Two of the soldiers have lost their faces to motion, and the form of a third, passing rapidly behind a shroud, has been reduced all the way to blur. Simplified and diminished, he will never again be anything except a blemish on his own record. If we’re even to imagine visualizing him as a man, we’ll have to work outside the photographic values of his image frame — for instance, at a carrel in an archive.
As it happens, some carrel labor has already been expended because this image is already resident in an archive: the archive of the city of Vancouver, British Columbia, where it has been enrolled in history with a caption (“Empress of Japan leaving for Vladivostock [sic]”) and a tentative metaphysics: “Date(s) [ca. 1919] (Creation).”
The archaeologist who descends to the sub-basement of such an archive and begins to dig there will be able to unearth nothing but history. The artifacts that come to light under the fluorescents of the archive will be visible only in history’s delimiting temporal way: by reference to what lies buried in time before them and what will be interred in time afterward. Immediately, in the present, we are in the act of seeing something in the pit, but it’s the nature of archives to defer the understanding of what they show us. In the archive, everything that once was seen in unarchived immediacy has passed under an opaque patina of memory and explanation. When we try to get closer to the formerly immediate for a second look, that new outer layer will repel us. We won’t be able to understand how the light falls in this image, for instance, unless we can chisel it free from the archive’s scrupulously blurring word “Circa.”
Fortunately, the archive also provides us with a chisel. The moment they passed under archival control, everything in and around this photograph — the military uniforms, the date, the words Empress of Japan and Vladivostok — were organized by archive into an extra-photographic history — in this case, the history of the allied expeditionary force to Siberia that attempted to intervene against the Bolsheviks during the Russian civil war. Once we’re equipped with information like that, we’ll find it easy to chisel our way through the stacks to (for instance) a University of Victoria website called “Canada’s Siberian Expedition” at
And there we’ll be able to work on the archive’s replica in words of what it may be that we once saw in an image: a ship on whose deck soldiers sit and stand and vanish into blur. As the archive built its facsimile man by man, it became one more document in the archival literature whose one story always ends, “As if they were still alive.” There in the archive, a caption now carols that the replica ship is, and will be as long as the archive endures, that which history has lovingly named, forever! Empress of Japan. In token thereof, the archive has also bestowed on the ship a choice of instants of namable, rememberable being: either October 11, 1918, or February 12, 1919, the only two times in history when the pre-facsimile Empress of Japan, carrying soldiers, weighed anchor in Victoria and set out for Vladivostok.
Heartened by feeling ourselves closer to something that existed before it could be archived, we may now try to see one of those two instants in detail. We might begin wondering, for instance, what the people in this image said when circumstances brought them together for a shared last moment under the rainy sky of Victoria, British Columbia. Did they talk about, for instance, the weather? As soon as we think that particular trivial thought, we’ll notice that nobody in this picture is bundled up against the cold, and then we’ll be all primed to join the men on the ship in some ice-breaking gossip. From the archive at
we’ll learn that there was no weather station in Victoria in 1918-19, but just across the strait in Vancouver the high temperatures for the two possible sailing dates of the Empress of Japan were 13.9 C (57 F) on October 11, 1918, and 5 C (41 F) on February 12, 1919. Welcomed into the archive and accessioned into the stacks surrounding the replica ship, this sociable little pair of new readings on the thermometer could fill out a whole archival newspaper. The paper’s fashion writer, for instance, could point out that the models shipping out on the replica are dressed for a cool fall day, not a cold winter day. Fine distinctions of couture will have acquired a significance, and that acquisition will reduce the degrees of historical freedom within the image’s range of datability to near-zero. Because the men’s hands are ungloved, their picture was almost certainly taken not in February but in October.
The paper’s feature writer could then check with other dates in the archive and report back that the photograph’s October reality grants it special historiographic status: the unique depiction of the very first departure into history of the Canadian expedition. If that still seems trivial, a future book reviewer suffering from Titanic in the head could hit the keystroke combination for Sentimental and alert us by bulletin to what would happen one month to the day after October 11, 1918: the end of the Great War. Sooner or later, right? we’ll be able to stop talking about the weather and move on to important things.
But somehow I can’t think of any important things. Stuck in the archive, I’m still just killing time by talking about the weather before the ship leaves and we can start getting lurid about the Bolsheviks.
After all, my insensitivity is not unreasonable. While the replica is still pierside in the archive, the archive will cautiously remind us that Canada’s part in the Siberian Intervention of 1918-1922 was only a token contribution which ended after six months without a single Canadian death in combat. On the other hand and not a part of the reminder, Rasputin . . .
Now that was an interesting story. And the smudge of the barely worth remembering that’s now stuck to the top of my blogpost is also tiny.
In the course of time its history has suffered entropic loss, too. With Photoshop I’ve been able to reverse some of the chemical damage. But because the image and its story were never anything but small, I can’t restore them to a life-size that they never possessed. Try to enlarge your understanding of the little you can see and it will immediately vanish beneath pixelation and blur. Out of sight under the blur, the image’s many men and one woman must remain beyond the reach of archive’s power to grant eternal life in replica. The real collective image of their fraction of a second in history will continue being unseen in the dark. It will remain the archive’s secret.
And locked within its tiny casing will remain one more secret, image’s own: a knowable visible enlargeable generalizable meaning permanently sealed against being understood as what it once, for a fraction of a second on October 11, 1918, was.
Flaps down, wheels down, its blurred outline communicating airspeed as it hurtles from right to left across the image frame, a Mitsubishi Ki-57 in wartime camouflage is about to reestablish contact with the earth. The photograph predicts that its flight, from ground to air to ground again, will have been successful. The airplane’s shadow is already on the ground, darkening as its source of darkness descends.
Outside the frame, in textual space, there will be words to fill in the parts of the image that we can’t see. After we have visualized the landfall, we can read its story. The landing strip, these words will say, was in Zhijiang, Hunan, China. The shadow of the airplane was cast there on August 21, 1945, and a short time after it stopped moving, the airplane’s door opened and Major General Takeo Imai stepped out to receive the Allied Forces’ instructions for the surrender of Japan’s million-man army in China.
We read that history in language and as language, but the image prior to the words you’ve just read shows us history in the form it takes when the sky passes over a sundial. It can’t be a propositional history, a history in words, because the words a sundial offers us to read can be only those that were there before the sun struck. They are words off to the side of what actually happened, in the margin of the light. Jacques Derrida, who thought about that prior language, passed his childhood under the sun of Algeria, and there, after some Ki-57s had landed in China and some Ju-52s had landed in France, nobody would speak to him. He was alone in the darkfall.
Of course there are ways of requesting a shadow image to step into the light and explain itself. After is has vanished, we can reimagine it with the help of history’s functions of generalization and exemplification. If it is inserted into a curriculum, we can even translate its into the language of computer-assisted design and read it on a glowing screen like the one where you’re now reading these words. Look, the screen can say. Look at:
But to read an image under those educational circumstances is to abstract it from the history which engendered the desire to read. After all, why should we care to see this schematic? There’s only one reason, and it isn’t pictured. It’s off to the side, written down in an unillustrated, unillustrable language that has the power to evoke nightmare after we have stopped reading and closed our eyes for the night. The dream of reason, wrote a Spanish artist into one of his pictures, brings forth monsters. The true monstrosities are the ones we dare only to imagine, not to see.
But El Greco’s Burial of the Count of Orgaz depicts monstrosity. Unlike the photograph of the airplane which for a moment concealed within itself, pregnant before the eye of history, the defeated body of General Imai, this sky picture had a purpose which existed before history delivered it to view. Its creator followed a curriculum as he worked, and the educational labor of inserting the curriculum’s words into the image can only help us to see the image more clearly. Pedagogy will demonstrate what was there in the picture’s conception before the picture itself came into existence, and it will also send us to the dictionary to read up on what pedagogy is putting us through. There in the dictionary, we’ll discover that the words “demonstrate” and “monster” both come from a Latin root signifying portent and warning. That etymological exercise will teach us that we knew all along what was going to be on this canvas before El Greco picked up his brush to make the first stroke. It was all horror, too: the horror of historiography, the horror of birth into the terrible instant in which transfiguration begins its henceforth endless cycle of reproduction. Reproducing, moving within time, the moment of change always becomes without ever passing into the stillness of being.
As long as an image comes before us in the glow of the moment of unchange, the shadow of General Imai’s airplane will not yet have come to rest. Elsewhere under the sky of China, the dying will continue. China is all. El Greco picks up his laser pointer to make the demonstration.
It’s the nature of their profession: most journalists are forgotten as soon as history has erased the events they recreated as words. The British journalist W. T. Stead has a place in the history of Victorian social reform, but if he’s remembered outside that subject area (Library of Congress class HN, “social reform”) it’s probably only for his death. Clio once told us about that event, and people still care to remember: wordy Mr. Stead rode to his wordless end in the Titanic on a first-class ticket, no. 113514, for which he paid 26 pounds 11 shillings.
Of the events before the voyage, less survives. That’s probably why I didn’t receive the communication when I first saw George Frederic Watts’s “The Minotaur.”
Click to enlarge.
I knew the story of Pasiphae’s monstrous son, but in this image I saw only a horned and wistful prisoner. The term “hybridity” was fashionable in my profession a few years ago, and here was the hybrid himself, gazing forlornly from his parapet.
Night coming tenderly,
Black like me.
But yes, I am a member of the profession. I knew that Watts is conventionally considered a symbolist artist, so I proceeded to look up his symbol. It was right there, too, in its holding institution’s institutional footnote.
Watts, an allegorical painter who employed art to convey moral messages, uses the character of the Minotaur to signify man’s bestiality and especially male lust. The making and meaning of The Minotaur can be traced to the social purity crusades against child prostitution, which led in 1885 to the passing of the Criminal Law Amendment Act and the raising of the age of consent from thirteen to sixteen. In the forefront of these crusades was the figure of W.T. Stead (1849-1912), whose series of articles on the London trade in child prostitution were published in the Pall Mall Gazette in July 1885 under the title ‘The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’. Stead’s explicit references to the Greek myth of the Minotaur throughout his exposé reputedly inspired the subject of Watts’s painting: ‘The appetite of the minotaur of London is insatiable’, wrote Stead; ‘If the daughters of the people must be served up as dainty morsels to minister to the passions of the rich, let them at least attain an age when they can understand the nature of the sacrifice which they are asked to make’ (quoted in Mathews, p.339). Watt’s close friend Mrs Russell Barrington records how The Minotaur was painted with unusual rapidity early one morning in response to ‘a painful subject’ that ‘had filled one of the evening papers’; almost certainly the Pall Mall Gazette (Barrington, pp.38-9). When The Minotaur was first shown, at the Liverpool Autumn exhibition of 1885, Watts explained that his aim in painting it had been ‘to hold up to detestation the bestial and brutal’ (quoted in Art Journal, 1885, p.322).
http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/watts-the-minotaur-n01634/text-summary Text by Rebecca Virag, March 2001
And I had failed to detest. Watts’s image of the Minotaur was created with an explicit intention, as part of a social context current as of 1885, and because I didn’t know my 1885 I derived an experience out of keeping with the intention. I saw a picture, but I was meant to see an illustration.
That failure of mine wasn’t just a failure of history; it was also a failure of grammar. I should have recalled that when an image bears a title that is explicitly allusive, like “The Minotaur,” that title is a predication: a statement of doing, being, or occurring. Some of those predications are even independent clauses, uttering their allusions as if they possessed stand-alone significance. Millais’s “Ferdinand Lured by Ariel,” for instance, shows us a Ferdinand, an Ariel, and a luring: object, subject, and verb. The sentence encodes an explicit intention. It means to translate a Shakespearean stage direction into body language.
Even if the image’s title is only a noun phrase, literary context can provide an understood verb to complete the predication. In the nature of language, we can’t see Hunt’s “Lady of Shalott” crying, “The curse is come upon me,” but we can see that her web is floating wide and her mirror is crack’d from side to side. The lady’s words can’t be illustrated, but the poet’s words can. Tennyson’s poem is still ubiquitous in print, too, so the lady is still employed as a cover girl by The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Victorian volume. From there she reminds us of our duty to understand what she’s saying.
But copies of The Pall Mall Gazette from the Victorian era have lost their ubiquity. Because the world stopped being Victorian before I was born, I couldn’t understand a priori that when Watts painted his Minotaur he was obeying the rules of at least three grammars: one grounded in classical mythology, another grounded in the classrooms of Eton and Oxford, and a third grounded upon the street grid of Dickens’s London. Unable to access any of those grammars except the first, I could only see Watts’s image as an image. It is actually an illustration, but until I read the words of a curator’s annotation I couldn’t know that because I didn’t know what it was an illustration of.
That is, I’d made the anachronistic mistake of failing to read a Victorian image by the rules of language. Watts painted his language picture in the Victorian era, and it wasn’t until five years after Queen Victoria’s death that Pablo Picasso first saw language as a blemish on his working surfaces. In 1906, on the canvas Picasso was preparing to receive a portrait of his friend Gertrude Stein, language had left its preemptive mark: the illustrative word of. In 1906, Picasso erased it. Modeling the face of his portrait not on Miss Stein but on an African mask where the representation was built up from a simple array of geometric shapes on a disc, Picasso achieved, for the first time in history, a picture that renounced any claim to be a picture of — of Gertrude Stein or of anyone or anything else. Thenceforth, forever, if an image took dominion over a space, it took dominion on its own terms, not language’s. If an image’s title happened to look like a predication, that appearance too was a part of the image. No grammar can slip you through the mesh of Marcel Duchamp’s wire cage full of little marble cubes, the one titled “Why Not Sneeze?” There is nothing in that cage but more cage. Wonderfully, Wallace Stevens’s Tennessee turned out not to have had to be anything but a parallelogram.
But the parallelogram you see here isn’t a Stevens. It’s still an illustration, still the artifact of a journalistic, pre-Picasso way of seeing. It still retains an of: an of whose shape is an exception to the rule of parallelogram. The exception has taken the form of a date written by fiat into the parallelogram: 1944. Nineteen forty-four was the year when Jews in France began taking off the yellow fiat star that Gertrude Stein had never been forced to wear. In parallelogram-shaped Tennessee, that same year, a painter wrote an unanswerable question on a billboard. It will have to be history, not poetry, that teaches us to read it.
The Tennessee billboard bearing that question was in Oak Ridge, where minutes did count in 1944 but words didn’t happen to be the normative way of counting. In 1944 Oak Ridge was in a special language district, under the seal of silence. Secretly, a large-scale deconstruction avant la lettre was under way there: a tinkering with the grammar of the periodic table with the intention of producing a nuclear bomb. Oak Ridge’s work of fission, current within nature’s labyrinth as of 1944, remains current within the labyrinth today. But today we can tour the labyrinth and then move on to the art museum, talking as we go. The souvenir we pick up there may be museological, too: an experience to put on a bookshelf with our other words. The next time we pull them down and read them, they will be unstoppably on their way into a past. Looking back at them as they recede, realizing that even from the past they will still call to us, we may conclude that poets, even after Stein and Stevens, won’t find it as easy as painters did after Picasso to erase the incriminating word of. Perhaps the unsayable things of 1944 or 1885 will always recur: unforgotten, unforgettable, but still unsayable. From any new poem something will always have just escaped and returned to the library where the old words are. Fugitive but secure there, it will claim to be the permanent property of a grammar not yet released to understanding. From the labyrinth it will still call out:
“I am not guilty of what you see around you. I have become absent from that now. I am only an image. I am only an image of.”
Images by Watts, Millais, and Hunt from 120 Great Victorian Fantasy Paintings CD-ROM and Book (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2009).
Image of the Oak Ridge billboard from “The Secret City,” The Atlantic 25 June 2012. http://www.theatlantic.com/infocus/2012/06/the-secret-city/100326/ Caption in the online article: “A billboard in Oak Ridge, photographed during WW II, on January 21, 1944.”
For the composition of Picasso’s “Portrait of Miss Gertrude Stein,” see Gertrude Stein, Picasso (1938; rpt. Mineola, NY: Dover, 1984).