Treadle

Published eighty years ago, probably on cheap paper in a mass-circulation magazine (online, it’s unattributed), this page has physically deteriorated in the course of nature.

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But we can be helped to see it with refreshed regard. Tear out the page, carry it into a dressing room, read it into a computer, and the light reflecting from the mirror will grow bright again. The film of age will seem to have been windexed away.

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Brightened, the pictures (of hat, of corsage) have been repaired and restored to what they seem to have been at the time of their conception: cultural emblems, metonyms of the feminine. Look at me, they say; in myself, as such, I am pretty. That is my primary meaning. But the color pictures bracket a page of words in black, and those have their primary meaning only off the page. They are less a text than a musical score — a score for woman’s voice, solo.

In current performance, this score’s fidelity to register is low. Its reception has been made partially obsolete by advances in recording technology. “Slipper,” the voice was intended to whisper in sibilant soprano. “Meekly obeys,” it was meant to murmur with a smilingly knowing evocation of a vow at a wedding. When it sings, “Put your foot down,” the voice is probably intended to perform a messa di voce, swelling and diminishing between masculine loud and feminine gentle. But after eighty years we hear the shellac rasp and see the whiskers showing through the soloist’s makeup. History is beginning to mime from the aisle that it’s time to cut the performance short and leave. “Treadle” is 1939 sewing-machine nomenclature, but not even a feminine exclamation mark formed with a dainty little circle can make an audience believe now that Buick the Beauty had ruffles around her pedals.

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No; despite the page’s restoration in historical space, its time has continued being 1939, decay and all. Photoshop has refreshed the colors of the page’s language console, but the console itself is not a live vocabulary but a Victrola running at 78 rpm. Never to rise away from 1939 and go free, its sound from the time of black and white only fills and refills the yellow-filtered Edward Steichen atmosphere of the stage which Buick traverses. There it enters her open windows. And there in her, treadling as he holds back his tears, slippered gay Jill drags through his errands.

* A treadle, under the unmotorized sewing machine. You rock it with your feet.

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Flash!

Toward a deck on wheels, light blasts horizontally. Its source would probably have been powdered magnesium heaped on a palette, ignited by an electric spark and leaving in its aftermath a cloud of yellow-gray smoke. The men illuminated on deck are being caught in a recorded act of what’s now called history, with coordinates in space and time: Pennsylvania Station, New York, USA, August 27, 1920.

In the station, the light has caught some men with notebooks in the act of recording the history. On their platform underground they are at the edge of terra firma, just at the brink of the gap that separates them from the man on the deck who is speaking the history to them. The same historiographic impulse that has directed a bolt of energy into the magnesium has given the speaker on deck a title that enrolls him in flash’s vocabulary: Governor James M. Cox of Ohio, Democratic candidate for the presidency.

Below deck is the level of dark. There, simple machines are at their work: wheels, steps up an inclined plane, an Archimedean screw. Because these execute physical law, not historical process, they don’t need the light that men require. Beneath the level that has been penetrated by flash, they are about to begin bearing the voluble men on the deck away from the illuminated fraction of a second where it has been 8/27/20. An instant from now, they and the men will be together in the dark tunnel where it is forever.

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Sources:

“J. M. Cox.” George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2014711189/. Post-processed to restore contrast and detail.

“Cox to Amplify His Charges Here.” New York Times, August 28, 1920, page 2.

Flash: she was framed

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.

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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.

No remedies, all

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.

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Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2005687684/

But I also have the photoresources to reconstruct it physically, without regard to any shelfspace it may fill in the library of the imaginary.

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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.