Happy chap, 1922: Peter Lorre’s white stunt double

In large letters, his muse inspires him to despair. Wishing is futile, sing her lyrics, because even under high tension his brain will accomplish little. His city is New York, the year is the year of The Waste Land, and the choir giving voice to its libretto of events is named The Lonesome Million.

But the fine print will deliver doubled Peter to hearty laughter and constant protection against all the troubles of the world. All he’ll need in advance of that is whiteness, 75¢ a month, and facility with the etiquette of the word thus.

Thus:

For the Realists

During the nineteenth century, coal and its no longer latent powers began mattering to art and literature. Having been perceived and depicted, they now demanded equal but different rank with the divine. To realize Anna Karenina’s feelings during her night passage on the Moscow-St. Petersburg express was the same problem for Tolstoy that it would have been for Homer, but it was only Homer’s routes that traversed a universe conceivable as a surface hiding no secrets and revealing all there was to reveal. Against that, the moment at the end of Anna’s emptied book when a disconnected fuel tender came rolling by itself down its track (VIII.5) was a revelation of movement without a discoverable origin in intent or terminus in meaning. It may have been that that extorted the last tears from Vronsky. His voyage of discovery had ended without conclusion, in smoky midair.

See how you yourself now perceive this silhouette of eleven womanless men and a danger sign. Inside their collective image, smoke from a waiting parovoz ascends to darken the cloudscape, and that seems to be all the meaning there is. Certainly no one within the artwork’s dark margins is reading the sign’s words.

“Track elevating at road crossing, Joliet, Ill.,” between 1900 and 1905. Detroit Publishing Company Collection, Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/det/item/2016795685/. Post-processed for contrast and detail. Replaces a 2014 restoration, which has now been deleted from the blog.

Signed at under such circumstances, lesser realists such as William Dean Howells and Jacob Riis reacted by filling their non-fictions and their fictions alike with brand names and street addresses, recorded with due accuracy. The intent seemed to have been to force signifiers like the railroadmen’s unread X to give up a meaning. In time, James Joyce came to understand that a record’s significance lies in its words, only. The data of its ostensible content are a pre-text, and that is enough. But the image you have just seen in parallel with Tolstoy’s words is a wordlessness. Its primary signifier is not a history like Tolstoy’s or Joyce’s but a chemistry and a meteorology, and its record is only one of the smudges that coal in the nineteenth century left in the air.

Coordinates with missing locator

According to the Library of Congress’s annotation, these photographs are probably two parts of a three-part panorama: the left and the center, or perhaps the center and the right. The third panel isn’t in the Library, however, and Photoshop’s automated merge function can’t bring the remaining two any closer to each other. They appear to have been taken from positions different enough to create a continuity error. From one image to the next, the curb’s line breaks to form an angle and the Baldwin Locomotive Works undergoes a change of perspective. Just when time almost stopped for an instant at the beginning of the twentieth century, the instant’s vanishing point was seen to move and blur as if it were alive after all.

“Baldwin Locomotive Works, Philadelphia, Pa.” Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2016810604/. Post-processed.

So the visual forms that survive in the blur survive only as isolated colonies of the perceptible: the contextless cloud of steam, its whites and shadows sharply delineated but its purpose in its moment no longer knowable; the man with his tilted derby and rakish posture and shadow, never again to be nameable; the women in hats propelled along a route to the margin, blurred to unreadability above the moving words Wilbur’s American Milk Chocolate.

But at the right, unmoving, PHILA. It is only part of a word, but we seem to remember what the remainder once said of itself in the presence of a now vanished camera. From memory, memory recites DELPHIA. The sound is reassuring, because it seems stable. Tomorrow it will still be callable to mind and singable to completion once more.

But half of its harmony will sing in silent dark, because DELPHIA is a word in the dead language of the vanished panel 3. Looking down now at the two remaining panels, we experience panel 3 as if within its own aftermath: understanding it like a schoolbook remembered but no longer readable with a child’s eye. At their image’s vanishing point, the shadows of the man on the sidewalk and the women in the brand new motorbus and the mule just ahead of them on the road are to become equally unseeable because light will have moved forward past the brink of the image and disappeared into time.

Note added April 2, 2021: in his February 13, 2012 blogpost at https://www.shorpy.com/node/12391, Shorpy succeeds in merging the two images seamlessly and also provides a comment stream from which we learn, among other things, that the electric bus seen on North Broad Street dates the panorama to 1907 or 1908. Thanks, Kim Bridges, for calling the Shorpy link to my attention.

 

Gesticulations from the age of steam

Three weeks into the Armistice, the dazzle painting still at its work of making illusion;

the hats waved as they had been in the days of plume;

perhaps a shouted word in a now dead language, such as “Hurrah!”;

on the evidence of this illusive little history, a belief that war can be over.

Returning American soldiers on the liner Mauretania, New York, December 2, 1918. George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2014708122/. Contrast, detail and perspective corrected.

 

Technical note: vision and the passage of history

To repair a historical damage

Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2006686955/

can be to reset the function of seeing to an earlier state. On the evidence of this artifact, for example, it may be possible that the advent of photographic vision in the nineteenth century didn’t just coincide with the advent of a metal-framed, curtain-walled architecture teaching its era a newly ample definition of the idea soar

Requires red-and-blue stereo viewer.

but made it conceivable. Suddenly, cameras on their tripods were equipping the vanishing point with an azimuth and an elevation. Seen in restored state, this image reenacts one of those nineteenth-century instants when sight realized it could sail forever toward an ever receding horizon.

(vicinity). The white apron, September 1943

On September 23, 1943, Henry Moore revisited an air raid shelter in the London Underground and reenacted the death-defying role he had played there three years earlier, during the battle of Britain. This time, however, he stood without a pencil in his hand, and a movie crew was on the scene to establish its own ever-changing record. For that sculpture without stone, the sculptor and his models had changed into spectators of one another, living on in time after the timeless art was finished.

“World War II, London, England, 23rd September 1943, Henry Moore, official war artist, is pictured revisiting London’s Underground tube shelters, to pose for a film showing how he obtained his ideas for his paintings of blitz-shelterers (Photo by Popperfoto via Getty Images/Getty Images).” https://media.gettyimages.com/photos/world-war-ii-london-england-23rd-september-1943-henry-moore-official-picture-id78960804

Somewhere aboveground, simultaneously, a white apron had draped itself over a woman’s round body. We don’t know who the woman was, or just where. The same history that confidently told Henry Moore “Alight here” places her only in a parenthesis named “(vicinity).” But next to her in (vicinity) there once did stand the flattened forms of another woman and a dog. Coursing and smiling but unbreathing, those are works of dead art.

We see the woman in white in a different way. She whom the drape conceals from our sight was capable of the adventitious. Only she could have violated art by dropping a burning cigarette into weedy space.

Esther Bubley, “Cincinnati (vicinity), Ohio. A ticket agent at a small bus station,” September 1943. U.S. Farm Security Administration / Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2017861708/. Contrast and detail restored.

It has remained. Wherever (vicinity) is, a chair still awaits its white-aproned woman, rocking a little in the air pushed ahead of her arrival.

Times 2: the weird abstraction

Twenty-two words say: “His mere presence in the pulpit was majestic and fascinating, in the weird abstraction, concentration, solemnity of face, voice, mien, and manner.”

Wordlessly, this says:

 

Sources:

“Tribute by Dr. Richard Salter Storrs.” Memorial Collection of Sermons by Edwards A. Park, D.D., LL.D, Professor in Andover Theological Seminary for Sixty-Four Years, ed. Agnes Park (Boston: Pilgrim Press, 1902), p. 12. https://archive.org/details/memorialcollecti00park/mode/2up

Daguerreotype by Mathew B. Brady, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2004664036/. Cropped and post-processed.

Letter 142, The Letters of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas H. Johnson and Theodora Ward. Harvard University Press, 1958.

Alfred Habegger, My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson (Random House, 2001), pp. 310-313, “A Theology of the Feelings.”