Not just the delicate temporary touching down from the air, unknowingly populated skyline, and fingerprint just inside the barrier that margins you off from the dead,
but even the defacing scratches and spots on the record itself. For a brief intermission between oblivions, the ordinary is perceived. A moment too late after that, it is understood to have been extraordinary.
For those soon to receive death from the air, a rubber body has lifted itself and begun to float in a medium formulated from air and the idea of air. It is free already from the earth that we its destined victims plod, and soon the doors of its cathedral-lighted matrix will swing open and deliver it to the sky over our poor heads.
The celebrant of the opening has already started delivering his text. It promises to those who believe:
His name is Mark Anthony, this is his picture with the rubber body behind him and a gas implement in his hand,
and the face you see might serve as an icon of one of the Christian saints called Doctors of the Church: those whose teachings have become doctrine. By command and in experimental fact, the teaching that emanates from this shining body will have to be taken as true. In only a short time from now, the venous vessels connecting it to earth will be clamped off and released, the pains of its emergence through the doors into the light will begin, and the shadow it casts from heaven for the first time will be seen to be everlasting.
Demonstrably, one thing about the life of the electrical engineer Mark Anthony remains in historical memory. His dates of birth and death don’t seem to be accessible online, but during the years of his floruit, 1909-1911, he is known to history to have been experimenting in New York with what we would now call a radio-controlled drone bomber. About that the online record yields two reprinted newspaper articles. Says Anthony in one of them, from 1909,
There are also two 1909 portraits in the Library of Congress’s George Grantham Bain Collection, an archive of news agency photographs. One is captioned “Anthony at transformer,” and it shows a standing man, presumably Anthony, looking down at a table upon which rests a transformer. By analogy with “at bat” or “at the wheel,” the phrase “at transformer” is a dramatis persona in a scene of power and mastery.
The other portrait . . .
Dark but with a rubbery sheen, the rope-bound object in the background may be what the newspaper article calls “a balloon 22 feet long, with a capacity of 600 cubic feet of gas.” Anthony’s right hand rests on what looks like a compressed-gas cylinder’s hose connection, and it seems to be holding the inflation tube of another balloon, tied off with string. The system looks ready for arming and flight, and the artist who memorialized the event for history bent his name to the masterful arc of the inventor’s shoulder.
A later article about radio control extinguishes the expectation. From Germany in 1911, it reports: “A somewhat similar invention was recently reported from New York, where Mark Anthony, a well-known electrical engineer, offered his device to the United States Government for $125,000. The offer was declined. . . ” But in what Cavafy might have called the days of 1909, an image inflated itself with curves bulging into more curves and then went tense and still, in a waiting phase, at the brink of a moment when the curves might merge, then soar free enclosed in straining rubber, then explode and cause to explode. The balloon, the hat, the nose, and the double beacon of the eyes behind their collimators: all these awaited the unbuttoning of what a poem written in 1911 was to call “My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin, / My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin.”
The unbuttoning didn’t take place in 1909, but the readiness was all. In 1912 Vaslav Nijinsky would fuck the nymph’s veil. Two years after that, the term “blow sky-high” would explode into aeronautical meaning.
Title: Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent, chapter 4: “I have the means to make myself deadly, but that by itself, you understand, is absolutely nothing in the way of protection. What is effective is the belief those people have in my will to use the means. That’s their impression. It is absolute. Therefore I am deadly.” “Those people” are the police; “the means” is a bomb in the speaker’s breast pocket, with its detonator button in his hand. I visualize a hand looking like Mark Anthony’s.
Year by year during the second and third quarters of the nineteenth century, organic chemists fashioned transformations upon the unassuming body of a smelly liquid called aniline. Under their godmothering guidance, aniline submitted to change after brilliant change from her transparent pale yellow to a whole wardrobe of dyes, color after lovable color. Every season Cinderella would re-emerge from the laboratory to be seen anew, and the chemistry of progress made sure that she was seen with ever more excitement as the century went on.
So when the long nineteenth century ended with excitement in 1914, the Russian artist I. D. Sytin was equipped to showcase the change. For effects of the lurid he had tube after tube of bright new primary colors, but for ironic contrast he also had something delicate. Sytin’s lithograph “War in the Air,” its flame yellows and flame reds set off by midnight blue, is printed on paper tinted pink.
Thanks to the pink, the whole lithograph, in both its primary image and its explanatory text, has a ground of rosy conflagration-color. That doesn’t just make the flames in the figure seem to burn hotter; it also desaturates the no longer bright blue of the river shining innocently under starlight and consolidates the fine-print nuances of the text into a single hysterical scream in rubric red. The catalog of the Hoover Institution Poster Collection stubbornly insists that the two elements unified by pink within the image frame are still separate, and it formats its insistence as an equivalent pair of sentences in archival black-and-white: “Painting depicts aerial battle with airplanes and airships. Text underneath describes modern aerial warfare.” But what Sytin’s stones impressed on his picture wasn’t a separable pair of stimulants to sense-impression; it was an ensemble. In its presence a century later, the excitement we have been roused to isn’t archival, it’s historical.
Perhaps the distinction is that the historical sense at least hints at an idea of ensemble: a single consciousness sharable between a record and its reader. A historical record, perhaps, is a text that can be experienced as immediately as the color pink. At any rate, in the presence of this particular array of colors, the historical sense may remind us that it and we now subsist in a world no longer conceivable in black and white. Three quarters of a century before I. D. Sytin set to work, chemists began excitedly coloring in the world’s blank spaces, and it is no longer possible to see what the world was like before that moment. By 1914, says a Russian chronology written in aniline pink, the synthesized product was even filling in the sky.
The long history of events will need only a few extra moments to add the story of the dirigible America.
On the afternoon of October 15, 1910, under the command of the journalist-explorer Walter Wellman, America set off from Atlantic City in an attempt to fly the Atlantic Ocean. About seventy hours later, defeated by headwinds and engine trouble, the airship’s six crewmen climbed into their lifeboat, lowered themselves and their cat into the sea near the steamer Trent, and were rescued. Lightened by the abandonment, America rose back into the sky, drifted away, and was never seen again. You probably have permission to think “The End” and then forget.
But the rescue took three hours of maneuvering in heavy seas, and during that miniature epoch somebody on board Trent was busy with a camera. As he worked, his camera filled with a growing record of a shape descending over water. Looking back at that record now, we will find ourselves wanting to penetrate its silence and find words to speak of it.
On its own, the shape within the record has already acquired at least one word. From the surrounding text which provides its historical syntax, we learn that even though America was the first aircraft to be equipped with radio, the innovation that Walter Wellman was proudest of was a device he called the equilibrator: a heavy cable suspended from the airship’s keel and towing a ton’s weight of gasoline underwater. In principle, this should have stabilized America’s altitude, compensating for the weight lost through fuel consumption by lifting its load drum by drum out of the load-supporting water. In practice, it only transferred wave motion to the airship — stressing its structure, making navigation difficult, and sickening the crew. Look through the railing around Trent’s deck and you’ll see it at its mischief, leaving a wake to port as America drifts sideways. The accumulated literal detail of this portrayal – the light suspension harness holding the umbilical cord, the foamy crease where the cord has touched the water – asks to be read as a history written in satisfyingly tragic Greek. Here, says the image, is a moral record of the moment at latitude 35.43, longitude 68.18 on October 18, 1910, when nature erased a mark made in water by overweening man. Nothing remains, now, but a now meaningless word: equilibrator.
But the record of erasure also holds a mark that hasn’t been deleted. Unwritten but inscribed, this mark endures as if it were something seen once and thereafter seen forever. It seems to have become indelible, and it seems to have achieved its indelibility by self-translation: from history to geometry.
Made accessible to reason by geometry, this form is America in two dimensions. Considered as a planar artifact, it appears to be tangent to the surface of the ocean as it descends. The representation could be a visual aid for Calculus 1: the limit instant when a vessel, descending along a curve, ceases to be of the air and becomes a creature in the first throe of metamorphosis. Light and air still embrace the surface of the falling balloon, but the waves and the equilibrator’s turbulent trace all say that the embrace will now break off and end.
It’s only an optical illusion, of course. Furthermore, any sense of human meaning in what may appear to be impending touch and consummation is a mere sentimental metaphor. In an unblemished three-dimensional image with a soundtrack, it would probably be easier for us to understand that all we’re seeing is a gaseous machine in relation to a liquid surface. Given more visual information, we would see more and have a more accurate perspective. But for some reason, only the blemished, partial, still image seems to promise us that after we see what it has recorded we will have been granted the grace to remember. At any rate, the record seems to show that from this flawed grayness America has not drifted away.
In the far distance, seen from the American side of the Atlantic Ocean, the squabble seems almost comical. Little, of course, did the New York Times know what was about to start happening in the neighborhood of the zeppelin hangars, and so the Times’s editors saw no need to drive home their point any further by illustrating it.
But the image of what was to come was already in place and already signifying as hard as it could. See, in the image, the forms hovering impatiently on the ceiling of their barn, already fledged in streamline and about to slip free and feral.
In the image, all but a few of the men who do see have their backs to the camera. They are looking up toward those ridged cylinders as if they’re waiting for them to emerge, cast off, and mount. They understand the cylinders’ purport. They may even have been taught that they’ll love what is about to happen to them.
But the man they have sent away from the bed of ascension is understanding in a different way: actively. His traveling cap is ready to don, he is holding a writing tool in each hand, and his eyes are in the act of piercing.
Without the beard that grows beneath, they would be only eyes in a face — say, a face fronting one of the derbied Germans who have so deeply failed to interest the camera in themselves. With the beard, M. Clément’s face becomes an emblem of the time before the dirigible and the Freudian reinterpretation of will. During that long but abruptly vanished prehistory, men didn’t just face the camera when they posed; they faced the camera down. With their sensitive mouths covered deep under layers of masculine muff, some men of the last moments before the Great War seem actually to have believed that the momentarily living self they showed to the finder could be a visage, hard and glittering as a face self-sculpted in stone.