The eyes turn topaz.”
According to Christopher Busta-Peck’s blog about the history of Cleveland, this dark image depicts the moment on March 25, 1913, when flood currents drove the ship William Henry Mack into the swing bridge spanning the Cuyahoga River at West Third Street, demolishing it.
Like the prose you’re now reading, Mr. Busta-Peck’s blog is set in the font called Georgia. According to the Wikipedia article “Georgia (typeface),” this font belongs very much to the history of the computer. Its date of origin is 1993, and it was originated specifically to fill a need for legibility on low-resolution monitors. There it is read by default in monitor mode, the mode of prose: transparently, offering access to language’s content (what freshmen call “the message”) while making only the necessary minimum of contact with language’s form.
Mr. Busta-Peck’s Georgia-inflected words about the flood are readable at http://www.clevelandareahistory.com/2009/12/floods-of-1913-in-flats.html, in a post dated December 26, 2009. They manifest themselves onscreen in a monitor alphabet that was deliberately intended only to be looked through, not seen in itself. But to Ernest Fenollosa, a contemporary of the flood, it seemed desirable to write a story like flood’s not transparently but in flood’s own mud-opaque alphabet, as “a vivid shorthand picture of the operations of nature.”
To Fenollosa, vivid shorthand meant specifically the ideographs of Chinese, where in principle a word is a thing. To Ezra Pound, who completed Fenollosa’s unfinished essay “The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry” after Fenollosa’s death, this meant writing poetry with a specifically poetic language technology. Pound’s preferred medium for that was the typewriter, and he famously subdued the apparatus to his poet’s will by means of James Whitcomb Riley dialect spellin’, the alienation effect of text incorporated from other languages, and the other alienation effect of isolating his verse’s signifying units from contact with one another by means of two hard hits on the spacebar after every word. But at almost exactly the moment Pound was making those small modifications in the machinery, some nameless scribes employed by the Bain News Service were composing their own “vivid shorthand picture of the operations of nature” directly upon records transcribed by nature itself.
They had the records, thanks to the operation of certain photochemical processes. They needed to write their shorthand picture. They could have done that the way Pound did, with a typewriter slightly modified to emit the look of bardic chant. But they did something more radical. Laying hands directly upon the negative that just a moment earlier had been flooded by reality, they inscribed. If the inscription didn’t look quite like any other human alphabet, that was because its mediation into language was incomplete. Some of its form remained untranslated, still in the language of nature. The scribes weren’t fully in command of that language because some of it remained in the state of nature: the state of things — that is, scratches in gelatin — which still resisted their reduction to mere words. No matter how they were written, the photographers’ words about the flood remained partly flood, partly inarticulate.
Still, look at the verb above: swept away. Trying to articulate a language of deluge, it has inscribed itself in a font that could have been named Debris. The instrument that carved it there was a stylus scratching letters onto a 5-by-7 inch glass plate named Negative. Because the letters have to be scratched onto the sensitive side of the negative, they have to be scratched in reverse. That’s why they look that way. They are morphemes of a language newly emerging onto a flood plain and teaching itself to write itself.
Think of a Chinese connoisseur writing a poem on a picture. If he does it right, the words he has sown with his inkbrush will take root in the picture and make its nature blossom into verbal meaning. That’s how the process works on dry land. But think of somebody stepping for the first time onto the mud deposited by the subsidence of the Black Sea, picking up a handful, molding it into a tablet, picking up a twig, and beginning to write on the wet new surface in his hand the story of Gilgamesh.
Christopher Busta-Peck, “The floods of 1913 in the Flats,” 26 December 2009. http://www.clevelandareahistory.com/2009/12/floods-of-1913-in-flats.html
“Bridge being swept away by flood — Cleveland.” George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ggb2005011625/. Adjusted for contrast and detail in Photoshop.
Ernest Fenollosa, ed. Ezra Pound, “The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry.” 1918. Excerpted in The Poetics of the New American Poetry, ed. Donald M. Allen and Warren Tallman. New York: Grove Press, 1973. 13-35.
It’s a standard thing to point out in the introductory class: although Wordsworth was a nature poet, he also wrote a sonnet about London, “Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802,” whose first line is “Earth has not anything to show more fair.”
Much more typical for Wordsworth, however, is “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” whose lines overflow with a still yet ceaselessly moving
host of yellow daffodils,
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
At the poem’s end, Wordsworth (or rather his sister, whose diary he raided for the description and the emotion) understands with his body what he has seen and what he is about to write down:
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
At about the time this picture was being taken, Ezra Pound, who had no respect for William Wordsworth, found himself in the Paris metro being overtaken by something like Dorothy Wordsworth’s sense of light flowing through earth and surfacing in blossom. Pound’s flowers, however, then and later, blossomed in the dark.
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
Source: George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ggb2006001714/. Photoshopped.
Historic American Buildings Survey Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/dc0362.photos.027542p/. Photoshopped.
Toward the end of its era, Fascism embarked on a campaign of cultural self-pity. Italy has been attacked by darkness, Fascism told Italy. Everything that Italy has inherited from its past is being violated. In the chiaroscuro, it may seem that nothing remains for us but to grieve. Our candles are out; our heads are bare and bowed before the advent of the black helmets. However, our light will return. Something that will not die bows down to us in our grief and whispers light’s vindicating truth.
But even as the black helmets were making their slow way from temple to darkened temple, the land under Italy’s temples was being cleared day by bright day from the air. Most of the bombers that came flying through the light to accomplish that task of war were Consolidated B-24s, and these bore a propaganda name of their own: Liberators.
In the sheets of light beneath liberation’s radiant onslaught, Fascist art could do nothing except to repeat its now meaningless trope of darkness. Desperate to continue depicting the trope, it once went textual and tried to supplement its now meaningless self with an explanation outside the picture:
“Liberators take liberties!”
Outside the picture, the pun is too witless even to be visualizable. But the image’s trope of darkness retains some meaning nevertheless. Seventy years after the fall of Fascism in Italy, it still speaks to the politics of the United States. It does so because it articulates a myth, and myths are hard to make die.
After all, there can be no light without darkness. That is one sense of the myth of Pluto and Persephone.
That myth says: Light goes down into the underworld and is reborn there from death to life. This will be the happy ending of the art-stories of the looted church and the rape which has been redeemed for art by a successfully understood allusion to Italy’s cultural heritage. When he wrote the history of anecdotes such as those, Ezra Pound was fond of using the word splendor, which means brilliance or radiance. But a splendor returned from the underworld has been in that which is dark, and when it reascends it can never again be immaculate. Bearing shadows within the folds of its mantle, splendor must bring darkness back with it. At nightfall, splendor’s darkness will rejoin the primal dark. Then, after morning comes, we may pick up our brushes once again, seventy years later, and charge them once again with black.
At the present linguistic moment, the Pound-word “heritage” is one shade of that black. Spoken today by reenactors remaking themselves as ghosts on battlefields, it is a word that darkness has taken to itself and refashioned as a mode of immortal yet unliving form.
Look at heritage’s eyes. Look at its pointed fingers delicately touching its slender musket. Understand, as you look, the lesson that heritage is wordlessly teaching you: the lesson that darkness, having once been comprehended by art and shaped by it into myth, can never wholly return, forgotten, to the past and to death.
Sources: the Italian propaganda posters come from a collection at http://ic.pics.livejournal.com. The image of the B-24 comes from a site for airplane modelers, Wings Palette, at http://wp.scn.ru. Its Russian caption translates as, “98th Battle Group, Libya, 1943. Shot down August 1, 1943, by [Bulgarian] Lieutenant Stoyan Stoyanov.”
The image “Unidentified soldier in Confederate uniform with bayoneted musket and knife” is in the Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2014646219/.
All images photoshopped.