Michael Henry Heim: Wonder
From “The Statue Garden”
The columns are identical, made of concrete and topped by an old-fashioned crown of braided leaves (laurel branches?), a bulging shaft, and a square base. Mass production. From our line of sight (the boy, hunched farther forward than I, probably sees fewer of them) I can count sixteen, fourteen of which bear statues. Against the Ruysdael-like tapestry of birches and walnuts we see a field full of obstacles. The air above us, and the fringes of the park are too high, the light near the house too weak to reach the nearby figures, but I soon adjust to the darkness and after my initial surprise (not shock, it is not so much a frightening encounter as an awkward greeting on the part of a band of strangers on a playing field at night) I can make out the statues in the disfiguring darkness as the images of one and the same man. They are standing in profile, their heads all turned towards the house, in rows of eight, like pawns on a chessboard. The pedestals are alike and have not been adapted to the statues’ various manners and matters, which are quite diverse, as if their maker had decided that the way to achieve a definitive likeness, to evoke most effectively the subject he wished to recreate was to use the most varied forms and approaches rather than make repeated, more or less successful attempts in the same style. Hence his portrait was fragmented and needed to be pieced together later under both closer and more global consideration with all the differences in place. There could be no doubt that the statues were all fashioned by one man: the same lack of finesse, the same lack of strength in approach was evident. Someone else had cast and placed the pedestals, after which the sculptor had populated them, this perhaps at the command of someone who had obliged him to look into diverse stylistic possibilities or provided him with a catalogue of figures enabling him to reproduce the Man as perfectly as practicable in all his variations. What man?
In the statue near the beech-lined path the Man is bald or has very short hair, the hair line indistinguishable because the head of the bust (which is more a torso truncated by its creator through the rib cage) stretches back as if in the throes of a cramp caused by a blow to the neck, the muscles modeled to look like ropes, the apertures of the nostrils blending into those of the hollow cheeks, the apertures of the eye-sockets into those of the forehead of this figure about to topple backward; the right shoulder is higher and bent inward as if to parry the blow to the neck; the left shoulder near the collar-bone is hanging loosely, like the side of a yoke; the ears are stuck too close to the jaw, making them look at first like outgrowths, protuberances on either side of the mouth, and giving the amorphous head an unremitting Neanderthal quality; the many wrinkles, naturalistically portrayed, do not so much make the Man old as indicate the ravages of misery and humiliation on a young face. Someone or something is pulling him back by the hair, and his right shoulder wants to defend him. In this congealed moment of gravy-brown bronze the Mammal, caught with his resistance down, is wavering. Later, the next day, I would see fingerprints on both torso and face.
Next to him, closer to the front of the zigzag formation (now I can see that the configuration is not one of a chessboard; what I picture now is something more like the branches of a family tree ending at the house), there is a bust that shows no feint or arm movement: the cylinder of the neck slopes gently into the shoulders, which start rounding before their ends (perhaps even before the shoulder blades) and are draped in a Roman toga whose stylized frieze of a border boasts various ski-sweater patterns. Elegantly carved. A figure not to be meddled with: a senator getting on in years, an ox in the field, formal, reserved. Not a bone, not a muscle in evidence. A nerveless block facing the terrace, where the weak yellowish light leads one to assume the existence of a house with a mansard; an elongated cranium covered with smooth hair clipped at the neck like an ill-fitting wig; a jutting chin likely to impress the senate assembly more by its dimensions than its shape. It is a neoclassical statue made for a city park and pigeons. The Man’s life and illness are over; his memory honored in a bulge of sandstone, the middle-class ideology this Man defended dutifully delivering its admiration.
Behind these two—and between them, if one views them through a telephoto lens from the terrace—is a goblin of a statue. It is difficult to make out which profile in which direction is primary as it has multiple Janus heads. The homunculus, of lava or pumice stone—in any case a material with tufts, knots, and holes—is standing at full height but tottering on one leg and testing the terrain with the other like a soccer player preparing to make an instep kick, his arms with fleece for hands involved in another soccer maneuver: trying to keep an opponent at bay with two impotent defensive hooks. Spattered though he is with moss, coal dust, and dung, wobbling in the wind, the prognathous buffoon has nothing of the sycophant about him: he is as much a king as the two others if only for the inhuman brute force with which he raises his oversized head and balances it over his crustacean frame, bloated in the trunk and frail in the chest. Pride oozes from his pumice stone or whatever mineral the chisel scraped to create him. Between his nipples, illegible in the bright light, there are inscriptions, fillings, phalanges stuck on with quicklime. Or are they Roman ski-sweater patterns? And now I recall that the nearest statue, a Rodin-like bronze, wore a chain between the vaults of its rib cage and that a small container of shoe polish hung from it.
The wobbly king with the whelk-like head commands respect, even without inscriptions.
The first and third likenesses share an expression of impotence and brute resistance. The resistance is supple, as if the statues’ maker were reproducing the stone marten in man, replete with claws and teeth, fighting its way back to its one-time unity and wholeness in an almost elegant lunge, an almost bloodless passion. We make tracks, the boy and I. And then, as if a slow-motion hinge between blind spot and facial nerve had held up what we had seen and only after our strenuous run under the trees towards the yellow glow emanating from the terrace and crossing the whitewashed wall alongside the house—the Almout house I had finally reached with the aid of my paladin Verzele—let go of it, I see—while we are running, that is—the pales of a breakwater with other statues screwed upon them, like the ancient-emperor hedge that we clowns, Laurel and Hardy, were rummaging in not long before. And now in the glimmer emanating from the house and from ourselves a new field unfolds (the same but strangely altered, faded, broadened by our new position, a field we can see to the end, clearly delineated and complete). The statues are all subordinate to and grouped around one gigantic statue standing just before the staircase leading to the house on the line cutting the oval lawn in two, and as there is a gap in the hawthorn hedge surrounding the section where it stands, anyone sitting on the terrace can see it from head to toe. It is a copy of a Greek statue, but one whose proportions have not been maintained, it having been more or less adapted to the body it is meant to represent: the legs shorter, the shoulders narrower, the head too thin with too large a chin, the eyebrows growing together. The fig leaf is too big as well and has a dark rust stain on it; the leaf can probably be screwed off. The disfigured Greek is heroically brandishing a torch, and beneath his long-toed, athletic feet (made for soccer?) a bulldog is twisting its torso and grinning the grimace of death, which tautens its flabby cheeks. I would not have been surprised had one of the dog’s front paws made a V-sign or stuck a cigar between its teeth. The hero is looking not at the downed British monster but at a future (waiting, flaming, on the maize-yellow terrace) that makes him part his arched lips, ogle like an idiot, and all but drool a marble drool. And there he stands, the Man of dead white drool and frozen semen, waiting for the word that will free him, torch and all, to make the decisive kick of the match.
Next to the giant—who, compared with the other likenesses seemed an object of abject reverence or a pipedream, a god made to measure for the middle classes in the guise of a fireplace set, and in the way the spectator had to pay his homage from below because he reached only to the monument’s knees—is the portrait of a Mongol featuring all the traits I am by now familiar with: the high cheekbones, the single-line eyebrows above bright eyes curving up at the ends, the jutting chin—they are all assembled and jammed into a Russian winter cap or what I can only imagine Russian soldiers wore in their fields of snow, a variation on the leather motorcycle cap that I wore in my youth and that was lined with a short-piled silky fleece, riddled with holes (to let the air in!) and impregnated with the smell of sweat and leather (which I imagined then to be the smell of cowboys and cavalry officers), and that made my head gazing daily into the mirror look like the smooth, otherworldly glowing faces of the Stukka pilots gazing down at their instrument panels and standing next to the propellers or streamlined noses of their aircraft in the coarse-grained, offset-brown photographs in Der Adler. (Imitating the civil defense sirens on our way to school in the morning, we winged our way along the street, the terror of the neighborhood.) This cap, however, whose side straps hung down—ours constricted our hot and bloated faces—comes to a point, and the point, made of bronze like the rest of the statue, has fallen forward, as limp as a wet newspaper, and is resting on the bridge of the Man’s nose. It is decorated with black buttons, with medals and warts; moreover, the same buttons run down the armor-like breastplate of the pilot’s or parachutist’s jacket that covers him to the chin. For the first time the hero of the many faces (disguises arising more from the capricious diversity of the materials than the conscious application of the laws that turn marble, bronze, and sandstone into a portrait) shows his teeth: he is laughing, and the stumps catching the light in his mouth and forming part of a bridle or jagged muzzle or dental implement are sharpened thereby, and even if the hero’s mask, its chin resting on the breastplate and a pair of black goggles, does not belong to a familiar Fleming (Aryan!), a not particularly attentive or myopic or threatened observer—not I!—might presume that the teeth have been filed into points and inset with jewels for ritualistic purposes.
“The last time he was in Flanders he was half his former weight, and he wasn’t heavy to begin with. And he swallowed pills all day long and couldn’t stop trembling. Couldn’t sleep either: he told Madame Alice he’d seen hell, the gates of hell had opened, and he would lie there weeping in her lap, in the lap of Madame Alice. The shock of it did her in, because all of a sudden he was another man, a Crabbe no one had ever seen before, a Crabbe who could hardly keep on his feet. What had he seen? Hundreds of children dancing around a wooden tower with glass windows, and the ones who weren’t dancing were sitting on wooden horses that couldn’t turn because they had no motors. And when Crabbe and his officers walked past checking whether the Red Cross nurses were doing an honest job of distributing the hard biscuits, they saw the children fighting over them, but they didn’t stop dancing as they fought because somebody high up had ordered them to dance and they turned and turned till they dropped before they could bite into their biscuits. Because they weren’t allowed to until later. Then came inspection and they helped one another up and pushed one another into line, and they all had to wave their biscuits at Crabbe and his officers and shout Auf Wiedersehen. He went back three days later on his own, Crabbe did, and he said not a single child was alive, and it was after that he couldn’t eat, he could only take pills.” (The boy had a tic that made him laugh soundlessly: the left-hand corner of his mouth would go up, his left eye stretch to the side, and his jaws chew on air.) “He couldn’t keep anything down, poor thing: whatever he ate those first few days came right back up. Even his officers noticed. Madame Alice had forced him to go back to the Eastern Front that last time, but she got five telegrams asking where he was and they never saw him in Russia again. He had deserted, but they didn’t dare make it public at the time, of course: the White Brigade propaganda machine would have gone to town with it. Where he disappeared to, God only knows. Madame Alice says the shock did her in, seeing him that time, the man of iron who mowed down Russians without a second thought. ‘He’d faced up to it’ is how she put it. Anyway, she had Sprange summoned to the castle, but he refused to say a thing about Crabbe because the war was still on and he didn’t want to snitch on his comrade and fellow officer, and after the war he held his tongue because the concentration camps were all over the papers and he was sure he’d be implicated, and then, by way of atonement, he made all the statues in the garden.”