In 1916, wings could still be translucent. Their delicate black markings were shadows of a metaphor for the term endoskeleton. At each tip, these particular wings also shadowed a purely human term: Germany’s black Iron Cross.
On the record, these wings and this thorax are black and white. One of the black and white men accumulating before the lower wing is wearing the tunic ribbon of the Iron Cross, but in 1916 that too would have been black and white. The other tunics are in various 1916 instars: some accurately following contours of flesh and bone, others shaped by the now dead; all black and white.
But in the white space between two of the human bodies hangs a cross in blue. At the time it was inked onto the Rostock print somebody intended it to refer to one or the other of the bodies, but nobody now can tell which. Separated by a shared white space, the black and white bodies are in the midst of an uninked record. The inked cross suspended in the white looks like what we readers think of as an X, but it is the X in an alphabet that can no longer be read. We receive it now only as a shape combined with a color. The color is the color of a sky no longer perturbable by wing.
Once upon a time a U.S. Navy radioman named C. W. Allen served on seaplanes based at the Panama Canal Zone and flew with a camera. His photo album is now in the archives of the San Diego Air and Space Museum and viewable online at
It includes this image of the Navy zeppelin Shenandoah traversing the canal in 1924 or 1925 with its mooring ship Patoka. I’ve previously posted some attempts at reconstructing it, but because editing software keeps improving, the merely historical interest of the original,
grows only more attenuated by the year. It’s small, its resolution is low, some of it has been whited out by the corner stickers that Radioman Allen used to glue it into his album, and every time it’s reseen its aesthetic sense becomes harder to experience in the emotional form of memory. Think of the surface noise of its epoch. It was bad then, even before vinyl and then digital. Now . . .
Now, in the workroom of a mortuary, you wouldn’t be able to hear this waltz if it were played over the speakers — not as you would have heard it in its own epoch. Now, instead, you’ll be under obligation to look down at the table where a silent waxwork has been made to appear.
And if something then starts sounding through you, you won’t be able to silence it. The sound coming from your mouth will be an affront to the silence of the past, but it won’t be motivated by any intent, bad or good. It will be a sound that can’t help itself. Think back. Beside the waters of the Zone, a mechanism was wound up with a crank, a needle descended on a spinning shellac surface — right? — and a song welled up automatically.
This business day in the mortuary, you think, “I sound like I’m alive!”
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.
The squire’s coverall is shiny with grease. His shoes are made of wood. His dark eyes are sunken and shadowed.
Standing between him and the slender knight he serves is a piece of high folk art: a coat of arms elaborated to teach Catholic France what its knights of the air live for. In the artwork, the body of one of France’s enemies has been brought back to earth, mockingly flattened out beneath a cross, and dropped between altar candles and the sign of the danse macabre. All around this composition the artist has drawn the sign of a heart, perhaps to signify that he lives on in control over the vanquished dead. But if this icon is a sacred heart, it is a lighthearted one.
Mais qu’il est jeune! qu’il est droit! comme il tient fièrement sa lance!
Qu’il fait de plaisir à voir dans le soleil, plein de menaces et d’élégance,
Tel que le bon écuyer qui soutient son maître face-à-face,
L’Ange . . . !
Paul Claudel, “Strasbourg” (1913)
One level up, mounted on a wing above the companions, is the Lady they live to serve: a Lewis machine gun like the one that Jay Gatsby once told his squire Nick about. But this has arrived in the airy zone from outside the angelic order. As her image teaches you, Lewis the mitrailleuse — American-designed, British-made — is sole black steel. She is spectrally far from the rose comme une fiancée of Claudel’s cathedral stone.
But through her solitude she lives. Here in her prose she still is: as sun-touched on the photographic record now as she was then, in about 1916, when a curtain was drawn to open her dark closet for men to see. Age after age, libraries’ worth of history have burned to the muddy ground of Europe, but the opening to returning light always restores gleam to the ruins and their dead.
Compare the expressions of the man at the controls and the woman being controlled.
Then imagine the Marquis de Sade in a state of meditative connoisseurship, contemplating Srta. Riviero’s calves as she rises into the air, lashed. Her knotted binding may be a bridal garment at its symbolic work of standing for. The conception comes to the marquis. Ever after, the white symbol may stand for control. Ever after, it may inflict.