Moments of unchange


Flaps down, wheels down, its blurred outline communicating airspeed as it hurtles from right to left across the image frame, a Mitsubishi Ki-57 in wartime camouflage is about to reestablish contact with the earth. The photograph predicts that its flight, from ground to air to ground again, will have been successful. The airplane’s shadow is already on the ground, darkening as its source of darkness descends.

Outside the frame, in textual space, there will be words to fill in the parts of the image that we can’t see. After we have visualized the landfall, we can read its story. The landing strip, these words will say, was in Zhijiang, Hunan, China. The shadow of the airplane was cast there on August 21, 1945, and a short time after it stopped moving, the airplane’s door opened and Major General Takeo Imai stepped out to receive the Allied Forces’ instructions for the surrender of Japan’s million-man army in China.

We read that history in language and as language, but the image prior to the words you’ve just read shows us history in the form it takes when the sky passes over a sundial. It can’t be a propositional history, a history in words, because the words a sundial offers us to read can be only those that were there before the sun struck. They are words off to the side of what actually happened, in the margin of the light. Jacques Derrida, who thought about that prior language, passed his childhood under the sun of Algeria, and there, after some Ki-57s had landed in China and some Ju-52s had landed in France, nobody would speak to him. He was alone in the darkfall.


Of course there are ways of requesting a shadow image to step into the light and explain itself. After is has vanished, we can reimagine it with the help of history’s functions of generalization and exemplification. If it is inserted into a curriculum, we can even translate its into the language of computer-assisted design and read it on a glowing screen like the one where you’re now reading these words. Look, the screen can say. Look at:

But to read an image under those educational circumstances is to abstract it from the history which engendered the desire to read. After all, why should we care to see this schematic? There’s only one reason, and it isn’t pictured. It’s off to the side, written down in an unillustrated, unillustrable language that has the power to evoke nightmare after we have stopped reading and closed our eyes for the night. The dream of reason, wrote a Spanish artist into one of his pictures, brings forth monsters. The true monstrosities are the ones we dare only to imagine, not to see.


But El Greco’s Burial of the Count of Orgaz depicts monstrosity. Unlike the photograph of the airplane which for a moment concealed within itself, pregnant before the eye of history, the defeated body of General Imai, this sky picture had a purpose which existed before history delivered it to view. Its creator followed a curriculum as he worked, and the educational labor of inserting the curriculum’s words into the image can only help us to see the image more clearly.  Pedagogy will demonstrate what was there in the picture’s conception before the picture itself came into existence, and it will also send us to the dictionary to read up on what pedagogy is putting us through. There in the dictionary, we’ll discover that the words “demonstrate”  and “monster” both come from a Latin root signifying portent and warning. That etymological exercise will teach us that we knew all along what was going to be on this canvas before El Greco picked up his brush to make the first stroke. It was all horror, too: the horror of historiography, the horror of birth into the terrible instant in which transfiguration begins its henceforth endless cycle of reproduction. Reproducing, moving within time, the moment of change always becomes without ever passing into the stillness of being.

As long as an image comes before us in the glow of the moment of unchange, the shadow of General Imai’s airplane will not yet have come to rest. Elsewhere under the sky of China, the dying will continue. China is all. El Greco picks up his laser pointer to make the demonstration.

River, crying

On his Facebook page, the poet Alfred Corn plays himself as the educational version of Whitman’s Spontaneous Me: a Socrates who bestows questions, instant by instant, on the corpus of poetry. Professor Corn’s May 4 question, for example, was: “Can a poem indict or pronounce judgment and still be a good poem? Is, for example, Neruda’s poem about the United Fruit Company a good poem?”

Neruda aside, the answer is “Of course.” But on the Facebook page the exercise generated much excited brow-furrowing among the friends. The reason for the excitement may have been only pedagogical: Corn teaches modern literature, and in the here and now (any here and now) it’s hard to predict what is likely to last. Still, even here and now it wouldn’t have taken much effort to recall The Divine Comedy. If the words “poem,” “good,” and “judgment” have any meaning, then of course The Divine Comedy is a good poem, and of course it pronounces judgment. Indicting and pronouncing judgment are what saturnine temperaments do, and if someone with a saturnine temperament also happens to be a great artist — say, a Dante or a Swift or a Goya — then we’ll get great art that pronounces judgment.

So far, so sophomore survey. If it slipped the minds of Corn and his friends, the explanation may be no more shameful than a desire for unshadowed pleasantness during the act of reading. After all, garden statuary throughout the English-speaking world speaks to that desire by making a little verbal gesture of motto and performative self-description:

Click to enlarge.

At the beginning of “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” Ezra Pound took uncompromising exception to this sunniness. For his own motto and and self-description, he took a long view of himself in the third person, declared that third person “out of step with his time,” and then explained in bibliographic detail:

His true Penelope was Flaubert,
He fished by obstinate isles;
Observed the elegance of Circe’s hair
Rather than the mottoes on sun-dials.

That was in 1920, and as of 2011 Pound has long since fallen into step with the academic calendar. But it seems likely that sundials and their poem are still the more convincing pacers-off of time. From their garden in 2011, sundial and poem invite us to join the orbit of Facebook and become part of its unending cycle of nervous small talk and reassuring consolation.

But the inconsolable among us may still need the poetry of judgment for the different way it teaches us to look toward the sun. Consider Psalm 137, for instance.


“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down,
yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.”
From the Chludov Psalter (9th-century Byzantine).
Photoshopped for color and sharpness


This river doesn’t follow the law of cycles. Its course is linear, with a beginning and an ending. It begins in the wordy cry of an uttering mouth, and it comes to an end at the margin of the parchment, where the words run out and (as the idiom has it, but usually not this literally) nothing remains to be said.



Once it has reached that wordless space, the psalm pronounces its judgment. Its penultimate verse is, “O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us.” In the English of the King James Version, the term “happy” has its old sense of “fortunate,” so this verse plays a grim, delphic word game with the vocabulary of gift exchange and reward. But where there are no clouds, the delphic must give up its smiling secrets. Irony evaporates from the words, they begin radiating a heat as dry as desert rock, and the psalm ends: “Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.”

When he drew those words, the artist of the Chludov psalter understood that in this text the river and the man must be one. Where there is no water cycle, every loss is irrecoverable and every word spoken is a word that is gone. Where the words run, man and river are one cry. In the light by which we read the cry, every hour is sunny.