In view of present conditions, I was asked by the Committee to file a historian’s report. I regret to say that my knowledge of the twentieth century derives mostly from the limited selection of beforebooks that remain. Most materials and archives are now safely removed to EarthPlus™ preservation, inaccessible until further notice. With these severe limitations, I am nevertheless able to offer the following description.
March 27, 2042
To the Committee:
The first “Perisphere” debuted at the New York World’s Fair in 1939, a luminous orb housing a futurist diorama called Democracity. The Perisphere was the main attraction. Lorena Hickok, dear companion of Eleanor Roosevelt, described it as a “giant, transparent, iridescent soap bubble.” A later analyst called it “the womb of time.” To be sure, the Perisphere was fecund in its imagery: the womb of time, the “ovular globe” nourishing the new polis. Within the Perisphere, Democracity expanded outward in concentric rings from Centerton, the future Main Street. One observed it from a rotating platform. Brochures presented Democracity as sited in the Perisphere’s fourth dimension—soundproofed, where “nothing that smells of earth remains to destroy your illusion of flight.” After visiting this womb of time, the reborn visitor descended back to ground-level via the Helicline, the circular, motile sidewalk. Visits concluded in the shadow of the Trylon, a tall, tapered tower immediately adjacent to the very dialectically entitled, “Fountain of Victories of Peace.”
After the Fair’s ending in 1940, the first Perisphere was destroyed. The second, the living one, made its first appearance two years ago on the Fair’s centenary. I regret to say that it seems unlikely to easily suffer the same removal. A common theory widely repeated among the people is that the new Perisphere carries, like the first, gestational symbolism and even intent, however unknown. The idea seems to be that we are all now joined together as raw cellular mass to birth something new, once the sky-mass is made sufficiently thick. Just what is to be born, or made, is unknown. As you might imagine, wild theories abound.
Here is how the people sense it from below: the Perisphere blocks sunlight but emits its own low light of varying color, and a barely noticeable sound. It hums, or possibly the light itself hums. It is referred to in the terms of Minotaur and messiah both—four dimensioned, luminous-ominous, arrived out of “nowhere.” No one can give reasons. It is like Yahweh abruptly there and hovering over the deep. This analogy and many other supernaturalist versions are in fact widely repeated. In place of the Helicline, transport consists of a constant stream of barrel-shaped canisters rising into clouds or descending, always along the same vertical trajectory, toward an invisible destination. A jangling city radiates out from this axis mundi, populated by packs of hustlers, scientists, millennialist cranks, and earnest seekers. The present Committee was convened to try to regulate this commerce and transport, but as you know, this has proved difficult since no one can yet say what or who is being travelled or transmitted, or why.
In terms of the health and well-being of the people, experts report that what surprises them most, under the circumstances, is the apparently seamless acceptance of the present. How shall we describe the moment of total surprise giving itself over to weary resignation, without mark or interim?
The first Perisphere in 1939 advertised total freedom from sound and smell in order to fully dwell in the theater of time and space. Allow me to pursue the analogy further: The present is like floating in a sensory deprivation tank, an experience you all know well. The space is rectangular, even coffin-like, but the sensation is of drifting in a very slow rotation. Even though actual rotation is geometrically impossible, it does not feel that way, so the floater enjoys the disorientation and vertigo, and the pleasant illogic of circling in a square. The new Perisphere is like that, undeniably there, no one disputes it. But the hum has receded over time. The hum became the new silence, the new basis for sound. Here is how one informant in the new city presented his (to my mind) unusually adaptive, healthy-minded point of view. He said, “Try this: Pretend you are the Holy Spirit, hovering everywhere and all at once. Imagine the shape you might take, as viewed from below. Probably—I’m speculating—you’d bend around the globe like its cover, just like the Perisphere, enfolding human specks in the distance that barely crane a neck to look up.”
There are ample literary precedents exploring an equally generous acceptance of what is, even in the direst predicaments. In the beforebooks corpus I noted that surprising shifts often arrived in the form of spheres, circles, or rotators. There were the squares and triangles disrupted by a miraculous descending three-dimensional sphere from another dimension, in Edward Abbott’s Flatland. A two-dimensional square living horizontally in Flatland could not see beyond a glamorous hexagon blocking its way; even less could it conceive of an orb keeling into view, or know what to ask when it arrives. Inconceivable, like Moctezuma watching Cortez crossing from the coast, an army of shields mounted on strange, giant dogs. There can be little doubt that the sphere serves as the ideal aniconic god.
And there were other unlikely literary globes: When Samuel Butler’s character Strong first sighted Erewhon, a wholly unknown land, he first marveled at the sphere of the sun glancing off the domes of buildings. In Kafka’s fragment, “Blumfeld, An Elderly Bachelor,” a man thinking about adopting a dog instead entered his apartment to find two bouncing balls cheerfully tracking and mimicking him. Not like Caddy’s box of stars in Faulkner, “When I was still, they were still. When I moved, they glinted and sparkled.” Not that sort of friendly, magical mirroring. These balls mocked, and Blumfeld first tried to dampen their fervor with rugs, and then locked them in a closet. The balls were sinister, but they were also silly. Kafka never finished the story—who knows whether the sinister or the silly carried the day, or whether they were the same.
Then too, many of the beforebooks drew the spherical as dismal endless return—Camus’s circular city of Oran where you wander the labyrinth in aimless repetition until the Minotaur takes you, an end the inhabitants called “citizenship.” Likewise in his “State of Siege,” where the chorus of Cadiz villagers sings, “Sorrow is our companion, we can only turn in dreary circles within this beleaguered city . . .” Temple Grandin proposed that the “round crowd pen cattle layout” works best because, “When the distractions are removed, they will usually walk easily up the slaughter chute.”
Why does the new, even the very-possibly life threatening, make nary a dent or a sound? In Kafka’s story, Blumfeld was in one moment struck by “a strange clattering sound, but lively and above all regular . . . as if by magic,” and in the next mincing over a “faintly disagreeable impression” and the “undignified” position the balls placed him in. No space or time divided initial shock from frumpy wheezing. Likewise, when the new Governor took Cadiz, the herald announced: “we apprise you, the townsfolk of Cadiz that nothing has occurred to justify alarm or discomposure.” Resignation is good policy. It is best for cows to circle in calm content, according to the Grandin method, unaware of the steel rod just around the bend. What happens in the split second of the shift in those stories, from when everything that was the same—all there is—suddenly is not in any way the same, but it does not matter? Neither revolution nor torture can register. Nothing can get through.
You might think these (and many more appear in my notes for this report, should the Committee desire to consult them—the Dome of the Rock, a Pueblo kiva, the original 1957 Frisbee, DNA cells viewed from the top, the Border Dairy Company rotolactor) together filling minds without any previous preparation or motive should have served as advance warning of the Perisphere. But life was overfilled. We race on a wheel whose path looked level and straight if you did not look up, or fall. To the spherical beneath or around, most gave little consideration. Perhaps as something tossed between players in concert or competition, perhaps even the curve of the horizon, but never as the winding hedge of the sky. Maybe only a shaman could have perceived it. A Black Elk, who said the birds had the same religion as him because they fly in a circle: sacred hoop, cangleska wakan. It is true that the hooped shape of the sky, when the Perisphere first started to accrue, facilitated the subcells as they adhered and thickened and became alive in their own collective way, akin to photosynthetic plant walls but with enhanced capacities of mediation and communication—at least this is how the specialists described it.
Most inhabitants, however, fail to grasp even this rudimentary model. Rest assured that, at least thus far, the people go about their daily lives very much as before.
* * *
March 28, 2042
I finally submitted another probably useless report, and hope to be able to return next week. I will tell you all about it. But listen. Today, when the snow started (it hasn’t snowed this far north for years), I tore off my breather (in the winter here you have 7 minutes). Before, and how that word now gnaws and stings, I would try to track one snowflake from its appearance at the top edge of the light down to my tongue. Today it took me by surprise, shifting the angle of its fall at the last instant to drape over my wide-open iris. I looked up through its crystalline grid, the sky silhouetted in neat pockets against the Perispheric glow—or so I imagined it. I saw three places: A sunbaked canyon, Before. A thick, half-light expanse, After. A sharp, angled ray, Now.
* * *
-Susan Quinn, Eleanor and Hick (London: Penguin, 2017), 164.
-Peter Conrad, The Art of the City (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984), 264.
-Conrad, 262, 264.
-A host of prophets foresaw this, cities as first and foremost ritual centers: Wheatley, Mumford, Eliade, and the Toltecs.
-Edwin A. Abbott, Flatland (London: Penguin, 1952 ).
-The phrase “ideal aniconic idol” is from Alfred Gell, Art and Agency (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), 132.
-Samuel Butler, Erewhon, Or, Over the Range (London: David Bogue, 1880), 44.
-Franz Kafka, “Blumfeld, An Elderly Bachelor,” in Investigations of a Dog, Trans. Michael Hofman (New York: New Directions, 2017), 30-57.
-William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury (New York: Knopf, 2011).
-Albert Camus, Caligula and Three Other Plays, trans. Stuart Gilbert (New York: Knopf), 170.
-Temple Grandin, Temple Grandin’s Guide to Working with Farm Animals (North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing, 2017), 129, 161.
-USNST, “New Rules,” #4791.