Stories about a dog in 1922

Once upon a time, perhaps in 1922 — the publication date of Ulysses and The Waste Land and of Sinclair Lewis’s social satire Babbitt, with its phonographic transcription of the way Americans talked in 1922

once upon a time, perhaps in that year when modes of perceiving words changed, someone looked at a photograph captioned with a Connecticut title and asked it the beginning of a question.

Dog aiC

Post-processing this grimy old image of a dog bracketed between sentences restores visibility to what subject dog is doing: wagging his tail. But the bracketing question, as worded, hasn’t been brought to completion. What we perceive of the dog doesn’t have a context. The question may signify, “At what address in Westbrook, Conn., was Major?” But alternatively it may signify, “What became of Major, forever after?” Whatever the answer may be to either of those sub-questions, it can’t be now what it would have been in 1922, the year C. K. Ogden translated into English the sentences, “The world is everything that is the case” and then “The picture is a model of reality” and “The picture is a fact” (Tractatus 1, 2.12, 2.141). In perhaps 1922 someone writing a graceful nineteenth-century hand molded the words “Westbrook Conn.” around a void and shaped it into a model of the fact of permanent self-evidence. The case of the top margin is Westbrook Conn.; what else can it ever be? But evidence is missing from the laborious blockprint at the bottom. Down there, there appears to be no connection between the question on the left and the date on the right.

But the space in the line at the bottom may be a meaning in its own right: a negative one, empty antonym of the space at the top. The gap between Westbrook and Conn at the top is a temporarily vacant lot that can be filled in at any time with more New England, but the question mark at the bottom designates an unbounded void. Worse, and with vast implications, is that the R’s and N’s at the top and bottom of the whole image are similarly formed. The two lines look different at first glance, but they may have had a single writer. What appears to be a real difference may be only an aesthetic one: a consequence of indifferent time. Over the little interval between the top and the bottom of a text the scribe grew old, and the aging worked its way even into the microtexture of each line’s language. The passage from one letter to the next was a decay. Memento mori, therefore: the spaced subject at the bottom, “Where is he? Nov 1922” may signify not just “Major” but “Major as of 1922” or (an all too possible expansion of the frame of understanding) just “1922.” That is, horribly: “1922, when Major and I were, for a moment, alive.”

Major’s picture documents the case of 1922-and-thereafter. During the time it was processed into what you’re now reading it probably remained in physical existence: a soiled little slip of paper marked with silver halides at its center and inked words in its margins. But it’s the center that has now become marginal to the document’s meaning. Any answer we could make to the question “Where is he?” would have to come from there in the halides, but in that sector there never were words to mean with. Once it had been made metallic by a bath in a reducing agent in (let’s say, because we have to say something) 1922, the wordless chemistry of the story became a bords durs trace of what was once a dog’s life. In that dog story it isn’t the exact date of the abrupt transition from blurrily wagging to stilled that matters. Whenever it was imposed, it was imposed forever.