, this isn’t really private. Do you want to grab a cup of coffee at the Angel?
She: Let me get my handbag.
He: See, sometimes you can take the bits of love and recreate it in new life. Y’know—like a homunculus.