Flaps down, wheels down, its blurred outline communicating airspeed as it hurtles from right to left across the image frame, a Mitsubishi Ki-57 in wartime camouflage is about to reestablish contact with the earth. The photograph predicts that its flight, from ground to air to ground again, will have been successful. The airplane’s shadow is already on the ground, darkening as its source of darkness descends.
Outside the frame, in textual space, there will be words to fill in the parts of the image that we can’t see. After we have visualized the landfall, we can read its story. The landing strip, these words will say, was in Zhijiang, Hunan, China. The shadow of the airplane was cast there on August 21, 1945, and a short time after it stopped moving, the airplane’s door opened and Major General Takeo Imai stepped out to receive the Allied Forces’ instructions for the surrender of Japan’s million-man army in China.
We read that history in language and as language, but the image prior to the words you’ve just read shows us history in the form it takes when the sky passes over a sundial. It can’t be a propositional history, a history in words, because the words a sundial offers us to read can be only those that were there before the sun struck. They are words off to the side of what actually happened, in the margin of the light. Jacques Derrida, who thought about that prior language, passed his childhood under the sun of Algeria, and there, after some Ki-57s had landed in China and some Ju-52s had landed in France, nobody would speak to him. He was alone in the darkfall.
Of course there are ways of requesting a shadow image to step into the light and explain itself. After is has vanished, we can reimagine it with the help of history’s functions of generalization and exemplification. If it is inserted into a curriculum, we can even translate its into the language of computer-assisted design and read it on a glowing screen like the one where you’re now reading these words. Look, the screen can say. Look at:
But to read an image under those educational circumstances is to abstract it from the history which engendered the desire to read. After all, why should we care to see this schematic? There’s only one reason, and it isn’t pictured. It’s off to the side, written down in an unillustrated, unillustrable language that has the power to evoke nightmare after we have stopped reading and closed our eyes for the night. The dream of reason, wrote a Spanish artist into one of his pictures, brings forth monsters. The true monstrosities are the ones we dare only to imagine, not to see.
But El Greco’s Burial of the Count of Orgaz depicts monstrosity. Unlike the photograph of the airplane which for a moment concealed within itself, pregnant before the eye of history, the defeated body of General Imai, this sky picture had a purpose which existed before history delivered it to view. Its creator followed a curriculum as he worked, and the educational labor of inserting the curriculum’s words into the image can only help us to see the image more clearly. Pedagogy will demonstrate what was there in the picture’s conception before the picture itself came into existence, and it will also send us to the dictionary to read up on what pedagogy is putting us through. There in the dictionary, we’ll discover that the words “demonstrate” and “monster” both come from a Latin root signifying portent and warning. That etymological exercise will teach us that we knew all along what was going to be on this canvas before El Greco picked up his brush to make the first stroke. It was all horror, too: the horror of historiography, the horror of birth into the terrible instant in which transfiguration begins its henceforth endless cycle of reproduction. Reproducing, moving within time, the moment of change always becomes without ever passing into the stillness of being.
As long as an image comes before us in the glow of the moment of unchange, the shadow of General Imai’s airplane will not yet have come to rest. Elsewhere under the sky of China, the dying will continue. China is all. El Greco picks up his laser pointer to make the demonstration.