A portraitist sees flesh quantitatively, like a butcher.
In the course of professionally seeing flesh the artist may come to know desire, but his job is to look past what he knows to what he only sees: flesh’s light and color and shape. Because he has starved his senses in the brutal slimming salon of formalism, we customers of his ordeal have been enabled to look at the formal result and say things like, “She looks like she’s alive.” Working the artist’s diet in reverse, we who behold the art have purchased the sensation of flesh rewarmed under a heat lamp.
Back then, back there in the kitchen, the artist worked at a first remove from the space outside, manipulating not a bodily sense of things plein-air but an abstract model of sight made of stone or paint or pixels. In the same way, a historian works at a first remove from time. He works not with event and perception as they occur but in the afterthought of event and perception that’s called retrospect. The artist defamilarizes the spatial, making the appearance of the hitherto real seem different and then replacing it with a counter-reality. The historian defamiliarizes the temporal, replacing the mind’s external sense of is with was and then with a purely mental construct, because. With the advent of because, a newly living past kills a newly dead present. What happened is replaced by an idea of what happened.
So consider this body under two aspects in sequence: first as seen absolutely and without the mediation of thought (by, for instance, an artist) and then, in retrospect, as a relation between words (by, for instance, a historian of words.)
First the perception: a body seen. This is a prehistory.
Second, the perception’s translation into words. A general title for such words might be histoire: a French term that means both “history” and “story.” Of all possible histoires, here’s one.
You can read it with your Larousse.
As the word-seeds blow, a matinee metaphor in the present will be seen to have sown an image in the past. Now, with the reading of the metaphor’s words, the curtain before the image rises and an idol begins presiding over its altar. Now is now happily ever after. The image has become a god to be believed in. “He looks like he could be in a movie,” the customers think — and if the artwork has been powerful enough, could be is replaced in their minds by ought to be or even in my bed last night, in a dream, was. A faithful belief in a reality has come into being, even if the stone body newly fallen on the dreaming customer’s pillow doesn’t happen to be warm to the touch.
A tiny moth was fluttering at the curtain. George leaped up from my bed, curved through the air, swallowed the moth in a single muscular ensemble, continued ascending for a moment, clawed himself, swinging, onto the curtain, and then jumped back down. He landed on my head, leaving my scalp gashed in two curving lines.
A few hours later, the rising sun revealed him to be remorseless.
There was nothing I could do except to make a record of the occurrence and then go pessimistic about its effect. Art tells everyone who tries to look into it, “Remember me all you want, but I won’t remember.” Then it adds: “Even if I were not a picture but a poem made of words appearing to speak, I wouldn’t speak. Unlike you who copied me down, I am gone from your memory. I am elsewhere in time now, and the chasm that opened between me and you at the moth-moment can never be bridged. Forever after, anyone who looks at me will become a casualty of the void. Art’s double function is first to fill the void with false memory and then to reforge that fiction into a tool for outliving with.”
Between 1925 and 1958 it went through 36 editions (Veselá 105). Every time the party line changed, the author changed his story, and he kept changing it until death claimed him. Long before then, it had became a canonical paradigm of the Socialist-Realist novel.
And in after years the revisions underwrote rereadings, like this sample snapshot in time.
But passim, when their changeable language tried to change itself from dead to living through metaphors like “stormy blood,” it tended to mean words like “blood” as unchangingly as could be, in words that were themselves always stably dead. Liv Tadge’s translation (the 1981 edition quoted above) omits the word, but in the biology of Cement, cement is always to be mixed with blood. That’s one of the constants of this novel, no matter what the edition. When bodies are imagined as if outside the blood-red band of the spectrum, they are to be tinted a mere livor mortis.
The contrast between red and unred happens to be a little hard to see in Raduga’s Cement typography, because the only color in its presses for that run was extratextual: the green of the page numbers. Everything else about the prose was a uniform gray.
In Gladkov’s time, movies too were generally monochrome. But the cement in this 1933 movie poster is not a single shade of Gladkov gray. It is radiantly spectral.
That’s because Mikhail Dlugach, the designer of the poster, did his work of envisioning under the lights of a different spectrum: one meant to illuminate a studio, not a library. Because they were created under that regime, the stairs that lead the eye upward from words to a smiling unspeaking face are Constructivist, and the shadow of the human that has been left behind by the ascent is Expressionist. The unspeaking face’s cosmetics too come from a silent repository: the cabinet of Dr. Caligari. But the dentistry that constructs its smile is the artifact of an aesthetic dating from long after the time of Tatlin’s tower and Wiene’s asylum. In fact, the poster suggests that the smile isn’t even attributable to dentistry. For that humble domestic science its scale is too vast. On the poster’s lavishly laid down slabs of color it erects itself like a heroic architecture, and as an architecture its relation in scale to the human it is not 1920s Expressionist but 1960s Brutalist.
So think now, in the aftermath of the Brutalist era, of how the sound of your stormy pulse might have reechoed from the walls of a Brutalist bedroom where you and Comrade Dasha had shared the concrete mattress. One of the purposes of modern architecture since at least the days of Le Corbusier has been social control, explicitly stated as theory (in, for instance, Le Corbusier’s Vers une architecture), and Socialist Realist fiction provided a way to translate the theory’s language of instruction from body to text. Raise your eyelids and grin, the translated schema instructs the body waiting on its postcoital cinderblock. Then look out the window, sight down the barrel of your rifle at that string quartet in the distance, and aim.
This is how William Blake understood art at the end of his life, in 1826 or 1827.
As of the early twenty-first century, this is one of the fortresses where art is watched over by Fasolt and Fafner, the giants who once decreed that the gold of the Rhine be piled so high it would hide Brünnhilde from view. Click the link for details and investment advice.
But the architecture had been anticipated by Blake. Look up top and see: