This is a story about an image out of time. Or, to use a famously overused phrase from Hamlet, in which time is out of joint. Call this an anachronism; or better, call it anachronic. There’s a subtle difference. If Hamlet were to carry a Jedi light sabre rather than a sword, that would be an anachronism. An artifact identified with one historical period conspicuously appears in another, to which it does not properly belong. Anachronisms are improper, misplaced things, but according to a linear propriety of time we could call ‘diachrony’. In fiction, anachrony occurs when there is a discrepancy between a linear chronology of events and the way it is told in the plot: the flashback (analepsis) and flashforward (prolepsis) and anachronic events. Distended, distorted, even disintegrated. A ruin and a relic can be anachronic: they are out of date even while they’re not obsolete. They linger, poignantly or obscenely, by magic or mystique, beyond their time. They arrive late: unpunctually, overdue, deceased. Or anachronic things can also arrive too early: premature, precipitous, imprudent.1
The time I’m talking of is the time of the pandemic. Which now itself feels out of date: but anachronic rather than anachronistic.2 A post-Covid future is a time of ruins and relics, not of swords drolly misplaced by light sabres. Now, better still, let’s call the anachronic belatedness of the pandemic its ‘untimeliness’; not just due to it being ill-timed (after all, would we ever have been prepared for it, would there ever have been an opportune moment for it to occur?) but that it would be unsuited to any time. The pandemic infects time itself, sickens it: the present, mid-2022 where I’m sitting now, is in some senses an anachronism. In artistic terms, let’s call this anachronism ‘the contemporary.’ A comical mistiming: like seeing a wristwatch on an extra in Viking movie. For a decade I’d waged a polemic against the conformist managerial ethos of ‘the contemporary’ and its garrulous post-critical marketing pitches. (Not, I hope, sounding like old-fogey complaint against change on behalf of things pre-contemporary, but as defence of the anachronic corrosive aberration, the temporal slippages and slurs, of an uncontemporary culture.) Did we foresee how it would turn out this way, as the result of a global plague? Once, toward the end of last century, we had asked what seemed an awesome if excitingly apocalyptic question: what happens after ‘the modern’ and the futures that—for good and ill—it failed to deliver? If the postmodern seemed at the time a serviceable response, even while assuming the nihilistic guise of an endgame tactic, it was in due course reduced to a sacrifice that permitted, post-mortem, its archipelago of survivors to acclaim and commend themselves as ‘contemporary’. What happens when even the commendation of ‘contemporary’ is worthless? Face it. The contemporary is over. It’s an anachronism. The pandemic, however, is our anachronic, untimely moment of opportunity.
Too much jargon or word-play? Let’s go back to the story of this image. I’ll set the scene. Two years ago, indeed to the day I write this, back in mid-2020 Melbourne had gone into a ‘stage four’ lockdown, at the start of what would eventually become the longest Covid-19 lockdown in the world. The city then was under curfew; office buildings and shops untenanted; the streets and parks largely and enforcedly deserted other than with police patrols or with eddying remnants of dead leaves left over from autumn. Behind this silent blackout, a second wave of Covid-19 was loudly peaking in Australia with the advent of a new even more transmissable and more lethal variant called—like the portentous code-name from an apocalyptic computer game—‘Delta’.3 In mid-2020 there was no effective remedy for those desolately segregated and suffocating on ventilators in ICUs. Nor vaccines. Our only measure of protection back then was to slow the transmission of the infection in the hope of eventually eradicating it by social isolation, quarantine and through the universal adoption of face masks. All three of which, but the last most of all, were becoming the stakes in a ravaging culture war too familiar to warrant replaying.4
Back in mid-2020, in the depth of that lockdown and its consuming fog of dread, I was writing the essay about face masks and Covid-19 that follows this anachronic preface.5 Following our chance encounter in a mostly empty park with a gothic-tinged conversation through our face masks, Mark Feary (director of Gertrude Contemporary in Melbourne) emailed me a photograph of a child’s gas mask. It was an object that he’d bought some years before at a Berlin flea market. It arrived, without comment, out of the blue: all the more tantalising for that naked surprise. It’s a breathtaking and compelling photograph, appropriately for an unnerving and entrancing object. (The online layout of this journal requires I set in into a banner-like panel that I’ve fashioned to ensure it’s not accidentally cropped on screen. Zoom in to remove my frame.) The object dates, according to Mark, possibly from WWI; and in his elegantly casual photograph of it, cushioned on what looks to be luxurious and softly moulded white bedding, it certainly displays the archaeological poise and melancholic aura of an ancient industrial artifact, more agreeably steampunk than chainpunk. But also, it undeniably (to any but the timorous) has the slinky temper of a cherished if treacherous fetish.
As a relic it seems to offer an apotropaic or magic protection in addition to its actual defensive function. As a fetish, however, its voodoo-like power of malefic influence lures us into some imaginary or imaginative transgression of nature. It’s evidently small, though not miniature. While it’s grotesquely like a toy—macabre as such a plaything would be in scaled-down steampunk cosplay—its grim purpose is poignantly, and with a degree of obscene horror, unmistakable and palpable. We lean over a bed—or hospital cot—to gaze into its empty, baleful eyes. And what is, reciprocally, in our eyes? Nurture; custody; uneasy caution; dismay at a Kakfaesque metamorphosis; or even the inflammation of erotic phantasy? It could be a child in a crib or an imp hatching from a cocoon: this ambiguity makes the object oscillate, sullenly animate, brooding and unsafe in the way a totem feels inhabited by something other than what it is made from. Some surplus to its material body. Something alien. It’s as if the apparatus is the carapace of a creature with no expression other than a sinister rasping breath coursing through its impudently exposed—strangely aroused—ducting. Comatose but also disconcertingly responsive. Suffering, but also capable of infecting us. It could so easily be an exquisite emblem for that phase of the pandemic, for the respiratory jeopardy that came with stepping outside into the clear air and into the sparse company of strangers on the street whom one inevitably suspected of carrying the contagion.
The unnerving but enthralling eroticism of this prosthetic, for me at least, invokes an unforgettably discomfiting image from an old episode of Dr Who. The eponymous character of ‘The Empty Child’ (2005) is a lost little boy in a gas mask who roams the blacked-out streets of a bombed London suburb during the 1941 Blitz of WWII. This was the first—characteristically baroque, dense, and tenebrous—script for Dr Who by celebrated writer Steven Moffat, in the highly successful revival of the franchise launched the same year under executive director Russell T. Davies for BBC Wales, featuring the ninth incarnation of the Doctor (Christopher Eccleston). The title, ‘The Empty Child’, was an intended allusion to the very first episode of Dr Who from 1963, ‘The Unearthly Child’, the plot and title of which both initiated the perennially ambiguous romantic/surrogate parental/co-conspirator relationship between the Doctor and his—later her— ‘travelling companion’. That ‘unearthly child’ of the 1963 episode is a teenage girl who refers to the alien Doctor (played by William Hartnell) as her ‘grandfather’, a designation that with clichéd decorum interrupts direct sexual descent. No mention is needed of the absent parents and there is no suggestion or echo of their loss, traumatic or otherwise. Their empty place is expediently occupied by the girl’s two conveniently token male and female teachers who, intrigued by the girl’s unearthliness, tail her to the London ‘home’ she shares with the Doctor. That home is the TARDIS in its now iconic camouflage as a 1963 era police telephone box, and their home invasion accidentally triggers the TARDIS to take-off, initiating the entire series’ picaresque adventures.
Moffat’s substitution of ‘empty’ for ‘unearthly’ in the title incites a harrowing moral review of that parental loss. His ‘empty child’ creepily stumbles through the scenario’s perpetual darkness like a puppet, and repeatedly utters—but more with the lamentation of a plaintive, dreadful ghost than as a zombie’s feral growl—one muffled, solemn question through the gas mask: ‘Are you my mummy?’ But any sentimental sympathy for the child is dispelled when the Doctor realises that the mask is not simply worn by the boy but, horrifically, is genetically grafted into his face, supplanting his facial features. ‘Don’t let him get near you,’ warns terror-stricken Nancy, a young woman who claims to be the boy’s much older sister. She shepherds the lost orphans of the neighbourhood through unoccupied houses into safety from the bombing, and away from the boy’s sinister and importunate pursuit of her. Killed by a bomb, the boy should be dead, she explains. He is an abomination. And his undead agony is contagious, with a nearby hospital ward full of his victims; all who, regardless of age, in a gruesome chorus similarly wail through the unsightly, inanimate orifice of their identical gas mask faces for their ‘mummy’.
Under the Doctor’s forensic investigation we learn that an alien medical device—a robot doctor from a future war (a galactic Médecins sans frontières)—has been hidden, by the time-travelling pirate who stole it intending to sell it in black market, among the debris of the Blitz. Activated automatically by a nearby case of injury, this apparatus (which mobilises as a swarm of intelligent nanobots) had attempted to rebuild the body of the dead boy. But lacking a blueprint of human anatomy, it assumed the gas mask he was wearing at the time of death to be his face, and then proceeded to imprint that mechanomorphic hybrid as a norm onto the other war damaged dead it found.6 The empty boy’s defacement is a remedial treatment for his death, a medication—and ghastly resurrection—that risks becoming universally infectious. But what was also rebuilt along with his body’s otherwise unpresentable injury was his inconsolable compulsion to seek out his mother, an instinctual drive that is transmitted to the other victims. What kind of organ, in that mesh of mask and lungs and mouth, could exhale the sounds of that infectious desire? An Oedipal contagion. The true object of desire is finally declared, dispelling the horror, when Nancy confesses her secret: she is this lost boy’s unmarried mother, the mother he has been pursuing and asking for, and whom she has been disowning in herself. Her denial coagulates as a stigma, blotting the empty face of the child into the anonymity of those black eyes and the dreadful biomechanical abstraction of its gasping breath.
In the end, Nancy’s harvested DNA provides the nanobots with the equivalent of her repudiated fertility: a new corrected, legitimate template for the resurrection of the dead and the broad-spectrum provision of redeeming maternal desire. ‘No one dies this time,’ declares the hysterically triumphant Doctor at the end, as a bachelor father figure to the maternal bride. Unconvincingly, it must be added. The marriage of heaven and hell with the reconditioned restoration of family order that the script officiates is, as with all the Doctor’s relationships, untenable. The bombs still rain down. ‘Before this war began,’ says another doctor in charge of the zombies in the hospital ward, ‘I used to be a father and a grandfather.’ That loss is irrecoverable and incurable. The stray children scuttling through ruined houses and eating remnants left in vacant kitchens remain orphaned. Locked in the recurrent, habituated articulation of being disowned, they can never escape the destroyed London ‘home’ they seek. The resurrected and restored dead remain as earth-bound as a chthonic monster. This is no fairy tale but a horror story, even at its upbeat conclusion. ‘Are you my mummy?’ lingers as a demonic demand—an interfering noise over the angelic coercion of the Annunciation; it’s the obverse indecent side of a fable of virginal incarnation. For the empty child, it’s uttered through an obscene sexuality of the mask in an infernal vortex of that child’s unclaimed monstrosity and illegitimacy. The child’s gas mask is an ambivalently dextrous sexual organ accompanying this deliriously improbable wedding. In Mark’s deliriously haunted photograph, I see this organ uncovered, blossoming as a bruised flower of evil.
Perhaps it was this Antonine phantasm assailing me in the isolation of lockdown like St Anthony’s demons visiting his hermitage—or as Martin Schongauer’s 1470 engraving portrays the moment, levitated in an ecstatic seizure—which spurred the writing that follows. That penile trunk elegantly snooping like an anteater’s snout, or as a distended concertina neck waving its diminutive head in the air with the anamorphic distortions that Alice undergoes in Wonderland. That agile probiscis sprouting from faceless physiognomy, arching in the way a cat’s spine shivers under a caress. That rust-coloured leach, clamped down as if it was an umbilical tentacle suctioning off maternal or vampiric fluid. A siren-like mermaid swimming in cyclonic rapture at the prow of a boat—is that a seduction or a collision? Let’s rather have a visitation from Lucifer in a desert cave than the meek prayer to a virginal mother for absolution. The eccentric assignation between these hallucinatory double images seems to me destined by some occulted chance rather than purpose. They entangle as if in an alchemical wedding, or in the montage of Duchampian found objects, or as in an esoteric poetic figure from Lautréamont. There is an untimely rendezvous beyond the umbrella and the sewing machine, beyond the operating table. Beyond the patient etherised upon it. Through the vortex of the mermaid’s wake. Another story altogether, an anachronic post-face perhaps; but for another dangerous liaison with a mask, please read on toward the next sub-heads….