The squire’s coverall is shiny with grease. His shoes are made of wood. His dark eyes are sunken and shadowed.
Standing between him and the slender knight he serves is a piece of high folk art: a coat of arms elaborated to teach Catholic France what its knights of the air live for. In the artwork, the body of one of France’s enemies has been brought back to earth, mockingly flattened out beneath a cross, and dropped between altar candles and the sign of the danse macabre. All around this composition the artist has drawn the sign of a heart, perhaps to signify that he lives on in control over the vanquished dead. But if this icon is a sacred heart, it is a lighthearted one.
Mais qu’il est jeune! qu’il est droit! comme il tient fièrement sa lance!
Qu’il fait de plaisir à voir dans le soleil, plein de menaces et d’élégance,
Tel que le bon écuyer qui soutient son maître face-à-face,
L’Ange . . . !
Paul Claudel, “Strasbourg” (1913)
One level up, mounted on a wing above the companions, is the Lady they live to serve: a Lewis machine gun like the one that Jay Gatsby once told his squire Nick about. But this has arrived in the airy zone from outside the angelic order. As her image teaches you, Lewis the mitrailleuse — American-designed, British-made — is sole black steel. She is spectrally far from the rose comme une fiancée of Claudel’s cathedral stone.
But through her solitude she lives. Here in her prose she still is: as sun-touched on the photographic record now as she was then, in about 1916, when a curtain was drawn to open her dark closet for men to see. Age after age, libraries’ worth of history have burned to the muddy ground of Europe, but the opening to returning light always restores gleam to the ruins and their dead.
In the far distance, seen from the American side of the Atlantic Ocean, the squabble seems almost comical. Little, of course, did the New York Times know what was about to start happening in the neighborhood of the zeppelin hangars, and so the Times’s editors saw no need to drive home their point any further by illustrating it.
But the image of what was to come was already in place and already signifying as hard as it could. See, in the image, the forms hovering impatiently on the ceiling of their barn, already fledged in streamline and about to slip free and feral.
In the image, all but a few of the men who do see have their backs to the camera. They are looking up toward those ridged cylinders as if they’re waiting for them to emerge, cast off, and mount. They understand the cylinders’ purport. They may even have been taught that they’ll love what is about to happen to them.
But the man they have sent away from the bed of ascension is understanding in a different way: actively. His traveling cap is ready to don, he is holding a writing tool in each hand, and his eyes are in the act of piercing.
Without the beard that grows beneath, they would be only eyes in a face — say, a face fronting one of the derbied Germans who have so deeply failed to interest the camera in themselves. With the beard, M. Clément’s face becomes an emblem of the time before the dirigible and the Freudian reinterpretation of will. During that long but abruptly vanished prehistory, men didn’t just face the camera when they posed; they faced the camera down. With their sensitive mouths covered deep under layers of masculine muff, some men of the last moments before the Great War seem actually to have believed that the momentarily living self they showed to the finder could be a visage, hard and glittering as a face self-sculpted in stone.