Persistence of vision

Chekhov is famous for the effect: just before the end of one of his plays, a sound will add its wordless voice to the words’ dramatic irony. Just before the end of Three Sisters, both the actors onstage and we in the audience hear a shot in the distance, and that (we and the actors are about to learn together, a moment too late) is the sound of Solyony killing Tusenbach. Just before the end of Uncle Vanya we hear jingle bells, and that is the sound of Astrov going away forever. Just before the end of The Cherry Orchard we hear saws and axes, and that is the sound of the orchard being cut down. After the play’s context has enabled us to establish a verbal interpretation for a wordless sound effect (“That is the sound of . . .”), the interpretation turns its newly real countenance toward us and wordlessly says that there will now be no more happiness, before or ever after the final curtain.

Of course, if we’re sophisticated enough to be in a Chekhov audience, we won’t be naive enough to think the sound effects themselves are real. Of course we know they were written into the play. But because they emanate from offstage, they seem somehow to be at least as much a part of the audience function as of the stage function. If they aren’t onstage, then they’re at least partly offstage with us, down here in the dark of our offstage being where we are simultaneously experiencing the sound of the shot (what was that?) and the memory life we brought with us into the theater (did I remember to lock the garage?). A part of the mixed, impure ongoingness of memory, the sound we hear in the theater seems real in a way we can’t fully believe the actors to be. The actors inhabit a system of meaning with a “The End” at the end of it, but the sound can’t. It propagates forever.

But it isn’t just sound that propagates. History seems to impose a Chekhovian irony on certain visual artifacts too – for instance, photographs taken just before a moment of change, or taken during the change but focused elsewhere. That photograph of people smiling at their desks in an office? Little do the people in the photograph know that those desks are in the World Trade Center and the date is September 10, 2001. Or the long-skirted women in that black-and-white street scene, going about their business unaware that just on the other side of a monitor there are now, forever after, troubled young men desperate to overlook them and catch their sight of Hitler.

In its bin at Costco, the piece of cardboard holding a blister-wrapped camera is big, to discourage shoplifting. With lots of space at its disposal, the cardboard uses that space to signify that this camera, a Canon Elph 100HS, is marketed to women. Words printed all over the front of the card promise that the Elph is small and light and easy to use, and through its blister we can see that the camera itself comes in a variety of pretty colors. The card also offers consumers a look at a picture: a picture of a picture that we are to think might have been taken with a woman’s camera like this one, even though some fine print on the back of the card says it wasn’t. The picture within the picture comes from a woman’s social system, and it seems intended to remind buyers how pictures function as part of a feminine experience of the world.

See: within their pictured frame, three women sit at a table in a restaurant, eating and talking and looking into one another’s faces and laughing. This is a picture that you too will be able to take, promises Costco’s piece of cardboard. You will take the picture, you will pass it around among your friends, and then there will come, for you together with them, a moment of intimate happiness. You will have come into possession of an image that first derived meaning from a context, like a pistol shot offstage, and now reestablishes that context, over and over, one view at a time, as it is passed from hand to hand to hand, forever. Remember yesterday in the restaurant? How happy we were?


Not yet cut apart and discarded, the cardboard implores us to open its blisters and begin. At the moment you take your picture, promises the cardboard, you’ll be both director and camerawoman, you’ll be active. But a moment later and forever happily ever after, you’ll be a part of an audience, passively taking in the picture as you once passively heard the sound of Solyony’s pistol. From then on, there won’t be a thing you can do about it. Your pretty new camera will have taken in a few meaningless milliseconds and changed them to a meaning, forever.