On the way to the airport we were stuck in systaltic traffic, my taciturn Charon and I, and the weather mimicked the condition, blazing with sunshine like a Neapolitan urchin’s smile one moment, dourly hawking tickets to the Museum of British Cloud the next.
At times the sky was the color of Delft tile, reminding the traveler that Holland was only £49.99 away; then suddenly it would become a glassy gray, like a medical specimen in a jar, and the disgusted eye would turn for relief to the colors of buildings, to the shapes of vehicles and the clothes of pedestrians. The Earl of Shaftesbury believed that the essential quality that anyone who wishes to appreciate art must possess is disinterestedness. This I had to spare.
The colors, the forms, the costumes—all were signposts on the motorway of longing; fetishes of man’s desire, tabernacles of lucre. Narcissistic glass of the buildings reflected their fundamental superficiality; architectural concrete, cracking under the burden of modernity like a Chinese fortune cookie, intimated that nothing is forever; green, magenta, and ochre exalted primary emotion in a Swahili of designer newspeak. Styrofoam coffees in hand, office girls scurried like mutant insects with female faces, fashion fleshings protruding from their futuristic tabards like fluorescent tubes. Trucks blew their horns in the rush to deliver exclusivity to millions, eager to unload polyester Brabant lace, synthetic myrrh, and frozen New Zealand lamb.
A sports car recalled the lipstick introduced, rather tactlessly, to the European market just after World War I, Rouge d’Enfer by Guerlain. “What it must cost to keep that on the road,” said the driver. “Just the insurance.” But already Baudelaire wrote in praise of feminine artifice, while Apollinaire thought that fashion did for women what literature had done for words.
“e=mc2” topped a squat tower on our left. Was that an educational message or a company name? “They’re in film,” said the driver. We were somewhere in Chiswick, near the roundabout, caught up in weekend chaos on the road to the capital of love. Earthly love, with its rational calculus and sartorial underpinnings, its pragmatic pretensions and liberating claims; just the kind I wanted most to escape, to transcend, to disprove; the very goal I had striven so long to attain, like the taxi immobilized by road works; the eventual destination I had been commanded to seek by every one of the civilization’s signposts.
Presently, the onion dome of the Russian church came into view, a perverse irruption of azure into a heaven of uniform gray and the cityscape’s rusting modernity just beneath it. My son had been christened there, at the Cathedral of the Dormition of the Most Holy Mother of God, who surely knew back then that the tale of a father lost somewhere among the phantasms of mature capitalism, as mariners were once lost at sea, was worth telling. Instinctively, I made the sign of the cross, and even thought to tell the driver to take the exit, but moments later the prospect looked torturous. What use is a Byzantine God to a deracinated Byzantine?
No, if there was an alternative, it lay neither in man nor in God, but in chance, in the free throw of dice that governed everything in between. All of a sudden the apparition was so real I thought I could feel its presence inside the taxi. There he was, the original dealer in the casino of many private rooms, stopping the clock at 59 minutes past the hour, turning plonk into Chateau Margaux, healing the hypochondriac and infecting the captain of industry with acedia . . . Truly without number the quizzical miracles in his impartial gift, and one of them could change my life.
Was I not looking to find an exit from earthly torpor, an herb that cured latent materialism, in a woman whose smile would make me lose my calculating head? Had I not looked high and low for unmediated desire, for the truth of love unsullied by compromise? Chance alone could answer such prayers, and I believed that one day it must.
Any second now the driver might make a wrong turn, and with God’s help get lost and end up by Gunnersbury Tube, at the church whither a stateless migrant, in flowery kerchief and scuffed boots, had traveled since early in the morning to beg the priest for assistance. She’s called Olga, for argument’s sake, and as I watch her in profile, lighting a penny candle by the image of the Mother of God of Kazan, I realize that the resemblance is absolute, that the genetic match to the ideal of womanhood of which I myself have never been aware is something more than an optical illusion born of human vanity and faithlessness; that it is one of those real things, of which there are hardly any left in the world beyond pastoral Chiswick and outside this moment, things by which life was measured in the days when love was yet among them.
But the traffic jam held. Einstein’s formula was still back there somewhere, stuck to my shoulder like a mustard poultice.