In the Kingdom of the Shadows

On April 14, 1906, some clever San Franciscan strapped a movie camera to the front platform of a cable car, and recorded the vehicle’s slow climb up Market Street. The footage is remarkable — one commenter wrote that watching the film is like looking through the window of a time machine. 

But it’s even more than that: The San Francisco of the video ceased to exist four days later when the city collapsed with its historic earthquake. Most of the structures you see were destroyed, and a good number of the people killed. This was truly a moment captured, soon to be gone.

Watching the video also brought to mind Maxim Gorky’s 1896 description of his first trip to the cinema, recently excerpted in Lapham’s Quarterly.

Yesterday I was in the kingdom of the shadows.

If only you knew how strange it is to be there. There are no sounds, no colors. There, everything — the earth, the trees, the people, the water, the air — is tinted in a gray monotone: in a gray sky there are gray rays of sunlight; in gray faces, gray eyes, and the leaves of the trees are gray like ashes. This is not life but the shadow of life, and this is not movement but the soundless shadow of movement….

It is terrifying to watch but it is the movement of shadows, mere shadows. Curses and ghosts, evil spirits that have cast whole cities into eternal sleep come to mind, and you feel as though Merlin’s vicious trick is being played out before you. It is as if he had cast a spell over the entire street, compressing its multistoried buildings from their rooftops to their foundations to minute size. He has compressed the people to correspond, depriving them of the power of speech and merging all the colors of the earth and the sky into a monotonous gray.

 

 

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Brian Saint-Paul was the editor and publisher of Crisis Magazine. He has a BA in Philosophy and an MA in Religious Studies from the Catholic University of America, in Washington. D.C. In addition to various positions in journalism and publishing, he has served as the associate director of a health research institute, a missionary, and a private school teacher. He lives with his wife in a historic Baltimore neighborhood, where he obsesses over Late Antiquity.

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