by Mark Trecka
A Monument to its Own Passing
Coming down the Pyrenees through Sabiñánigo, it is easy to imagine how the Spanish ended up with Colorado and New Mexico when the Europeans were casting lots for the indigenous universe of North America. And traveling south along E-7, between Huesca and Zaragoza, the landscape appears to have more and more in common with northern New Mexico. Red faded earth that gives the sense of not having faded but of having always been faded holds tenuous layers of stone along the slopes of the deep Arroyo Pinarra. I crossed this arroyo on my way to Zaragoza, traveling on E-7 as it follows the Rio Barrosa.
It makes a terrible kind of sense that the Spanish held so much of the American West, that what is now New Mexico was gained during the reign of Don Luis de Velasco over present day Mexico. Spanish conquistadors like Don Juan de Oñate moved up into and through New Mexico, establishing a colonial road from Mexico City to present day Ohkay Owingeh pueblo near Española.
The landscape north of Zaragoza swoons from the pale blue above the horizon. This stretch of highway in northern Spain does not merely resemble New Mexico, it sometimes appears to be an almost perfect analogue. Save for the occasion of crumbling structures older than the European presence in North America and a few botanical variations discernible to experts alone, one could easily be fooled into thinking one was looking out over the hills flanking I-25 between Albuquerque and Santa Fe while actually crossing viaducts and olive groves around Jaca.
The uncanny resemblance inspires a strange and difficult awe, a haunted feeling.
On Constitution Day, I walked to the Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar, in the center of Zaragoza. Being that it was a national holiday, the streets and squares of Zaragoza were flooded with people. Outside the Baroque structure, a long line of children and parents waited to visit Santa Claus, and a train of little children on burros passed through the square, locks and tassels tossed in the sun by a strong, broad breeze, carrying the essence of the Ebro River over the crowds. I entered the basilica in a shuffling throng of pilgrims and tourists, bottlenecking into the interior, which has the sense of a massive municipal space as much as it does a sacred one. The huge shrine to Our Lady of the Pillar is situated within the cathedral, a building within a building, so that this sense of the total structure as something civic is reinforced by the contrast.
I shuffled to the far end of the shrine to regard two large incendiary bombs which hang near the Virgin. I knew what I was looking for but I cannot help but to wonder how many pilgrims miss the detail of these weapons, passing through casually or piously or in the hazy bustle of a day of sightseeing, eyes following the lines of Goya’s cupola, entranced by the grandeur. These bombs which were dropped on the cathedral during the Spanish Civil War — but did not detonate — are hung in celebration of this alleged miracle, allegedly enacted by the Virgin herself. The bombs were dropped by the democratically elected Spanish Republic, who were fighting against Franco’s fascist Nationalist Party. The Nationalists, who were allied with the NAZIs, executed between 100,000 and 200,000 civilians of undesirable ilk throughout Spain during the war.
Around the back of the shrine, there is a little window through which pilgrims can kiss the statue of the Virgin and the pillar for which the church is named, and which was allegedly given to St. James by the Virgin.
On this particular Constitution Day, the line of men and women waiting to kiss the pillar formed straight out from the wall, ten bodies deep, became a cluster, and then a shuffling mass, dissolving into the rest of the crowd within the basilica, all passing and murmuring, circling. Differentiated conversations are not supported by spaces like this, massive and imposing, and interactions are strangely redefined into a sweeping swish and hush in the expanses between stone blocks, beneath the bombs and saints. This redefinition is the result of the vastness and the strangeness of the space, just as much as it is the result of reverence, whether inherent or inspired by the beautiful, lighted “Silencio” signs on display throughout.
In this way, while listening to this shuffle and hush, I was reminded of the Palais de Justice in Brussels, which I learned a few years ago is the site of the largest collection of stone blocks anywhere in Europe. It is in fact larger than the Parthenon, larger than St. Peter’s Basilica. It was the largest structure built in the 19th century. This is not difficult to believe for any who have seen it, for any who have attempted to consume it, by sight or by step.
It is a curious phenomenon, the human desire to erect structures that are so far beyond our needs and even, seemingly, beyond our means. Such structures, so immense, somehow contain within them their very ruin. In effect, it is impossible to defend such enormous constructions against assailants of any type, and however monumental, however seemingly sturdy and permanent, with each meter, with each additional stone, there is introduced one more degree of vulnerability. Such tremendously sized structures as the Palais de Justice are, in fact, difficult to consume, by sight or by step, and so are difficult to police, to monitor, to differentiate within.
This is affected, of course, by the space and the spaces, the incredible height and the innumerable hallways. But there is, even more striking, the effect that such space and such spaces have on those negotiating the space, occupying the spaces, those who consider themselves somewhat familiar with certain hallways and certain rooms, for reasons of employment, of incident or habit.
Within confined spaces, within buildings public or private, there are certain expectations of interaction which do not necessarily involve matters of etiquette and so are not expectations of learned, appropriate behaviors; rather, there are common traits easily noted among most interactions, even those simple interactions “in passing” that occur within the walls of a building of really any kind. It seems that the very size of a structure like the Palais de Justice alters the make-up, the arrangement of whatever elements compose these structures of interaction, whether anthropological or metaphysical.
One can note that nearly constant occurrence of sound, of human murmuring or shuffling, when in the relatively more open spaces of the Palais de Justice, and yet I never witnessed anyone making these sounds. Those people whom I passed, or saw from a distance, in fact seemed silent. And whether at a great distance or in close passing, I had the sense of an abnormal and inexplicably imposed distance between the building’s occupants. One would have little difficulty convincing oneself that the distant, anonymous figures appearing erratically are but specters of the more commonly witnessed physical human form, moving about like the white-collar workers of some afterlife, maintaining files on the souls in purgatory, silently handling the mute claims of lost souls, unblinking in the vast, dim corridors where filing cabinets and desks sit unused but apparently conceived and designed for just such neglect, as though each piece of misplaced furniture was manufactured with a fine film of dust already on it, its sole purpose to silently mark the distance between itself and nothing in particular, each one’s own ruin figured overtly into its very design.
I passed a courtroom door. Its circular, almost nautical window revealing three figures within: a sexless judge seated just above and facing an anonymous defendant and his advocate. I passed again, apprehensively. They seemed to emit no sound themselves, but merely and so subtly, they mimed to the murmuring soundtrack softly echoing in the space behind me.
I passed two young people sharing an amorous moment on a crooked but sturdy bench, as though the Palais de Justice was their perfect and habitual place of romantic rendezvous. And yet they seemed, like the rest, for their conspicuous silence, not to be there at all. On my second pass, not long thereafter, they were in fact not there at all. Perhaps their claim was ready to be heard in some silent, ethereal court, their passion expressionlessly interrupted, I imagined, although I of course witnessed no change in location or activity, for I had been following the faint echoing of doors closing on unoccupied offices set in fading evening light; Brussels alive in the distance through filmy windows, alive and in motion, seemingly so very far below, certainly so very far below.
I could not help but wonder while standing in and walking through the queerly equanimitous spaces of the Palais de Justice, if there might be some explanation which could be offered in terms of physics, for the seemingly inhuman pacing, for the strange aural phenomena. We know that time itself is, after all, relative, that at greater distances from the Earth, the very pacing of time itself — that element that we so often accept as absolute — in fact slows down. It is no longer enough, once one keeps this fact in mind, to assume that those moments which seem to us “out of step,” those hours which seem to stretch on beyond their standard quantity, seem so solely because of one’s mood or one’s expectations. It is within the realms of possibility that certain physical locales do, in objective truth, by their physicality, act upon the very rate of moments passing. Would it not then be the case that at a certain, discrete, physical point, within certain spaces where this phenomenon might be noted, there is the potential for some type of cumulative effect? I believe it is likely, but likely unquantifiable. And still, how many agents act profoundly upon us daily by their cumulative tendencies which, in a single moment, “in passing,” are left all but undetectable, and most definitely unquantifiable?
The construction of the Palace began by King Leopold’s royal decree and lasted for seventeen years, so that the completed structure was never seen by the architect, Joseph Poelaert, who died four years shy of its completion. Though I have never seen it, I have been told that the monument at Poelaert’s gravesite is a replica of the Palais de Justice.
W.G. Sebald wrote of numerous architectural anomalies that are said to exist within the Palace: stairwells leading to dead ends, hallways opening on hallways leading only to dead ends, doorless rooms; and tales of people who have over the years used these forgotten spaces to run covert businesses. There is even a legend of the Freemasons making use of some remote, otherwise unused corridor. It is significant that of all the accounts, the legends I have come across, none touch on the metaphysical, the supernatural. There are no Palais de Justice ghost stories. I say that this is significant because while the strange spaces of the Palais de Justice certainly leave room for this sort of imaginative mythmaking, it seems that all of its realities are deep and spectral enough, that the people who occupy its spaces are always already under some spell of its arrangement so much so that mere observations are hazy and surreal enough to convey the sense of a haunted place. It has been haunted by ephemeral business operations, it is haunted by discarded furniture and distant, vague juridical hearings. It is haunted by the real passing of real things, by the eventual twilight of its own design and the magnitude of its own construction. It is, in effect, too large to act and be acted upon, dwelt within in an everyday fashion, but also too constructed, too enclosed to retain the qualities of a mundane or urban public space, and will remain as such until the time external to it or circumstances of the world reclaim it in the name of constant, regular time; until it falls into the ruin that it always already contains.
When walking along the exterior of the Palace, at the front or the sides, one can note the uncanny way that its uppermost structures move or refuse to move along in the sky. It seems, even from this angle, to resist the normal rates of physicality. Imagine the way in which tall buildings of any average breadth seem to perpetually lean due either to the motion of clouds beyond it, or to the play of the viewer’s pace of step. The Palais de Justice does not act in this way, but instead has more the effect of a mountain, seeming all at once much closer for its enormity and impossibly distant for the hazy blue quality that the atmosphere affects upon such forms. Just as this quality can be so beautiful in the sight of a mountain, it seems uncanny, unsettling in the case of the Palais de Justice, for the very disparity between its presence, and the fact that the palace has come to be by human hands. It behaves, in these ways, like the very ghost of itself.
I left Zaragoza on the day after Constitution Day and headed back north, again traveling along E-7. In late afternoon, the brilliant light — red, orange, and low — struck knotty pines, struck small, tan houses, and a massive outcrop of red rock which stands 2300 meters high, east of the road and east of a large reservoir. In the fierce light and long shadows, I saw a cable or rope stretched between two trees from which two figures hung, nearly life-sized dolls, 100 meters east of the road. I have no idea what the figures were, but they seemed to grin maniacally at the low sun, expressions from a nightmare, from a possession. Perhaps they were scarecrows, but they appeared more temporary; they appeared to hang in effigy or celebration and they cut that rare kind of scene that is more unsettling for its standing, or hanging, boldly in the sun, rather than being the stuff of shadowy night terrors.
Just north of these effigies, I sighted the topmost section of a church tower, highlighted by the sun. I sighted the topmost section because it is the only section of that church available to sight. This tower, which has stood since the 16th century, cuts out above the surface of a reservoir, displaced water collected, designed that way since the 1970s. The church and its tower and the town of Mediano are all drowned, gone from the world of unimpeded light and air, now at the bottom of more than just a valley. The novelty is striking, the peak of a ruined church tower, reaching just barely above the surface of a lake, like a pious glacier. But more than novel, it gives the sense of disaster, even if intentional.
Up through Jaca, the road begins to climb steeply, and the Rio Barrosa falls through dense clusters of stone, is as much stone as water itself, in sight of hardy trees and loose stone. Where the elevation climbs to 1800 meters, patches of crystalline snow lay in shade, on ground mostly dry, pine and scrub and muted December mountain grasses, rocks, limestone slopes, stones.
I sighted a single birch among countless pines, dense juniper groves. I sighted what looked like sage but was probably weaver’s broom, growing out of dust and limestone, clustering at the bases of outcrops and the edges of cliffs which, along with the rest of the Pyrenees, hazy blue and grainy for their distance, refused to sway or lean in the deep blue of the winter sky.