The Landlord

An excerpt from Mark de Silva’s The Logos

This is an excerpt from Mark de Silva’s The Logos, published by Splice on April 28 and available to purchase now.

The most remarkable thing about this film — and the football game as well — was the anonymous star power (not an oxymoron) on display. Here was the mystique of the star in the making, the ordinary turning extraordinary, which I couldn’t help but associate, yes, with Degas, particularly his portraits of Thérésa, the queen of the Parisian café-concert and possibly the first true pop star, dating back to the mid-nineteenth century. There was the towering figure of Sarah Bernhardt to consider in this regard, of course, for the stage and very early film, and there were the many celebrated touring opera and theater stars of the era. But I mean the truly popular star, the low star, the kind that would come to dominate a mass culture which was still only finding its footing. My interest in Thérésa was first roused by Degas, the grand bourgeois always dipping his toes in the new entertainments of the street. If this woman could capture his eye, the eye of an artist who stood both with and against his historical moment, as I often fancied I myself did, well, then, why not mine? It seemed to me now that, like Thérésa and Bernhardt, Daphne and Duke could bend the framing context, transcend the plot or the game, as power centers in paintings and photos exerted a pull on everything around them. Figures, of course, were always the most powerful magnets in any visual field. Evolution had made sure of that. They defied the rules of ordinary composition; almost anywhere you placed human forms, even deep in shadow or far in the distance, the eye would lock onto them, and indeed make you overlook other facets of the scene by fully saturating your attention. Faces, even more than figures, took things further, with a pull that overwhelmed all else except for one: eyes, which exerted the greatest force of all, true black holes.

These were truths that held quite generally. But the specific presence (there is no smarter word for it) of some bodies, faces, and eyes, along with their particular gestures and movements and leaps — this presence, or substance, if you like, carried its own powers of attraction, drawing the eye to places within the frame that would ordinarily be accessible only with difficulty: events occurring on the margin of the picture plane, for instance. This is how certain apparently secondary figures can overthrow the central subjects of paintings, minor characters can steal shows, fringe players can win games. It occurred to me that Daphne, like Duke, was one of these uncommon substances, evidenced in all aspects of her: her body, her face, her eyes — but especially her face, its striking elongation that didn’t bespeak sorrow or petulance, or any of the things it might so easily have, but merely, in the lithe lines that its length allowed to unfurl, the expressions it seemed to make possible, a fine receptivity to feeling tout court. It was only an accident of nature that the world as it was — just like Dumont’s; in this he was absolutely as much a realist as Rabelais — happened to contain significantly more sorrow than anything else, as the earth’s surface was mostly covered by water. This contingent fact was why she’d been so frequently called on to express grief as Anne, although even then, infinite gradations of the feeling had surfaced, and this alone — the ability to make these depths known — cut against the sense of pity one might otherwise have felt more completely for her. She wasn’t pitiable, and this distinguished the peculiar force she exerted.

Slowly I flipped backwards through the nine pictures and Dumont’s drama unspooled in reverse. I could see that it would never be possible for Daphne to play a truly faceless part; character acting wasn’t in her future. She seemed, simply in her person, before it came to the matter of acting, to elide the boundaries of her role, and I knew this without having seen anything else by her. Eventually I came to Duke’s picture in the pad, the first one I’d drawn, and felt a fundamental continuity with the previous nine, a certain semiotic density, though visually he couldn’t have been more distinct from Daphne, the way he occupied space. These two, Duke and Daphne, might yet fulfill Degas’ stated ideal: to die illustrious and unknown.

Such, anyway, were my feelings, which I’d learned to trust for straightforwardly empirical reasons: at least in certain domains, like art, my hunches had tended to be borne out. Was there an observer effect in play? Well, so what? I was deluged by hunches now, more of them than I’d thought it possible to experience at one time. They felt slightly irresponsible, but then, in a secular age, that was in the nature of such things. I wouldn’t be prepared to defend them to anyone, not full-throatedly, but that didn’t negate their power for me, nor others’ intimations for them, although most wouldn’t admit to this, especially non-artists, who weren’t tacitly permitted to allow such shadowy things to play a significant role in their lives.

I tore out the sketches of Daphne one at a time and laid them end to end, as if they were panels not in a comic but in a frieze or an altar ornament. I photographed each quickly and sent the snaps to Garrett attached to a blank email. I did the same with my drawing of Duke, though I left it in the book. Not one of these pictures was anything close to finished; they were only hints at future work, nothing more, and I was tempted to frame them in those terms for Garrett. Did he really require such disclaimers, though? If he did, he’d need to find someone else for his campaign. A brash thought — a foolish one, too, given the terrible state of my finances — but, as I say, that was the mood I found myself in, foolish and fanciful, even if my head had never felt clearer.

It would have been harder to be cavalier had I any actual experience having the lights shut off, the phone go dead, the creditors call — all quotidian affairs for my neighbors, not just that boy screaming six two in the street, not just the Beckers below, but the family upstairs as well, still somehow clinging on to their share of the palace. Kiver, our landlord, wasn’t quite successful enough to qualify as a slumlord, though he yearned to become one. You could tell by the way he played the role every chance he got: the uncharacteristic efficacy, for instance, of his response to my complaints about the semi-feral dogs and the media (radio, television, anything) blaring into our quarters from below, how swiftly he’d yoked this infraction to the more serious one of the Beckers’ being in arrears by a few months in order to have these longtime rent-control neighbors of mine evicted. We even saw the family on their way out, the mother and boyfriend and two little black girls, all collecting their belongings, and neither Claire nor I could look them in the eye — well, except for the dogs, who appeared most aggrieved, and for whom we hadn’t the slightest sympathy. Ever since then, I could barely glance at the Beckers’ old door on the ground floor as I passed to my entrance above. It raised too many questions: Where exactly had the clan had gone? Had they been funneled into the growing sea of the homeless I saw all around the neighborhood? I felt apprehensive now whenever I looked at one of those people of the street, for fear it would be a Becker. I even avoided the glares of dogs.

Kiver — he insisted on being called Kiver even though he had a perfectly serviceable forename (Bob) — he would have delighted in getting rid of the other black family, the one above me, under any pretext. He used to call me regularly fishing for complaints, hinting at a complicity between us that didn’t exist, or anyway that I would not accept. I never gave him anything to work with, after what had happened with the Beckers. Not because there wasn’t a problem. To my chagrin, it was noise again, even if this time it was less of a nuisance to me, for being occasional, than the constant intrusions that had once come from below. Yet these higher disturbances — of things breaking, fingers tightening, voices choking, and later, slow, unfettered tears falling — chilled me, given what they meant for Tanya, who lived on the top floor with a hard man and three teenage boys, one of whom was his. What could she do about things, exactly? If she left Rod, she would have to take her two boys with her, and she couldn’t possibly afford that, not as a salon receptionist. She needed Rod’s blue-collar cash, and as long as that was true, nothing was going to change above. For myself, having never tasted Tanya’s kind of hardship nor even seriously contemplated its possibility, it was easy to indulge a devil-may-care attitude, which was, in its essence, a kind of ignorance about how badly things could turn out, and one that had in fact opened many doors for me. I only wished I could share some of my blindness with her.