Memory of Alexandria
Memory of Alexandria, together with The End of Natural History, sounds the depths of my native pessimism, whose opposite pole is represented by the lyrical and Romantic works for Cabinet Theatre The Balcony of the Moon and The Descent of Light. “Alexandria” refers to that ancient city’s famous library, four times destroyed by fire: in 48 BCE by Julius Caesar during the Alexandrian War, in 270-75 CE during the attack of Aurelian, in 391 by decree of the Coptic Pope Theophilus, and in 642 during the Muslim conquest. The title of this piece registers a nice ambiguity that may suggest to spectators that the central image (book stand and book) and its accompanying projection (the book’s ghostly text) represent a twenty-first century memory of the city’s destroyed Great Library (a souvenir) or else its own historical memory (a consciousness) in process of disintegration. Bleak and nihilistic, the work dramatizes the inevitable destruction of knowledge, ending in a dark age without hope of a renaissance.
Spectators witnessing the action, as it enfolds in the video projection, might be comforted by the apparent indestructibility of knowledge, which survives in the ancient text’s projected image (a seeming variant of the Law of Conservation of Matter and Energy). But in the end, the recollected text (as phantom image) is fated to disappear – like thought, memory, and the physical records of human intellect.
A small dimly lit room behind a proscenium arch. The room’s three walls, floor and ceiling are painted gray in a shade that will receive the projected video image. Ash and debris, such as broken vases, ink pots, and clay tiles may be scattered on the floor, provided this further evidence of destruction does not overwhelm the work’s central image: an oversized codex lying open on a wooden reading stand. The lectern is scorched. The book, also, has been burned. While charred, it is recognizable as the ruin of a heavy volume. A portion of text inscribed in an ancient language is legible on one or the other of the book’s opened pages.
The light inside the room is weak but uniform, creating an atmosphere of gloom. A diffused beam of white light whose source is not apparent illuminates the pages which lie open on the reading stand.
Video Projection (the Action):
An image of the written text as it was before fire consumed the book and all but a portion of its topmost page is projected onto the rear wall and perhaps the ceiling. (If practicable, the moving image can be projected onto a scrim in front of the reading stand.) Viewing the moving-image, spectators are persuaded that knowledge survives even when its vessels are destroyed; that memory can persist when there is no one to remember; that thought exists as an independent and inviolable absolute. But the spectators will soon be disabused of this Romantic notion when the moving-image begins to show imperfections and a loss of visual information until it becomes illegible and, in time, vanishes.
If there is sound, it will be the “noise of history,” a faint and distant roar, perhaps counterpointed with the crackling of flames.
Norman Lock’s recent books in print include the novels American Meteor and The Boy in His Winter, the book-length poem In the Time of Rat, and the short story collection Love Among the Particles. American Meteor and The Boy in His Winter are also available as e-books and audio books. His stage play The House of Correction was recently performed in Turkey, Athens, and Warsaw and The Book of Stains in Essen, Germany. His newest radio play, Mounting Panic, was heard last year on WDR, Germany. Norman is a frequent contributor to Visual ARTBEAT.
He has won The Paris Review Aga Khan Prize for Fiction and the Dactyl Foundation for the Arts & Humanities Literary Fiction Award and has been awarded writing fellowships from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts (1999, 2013), the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts (2009), and the National Endowment for the Arts (2011). Norman lives in Aberdeen, New Jersey, with his wife, Helen.