Cylindric equilibrium


Past the French Art Shop they come, coats swinging, with a jaunty ID provided by the Bain News Service: anarchists on the march, in March. If anarchists could have a captain, their captain might be the man on roller skates. Dressed like a boy in cap and Norfolk jacket and knickers, he swings his arms and pouts. All with him is precarity, stopping just short of hilarity. Click his image to enlarge it.


In 1926, a work of French art, Marcel Duchamp’s Anémic Cinéma, rolled up to offer first aid and counsel. Between spinning spirals, M. Duchamp’s words advise the marching anarchists to take, as necessary, “Bains de gros thé pour grains de beauté sans trop de Bengué.”

All with the spirals is lucid geometry. All with the words is lucid balance. Dragées Bengué were sold at the time as a cough drop. Their active ingredients were menthol and cocaine.


One way to see Labor Day 1915 was as an affair of cylinders. Upright in the exact center of his image, the shaved and neatly suited man raising funds is holding a metal pail which is dented but still round, round. His mustache is a perfect horizontal, and above it the placard on his hat makes it into another cylinder. Mustached and cylindered, the man looks now like the always endangered, always genially victorious capitalist who rides his train from rectangle to rectangle along the route of the Monopoly board. On the man’s right, a narrow, perfectly horizontal beam of light sets up a reflection within the camera’s lens. On his left, in perfect balance, the beam of light bounces back from a window in specular reflection. On each of the man’s two cylinders, a sentence in English reads, “Help the furrier strikers.” Just below that, a sentence in macaronic American Yiddish reads, “Helft die furrier strikers.”

The English reads from left to right. The Yiddish reads from right to left. On their cylinders the words counter-rotate in equilibrium. Wallace Stevens, who once walked into a restaurant, walked out again, and explained to his chauffeur, “Too many Jews come in here,” might have made an exception for this one.


The two photographs are in the George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, at

The Stevens anecdote is in Peter Brazeau, Parts of a World: Wallace Stevens Remembered: An Oral Biography (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1985), 248-49.

A friend wonders whether the caption “Labor parade” may refer to Labor Day or, on the other hand, May Day. I don’t know, but the photograph is identified as from Labor Day at . Speaking of ambiguous attribution, I wonder now whether the man dressed as a roller-skating boy in the first photograph may in fact be a boy — a boy who looks as tall as the marching men behind him because he is closer to the camera than the image makes him appear.