A frisson for Mr. Eliot

Frances Dickey’s periodical reports from the newly unsealed archive of T. S. Eliot’s letters to Emily Hale, now being blogged at


are a continuing revelation. Letters filled with passionate avowal from a man to a woman would ordinarily be called love letters, but these letters were written by T.S. Eliot, and history has opened the trunk of the machina just in time to make delivery during the Trump era. There, the marvel of the letters turns out to be their dreadful familiarity, in ways that would have been hard to credit just five years earlier. From them we now learn, for instance, that Eliot was capable of explaining to the woman he said he loved that if he were to divorce his estranged wife, the Church of England would suffer its most grievous loss since the conversion of John Henry Newman (Dickey’s posts “Temptation and Duty,” 5 February 2020, and “Establishing Patterns,” 17 February 2020).

We read such texts this year as we read Twitter this year: in hope that there may be a world outside the text.

Conway GIF

Even if the text does seem for the moment to be all that there is, we yearn for a counterbulletin. For the author of the texts to Hale, then, perhaps as if from the beings that he classed as Grishkin and Sweeney, this tentative counter-hope from the gutter.


The gutter creatures

are two cattle egrets and a mongoose. The mongoose has been dining on food that people leave on the ground in his Honolulu park for feral cats. Like the birds who would be his prey if it weren’t for that gutter kindness, he is beautiful directly, without what Eliot might have called dissociation. When he opens his mouth to bite, he is obeying only one law: a law whose pure text originated before speech and now reveals itself in indifference to anything said in speech afterward. The spring to the kill or the flapping ascent into air are, poem or no poem.

Stanislavsky / Cartier-Bresson

To rehearse a gesture with the body is to begin realizing it in the mind. What is doing in the body shapes itself motion after successive motion until it begins taking form in the mind as a conception, muscled and innerved.


And then to imagine the gesture as if it were a sequence in time, enacting itself moment by moment, would be to imagine it as a plot, with exposition at one end, dénouement at the other, and complication, climax and resolution in between. As the sequence proceeds from beginning to end, its component body changes.

Hamlet GIF
Laurence Olivier, Hamlet (1948)

So gesture is not perceived as a simultaneous whole. What Henri Cartier-Bresson called the decisive moment is typically visible in his oeuvre as a page in a book, and it represents itself there to be a stilling of a gesture’s passage through time. The book opens, the gesture is seen, and then the page turns away. Even before the printer and the binder intervened to shut in the image, the record of gesture was a property not of the gesturing body but of the body of a photographer acting through a timer. For Cartier-Bresson’s body, the timer was a brass-and-glass apparatus named Leica which admitted light to the photographer’s eye, then excluded it again.

But after the exclusion, alone in the light on Leica’s opposite side, the photographed body remained in action. Having gestured its way into time, it was not a composite of ink on paper and a stopped clock but a scene.

An old-fashioned nationalist

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.

Persistence of vision

Chekhov is famous for the effect: just before the end of one of his plays, a sound will add its wordless voice to the words’ dramatic irony. Just before the end of Three Sisters, both the actors onstage and we in the audience hear a shot in the distance, and that (we and the actors are about to learn together, a moment too late) is the sound of Solyony killing Tusenbach. Just before the end of Uncle Vanya we hear jingle bells, and that is the sound of Astrov going away forever. Just before the end of The Cherry Orchard we hear saws and axes, and that is the sound of the orchard being cut down. After the play’s context has enabled us to establish a verbal interpretation for a wordless sound effect (“That is the sound of . . .”), the interpretation turns its newly real countenance toward us and wordlessly says that there will now be no more happiness, before or ever after the final curtain.

Of course, if we’re sophisticated enough to be in a Chekhov audience, we won’t be naive enough to think the sound effects themselves are real. Of course we know they were written into the play. But because they emanate from offstage, they seem somehow to be at least as much a part of the audience function as of the stage function. If they aren’t onstage, then they’re at least partly offstage with us, down here in the dark of our offstage being where we are simultaneously experiencing the sound of the shot (what was that?) and the memory life we brought with us into the theater (did I remember to lock the garage?). A part of the mixed, impure ongoingness of memory, the sound we hear in the theater seems real in a way we can’t fully believe the actors to be. The actors inhabit a system of meaning with a “The End” at the end of it, but the sound can’t. It propagates forever.

But it isn’t just sound that propagates. History seems to impose a Chekhovian irony on certain visual artifacts too – for instance, photographs taken just before a moment of change, or taken during the change but focused elsewhere. That photograph of people smiling at their desks in an office? Little do the people in the photograph know that those desks are in the World Trade Center and the date is September 10, 2001. Or the long-skirted women in that black-and-white street scene, going about their business unaware that just on the other side of a monitor there are now, forever after, troubled young men desperate to overlook them and catch their sight of Hitler.

In its bin at Costco, the piece of cardboard holding a blister-wrapped camera is big, to discourage shoplifting. With lots of space at its disposal, the cardboard uses that space to signify that this camera, a Canon Elph 100HS, is marketed to women. Words printed all over the front of the card promise that the Elph is small and light and easy to use, and through its blister we can see that the camera itself comes in a variety of pretty colors. The card also offers consumers a look at a picture: a picture of a picture that we are to think might have been taken with a woman’s camera like this one, even though some fine print on the back of the card says it wasn’t. The picture within the picture comes from a woman’s social system, and it seems intended to remind buyers how pictures function as part of a feminine experience of the world.

See: within their pictured frame, three women sit at a table in a restaurant, eating and talking and looking into one another’s faces and laughing. This is a picture that you too will be able to take, promises Costco’s piece of cardboard. You will take the picture, you will pass it around among your friends, and then there will come, for you together with them, a moment of intimate happiness. You will have come into possession of an image that first derived meaning from a context, like a pistol shot offstage, and now reestablishes that context, over and over, one view at a time, as it is passed from hand to hand to hand, forever. Remember yesterday in the restaurant? How happy we were?


Not yet cut apart and discarded, the cardboard implores us to open its blisters and begin. At the moment you take your picture, promises the cardboard, you’ll be both director and camerawoman, you’ll be active. But a moment later and forever happily ever after, you’ll be a part of an audience, passively taking in the picture as you once passively heard the sound of Solyony’s pistol. From then on, there won’t be a thing you can do about it. Your pretty new camera will have taken in a few meaningless milliseconds and changed them to a meaning, forever.