Elusive charm: uttering its spell, what is seen disappears, leaving behind only the counterfeit memory of an image






All images photoshopped. All names except Corinne Griffith’s erased from the historical record.

Image: tax, maxim, color

On the wall of the gallery where the exhibition of “degenerate art” was held, the placard was an earnest of art’s pedagogical instinct. Even in the dark, something in an image seems to want to expose itself before eyes watching in a light-filled space. But the lesson this placard taught was the lesson of darkness. Holding forth in a gallery filled with images on schedule for erasure, the placard’s first paragraph made a case for ceasing to look. Its prose taught this lesson ironically, as if understanding that because irony straddles the blur between the actual and its representation, it can teach us that we actually don’t need reality. After the picture has been removed from view, we can reproduce its desired effect with no technique more complicated than some ironic quotation marks and an exclamation point.

This is the way they “saw” the world, the “masters” of decadent art which was  praised to the skies by Jews and hysterical babblers!

After that first application of the technique, too, we can elaborate it with (for instance) the rhetorical flourishes of multiple exclamation points and the wide-spaced Fraktur equivalent of italics:

These were the “masterworks” that were paid for with the hard-working German people’s tax money!!!

On the wall of this particular art gallery, an artwork made of rhetoric functioned to re-engineer art from an apparatus for the construction and elaboration of sight to an apparatus for erasing sight. As a component of the mechanized psychic culture of the Third Reich,  this teaching machine taught Germany that vision was nothing but a taxable rhetoric, one to be experienced rhetorically by means of statute and editorial. On a wall covered with images, the function of the rhetoric was to exclude the images from perception. Having been de-perceived, the images were no longer to be accessible by desire. Imagination, the idea of the possible growing out of the actual, was to have been replaced by maxim, in black ink on a white ground.

And nothing about maxim limits it to a particular history or a particular language. In the darkness just before dreams come, it may be that we’re all capable of yearning for maxim’s pure innocent clarity of black and white. But the black and the white themselves seem to embody a spectral yearning for color.

Consider, for example, this ambrotype: a mid-nineteenth-century work of photographic art which was born in the conviction that it suffered from a color deficiency. During the 1850s, the best photographs were made by the daguerreotype process. Daguerreotypes were expensive, however, and the ambrotype was marketed as a low-cost alternative. Experienced with its case closed as the return on a small investment in luxury, a daguerreotype and an ambrotype will be equally satisfactory. Each will come to us as an image nestled behind protective glass in a pyx of velvet and gold. But once the two images are looked at, they will migrate to separate realms of evocation, one much smaller and less scenic than the other. Unlike a daguerreotype, an ambrotype displays only a limited range of tones: from dark gray to light gray, without real whites. Unlatching its case and peering through the glass, we sense that something is missing from the light in there. Portrait photography exists to evoke the memory of a face, but in an ambrotype a part of the face’s spectrum has failed to register its presence. So this ambrotype is a record of an effort to restore the spectrum of memory. Propped in a little chair, a baby boy once stared for an instant in the direction of a camera. Mechanical auxiliary of memory and gaze, the camera forever returns the stare. From an imaginable perch on (say) your shoulder, it collaborates in your work of seeing. On the day in the 1850s when that labor began, it brought forth a lightly exposed negative and mounted it on black velvet. Above its light-absorbing background, the negative’s areas of photoreduced elemental silver began sending light back to vision as an unending flow of reflection: the optical illusion of whiteness, produced in eye after eye down the generations. The ambrotype’s chemistry had gone to completion. More development ensued, however. A soft little brush touched the baby image’s cheeks with a conventional representation of the adjective “rosy.” And then, just before the little casket’s glass lid was brought down, a lock of the baby’s hair was dropped onto the image from an area of memory just outside the photograph’s time zone. Seen now through the glass, the negative lies still on its velvet mattress, its gray face brightened into memory by a layer of cosmetics and garlanded with a wreath of hair which was still warm from the touch of a hand at the instant the glass came down for the first and last time and the wooden outer cover closed.

So sehen wir die Welt. With the passage of time, the tense changed from past to present and the ironic quotation marks on the wall of the gallery fell away. We can reopen the ambrotype’s casket after all. For us as we look, and for the generations that will look after we have gone, the outlook is happy because light and photochemistry and image’s uncontrollable need to teach don’t come to an end.

Image sources:

The Telegraphhttp://i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/02723/naziart_2723292b.jpg

National Media Museum, “Ambrotype of a baby with cuttings of hair under the glass,” photographer unknown. http://www.flickr.com/photos/nationalmediamuseum/3588772191/. Post-processed for contrast and color balance.

Emily Dickinson composes herself

“When you had gone the love came. I supposed it would,” wrote Emily Dickinson to her friend Elizabeth Holland. And then she thought about sitting down to table with her love and added, “The supper of the heart is when the guest has gone” (letter 318).

Dickinson often thought of love that way, as a communion with the sole self. Sometimes, in fact, the communicant even excluded those whom it was ostensibly inviting sub tectum. After Dickinson’s cousin Eudocia Flynt returned home from a visit with the Dickinsons, for instance, she was followed by a letter which began, “You and I, did’nt finish talking. Have you room for the sequel, in your Vase?” Then the chalice approached Eudocia, brusque and unbidden. Its ministrant said:

All the letters I could
Were not fair as this –
Syllables of velvet –
Sentences of Plush –
Depths of Ruby, undrained –
Hid, Lip, for Thee,
Play it were a
Humming Bird
And sipped just
Me –

(Letter 270, with poem Fr380A lineated by Alfred Habegger as in the manuscript)

All Cousin Eudocia could do in response was to try to compose herself. To herself she wrote a diary entry made up of 60 percent words, 40 percent doodled exclamation points: “Had a letter from Emily Dickinson!!!!” (Habegger 460). The stunned memo lies as inert on its page as a blasted flower, and there’s no record of any words spoken back to Emily.

And as to the bouquets Cousin Emily was capable of dispatching to someone who was close:

In January and February 1859, Susan Dickinson’s school friend Catharine Scott Turner paid an extended visit to Amherst, staying with Sue and Austin at The Evergreens. More than fifty years later, Kate would recall “Those celestial evenings in the Library – the blazing wood fire – Emily – Austin,– the music – the rampant fun – the inextinguishable laughter, the uproarious spirits of our chosen – our most congenial circle” (Habegger 373). In due time, of course, the laughing came to an end and Kate went away, and that, of course, was when the love came. “Dare you dwell in the East where we dwell?” demanded Emily in the letter that followed Kate. “Are you afraid of the Sun?–”

And then: “When you hear the new violet sucking her way among the sods, shall you be resolute?” (letter 203).

In 1951, Rebecca Patterson’s hints at a lesbian reading of sentences like that one caused scandal. As of 1951 the Johnson editions of Dickinson’s poems and letters were yet to come, feeling was under Cold War censorship, and the Dickinson of the bookstores’ poetry nooks was still the sweet little girl dressed up in white by her enterprising niece Martha Dickinson Bianchi. Sixty years on, we’re more open to the possibility that if Emily said she loved Kate, she may have meant she loved Kate. On the other hand, the past sixty years have also taught us that Emily Dickinson was a writer of literature, and some of the literature she wrote was fiction. Poems like “All the letters I could write” and “I tend my flowers for thee” (Fr367) have erotic undergrowths just as lush as the sods in the letter to Kate, but they don’t seem to arise from any desire experienced by what Dickinson called the biographied. If they are love poems, “All the letters I could write” and “I tend my flowers for thee” tell of love conceived not as something communicated but as communication’s metaphoric aftermath. The poems communicate love, but they aren’t love. They’re love letters.

Which brings us to this double daguerreotype portrait.

Click to enlarge.

This low-resolution reproduction appears in a 2012 article, “Is There a New Dickinson Daguerreotype?” on the web page of the Emily Dickinson Museum. The original may have been made in the area of Springfield, Massachusetts, it may date from about 1859, and the woman on the right has been positively identified as Kate Turner. The question that the article asks is: is the woman on the left Emily Dickinson?

Historians and anthropometrists are now working on an answer. While we’re waiting for their data, however, let’s study the picture in our own way: as if we were linguists reading a corpus written in body language. If we do that, we’ll see that the two body texts in this image are quite different. Kate, for a start, presents herself before us as fully composed. Her shoulders are relaxed, as are her hands. She is balanced in bilateral symmetry, with a vertical line clearly visualizable from the part in her hair through her nose, the narrow V of her white collar, and the wide view of her crossed hands. We can’t see her chair because her clothes drape evenly over both sides.

But the woman on the left is sitting entropically. With her spine twisted, she barely perches on the edge of her chair. From there she edges away from Kate, but at the same time her right arm (like most daguerreotypes, this one is a mirror image) reaches itself out behind Kate’s back as awkwardly as a teenager’s on a first date. Meanwhile, the left arm is stiffly and unnaturally hinged: elbow close to the body, forearm held away. It lies like an iron bar across the woman’s lap, and the hand’s fingers are rigidly extended and rigidly held together. This body language is of the bone, not the flesh. It is not even organized into a skeleton. No composition regulates it. Its words are not yet in order.

Now compare another composition — this one made up equally of body language and of words from beyond the body. Because the body in this daguerreotype is dressed in the style of the daguerreotype era, its wordy accessory proclaims, “I am daring.” The proclamation isn’t a mere fashion statement, either. Yes, it was daring for a woman dressed in the style of that history to strike her pose with a volume of Whitman. That pose could have carried real consequences. It was especially daring for a woman to pose with this particular volume, the 1856 edition of Leaves of Grass, because the 1856 edition was the first to include the body poem now called “A Woman Waits for Me.” In 1856, Ed Folsom reminds us, that poem had a different title: “Poem of Procreation” (33).

This is the image downloaded from the Daguerreian Society link in Ed Folsom’s article. However, a better image is the zoomable high-resolution one at
The Daguerreian Society’s site,

The woman’s compositional tactic for making Whitman’s dangerous words feel welcomed and loved is simple: she sits the words down on her chaste and motherly lap. There they compose themselves and, from behind the shelter of the woman’s hands, look us readers calmly in the face. The full significance of the composition’s paraphrasable content is as lost to history and us as the woman’s name (is she saying, “I love Walt?” is she saying, “I love Fanny Fern?” is she saying, “All right, I took your dare?”), but the act of composition certainly is meant to achieve something. Because the picture of the woman exhibits forethought (an answer to the question, “What should I do with my hands?”), it has a consciously assumed form. Posed together within their form, the woman and her book are a work of art – specifically, a work of art illustrating in some way the sense of a work of literature, one that has taken in some words from a dictionary (“leaves,” then “of,” then “grass”) and comprehended them in a new formal body whose parts include satin and lace and sheaves of hair and a book held lovably upside down. We readers like that new body. It makes us feel well disposed — toward it and toward Walt, the child who went forth. In body language, that feeling is a work of art.

But there is no art in the way the other woman’s body is piled up in its half of the other daguerreotype plate, and we aren’t entitled to suppose that a poem must ensue after the daguerreotypist’s chemistry has done its work on rigid arm and stiff fingers, fleshy lips and large half-averted eyes. Perhaps, after all, what we see on this silver surface is only a clumsy accumulation of some words belonging to the language of body. But perhaps, too, Dickinson’s letters 270 and 318 offer us a way to read this picture as a conspectus of a body poem. Perhaps this stiff clumsy thing before the lens was an Emily Dickinson after all – an Emily whose body language is saying to itself:

“When Kate goes away and my body is able to resume its solitary hunger, I will be able to open my mouth again and take in. Then the supper of the heart will lay itself on the table and its poem of invitation will arrive.”

Works cited

Dickinson, Emily. The Letters of Emily Dickinson. Eds. Thomas H. Johnson and Theodora Ward. 3 vols. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958.

—. The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ed. R. W. Franklin. 3 vols. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Folsom, Ed. “The Sesquicentennial of the 1856 Leaves of Grass: A Daguerreotype of a Woman Reader.” Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 24.1 (2006): 33-34.

Habegger, Alfred. My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson. New York: Modern Library, 2002.

“Is There a New Dickinson Daguerreotype?” http://www.emilydickinsonmuseum.org/new_daguerreotype. Accessed 10 August 2012.

Patterson, Rebecca. The Riddle of Emily Dickinson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1951.