Thursday, September 16, 1993

by Margaret Crane & Scott MacLeod

You’ll take the first step without knowing what is ahead. This is the only way to approach the monument. Climb the wide marble stairway from Market and 18th streets up into the saddle of Twin Peaks. Here’s the catch: the park surrounding the Daniel Burnham Monument is accessible from 360 degrees around, from anywhere on the promenade which encircles the park like a pearl necklace, but the only way the monument can be seen is to approach it from the East. It is invisible from any other angle of approach - invisible to the casual eye.

Obsessively, you count the steps. On the 641st step, you almost change your mind. Of what use to you, after all, is a memorial to a dead man? On the 812th step, you forget what it is you’re looking for, forget what’s ahead, forget what you don’t know. Between the 870th step and the 1,139th step you remember most of what you’d forgotten, recall much of what you used to know.

On the 1,349th and final step you return to yourself, a little winded. Turning, you stare down at the achingly white steps you’ve climbed. You experience the dizzying sensations of accomplishment and awe. This is the political dimension of vertigo.

Directly in front of you the Radiant City uncoils itself like a Bengal tigress in the bright sunshine. The morning feels like a fresh white shirt on a newly made bed. The fine, incomparably woven tissue of the day fits you perfectly.

Fifty meters down the slope, a group of people lounge on a patio over cocktails. All the men are in tuxedos. The women wear saris or bikinis or satin gowns. You aren’t invited. A piano plays a suave jazzy tune - something about how the exploitation of the world market leads to the cosmopolitan character of consumption.

Pulling your eyes away from the glittering happy hour, you turn and walk across the circular marble terrace towards a redwood grove. The trees change scale, looming taller and distending more thickly than nature can tolerate. They lean with swollen branches precariously overhead until their screaming roots rip free of the thin California dirt. And - Boom! - the landscape vanishes, like the facade of a house as you enter it. Blue distance, which never gives way, can never be restored.

You prowl between enormous rusted trunks of iron redwoods. Your unlived life engulfs you with the odor of kerosene and roasting meat. Transfiguration is the only desirable telepathic miracle. Here, at the top of the world, the threatening future becomes the fulfilled past. Your imagination juggles the seen with the real, the imagined with the remembered. Ambiguity displaces authenticity. You arrive at the concession stand.

While waiting in line to buy a Daniel Burnham key ring and a Radiant Grape Soda, you ask yourself this question: what if the theory that feeling is not located in the head is correct? What if we experience a window, a cloud or a tree not in our brains but, rather, in the place where we see it? What if our experience exists in the landscape or in the house, not in our minds? What if the world is no electro-chemical cyclone in the eddies between neurons but rather we are something like the world’s breath, condensed for a millisecond on a windshield of sunlight? Our emotions, dazzled, flutter outside of us like a flock of birds in the radiance.
Ahead of you, through the redwoods, you can see the monument to Daniel Burnham - the man who built the ephemeral city - that city that floats like an invisible network of unresolved possibilities - the city that never was.

The monument is indistinct and shadowy. Language requires speed and lightness above all. This cenotaph consists of different pieces. And the names of each piece are well known. The Daniel Burnham Monument is tangled up in discord. Utopia and cynicism clash. this is the aesthetics of the margin. Catastrophe. Look at the monument. Systems break down before your eyes. The sweaty grunting crowd pushes you forward.

Now it’s time to get your bearings: The monument is on a white granite boulder on a gray marble base. It is on a small man-made island in the center of a tiny symmetrical artificial lake at the summit of a large hill at the center of a modern city on a peninsula between a bay and an ocean. What can you do with such a thing as this, other than admire its psychedelic elegance?

Confused, you open your guidebook and read: If you start to believe something new, you must cease to believe in something old.

When you look up again from the page, the monument has disappeared. All that remains is the inscription: Everything new, even happiness, strikes terror.

The Roman-style letters hang in midair. They burn with a golden liquid radiance. You move forward into the glow, push the shining words out of your way. The crowd hangs back. A flight of stairs leads you deep into the ground. At the bottom of the stairs, the ocean booms and roils. Step by step you bury yourself in the earth. The sky buttons itself up behind you. The tang of salt air grows stronger as you descend. The majestic ocean grows closer. You can feel a sharp mist on your exposed skin. Suddenly everything is gone. You are standing in a dark chamber hollowed from solid rock. You are alone except for the monument.

Its dark marble base is nearly invisible in the gloom. On top of it the irregular white granite stone seems to glow with some mysterious radiance that eats away at the rock from within until slowly nothing is left except light itself. Matter transforms itself into energy. You become aware of something dark hidden within the center of the glowing stone. A two-foot length of rusted iron chain hangs, suspended and somewhat slack, in the center of the brilliance. Or rather: two one-foot sections - the chain has been broken.

Many years later, somewhere in some run-down former colonial capital in some god-forsaken foreign country, you will find an exact replica of the Daniel Burnham Monument. This other, identical monument commemorates the brief shining life of a revolutionary hero. So hated was that poignant monument, by revolutionaries and reactionaries alike, that it was buried by a few to save it from desecration by the many. Deep in the subsoil, you will find this other monument, complete with rusty chains, granite blocks, a concrete frame, heaps of gravel, and the lamp where light does not flame to reanimate the marble bust.

The ocean pounds against the rocks under your feet. What do you see, under the ground, in the dark? Wistfully, you remember the view of the city from the top of the hill. Outside in the fresh air, you are also buried, surrounded by a material more viscous than earth.