The heavy cap glowed blue. It was exciting. She could feel the mare pulse under her, bringing and bringing her to the man. Then she had arrived. Stilled, she pressed into a stirrup and lifted, caressing the horse’s fragrant body as she descended its flank. Then she bent to the man on the ground, lifted him into the bed she had carried, and held him in her arms.
Motor ambulancemen John Dos Passos, Malcolm Cowley, E. E. Cummings, Harry Crosby, Ernest Hemingway
The Great Eastern — launched in 1858, scrapped in 1889 — was, speaking as strictly as can be, a wonder. Even by the standards of its own nineteenth century, the epoch of the most comprehensive material progress in history, it was superlative: by orders of magnitude the largest ship yet built, and laden to the bulwarks with engineering innovation. In advance of its first arrival in New York, the city’s people received their foretelling in nineteenth-century style as a list of its attributes. But once the vessel actually tied up at its pier, it was understood to be carrying one more attribute, this one ancient: a sobriquet, “the great iron ship.” This wasn’t an engineering feature; it was a feature of being. Its four words were the poem of this preview in prose.
Floating above the words of the legend, Great Eastern’s image is embellished ex voto with hand-painted watercolor, but time has reduced that and its significance to soiled tatters. Conceived and brought to realization half a century ahead of its time, the great iron ship never could fill enough of its passenger berths to make a profit. For a time between 1865 and 1873 its immense capacities found another purpose when they made possible the laying of undersea telegraph cables across thousands of miles, but once the cables could begin carrying code, the carrier that had carried them was beached in memory. Stripped there of the iron idea that had communicated its reason for being, Great Eastern was painted over with servile words and became a floating billboard.
Nevertheless, on the record of one sunny day in about 1864, there still exists this trace of what preceded the words. It is historically bound to an approximate time and a specific place: Manhattan, at the foot of Hammond Street.
This reconstruction of that record is an anaglyph: a colorized composite image of a black-and-white stereo pair, viewable in three dimensions through a two-color viewer. What is seen there is, as those who viewed it in 1864 would have said, lifelike. But before the year 1864 shelved the lifelike for a future to see, it library-bound it with some words. Pasted across both halves of the stereo pair and therefore not readable in stereo, these are a tiny calligraphic text written in about 1864 by someone who must have intended it to inform future memory. Pleading for us to understand, it wrote itself onto a twinned photograph. But that yearning to be read there in the future had to take a form, and that form had to be an 1864 form, perhaps even a form penned with a feather plucked from a bird living then but dead now. As had long been understood by that time, the letter killed.
Unscathed by the words, however, some tiny 1864 people in pierside attendance on Great Eastern continue serving up meanings of the word huge. But as of the twenty-first century, that’s all that’s left for them to do. Even the sounds they made about hugeness in 1864 are different now than they were when they could make contact midair with the sounds of steam engines and paddle wheels. A current glossary of the time dialect named Great Eastern will need to be cross-referred to the Lilliput idyll of Gulliver’s Travels, and Gulliver’s Travels itself has long since been downscaled to the dimensions of a children’s book. When our eyes stray from the 1858 image of Great Eastern to its captioning words “this immense vessel” followed by the Lilliputian “tonnage 22,500 tons,” we will realize that the time has come to relearn outgrow.
But children’s books are picture books, and the picture texts they teach are sometimes lifelike regardless. The time must have come by now for you to have solved, explained and outgrown the magic trick in words called Happily ever after, but somewhere on a page, perhaps still capable of being regarded with the help of the right toy, there may still be viewable a picture that looks like life. So long as you refrain from thinking into the future about that, it may be pragmatically useful to you at bedtime. Think of it as the story your mother never got around to finishing: the one with happily ever after consolingly still to come on the not yet seen last page.
Not much history seems to have survived this remnant. It is a daguerreotype, apparently American, apparently dating from about the 1850s, and that seems to be almost all we know about it now. The Library of Congress’s catalog link at https://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/dag/item/2014655145/ notes that the image was acquired in 2014 from a Dennis A. Waters, but Waters
was a commercial dealer, not an archivist. In any case, this isn’t one of the pictures in the Library’s daguerreotype collection that are archivally identified by name and place and date. Almost all that remains to be known about it now is almost all that remains to be seen. It is almost nothing but picture. Almost nobody except a fashion historian or possibly a medical historian could articulate a word about it now. Because all the words that were once spoken over it by the people it depicts have fallen away, it has become an abstract idea of what was once flesh-round and warm to the touch.
Consider a lens, then. It seems to be a portal through which life goes into the past and brakes to a stop.
Extremely old Americans may remember that vending machines in truck stop men’s rooms once dispensed condoms whose wrappers were printed with the warning, “For the prevention of disease only.” As textual history demonstrates, that was not just a monition but a commandment. In Connecticut, where Congregationalist Protestantism was the state religion until half a century after the American Revolution, Yankee Calvinists wrote religious laws against birth control in the nineteenth century and Irish Catholics enforced them in the twentieth. The legislative climates were similar in other states, but because a part of art is defiance, defiant literature imagined into being a little paragraph of counter-prose. Getting its hands dirty with latex and ink, literature remolded the words of solemn warning into a mocking anti-sanctimony and stocked cash-operated machines with it under the deacons’ noses.
In 1965, however, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Griswold v. Connecticut that people have a right to use birth control for any diseased or undiseased purpose they choose to name, and at that historical point the Trojans lapsed into silence. They’ve remained silent ever since, but it seems possible now that the time will soon return when the men’s room gets noisy as the tiles echo again with priestly bellowings. In 2022, in a concurring opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Center, the decision which reversed the court’s 1973 holding of a constitutional right to abortion, Justice Thomas of the Supreme Court opined that Griswold v. Connecticut must now be reversed too.
Art, however, always anticipates a counter-art. Greek tragedy performed itself in alternation with bawdy satyr plays, and Justice Thomas’s script was anticipated as far previously as 1954, the year Shepherd Mead published his satire The Big Ball of Wax: a novel set in a distant future (1992!), when scripted dreams are beamed directly from TV studios into the brains of the masses. Not all of Mead’s science fiction came true on schedule; his 1992 is still a time of slide rules and carbon paper. On the other hand, a new part of its geography is “St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad), Russia,” and the plot’s key event is that an adman figures a way to get commercials into the dreams. Now that the phones in our pockets are our spying intimates, that part reads like prophecy.
And about that, the cheery satyr-prophets of art invite Justice Thomas, his Christian Church, and every one of the rest of us to unzip a little and dwell on this love scene. Just do the logical thing with the new words that arrive to reclothe your thought, the satyrs suggest, and then what happens after they teach you to speak laughingly will be Happily ever after.