The Sum of Lost Steps


Heart of the Sciences

We are not living in the fair month of May that we had hoped for. I continue, for the sake of my psychical and physical health, to take long walks to the far ends of the city. As soon as I step out, I feel the need to invent for myself a destination, as if my sanity depended on it. The current crisis—and I find the expression a bit paradoxical, given its pacifying effects—has unpeopled the city’s streets, slowed down its rhythms. I meet the gazes of other stupefied walkers, shocked to be wandering through that day after that should never have come to pass. For most of us, the familiar fears of the Cold War had eventually come to seem like a bad dream. These fears have been revived, and transformed, by the power of the virus. Montreality, swayed by its shockwave, had sunk into relative unreality. On the city’s emptied sidewalks and in its almost carless streets, scattered citizens give each other a wide berth. They wander about with the haunted look and spectral gait of revenants, as scared of themselves as of their kind.

In the former era, before the inner spaces of the city closed around us like a shell, I had been commissioned by the FTA, a festival of contemporary dance and theatre, to deliver this text to a live audience in the agora of Le Cœur des sciences—The Heart of the Sciences—located just a few steps away from Le Quartier des spectacles. The performing arts fell, as we all have, upon hard times. I quickly resolved—I would like to say that it was on the very day that I was supposed to speak publicly—to go and see the space where I had been invited to perform if things had followed their foreordained course. When I first saw the white tarps of the downtown testing clinic, they seemed to me like counterparts of those the US Army planted at the foot of the extra-terrestrial vessel in Arrival, the Hollywood film of our fellow Québecer Denis Villeneuve. I imagined technicians busying themselves inside, dressed in hazmat suits, handing anguish-laced testing swabs to their fellow citizens, in a daze at finding themselves in the midst of a disaster movie. And this in the very spot where they used to come and party, and to attend concerts.

The Place des Festivals had been transformed into the set of a lived science-fiction movie. I think that something, in the stories and images that we consume daily, had prepared us for the eventuality of the crisis. When, on a fine Thursday, the twelfth of March—le douze mars, Douzeday Doomsday—in Québec and on Earth, the authorities decided to alert the population to the threat floating in the air, we so quickly, and so docilely, adapted to the new order that it seemed as if we were merely accepting a truth that had been hidden in the back of our heads for ages. Fiction, as I like to say, is also part of reality, and it had prepared us, in part, to tumble into this experiment. My use of this term, which scientists of various persuasions hold dear, is far from innocent. The pandemic has propelled us, with urgency, into the hypothetical and we are adapting as much as we can to a novel form of solidarity, which might also pave the way for a deeper form of social control.

When I search the recent history of my city for comparable events—such a seizing of public space—I start thinking of the October Crisis in 1970, and of the ice storm in 1998, or of Le Printemps érable in 2012. Federal interference, the rigours of winter and popular emotion lived as an end in itself—defeat is, after all, one of the founding myths of Québec—are characteristic features of our culture. They also represent three distinct ways to block the city’s arteries. The pandemic is a novel one.

The curve of contagion has settled like a bell jar over our heads and, in Montréal as elsewhere, the population has found itself trapped in the space of a scientific planetary tale. Long before detecting the exoplanet B that radio-astronomers have been hoping to find, Earth has been demoted into a B-movie planet. We are living in uncertain times, in a diagrammatic scenario, subject to the sway of statistical disquiet, to the naïve interpretation of the virus’s dramatic arc. Statistics generate a multiplicity of ghosts. Their power—which we cannot doubt—is, properly speaking, supernatural. The story of our lives unfolds at another scale of being, in another world. There is something necessarily reductive—and immensely confusing—in quantified narratives, where numbers take pride of place over individuality. Science, or something like it, may very well have intruded—along with the health crisis—into the midst of the city, but the story remains ours to tell, and if there is one thing that is certain, it is that no calculations will exhaust the topic.

To the familiar question “What does History teach us?” I’ve always preferred the more fecund “What do stories teach us?” Every culture, every political regime, approaches the crisis in a peculiar style. What we are living through here in Montréal has, in many ways, very little to do with the global narrative (or even with the provincial scenario). And what each of us is experiencing, in our personal folds, will ultimately reveal the most fundamental lessons, and will show what and whom we hold dearest. It seems to me, in any case, that we should avoid reducing our fellow human beings to the abstract “people” who haunt our conversations, and whose main defect consists in not being us. With the pandemic, fiction has laid claim to history. And history, now more than ever, needs human imagination. As long as we remember that we are living in Montréal, in our Québec libre, it remains up to us—who are, and are not, those “people” we refer to, or those spectral statistics that public discourse has brought to bear on reality—to redefine the terms of the telling.

I must admit to my natural inclination: every time I no longer know what to think, I turn to words, with the conviction that they know things about us that we ignore. I’d decided on the title of these musings, The Sum of Lost Steps, without quite knowing what I would be talking about; I only knew that I wanted to evoke the long walks through which I took, and still take, the measure of Montreality. And it does not seem like a trivial fact to me, considering the situation, that, if we had not found ourselves in this B-movie script, it would have been, yes, in the Heart of the Sciences that I would have uttered these words. Science—or something like it, which speaks in its name—has conquered the habitable space of the city, and the expression heart of the sciences seems a very fitting description of the manner in which we are currently inhabiting life.

May the above observations suffice for me to lay claim to the mutant powers of the telepath, as I lead you through the streets of Montréal, in search of its many-chambered heart.

The Sum of Lost Steps

When I am asked to locate the true heart of Montréal, I cast about like a compass, tempted to leave in three directions at once. And then I settle.

Something inside myself tells me that it must be located somewhere in the waiting hall of Bonaventure train station. Our central station exerts an almost magnetic attraction upon me. Though I have full control over my schedule, and my steps, I returned there—in the former era when the city was still open—several times a week, carried by the momentum of long walks which took me from the heights of the Plateau to the lowlands around the Canal. I could almost have provided you with a timetable. I did not even have a train to take, or some daily tedium to submit to, propelling me back downtown day after day. It was a quality of light that needled me back on my way. I must share some traits with those creatures—mostly birds and insects, but also some fish, even some humble plants, corals and bacteria—who are guided along invisible lines by a trace of ferrous oxide, lodged in their flighty little brains since prehistory. For me, this iron compound, which goes by the name of magnetite, conjures the image of a weightless stone, a black body floating in the mind, scattering thought-rays in all directions. Some credit this unconscious migratory pull to the presence in magneto-receptive entities of a protein known as cryptochrome. This “hidden colour,” sensitive to the ultraviolet spectrum and to sources of blue light—chief among them, moonglow—is said to exert a regulating influence on the creatures’ circadian rhythms. These hypotheses, no matter their truth value, agree with my own states of mind. Magnetopaths are blue-hearted, and moon-footed.

As you can see, I don’t need scientific permission to abandon myself to the pull of a metaphor. I envision the volume of the train station like a gigantic, lucent egg, nestled in a darkened hollow at the foot of the shimmering glass facades of downtown, a kind of subterranean hangar for that orangey UFO which was seen floating, on the evening of November 7, 1990, above the concrete parapets of Place Bonaventure. It is indeed a luminous phenomenon which stirs my imagination and gives me impetus. I see myself pass, anonymously, on the terrazzo of the station’s waiting hall, with its cosmos of multi-coloured marble flecks; an immense geological slab, on which rests a volume of light. In French, this space is beautifully named “la salle des pas perdus”—the hall of lost steps—in perfect accord with these flecks, and the arbitrary nature of my walks.

At the two ends of the waiting room, just above the bas-relief pediment dedicated to the builders of the nation—figures taken from an allusive Canadian encyclopedia, carved in ecru stone on an azure background—frosted windows reveal backlit silhouettes: workers on their breaks, gone for a smoke, engaging in small talk, coming and going. Those pale figures belong to the theatre of the former era. For me, they are the actors of a plot-less movie. I like to pause before one of the departure boards—one dedicated to the country and the province’s faraway cities, the other to Laurentian suburbia—and consider their spectral assembly, suspended in another light.

I’d always believed that these milky windows opened onto an interior space that only the office workers could access. Just before the city closed in on itself, I took the risk of verifying, and discovered that what lies on the other side is a sort of covered parking area, an image so foreign to my preconceptions that I’ve already forgotten it. This might be because, when I project myself mentally inside the station, I never picture its exterior facade; it is as if it were a space without an outside, and that people, in order to exist there, have only one option: to meld with the light itself. I slipped behind the scenes. Where were the extra-terrestrials, the beings of light? These silhouettes belonged to people, ordinary people, equipped with their Tupperware or cigarettes, in thrall to their daily obligations, their breadwinning, or their life-wasting, who can tell?

Forgive them, for they know not what they do. I long ago labelled L’heure des fous—The Mad Hour—the interval between 4:26 and 6:12 or so, when the downtown towers empty out. Under the two departure boards, the floor of the waiting room is alive with white collars freshly freed from their daily obligations, in a hurry to return to the suburbs, or to journey further away in Québec or Canada, where they will become more nearly themselves. I like to walk into the throng, on my way to nowhere. Their lines of flight do not coincide with mine. But please do not think that I despise them: I love their teeming, their rumble, their dispersion—this possibility that they embody, of leaving in all directions at once. The waiting room is a Parliament of the Possible, more alive than any debate of the National Assembly.

I am, however, wary of the crowd’s desires, the charms of hourly wages, and the attrition of souls sacrificed to job descriptions, and to management models. Maybe it is the contrast between my own freedom and the servitude of the waiting passengers which impels me: I return here precisely because I do not have a train to take. Because I want to rub up against the majority, to redirect my train of thought. REW/FFD. The cause is not magnetite or cryptochrome, but my own attraction to the impossible. I flee the Mad Hour, take over the calculation they feign to ignore, of which they are the beating heart: the sum of lost steps.

The Line of Warmth

Have you ever noticed how, when crossing through downtown Montréal on foot, the air temperature rises a notch between René-Lévesque Boulevard and Sherbrooke Street? Whatever the time of year, a difference of one, one and a half degrees, can be felt. I have baptized this thermal membrane La Ligne de chaleur—the Line of Warmth. For me, it demarcates the high and low parts of town, marks the turning point dividing my venturing out, and my coming back.

The glass towers, in this viral interval, are mostly deserted. The calorific phenomenon, however, continues with undiminished intensity. For a long time, I believed that it was due in large part to the hustle and bustle of street traffic, combined with the human warmth of crowds. In the absence of the labouring, shopping masses, its primary cause becomes much easier to pinpoint: whatever direction one approaches the Sainte-Catherine axis, the hum of heating systems becomes evident, the tinnitus-like sizzle of electric circuits, the effort of machinery labouring in the resting buildings. Their breathing is heavier, slower than usual. The deep, mechanical respiration of a world without us, in suspended animation.

Unreal cities. Where pestilence weighs upon us and silence is an appeasement. The threat is respiratory. It attacks the founts of our breath, which is also the heart of our stories. The snore of the skyscrapers has always felt as if it were muffling some secret almost-language. This impression is amplified by the unreal quiet into which the viral season has plunged the city. Buildings seem on the verge of speaking out. But remain speechless. Words hang on the tip of my tongue: the buildings are waiting for our return, the propitious moment to awake, lucid, from the nightmare of history, and to take up again, otherwise, the dream of cities.

For the ancient Greeks, the heart was the source of breath, and breath, the fuel of the soul. The main stage of the Cœur des sciences, the locus of our absence, is in the former boiler room of the university complex that surrounds it.

Some historical bearings: before acquiring its present scientific reputation, the building housed the School of Higher Business Studies and the Montréal Technical School. Eventually, both of these migrated to the University of Montréal, on the other side of Mount Royal. In those pre-university days, the two institutions supplied downtown businesses with hordes of employees. The present transitory population of white and blue collars, who busy themselves in the offices and engine rooms of Ville-Marie, are their direct descendants.

If we were to go a bit further back in time, say circa 1815, a rather more bucolic scene would greet us: we would find ourselves in the middle of a vast orchard. Its limits extended from Sainte-Catherine to Sherbrooke Streets, and, from west to east, from Bleury Street to Saint-Laurent Boulevard. I have no idea which kinds of fruit were grown here. Maybe a variety of apple unique to Montréal, like the one the Sulpicians used to cultivate in the meadows where the Lachine Canal now flows? The annals contain no record of its complexion, its perfume, or its tang. The properties of that lost apple are as mysterious as those of the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. It is its perfect substitute.

Which accidents, what turns of genetics, can cause one to lose an apple forever? I venture onto the asphalt incline that bisects the campus, from President Kennedy Avenue up to Sherbrooke Street, as if it were one of the tree-lined avenues of the orchard. On this slope, time winds backwards for me, back to the woods of prehistory. I am as happy as a hunter-gatherer: richer for all I know not, keen for all the mysteries of the world, revelling in the Abundance. I have learned this lesson well: the Heart of Sciences and the lost apple’s core are one and the same.

It is a spiritual crisis that we are facing, as much as a health emergency. On Holy Saturday I had decided to pay a visit to my grandmother Jeanne, and to my father René, who are buried, along with lesser-known (to me) members of my family, in the necropolis of Notre-Dame-des-Neiges—Our Lady of the Snows. Every time I visit, I align my steps with the tower of the University of Montréal, and proceed to get somewhat lost.

I came up against a padlocked gate. A laminated sheet, hanging from the iron bars, informed me that access to the cemetery was cut off until further notice. This government edict made short shrift of my directed wandering. On the other side of the fence, a man, dressed head to toe in sporty nylon, was approaching at a jog. Judging from his less than athletic profile, he must have, like so many citizens, very recently developed a taste for running. I watched him struggle over the fence. Once his feet were back on the ground, and his breathing had eased, he explained to me that he had entered in the same fashion.

It’s no secret (that being said, please don’t tell on me) that, nearby, behind the stable of the Montréal metropolitan police service, it is possible to slip through the fence, between two disjointed bars, and enter the vast reaches of the necropolis. The police, distracted by the pleasures of horse-riding, usually turn their back on this irregularity. Today, the equestrians were absent from the mountain, but the moment still seemed unpropitious. I had just seen, on the summit circle path, their pedestrian colleagues handing out tickets to a young couple whom they had just caught slipping under one of the numerous yellow security tapes, plastered with the very COVIDian formula, Danger—Closed for the Season.

The phrasing of the state edict hanging from the bars was less clear. I thought it indicated that this, and only this particular gate, was closed. So I decided to add a kilometre or two to my stroll, and to walk up to the main gate, on Côte-des-Neiges. I found there a duplicate of the official interdiction, identically laminated. Jeanne, René: I salute you from afar.

A few days later, a friend to whom I was relating this episode with some measure of outrage told me that she had crossed paths with an adventurous nun, on her way back from the necropolis, who had offered her passage to the other side. I must admit, dear representatives of the public authorities, that I strongly approve of these delicate acts of social disobedience, and ardently wish for their multiplication; may they continue, away from your administrative oversights, for as long as you are unable to adjust your practices to the realities of the human heart. Joggers, nuns and other ardent souls are seeking forms of contemplation—through running or prayer—whose profound kinship should be recognized.

If we claim to be fighting against death, it seems perilous to cultivate its oblivion. Attracted to the glorious abode of the living that is Mount Royal, we neglect the beauty—and the function—of the neighbouring necropolis. The proximity of a Park for the Living to a Park for the Dead seems to me a potent differential, generating an energy that courses through the whole city. Could the authorities be wrong about the lived nature of death? Funerals excepted, the living are never all that numerous on the labyrinthine paths of Notre-Dame-des-Neiges.

Allow me to offer a lesson: when there are only administrative reasons, there is no real reason. If there is a crowd at Notre-Dame-des-Neiges, it is a very quiet one, that of the deceased. Why fear their congregations as we once did? They are, in these hygienic days, weak vectors of contagion. However, the imaginary pressure they exert upon the present is essential to our well-being. Because of our dead, the future continues to exist, momentarily, before collapsing beneath the weight of the present. I’ll let you ponder this philosophical fragment…

In the meantime, let’s hope the authorities can come around to a more humane point of view, and at least admit that the cast iron gate of the cemetery is no more hermetic than a sieve: its bars can do nothing against the morning dew, the proliferation of fog, or the tendrils of ectoplasm. And, as long as the living are denied access to the dead’s resting place, we can wish for our dearly departed to return to us. To take long walks, become part of the city air, and to make their way, with full immunity, to the hospices, the bedsides of the sick, where they can lend to the bedridden, waiting at death’s door, a bit of their presence, and their breath.

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Daniel Canty is a writer and artist who lives in Montréal. His latest book, Sept proses sur la poésie, is due out in spring 2021 from Estuaire. His novel, Wigrum, and book of travel writing, The United States of Wind, both translated by Oana Avisilichoaei, were published by Talonbooks.


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