Sunday, December 9, 2012

Imaginary Exhibits: Secret Stairways to the Sacred

At the top of the steps, a minotaur? A play? Remedios Varo?
By gutter (Flickr) [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
An unexpected stairwell is always an invitation. Better to go up than down. In the dream museum, there is always a hidden flight of steps. Half-lit, beckoning, a dim lamp of possibility hanging just beyond the turn. Curved pathways are good for mystery, but steps that disappear around a bend are better; there is more revelation in the ascent than the descent, and we are more prone to awe when we are looking up. To discover a hidden stair is a delight -- to suffer the delicate suffusion of curiosity and adventure, the possibility that the stairway is forbidden, or goes nowhere, to someone's house or to some boring offices, and the faint suppressed twinge of longing to be let, at last, to see behind the scenes. Not into the prop-room, or the straight-armed forest of the struts holding up the sets, but into the heart of the mysteries, the proof that places hold wonders behind their wooden masks. So this stair leads higher, always just bending out of sight, and at the end of it -- something you think perhaps you weren't supposed to see, and yet exists, of course, for you alone. A balcony over a ballroom where the elements waltz in their feathers of lead and gold; a tiny, shining garden with walls that drip and whisper; a white chapel with walls of chalk where you can hear your heartbeat echo and reverberate, an amplified, insistent thrumming; a mystic play enacted in a noble silence; a room that rains music; an altar to an unknown goddess. There is a delight half-sacred, half-profane at thinking you have glimpsed (at last!) the startled face of Mystery behind the fallen corner of a veil. Whatever happens, you must not come down by the same stair, but descend another way; and it will always be difficult to find the stair again, and sometimes you will not find it at all.

By Clemens PFEIFFER (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0],
via Wikimedia Commons
Better still are steps that thread not through the known quantity of a building, no matter how infolded, labyrinthine, or nested, but wind hidden into a hillside. A city is best, a city overlooking the sea even better. They will look like steps to someone's house, or a path to a back garden, because who would put a narrow stairway here, tracing the amber-beamed glimpses of diamond-paned kitchens, the shadowed patios sunk under the sunlight, the forgotten veins of knee-deep clover and eucalyptus? The stairs should be steep, and narrow, and only a little uneven underfoot; but the path they take will not be straight. Deer came here once, and Prospero's ghost after his exile stood knee-deep weeping in the morning glories. If you turn to look behind you there is only the green throat of foliage and the flung rooftops, or else, at night, the dark backs of the hillside and the lonely, lovely coronets of distant lamps. After the rain, the eucalyptus cracks underfoot and lets loose its pungent, bitter fragrance, a gray-green scent the color of your yearning to be in on the joke, to share with those steps some intimate and sacred secret that the dull people in the houses have never glimpsed or guessed. You will find no secret but the fierceness of the longing for a secret. They will take you nowhere, those steps, and you will come down with your heart full of a singing strangeness, having arrived always a moment too late to see the temple vanishing.

1 comment:

  1. There's an important, "secret" stairway in House... but it goes down. But that's metaphoric. Or will be.


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