String quartets all over the place

Between 1925 and 1958 it went through 36 editions (Veselá 105). Every time the party line changed, the author changed his story, and he kept changing it until death claimed him. Long before then, it had became a canonical paradigm of the Socialist-Realist novel.

 

Translated by Liv Tadge, 1981. Moscow: Raduga, 1985. Thanks to Imported Publications (floruit ca. 1970-1989), the Socialist Camp also contributed to the aesthetics of my home with some of Ivan Bilibin’s illustrations of Russian fairy tales, an English-language book from East Germany about Soviet photography, and, from North Korea, a North Korean handbook containing useable information about the opera The Fate of a Self-Defence Corps Man and the ballet The Leader’s Noble Idea Flowers Out.

And in after years the revisions underwrote rereadings, like this sample snapshot in time.

Pages 104-123

But passim, when their changeable language tried to change itself from dead to living through metaphors like “stormy blood,” it tended to mean words like “blood” as unchangingly as could be, in words that were themselves always stably dead. Liv Tadge’s translation (the 1981 edition quoted above) omits the word, but in the biology of Cement, cement is always to be mixed with blood. That’s one of the constants of this novel, no matter what the edition. When bodies are imagined as if outside the blood-red band of the spectrum, they are to be tinted a mere livor mortis.

The contrast between red and unred happens to be a little hard to see in Raduga’s Cement typography, because the only color in its presses for that run was extratextual: the green of the page numbers. Everything else about the prose was a uniform gray.

In Gladkov’s time, movies too were generally monochrome. But the cement in this 1933 movie poster is not a single shade of Gladkov gray. It is radiantly spectral.

https://www.moma.org/collection/works/218645

That’s because Mikhail Dlugach, the designer of the poster, did his work of envisioning under the lights of a different spectrum: one meant to illuminate a studio, not a library. Because they were created under that regime, the stairs that lead the eye upward from words to a smiling unspeaking face are Constructivist, and the shadow of the human that has been left behind by the ascent is Expressionist. The unspeaking face’s cosmetics too come from a silent repository: the cabinet of Dr. Caligari. But the dentistry that constructs its smile is the artifact of an aesthetic dating from long after the time of Tatlin’s tower and Wiene’s asylum. In fact, the poster suggests that the smile isn’t even attributable to dentistry. For that humble domestic science its scale is too vast. On the poster’s lavishly laid down slabs of color it erects itself like a heroic architecture, and as an architecture its relation in scale to the human is not 1920s Expressionist but 1960s Brutalist.

So think now, in the aftermath of the Brutalist era, of how the sound of your stormy pulse might have reechoed from the walls of a Brutalist bedroom where you and Comrade Dasha had shared the concrete mattress. One of the purposes of modern architecture since at least the days of Le Corbusier has been social control, explicitly stated as theory (in, for instance, Le Corbusier’s Vers une architecture), and Socialist Realist fiction provided a way to translate the theory’s language of instruction from body to text. Raise your eyelids and grin, the translated schema instructs the body waiting on its postcoital cinderblock. Then look out the window, sight down the barrel of your rifle at that string quartet in the distance, and aim.

For the Realists

During the nineteenth century, coal and its no longer latent powers began mattering to art and literature. Having been perceived and depicted, they now demanded equal but different rank with the divine. To realize Anna Karenina’s feelings during her night passage on the Moscow-St. Petersburg express was the same problem for Tolstoy that it would have been for Homer, but it was only Homer’s routes that traversed a universe conceivable as a surface hiding no secrets and revealing all there was to reveal. Against that, the moment at the end of Anna’s emptied book when a disconnected fuel tender came rolling by itself down its track (VIII.5) was a revelation of movement without a discoverable origin in intent or terminus in meaning. It may have been that that extorted the last tears from Vronsky. His voyage of discovery had ended without conclusion, in smoky midair.

See how you yourself now perceive this silhouette of eleven womanless men and a danger sign. Inside their collective image, smoke from a waiting parovoz ascends to darken the cloudscape, and that seems to be all the meaning there is. Certainly no one within the artwork’s dark margins is reading the sign’s words.

“Track elevating at road crossing, Joliet, Ill.,” between 1900 and 1905. Detroit Publishing Company Collection, Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/det/item/2016795685/. Post-processed for contrast and detail. Replaces a 2014 restoration, which has now been deleted from the blog.

Signed at under such circumstances, lesser realists such as William Dean Howells and Jacob Riis reacted by filling their non-fictions and their fictions alike with brand names and street addresses, recorded with due accuracy. The intent seemed to have been to force signifiers like the railroadmen’s unread X to give up a meaning. In time, James Joyce came to understand that a record’s significance lies in its words, only. The data of its ostensible content are a pre-text, and that is enough. But the image you have just seen in parallel with Tolstoy’s words is a wordlessness. Its primary signifier is not a history like Tolstoy’s or Joyce’s but a chemistry and a meteorology, and its record is only one of the smudges that coal in the nineteenth century left in the air.

Coordinates with missing locator

According to the Library of Congress’s annotation, these photographs are probably two parts of a three-part panorama: the left and the center, or perhaps the center and the right. The third panel isn’t in the Library, however, and Photoshop’s automated merge function can’t bring the remaining two any closer to each other. They appear to have been taken from positions different enough to create a continuity error. From one image to the next, the curb’s line breaks to form an angle and the Baldwin Locomotive Works undergoes a change of perspective. Just when time almost stopped for an instant at the beginning of the twentieth century, the instant’s vanishing point was seen to move and blur as if it were alive after all.

“Baldwin Locomotive Works, Philadelphia, Pa.” Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2016810604/. Post-processed.

So the visual forms that survive in the blur survive only as isolated colonies of the perceptible: the contextless cloud of steam, its whites and shadows sharply delineated but its purpose in its moment no longer knowable; the man with his tilted derby and rakish posture and shadow, never again to be nameable; the women in hats propelled along a route to the margin, blurred to unreadability above the moving words Wilbur’s American Milk Chocolate.

But at the right, unmoving, PHILA. It is only part of a word, but we seem to remember what the remainder once said of itself in the presence of a now vanished camera. From memory, memory recites DELPHIA. The sound is reassuring, because it seems stable. Tomorrow it will still be callable to mind and singable to completion once more.

But half of its harmony will sing in silent dark, because DELPHIA is a word in the dead language of the vanished panel 3. Looking down now at the two remaining panels, we experience panel 3 as if within its own aftermath: understanding it like a schoolbook remembered but no longer readable with a child’s eye. At their image’s vanishing point, the shadows of the man on the sidewalk and the women in the brand new motorbus and the mule just ahead of them on the road are to become equally unseeable because light will have moved forward past the brink of the image and disappeared into time.

Note added April 2, 2021: in his February 13, 2012 blogpost at https://www.shorpy.com/node/12391, Shorpy succeeds in merging the two images seamlessly and also provides a comment stream from which we learn, among other things, that the electric bus seen on North Broad Street dates the panorama to 1907 or 1908. Thanks, Kim Bridges, for calling the Shorpy link to my attention.