Saturday, February 6, 2016

On a Mechanical Bird




I don’t recall exactly where I acquired the robot-bird. But I think it was a gift of uncertain provenance received at my mother-in-law’s house. The weekend before Christmas, my mother-in-law hosts a gathering at her home in Albert Lea and gifts are exchanged. This year, I drove back to Austin with a couple of plastic bags loaded with gifts. In one of those bags, I discovered a small box containing a red plastic cardinal. The cardinal was made in China and the legend on the box assured me that the little plastic effigy was equipped with a motion detector so that it would sing when something stirred in its presence. I believe that the bird, about three inches tall with bright eyes and red folded wings, was designed to perch on the branch of a Christmas tree – at least, there was a small clamp between its black wire feet.

At home, I removed the automaton from its box. A strand of filmy plastic extruded from the bird’s underside. I extracted the rectal integument from the cardinal and, immediately, it began to chirp at me. The mechanical bird’s song was a repetitive melody comprised of three different sounds. First, the bird made a shrill noise like "Soo-eee Soo-eee." This was followed by two chirps best approximated by that onomatopoeic word, "Chirp - Chirp". A metallic rat-a-tat-tat followed, a noise that simulated bird song only by its proximity to sounds that were vaguely avian – that rat-a-tat-tat might also have been a sound plausibly associated with rocket-fired laser beams dissolving oncoming enemy aliens in an arcade game. The bird’s cry was rhythmic, high-pitched and easily audible from a distance of thirty or forty feet – if I set the bird in another room, I could hear it singing across the distance, even with a shut door intervening.

The cardinal’s song was, indeed, motion-activated. If nothing moved, the robot-bird didn’t sing. However, the photo-electric detectors were sensitive – on occasion, I heard the bird mysteriously crying-out in an empty room, animated, I suppose, by motes of dust dancing in a sunbeam, or an unstable pile of books and magazines slightly shifting or, perhaps, the shadow cast by a car passing in the alleyway so as to cause the light to flicker in the vacant space. Maybe, ghosts crowded around the little bird, curious as to its mechanism, and this caused it to sing.

I brought the bird to my law office and set it on my bookshelf near the door opening into my room. When my secretary or associates entered my office, the bird greeted the. Whether this appealed to you or an annoyance depended on your disposition. Some of staff took to stooping and bending to avoid activating the bird. I suppose they found its repetitive shrill cries an annoyance.

Hephaestus, the lame smithy to the Olympian gods, was said to have fabricated singing automaton birds from iron. The Greek engineer, Ancytas, designed a mechanical pigeon capable of flight round 400 BC – it is not recorded whether that prodigy could also sing. Various Chinese emperors amused themselves with robot-birds equipped with the power of song. In the fifth century BC, the Mohist adept, Lu Ban, built a wooden bird capable of remaining aloft for three days – it was, I suppose, a kind of drone. Of course, Hans Christian Andersen refers to singing Chinese bird automatons in his famous story of the emperor and nightingale. In that tale, we are told that a Chinese emperor owned a live nightingale that sang most beautifully. Concerned that the little bird might die, the emperor commissioned an artisan to make a replica of the nightingale capable of song simulating the live animal. The replica was so beautiful and sang so dependably that the emperor preferred it to the actual nightingale and, indeed, even allowed that creature to escape into the forest. The automaton failed and could not be repaired and, so, the emperor sickened. As he lay dying, he heard a sweet song – the actual nightingale had returned from its haunts in the forest and was singing to him. The living bird’s song was an antidote to the emperor’s malaise and he rallied. In this fable, we detect several themes revolving around mechanical singing birds – first, the robot-bird seems associated with the human desire for immortality, the hope to attain a prosthetic, and, therefore, deathless body; second, the story rouses a sense of pathos in those who hear it – we imagine the living nightingale disregarded and singing forlornly in the dark, green woods and, then, consider the fate of the broken toy-bird, the damaged robot that is cast away, a source, as it were, for all of mutilated and pathetic automatons in later fiction and films, for instance, the disfigured robots in Spielberg’s A.I.

Cuckoo clock makers in the Black Forest around 1730 began installing singing birds in their time-pieces. Accordingly, in Western Europe, automaton birds were first manufactured as horological devices. (In Enlightenment France, a duck was built by Jacques Vaucanson to simulate, not bird song, but the alimentary canal of a fowl – food was fed into one end of the automaton, digested and, then, excreted at the other end. This machine is precursor to the nightmare Cloaca, an immense art work by Wim Delvoye that transforms food into fecal material. The golden robotic bird emitting song has as its counterpart the mechanical duck intestine producing shit.) By the middle of the 19th century, elaborate bird-robots were built by Parisian toy manufacturers, particularly Bontems and Roullet & Decamps – these birds were, in effect, intricately constructed music boxes. When the cloisonne box was opened onto its velvet interior, a small iridescent humming bird was disclosed perched on a shell of mother-of-pearl – a wasp-sized automaton that fluttered its tiny wings and sang loudly. Such mechanisms were expensive and wonderfully useless – to own and collect such things was a symbol for decadence, esthetic folly, an embodiment of Oscar Wilde’s dictum that all art is perfectly useless.

Yeats probably knew the story of the Abbasid Caliph, Al-Muqtadir, the ruler of Baghdad in the early tenth-century. Al-Muqtadir was ineffective as a warrior – he lost territory to the Greeks and had to pay massive ransoms to retrieve noblemen captured in those debacles. The Caliph was more interested in his collection of robotic singing birds, mechanisms that delighted him with their chirping perched on boughs and twigs of trees made entirely from gold. Al-Muqtadir lingered in his harem, delighting in its pleasures and savoring the singing of his flocks of mechanical birds. As the kingdom collapsed, the people revolted in the streets. Again, the automaton bird is a symbol of decadence and self-indulgence. The City Guards dragged Al-Muqtadir from his seraglio and hacked him to death outside the gates to Baghdad.

Yeats was appalled by "decrepit age," a condition that he said was attached to him "like the tail of a dog." In his two great poems about Byzantium, Yeats imagines a singing mechanical bird as a prosthetic body, a machine made from gems and intricate enmeshed clockwork to replace the mire of flesh and blood. In "Sailing to Byzantium," the poet proclaims that his physical body, a "dying animal," will be replaced by this "artifice of eternity":

Once out of nature I shall never take

my bodily form from any natural thing

but such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make

Of hammered gold and gold enamelling

To keep a drowsy emperor awake

Or set upon a golden bough to sing

To lords and ladies of Byzantium

Of what is past, or passing, or to come.
(The song of a mechanical bird is repetitive – notice Yeats heavy, soporific repetition of the long-syllables "form" and "gold": goldsmiths, gold and gold enamelling, a golden bough, all of these words chiming with the "om" pronounced in "Byzantium" and "to come." The bird’s song here doesn’t so much arouse the drowsy emperor as plunge him deeper into revery and, then, sleep.)

This same mechanical bird appears as well in "Byzantium". In that poem, the automaton symbolizes the prosthetic machine that replaces the flesh, a kind of "death-in-life":

Miracle, bird or golden handiwork

More miracle than bird or handiwork,

Planted on the starlit golden bough,

Can like the cocks of Hades crow,

Or, by the moon embittered, scorn aloud,

In glory of changeless metal,

Common bird or petal,

And all complexities of mire or blood.
Like the mechanical bird in Andersen’s fairy tale, the emperor scorns the "common bird." But Yeats, of course, expects his readers to recall that fable and understand that the salvation offered by the golden robotic bird is both quixotic and fatally flawed.

My red-molded plastic bird flashed against the winter, a droplet of blood amidst the grey gears of blizzard and ice-storm. But like all mechanical things, the cardinal was prone to fail and, ultimately, its machinery broke-down. In mid-January, the robot-bird began to sing without stopping. The automaton’s motion sensor either malfunctioned in its "on" mode or became manically sensitive detecting the Brownian motion of air molecules or minute tremors in the crust and mantle of the Earth or, perhaps, the filmy spirits of the dead as they wandered here and there. The bird’s cries contained unabated for several days, extending across a weekend when my office was mostly vacant. Conceived as an unceasing song, the cardinal’s melody took on the character of a lament – at first, I detected a tone of sullen resentment in the chirping that, later, lapsed into indignant resignation and, then, exhaustion: endless iterations of the same mechanical song looping again and again and, as is wont to happen with minimalist music, absorbing emotions and timbre circumambient to the repeated sound. As the cardinal’s cries continued, the robot was banished to more and more distant locales. After a day or so, the bird was placed in the men’s toilet, perched uneasily on the urinal. But the tiles in the toilet echoed and seem to redouble the vigor of the bird’s song and, so, someone placed the automaton in the medicine cabinet, behind a mirror reflecting the strained and haggard features of those condemned to hear the bird’s endlessly repetitive chirping. Confined in the medicine cabinet, the cardinal continued to sing, prompting me, at last, to place the bird in an basement room where old, closed files rest in their thousands on bare wooden shelves. At the corner of that room, an ancient steel desk occupies an alcove and in a crooked and grim space under a flight of descending steps, there is a file cabinet that seems to have been retrieved from a military installation or some long-forgotten, and long-shuttered asylum for the insane – a drab khaki-colored filing cabinet, apparently, immensely heavy, its corners and sides dented as if it had been rolled down the side of a rocky ravine, a metal boulder, a meteorite with drawers in its forgotten crater in the bowels of the law office. I found the filing cabinet, cold as ice to the touch, completely empty and, so, I secreted the cardinal in that place, wrapped in a ragged towel and lying on its side in the cabinet’s top drawer. The bird continued to sing defiantly sensing ghostly motions that were completely concealed from me.

A day later, the cold sarcophagus of the filing cabinet seemed to have affected the bird’s song. The cardinal’s tones were now metallic, a kind of tapping at subterranean walls, each chirp distorted and raw. Periodically, I visited the file room and looked at the shelves groaning with the weight of a thousand transactions, innumerable divorces and criminal charges, deaths and personal injuries, cars shattered on lonely highways and partnerships defunct or wrecked by avarice or misunderstanding, wills and estate disputes, bankruptcies, dwellings invaded by water or vermin, traumatic amputations, pre-nuptial agreements and adoptions – the whole vast and variegated pattern of human life and, all of this opposed, it seemed, by the failing voice of the cardinal, the robot’s cries increasingly distraught, fragmented, heard as if at immense distance. And, then, at last, the mechanical bird stopped singing.

A week passed. One morning, as I parked my car next to our law office, I saw a curious black angular package lying in the scurf of ice and slush in the driveway. I didn’t pay any attention to the strange valise until later, when I met my partner in our break room. As he poured coffee for himself, my partner said that someone had knotted a dead crow around the handle on the law firm’s front door. "I got a paper towel and pulled the crow out of the door and tossed it in the parking lot," he said. This made me curious and I went outside, approaching the black parcel lying on the ice. On closer inspection, I saw that it was, indeed, a large crow, frozen stiff as iron, with its wings outstretched so that the dead animal made a roughly rectangular silhouette against the crumbling ice. The crow’s head as bent to an odd angle and both its eyes had been pecked out so that the carcass had a peculiarly abstract appearance. I could see no wound on the desiccated animal. I plucked the dead crow out of the winter’s debris and set it atop a garbage can. Later several other crows approached the dead bird, worried it a bit with their beaks, and, then, knocked the carcass back onto the driveway, darting up to perch on an overhead power line. The crows saluted the grey, colorless day with a few disgruntled cries.

"What does it mean?" my partner asked me.

"I don’t know," I said.

"Someone doesn’t like us much," my partner remarked.

Of course, we are lawyers and have many enemies.

That afternoon, the red plastic cardinal revived. As I stood in the mortuary of closed files, the bird began to sing once more. The robot-cardinal’s chirping was muffled by the heavy metal filing cabinet in which it was immured. I slid open the filing cabinet and picked up the plastic bird. It sang with renewed and vibrant energy, sounding shrill and piercing notes. Some new and sinister energy suffused the automaton and, when I set it on the shelf, the cardinal was unbalanced, toppling over and refusing to be set upright, perhaps, tipsy with the volume of its cries. It was too much, of course, and, so, I imprisoned the bird in the filing cabinet again. When I checked on the automaton the next day, it was silent. The bird rested on its side in the empty upper drawer of the filing cabinet – there is nothing so inert has a robot that has stopped working.

In the summer, someone brought their drone to the office. We stood in the parking lot as the man programmed the little flying machine. Then, its rotors buzzed and the drone rose upward, tentatively at first, tilting this way and that, but, then, climbing high above the parked cars and, even, the utility poles and their crisscrossing power lines from which the crows were wont to regard the shingles on our roof and the tops of the trees where the squirrels were nested. The drone broadcast pictures back to us – out-of-body images of the bald spot on the top and back of my head. Standing on the asphalt, heads cocked up att he drone, we seemed particularly weak, mortal, naked to the pitiless sky. We looked at ourselves from the drone’s aerial vantage, watching the images on the drone operator’s computer tablet. It was warm and sunny. The drone dropped down to chest height and hovered among us. A starling in a nearby tree rendered its dismay at the invasion of its aerial realm with a skeptical and raucous cry.

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