Shirtless young man, in profile. Shaved head, with earring. Obese hairless body, with perhaps a dozen tattoos plus several ornamental keloids. If the creature is looking at anything in particular, it’s been cropped out of the image. If he has any particular expression on his face, it’s inscrutable. Caption: “James on the bank of the James river, Richmond, Virginia, 2012.”
The monochrome image, from Vanessa Winship’s book She Dances on Jackson, comes to us online from a blogpost by the Australian photographer Gary Sauer-Thompson at
It’s followed by this comment (by Winship? by Sauer-Thompson?): “The loneliness and melancholy in American life is created by the pursuit of the American dream.”
Perhaps the comment might be more fastidiously convincing if its verb form were corrected from is to are. But what it fundamentally lacks is an audio. The pronoun “You Americans” is required by cliché tradition in a caption like this one, and it should preferably be spoken in a Viennese accent through a cloud of cigarette smoke. In my ideal fantasy the speaker is the late Anton Walbrook, speaking as he immortally spoke in The Red Shoes: “Vun does nut keh to prrhectice vunce rrrrhelichn in an atmosphère such ez ZIS.”
Accompanied by language such as that, both the caption and its image could get interesting.
In the meantime, however, look. Look, see, and revere the emblem of the term obiter dictum, with Moira Shearer immortally reflected in its shades.
From Blake Andrews, this lesson from a master.
Erratum: as of June 28, 2013, clicking on Blake Andrews’ blog returns only a “Blog not found” message from Blogger. But the full title of the post above was “Subjects Rarely or Never Shot by Garry Winogrand,” and the post consisted solely of a numbered list of post-Winogrand, post-Robert Frank cliché subjects, such as bleak deserts, rusty old cars, and mentally ill people on the street. It was a nice piece of Winograndian irony, deadpan in the midst of all the noise. While the machine is to us, here’s another try.
When push comes to shove, as it has, I read Stein’s war years as a survivor’s tale. Jewish, female, homosexual, elderly (Stein was 66 in 1940), living in occupied France, Stein and Alice Toklas successfully escaped extermination. That is something for which we can be grateful. And I’m also glad that, by hook or by crook, Stein’s art collection was not looted by the Nazis. In the end, Stein was able to go on to write her great feminist opera, The Mother of Us All, a celebration of American democracy.
— Charles Bernstein, “Gertrude Stein’s War Years: Setting the Record Straight.” http://jacket2.org/commentary/gertrude-steins-war-years-setting-record-straight
Text 1: “When push comes to shove, as it has.” Writing in defense of Gertrude Stein’s politics of survival in Vichy France, Charles Bernstein opens with a cliché (“setting the record straight”), then doubles down. “When push comes to shove” is another cliché, and a bad one: a dead metaphor, one that won’t bear being brought back to life in the same body language as Vichy words like “Drancy” or “Vélodrome d’Hiver.” But Bernstein’s giggly postscript “as it has” deconstructs the corpse. “Of course I know better,” says that little verbal tag. “Notice how wittily detached I am from any simple-minded idea that words can have a non-verbal reference. Of course I know that if the record is a record, it can’t be set straight.”
As a career move, that has been a winner for Bernstein. Romping through fields of crumpled newsprint, Bernstein texts like “Of Time and the Line” or the sublime “this poem intentionally left blank” (which I have now quoted in its entirety) bestow on their readers the great gift of knowing laughter. There’s no guilty “but” to follow that happiness, either. Bernstein’s poems are language in its pure animal function, eating and sleeping and reproducing and then lying down to die in unafraid unconsciousness. Bernstein’s is a poetry with its own “The End” built in.
Text 2: “By hook or by crook.” Art is inseparable from art collecting, and art collecting is inseparable from crookery. That’s how the Elgin Marbles got to England. At smaller scales, of course, the crookery can get uncomfortable. It may even involve pushing and shoving. Some of Gertrude Stein’s coreligionists discovered that when they returned home after the war and tried to move back into their looted houses.
Kielce, Poland, July 1946
Text 3: “Stein’s art collection was not looted by the Nazis.” Some kinds of looting, some kinds of pushing and shoving, are preferable to others. Lots of women had to suffer for Pablo Picasso’s art. Lots of men had to die for Andrew Carnegie’s libraries. Presumably the suffering and dying wound up with a market value after all. The cliché under the surface of Bernstein’s sentence is something like “On ne fait pas d’omelette sans casser des oeufs.”
Punchline: “How am I? Oi, don’t ask.” Specifically, don’t ask why the collection wasn’t looted, because the answer will only be another cliché. This one will just lie there on the page, too: unmeaning because unconscious. It has been spoken by many thousands of people over the years, sometimes in complete sincerity, and yet not one of those thousands could think through to a definition of any of its terms. In that sense, it is dead language — that is, language which was born unmeaning, language which therefore can never be a poem.
But since you have asked, reader: Stein’s art collection was not looted by the Nazis because it was under the protection of a powerful Nazi crook named Bernard Faÿ. Together, Faÿ and Stein collaborated in their own special translation, from one dead language into another, of the text “Some of my best friends are Jews.”