For now, the image is still there, floating in hazy light.
Big, luxurious, and the fastest ship in the world when it entered Atlantic service in 1900, the German liner Deutschland proved unpopular with passengers because its high-speed propellers made its decks shake. After ten years it was rebuilt as a slower, more comfortable cruise ship, rechristened with a less ambitious name, and sent on to oblivion. But here and for now, with its course away from memory not yet plotted, it lies in the river flowing past Hoboken, only momentarily still beneath moving clouds.
At the time, photographs like this one were called snapshots, and before then they were called instantaneouses. This instantaneous is breaking down now in craquelure, but it hasn’t yet ceased to put on display a large floating jewel, glittering with instant icons. This icon, see! represents the doctrine of three men painting a mainmast. This one represents the ship’s name in the squared-off, fraktur-inflected Bodoni of a German font. The iconic Deutschland is a free-standing word, generating connotation after connotation in a historical dialect that (its quiet blaze in the shade still signals) will never go extinct. And yes: by way of confirmation, aft of the word a little scow tidies up for a visit from history itself, preparing the palimpsest for a manual of what you will soon be required to see.
See, therefore. The icons (click to enlarge) will now perform their miracle. Someone inside Deutschland is at work with a shovel in a room full of ashes.
Elsewhere in Hoboken, light has different properties. The evidence at the river’s edge showed a clarity diffused outward under full control, originating in the dark within a hull and then moving outward to take dominion over all the light in the air. But along this sidewalk, seeing has been swaddled in blur from the beginning. For the moment, a little library is moored like a ship on the concrete, but its language can’t be read the way the word Deutschland is read because it doesn’t seem to belong in its composition. Deutschland is its ship. The sleek dark hull and its elegantly complementary wordform are equally at home in their sustaining water. But the sidewalk of Hoboken supports only a piece of indoor furniture and a jacket missing a button, and those are icons of a religion that isn’t alluded to in words like “Big Christmas number.” The jacket with its missing button is doctrine from the spoken language of the human and the social, as opposed to the written subdialect of words as such. And the words “Big Christmas number” tacked to a desk outside in the cold can’t be spoken in the same social accent as the name of a ship harmonized in gold on steel.
This instantaneous happens to be mounted on a card bearing more words, and that addition does spell out the instantaneous’s prehistory. But it isn’t continuous with the history in the photograph because its language isn’t photographic. It hasn’t originated in the image; it is only an afterword composed in the language of the photographer. Outside the image frame, separated from it by the confines that define and circumscribe the language of caption, the words of this third language try to mimic a voice — the voice of the photographer, Lewis Wickes Hine — in the act of saying:
Little girl, apparently 6 yrs. old – but didn’t know her name or age – tending stand at Washington and 3rd St. for older sister (#3234). Saloon on corner. 3 P.M. Location: Hoboken, New Jersey.
But in this translation the words telling of a saloon can only be heard and read, not seen in the way a river is seen. Because the saloon lies outside the image, it and the truths of its connotations can only be spoken of through the mediation of language, not known immediately as an icon’s truth is known. Outside the image frame, the words of the translation can only tell us a story of a Christmas when nothing descended from heaven to take form as a name.
And within the frame are no words to flood the image’s mouth and say, “This is my name. After six years I will be able to remember it.” Without the possibility of words, the image is not an icon; it is an instantaneous. The instantaneous is an image that has assumed its form without development through time. It had no mother tongue.
In January 2015, the cyclical history of Martin Heidegger’s post-World War II rehabs and relapses entered a new phase when the chairman of the Martin Heidegger Society resigned his position, stating, “As chairman of a society, which is named after a person, one is in certain way a representative of that person. After reading the Schwarze Hefte, especially the antisemitic passages, I do not wish to be such a representative any longer. These statements have not only shocked me, but have turned me around to such an extent that it has become difficult to be a co-representative of this.” (http://dailynous.com/2015/01/19/germanys-heidegger-society-chair-resigns/)
The phrase Schwarze Hefte (“black notebooks”) refers to a group of previously unpublished manuscripts which are only now appearing in print, on a schedule dictated by Heidegger. The notebooks are bound in black oilcloth, and in the first instance that’s all the word schwarze means. But of course it also has moral connotations. The black notebooks seem to make clear, if anything in Heidegger’s ambit is clear, that racism was one of the fundamental, constitutive parts of his thought.
Well, the history of the Fascist years is filled with stories in the style of Henry James about eminent people shadowed by their past. The reputations of E. M. Cioran and Mircea Eliade, for instance, were at least a little tarnished by their association with the Iron Guard, Romania’s peculiarly nasty Fascist party. On the other hand, the Nazi section of Herbert von Karajan’s curriculum vitae did him no harm in after years. If anything, it only added more excitement to his bad-boy reputation. Until recently, at least, Heidegger’s reputation seemed to luxuriate in an ambiguity strong on both sides, as when he deplored the Holocaust as just another instance of the inauthenticity of plowing with tractors instead of horses like God intended. Unfortunately, history doesn’t seem just now as if it will continue indulging Heidegger’s reluctance to resolve his dilemma. The dilemma itself seems to be little more than silliness on one horn and careerism on the other. But when the moral ambiguities of the Hitlerzeit were forced up against the moral ambiguities of the Cold War era, the human consequence was sometimes larger and more interesting.
In 1950, for instance, the German field marshal Erich von Manstein was convicted of war crimes and sentenced to eighteen years in prison. This was soon reduced to twelve years, and in the event he served only three. Almost immediately after his release, he was recruited to build a new army for West Germany, to be deployed against the enemy in which he had always specialized, the Soviet Union. Thereafter and therefore, official history decreed the former Manstein and his Wehrmacht to have been strictly apolitical, wholeheartedly humane, and motivated only by the ancient military virtues of uprightness and chivalry.
Look, therefore, at this image of the former Manstein leading his Romanian armies against the Bolsheviks.
Postwar, you’re intended to see an apologetic in every element of the composition. Fluently dictating from a prescribed lexicon, it tells you: Marshal Manstein, like his moral compeer Martin Heidegger, was (the phrase enters the mind prefabricated, a brick of cliché) an old-fashioned nationalist. You experience the whole history of the word “old” in his upright posture and stern, unflinching attentiveness to the world, in all of its evil and all of its tragic good. Within this image frame, nothing except the old-fashioned has been allowed to survive. If you try to read through or past or around the image to anything in its background (anything called history, for instance) you’ll probably fail. Standing firm and still within his car, Marshal Manstein is on his way to taking dominion everywhere.
That’s easy to prove. See for yourself: having experienced the image of Marshal Manstein, didn’t you flinch when you began experiencing this other image?
It was captured by the photographer Costică Acsinte (1897-1984), who between 1930 and 1960 operated a studio in a Romanian farm town named Slobozia. After the studio closed, his glass negatives were stored for decades under neglectful conditions until they were rediscovered by another photographer, Cezar Popescu, who is now preserving and cataloging them. His online archive is at http://colectiacosticaacsinte.eu/.
The paragraph you’ve just read is one way of accounting for the image’s history. Another way might be to open a book and start reading about Romania during the 1930s and ’40s, when the photograph was probably taken. A guide to Romanian officers’ uniforms could provide further detail, and in Slobozia there may, even now, survive someone who can attach a name and a war diary to the image of the young man pointing his pistol at someone not visible in this image at this time — someone who happens to be standing to the right of the photographer.
What expression is on the face of the person facing the muzzle of the officer’s automatic? The officer is backed by a set from The Seagull or The Cherry Orchard, with flowers bordering a window and a door, but we’ll never learn who is about to walk forward from the camera’s vantage, speak the password that will make the officer reholster his gun, and enter the scene. Such an entrance would be an event. If the word could be spoken, the young man could relax his vigilance and begin speaking in his own turn. Until then, however, he can be nothing but a Manstein: a shape on photosensitive paper, serving a purpose off-camera.
His time on camera is short, too. Even as he waits for his event to begin, time is peeling his form away from its transparent backing. A break in the image’s continuity has already opened itself right across his eyes. He won’t be able to keep watch within the image frame much longer, and behind the image’s transparent support there seems to be nothing but dark. Still, the dark has a grammatical force of its own. Radiating forward to the image, it keeps it from communicating off camera. On camera, the officer’s uniform, a symbol written in a specialized code, may say “nationalism,” but it doesn’t seem able to translate the sentimental off-camera adjective “old-fashioned.” That which is old-fashioned is either thought to be dead or thought to be dying, and the historical record between Heidegger’s time and ours seems to show that the man with the pistol will live forever, just as he is imaged on camera here and now. The old-fashioned nationalist will never live to become old-fashioned because he isn’t going to die.
Sooner or later, too, we who still live in history may be able to imagine the pistol swinging in our direction. If that act of the imagination becomes possible, we will know that in this image Costică Acsinte achieved a work of art worthy of art’s terrible task of outliving.
It’s the nature of their profession: most journalists are forgotten as soon as history has erased the events they recreated as words. The British journalist W. T. Stead has a place in the history of Victorian social reform, but if he’s remembered outside that subject area (Library of Congress class HN, “social reform”) it’s probably only for his death. Clio once told us about that event, and people still care to remember: wordy Mr. Stead rode to his wordless end in the Titanic on a first-class ticket, no. 113514, for which he paid 26 pounds 11 shillings.
Of the events before the voyage, less survives. That’s probably why I didn’t receive the communication when I first saw George Frederic Watts’s “The Minotaur.”
Click to enlarge.
I knew the story of Pasiphae’s monstrous son, but in this image I saw only a horned and wistful prisoner. The term “hybridity” was fashionable in my profession a few years ago, and here was the hybrid himself, gazing forlornly from his parapet.
Night coming tenderly,
Black like me.
But yes, I am a member of the profession. I knew that Watts is conventionally considered a symbolist artist, so I proceeded to look up his symbol. It was right there, too, in its holding institution’s institutional footnote.
Watts, an allegorical painter who employed art to convey moral messages, uses the character of the Minotaur to signify man’s bestiality and especially male lust. The making and meaning of The Minotaur can be traced to the social purity crusades against child prostitution, which led in 1885 to the passing of the Criminal Law Amendment Act and the raising of the age of consent from thirteen to sixteen. In the forefront of these crusades was the figure of W.T. Stead (1849-1912), whose series of articles on the London trade in child prostitution were published in the Pall Mall Gazette in July 1885 under the title ‘The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’. Stead’s explicit references to the Greek myth of the Minotaur throughout his exposé reputedly inspired the subject of Watts’s painting: ‘The appetite of the minotaur of London is insatiable’, wrote Stead; ‘If the daughters of the people must be served up as dainty morsels to minister to the passions of the rich, let them at least attain an age when they can understand the nature of the sacrifice which they are asked to make’ (quoted in Mathews, p.339). Watt’s close friend Mrs Russell Barrington records how The Minotaur was painted with unusual rapidity early one morning in response to ‘a painful subject’ that ‘had filled one of the evening papers’; almost certainly the Pall Mall Gazette (Barrington, pp.38-9). When The Minotaur was first shown, at the Liverpool Autumn exhibition of 1885, Watts explained that his aim in painting it had been ‘to hold up to detestation the bestial and brutal’ (quoted in Art Journal, 1885, p.322).
And I had failed to detest. Watts’s image of the Minotaur was created with an explicit intention, as part of a social context current as of 1885, and because I didn’t know my 1885 I derived an experience out of keeping with the intention. I saw a picture, but I was meant to see an illustration.
That failure of mine wasn’t just a failure of history; it was also a failure of grammar. I should have recalled that when an image bears a title that is explicitly allusive, like “The Minotaur,” that title is a predication: a statement of doing, being, or occurring. Some of those predications are even independent clauses, uttering their allusions as if they possessed stand-alone significance. Millais’s “Ferdinand Lured by Ariel,” for instance, shows us a Ferdinand, an Ariel, and a luring: object, subject, and verb. The sentence encodes an explicit intention. It means to translate a Shakespearean stage direction into body language.
Even if the image’s title is only a noun phrase, literary context can provide an understood verb to complete the predication. In the nature of language, we can’t see Hunt’s “Lady of Shalott” crying, “The curse is come upon me,” but we can see that her web is floating wide and her mirror is crack’d from side to side. The lady’s words can’t be illustrated, but the poet’s words can. Tennyson’s poem is still ubiquitous in print, too, so the lady is still employed as a cover girl by The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Victorian volume. From there she reminds us of our duty to understand what she’s saying.
But copies of The Pall Mall Gazette from the Victorian era have lost their ubiquity. Because the world stopped being Victorian before I was born, I couldn’t understand a priori that when Watts painted his Minotaur he was obeying the rules of at least three grammars: one grounded in classical mythology, another grounded in the classrooms of Eton and Oxford, and a third grounded upon the street grid of Dickens’s London. Unable to access any of those grammars except the first, I could only see Watts’s image as an image. It is actually an illustration, but until I read the words of a curator’s annotation I couldn’t know that because I didn’t know what it was an illustration of.
That is, I’d made the anachronistic mistake of failing to read a Victorian image by the rules of language. Watts painted his language picture in the Victorian era, and it wasn’t until five years after Queen Victoria’s death that Pablo Picasso first saw language as a blemish on his working surfaces. In 1906, on the canvas Picasso was preparing to receive a portrait of his friend Gertrude Stein, language had left its preemptive mark: the illustrative word of. In 1906, Picasso erased it. Modeling the face of his portrait not on Miss Stein but on an African mask where the representation was built up from a simple array of geometric shapes on a disc, Picasso achieved, for the first time in history, a picture that renounced any claim to be a picture of — of Gertrude Stein or of anyone or anything else. Thenceforth, forever, if an image took dominion over a space, it took dominion on its own terms, not language’s. If an image’s title happened to look like a predication, that appearance too was a part of the image. No grammar can slip you through the mesh of Marcel Duchamp’s wire cage full of little marble cubes, the one titled “Why Not Sneeze?” There is nothing in that cage but more cage. Wonderfully, Wallace Stevens’s Tennessee turned out not to have had to be anything but a parallelogram.
But the parallelogram you see here isn’t a Stevens. It’s still an illustration, still the artifact of a journalistic, pre-Picasso way of seeing. It still retains an of: an of whose shape is an exception to the rule of parallelogram. The exception has taken the form of a date written by fiat into the parallelogram: 1944. Nineteen forty-four was the year when Jews in France began taking off the yellow fiat star that Gertrude Stein had never been forced to wear. In parallelogram-shaped Tennessee, that same year, a painter wrote an unanswerable question on a billboard. It will have to be history, not poetry, that teaches us to read it.
The Tennessee billboard bearing that question was in Oak Ridge, where minutes did count in 1944 but words didn’t happen to be the normative way of counting. In 1944 Oak Ridge was in a special language district, under the seal of silence. Secretly, a large-scale deconstruction avant la lettre was under way there: a tinkering with the grammar of the periodic table with the intention of producing a nuclear bomb. Oak Ridge’s work of fission, current within nature’s labyrinth as of 1944, remains current within the labyrinth today. But today we can tour the labyrinth and then move on to the art museum, talking as we go. The souvenir we pick up there may be museological, too: an experience to put on a bookshelf with our other words. The next time we pull them down and read them, they will be unstoppably on their way into a past. Looking back at them as they recede, realizing that even from the past they will still call to us, we may conclude that poets, even after Stein and Stevens, won’t find it as easy as painters did after Picasso to erase the incriminating word of. Perhaps the unsayable things of 1944 or 1885 will always recur: unforgotten, unforgettable, but still unsayable. From any new poem something will always have just escaped and returned to the library where the old words are. Fugitive but secure there, it will claim to be the permanent property of a grammar not yet released to understanding. From the labyrinth it will still call out:
“I am not guilty of what you see around you. I have become absent from that now. I am only an image. I am only an image of.”
Images by Watts, Millais, and Hunt from 120 Great Victorian Fantasy Paintings CD-ROM and Book (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2009).
Pulled up from the archive of the Bain News Service, the couple look around at the borders of their image: he to his left, she to her right. Their negative is labeled “Brookes,” but Bain’s caption card is labeled with a misspelling: “Norman Brooks and wife.”
The Library of Congress, which now holds this trace of Mr. and Mrs Brookes, notes that the caption card is also undated. Between us and the past, there isn’t always a traversable way in the archive. However, a number in what looks like American date form can be seen within this archived image, upside down and in mirror image on Mrs. Brookes’s left arm, and Photoshop can help us at least break the code of its numeric value.
If this number phrase does mean “December 28, 1920,” and if it refers to the date the photograph was taken — if — then it may possess the power to recombine with other information in the archive and rebuild a small factual content. Norman Brookes, says Wikipedia, was a rich Australian businessman (1877-1968). His wife was named Mabel. Since Norman and Mabel are posed here in summer clothes and sunshine, it may be that this December photograph was taken in Australia, during the Australian summer.
More: since Norman and Mabel seem to be on board ship, the newspaper archives of an Australian port city might hold the date of their voyage. Perhaps, too, a fashion historian could take a look at the Brookeses’ clothes and say whether they were what an upper-class Australian couple would have worn in December 1920. Combined, the date and the facts about the ship and the facts about the clothes might at least place the Brookeses in a moment in their time, as in a picture.
Nevertheless, I can’t ask the only question worth asking about the picture I actually have. Yes, of course: what is that look on Mabel Brookes’s face? I’ve been killing time here in the library as people do, delaying the issue like Mr. Casaubon in order to avoid looking straight on at a woman’s face as it manifests an event — an event that may equally be something terrible or something trivial. (A sudden fear of having forgotten to pack something? A sudden horror of the heavy-jawed man looking away from her as he presses from behind against her body?) But you can understand my excuse for holding back this way to play with my solved Photoshop puzzle. At every other encoding in this history picture, there are too many indecipherables. Looking for the last time at the image with its one surviving word scrawled at the top, I can learn from it only a truth that I don’t know how to see.
But what if a photograph comes to me begging to be seen, begging for the chance to teach me what it is? What if it has composed itself with multiple redundancies, fail-safe equipment specifically meant to repeat a lesson, over and over, in how to see?
“Unidentified girl in mourning dress holding framed
photograph of her father as a cavalryman with sword and
Hardee hat. Digital file from original item, tonality adjusted.” http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.36863
Taken during or shortly after the American Civil War, this image is a tintype: a photograph made by a popular nineteenth-century process whose prints were typically small and low-contrast but durable and inexpensive. When this particular tintype was created, however, expense probably wasn’t an issue. Before the image went on display, somebody bought an elaborate frame for it and paid to have one particular color painted in: the gold of the little girl’s locket and the cross-shaped pins that hold her two mourning ribbons to her sleeves. The idea must have been durability: the durability of a memory that can never die.
The locket, in accordance with the century’s etiquette of mourning, would quite likely have held a lock of the dead man’s hair. Its necklace appears to be of some rough fiber, but I can’t tell what: perhaps yarn braided by the little girl? or her hair, as in O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi”? And then, of course, within this photograph there’s another photograph: the image of the dead father himself, centering the visual composition and giving it a human meaning. We know Mabel Brookes’s name and we could learn something about her life if we tried, but we can’t know the meaning of the look on her face. “Unidentified girl in mourning dress” is exactly Mabel Brookes’s antonym. We don’t know a thing about what’s called her life, but in her picture frame she’s surrounded by a library of cultural reference stocked with all the cues we’ll need to warrant us in saying, “The little girl is sad.”
So we go ahead and say, “The little girl is sad.” It feels right, and as we say it we feel sad ourselves. It would seem mean not to. Once more, art has done its moral number on us.
This is blue stain, an obstacle faced by photographers in the pre-digital era. In this case, it was caused by a reaction between the developing agent and the tintype’s sheet-iron backing. Art has nothing to do with it; its manifestations of itself to us are governed only by the unalterable laws of chemistry. Our art reaction, “The little girl is sad,” turns out to have been mediated by a process that the Library of Congress calls “tonality adjusted”: a protection of art and its delicacies from certain inhuman truths that the chemical reaction could have made us see.
The particular truth of this image, for instance, is that it is blue; will be, in time, nothing but blue. Like Stevens’s jar, the blue takes dominion everywhere. The little girl is being submerged in it and made as inscrutable, there below its surface, as Mabel Brookes. If we thought we understood the anecdote that the tintype was telling us about itself and its cultural matrix, we were betrayed by the faux amis of translation.
But look at the blue and sink astonished into its reservoir of wordless surprise. As Gertrude Stein said about Picasso and his discovery that a picture is not a picture of but simply an arrangement of form and color, “One sees what one sees.” Here the punchline is that one waits to see the picture go to its completion, break free of even the memory of image, and become the blue.