Keats and Shklovsky at the zoo

It was a windy day in Honolulu, but I stilled the air by shooting at 1/2000 second. In my hands, a camera’s mechanism recorded an image of whipping fronds immobilized and fixed to an image plane. That record now presents you the option of glancing at the plane, closing your eyes, and no longer seeing the imaged trees but experiencing them as optical illusion and as thought. A bug in the thinking part, however, is that in this instance the mind you think with happens to be vacationing in a tourist economy. Because people were paying to see these palms and these clouds long before you arrived on your own ticket, your own first view of them wasn’t really first and your belief in what you saw on first impression was an oversight. Whatever followed for you from that, whatever idea of palm, was aborted by irony before it had a chance to communicate. Did a Norton Anthology of Poetry word such as tresses recall itself to your memory, for instance? Sorry, that won’t work now. Your memory has already been polluted by poems and shampoo commercials, and the only honest reading of tresses will be a flatfooted dumbing-back-down to trees.

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And it won’t even be your own unique dumbing-down. After all, every Saturday of every year along the fence around the Honolulu Zoo, artists sell pictures to tourists of what tourists have come to Honolulu to see: viz., palm trees. The artists call the pictures “real oil paintings,” and the only thing false about that claim is the plural marker at the end of paintings. In reality, of course, there is only one painting, repainted weekly by different painters. Its vacationing buyers buy it as a visual mnemonic, to remind them that once in the presence of a palm they experienced the miracle of first. But a mass-produced memory (the industrial term is souvenir) is perennial: experienced in community, like language, and expressible, like language, only through symbols (paint marks; words) that preexist it. How can it be reconciled with first?

John Keats’s solution was to assimilate first by simile into the continuum of beginnings across time. When Keats’s Cortez stared for the first time at the Pacific Ocean, he was on the brink of realizing that first can also, wonderfully! be all along (like the ocean) and, an instant afterward, forever (like the ocean) — and I (says Keats) felt a moment ago, in the presence of Homer, as Cortez once, for the first time, felt, and thenceforth began to feel forever. I can never feel that way again; I can never not feel that way again.

But the left side of my own composition is palmless.

In the tourist economy, the palms in my composition are also compositions: plantings at a shopping center. If I were to post their picture uncropped, you’d see that at their base is a gas station and to their right is a Starbuck’s. But, per Viktor Shklovsky, who said, “Art is the way of experiencing artfulness,” I cropped. Out of negative space I carved a diptych of trees and, on the other hand, sky. Then, for good measure, I modified my image’s pixels with controls bearing such names as Vibrance / saturation and Graduated neutral density filter. If that manipulation was aesthetically productive, you may have experienced a catch in the throat which you took to be a consequence of tropical light. But if the catch did come, it came as an aftermath of something planned and deliberate and related to the photomechanically produced surface of the picture, not the living palm.

Because you know now that you’ve known that truth all along, you’ll never again be able to experience the peak in Darien in silence. You’ll have to recognize that a camera and a computer have been up there with you all along. You might as well climb back down to sea level. On the other hand, down there you might as well also stop looking for trees in the painting you bought at the zoo and start looking for oil. But that too, it will turn out, has been there all along, and this all along will be seen to be all to the good.

A real oil painting: the picture has always told you that truth about itself. To the veteran wildcatter Viktor Shklovsky, I dare say, whatever is within its frame looks like a real gusher. His investment advice will be to see the picture’s paint as paint and let it make you wealthy in oil’s own way.

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Dogmatic note: Shklovsky’s epigram from “Art as Technique” is usually translated as “Art is a way of experiencing artfulness.” But Shklovsky wrote in Russian, a language without direct equivalents to the English words a and the, and I’ve taken that as my warrant for preferring the.

Don’t read. Look in the mirror.

The historic photograph seems to display no published provenance, and its online caption is obviously a late addition. “German fraternity mirror selfie, 1912,” say the caption’s words. There are only five of them, and they offer no more reward for reading than that. No other names inhabit the caption: names of the boys, names of their corps or their university, locations of their future battlefield graves. At that, three words of the caption’s five aren’t even interesting. Online — for instance, at

http://www.reddit.com/r/HistoryPorn/comments/3bqiwg/german_fraternity_mirror_selfie_1912_1024x683/ ,

where I encountered the image on July 3, 2015 — the comment stream spawns dutiful ironies about the proximity of the phrase “German fraternity” to the date “1912,” and those you don’t have to read because you already know. Oh yes: just two years after 1912 will come 1914, and little do they know, these tragic boys in their lead-soldier uniforms. The commenters in their stream find this thought exciting, but perhaps it has previously occurred.

And whether you were among the excited or the unexcited, the idea’s bedazzling undergraduate words might almost convince you not to bother looking at the image they refer to. Nevertheless, the image still does cling to the caption’s border. Pathetically, it even tries to reach a little mirror up from the page and tempt us to look in, as if it had something to show us about ourselves. Look, it pleads; look with my help at the caption’s word no. 3 of 5, the one you’re skimmed past. In the mirror, look for an idea of mirror.

If you humor the request and do look, you’ll discover that during the instant when it made itself seen between two surfaces of a mirrored space, the camera in the picture began showing you an image and then didn’t stop. What the mirrored camera began bringing to light in 1912 is an image not only of the dead fraternity boys but of you who look at them now, you who are said to be alive.

I’ve photoshopped the faded original of this image for contrast, but I haven’t reversed its mirror property. Having been made a part of the image’s settings by the boy with the camera, that wasn’t in my prerogative to change. So the boys with their historical apparatus dated 1912 — the rifle, the bugle, the drinking horn, the scar-inflicting sword — continue looking now the way Alice looked at the moment she exited from our world. The world she entered then has grown more familiar by the day since its discovery by Lewis Carroll, but the world of this photograph is now unfamiliar henceforth. Somewhere in Germany, one day in 1912, a boy with a camera sealed himself and four of his friends behind glass and pumped out the time.

Out of time behind his glass, the boy is now holding the camera’s cable release clear of the imaging apparatus. It’s a long one; he has passed its plunger button all the way behind his back from his left hand to his right, which one day in 1912 held it up to the mirror while a last instant of pre-image history was changed with a click to something else. Something else has been among us ever since. It is the other half of our mirror image: the half that does not change and will not die.

And within its glass, bounded at the front by our world and at the back by the surface that reflects us back to ourselves, is the reaction zone where the two halves of the image, the mortal and the immortal, face each other. Looking at images every day, we cross the zone hour by hour in both directions. We’re as blasé about the daily trip as commuters, and maybe that’s why we turn away from the windows and look around our transport for something to read. If we’re beyond being moved to a sense of the real by a silent image, we may still be movable to excitement by a caption shouting at us like a CNN talker with time to kill. But perhaps there is a route across the zone that lets the traveler disembark for a moment, look around, and become alive to the zone’s interesting dangers. After all, Alice once took the route, and told us how. The secret of her itinerary seems to be a simple one, at least in principle. It may be this: just stop when the signs change to transparent.