The tree of the world, like every other tree, at the beginning of the season of vegetation puts out tiny delicate golden leaves which with time acquire a dark green hue and a silvery sheen. Then they become yellow and red as if they were burning in a live flame and when they have burned their last they go brown and fall to earth ragged and full of holes akin to pieces of paper turned to ash or rusted-through tin cans. From the first moments when the greenery is freshest and the greatest number of birds are singing among the branches the damp and dark countertree is growing into the depths of the earth, infested with vermin. The underground trunk is an extension of the trunk above ground; every bough is connected by an invisible water duct to a counterbough oppressed by tons of earth.
As the season of vegetation draws to a close the tree of the world is laden with fruit. The fruit ripens, falls and rots. In each fruit there is a seed and in that seed the germ of the tree and the countertree, crown and root. All the future seasons of vegetation await their turn in the seeds, in the germs, in the germs of the germs. The fruit belongs to the tree but contains within itself a whole future tree along with the fruit that will grow upon it.
The cities that ripen on the tree of the world are enclosed in shape like apples. Each is the same: Every one is different. An embodiment of a singular possibility from the register of the possible is the very name written above the railroad platforms. One river-a second is unnecessary-fixes its course definitively once and for all. One list of streets, one zoological garden. The inhabitants know by heart the colors of the clouds and of the plaster. Whatever comes to be can no longer be any different. When one thing is given to them another must be taken away. Every glance of theirs is accompanied by an awareness of loss. Crossing the city, they keep feverishly imagining what could yet be. If for instance the river flows broad and sluggish, passing shoals of sand, sooner or later they will create the other river, which was not given to them, deep and rapid, with steep banks overgrown with weeds. And so when the city germinates, when it ripens and when it rots, it contains within itself all possibilities at once, and the entire plan of the world. It is part and whole, infinitude and a godforsaken backwater, a particle in the world and at the same time an abyss into which the world vanishes-tiny as a fly in the ointment. For the rule that governs larger and smaller wholes declares that the small is contained in the large and the large in the small. And it is only thanks to this that the world fit into itself. And it is only in this way that it can endure. Because otherwise it would have nowhere to go.
When the tree of life burned in a live flame and its leaves turned to ash and fell from its branches it was not long before something began to sprout from a stray seed. Why did it happen at that particular time, why in that place and why in that way? It was determined by the unrepeatable properties of the season, by the quality of the soil and by the winds. It could not have been otherwise. There began to grow simultaneously public buildings and residential buildings, large, medium-sized and smallish, soaring or squat, sumptuous or plain. They grew out from under the earth and climbed upward encased in wooden scaffolding in clouds of lime dust amid confusion and uproar with the creaking of wheelbarrows, the scrape of trowels, sudden warning shouts and the dull thud of falling bricks.
No one knows where the power came from that set all this in motion and caused the walls to thrust upward. Nor how many spadefuls of earth had to be dug out for a single excavation to appear. Nor how much a person must toil before walls appear over the rim of the excavation, to say nothing whatsoever of roofs, window frames or plaster. The destiny of the seed is to swell and sprout; the power that lies within it serves that purpose alone. It is this power that draws the sand and lime into the circulation of substances necessary for the walls to rise. The mounds of loamy soil required faith, like the water that awakens life. Faith filled the hearts of those transporting cement and passing bricks. The mounds of earth absorbed as much of it as they could. At that time there was no shortage of faith, as opposed to knowledge, of which it seems there was as yet little. For only a person who did not know the dimensions of the task that had been undertaken could dig like this without fear in the face of the avalanche of further obligations that would inevitably be unleashed. There was only one way it could have been stopped: by filling in the excavations as quickly as possible so that there was nothing left to complete.
Not one doubt clouded their minds; the bricklayers believed in the vertical and the horizontal and also in mortar. And they believed firmly that everything the mind creates (even safety pins, even rosin) ought to exist in the world. No one doubted that in a city there should be streets and so also water carts to sprinkle the streets on hot days when they get dusty. And trams and trucks that would drive day and night from one suburb to another and back again. That it was necessary to create chauffeurs, mechanics, drivers and ticket collectors, nurses and police officers.
In order to summon this whole throng to life it was enough to sew denim overalls, white aprons with stiff caps and uniforms of gray woolen cloth. But machines were required to produce the yarn and to stitch the clothes and also needles, tailors’ shears and so on. The world had barely appeared yet already everything was needed, and immediately too. Necessary things and the tools essential in their manufacture, without distinction, preferably at the same time. And raw materials: steel, coal, kerosene, paper and ink, not forgetting the yellow oil paint for painting the walls in waiting rooms.
Such a great accumulation of urgent needs engendered frenetic haste, tension and uncertainty. For what ought to come first, the lathe or the screw for it, the cast iron or the great furnace, the egg or the hen? The world had only just emerged from its primordial chaos when it found itself at once faced with a colossal task fit for the hands of giants, a task as vast as the world itself and laborious as the threading of a needle; a job whose boundlessness swallowed without a trace the first clods of earth removed from where the foundations of future factories were to be laid.
Ebonite telephones were produced, into which people had to shout at the top of their lungs, covering one ear with a hand; and cardboard folders tied with ribbons; black typewriters; indelible pencils; and many other things. There appeared massive inkstands made of thick glass, wooden blotters lined with blotting paper that bore navy blue stains, mounts for pen nibs and the nibs themselves. The furniture smelled of fresh polish. The dark red of signs blossomed on the walls, proclaiming the advent of times of granite and sandstone on slabs that weighed two tons apiece: the beginning of the era of immense blocks of gray marble and all other durable building materials, grand in nature, as if they had been created for the decoration of monumental façades and interiors. The core of the city however was a round billion of red bricks, more real than anything else at all. Each of them had passed through many hands and all disappeared beneath the plaster and the sandstone facing. Coarse fragments remained which children would play with in the courtyards for a long time to come.
In those happy times all future days seemed altogether fresh and tidily arranged, like young leaves that have not yet emerged from the bud. Every boy would become a pilot and every little girl a schoolteacher. And in the school cloakrooms leather flying caps hung in anticipation, while on every scrap of concrete there appeared classrooms crookedly outlined in white chalk. Everything was possible. The world looked orderly, the foundations were deep, the walls thick, the pipes brand new. At the thought of “the world” what came to mind was above all that which can be touched: walls and pipes, loose sand, soft clay, cold water, rough fragments of red brick, lime dust. And that which can only be observed from afar, but that always returns to its place at the proper time of the day and year: the sun and the stars in the sky, the flag fluttering in the breeze. And also that which is always there and about which one never thinks: the air in one’s lungs, the earth underfoot. It was trodden confidently, in certainty that it truly existed.
The growth of a city in many respects resembles the growth of a tree. Two intersecting streets laid out in the beginning sprout ever more numerous cross-streets, which in time send out their own and so on without end. Successive intersections arise, soft surfaces are paved over, a network of water pipes expands, hidden beneath the ground. A tree grows through the vitality of the seed and the juices drawn from the earth but the shape and density of the crown depend on the person who trims the branches with pruning shears. The city too grows through power and faith. But its layout quite evidently depends on the way the foundations are set down. Thus in analyzing the arrangement of the streets it is possible to discern the will and the beliefs that have left their stamp on it.
The arrangement of the streets in turn was devised in such a way as to thwart chance occurrences and to avert convoluted thoughts. Since life is from a certain perspective only a replication of urban design, order in the city compels order in the mind. The creators of the plan, whoever they were, achieved their purpose though they did not trust in architecture and scorned the tricks of city planning. No detail was overlooked in their decisions; they presented their demands in raised voices and took complications in their stride, hammering their fists upon the table. They did not have to adapt their intentions to fit the rules of an art foreign to them. The defiant simplicity of their treatments indicates that in fact they were proud of this. They knew nothing of logarithms but they understood that complexity is a cause of error. They sought a principle of construction that would determine the form of the city conclusively and comprehensively and would always protect it from the destructive influence of ambiguity.
Here it must be explained categorically that the guiding principle of a city can be the right angle, the meander or the star. It is this that shapes the course of events that will play out in the city from the very beginning of its existence: the meetings, the collisions, the coincidences. To say nothing of the circulation of the clouds. From the blueprint emerge the exigencies of life, from the examples in textbooks come the laws of physics, never the other way around.
For example a city of right angles is such that the location of one thing in relation to another signifies no more than distance and direction. Space cannot absorb or convey any substance beyond the purely practical, superficial, and indifferent. Every corner is equally important. Monuments are merely figures of stone besoiled by pigeons. The value of land, regulated by supply and demand, can easily be expressed in currency. The vacillations of stock prices are subject to no one’s will. There exists no force capable of tipping the equally laden scales. Nothing that would ensure the appearance of only heads or only tails on coins spun in the air. Nothing that would make every card drawn from the pack turn out to be the ace of hearts or alternately the two of spades. Through a point that does not lie on a straight line it is only ever possible to draw one straight line parallel to the first. For this reason even justice here is as pedantic as geometry, devoid of inspiration or panache, predictable.
The principle of the meander turns streets into a chaotic labyrinth, creating countless numbers of figures of various shapes on top of each other and permeating one another, any of which may turn out to be part of a larger whole. A city that conforms to the principle of the meander will prove filled with tempting or terrifying possibilities, appetizing or nauseating leftovers, enticing or repulsive smells, and mingled sounds: shop sign against shop sign, rickshaw on rickshaw, without a single centimeter of free space. From every square a variety of streets leads to the next square, making the inhabitants’ heads spin and their eyes flit about in every direction, their minds cluttered with the perpetual weighing of alternatives. Everything turns out to be relative, while the observation of relations of consequence, the attribution of effects to causes, the laying down of parallel lines, and the dispensation of justice are not possible at all.
Only the inhabitants of a city built according to the design of the star are never faced with the necessity of choice. They are obliged to move around in straight lines, yet in a certain sense all straight lines there are parallel. In every place only one appropriate road meets the eye. And so the calm pedestrians look directly ahead, which gives them an expression of infinite patience. The main streets there lead radially to the most important point, which marks the true center. In it is situated the heart of the city. From here the whole city is clearly visible; in the twinkling of an eye one can see right through it along with all its interiors, even its telephone wells, its storm drains and its rows of cellars. It contains within itself a lasting record of the order of the world to which it belongs and an invaluable ready outline of the values that will be assigned to the things it contains. The gravitational force of the objects placed in the scales will depend not only on their mass but above all on their estimated value. Thanks to the shrewdness of these estimations it will transpire that things that have not occurred will often be more worthy of praise or scorn than those that have actually taken place.
On clean drafting paper it is easiest to draw rectangles. Thanks to the mechanical properties of draftsmen’s instruments, they multiply on its surface of their own accord, leaving no room for other shapes. Stars, on the other hand, originate in the mind. There, far from earth, this breeding ground of ants and worms, they glitter all at once, and their irrepressible rays slice through the darkness. But no one knows where the meander comes from; it is foreign to sober reason that aids the movements of set squares, and foreign, too, to luminous imaginings. Its twisting form is evidence of the resistance presented to the essence of the meander by the set square and rule and also by the thought guiding the pencil. The star’s ray bends in the field of attraction of every rectangle and having broken free seeks its straight path anew-and then again and once more always without success. The intricacy of the drawing demonstrates that the design of the star, woven from dreams, is incongruent with the worldly design of right angles arising from lines drafted on paper. But between the forces of the rectangle and the star a state of equilibrium may emerge and be sustained amid the meanders of ideology and dry calculation.
And what about the intention of putting down lines? Why did the draftsmen begin to draw them instead of waiting for them to appear by themselves on the surface of the paper or even in space? In ordering the lines to be drawn the builders revealed their belief in one of the possible truths that could be thought, for an assumption that would always remain a matter of faith since it was by nature unverifiable. Though it remains a supposition it is not hard to interpret. It proclaims that it is not the power of germinating seeds and not the pressure of juices circulating between the roots and the crown that give the world life but that it is set in motion by motors, gears, and cogs, devices that keep the sun and stars rotating, pull the clouds across the horizon and drive water along the bed of the river. The clarity and simplicity of this notion may prove salutary. They will make it possible to dismantle, repair and reinstall every broken component-so long as the world is composed only of separate and removable parts and any process can be corrected independently of all the others without worrying that the whole will become imbalanced. Put another way, cities based on stars and cities based on right angles are superior to cities based on meanders, so long as the world is a machine.
The builders had the privilege of certainty. They knew truths that were not subject to doubt. But they kept them to themselves. Where now can one find the certainty that the world is a machine since in so many respects it resembles a tree? Like the tree with its countertree, so each object in the world is linked to its counterobject and all that is visible is connected with something that is invisible. Between the visible and the invisible parts of the tree there is a perpetual flow of juices from the roots to the leaves. As they turn yellow and fall off, the leaves quit the heights of boughs and return where their substance came from-the roots. They become dark and damp like the roots, they mingle with earth and water and when invisible they are drawn within them. Despite the life-giving flow of juices the separation of the tree from the countertree is technically feasible. The builders would cut down trees successfully. Though here it should be noted that during this operation life slips away from both parts. The same happens with anything else: After the visible part is separated from the invisible part everything withers and shrivels up. Not everything, say some, and they also know a thing or two. But what survives will turn out to be part of a theatrical set or a dream.
It is hard to work when it is unclear which truth should be adhered to. When we think of the world as a tree we see a tree, when we think of it as a machine it is a machine. In both cases observations corroborate one’s assumptions, in both cases everything falls into place. Things are not provided with any telltale sign; there is no maxim to which one can appeal. Anyone who says, “it is a tree,” will immediately think of a machine; whoever says, “it is a machine,” will think at once of a tree. For this reason the expressions “it is a tree” and “it is not a tree” in essence mean the same thing. Would it not be better if the creators of the project were right? They treated the world as if it were a machine and were prepared at any moment to remove and repair whatever needed it. And thanks to the certainty that was their lot, separating objects from counterobjects turned out to be childishly simple. For a machine contains nothing that can be destroyed during the act of separation. It is inanimate by assumption and from the beginning and no one expects things to be otherwise. After the casing is removed the parts can be seen. There is no secret here, nothing elusive, nothing that cannot be touched. Even the rules governing the breakdown of parts are utterly plain. It is clear that they are associated with dust and water vapor finding their way into the mechanism. If the world is a machine then the separation of object from counterobject must begin with the sealing up of the casing. And from the construction of a vault that will rest on solid ground. By this means the upper and lower waters will be parted and from that moment it will be obvious what is the top and what is the bottom, what is order and permanence and what is chaos and change. And only then will it be possible to distinguish night from day.
From Dreams and Stones, forthcoming from Archipelago Books. By arrangement with the publisher.