Out the window of my office I can see a building being torn down. The building is one of those modernist cubes, not high modernism but just the sort of unimaginative vernacular that was being built in the new suburbs of Toronto 40 or 50 years ago, a style made possible by reinforced concrete and the new approach to construction it allowed: an elevator core, and pillars regularly spaced holding up the floors. Such a concrete innovation has allowed us to reach from the fundament towards the firmament. But the buildings we built to soar morph into carbuncular bunkers, clichés, no longer art but just commodity, and their contents degrade. They are weighed in the balance and found wanting. And so, while from my apartment I watch as new buildings reach up to claim my view, from my office I watch as a once-new building is removed and the view past it opens up… until another is built in its place.
First the contents of the building were ripped out and dumped out the windows and sorted and trucked away. Then the facings were taken off. The top two levels were jackhammered away and pushed over the edge by little bobcats that scooted around. And now the little busy creatures have left and there is a triad of big creatures: three pieces of heavy equipment with long hydraulic arms. One has a bucket for lifting and scooping and dumping. One has a claw with a saw, to cut and to grasp. And one can reach up eight storeys and saw and push. The big one cuts away the floors between the pillars. Then, when a column of pillars is cut to a peninsula, the small one comes with its claw and cuts a bit and pulls and it all comes crashing down in a cloud of whitish-grey dust. Then there is cleanup – the little one and the scooper push things and drop things and take them away. The three of them resemble nothing so much as dinosaurs.
Surely you’ve seen Fantasia, yes? With its sequence set to Stravinsky’s great ground-breaking modern masterpiece The Rite of Spring, the dinosaurs reaching their long necks and plucking from the high trees, strings of vegetation hanging from their mouths. These colossal beasts devouring the building next door look just the same, with the same graceful movements of the long necks, nudging, pulling, and the long strings of vegetation are rebar – iron reinforcing bars from the concrete. Our modern mechanical dinosaurs are devouring our modernist past. Am I anthropomorphizing them? Of course not – that would be seeing them as human. I am theriomorphizing them, zoomorphizing them, seeing them as animals; more to the point, I am sauromorphizing them, seeing them as lizards, big lizards, dinosaurs. They are sauromorphs: σαῦρος sauros, “lizard”, and μορϕή morphé, “form”, from Ancient Greek. They are old things made from new parts, as sauromorph is a new word made from old parts.
Everything changes, of course, and sorrow morphs to joy. The view I am gaining from the disappearance of this building is of a Superstore across Eglinton Avenue. When I first started working at Don Mills and Eglinton, where that store is was an empty lot, a great open bit of the wild, fenced off, with high grass and flowers and a million insects, and a circular driveway – there had been a building there before. And even now there is a strip between the Superstore and Eglinton that has grass and trees. It used to have a path that was crumbled pavement, but now that’s been bulldozed, and likely the rest of this piece of nature will have its turn to be turned over and built on. So this building goes away, and I see nature, and the building where nature was where a building was before, and the nature won’t last either. The world is a sophomore, wise and foolish, forever partly formed. It all cycles through: “The eternal process: creation – maturation – destruction.” Creation dances with destruction, from the smallest meson to the whole multiverse, and nature is red in tooth and claw.
Red. That was the name of the play I saw this evening, a play by John Logan about the modern painter Mark Rothko, portrayed captivatingly by Jim Mezon in Canadian Stage’s production. It is the great abstract expressionist in the late peak of his career, when the new wave of pop artists – Stella, Lichtenstein, Warhol – were up and coming, just as the abstract expressionists had in their own time dismantled what was before. “The child must banish the father,” Logan’s Rothko says. “Respect him, but kill him.” Rothko even refers to himself – perhaps ironically – as a dinosaur, sucking up oxygen that the new furry little mammals want. “The eternal process: creation – maturation – destruction.” He has no respect for, does not want his paintings to become, overmantels: “those paintings destined to become commodities” – to be hung over the mantels in the homes of the rich. He talks of Rembrandt’s Feast of Belshazzar and quotes the writing on the wall: “Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin: you have been weighed in the balance and found wanting.”
But everything is ultimately wanting, and the days of everything are numbered. We destroy the dinosaurs, and then we create new dinosaurs to destroy what we have built. From the amorphous we add r selves and make the sauromorph. We dream, and we shift shapes – Morpheus the shapeshifter was Ovid’s god of dreams in his Metamorphoses. We are perhaps Tolkien’s Sauron, creating a ring that will itself come full circle, ruling, finding, binding, and then being melted again in the primal heat of magma from the mantle. We are Sauron-Morpheus, we and our sauromorphs. The rite of spring is a rite of the fall… and rising again. And the background to it all… can you hear? I put on The Rite of Spring when I started writing this. And now I hear the last song of the dinosaurs. Which is?
The CD has finished. Logan’s Rothko says it: “Silence is so accurate.”