In the catalog of the Library of Congress, this group portrait is dated only with a range, 1895-1910, and captioned only with a category approximation: “Football team.”
At that, the approximation seems inaccurate. One of the athletes is holding a football, but another one is wearing a boxing glove and on the floor are more boxing gloves and a pair of Indian clubs. Only one of the athletes, too, is dressed in a football player’s heavy corduroy pants.
On his corduroy-swaddled thigh rests the hand of another athlete, the tattooed one embracing a fighting dog. The time of Freud is approaching, but it is still in the future. Later, the men’s names will have vanished from the record and their winged Hermes helmets will have lost the power they once had to communicate meaning. But though it is mute now, their bodied desire still continues to put off its paraphernalia and thrust itself up from the image toward us.
The shoes are a mismatched assortment: one pair partly unlaced, a worn and broken pair of clodhoppers; the other square-toed and neatly concealed under clean spats. Above the spats the pants are softly draped, and creased, and lavishly cuffed. The counterpart garment on the other side of the image is meagerly hemmed and stiff with dirt.
But that visual politics of class division is only clothes-deep. Within separate foldings of cloth, the men have arrayed themselves in the same posture, as if each had a shared heritage of body. Above that pair of half-anatomies, too, is another pair, this one in a closer approximation. The characteristics of that pair are the hats. Twinned traits, they hang congruently from the picture’s vertical axis, each hat braving gravity at the same daring angle.
A pair of arms reaches downward and outward from the young man in the upper left to the fine-featured adolescent in the lower left. The hands make contact, establishing control. It is a delicately gauged control. Touching with fingertips only, it signifies not force but a sympathetically understanding consent to a desire to be mastered. The gesture is set off by the fashion accent of a political brassard.
Like every other item in this wardrobe of the male — the unblocked fedora, the regional costume hat, the buttondown shirt with its big bling buttons — the brassard is part of a harmony. Forced into its position in the whole by the light that goes pouring over and past you on its way to the image, each cloth or leather apparatus for attracting sight becomes a part of a body loved because made visible to love by the light reflected from another body.
For she was a child, throwing bread to the ducks, between her parents, and at the same time a grown woman coming to her parents who stood by the lake, holding her life in her arms which, as she neared them, grew larger and larger in her arms, until it became a whole life, a complete life, which she put down by them and said, “This is what I have made of it! This!”
1. Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway (1925; New York: Harcourt, 2005) 42
What is the woman thinking as she grasps a glass in her huge hand? Her clothes are firmly secured and no communication can be opened with her eyes or her mouth.
What is the man in the cap thinking? His body is relaxed only to the extent necessary for taking a seat at the table. His mouth is smiling but his eyes aren’t.
Both hands extended along the legs in the military posture called Attention, the little boy in front of the man is rigid. But his body deviates by several degrees from the perpendicular, and one of the two fastenings that close his tattered coat against the cold is a safety pin.
The expression on his face . . .
But it doesn’t matter, because at the center of the scene, eyes alert behind pads of fat, sits the big man with the big glass. He is his image’s low center of gravity. His legs take up all of the space under the table. It is his table, his. He stabilizes all the lives that have been brought close to its cold wood, freezing them into a dark tableau. Upstage, positioned apart from the snow, a greatcoated soldier looks watchfully sidelong toward the wings, while at the big man’s furrily warmed ear a bagpiper in a folk hat worn comically low over the brow makes a crosseyed face while he plays a song.
It can’t be heard on our side of time, but we who can’t hear have been admitted by the photographer Costică Acsinte to a place where the moment of its having become music is remembered. Seen there in snow, frozen note by note into a composition, the song appears to be part of a pageant of praise for the big man. But the auditorium for Acsinte’s pageant is so ample that it can accommodate men even bigger than this one. In fact, you are among some of them now, and they have begun striding forward from your vantage point to approach the image.
Not at all long after March 3, 1940, they will break through the fourth wall, enter a snowy little town in Romania, and make themselves welcome: Brueghel’s hunters, bringing to the big man’s newspaper-covered table their glad news of fresh kill.
In January 2015, the cyclical history of Martin Heidegger’s post-World War II rehabs and relapses entered a new phase when the chairman of the Martin Heidegger Society resigned his position, stating, “As chairman of a society, which is named after a person, one is in certain way a representative of that person. After reading the Schwarze Hefte, especially the antisemitic passages, I do not wish to be such a representative any longer. These statements have not only shocked me, but have turned me around to such an extent that it has become difficult to be a co-representative of this.” (http://dailynous.com/2015/01/19/germanys-heidegger-society-chair-resigns/)
The phrase Schwarze Hefte (“black notebooks”) refers to a group of previously unpublished manuscripts which are only now appearing in print, on a schedule dictated by Heidegger. The notebooks are bound in black oilcloth, and in the first instance “black” is all the word schwarze means. But of course it also has moral connotations. These dark texts seem to make clear, if anything in Heidegger’s ambit is clear, that racism was one of the fundamental, constitutive parts of his thought.
Well, the history of the Fascist years is filled with stories in the style of Henry James about eminent people shadowed by their past. The reputations of E. M. Cioran and Mircea Eliade, for instance, were at least a little tarnished by their association with the Iron Guard, Romania’s peculiarly nasty Fascist party. On the other hand, the Nazi section of Herbert von Karajan’s curriculum vitae did him no harm in after years. If anything, it only added more excitement to his bad-boy reputation. Until recently, at least, Heidegger’s reputation seemed to luxuriate in an ambiguity strong on both sides, as when he deplored the Holocaust as just another instance of the inauthenticity of plowing with tractors instead of horses like God intended. Unfortunately, history doesn’t seem just now as if it will continue indulging Heidegger’s reluctance to resolve his dilemma. The dilemma itself seems to be little more than silliness on one horn and careerism on the other. But when the moral ambiguities of the Hitlerzeit were forced up against the moral ambiguities of the Cold War era, the human consequence was sometimes larger and more interesting.
In 1950, for instance, the German field marshal Erich von Manstein was convicted of war crimes and sentenced to eighteen years in prison. This was soon reduced to twelve years, and in the event he served only three. Almost immediately after his release, he was recruited to build a new army for West Germany, to be deployed against the enemy in which he had always specialized, the Soviet Union. Thereafter and therefore, official history decreed the former Manstein and his Wehrmacht to have been strictly apolitical, wholeheartedly humane, and motivated only by the ancient military virtues of uprightness and chivalry.
Look, therefore, at this image of the former Manstein leading his Romanian armies against the Bolsheviks.
Postwar, you’re intended to see an apologetic in every element of the composition. Fluently dictating from a prescribed lexicon, it tells you: Marshal Manstein, like his moral compeer Martin Heidegger, was (the phrase enters the mind prefabricated, a brick of cliché) an old-fashioned nationalist. You experience the whole history of the word “old” in his upright posture and stern, unflinching attentiveness to the world, in all of its evil and all of its tragic good. Within this image frame, nothing except the old-fashioned has been allowed to survive. If you try to read through or past or around the image to anything in its background (anything called history, for instance) you’ll probably fail. Standing firm and still within his car, Marshal Manstein is on his way to taking dominion everywhere.
That’s easy to prove. See for yourself: having experienced the image of Marshal Manstein, didn’t you flinch when you began experiencing this other image?
It was captured by the photographer Costică Acsinte (1897-1984), who between 1930 and 1960 operated a studio in a Romanian farm town named Slobozia. After the studio closed, his glass negatives were stored for decades under neglectful conditions until they were rediscovered by another photographer, Cezar Popescu, who is now preserving and cataloging them. His online archive is at http://colectiacosticaacsinte.eu/.
The paragraph you’ve just read is one way of accounting for the image’s history. Another way might be to open a book and start reading about Romania during the 1930s and ’40s, when the photograph was probably taken. A guide to Romanian officers’ uniforms could provide further detail, and in Slobozia there may, even now, survive someone who can attach a name and a war diary to the image of the young law enforcer, club at the ready, who is pointing his pistol at someone not visible in this image at this time — someone who happens to be standing to the right of the photographer.
What expression is on the face of the person facing the muzzle of the officer’s automatic? The officer is backed by a set from The Seagull or The Cherry Orchard, with flowers bordering a window and a door, but we’ll never learn who is about to walk forward from the camera’s vantage, speak the password that will make the officer reholster his gun, and enter the scene. Such an entrance would be an event. If the word could be spoken, the young man could relax his vigilance and begin speaking in his own turn. Until then, however, he can be nothing but a Manstein: a shape on photosensitive paper, serving a purpose off-camera.
His time on camera is short, too. Even as he waits for his event to begin, time is peeling his form away from its transparent backing. A break in the image’s continuity has already opened itself right across his eyes. He won’t be able to keep watch within the image frame much longer, and behind the image’s transparent support there seems to be nothing but dark. Still, the dark has a grammatical force of its own. Radiating forward to the image, it keeps it from communicating off camera. On camera, the officer’s uniform, a symbol written in a specialized code, may say “nationalism,” but it doesn’t seem able to translate the sentimental off-camera adjective “old-fashioned.” That which is old-fashioned is either thought to be dead or thought to be dying, and the historical record between Heidegger’s time and ours seems to show that the man with the pistol will live forever, just as he is imaged on camera here and now. The old-fashioned nationalist will never live to become old-fashioned because he isn’t going to die.
Sooner or later, too, we who still live in history may be able to imagine the pistol swinging in our direction. If that act of the imagination becomes possible, we will know that in this image Costică Acsinte achieved a work of art worthy of art’s terrible task of outliving.
At the top and bottom of this photograph, clumsy slashings have separated the image from its background in the reading matter.
The wavy lines are history’s way of showing us that the negative was scissored from a roll of film exposed in one of the cameras that were generically known then in the United States as kodaks. From the clothing fashions within the image frame, we can establish that “then,” the era when kodakwas spelled with a small k, would have been approximately the turn of the twentieth century. The orthochromatic film that rendered the red in the image’s American flag as black was also responsible for whiting out most of the real from the sky, but if we desire sky we can partially reconstruct it by turning away from the image and reading its textual metadata.
The image before us, for instance, is archived in its primary form in the California Historical Society. There, the catalog will tell us that at this instant in its photographic history a flag was being paraded through San Francisco by volunteer infantrymen returning from service in the Philippines. Knowing that much, we have thereby been granted the full freedom of every library, with all its newspaper files and army records. Those have the power to restore some of the image’s missing metadata: a specific date, for instance, and possibly too a time of day and a weather report and a parade route showing the location of a school. We might even learn the name of the soldier carrying the flag. All that is missing from this reading is power within the image. The woman in the tall hat can never turn and show her face. She is a display behind an image pane. The pane illustrates history in the act of passing her by.
The phrasal verb to pass by operates across two loci of meaning. Within the image of woman and flag it refers to a transition seen within space. Outside the image, where it is not seen but read, it refers to a transition from one state of time to another.
Now see this.
You find yourself seeing under two simultaneous but administratively distinct constraints. The constrained disappearance of content from the metadata (after the history of Romania in the twentieth century, it’s unlikely that we’ll ever relearn this twentieth-century Romanian baby’s name, let alone the name’s felt meaning) is an episode in the history of history. The constrained disappearance of form as the image squirms out of focus and breaks up is an episode in the passage across time to the vanishing into death.