I am sorry to confess that I belong to that class of unworthy individuals before whom the spirits
cease their activities and the supernatural disappears.
I came upon this monument on a dismal, autumnal day in September 1967. It was in the midst of a cold, discomforting downpour. Such a haunted, solitary moment; the deserted garden path stretched ahead, strewn with slippery, sodden leaves.
Suddenly that famous phrase from Nadja echoed in my head; it was very loud and insistent – I just had to stop:
“La beaute sera CONVULSIVE ou ne sera pas.”
I not only heard this phrase, I also saw the words, floating before me, printed in black type on a slip of yellowing paper torn from the pages of the very book itself. It was a sign. I knew it was a sign.
A curious semi-palpable aureole hovered about a white, obelisk-like pillar surmounted by a portrait bust. This same unearthly effulgence enveloped a kneeling figure, the supernatural apotheosis of all those obscure desires now arising spontaneously from the chaotic tangle of my most disconsolate memories. Images and words crowded in upon me.
Here, between Embankment and The Strand, overlooked by the looming façade of the Savoy Hotel. Here, where, in a previous age, the river itself had once flowed. Here where, now, from the corner of my eye, I could see a solitary street-lamp – the centre of attraction for city ghosts dissolving into mist – I apprehended the exact locality of that trans-temporal Aleph-point identified by the poet as the confluence of all disparate trajectories, all worlds, all creations. It was the intersection of dream and reality; the conscious and the unconscious. It was the place of convergence for all vital planes of magnetic attraction momentarily displaced is such a way as to cast doubt upon any or all interpretations of the word ‘normal’.
I could not doubt that the monument’s identity had been transfigured by own presence. A drastic subversion had been initiated by an intricate but indeterminate interaction of chance events; a chain of inter-linked encounters, culminating in my arrival in the gardens at that precise moment.
I observed the posture of the grieving figure, the angle of the funeral wreath (disregarded by absent mourners) – all these factors or facets of the scene overwhelmed me in a disorientating flash. I somehow experienced a fractured instant of instantaneous, supra-temporal, ecto-somatic trans-location, yet I remained rooted to the very spot. I knew this disclosure would haunt every moment of my future existence. It was a sexual effect of unknown significance; unknown and imponderable, but important, even if Freud himself disavowed all credibility with regard to the bizarre forces implicit in the nature of such intersections. I disregarded the discomfort of the rain.
Indeed there was a kind of convulsion, sparking a profusion of chance-engendered feelings, illuminating an instant transformation in perception, in seeing. It was a radical Aestheticisation (if I may use such a term) of the intrinsic qualities of the monument – and of the moment. This convulsion was caused by the dissociation of the monument from its intended, ostensible function; from its purpose, from its object of remembrance. It was no longer linked in any way to those operettas, however satirical, entertaining, ingenious or melodic, with which, for some reason, the name Sullivan is associated.
I saw at once that it was inconceivable that the remote, demiurgic creator – long departed – of this aesthetically displaced artefact had ever dreamed how passers-by, strollers or any other dispassionate observers, would associate his excruciating, miraculous assemblage with the production of comic operas.
No – It is out of the question.
No – It cannot be.
No – I will never believe it!
Yes, Freud himself must often have felt unworthy, but his words
“…and the supernatural disappears…”
re-surfaced again in my mind, at the very instant of dissociation.
The sound of this second phrase, repeated indefinitely, accompanied by the distant clamour of bells, triggered a sequence of stark, black-and-white images. There was an iron mask; a twisted, contorted female figure (half-naked, hiding her face, pressing a bare breast against the stone slippery with rain); the portrait bust of a Victorian musician shrouded in fog; a pattern in the ether caused by a distant scream.
The phrase was replaced by these lines from a poem:
As when some oriental veil
Removed reveals a treasured tomb – S. R.
The Autumn is almost Winter – B. B.
I open my eyes yet see nothing – N. C. M.
Again, as vivid awareness of the present returned, I saw, with exaggerated clarity, an oblivious crowd hurrying from Embankment Place up into Villiers Street lined with restaurants, or, emerging from the shadows, a courting couple from Blackheath loitering in Watergate Walk.
What can it mean?
This entity, I thought, is an incursion of sur-reality: No, Surrealism was not dead. No, the statue was not of necessity a memorial to “the ruin of the Cartesian-Kantian edifice”, or whatever – but it was, perhaps, an intrusion from a different, divergent domain. Perhaps it was neither a limit nor a frontier. I knew it was the very opposite of literature. It was most certainly an inexplicable symbol of autonomous freedom and it occupied a zone of being where light expires and the Dark Night begins.
True, it was an opaque phenomenon, but at least it was here.
I found it was delicate to the touch and, to my mind, incredibly beautiful. With its five-stringed lyre it was like a constellation.
It exemplified a mode of visual alchemy forming ex nihilo, out of nowhere.
It had taken shape now because the gardens were a vacant, borderline space; a lacuna in the city between two bridges (Waterloo and Hungerford, hidden from me behind shimmering rainbow cascades of rain). It was still, of course, a monument, but it was no longer a memorial.
Erotic-veiled, as Andre Breton said, it was also explosive-fixed. It was a concrete tribute to transient Otherness; to the ephemeral, inadvertent, magic-circumstantial enigmacity of melodramatic kitsch.
“On ne sera pas…” you whispered (you were so cool), becoming, for me at last, if not least, a window looking out onto delirious skies – an osmotic process of mutable fixation. It was a compulsive para-myth and the long-delayed annunciation of a new poetry, transfigured by longing.
It was, vertiginously, an object in a state of crisis, if not trance. Half-aesthetic, it was half-absurd; it was an occult inspiration.
It was a sign.
The monument to Arthur Sullivan by Sir W. Goscombe John
is in the Victoria Embankment Gardens,
Image: unknown photographer, edited by ACE
A C Evans