John Vachon, “Grandmother of tenant farm family, Guilford County, North Carolina,” April 1938. Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2017716972/. Post-processed electronically for contrast and detail.
You see her through a frame decorated with a pattern of sprocket holes. A flash occurred, the custodian of the frame moved an advance lever with his thumb, and the image was moved on toward its place in the historical record. Left behind in the wooden room was what was to remain of the face after the light had blasted it into the record. Left behind was the shadow cast by the hand warding off the light. Those had vanished in a flash.
Published in 1888 for the Cotton Bale Medicine Company of Helena, Arkansas, this pair of store display cards, each one measuring about 11 by 14 inches, is housed in the Library of Congress in relic state: faded and damaged and mounted for preservation on a backing sheet. In 1888 it wouldn’t have been seen this way. To imagine it as it was then, we probably won’t be able to escape our education. I, at least, find myself imagining literarily. When I display the poster before my mind’s eye, I find myself thinking it into a setting like Jason’s store in The Sound and the Fury, smelling of pine and heat.
But I also have the photoresources to reconstruct it physically, without regard to any shelfspace it may fill in the library of the imaginary.
I look at what I have done and I think I have helped something made of pictures and words escape from time. That thought turns out to be the consequence of an optical illusion, however. The illusion has enabled me to think I can now move in close to “Merit and Success” and read again the fine-print phrase “free to all,” but of course I can’t. When I teach Ulysses in the years that have followed its day in 1904, I have to bracket a word into the text to make sure the class reads Poldy’s throwaway in “Lestrygonians” as a constative, not an imperative: “All [are] heartily welcome.” All used to be understood to mean everybody, but that sense seems to have gone obsolete. Rhetoric has lost something that sounded somehow grander than everybody: not restricted to the mere body or the mere human but universal.
And of course the fine print in the lexicon of the Remedies also says free.
I have reconstructed that word too, but reconstructed it in a time when the people of the bales can read it and write memos of their own. In 1888 that word on this page wouldn’t have been read as ironic by the readership for which it was intended, but it turns out that reading takes place now across a different spectrum. I have also reconstructed the page’s 1888 colors, but even that purely spectral act turns out to be complicated by words. Post-1888 terms that we have to know now when we read this page, for instance, include not just color but also colored and the colored.
And in the sky, cottony clouds . . .
Metaphor too has undergone a change of clothes. There are no remedies for this ceaselessness. Language, it turns out, never was color-fast.
Here, dating from 1854, is a view of downtown Honolulu.
Here’s a detail from the lower right of the image.
And here’s a double description of what your eyes have just beheld. One half of the description comes from the 1847 second edition of Herman Melville’s first book, Typee; the other half comes from an 1835 translation of what appears to have been Melville’s source, an 1834 account of an expedition around the world by the German botanist F. J. F. Meyen.
And here are two more pages of Meyen which Melville didn’t use.
As I write, a group of Hawaiian monarchist protesters are holding up construction of the great Thirty Meter Telescope atop the Big Island’s Mauna Kea. They call themselves cultural practitioners, and what they claim to be practicing is the animist religion of pre-contact Hawaii. In this they are supported with money and public relations by Kamehameha Schools / Bishop Estate, the combined successor power of Hawaii’s nineteenth-century puppet kings and their Christian missionary puppeteers.
Typee is partially non-fiction, partially fiction. For a start, Melville’s “four months’ residence” in the Marquesas was only three weeks. As Hawaii’s history is generally taught, it too is partially fiction. But look at that illustration again. Look at that woman with her parasol and her Hawaiian slave.
It tells you that the things called history and culture are complicated, but sometimes they show us things that are true. So please: before you click away, look one more time at the man towing his missionary burden. He wasn’t a king or a priest. None of the people blocking progress on Mauna Kea today would claim descent from him. Still, he did exist, and perhaps he’s worth trying to remember.
Laying hands on a circle and a quadrant, he brings them into alignment with his eyes. It is as if he is working with a pair of instruments for guiding light. What he holds he sees through and into and with.
Slightly eccentric with respect to each other, a body formed of metal and idea and a body formed of flesh and sense have approached, for an instant, and been held steady, for an instant, in a touch. For an instant, they have become a coupled form imposing an ordinance of light which they obey.
Source: Louis Van Oeyen, “Champion Jack Johnson at wheel of his 90 horse power Thomas Flyer,” September 6, 1910. Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2011649816/. Image cropped and post-processed to restore contrast.
“Vienna — hungry child.” George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2014713460/. Restored in Photoshop. The photograph is undated in the Library’s record, but it was taken in the aftermath of World War I. The hunger, of course, continues. We are not to be sated.
With a conductor’s gesture, a man poised at a brink once brought together two curves.
Angular flesh and rounded iron approached each other, light and shadow moved over them, and a moment was consummated and became past.
Borne above the shapes like a banner, the word Trimble meant nothing. It only said, as if say were an intransitive verb. It was an order of service: a separately published hymnal to be sung from while the two bodies approached, touched, and then fell away. During that limit instant, the word and the two bodies were united in a single imaged meaning, fully understood but not articulable. Thereafter, in separation, all that could be said in words took the form of a caption (“Davis lock, St, Mary’s Falls canal”) that sang of the watery bed but not of the coming together in light and shadow that had once filled it.