Or, sadomasochism of black and white.
In 1930, in his early middle age, William Faulkner bought an unoccupied nineteenth-century house in his Mississippi home town. The next year he gave it a name, Rowan Oak, and began the remodeling that would occupy the remainder of his life there. As the transformation into an ancestral estate went forward, the estate’s on-site storyteller devised a tradition for it: every evening at dinnertime, one of the family retainers would parade the main course around the table before setting it down. Perhaps the idea was that this would mark the end of one day and the beginning of the next, for always.
Before dinner, the Modernist storyteller had been teaching language some things about time that would make tradition obsolete. In that telling, Quentin Compson had begun the day of his death by tearing the hands off his father’s watch.
Chris Wiley’s essay “What Old Money Looks Like in America, and Who Pays For It,”
introduces the work of Buck Ellison, who photographs carefully staged tableaux of models wearing the very best of understated fashion in the very best of settings, with every blade of grass on the putting green just so and the outdoor or indoor weather always perfect. Before the first image reveals itself, the prose prepares us this way for the responsibility of seeing it.
It’s the cut of the jacket that’s the dead giveaway. The graceful arc it draws above the woman’s waistline looks architecturally engineered, its hourglass effect enhanced by tastefully wide peaked lapels. The fabric, too, looks sumptuous. Cashmere? Probably.
Wiley mentions in passing that Ellison is gay, and the import of this deadpan scrapbook seems to be a travesti like the Trockadero Ballet — a travesti with all the wistfulness of an anatomically male body forcing itself onto pointe but none of the forced hysterical laughter. What’s being acted out through Ellison’s images isn’t at all gentle, but it is acted quietly.
After all, it is acted in The New Yorker, whose language is written in a traditional script. To the native speakers of The New Yorker’s dialect, the discreet but firmly lodged diereses in coöperate and reëlect are to be heard only at the overtones of their natural frequencies, and the ostensibly nonfictional is punctuated at strictly observed canonical intervals with understatedly Homeric descriptions of the characters’ clothes. These details of house style are themes, and they claim a moral purport. Other languages will change, says the house style to itself about itself, but I am as classic as changeless Roman marble. Simultaneously, on the advertising pages, capital is at romp, melting all that is solid into air.
In this 1849 print by Nathaniel Currier, one of the men at the foot of George Washington’s deathbed is identified as “Quaker, an intimate friend of Washington.” Perhaps out of Quaker modesty, his name is not named and his face is not shown. But we know the style he would speak in this silent image, because he is wearing the small-clothes of a gentleman at the end of the eighteenth century.
The other man’s face does show. The man is identified, too: with a euphemism, “Domestic.” But that is a mere pleonasm, because after all the man’s color reveals half of the unnamed truth of what he is.
The clothes reveal the other half. Close enough to the body of the father of his country to love but never to have been loved, this is a sans-culotte.
Bernard Faÿ, a French Modernist man of letters, saved the lives of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas during World War II by letting them live, rent-free, in his house in the unoccupied zone. He wasn’t using it himself at the time because he was occupied in administering both the Bibliothètheque Nationale and the Pétain government’s anti-Masonic program. At war’s end, he was one of the bitter-end collaborationists sheltered by the Nazis at Sigmaringen. After the war he escaped from prison with suspicious ease and crossed the French border into Switzerland, where he picked up his career where he had left off and spent the remainder of his professional life at the University of Fribourg.
There he continued his long collaboration with another right-wing Catholic, the Fribourgeois man of letters Gonzague de Reynold. The Fribourg years came and went, and de Reynold marked their passage with a tradition of his own: on special occasions, in the gallery-crypt where the culottes of his ancestors were preserved, he opened the chest and dressed up.
How but in custom and in ceremony
Are innocence and beauty born?
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.
St. Julien’s face is all animated agony. As an image, it could have been conceived by Cowper or Blake, passionately tender men of the late eighteenth century whose ways of thinking about animals were contemporary with Beethoven’s first analyses of the bonds between chord structure and emotion. As St. Julien runs the track of this 1880 Currier & Ives lithograph, his tail spills like an arpeggio into the lap of Orrin A. Hikok, and if Orrin A. Hikok hadn’t been signing his name in 1880 with a late-nineteenth-century middle initial he might have noticed the many fingerings of the blowing hair.
But by the time Currier & Ives got around to portraying St. Julien, the late nineteenth century had arrived and chord progressions had been scaled up into industrial sentimentality. For P. I. Tchaikovsky, 1880 was the year for both the sobbing strings of the Romeo and Juliet fantasy and the cannons-and-all practicalities of the 1812 overture, and Currier & Ives’s 1880 lithograph is another example of that rationalized division of labor. On the right of the image is the horse: naked yet bound by his harness, with open agonized mouth and desperate eyes. On the left is Orrin A. Hikok: not merely dressed but bound by his dress in way that seems focused on keeping passion under rein. Mr. Hickok’s legs are open as if to embrace St. Julien, but they remain covered, with every ankle-button buttoned. His jacket is buttoned too, and behind its buttons are enclosed a vest and then a hard-starched shirt and then a knotted necktie. Lip is shut tight within lip within lip. At Mr. Hikok’s breast there will be no opening.
And Mr. Hikok’s cap is on, and in his mustache not a hair is out of place, and the grandeur of his grand horse has been rigorously quantified by his century’s progress in chronometry. “Record,” Currier & Ives told themselves as they sat down in 1880 before a lithographer’s stone, and the record that they set down in response to that imperative translated an artist’s word into a technologist’s number. After translation, it had become both precise and (in physics’ strict sense of the term) undimensioned. With words no longer attached, it had ceased to be even a number. It was now number as such, pure and absolute and as completely unified into a general idea as the multiple lines on a lithographer’s stone which coalesced into a single picture of St. Julien.
As of 1880, Currier & Ives hadn’t yet understood this process all the way to its completion, and that innocence on the brink of knowing is a part of what now gives their work its antique charm. What they didn’t understand in 1880 was that at the moment of St. Julien’s transit across their visual field, their chronometric word “2:11¼” was becoming idiomatic in a language changing under the technological influence of Eadweard Muybridge. As Muybridge’s multiple-camera array began showing the world for the first time the fine details of what the word “run” can mean, the world began learning, in flashes of revelation experienced one by one but only fractions of a second apart, that both verbs like “run” and nouns like “St. Julien” are meanings running along a continuum. Currier & Ives’s artist John Cameron may have intuited this, but only a Muybridgian understanding of the term “2:11¼” can articulate it. Articulated for now in a post-1880 vocabulary, it says: because the grand horses of words running at the rate of 2:11¼ never stop changing in every pulse-charged muscle, they never come to rest in the known.
Source: Popular Graphic Arts Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2001702108/. Photoshopped.
Source: Claude Grahame-White and Harry Harper, Our First Airways: Their Organization, Equipment, and Finance. Illustrated by Geoffrey Watson. London: John Lane, 1919. Photoshopped. With thanks to http://nemfrog.tumblr.com for the link.
As he waits to board the car on the right, the young man’s derby seems to be anchored to his head by a cord running to a clip behind his ear. The effect seems disproportionately serious, like the obsessed drawings in one of those books about funny patents. Furthermore, in the years since this photograph from 1905 was taken, the derby itself has acquired comical connotations, and men’s hats in general have gone ironic. But if we treat the image with the common intellectual decency of trying to see it as of 1905, it will go tender on us. The young man and the pretty little woman next to him then might be, oh, Gabriel and Gretta Conroy from “The Dead,” and the little girl in her sailor suit might be one of their children. Backs turned on us who look at them, they are off now to wherever it is that Gabriel and Gretta will voyage through their long snowy night.
Simultaneously, from the door of the car on the left, a young woman is watching two more women say goodbye. One of them, middle-aged, has a foot already on the trainman’s portable step. She is the one who will be leaving on this train, and the car she is about to board has been given a 1905 purpose that, like the derby, is no longer in use: ladies’ dressing room. She seems emotionally undressed herself as she exchanges a kiss with an older woman, but once she boards the dressing room she will become fully clad in the wear of 1905. As to the older woman, she is already dressed because she won’t be boarding the dressing room, and her clothes are another specialization for the seen universe of 1905.
The clothes are called weeds, and weeds were the mourning wear dictated for widows in 1905 America. The word “weed,” singular, had meant “clothing” for about a thousand years before then, from the ninth century through the nineteenth, but it soon acquired specialized meanings which by 1905 had diminished only to one. Some time before 1905, “weed” came to refer only to a widow’s veil, and then (says the Oxford English Dictionary) the rest of the wardrobe followed and became an outfit strictly in the plural.
But the fashions of signifying death didn’t stop changing with that, and as the term “weeds” became incomprehensible in time, the related terms “dressing room” and “lady” also had to be read in new lights. Flash photography, too, is no longer executed with a frying pan full of powdered magnesium, and so we see in new lights as well. On the evidence of this photograph, the fourth wall stood closer to the backdrop in 1905 than it stands now, and the farewell speech in between was more aglare with high contrast.
But we don’t seem able now to read the expression on the face of the third actress, the one standing at the door of her dressing room. In the glare of 1905 it ought to be immediately understandable, but the immediate seems to have vanished from this image. Requiring a mediation that the image can’t supply, the expression on the woman’s face is one more term dated strictly 1905. Time-stamped, it is to be understood as a word extracted from a body language that is no longer comprehensible now.
It has changed, and in the disembodied language you’re now reading we can’t know how. But at least we can say why. Moments after George T. Nicholson took this picture, the ladies’ dressing room rolled away into what’s called forever after, and in the shed whose flashlit form remained in memory over the darkened track, nothing remained.
Source: George T. Nicholson, “CC Ladies’ dressing room on the Limited.” Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2012649442/. Photoshopped. I don’t know what “CC” stands for — “chair car,” maybe? The Chicago & Alton Railroad used the term, and in 1900 its Alton Limited was the subject of a famous panoramic photograph by George T. Nicholson’s employer, George R. Lawrence.
Source: Lindsay Turley, “Novelty, Simplicity, Buoyancy, and Pliability,” 31 July 2012. http://mcnyblog.org/2012/07/31/novelty-simplicity-buoyancy-and-pliancy/. Image photoshopped. Via Retronaut, http://www.retronaut.com/2014/07/the-victoria-inflated-skirt/