In 1930, in his early middle age, William Faulkner bought an unoccupied nineteenth-century house in his Mississippi home town. The next year he gave it a name, Rowan Oak, and began the remodeling that would occupy the remainder of his life there. As the transformation into an ancestral estate went forward, the estate’s on-site storyteller devised a tradition for it: every evening at dinnertime, one of the family retainers would parade the main course around the table before setting it down. Perhaps the idea was that this would mark the end of one day and the beginning of the next, for always.
Before dinner, the Modernist storyteller had been teaching language some things about time that would make tradition obsolete. In that telling, Quentin Compson had begun the day of his death by tearing the hands off his father’s watch.
Chris Wiley’s essay “What Old Money Looks Like in America, and Who Pays For It,”
introduces the work of Buck Ellison, who photographs carefully staged tableaux of models wearing the very best of understated fashion in the very best of settings, with every blade of grass on the putting green just so and the outdoor or indoor weather always perfect. Before the first image reveals itself, the prose prepares us this way for the responsibility of seeing it.
It’s the cut of the jacket that’s the dead giveaway. The graceful arc it draws above the woman’s waistline looks architecturally engineered, its hourglass effect enhanced by tastefully wide peaked lapels. The fabric, too, looks sumptuous. Cashmere? Probably.
Wiley mentions in passing that Ellison is gay, and the import of this deadpan scrapbook seems to be a travesti like the Trockadero Ballet — a travesti with all the wistfulness of an anatomically male body forcing itself onto pointe but none of the forced hysterical laughter. What’s being acted out through Ellison’s images isn’t at all gentle, but it is acted quietly.
After all, it is acted in The New Yorker, whose language is written in a traditional script. To the native speakers of The New Yorker’s dialect, the discreet but firmly lodged diereses in coöperate and reëlect are to be heard only at the overtones of their natural frequencies, and the ostensibly nonfictional is punctuated at strictly observed canonical intervals with understatedly Homeric descriptions of the characters’ clothes. These details of house style are themes, and they claim a moral purport. Other languages will change, says the house style to itself about itself, but I am as classic as changeless Roman marble. Simultaneously, on the advertising pages, capital is at romp, melting all that is solid into air.
In this 1849 print by Nathaniel Currier, one of the men at the foot of George Washington’s deathbed is identified as “Quaker, an intimate friend of Washington.” Perhaps out of Quaker modesty, his name is not named and his face is not shown. But we know the style he would speak in this silent image, because he is wearing the small-clothes of a gentleman at the end of the eighteenth century.
The other man’s face does show. The man is identified, too: with a euphemism, “Domestic.” But that is a mere pleonasm, because after all the man’s color reveals half of the unnamed truth of what he is.
The clothes reveal the other half. Close enough to the body of the father of his country to love but never to have been loved, this is a sans-culotte.
Bernard Faÿ, a French Modernist man of letters, saved the lives of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas during World War II by letting them live, rent-free, in his house in the unoccupied zone. He wasn’t using it himself at the time because he was occupied in administering both the Bibliothètheque Nationale and the Pétain government’s anti-Masonic program. At war’s end, he was one of the bitter-end collaborationists sheltered by the Nazis at Sigmaringen. After the war he escaped from prison with suspicious ease and crossed the French border into Switzerland, where he picked up his career where he had left off and spent the remainder of his professional life at the University of Fribourg.
There he continued his long collaboration with another right-wing Catholic, the Fribourgeois man of letters Gonzague de Reynold. The Fribourg years came and went, and de Reynold marked their passage with a tradition of his own: on special occasions, in the gallery-crypt where the culottes of his ancestors were preserved, he opened the chest and dressed up.
How but in custom and in ceremony
Are innocence and beauty born?
“I had occasion, repeatedly, to find the Pennsylvania Railroad a beguiling and predisposing influence — in relation to various objectives, and indeed I quite lost myself in the singularity of this effect, which existed for me, certainly, only in that connection, touching me with a strange and most agreeable sense that the great line in question, an institution with a style and allure of its own, is not, even the world over, as other railroads are. It absolutely, with a little frequentation, affected me as better or higher than its office or function, and almost as supplying one with a mode of life intrinsically superior; as if it ought really to be on its way to much grander and more charming places than any that happen to mark its course — as if, indeed, should one persistently keep one’s seat, not getting out anywhere, it would in the end carry one to some such ideal city.”
— Henry James, The American Scene, chapter 9
Photograph of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas by Carl Van Vechten
Robert Doisneau’s two photographs of Paris during World War II show us the world capital of chic keeping up appearances beautifully. Look at the calligraphy and composition of a bakery’s explanation to its customers that there is no more bread because there is neither fuel nor flour. Its corners carefully trimmed, its margins as impeccable as snowy cuffs, the hunger text is volubly tasteful. Look, too, at the bicycle rickshaw, double-headed as it pounds through the snow in front of the Opéra. Click any image to enlarge it.
In Gertrude Stein’s twentieth-century America there was a whole pictorial genre of travel scenes like that second one, but on that side of the Atlantic the motive unit was a superhuman machine and the direction of movement was usually an advance to the front of the picture plane, not a retreat.
On either side of the ocean, however, Gertrude Stein experienced transport from a greater distance than this, and de haut en bas. “When I was in America [1934-35],” she wrote, “I for the first time travelled pretty much all the time in an airplane and when I looked at the earth I saw all the lines of cubism made at a time when not any painter had ever gone up in an airplane.” Remaining behind in France during the war, continuing to create chic out of her carefully rationed words, she was able both to supersede train and airplane and to rise above vitrine and pedicab. Herr Brecht once wrote her a song containing the line “Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral,” but Mr. Gray offered her a beautiful portrait of himself for her permanent collection.
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).
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).
Trimalchio is forever young. As we read about him in delighted shame, we invest him with all the immortality of our desires. Down the ages his name will change, but he will not. Look at the Jumbotron, reader! Have you ever been silly? High above you on the screen, the billionaire Paul Allen is now throwing money away on his yachts and his Science Fiction Museum. Henceforth, forever, your own silliness will be both known to the universe and safely dead with you. Have you ever been unreasonable? Because the display on the Jumbotron now shows the billionaire Howard Ahmanson bankrolling the creationists of the Discovery Institute, nobody will have to know about that time when you too denied to yourself the truth of death. There will be more billionaires to come, too, because desire will never die. Watching the forecast on the Jumbotron, we suddenly understand how good that news is. In Petronius’s original report, Trimalchio communed with his guests in meat and drink and then acted out his funeral. The guests escaped. They — we — had been returned to life.
We like that happy ending, and so it has become a genre. But some stories in the genre don’t fit well into any idea of a canon. What are we to do, for instance, with the tale of a billionaire who furiously buys multimillion-dollar house after multimillion-dollar house in one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the United States, then partially demolishes his purchases and abandons their remains? The billionaire is eighty years old. Does he have long-term plans for a future that, in his case, isn’t going to arrive? And why has he used one of his now vacant lots as a dump for dozens of enormous garden statues, and why does he putter around with gardening tools among his ruins? What sort of Eden might this billionaire have in mind? He isn’t saying. As of the page we’ve reached so far, his story is unsatisfactory.
The story isn’t satisfactory and the billionaire isn’t saying, but we all want somebody to say. Therefore, in partial satisfaction of that desire of ours, the canon has authorized release of a term into the lexicon of journalism: “eccentric billionaire.” The term doesn’t explain anything, but at least it has the outward generic form of a characterization. It signifies “apparent violation of convention; mysterious character with plot function to be revealed later in the story.” Until the next Dickens comes along, that will probably have to do. In any case, it will equip us with some nomenclature to help us think the billionaire has been pinned down for us to observe. Of course, in what the media call real life and you and I call genre convention, the billionaire hasn’t been pinned down. He refuses to talk to the media, leaves town to evade confrontation, seems to have found a way to silence anyone who has dealt with him, and in any case can’t or won’t speak English. But the phrase “eccentric billionaire” grants us the illusion of control over those epiphenomenal details. The billionaire has his billions, but we have our word “eccentric.”
It was not from the vast ventriloquism
Of sleep’s faded papier-mâché . . .
The sun was coming from outside.
This poem, one of Stevens’s last, bears an uncharacteristically hopeful title: “Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself.” It may imply that we can attain to knowing — knowing what the word “eccentric” might mean, knowing therefore what the billionaire thinks, knowing some answer to the question “Why?,” knowing — if we can just bring ourselves to unscrew the locks from the doors, unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs, and head outside.
But recent discussions of Gertrude Stein’s life from 1933 to 1945 remind us once again that of course there is no outside. Is it even possible to think of Gertrude Stein in, say, 1943, as someone with a life separable from the words she wrote then? Words that have successfully evaded genre, words that have no more concern for other people’s categories than a billionaire with a copy of Atlas Shrugged in his man purse has for other people’s laws? Bewildered, a blogger covering the controversy for The New Yorker reports that some of those other people seem actually not to want to know Stein — or, at any rate, seem be be making an effort not to want to know about Stein.
The title of that post, “Why Won’t the Met Tell the Whole Truth About Gertrude Stein?” comes to us from the courtroom, where witnesses are formally asked, “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?” The title of Charles Bernstein’s recent study in archival scholarship, “Gertrude Stein’s War Years: Setting the Record Straight,” comes from the same venue. Both titles share the optimistic assumption that there is a god — that is, a stable source of meaning — and that furthermore this god is a helpful god, a cheerfully obliging setter-straight of records. After he got done laughing at the joke, Wallace Stevens might disagree, and so might the history that Gertrude Stein lived through and helped, with her outlaw words, to write.
My May 16 post about the cliché language of Charles Bernstein’s claim that he is “setting the record straight” about Gertrude Stein’s survival in Vichy France made the deconstructive point that if a record is a record, it can’t be set straight. It’s a point that Bernstein’s own poetry has always made, of course. The crookedness of the record is basis of the great ironic joke that is Language poetry. So when he picks up his crooked pen to write clichés like “setting the record straight” or “by hook or by crook” or “when push comes to shove” (in a text that bears unspoken reference to the Vélodrome d’Hiver, the bicycle racetrack where Parisian Jews destined for the death camps were confined without food or water) Bernstein is writing out the joke once again, and this time with a punchline so funny that it achieves self-deconstruction.
That was all I said on May 16. My post was about Bernstein, not Stein. But on the University of Buffalo’s e-mail list about poetics it drew a couple of responses about Stein and the record, so here’s the part of my reply where I do talk about Stein.
“As to my own biographical take on Stein, I hardly have one. She was hardly the only American author of German Jewish descent to feel embarrassed or distressed or even pained by her genealogy. The ironist Nathanael West had that problem and dealt with it interestingly, by donning a mask and proceeding to wear it until it killed him. (Nobody expects a man named Nathan Weinstein to be a reckless driver, so when Nathan Weinstein changed his name he also started driving so recklessly that his friends refused to get into his car. Not long afterward, as these things go, he drove through a stop sign, and that was that for Nathanael West. He was 37.) By contrast, Walter Lippmann, the highly serious father of modern media punditry, was merely uninteresting. He attempted to pass like Anatole Broyard, and to even hint to him that you knew he was Jewish was to break off all communication with him, forever. Considered as a Jew with a biography, Stein may have been personally either interesting or uninteresting, but of course her language is always interesting. That is (among other things), it helps us understand the difficulty of attaching the word “problem” to any human being.
“Which is to say that Gertrude Stein was a great poet. But surely (this is a modest enough idea, isn’t it?) none of us is going to claim that being a good (i.e., competent) artist is the same as being a good (i.e., virtuous) person.
“And surely the example of Bernstein’s language means that we aren’t warranted in reading Bernstein or Barbara Will or Stein or anybody else as if they were journalists, uttering clichés but asking us (because — what’s the cliché? — their hearts are in the right place) not to pay attention to them. If only the sign that Nathanael West drove through had said not ‘Stop’ but ‘Aporia.'”
Pulled up from the archive of the Bain News Service, the couple look around at the borders of their image: he to his left, she to her right. Their negative is labeled “Brookes,” but Bain’s caption card is labeled with a misspelling: “Norman Brooks and wife.”
The Library of Congress, which now holds this trace of Mr. and Mrs Brookes, notes that the caption card is also undated. Between us and the past, there isn’t always a traversable way in the archive. However, a number in what looks like American date form can be seen within this archived image, upside down and in mirror image on Mrs. Brookes’s left arm, and Photoshop can help us at least break the code of its numeric value.
If this number phrase does mean “December 28, 1920,” and if it refers to the date the photograph was taken — if — then it may possess the power to recombine with other information in the archive and rebuild a small factual content. Norman Brookes, says Wikipedia, was a rich Australian businessman (1877-1968). His wife was named Mabel. Since Norman and Mabel are posed here in summer clothes and sunshine, it may be that this December photograph was taken in Australia, during the Australian summer.
More: since Norman and Mabel seem to be on board ship, the newspaper archives of an Australian port city might hold the date of their voyage. Perhaps, too, a fashion historian could take a look at the Brookeses’ clothes and say whether they were what an upper-class Australian couple would have worn in December 1920. Combined, the date and the facts about the ship and the facts about the clothes might at least place the Brookeses in a moment in their time, as in a picture.
Nevertheless, I can’t ask the only question worth asking about the picture I actually have. Yes, of course: what is that look on Mabel Brookes’s face? I’ve been killing time here in the library as people do, delaying the issue like Mr. Casaubon in order to avoid looking straight on at a woman’s face as it manifests an event — an event that may equally be something terrible or something trivial. (A sudden fear of having forgotten to pack something? A sudden horror of the heavy-jawed man looking away from her as he presses from behind against her body?) But you can understand my excuse for holding back this way to play with my solved Photoshop puzzle. At every other encoding in this history picture, there are too many indecipherables. Looking for the last time at the image with its one surviving word scrawled at the top, I can learn from it only a truth that I don’t know how to see.
But what if a photograph comes to me begging to be seen, begging for the chance to teach me what it is? What if it has composed itself with multiple redundancies, fail-safe equipment specifically meant to repeat a lesson, over and over, in how to see?
“Unidentified girl in mourning dress holding framed
photograph of her father as a cavalryman with sword and
Hardee hat. Digital file from original item, tonality adjusted.” http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.36863
Taken during or shortly after the American Civil War, this image is a tintype: a photograph made by a popular nineteenth-century process whose prints were typically small and low-contrast but durable and inexpensive. When this particular tintype was created, however, expense probably wasn’t an issue. Before the image went on display, somebody bought an elaborate frame for it and paid to have one particular color painted in: the gold of the little girl’s locket and the cross-shaped pins that hold her two mourning ribbons to her sleeves. The idea must have been durability: the durability of a memory that can never die.
The locket, in accordance with the century’s etiquette of mourning, would quite likely have held a lock of the dead man’s hair. Its necklace appears to be of some rough fiber, but I can’t tell what: perhaps yarn braided by the little girl? or her hair, as in O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi”? And then, of course, within this photograph there’s another photograph: the image of the dead father himself, centering the visual composition and giving it a human meaning. We know Mabel Brookes’s name and we could learn something about her life if we tried, but we can’t know the meaning of the look on her face. “Unidentified girl in mourning dress” is exactly Mabel Brookes’s antonym. We don’t know a thing about what’s called her life, but in her picture frame she’s surrounded by a library of cultural reference stocked with all the cues we’ll need to warrant us in saying, “The little girl is sad.”
So we go ahead and say, “The little girl is sad.” It feels right, and as we say it we feel sad ourselves. It would seem mean not to. Once more, art has done its moral number on us.
This is blue stain, an obstacle faced by photographers in the pre-digital era. In this case, it was caused by a reaction between the developing agent and the tintype’s sheet-iron backing. Art has nothing to do with it; its manifestations of itself to us are governed only by the unalterable laws of chemistry. Our art reaction, “The little girl is sad,” turns out to have been mediated by a process that the Library of Congress calls “tonality adjusted”: a protection of art and its delicacies from certain inhuman truths that the chemical reaction could have made us see.
The particular truth of this image, for instance, is that it is blue; will be, in time, nothing but blue. Like Stevens’s jar, the blue takes dominion everywhere. The little girl is being submerged in it and made as inscrutable, there below its surface, as Mabel Brookes. If we thought we understood the anecdote that the tintype was telling us about itself and its cultural matrix, we were betrayed by the faux amis of translation.
But look at the blue and sink astonished into its reservoir of wordless surprise. As Gertrude Stein said about Picasso and his discovery that a picture is not a picture of but simply an arrangement of form and color, “One sees what one sees.” Here the punchline is that one waits to see the picture go to its completion, break free of even the memory of image, and become the blue.