Ars longa

The carrying case in the man’s right hand would have held 8-by-10-inch glass plates for the camera in his left hand. The camera would have been a serious professional instrument; its lens is marked with the brand of an important German manufacturer, C. P. Goerz. And the portrait of the man is the work of an artist who understood how much his instrument was capable of. In the foreground, his feet planted on the earth and his massive hands grasping the instruments, is the subject who forms the composition’s human center. Though the equipment he holds is expensive, he is dressed in rags. He is black. In the background, off center and out of focus, ostensibly only a detail, a white man leans with casually crossed legs against a door frame.

That man is out of the sun. He isn’t mentioned in the caption that was composed for the glass negative’s paper jacket some time between the turn of the twentieth century when the image was made and the middle of the century when it was cataloged by the Library of Congress, but for the author of the caption that detail wasn’t necessary. The object before him as he wrote it up for posterity was a work of art, having effect over us who have become posterity only so long as we care to pretend we are bounded within its 8-by-10-inch image frame. There, within, the black man holds his sway under rules of visual composition and a let’s-pretend acceptance of the continuing existence of the historical present. Anywhere else, of course, he is non-existent. He was once a form becoming itself amid a manifold of histories, but at any spatial or temporal point recorded there he has always been imperceptible. The names of the photographer who took the picture and the librarian who may have written the caption appear to be lost to history, but they once had at least the potential of being known to the record in full human detail, as if they were the knowable, lovable characters of a novel. Not so, though, the man in the picture.

The caption tells us that. It reads, “Negro, the photographer’s assistant.”

If it had been written as “The photographer’s Negro assistant,” it would have identified the man by his profession and a personal trait. If it had been written as “Gordon Parks, the photographer’s assistant,” it would have given him a name and the possibility of an imagined life. But “Negro,” just the undifferentiated common noun, has a uniquely zero significance. As Bloomsbury afternoons drew to their end, Virginia Woolf would, we are told, sometimes laugh to Clive, Lytton, Maynard, Vanessa, and E.M., “I must go home and feed the Jew.” That substitution for “Leonard” or “my husband” identifies its subject as a singular member of a class. It scorns to individualize him with a name, but it does identify him by a trait that its speaker considers worth being aware of. But “Negro,” without the definite article, is traitless. It has no definition, and its etymology is only a spectral name: black.

It will do no good for you to look at the black, because you won’t be able to see in. But look anyway. You won’t learn the proper name of what you see on its surface; you won’t even learn to call it, with anything like Virginia Woolf’s native fluency, “the Negro.”

Between 1900 and 1910. Detroit Publishing Company Collection, Library of Congress, Post-processed to restore contrast and detail.

But what will loom into the image frame is a black face, and that will turn out to be a caption in itself. Communicating the possibility of undying form, it will tell you: “I live because I have become the blackness that is my name. I am Negro, the photograph.”

Well meant

In large parts of the United States, a man known to be married to an East Asian woman can expect to be asked, “Does it slant?”

That conversational opener is sometimes followed by the explanation, “Hee hee, I’m just messin’ with yuh.” By acknowledging the irony of the question that has just been asked, this shorts the communicative circuit by making an answer impossible. Functionally, hee hee is equivalent to, “I asked a question about the anatomy of a third party, but the only anatomy I’m actually concerned with is yours. My question, “Does it slant?” wasn’t a whimsical Wallace Stevens query about your wife’s yellow vagina but a demand for your pain. If the pain shows in your face, I’ll know that my demand has been acceded to and you have begun to learn my way of asking.

“Speaking of which, my way of asking is the only way.”

Which implies that yes, a conversation built around a question usually takes the form of a duet, but if the question is Does it slant? the melody and the lyric won’t belong to the same music. The melody of Does it slant? is a vocalise sung in the rising tone of a request for communication, but the spoken lyric says Don’t talk back to me. The tone and the content of the slant question — a question asked in the register of a social context but demanding an answer in the register of a solitary one — are cognitively dissonant, and perhaps that is why the Hee hee usually comes out as a phlegmy wheeze.

Because that’s ugly, we would prefer to keep listening just for the tone. After all, too, everything in language until the downbeat on slant taught us that words form a harmony. So if our partner in the duet should now happen to let a beat pass without Hee hee, we’ll gratefully hope that that nothing will now be the rest of the song. Just that, just the wheezy noise not made while the speaker catches his breath, will be all it takes to give a downbeat to the gratitude and cue us to believe He must mean well.

Unfortunately, the gratitude we feel to the tone won’t be comprehensible to the lyric. Speaking into the silence something hopeful like, “No, it doesn’t slant” will only re-cue the wheeze and the coughing bark: “Slant! Har!” But the echoes of that noise are where we’ll discover something that was in the joke’s libretto all along. To the delight of the barking man, the effect of the discovery will be visible on the surface of our thought, in the darkening face. But behind that surface, in the light of the mind, the discovery itself will be this: in the universal irony of language, words can work against themselves to create anti-meanings, and one of those words is the verb mean.