Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Machine in the Garden


Captain, now Major Harville, turned slowly down the highway exit ramp that took him out of Righteous City and through the rough hills some cartographer had the nerve to call mountains in this remote part of southeastern Oklahoma.

In 1962, when he was stationed at Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas, Nevada, Harville had the opportunity to see a piece of performance art. The Swiss concept artist and sculptor, Jean Tinguely, had decided to construct a special piece for the part of the world that specialized in above-ground nuclear testing. He called it "Study for an End of the World No. 2." It was, officially, a sculpture group. It self-destructed on March 2 in the presence of an audience in the desert, and 2nd Lt. Harville, newly commissioned and circling overhead.

The next day, a bright yellow-red nuclear pillar of fire would illuminate the desert sky and would fuse the surface of the earth. Harville was flying to Fallon when the test went off.

His all-too-close proximity to that pillar of truth made him vomit blood for two days.

Harville had bought a small farm on the edge of Three Horses River, not because the water was good for kayaking, or because the wild roses made natural arbors across the paths and topographic lows as they mixed with the vines that honeycombed the trees and old stone walls. Harville bought the land because the town of Righteous City had a small air strip and a munitions depot. He could fly his plane and tie it down outside the hangar. He could drive to the farmhouse, sit and gaze upon his wife and children. For a moment, the murky, dark jungle never existed. The murky and irreducible conundrum he carried around in his mind was troweled and tilled into a sweet, little garden.

It was a lie, and the twisting column of deception made him vomit bile for two days.

"Our lives are satires on the technological world," said Major Harville. His wife was not listening. "My words are satires of information society."

Either she wasn't listening, didn't care, or both. Harville's art would countervail the technological world by juxtaposing the structures and objects of an ancient religion against the structures and objects of western society as he understood it. He saw it as a Wayang Kulit performance of shadow puppets from Bali, against a backdrop of fires of napalm, of the bright, vaporizing flash of a mushroom cloud.

Before leaving town that morning on his way from the airport to Yahweh Springs, Harville stopped by the Trail of Tears Café for coffee, scrambled eggs, and biscuits with sand plum jelly. He read the "Righteous City Times" and noted that a woman convicted of poisoning her husband and drowning her paraplegic son was scheduled to die in the electric chair.

"I see myself as a patriot," she had told a reporter. "I've been holed up here for 10 years on Death Row. I'm trying to make a point here. Women are not nursemaids."

There would be no redemptive Wayang Kulit performance for her. This was not a southeast Asian archipelago. This was the West. The kinetic art in her life would be the electric chair.

Later, Tinguely's destruction machine, "Homage to New York" would exist only as a fragment -- a couple of bicycle wheels and a can.

If she had apprenticed with Tinguely, perhaps she could have made her own destruction machine instead of murdering her helpless son. The components of her art: fragments of her son's wheelchair, her husband's baseball bat (the one he used when he smashed her favorite lamp), the tin of arsenic purchased at the chemical supply company, a pair sensible pumps she wore to Sunday evening service, wires hanging down ready for plugging in to dissolve the moment in electrified, blockbuster-level spectacle.

"Both the theory of the state and the theory of so-called revolutionary dictatorship are based on this fiction of pseudo-popular representation -- which in actual fact means the government of the masses by an insignificant handful of privileged individuals, elected (or even not elected) by mobs of people rounded up for voting and never knowing what or whom they are voting for -- on this imaginary and abstract expression of the imaginary thought and will of the people, of which the real, living people do not have the faintest idea, is constructed both the theory of the state and the theory of so-called revolutionary dictatorship." She was quoting Michael Bakunin, Statism and Anarchy, but the reporter for the "Righteous City Times" did not realize it, and attributed the entire block quote to the murderess.

The tiny pink and white roses that bloomed on the bush that had gone wild and climbed up the entire west wall of the house wafted a sweetness that made him think of Laos and the textured, polyphonic music of the khene, the bamboo pipe.