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Published: Tue Apr 15 2003
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, El Fracoso de los Texeles / The Failure of the Church Women (detail), 2004, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
The Picture House

Ask anyone you meet what it is exactly that they mean by a certain word and you will see, Alciphron, how feebly our common life is held together by the threads of language. Ah, but pictures! Pictures once seemed to tell a different story.

I don’t recall the first time you took me to your uncle’s picture house. It was loftier than any church in town and its darkness had far more to offer us. There the most familiar things–horses, kouroi, books and birds, the gods and constellations–were potent with new urgency. Our worship of them was a vacant pleasure.

I would hate to see now what we looked like sunk down in our seats: eyes wide open, not quite focused; mouths slack yet tense; faces pale and glazed with flitting shadows.

Then, once, in the middle of a show, you grabbed my wrist, remember? And led me up the worn staircase in back to a cramped little room. It took a while before I knew what was there in front of me–a whirring apparatus that pulled a strip of tiny frames through a beam of light so strong I had to block it with my fingers. And towering above our empty seats below, the giant figures moving.

We never spoke about it. Perhaps it was nothing, just a curiosity to you, Alciphron, who always whisked us by the ticket taker and the ushers with a breezy assurance that embarrassed me. But that brief glimpse haunts me still. Which is more real? The gigantic images? Or the tiny brilliant frames that seem to be their cause? And what of the dim traces–faint at best and quick to fade–that linger in our mind’s eye?

Horses, kouroi, books and birds, the gods and constellations-are these mere after-shadows? I cannot say I know them now as I once did before you took me, dear Alciphron, to your uncle’s picture house that fateful day.

Or was it night?

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Thomas Frick wrote much of The Iron Boys as a Charles Pick Fellow at the University of East Anglia. He is working on a second novel and on a book-length philosophical investigation. He is co-director of publications at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. (updated 11/2006)

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