Story

We think the flower looks feminine. Expressed in a medium by an artist, the thought becomes an anecdote. In the museum, a gallery full of Georgia O’Keeffes or Imogen Cunninghams become an anecdote exchange. Soon everybody gets the joke.

Linking the sight with memories of stories we read when we were children, we decide that the insect looks armored in bronze. The men pictured in the books had broad shoulders, too. Shortly after that thought has been acted on with a camera, an anecdotal image of the insect begins communicating itself from Tumblr to Tumblr specialized in militaria and inspirational National Socialist anecdotes.

The communications become entrained by the economic mechanisms of desire. Getting the joke comes to mean acquiring it on an exchange. The interval during which value is transferred, that epoch between the just-seen subject of a future image and the completed and collected painting en route to a warehouse in the Caymans, is what in a story is called the middle. Into the image below, between records of the moment after one seeing and the moment after another, I insert a pictured page from a story. Click it to enlarge.

Gardenia, Perseus, mantis small

Unenlarged between two other images, the image in the middle may resemble the middle term of a single three-part idea, but it isn’t. The panels to its left and the right are wordless souvenirs of the seen, but the middle panel comes to us with an anecdotal pretext arguing that it represents not a seen moment but a known history — in this specific case, the history of the hero Perseus. Guardian and curator of the image, the history won’t allow you to see it as an image. It will impose a context. If the context isn’t visible to the unaided eye, the histoire will slip into its other English translation, “story,” and improvise a substitute out of invisibility. To the left of the middle, there will promptly emerge from the void a panel 1 in which Andromeda’s clothes are being taken off. To the right will emerge the necessary completion of the story, a panel 3 in which Perseus is hauling the dragon’s corpse away to the landfill.

And if you close the handbook of mythology long enough to effect a small change of wardrobe, panel 2 will show itself capable of migration to another story, provided only that the new story belongs to the same genre. The story in the image above and the story in the image below, for instance, are each about a hero. Visually, each is a two-part composition: dark and light, male and female, draped and undraped. The family solidarity of genre even allows the second image to retain its visual integrity after it has been reduced to the status of illustration and humbled by a didactic caption. After all, both the sophisticatedly allusive image above and the demoted image below are histoires. Because they narrate a passage through narrative time with a beginning, a middle, and an end, they transcend depiction in or as themselves. They have a literary history. Just as much as Perseus and Andromeda, the Klansman and his belle refer their meanings at this point in the story to earlier meanings.

(Thomas Dixon, The Clansman)

But the flower on the left and the insect on the right, the images seen only in the moment when they seemed to halt perception with held breath for a moment?

During that moment, they had ceased to become and only were. They had fallen out of the sequence of story. Outside sequence, they had lost their susceptibility to narrative’s power of explanation. We can’t tell a story about the image of the flower; all we can say about it is that during the moment before the words “Once upon a time” could be spoken of it, it may have been in a state of depiction. Supporting a story on either side but capable of referring vision only back to a not yet told story about themselves, such images are not yet readable. And about the moments like those when the told makes contact with the depicted, literary history tells us that after story has been brought face to facing page with a wordless image, it sometimes draws back into itself and goes silent.

At those moments, the story’s words are released from narrative into depiction, there to be seen only as what they are: words, alone or in new associations with other words. I think Pope’s string of naked words, “This long disease, my life,” must have had some genetic homology with the famous glitter of Pope’s eyes. An instant before the words could come to be, the eyes took into themselves the deformed little shape that they had seen in the mirror.

Sources:

Edward Burne-Jones, The Doom Fulfilled120 Great Victorian Fantasy Paintings CD-ROM and Book, ed. Jeff A Menges (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2009), image 022.

The illustration from Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman (New York: Doubleday, Page, 1905) is by Arthur I. Keller, online at http://docsouth.unc.edu/southlit/dixonclan/frontis.html.

“This long disease, my life” is from Pope’s Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot, line 132.

The moment of the gardenia, according to metadata, was June 30, 2014, at 5:48 PM Hawaii Standard Time. The moment of the praying mantis was July 7, 2014, at 12:43 AM.

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