Philosopher's Square


Philosopher’s Square

And now the sun has stopped high in the center

of the sky; and in everlasting happiness the statue immerses its soul

in the contemplation of its shadow.

There is a room whose shutters are always closed.

In one corner there is a book nobody has read.

And there on the wall is a picture

one cannot see without weeping.

Giorgio de Chirico, “The Statue’s Desire.”

At 2:00 in the afternoon of July 10, an exceptional climatic condition allowed twilight to open and unfold from the horizon to the apogee, first white, then ever deepening to emerald green in clearly demarcated registers upward and upward until, from the height, a glaucous gel descended, enclosing every object in impassable isolation. Perhaps the distant eruption of some volcano, the exact deviation of interstellar winds, or the eye of matter opened to fill our square with unaccustomed sight. The philosopher’s pen fell from his fingers. Striking the page, it spattered black ink across the articulated grid of his argument. Were these the prophetic hexagrams, the yarrow sticks thrown down?

Or, according to an equally ancient speculation, events not yet released from memory and returned to bliss, but still entangled in the slenderest of threads (the mindful and incalculably slow vision of stone, of the flat rectangular pool, of the palm tree) and thus caught, sense their former shape, find their time, and recur, now swarming and blurred among so many others.

At 2:00 in the afternoon by this unexpected recurrence, the noonday sun struck our square into homogenous brilliance, the awful invasion. The city at that hour was relieved of its citizens, who had withdrawn into siestas from which familiar wounded histories would spring. The philosopher rushed hatless into the street, determined to know the dimension indicated by the hands of the tower clock as they moved now perpendicular to the abandoned face. He had been, he was perplexed by the problem of natural injustice, the problem fixed in his mind by the story in every morning’s newspaper of the child pitilessly raped over a period of six months by her mother’s lover, and the faltering blood sucked from her veins by that parent in strict compensation for every drop of milk. Perplexed by this wan tracery which filled his notebooks, which rustled over the floor in skins of paper, which covered the walls of his study, this tracery insoluble by the calculus,the righteous theodolite, the French curve, confounded by the language which obviated all wisdom while tempting him with hopes of transcendence, stalemated by the fear which caused him to gnaw like a rat the wooden post of his own bed – he rushed to the train station and consulted the schedules of departures. He was not too late; there, beyond the brick arcades, was the vaporous locomotive and the arrow of flight.

The philosopher realized with deepest chagrin what he had known from the earliest days of his work, what he had traced through every line: that he would never escape his mother! He thought of that on the days when he ambled (to rest his eyes) up the stairs to her sewing room and sat in a low armchair to watch her work. Darkened by the window’s light, she bent to draw her thread, hemming the fifty yards of white French organdy with a plaid in the weave – his sister’s wedding dress. She lifted her head and reached up to straighten the waistband attached directly to the armless mannequin on which she worked, then drew her hand down the deep, stiff folds to the floor. She turned the mannequin a notch to the right, and reached up once more to the waist, where she adjusted a pleat and drove a straight pin directly into the dry body compacted of sawdust and horsehair. This thing produced in him the most insidious dread: for in it he saw the end of the world and the very anatomy of his soul. Was his mother insensible to the contraption’s intent? Did she glance at him suddenly, briefly, removing a pin from the row glinting between her lips?

Each motion communicated to his fingertips, to the flower of his skin, to the points of his hair as he strove towards the train was an unavoidable memory. Now his eyes were dazzled by the dust of the schoolroom, grove of his first violation. Once again, in flight, the storm’s golden exaltation, the lesson of Bion the neatherd; once again behind him, on the back of his neck, between his shoulders, the heat of Syracuse raked by shadows of cypress, the glinting Sicilian muse glimpsed through a diamond pane that rainy afternoon:

“For him the Fates do even weep and wail;

They call his name, and thus in dure travail

Sing spells to bring him back once more.

In vain do they the heedless youth implore:

Adonis: for he unwilling must this charm forgo,

Unwilling that the awesome Maid prevail

Who will not let him go.”

The young philosopher shifted his bottom from side to side on the hard bench, turning his head down and slantwise to hide a yawn. Rain on the panes of glass caught him. He was drawn up and saw, across the row, a schoolboy he would rather not have seen. Not even him. Fredrick Osprey was one of the invisibles, one of the unlucky phantoms, held out of range and beyond the grasp of the others. Held out, it seemed, for a time; then released, as now, at the crossed juncture, to the discomfort of the young philosopher. Then the unexpected details, the close view of this being were clear to him; indeed, they stood forth in salutation: the inky knuckles finely engraved, the small and bony head, a clenched fist, the head and the fist clenched in fright or fidelity, wanting the sword. Each tooth in his mouth was separated from the others, like the distinct prongs of a veal maul. Alarming disorder of teeth! They would not be contained.

And he was not, like everyone else, crouching deceitfully over the text of Adonis dead, snuffing the page. He sat bolt upright, his eyes fixed on the lips of Professor Cornelius Anhalt – blue lips which pleated and opened at the center of a raspy beard – as if this were the very face of wisdom and these the resonant words. Unflinching he faced the stony source. He breathed in glassy splintered emendations and knots of cruxes razor sharp. He heard. He was filled with hearing.

For him, behind the broken clatter the sounding note, the sweet voice of one turning back, a finger to his lips, speaking his name. The young philosopher opened his eyes and sat up straight. He was knocked down. He struggled to his feet and felt the wound. He could not help, though he turned and turned, he could not help but see the lacerated throat of Fred Osprey, the nostrils rimmed with blood, the broken breast whence comes the rose and the anemone of tears.

Here began the friendship or provisional parallelism illumined by summer and framed by the long row of limes where they walked, pushing their bicycles, lifting their faces now and then, one after the other, to the leaves of light revolving far above. Fred Osprey talked. He said so much. He had a way of gesturing too, sharply with one hand, palm up, the other guiding the handlebars, as they walked together. At the same time, he drew his chin down into his tie. Down he went, frowning bitterly, to all appearances extinguished, down to encounter his thought. Then he looked up, as if aware only at that moment of the presence of his companion. He stopped short, wide eyed, prepared to remonstrate, to seize his lapels, to insist! And the philosopher yielded all, out of curiosity, to see. He felt the passion of closeness, the thin veined skin, the paned glass broken to the light, so near, he must press close, he must not object or speak, to see, to see, until the mist of his own breath veiled his vision. What was the passionate thought of Fred Osprey? What was the thought of a schoolboy? He believed that everything was for him. He heard all the voices sounding in the purity of his faith. He was a saint in his faith! And perhaps he was right. Perhaps he was combed by the powers, combed through, drawn out in every direction, perhaps he was the unknotting of the innumerable directions of the powers. He was turned about in every way; he was played upon, a unique instrument. He did not hear, after all: he was heard, he was sounded, he was entered, he turned to enter the prisons of the wind, the cave, the wound of Tristan, the hungry mouth.

As a youth, the philosopher had observed the glossy purple bumps pressing beneath the skin of his friend’s face, and could only surmise that his ravings were due (as were his own) to some hormonal detonation, the cruel notches of time. He waited for these to circle away, to bring him back to himself and to his friend’s embrace. One afternoon, he hurried from the alley into a carriageway which opened at the far end onto a square courtyard and a stair mounting to Fred Osprey’s high irregular corner. But he stopped short in the shadow of stone: for there he was, framed in the center of the arch, darkened to a single plane by the courtyard’s glare. He stood in profile. The philosopher noted the curved spine, the thin torso bulging to the front, the neck with its Adam’s apple unmistakably lodged. When his delicate arms moved up before him, reaching up, then poised against the light, he resembled a stork. Or was he conducting some inaudible symphony?

For the thin arms reaching high were brought down, flickering, and out with a sweep, then up and back to describe a square; down and up in narrow parallel to form the tower; down and gradually up, the oak tree branching in symmetrical calibrations to the apex; then his arms came together before him, folded; and pushed back, pushed back, warding off the clearly seen in the courtyard’s glare; then rose fluttering to form the square, down, the tower, down, the branching upward tree, push back, push back, down, up to form the square. In the next instant he was aware of the philosopher’s presence, and turned toward him with a fluid movement, adjusting the cuffs of his shirt, which had crept up into his sleeves during the performance. He smiled a symmetrical smile, seal of wisdom, eyes unflinching, face to face.

In the confusion of the moment, he could not remember if he had seen this, or inferred it from the mounting and inconclusive evidence. One Sunday afternoon when they were walking in the park, he suddenly turned right, left the path, and stepped over the curved wickets to take his place at the vivid center of the carpet bed. There he removed his jacket, his sweater, his suspenders with vigorous elasticity, his shirt and deepest undershirt – arresting for the time being this denudation where outrage ends and horror begins. His goose-pimpled flesh was flung loosely over the distinct skeleton, and rippled in slow oscillations like the top of a tent in a breeze. The police officer striding toward him was met, was bested! by the hero’s fierce unflinching eye and the slow awkward motion of his arm as he drew his resolute bow.

Too late the philosopher arrived at the scene of the crime (or perhaps no more than a catastrophe): the carpet bed now cordoned off, trampled, now subject to the humiliation of the police photographer’s flash, explosion, and infernal fumes, where he had blown his brains out with a revolver and scattered his teeth abroad like seeds. Suicide or murder? What passage stirred the leaves, the skins, the white summer garments of strollers on the path? What second pair, or third, or dreadful multitude of footprints bruised the petals? What remote corner or cave of space caught and held the echo of the loud report? The dead man’s fingers gripped the gun in the accurate position of self-destruction; but the bullet lodged in the hazel tree, the knowledgeable hazel tree that flourished at the edge of the garden, had entered Fred Osprey’s skull at the base of the neck. From there, it travelled acutely upwards to sever the spinal column, and passed through the roof of the mouth with much ruinous effect.

The philosopher was deprived not of the memories of friendship, not the peripheral line, but of the center, the body, unnamable then and now. For him, recurrence without encounter; meeting, endless meeting without recognition; the arrow without the target. He remained fixed to the spot for the rest of his life, there growing old, becoming bald, forgetting the youthful stylishness of his dress. There he adjusted his spectacles to witness more clearly the broken stalk of the woeful iris, the bloody tooth in the earth, and the carpet bed transformed into the red concentric gulping zones of the mouth of hell. Why do some and not others step into the center of horror?

He was not too late; not too late for the scheduled departure, not too late to sink transfixed in the uniform brilliance of the square, to gasp beneath the marbled enveloping weight of his mother’s embrace, to receive full length, resting his head on his arm, saddened by the impossibility of tears, aware of his clothes suddenly lifted, plucked, torn to floating veils, aware of his breasts swollen, erect and stony, his knees parting and opening to receive the pitiless noon.


Giorgio De Chirico, “The Statue’s Desire,”

quoted in James Thrall Soby, Giorgio de Chirico

(New York, 1955), p. 253.

Bion of Smyrna, “Lament for Adonis,” The Greek Bucolic Poets,

trans. J. M. Edmonds (Loeb Classical Library, 1928), p. 393-394.