Tree cover

In the port city of Hoboken, New Jersey, bodies are unloaded from a ship and transported through rain and words.

Clipping from The Brooklyn Daily Eagle - Newspapers.com

The words come from a two-column article on page 2 of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle for November 13, 1919: “Bodies of 111 U.S. Soldier and Sailor Dead Brought Home. Gallant Michigan Boys Gave Lives in Northern Russia — Impressive Ceremonies at Pier.” It includes the term “curbstones.”

If that plural and the phrase “gallant Michigan boys” read now like antiques, that is not the words’ fault. As of 1919, curbs actually were made of stone and the Michigan war writer Ernest Hemingway hadn’t yet begun publishing his deconstructions of words like “gallant.” But language change makes no allowance for changes in sensibility, and whatever it is that the words may once have represented is harder to feel now. In a cemetery in Michigan there is a war monument in the form of a polar bear,

Polar_Bear_Monument_left-front
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Expeditionary_Force,_North_Russia

but the episode of war that it commemorates is now all but forgotten in Michigan: the failed campaign of the American Expeditionary Force, North Russia, between 1918 and 1919. It is where the 111 men of rainy Hoboken met their deaths.

What you have been reading so far, then, in words and allegorical symbols, is a chapter in a history of the no longer wholly comprehensible. Somebody once wrote a marginal scholium on the chapter and called it “Dead Soldiers from Russia,” but it hasn’t integrated with the composition’s imagery. It is extrinsic. To its left, the composition has gone about the business of its rainy day by slow-dancing the hundred and eleven down a diagonal between the human matter of umbrellas (“Chopin’s and other funeral marches”) and the celestial matter of the rain, but the words in the black band don’t sing that music.

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George Grantham Bain Collection Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2014709235/. Post-processed for contrast and detail.

But in the rain the silent tree, leafless but living, curving itself down over the music and the dead in obedience to a lyric without words . . .

29077uaisgK

To read, read monocularly

Sometimes reading is possible only through a monocle. Here’s your evidence, below and above.

Below is one of the comment spams that are once again, after a long absence, trying to parasitize this blog. They arrive at exactly the right historical moment: the impending centenary of the Great War, whose concomitant rhetoric caused Hemingway’s Lieutenant Henry to deliver himself of a set speech famously beginning, “I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain” and continuing, “I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it.” Keep those lines in mind now as you continue reading and encounter the phrase “For instance.”

Yes, Tenente: “Certain numbers . . . certain dates and these with the names of the places were all you could say and have them mean anything.” If it’s read only for the duration, within the sub-grammar of spam, the phrase “For instance” above does mean something. It is an anti-Bayesian element. Its function is to defeat the software that tries to detect a human purpose (such as “Buy my wares”) in the non-verbal vicinity of a verbal communication. But within the larger grammar of the English language, “For instance” also has an inhuman purpose. Out of the disembodied inhuman elements of logic it assembles trains of thought, coupling sex cars to sex cars and photography cars to photography cars. To spam that act of construction by decoupling its contexts is to commit an act of sabotage against language itself.  Yes, Tenente: even the simple adverbial “For instance” can be made to mean nothing.

But once he had thought himself that far into the predicaments of language, Hemingway’s talkative hero retreated a short way by opening his paragraph about the meaninglessness of language with the self-negating formula, “I did not say anything.” As if saying that one is not saying anything could absolve one from saying something.

The monocled man in the picture above was braver when it came to saying something and then dealing with the damage.  This was Tristan Tzara, and when he and his collaborators created Dada they created a language which not only articulated the possibility of meaninglessness but spoke meaninglessness into a counter-meaning. Put on the monocle now and see: a century after Dada, the spam’s money shot following the line about the anatomy of the penis is a link to a Facebook page advertising child care.

If we’re even to hope of thinking grammatically about that, we’ll probably have to break the communication down to single words like “penis” and “care” and read them slowly and squintingly, each one by itself, in isolation from its spamgrammar. For that, a recommended implement might be the monocle.

Source: Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms (New York: Scribners, 1929; Hemingway Library Edition, 2012) 161.