The Things We've Seen ollaM zednánreF nítsugA (An Excerpt)


One morning, before setting off for the Instituto Cervantes, I called Luis to make a plan to meet up. He said that he could pick me up at five at my East River bench. I spent almost the entire morning in the library, on the first floor of the Institute, by the window that overlooks the interior courtyard and garden, with its central fountain and gravelled area, where the teachers sometimes take the students. Sitting on chairs arranged in circles, they’d play Spanish language games for beginners. I couldn’t hear them through the window, but I saw their gesticulations, full of that emotion, somewhere between the histrionic and the bashful, which comes with the sense of mastering a language. I wasn’t writing so much as looking up information on a subject that had been a side interest of mine for a number of years: the relationship between Manhattan Island and the creation of the atomic bomb in the Second World War. Not the most recondite of subjects, but not so well known either: parts of the city had served as centres for different phases of a project that in the end came to be named Project Manhattan. Really, at that moment my interest was to do with circumstance: seeing as Skyler’s specialism was war, I wanted to have something to say for myself in case I saw her again.

Come the afternoon, when I got to my bench by the East River, Luis was already sitting waiting for me, his motorbike parked a little way off. I thought to ask him why it was that he always wore black shorts. Shorts, he said, to show off the sudden tan he’d come by when he was pumped full of the pure oxygen, and black because coming out of a coma meant having been resuscitated, having left the former Luis behind, so he was in a kind of mourning for himself. We both laughed, and saw the fishermen alongside us looking uncomfortable; holding their rods, they stayed deathly silent. The eddying water, particularly lively that day, sucked down and spat up all manner of objects. Luis pointed out the stench coming off the water, a hormonal, masculine smell, as though the East River was packed with men fresh out of the gym without a shower. ‘But look, Luis, look at the way the objects all spin around and get sucked down by the water, and how other ones then instantly appear. Isn’t that what New York City itself does with everything that comes within its bounds? I could spend days looking at the river churning and still not tire of it.’

I don’t believe I’d finished making this point when there came a voice from behind us, and we both turned to look: ‘I make that same point myself, my good men, and it all boils down to trash, blessed trash.’ He was a man of about seventy, dressed in an ash-grey suit, pinstriped like a diplomat’s, with a white shirt and cufflinks, brogues, blue eyes, hair to match the suit and a moustache with tips waxed to point straight upwards, a detail that made him look astonishingly like Salvador Dalí. He sat down on the bench beside us. I was about to say something, but he started talking before I could:

‘My good men, trash is not a thing that should be recycled, the best thing is to leave it where it falls, one day we’ll be buried by all the trash, it’ll be the end of us, but not because of an excess of it, rather by default, and if we recycle it all, what will become of memory? How will we recognize our past selves if everything’s already been radically transformed? Future archaeologists won’t have any objects to work with, only files, computer files; oh, you’ll have objects, yes, but only the ones we place in museums and other sites intended to transmit the most curated samples of our world to generations to come, and all of this, my good men, will be completely worthless; bear in mind that everything useful we know about former civilizations is that which they left behind unintentionally, that which was accidentally dropped and forgotten about, the things they threw away and never bothered to gather or recycle, that’s to say, their trash, it’s this kind of random thing that truly tells us what past civilizations were like, and these things, the constants of the universe, are what join us to our forebears, because in the time to come there will be objects that neither change nor are capable of change, or, more precisely, and as paradoxical as it might seem, for a transformation to take place something has to remain the same, for example, in a chemical reaction everything changes, but the overall mass remains constant, and if it doesn’t, the change can’t take place, or, for example, consider the well-known story of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, where the main character’s personality changes, but his social environment, his home and the city he lives in go virtually unaltered, because if that weren’t so, if in that story everything changed completely, there couldn’t be a story, the narration would simply fizzle out, do you understand? Well, the same goes for trash, if we eliminate it or transform it into another thing altogether, recycle it in a wholesale way, we’ll be disconnecting ourselves from history, our history, and that would mean ending up in a kind of reality parallel to the civilizations that went before us, while, paradoxically, remaining linked to them, and I really mean this, my good men, this isn’t sci-fi I’m talking about, this is real life, anthropologically real, things that actually affect us, because if these constants cease to exist, that which we call memory would also cease to exist, for example, that bottle of water you’re holding in your hands,’ he pointed at Luis, ‘you’re going to drink it, and that will entail a transformation of that liquid inside your body, which you will then pass into the toilet at your home or right into the river here if you find yourself in need, but the only thing that will remain, the only thing to guarantee the memory of this act, of you drinking the water, is precisely the bottle, the empty bottle is the constant in the transformation of that shared water into your urine, urine that’s exclusively yours, such that if we recycle the bottle and turn it into chairs or the doors for kitchen cabinets, the act of you drinking the water will be lost forever, hence why it’s so important to bury trash, to create a ritual around it, conserving it in the same way we conserve the dead, that is, I mean, so long as we don’t treat it the same way as we sometimes treat the dead, by which I mean cremation, because I don’t know where this barbaric custom of burning bodies and scattering the ashes comes from, imagine if the Egyptians had done the same with their dead, we’d have no knowledge about their common people or their pharaohs, or no direct knowledge at least, all we’d have would be the texts they left behind, the inscriptions and papyruses, that’s assuming we were able to decipher their language correctly, because we wouldn’t be able to directly interpret their dead, do you see, my good men, what it is that I’m saying? So, with this onslaught of proliferating computer files and second-hand information, my idea is to create a union for the conservation of material in general, and for the prevention of recycling, because, believe me, otherwise everything’s going to turn into computer files; believe me when I tell you all these text and image files we upload onto the internet really are hanging over us, they hang over us like the sword of Damocles, they’re only going to come down and, wham, that’ll be the end of us, it’s like we’re Sigourney Weaver and they’re our very own Alien, such that it won’t be us keeping these photos on our hard drives and computers but the other way around, it’ll be them keeping us, do you see? And, I’ll say it again, this isn’t sci-fi I’m talking about here, I’m talking about real life stuff: Neil Armstrong goes to the moon and takes twenty photographs, the most important event of the twentieth century and there’s only twenty photographs of it, but any teenage birthday party in this city, or any other city on the planet, will generate two hundred photographs-plus, is that not grotesque? Where’s the sense in it? Where are we going to put all these images? In fact, by transforming them into digital files, files nobody will be able to read in a few years’ time, since the programs needed to open them won’t exist any more, what we’ll actually be doing is obliterating those moments, they’ll disappear and never come back, and what this amounts to is a slow but certain negation of material itself, nothing short of a disaster, but that’s not even the worst of it, my good men, now we get to the nub, by which I mean the recycling of bodies, how we hate the body, with what furious intensity do we seek to do away with it; in centuries gone by hatred of the body only manifested in war, in killing, in laying waste directly to that which lives in the flesh, but nowadays this has moved into the realm of aesthetics, I’m referring to all the different surgical techniques employed in the name of aesthetics, all the many ways there are now of transforming the flesh, because we’re obsessed with the idea that the body is something that holds back progress, that the body is, in and of itself, something harmful, that the body prevents History from progressing, and thus we seek to eliminate it, by pitching it into the mortal conflict of war, or by subjecting it to aesthetic surgery, even though this is actually the direct opposite of war: it’s us imagining the body to be eternal. Yes, war and surgery are at odds with one another, but they speak to the same thing, two sides of the same coin, each being a negation of flesh and the body; this is an idea that goes way, way back, consider, for example, cathedrals, which arrayed all their grandiose architectural excess against the human body in order that, when a person set foot inside, that body would be reduced by comparison, made altogether insignificant, in order that the human body, thus overawed and outweighed, would disappear in the face of a divinity far, far greater than it, or consider for a moment any number of modern-day architectural feats, – airports, for example, they’re a place in which the body seems willed to disappear, it’s as though the people who design and direct those aeronautical monstrosities are trying to tell you that your body is a throwback, something primitive, something that creates a drag on the flow of events, a kind of leftover superfluity that would be better off disappearing, and sooner rather than later, and tell me, is this not terrible? We create places that do not tolerate leftovers, places in which everything must circulate in a frictionless manner, no excreta, no wastage, this, my good men, is an entirely religious way of experiencing the body – and have you ever noticed the fact that most airports are designed in the shape of a cross? If you view bird’s eye images of them, you’ll see, for all the walkways and satellite terminals they may have, their basic form is a plain crucifix, like cathedrals, and this is no coincidence, the idea is that everything inside them should disappear, my good men, I haven’t been outside Manhattan in years or taken a flight for this very reason, so as not to confront this airport-crucifix, and what we see is that in airports, the idea is for everything to be recycled, they’re places in which bodies are supposed to forget the flesh, to leave it behind, turn it into a computer file to circulate from place to place with no deterioration whatsoever, everything that goes on in there is part of a great aesthetic surgery, as if there were one gigantic body with portions of flesh being continually removed; we’re at war, believe me, we’re at war, it’s the conservation of material versus the disappearance of the flesh, remembering versus forgetting, hence my interest in everything to do with trash, the conservation of trash, in a sense we ought to be its guardians, there aren’t enough rites or temples, however big, to do justice to the waste we create, this is why when I saw you here, sitting so neatly, so diligently, so alike to a couple of altar boys in the face of something you don’t even understand, sitting so symmetrically, even, before this churning river – which you gaze upon, but clearly don’t understand – I felt sorry for you both, don’t be offended but I did feel very sorry for you, because this great spiralling mass, the origin and destination of which are both unknown, represents the trash that’s been spat out after a great deluge, that which the storm washes through, and it seems to me that the soul of trash must by necessity reside in this churning mass, a soul I go looking for, I look for it every day in the streets, I’ve spent years looking for it, and, my good men, I want to take this moment to tell you that I have written a great deal concerning this city, I have dedicated a number of books almost exclusively to it, and there are my memoirs as well, which doubtless you’re aware of given their worldwide fame, this city makes innumerable appearances in all my work, and, every time it does, what I’m actually seeking to do is this: to find the soul of its trash. Allow me to tell you a story now, the story of what this was all like when I first came to the city, but first you’ll have to allow me to go off on a tangent and make a few clarifications as well. Are you in a hurry at all?’ ‘No, no,’ we both said, almost in unison, and not knowing very well why. ‘Well, as you’ll see, there are certain subjects that, by their nature, generate paradox, apparently irresolvable problems we struggle to comprehend, and one such subject is computation, something to be expected given that any union between humans and machines can’t help but produce serious objections of a philosophical kind. In 1965, the computational theorist Edsger Dijkstra put forward what he called the paradox of the dining philosophers, which is simple enough, and I believe can be stated in the following way: five philosophers sit around a circular table to debate ideas and eat noodles. As you know, in order to eat noodles, you need two chopsticks, but in this case, each philosopher has only one chopstick, situated on their left-hand side. If they all decide to eat at the same time, and they see that in order to do this they each have to take the chopstick belonging to the person on their right, they’ll remain eternally blocked, forever waiting, one among them needing to let someone else use their chopsticks so that at least one of the others may eat. Thus, prevented from eating their noodles, sooner or later all will die of hunger. In the field of computation, this situation is known as death by starvation, and it comes about when one computer is indefinitely denied access to a resource shared with other computers, so that, as occurs with the philosophers and their noodles, it’s impossible for the computer to carry out its task, putting it into a self-defeating loop before it eventually burns out. But what I want to draw your attention to is the lapse before that death, the lapse during which the philosophers sit with chopsticks raised, in suspension, on pause. This pause mode is something I find to be of tremendous significance. When I used to fly, I’d never wear those travel pillows that get prescribed for cervical pain, and yet, many years ago, the last time I took a flight, from Madrid to New York, to be specific, in the hope of some respite from intense back pain I’d been suffering since falling off a cliff in Port Lligat, I did wear one of those travel pillows, which I’d bought at MadridBarajas itself, and had a rather silly design featuring a multitude of Bugs Bunnys and Tweety Birds. The flight attendants soon came round to perform their mechanical handouts of the food trays, and, hoping it would help me to sleep, and though I’m not a drinker, I asked for a glass of red wine and some water, which it was my custom to mix in equal parts when travelling. Then, when the cabin lights were dimmed, and only the emergency exit signs were left on, conferring on the low-lit space the sensation of truly being inside a temple, I decided I’d watch one of the in-flight movies. To my surprise, in among the rom-coms and kids’ movies, one of the options was The Shining. I couldn’t even remember how many years it had been since I’d seen that movie. Soon enough I was presented with the opening images in which the family, driving in their Volkswagen Beetle, come winding along the freeway in the Rocky Mountains, one of them pointing out that pioneer wagon trains had become lost in the same area, and, after months without food, those pioneers had been forced to resort to cannibalism. The trio in the car went into great, mechanical detail on that macabre story, as though they were a machine, as though, within the first minute of the movie, they were all dead already. Their conduct wasn’t so different, I thought then, to that of the air stewardesses obliging me to choose between the chicken or pasta options a few minutes earlier in metallic, megaphone voices. I believe I closed my eyes shortly before the famous part where the twin girls hold hands. I can’t say how long exactly I slept for, but when I opened my eyes again the movie was still playing, and the cabin was still dark. I raised my blind a crack; it was dark outside as well. The mixture of wine and water had had its effect, the moment had come to eliminate that which the body didn’t need. I pressed pause on the screen, extracted myself from the Bugs Bunny-Tweety Bird travel pillow, and went to the bathroom. I was quick. On my return, having made my seatmate get up once again – she was trying to sleep too – I was about to press play, but the still image on the screen made me hold off. To my astonishment, the twins had been directly overlaid by the columns of the pause icon, columns that were also twins. It seemed such an extraordinary coincidence to me that I took a picture of it. I’ve got it here, look: