Elevation: – 24 feet. A tremor. It comes from above, monolithic, tunneling through still blue water, through towering forests of kelp and schools of fish shattered into streaks of color — yellowtail, surfperch, jacksmelt, twisting to silver and gold as they reach upward, into the light.
– 168 feet. Deeper now, the water darkens and begins to clear, the swelling waves begin to slow its descent. Before long all that remains of the maelstrom above are a few lines of bubbles, razor-sharp, billowing from the car that has just come crashing into the ocean. Strapped into the driver’s seat is a thin, middle-aged man, his mouth shut, his skin diaphanous, his black hair undulating gently. He makes no effort to free himself from the sinking mass. As the current pushes through the open windows behind him, sheets of paper stacked along the back seat begin to flow outward, fluttering at first but quickly picking up momentum, entire reams sweeping silently into the surrounding depths.
– 112 feet. Print-outs of hundreds of paintings, ink dripping and faded, form spirals of white rectangles around the car. Goyas and van Eycks, Dürers and Ensors, Böcklins and Delaunays and Whistlers all begin to melt into one another, their figures and landscapes giving way to the steady gyre of the rising tide. A balcony overlooking an invisible scene, a streetlamp’s orange, enveloping radiance, the pink and ochre hills of some ancient, imagined Italy all bleed together, their colors leaking from soaked sheets of paper, their lines warped by the water that presses and runs through them.
+ 52 feet. Hans Breinlinger, Urknall, 1958. I came across it by chance, in a private collection downtown. The gallery must’ve exhibited it for about a month. It caught my eye as I walked home from work one evening, even in the dark, even from afar it couldn’t be missed: the Big Bang, that primordial blue flash, that early unraveling of the universe. I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I’d take the N-Judah down to Market Street, ask politely to have a look, wanting nothing more than to watch it from afar, to feel its colors resonate within me. Fire and light, bursting with compacted energy into space’s empty expanse. After a few weeks, the owner began to grow weary of my visits, or suspicious, smiling blankly as I tried to explain, likely wondering if I’d come back again or how he’d get rid of me if I did. I stopped going once he threatened to call the cops. Still the painting consumed me; I’d spend hours searching for photographs of it online, scanning through broken translations of German websites for some detail about its creation, looking for anything that would prolong the feeling it gave me — something warm, irresolvable, sublime.
+ 0 feet. The answering machine gives way to his voice, shrill and indistinct all at once. “Hey, it’s me, hope you’re doing well, hope work isn’t too busy right now. Listen, I was just calling to check up on you, things are good out here, the weather is terrible as ever but at least the commute into Manhattan is a little quieter this way. Everyone sends their love, the kids too. Maybe we can get you out here for the holidays this year, if you don’t cancel again this time. Take care, call me back, bye.”
– 714 feet. The car sways along a vertical axis as it sinks. Weighed down by the angle of the fall, the man’s head curls into his neck, and for a moment it seems as if his face has been covered by the oval of black hair that lines the top of his skull. By now anoxia has likely overtaken him; the larynx has stopped contracting, the trachea has closed itself permanently, the lungs have filled with water. Soon, cell by cell, light by light, the brain’s synapses will all have come undone.
+ 132 feet. I’ll always remember the view from the eighth floor. That blue sky tinted black through the hospital window, something like the lighthouse at Point Reyes, beautiful, incalculable. Sitting in the waiting room with my father as the quiet floats between us, his brow heavy and forlorn, his palms facing upward, resting unnaturally on his jeans; my brother on the other side, staring at the floor, and far away somewhere, lost in the maze that stretched past those swinging doors, my mother inching through a CT scan, lying incalculably still. I had found her just hours before, crumpled against a marble counter, the back of her head split wide open, my brother crying: a stupid accident, nothing more. And now there she was, in that narrow plastic tunnel, radiating as its immense ring spun and whirred around her, as blood carried the contrast solution into her brain, up through the medulla and the cortex, spiraling until it reached the hippocampus and the image came together all at once, ruined and illuminated, on a sheet of black film between the doctor’s hands. Faint indentations near the cerebellum, found but blurred by the x-ray, as if it were too much to bear, too indecent to project out into the world.
∞ feet. Distance and embrace. The earth and the moon are kept in place by a delicate equilibrium, revolving around a barycenter located some 1,070 miles beneath the earth’s surface and some 2,900 miles from its core. The force of the earth’s orbit, which pushes it away from the moon as they spin, is offset by the moon’s gravitational field, which draws it back inward, pulling them toward one another and the invisible center they share. Were the pull of the moon to outweigh the push of the earth’s revolutions, both bodies would collide; were it to be overpowered, the earth would be hurled into space.
– 1,920 feet. As the earth spins, water is drawn to those sections of its surface that face the moon and, on a smaller scale, those that face the sun, giving way to the ebb and flow of tides. Tonight, earth, sun, and moon are in syzygy; the ocean’s reach is at its most powerful, spreading to the highest ground and retreating into the furthest waters. Iridescent creatures, emerging from some forgotten tract of prehistory, sweep by us, lanternfish, bomber worms, daggertooths. Powerful, resonant currents rush in and around the sunken car. It rests crookedly in the sand, half-buried, arcane.
0 feet. I lived on Irving Street, just off of Forty-seventh Avenue. Sometimes, when I couldn’t sleep, I’d go down to the beach with an old camcorder, lighting my way with a flashlight that, almost inevitably, ran out of battery long before I’d make it home. I’d start near the Cliff House, following the stone walls covered in graffiti, taping the miniature bone-white crabs as they emerged from the marks left by my footsteps. I’d wander along the shore’s dizzying stretch, shrouded in darkness, stumbling into the water, as if my other senses, far from being heightened by my temporary blindness, had all but come undone. Just before heading back, I’d turn the camcorder to the horizon, zooming in on the waves and the purple-tinged spindrift high above, filling the frame with the ocean, with its oily texture and its roar, until all that remained was a void, and the low-pitched rumble of white noise.
+ 0 feet. The door to my room is shut. His voice comes to me muffled, in fragments. “Hey, listen, I just wanted to ask you about that house… I think it was… where exactly… for the kids this summer… me back, bye.”
+ 52 feet. Édouard Manet, Vue de mer, temps calme, 1864. Only much later would I learn what it brought to mind, like an unresolved melody, or a note awaiting resonance within a chord. The sight of her collapsed body called out to something that alone could make sense of it, or that it alone could make sense of — something empty and arresting, something only Manet could embody, in the black fleet of his Vue de mer and the skin of Victorine Meurent’s face, in the texture of Zola’s coat and the strange calm of L’Homme mort. It was that color, pure and overwhelming, each ship like a drop of ink, colossal, crumpling inward, the turquoise sea like a vision of death itself. Maybe that’s what Manet knew best, how to turn color into darkness, how to reach the immensity from which experience emerges and to which it inevitably returns; maybe that’s what happened when I first saw the Vue de mer in an old catalogue raisonné, a collapse, my mother’s body and Manet’s ships falling together into nothingness… As destructive as it may have seemed, I wanted only to widen that abyss, searching for that same feeling, for those same correspondences between the past and the paintings I began to collect relentlessly. It was as if I couldn’t comprehend, couldn’t take in what she had been sentenced to, but only witness it from afar, endure it and make it endure in images, in color, in light.
+ 225 feet. The Point Reyes lighthouse one cold, radiant morning last winter. After some convincing, the ranger agrees to take me to the county archives by Limantour Road on her lunch break. Among stacks of forgotten reports, articles, and injunctions, I come across F. L. Harding’s A Keepers’ History of the Point Reyes Lighthouse, West Marin Press, Sonoma, 1937.
+ 225 feet. “Marshall Hussey, second assistant to the keeper of the Point Reyes lighthouse, was discharged of his duties on April 14th, 1886. During his watch on the night of April 2nd, sometime between three and four o’clock in the morning, Hussey removed the cover of the station’s Fresnel lens, turning the oil lamp beneath the glass into an immense burning orb and melting an entire side of the lighthouse before the keeper and first assistant were awoken by the sound of his shouting. Upon further inspection of Hussey’s room and personal belongings, it was discovered that he had amassed dozens of rodents, lizards, and small birds, who wore dresses and lived in glass boxes of varying shapes and sizes, often decorated with curtains and pillows tailored to the type of creature they housed. The animals, he told the keeper, had been trained to live in a human environment, in order to demonstrate the distressful effects of culture upon the nervous and physical systems. Many of the animals found over the course of the inspection had been dead for some time. Hussey, who had no known surviving or extended family, was sent to an asylum in Stockton, where he died without a word three months later.”
+ 225 feet. “On the night of November 23rd, 1871, Peter Codling and John Chamberlin, keeper and first assistant of the lighthouse, had been assigned to night watch together. Just after sunset, Codling complained of a violent migraine — likely resulting from the sound of the foghorn, which had been ringing every seventy seconds for nearly three days — and asked to be excused to his room to rest, assuring Chamberlin he could make it up to the cliffside without any assistance. When he awoke the next morning, making his way down the three hundred odd steps that lead to the lighthouse, he was stopped in his tracks by the sight of the structure’s roof, caved in and crushed by an enormous fragment of rock which, he would soon learn, had broken off from the cliff and destroyed the room where Chamberlin had been keeping watch. It took six men and twelve hours to recover Chamberlin’s body from beneath the rock. The cliffside was paved over with concrete the following spring.”
+ 82 feet. I turn onto a winding road that sweeps upward, making my way past rows of crooked houses until I reach the grove of Eucalyptuses that hem in the brownish, run-down condominium where my father moved some seven years ago. He said it’d be cheap and quiet here though I can’t help but be depressed by the place, by its sprawl of strip malls and gas stations and fenced-off schools, by the grayness that runs through it all. It must’ve been around seven years ago that he started drinking, too; took me seven years to catch him, piss drunk on a Sunday morning, muttering about the fog, about its ugly veil — “can’t change it, that’s for sure, just have to sit back and wait for it to pass, maybe drink a bit to give it some warmth, give it some color, can’t lose your balance though, drink too little and you won’t have any fun, drink too much and you won’t know what fun even means, ha!, just keep your footing now, you hear, keep the crack-up on the surface and don’t let it crack open down below” — smiling as he looks up at me, as laughter resonates through his seasick eyes. We never spoke of it and I didn’t catch him again. Most of the time we were content to sit around and watch the news, occasionally breaking our silence to take Josephine out for a walk along the hillside. We must’ve gone to my mother’s grave twice in seven years. Somehow I think that it was harder for him, that her death wasn’t so much a shock, a fracture, as it was a shift in balance in his old ways — something that twisted his view of the world quietly, without respite, something that warped the bones within him like the buildings without, until one day everything became so mangled, so unrecognizable, that he could no longer look, or even find his way back, to the source of its strangeness.
+ 0 feet. Again that voice, disembodied now, unreachable. “Hey, it’s me, haven’t heard from you in a while. How’s everything out west? I heard dad bought a dog, the pics looked great. Call me back when you get a chance.”
+ 52 feet. Once a signal has passed, the printer’s resistors begin to heat, forming the bubbles that press ink out of each of its three hundred nozzles onto an awaiting sheet of blank paper. Minute droplets of color, each one smaller in diameter than a single human hair, rain down by the thousands, tracing an invisible trajectory, a constellation, that coalesces into an image as the machine projects it outward, into the light. Each printed painting is placed atop an unfinished stack, one of dozens that rise throughout the man’s room. As the towers of paper grow, the clock ticks; the printer trembles; the night keeps watch, unflinching.
+ 52 feet. For a moment it seems as if his car, idling in the driveway with its headlights on, is the only source of energy for miles, the origin and end of light and life around him. He sits behind the wheel with the windows open, cycling in and out of static as he changes stations, looking into his rear view mirror from time to time to check on the print-outs heaped upon the back seat. He stares at the garage door, letting his focus come undone, watching its glaucous lines swell and contract as his vision begins to blur.
+ 132 feet. The worst part was having to face her. Looking through her empty eyes, holding those tepid hands that seemed closed even to the intensity of suffering. She emanated nothing more than a kind of flatness, her head curled unnaturally into her neck, her entire body like some crumpled figurine, some cruel approximation of existence, reduced to the visible, to a surface that could never be pierced through. At times I felt as if I were the only one who understood the horror of it, as if my brother were too far away and my father too close, as if the tangle of events leading to her fall had come undone within me, and had brought us together in vast, unraveling solitude.
+ 52 feet. Francis Bacon, Study for a Portrait II (after the Life Mask of William Blake), 1955. Melancholy, captured in an image. I quit my job the day after my thirty-ninth birthday. I stopped driving to Pacifica to see my father, stopped returning my brother’s calls. I couldn’t understand how he kept going. Maybe it was something in the new life he had sought out on the east coast, with its unfamiliar landscapes, its glow of unknown feelings and faces. I began to turn inward, searching for some new combination of colors to shake me, for some warmth to twist through my gut. I felt as if I had grown into every painting, every sketch and watercolor I had printed out, or as if each one had retracted back into me. My limbs felt turgid, elastic, pale. I began to keep the blinds shut almost all day and night, opening them only from time to time to watch the moon. Soon everything began to feel immeasurably distant.
∞ feet. Our experience of limits within the visual world is neither static nor illusory, neither open nor hermetically sealed. In many ways, the lines we see stem from those we cannot, from the structure of those microscopic entities that weave above and below, throughout and around us. The image is like the amoeba, the parasite, whose cell wall reaches outward to feed and twists inward for protection, hungry and encysted, dormant and expansive all at once.
∞ feet. The contour, then, is the image’s skin, its membrane, tightening into singularity as it gives way to the folds of an unending reality. To delineate is to oscillate — between the inner and the exterior, between the warm tunnels of beating arteries and the glacial blackness of the sky, between the soundness of the self and the din that overtakes it, ever slowly, ever more with each passing hour.
+ 225 feet. One afternoon, on our way back home, we decided to pass through Point Reyes to try and catch the sunset. My brother sat up front with my father, my mother behind with me. I remember watching the marshlands spread into the bay as we raced down the highway, their golden grass specked with old farmhouses whose faded, red paint reminded me of the bark of Manzanita trees. The power lines above, stretching between colossal iron towers, seemed to watch over us, to pace us as we accelerated into the coastline’s blurred, shimmering landscape. I don’t remember a single word, not even a face, from that afternoon. All that remains is a feeling in my stomach — something warm, unresolved, sublime, something long gone now. And as I make my way onto the cape, down the furthest reaches of Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, I can only wish that it were still here, that, somehow, it hadn’t come undone. All I can do, as I drive into the night, is open the windows and let the roar of the waves overtake me, rising from the ocean far below.
Jeremy Cohen is a student and writer from San Francisco, currently working on a master’s degree in French literature in Paris.