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The Vertical Horizon

September 14, 2011

Take heart, take heart, O Bulkington! Bear thee grimly, demigod! Up from the spray of thy ocean-perishing–straight up, leaps thy apotheosis!

— Melville, Moby-Dick

 

In Portland, rain glorifies the sky. The curtain of the firmament descends, the sky’s wide horizons constrict into the fog, and a visible blindness calls attention to the space of nature. In New York, rain glorifies the city. The wet bullets let the buildings jut. In New York one seeks shelter not inside but up against buildings, in nobody’s doorways, under scaffolds that hold up the falling sky like bricks. It is not the height of the heavens, the distance from the rain’s unfathomable origins to the ground here, that astonishes, but rather the length of the vertical steel that the movement of the drop measures. The building, decapitated by the cover of cloud, stands immeasurably high.

When one stands beneath the Empire State Building and cranes upward, one cannot see the building’s end. The illusion of infinite height is due to the building’s tapering structure. A visible vertical limit serves as a pedestal for the sky beyond it. The only true vertical horizon is the Milky Way, and only there is infinite depth revealed (whereas we used to assume that our earthly horizons led only to an edge).

What was remarkable about the twin towers of the World Trade Center was that they did not taper. Their hubris lay in their refusal to simulate limitlessness. The towers revealed that it had become within man’s power to erect a building of such a height that it need not compromise with the laws of space to induce the sublimity of the horizon line. The towers’ straightness announced that it had become within the power of man’s imagination to to conceive–without shame–a building of such gravity as to steal the glory from the sky.

The terrorist attacks of 9/11/01 and Philippe Petit’s guerrilla tightrope walk on 8/7/74 expressed opposite reactions to the towers’ symbolic significance. While al-Qaeda sought to bring down God’s wrath from above, Petit sought to crown man’s triumph by fulfilling the dream that inspired it. Two parallel lines, even at the farthest stretches of infinity, never touch one another–except to the human eye, and we call this touch the horizon line. Petit’s rope made the towers touch; his walk reminds us that infinity is the point where human finitude meets the sky.

The 9/11 memorial lights are two huge blue beams that for the first weeks of September each year shine upwards, spotlighting the clouds, dissipating somewhere in the ether high above the city skyline. On a clear night the beams go so high that they curve with the sky, revealing the hidden path of the vertical horizon in the architecture of space.

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