Jeroen van Honk

Jeroen van Honk is a writer living in Leiden, The Netherlands. He writes both fiction and non-fiction and likes to confuse readers as to which is which. His short stories have been published in The Quotable and Eyeshot, among others.

In and Out of the Marvellous

In the early days of cinema, moving images were often perceived as something akin to a magic trick. Most likely this had something to do with the veracity of the images; audiences famously bolted out of a room when a train drove straight toward the lens. Arthur C. Clarke once famously remarked that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” yet that is not quite what is going on here. After all, most people understand how film works, that it is little more than a rapid succession of images. With moving images, the emphasis is not so much on the “magic” as on the “trick”: the movement we see before our eyes is only an implied movement. Our brains fill in the blanks.

Nevertheless, the invention of film, together with Freud’s revolutionary theories of the mind, led philosopher Henri Bergson to evolve a new theory of what he called “psychological time.” Bergson sought to make a distinction between time as discussed in science and time as perceived by human beings. He argued vehemently that a purely scientific notion of time would not suffice. In particular, he was trying to account for the commonplace observation that time can move faster or slower, depending on its observer. Roughly speaking, Bergson stated that—as with the cinema—our life was also merely a succession of moments. The movement we see before our eyes is only implied movement, and our brains fill in the blanks.

It is unlikely that any film could still send whole audiences flying for the exit, or even collectively shock them—like Psycho once did, for example. Nevertheless, we have our own issues: our connections fail, phones die, hard disks crash. Our own existential crises, too: in Tom McCarthy’s 2015 novel Satin Island, the protagonist sits, waiting for a video to load, intently watching the “little spinning circle”: “What if it were just a circle, spinning on my screen, and nothing else? What if the supply-chain, its great bounty, had dried up, or been cut off, or never been connected in the first place?”

Another such a breakdown happened recently as I was watching a documentary called Out of the Marvellous, on the poet Seamus Heaney. The film was nearing the end, and it seemed to be conceding that the end of any film is a death, and that this issue needs to be confronted. So while the camera traversed a snow-covered road, the disembodied voice of Seamus Heaney began to muse on what it means to die. But just then, it all fell apart. The camera skirted forward in fits and starts. Frames were skipped, wedged out of the projection room and banished into hell. Meanwhile, Heaney detailed eternal judgment. My laptop seemed to be crushed by the impetus of the poet’s words, by the speed with which we traveled unto the end of the road, by the weight of the snow. The image stuttered as if we were losing power, freezing at times while the voice of the poet unerringly moved forward.

This breakdown fit so perfectly with the film’s subject matter that I no longer knew what was going on. Was this a technical failure or rather an integral part of the film? It might well have been an artistic choice, a metaphor for death—which is, after all, less the deliberate flick of a switch and more a kind of hardware failure. For a while I dithered over whether I even wanted to know which of the two it was, but in the end I had to find out. I revisited the scene: this time, the camera glided smoothly down the road. A perfectly planned death. What shocked me most was that there had been nothing to revisit; the breakdown, the glitch, was irretrievable.

I’ve written before about the appeal of the livestream, an inherent appeal separable from its particular contents. I quoted Don DeLillo, who wrote of a livestream of a highway somewhere in Finland that it was “real enough to withstand the circumstance of nothing going on.” The eerie experience I had with Out of the Marvellous was a bit like that, even though it was not a livestream but recorded video, meticulously calibrated in zeros and ones on hard disks and DVDs all over the world. Nevertheless, while viewing the documentary was not a unique moment per se, through a weakness in whatever link of the chain, it became unique all the same. It became performative, fleeting.

The documentary starts and ends with a road. What happens in-between—the chronological build-up of a life—is contained within these metaphorical bookends. So what happens if you take out a few of the paving stones in between? Is the road still one road, or has it split in two separate entities? Isn’t the point of a road—certainly of a road as metaphor—that it forms an undisturbed line from one place to another? Surely this is the idea of life as a road, that it literally represents a lifeline from being born to dying. Undoubtedly this metaphor can bear the inevitable bumps in the pavement everyone encounters; what it cannot bear is for the road to temporarily disappear. That would be a kind of magic trick, or a resurrection even: the feat of being, then not being, then being again.

The documentary is named after and opens with an excerpt from Heaney’s poem “Lightenings viii”:

The annals say: when the monks of Clonmacnoise
Were all at prayers inside the oratory
A ship appeared above them in the air.

The anchor dragged along behind so deep
It hooked itself into the altar rails
And then, as the big hull rocked to a standstill,

A crewman shinned and grappled down the rope
And struggled to release it. But in vain.
‘This man can’t bear our life here and will drown,’

The abbot said, ‘unless we help him.’ So
They did, the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed back
Out of the marvellous as he had known it.

What is so moving in this poem is that the banal has become the marvellous, and vice-versa. The “marvellous” referred to is the quotidian monastic life the man “climbed back out of,” not the unlikely spectacle of a ship sailing through the air. The man, according to Heaney, is like “a successful Orpheus”: he goes into the otherworld and retrieves what he set out for. He has the power to step in and out of his life, to go temporarily off-road; yet, it is not a voluntary power—it is the doings of an anchor, a force out of his control. It is a glitch that carries him down from his world and into ours. Moreover, it is the kindness of strangers that brings him back home. As we might expect, then, there is little volition in not-being.

Russell Hoban once wrote a novel set in a near future, revolving around a technology called “flicker drive”: a way of teleporting near-instantaneously around the galaxy, based on the discovery that people “flicker” or oscillate; we are constantly here, then not here:

He wired both rat and cage to a camera with a nanosecond quartz flash, the circuit that activated the camera being completed only in the intervals in zoetic and inanimate currents; Lossiter’s film showed frame after frame of empty laboratory table, thereby demonstrating that life and matter are not continuous but intermittent, a nonlinear alternation of being and nonbeing at varying frequencies in the ultraband.

There is more than a nod to Bergson’s philosophy in Hoban’s words—yet he is attempting to reify the idea, to turn it from a psychological reality into a physical one. Loosely inspired by the zanier theories of quantum physics, “flicker drive” as a concept borders on the grotesque, yet it fascinates. I think of Hoban’s frames of nonbeing as the moments in which Zeno’s paradoxical arrow moves forward; unaccountable, off-road moments. They are the “marvellous” into which we are sometimes borne. For Hoban, “it is in those spaces of black between the pictures that we find the heart of the mystery in which we are never allowed to rest.”

Yet what I experienced when the film faltered was not spaces of black; rather, it was what might be termed intercessional time. The road was still there on my screen—the camera had merely ceased to move, or so it seemed. Through the stillness, Heaney’s voice carefully strode ahead, exploring the marvellous. He would do so—and we would as well—in the full knowledge that the respite was temporary, and all the better for it; that we are “never allowed to rest” in it is after all precisely what creates the mystery. For an incalculable instance, Heaney and I flickered about, freed from the constraints of time and space, before returning back “into the heartland of the ordinary,” as Heaney would write in a later poem. We were “nine-to-five [men] who had seen poetry.”

Perhaps this is just one more thing technology hath wrought: making the irretrievable poetic—for crucially, in Bergson’s theory, “moments” only become moments after the fact. No one experiences the present as a succession of moments. But in an on-demand media landscape with endless storage capacities and a camera always at hand, more of these moments might come into being after the fact, because they are codified and classified somewhere. Technology does virtually the same thing Hoban tried to do to “psychological time”: give it a physical reality.

If poetry indeed happens in the otherworld—in the spaces of the black between the succession of moments—then the increased audiovisual registration of our lives should give us pause. Perhaps we need to burrow, like moles, back into the black and let the sands of time slip through our hands again—if only every once in a while.

Perec in Purmerend

The stream seems like something that could have only begun as a joke, but in fact, it didn’t. The webcam which streams a roundabout in the sleepy suburban town of Purmerend in the Netherlands came to life as an internet connection test: was it possible to stream high-definition video live over the internet? The answer: a resounding yes.

But it must have quickly turned into a joke. When the stream was recently pulled offline, many people complained. Some said they watched the roundabout several hours a day and that it provided them with some much-coveted peace of mind. Whether the joke consists of actually watching the footage or merely claiming to do so, I’m not sure. All I know is that it intrigues me.

Watching the stream, I am reminded of Georges Perec, the French novelist who once sat in the window of the same café for one long weekend to observe a small Parisian square. He published the results of his little experiment in a small book entitled An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris. Reading the book is a bit like watching the roundabout: throughout most of the text, Perec semi-hypnotically enumerates the buses and cars that pass him by. “Why count the buses,” he starts to ask himself about half a day in. He answers:

“Probably because they’re recognizable and regular: they cut up time, they punctuate the background noise; ultimately, they’re foreseeable. The rest seems random, improbable, anarchic; the buses pass by because they have to pass by, but nothing requires a car to back up, or a man to have a bag marked with a big M of Monoprix, or a car to be blue or apple-green, or a customer to order a coffee instead of a beer…

In Purmerend, you can see just that. Every passing bus is strangely pleasing, because yes, they punctuate time, they reoccur like clockwork, but there is always the notion in the back of our heads that the system is kept running by bus drivers, ticket takers and passengers—humans. The pleasure is in the realization that this could almost just as well be a five-minute film incessantly looped, yet decidedly isn’t.

I decided to do to the roundabout what Perec did to the square; a kind of stake-out observation. I lasted about thirty minutes, if that.

Yet in that half hour, I did pick up on some patterns. Pizza couriers, hurried as they generally are, break the geometric mode of curving around the centre by shooting almost straight across the roundabout, tightly skirting and sometimes traversing the heightened middle section. I noticed that the text of the road signs in the centre of the roundabout is just too small to be legible, which could be considered an incessant taunt, but in a way strikes me as just perfect: it retains the roundabout’s right to be any roundabout in any place. Perec noticed something similar:

“By looking at only a single detail, for example rue Férou, and for a sufficiently long period of time (one to two minutes), one can, without any difficulty, imagine that one is in Étampes or in Bourges, or even, moreover, in some part of Vienna (Austria) where I’ve never been.

But the main reason I stopped my experiment short was, I’d like to think, more profound: Perec’s point was to observe everything. No matter how insignificant the place and no matter how meaningless the exercise, his stake-out would at least be perfect, a complete encapsulation and observation (at which, by the way, he fails bitterly: “even when my only goal is just to observe,” he notes, “I don’t see what takes place a few metres before me: I don’t notice, for example, that cars are parking”).

My fascination with this webcam, on the other hand, stems precisely from the opposite sentiment, the idea that everything occurring before my eyes is utterly mundane, and ephemeral. Nothing matters, so nothing has to be registered. In fact, this opposite view, and this whole situation, the live stream and my observation of it, were anticipated in Don DeLillo’s 2001 novel The Body Artist:

“She spent hours at the computer screen looking at a live-streaming video feed from the edge of a two-lane road in a city in Finland. It was in the middle of the night in Kotka, in Finland, and she watched the screen. It was interesting to her because it was happening now, as she sat here, and because it happened twenty-four hours a day, facelessly, cars entering and leaving Kotka, or just the empty road in the dead times. The dead times were best.

I don’t know if the Kotka live stream really existed back then; if not, the passage is strangely prescient. It goes on:

“She sat and looked at the screen. It was compelling to her, real enough to withstand the circumstance of nothing going on. It thrived on the circumstance. It was three in the morning and she waited for a car to come along—not that she wondered who was in it. It was simply the fact of Kotka. It was the sense of organization, a place contained in an unyielding frame, as it is and as you watch, with a reading of local time in the digital display in a corner of the screen. Kotka was another world but she could see it in its realness, in its hours, minutes and seconds.

At a certain point—I am writing this while casting nervous glances at the screen, which is inexplicably hard to ignore—a woman on a bike, with a girl on the rear seat, rides straight onto the middle platform of the roundabout, does two, maybe three laps, then dives off it again. Over the next few minutes she reappears episodically, entering the screen from different angles, striking different trajectories, almost as if she was airbrushing us a message.

She must have been aware of the webcam, which went viral several weeks back. Her entrance is like a snap of the fingers breaking a spell—the Kotka spell. What her action breaks is “the circumstance of nothing going on.” It turned simple observation—a scarce commodity online—into the now ubiquitous act of performance.

Within this small world of the roundabout, this place “contained in an unyielding frame”, that act was akin to a revolution. I want to bring it back to the screen, but of course can’t, and I am struck by this inability. Everything that appears in video on the screen these days, whether live or not, is captured, catalogued and retraceable. This is not. It is ephemeral; a normal state in the real world, yet a bizarre fact online. It was, unsurprisingly, also DeLillo who once wrote that “if a thing can be filmed, the film is implied in the thing itself.” Perhaps the great thing about this live stream is that, bar the girl, film does not seem implied in it. It is, indeed, simply the fact of Purmerend.

The difference between the video, which can endlessly be replayed, and the live stream, which is always one thing, always the present, always simply the fact of what it is, is like the difference between Perec’s cars and buses: the live stream passes by because it has to pass by; yet the video can back up, can break the ceaseless punctuation of time. In another paragraph from The Body Artist, DeLillo nails this inevitability of the live stream, dubbing it “an odd and hollow urgency”:

“She set aside time every day for the webcam at Kotka. She didn’t know the meaning of this feed but took it as an act of floating poetry. It was best in the dead times. It emptied her mind and made her feel the deep silence of other places, the mystery of seeing over the world to a place stripped of everything but a road that approaches and recedes, both realities occurring at once, and the numbers changed in the digital display with an odd and hollow urgency, the seconds advancing toward the minute, the minutes climbing hourward, and she sat and watched, waiting for a car to take fleeting shape on the roadway.

Turn the stream into a video and this urgency disappears. A video, any video, could never be an act of floating poetry. In the technicalities of its recording and in the inevitable circumstance of determined frame following determined frame, it loses precisely the ambiguous qualities of the poetic. Instead, the stream is more like Magritte’s famous pipe: not simply the fact of Purmerend, but a video of a fact of Purmerend. Nobody wants to look at that.