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Holding the Tension: A Bystander's Metaphor in Colum McCann's Apeirogon

The many-sided truth is thematically at the heart of Colum McCann’s Apeirogon, a shape with infinite sides. In a dramatic scene, the high-wire artist who McCann previously had described in As the Great World Spins makes a return, this time in an act crossing a valley uniting Palestinian and Israeli observers in awe. Spectacle and symbol unite when a dove perches on Petit’s head. The bird’s talons clutch his scalp. Dazed by pain he holds his balance bar still,  only narrowing his focus. Then. As the bird flaps, he sets one foot ahead on the tightrope. He moves forward and the claws release. A photographer’s image shows the dove flapping a foot over the artist’s head. 

The narrator has switched view to observe an artefact reproducing the scene.

Notice the camera in the photographer’s hands. Held on a strap around a man’s neck under his checkered Kafia. A sympathetic foreigner, not a casual observer. It could be a Nikon, examining Petit’s absence of fear with a highly-powered lens. Above him the faint grey shadows of the bird’s feathers would be clearly defined. Or perhaps the camera, the standard kind used by the Israeli Intelligence, was a light-weight model unequipped with such a lens, but nevertheless made apparent the beak and tail and colorlessness of the dove. Or perhaps the contact paper with the negatives was marked with an exclamation point, the image chosen not despite but because of the out-of-focus shot, the grainy black and white image showing a blotted figure on a diagonal, the beating wings seen even with a blurry focus captured in flight. It was the kind of picture that told a story. A miracle story of two peoples united in awe. Once upon a time in the middle of the Hedron valley there was a man who seemed to stand at rest in the air, and above him, hovered a grey blur. 

A machinic assemblage, then, is a dynamic composition of heterogeneous elements that eschew identity but nonetheless function together, subjectively, socially, in cooperation.

--Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri, Assembly

The photograph mediated the awe of observers, cropped from the image. The photographer, craning upwards training the lens of the machine, unified the observers with the secondary audience, stripping their political identity. Because the subjective audience enthralled in that moment of Petit’s performance was outside view, viewing the photograph, one could respond to the decontextualized image on the level of the symbolic, but one could not experience the basic tension, the visceral experience of an incomplete act and the parasocial phenomenon of witnessing a historical moment in person. Here again, the adjacency of meaning, where, by a remove of some physical and temporal distance the authority of account is lost. A dense, impenetrable. The force of an experience some might witness as a fluke, others, a holy anointing, the difference being in dimensional perception. Levels of meaning. Still the photograph mobilized a second act of observation. One lost oneself identifying with Petit, vicariously, transcending fear. 

Colum McCann, Apeirogon, New York: Random House, 2020. 379.

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Assembly. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. 137.


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