Friday, February 20, 2009

Statues and the Line to the Eye Hospital by London Archaeologist

I passed the eye hospital, its green line on the pavement one knows, paradoxically, for the benefit of the patients. 

What do they see, those who need that line to see? Clearly the answer is the line, clearly, the rest something of a blur. But the answer misses the point of the question. The line also makes you think of others, invokes others following it who see other things: a people, for instance, inhabiting a world narrow, green, straight, a people for whom not only is light green, but green light, the medium of all sight, a people of heliolators, for instance, following this line, the source of life itself, its origin and end, on its path from below to salvation. That you don't see such people passing, of course, along through their narrow world, cannot be taken to exclude their existence, just as perhaps they don't see us. It's enough to see the line to know they're there.

I was reflecting on windows, and a question no less real for sounding idle: the eye being a window onto the soul, the window, then, is an eye onto what? The simple answer would be a house, for instance, from the outside, or the street, from the in, and it would, of course, be true.

But it would again miss something implied in the question, that we know to be true about certain windows.

Across the road from the eye hospital is one I often pass, into an antiques shop. There is no particular reason why an archaeologist should like antiques, and I, personally, never did. Lose pieces, I found, they float around the world sawn from context in a growing mess of puzzles, making me despair for the archaeologists of the future. Antiques dealers, for me, were an especially cursed bunch, raiding the tomb that the past would have been for the future and dissolving its stories in cash.

Even the museum, though, sometimes horrified something in the back of my mind.

I remember taking the one I shall call Jessica to the Museum of London, showing her round, and surprising in myself a feeling at the time I wouldn't have been able to describe, I suspect, had I dared try. As we approached the same fragment of Apollo in the Museum of London that I had dug with my team from Walbrook mud, I increasingly felt, creeping to a pitch far in excess of the pride that had at first been mounting, another, deeper sense of a shame tinged with fear, that made me realise that I would be unable to point it out or refer to my role in its discovery.

 The problem, I told myself, was that, when for your life you root in the ground, you come to appreciate the story as it appears there as the real exhibit, a hidden fruit just as you find it ripe for sight, which, sorted, cleaned and classified, on display, appears to loose that heady presence, comes to tell you by its mute desiccation more acutely about your own lack of vision than it does about the colourful superstitions of the past. Afterwards I was able largely to laugh off what in its own way, I decided, was a superstition - the diminished god with the pretty moue, dead in the present, somehow still alive in the past before our science and the future after, furious, waiting to return.

But, since then, no longer an archaeologist of the past, I find myself noticing things in the present of more pressing concern to me now than ever.

That the chance coming together of a mirror leaning on a fireplace, a street and its passers by, a spot, should be made by a window to reveal expectation, melancholy in a pair of statues, an inquisitive yearning to partake in life that is evidence of life itself: this was something I should never have hoped for either from the ground as a harbinger of information or in displays; that a line so manifestly intended for hospital visitors should be conveying these streams of others unseen.

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