It is Atlanta, late October 2009. He is on the corner of Peachtree circle and 17th street, in front of his godparents’ house. The air is crisp, and so I need not tell you the leaves are burnt. The trees are weightless, the trunks non-existent, the branches invisible. The light is simultaneously bright and soft, as in a fading polaroid.
The structure of an essay is the logic of a dream.
A holiday weekend in Amherst, Massachusetts, 2014. The students have fled, turning the campus into a ruin. Across the valley, trees are changing. You might insert your favorite metaphor for autumn leaves. No matter how you phrase it, they are dying. The air is chilly, nippy, spry. The sun is casting a cinematic grain upon the world.
To the German philosopher Walter Benjamin, coziness was related to bourgeois imperialism. The homes he grew up in were upper-middle-class apartments, chock-full of tchotchkes, rugs, art, and other trinkets imported from German Africa. One could not run, stretch, or think without breaking something, bringing down the bourgeois father’s wrath. In contrast, Bauhaus, with its open spaces and minimalism, offered bare living, producing freedom and training for life in modernity.
A century later, no self-respecting member of the bourgeois—if such a class still exists—would dare live in the type of home Benjamin loathed. Minimalism is the default choice. Not the minimalism of Bauhaus, but one influenced by mid-century modernism and Scandinavia. Tour any home priced above a million or so and you’ll encounter kitchens covered in white marble, spidered with tasteful veins of grey, farmhouse sinks, tan wood cabinets—usually with a grey undertone—white walls, and the lightest of brown wood floors, and wrought-iron window frames opening to a small yard featuring artificial turf. All the little objects that hold signs of life—soup ladles and remotes, corkscrews and holiday cards—are hidden behind the wooden veneer. There is no revelation in these buildings. Even if we acknowledge this isn’t true minimalism, not the bare living Benjamin dreamed of, it nonetheless demands an accounting of what happened.
October 2004. He is young; second grade has just begun. Sam S. is standing to his left, pear-shaped, his hair cut close. Quincy W. is on his right. They are all wearing Brown Merrells and khaki pants and blue collared shirts and fleeces, the latter two emblazoned with the Woodward Academy crest. It is one of those autumn mornings where there should be frost on the cars, whether it is above freezing or not. Sam is arguing for him to support Georgia Tech football, Quincy the University of Georgia (bizarre, considering his allegiance to the University of Michigan). The light is flat, the sun diffused in the grey above us. There is a single brick wall behind them. Besides that, the world is absent, unseen.
These images exist as frames excised from a lost film; there is the feeling of movement, the blurred edges you get when you isolate a single shot from the rest, but I cannot see said movement. There is context around them (I was getting coffee for my sister and her friends, visiting Amherst to look at universities, learning for the first time about college football), except it is not in the image, but rather in the inaccessible film. The information holds the same valence as something I read on Wikipedia, not something I experienced. They are images without information—though isn’t this the case with every isolated frame?
I do not see myself in these memories, and yet it is not that I am absent. Rather, it is as though I am the film camera, the producer and center of these images, and yet invisible. Or perhaps not a camera, for at times it is as though I am in the frame, but cannot be seen, a blurred-out lacuna. And like every lacuna, everything visible is nothing more than a commentary on the unseeable object. My affect suffuses the image, and as a result, I disappear, becoming the image. Indeed, I might say that the image is nothing more than a production of my affect.
Autumnal folklore tends to be set in small towns on the edges of industrialization. Sleepy Hollow might have sat in “listless repose,” operating under a “drowsy, dreamy influence,” but the Hudson River Valley in which it reclined was soon to become the site of intense industrialization. We might note that construction on the Erie Canal—which allowed the transformation of the Hudson River Valley—began in 1817, two years before Irving wrote his enduring short story. Or that British use of Hessian auxiliaries—symbolized through Irving’s headless Hessian—allowed Hessel-Kassel, to build a prosperous textile industry. In the decades after Irving’s tale was published, Hesse would become one of Germany’s industrial centers. The terror lurking in his story, the reason it resonated for so long after, is that we were becoming headless horsemen, bodies and nothing more, alone and atomized yet without subjectivity. That’d we would have the worst of both worlds, the loneliness of bourgeois capitalism and the unfreedom of its industrial successor.
In academic jargon, affect is understood as a sort of “free-floating intensity,” one that precedes thought. This is what distinguishes it from emotion, and, for affect theorists, frees it from politics, history, and culture. For them, it is never ideological. That they base this on a flawed understanding of science is not relevant to us here. Rather, it is enough to say that the world precedes us, and so precedes even the affective response, conditioning it.
Coziness, or rather the desire for it, is the desire for a past where (some) people felt themselves to be subjects, and the world was built around such subjects. In this, it is reactionary, an inherently conservative affect. It should not surprise us that autumnal aesthetics are coded as white, and very often upper-middle-class or above. At the same time, such a desire reminds us that there are alternatives, that we need not live in a world built for none of us. In picking apples, we glimpse a world scaled to the individual.
After 2008, fall aesthetics became particularly dominant. The music and fashion of the time were intensely autumnal, whether in the grey beaches of the Neighborhood, the tweed and twee Lumineers, or the ubiquity of flannel. As the economy flamed out spectacularly, the truth of financialization was laid bare—that it was nothing more than a rear-guard action to salvage an economic system reaching its limits, that there was no future to be found—Millennials found themselves dreaming of alternatives. Occupy Wall Street was the most literal expression of this longing, but was doomed, for it was defined by what it opposed, relied on the old modes for its power. Autumnal aesthetics attempted to sidestep this issue by recalling an arcadian pre-industrial era. At the same time, Steampunk was on the rise. It returned to early industrialization—the moment of the fall in this ideological construction—and imagined it played out differently, that we could have built a system that would never enter crisis, where industry remained dominant. The fashion of the era reflected the paucity of alternatives; all that was on offer was an Edenic past that never existed, or a more functional form of capitalism. Yet there was something else at play in the autumn styles, the oxblood slacks and burnt pumpkin sweaters. In the 2013 remake of Sleepy Hollow, the reawakening of Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman are signs of the apocalypse, that the world is ending.
The desire for fall is a desire for contentment in the face of death. It is the hope of late-life reconciliation, the opposite of Adorno and Said’s late style. The leaves are dead, the air is smokey, the end is nigh. And yet we are happy, even enjoying the apocalypse, not hiding out hoping for survival, but taking walks and holding parties. The coziness of fall is the unconscious hope that when we die, it will be next to a roaring fire, surrounded by friends and family, not in a fluorescently lit room, violently fighting the coming darkness. In the original version of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Ichabod Crane is obsessed with ghost stories. Living in the dreamy, content world of the glade, Crane fixates on death. In the end, what drives him out is not a romantic rival playing tricks on him, but the unconscious realization that the coziness is a façade, that there is no reconciliation with death. The peace of finality is a passing dream.
One thought on “Autumnal”
Wow! Just got back with the time to read this. You are a superb writer and whatever the content, you have created a mood, a shadow, an autumnal dream that lingers., Well done, my wonderful grandson. I love you and cherish your words. Grandma