Aris Georgiou, Montpellier, 1976

STAIRS

            Of all creatures, only men make stairs -- a regular set of steps by which one can climb to one's own height and above.   There is no knowing now whether the very first stairs led up to a cave, or to some sort of raised hut.   But the invention of stairs -- and the idea of a 'staircase' -- must have come very early.   For in the first grand monuments or buildings that we know of -- which may be little more than shaped mounds of clay and stone -- the staircase already has pride of place.   Both in the ancient Ziggurats of Iraq, and in the temples of the Maya and other races in South America, the central feature -- literally in the centre of the principal face, and often central to all four faces -- was a broad flight of stairs running, often without a break, from the foot of the pyramid to its summit.   You could almost think the main purpose of the pyramid was to support a flight of stairs.   And if, as seems likely, the stairs were partly intended to enable the gods to descend to our world, then the manufacture of a staircase may seem a sufficient reason to build a pyramid.   Another purpose of the stairs was to enable priests and kings to ascend to the altar at the pyramid's summit.   The sight of such notables mounting the stairs, with plumed head-dresses and many-coloured trains of feathers, may have been magnificent.   But the climb up the stairs could also be ignominious -- at an Aztec temple for instance -- as the endless queue of captured enemies were dragged and driven up the steps, towards the sacrificial knife.

 

            Stairs, then, can lead to high and special places.   Jacob, in the Bible, saw a staircase extending from earth to Heaven, and angels both mounting and descending the stairs (the term used in many translations is 'ladder', but biblical commentary suggests that the word used in the Hebrew text, 'sullam', was closer in meaning to a stone staircase or ramp than to a wooden ladder).   Both God in Heaven and kings on earth are normally depicted on raised thrones which need to be approached by stairs.   More humbly, other people in authority may preach or pronounce from a platform reached by steps or stairs -- a priest in his pulpit, a judge on his bench.   But stairs may also lead, like fate, to the worst of destinations.   To public platforms of disgrace, and worse -- to a gallows, or a guillotine, or to the block where the masked man waits with his axe.   For stairs can be dangerous.   Probably we all have at some time fallen down them.   My own earliest memory comes from an instant in such a fall.   Looking up I see my father, leaning over the banister with both hands on the rail, noticing my tumble.   He must have run from the bedroom next door, and I must have been travelling fast, near the bottom of the stairs, when I took this mental snap, which stays with me like a photograph.

 

            Normally however we do not fall, or climb to execution, and the principal fact about most stairs is that they lead us upwards.   They extend a helping hand, even a helping wing.   In England a staircase is also called 'a flight of stairs', and the image of flight implies perhaps that one can hardly see a staircase without a sense of upward movement.   Light as a bird, our eye lifts to climb the stairs:  stairs fly because they give flight to us.   An image of stairs is a 'motor' image: it speaks to the muscles in our legs, so our calves may flex in readiness -- or possibly ache, to see such steepness.    It is because stairs speak of movement upwards that people may see their careers as a staircase:  you climb towards success, you cannot get there in a lift.   In England, when someone is promoted to management, we say he has been 'kicked upstairs'.   Again, the literature of spiritual pilgrimage will imagine the soul climbing difficult stairs, as Dante sees himself doing in 'Il Purgatorio'.   The stairs on the Mountain of Purgatory, which climb from terrace to terrace, may be more or less steep, but always they lead Dante upwards, and at their summit is the Earthly Paradise, the original Garden of Eden.

 

            So far however I have been thinking of stairs that begin their climb on level ground.   Other stairs are not built upwards, but are dug down into earth or rock.   They lure us towards cellars, subways, the vaults of churches, to the catacombs tunneled under cities.   It is hard to think of stairs like these as leading to a better place -- rather, we fear, they lead to dead things, dirt, abandoned lumber.   In a film, if we see a lone woman descending slowly the cellar steps at night, we expect her to find some remnant of evil.   But any staircase may lead to fear.   If the lone woman later climbs slowly upstairs we may wonder in which bedroom the serial killer waits.

 

            'Stairs' -- the word, the idea of stairs -- easily acquires more meanings, than simple ascent and descent.   The words themselves, 'stair' and 'step', quickly step into metaphor.   In English, the phrase 'upstairs, downstairs' can be applied to aristocrats and servants -- as though the aristocrats lived on the upper floors and the servants in the cellar.   It was not literally so, since the kitchen and the dining room were on the same level, while the bedrooms of the servants were in the attic not the cellar.   But it is easy to think of the stacked levels of social class as resembling a staircase -- with steep stairs, perhaps, not easy to climb.   Or the different ages of life may be represented as a staircase.   In popular prints in many countries  you see, on the left side, steps leading upwards -- on which stand the infant, the school-child, the young adult at their wedding -- then further steps leading down again, towards age, infirmity, the grave.   Freud said that dreams of stairs and of climbing on them, either up or down, 'are symbolic representations of the sexual act'.   Outside our dreams, stairs may not seem erotic -- though the contemporary architect Frank Gehry has said, of the sensually coiling staircase he designed for the Art Gallery of Ontario, that he hoped his stairs 'would become a place where people fall in love'.

 

            These thoughts about stairs came quickly to my mind when Aris Georgiou spoke to me about his series of photos of stairs -- though he was prompt to point out that his own interest is not metaphorical.   He is an architect as well as a photographer, and his main interest is in the idiosyncrasy of particular sets of stairs which he has come upon in different parts of the world -- in Greece where he lives, in India, Russia, England, and notably in France where he frequently goes.   Actually I find that his concentration on particularity, his denial of metaphor, gives his pictures a greater intrigue.   For still his pictures create suggestions, appeal to the imagination, beyond their literal facts of stone, cement and wood…

© 2019 by John Harvey, jrh49@cam.ac.uk 

Novelist, art critic, literary critic and Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge

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