The squire’s coverall is shiny with grease. His shoes are made of wood. His dark eyes are sunken and shadowed.

Standing between him and the slender knight he serves is a piece of high folk art: a coat of arms elaborated to teach Catholic France what its knights of the air live for. In the artwork, the body of one of France’s enemies has been brought back to earth, mockingly flattened out beneath a cross, and dropped between altar candles and the sign of the danse macabre. All around this composition the artist has drawn the sign of a heart, perhaps to signify that he lives on in control over the vanquished dead. But if this icon is a sacred heart, it is a lighthearted one.

Mais qu’il est jeune! qu’il est droit! comme il tient fièrement sa lance!
Qu’il fait de plaisir à voir dans le soleil, plein de menaces et d’élégance,
Tel que le bon écuyer qui soutient son maître face-à-face,
L’Ange . . . !

Paul Claudel, “Strasbourg” (1913)

One level up, mounted on a wing above the companions, is the Lady they live to serve: a Lewis machine gun like the one that Jay Gatsby once told his squire Nick about. But this has arrived in the airy zone from outside the angelic order. As her image teaches you, Lewis the mitrailleuse — American-designed, British-made — is sole black steel. She is spectrally far from the rose comme une fiancée of Claudel’s cathedral stone.

Joseph Antoine Callet, “Nungesser et un de ses mécaniciens.” Bibliothèque nationale de France, Contrast and detail restored. The insigne was red (

But through her solitude she lives. Here in her prose she still is: as sun-touched on the photographic record now as she was then, in about 1916, when a curtain was drawn to open her dark closet for men to see. Age after age, libraries’ worth of history have burned to the muddy ground of Europe, but the opening to returning light always restores gleam to the ruins and their dead.

That’s so!

To record any moment is to make it supreme. When a memory prosthesis (in a cave in the Pyrenees, a finger dipped in soot; on an American lawn during the Edison era, a camera) translates a momentary perception to something that can be referred to in after times, perception’s momentary allotment of time within life comes to an end and it is translated to memory and the immortal dead language of history. You could call the text of such a translation a truth.

Or at least a word: a word that says “Truth” to you about itself. You’re reading it now. It reads itself to you about what you have just seen, and so it reads to you about yourself.

Unknown word in a too knowable language



you’ll find a pair of documents from 1857 Charleston. They advertise slaves for sale.

In each, a woman named Eve is referred to with the term prolap. In 1857, readers of those advertisements must have known what that word meant, but I don’t know now. It isn’t in the Oxford English Dictionary, the Dictionary of American Regional English, or any of the nineteenth-century dictionaries that I’ve consulted, and a search through the 1850s yields only an unrelated medical term, prolapse. I didn’t find it, either, in any of the several 1850s gynecology texts that I found at So today I submitted prolap to the OED.

I was being sentimental. I intended to make myself believe that I was completing Eve’s forgotten name and nobly getting it admitted to a dictionary’s kind of memory. But both the dictionary’s language and what memory does with it will tell me I’m no nobleman. All that my memory and my words actually did was to dress me up as a headwaiter, station me with a volume of the OED behind a reservation desk, and let me admit the gentlemen and ladies already in the corpus to the privilege of being known there once again. The grammar of my notion about Eve was possessive, as if she were an Eve of my own to decide about in a future of my own. But long before I was born, the orders concerning Eve had already been written into the book I wielded, and the whiteness of the shirt that I wore when I read them out had always been a part of their language.

Alexandria Gazette (Alexandria, Virginia), October 10, 1853, page 3. In the nineteenth century the word “mechanic” referred to any blue-collar worker, as in Whitman’s “the mechanic’s wife with her babe at her nipple interceding for every person born” (Song of Myself, sec. 41).

From deep inside soft warmth,

shy glance outward and daring intimate pressure on the instrument that opens her to memory. It serves her as a speculum.

George Eastman, whose Eastman Kodak atelier fashioned the speculum for the hands of mezzo-soprano Ina Bourskaya, was born in 1854. Sigmund Freud was born in 1856. Because portraiture is an art of revealing the body, a new way of portraying will equip the eye with new, bodily ways of experiencing. Wielded a century ago under Eastman’s influence, this cable release was a newly seductive unbuttoner.

Eastman’s original advertising slogan was this. Consider it sung by Don Giovanni.

Episode from a clinical history of photography

It lacks a date and an identifying context, but this photograph in the Library of Congress’s George Grantham Bain collection is claimed to be a portrait of the American socialist Daniel De Leon (1852-1914), a man who influenced Marxist theory. In his practical history as a working politician, De Leon had little influence during his lifetime, and this souvenir of his existence can’t teach us much. At best it’s only a picture, of course, and this particular picture is also hard to see.

The stain obscuring its detail is biohistorical: a spreading fungus which has eaten into the glass negative’s photosensitized gelatin coating. The negative should have been archived under refrigeration. On the archival record, it is destined for indecipherability.

But archived biohistory can now be simulated and reversed with the aid of what’s called artificial intelligence, and people under the influence of the artifice sometimes find themselves saying things about a dead image that they once might have said about a living person. What they say will be a babytalk doing what babytalk does: speaking both to and about the baby. See this beginning of a Daniel becoming understandable, and listen in yourself for what you said about that very first comprehension.

We still can’t supply this record of a camera event with a date, but now we can speak about it from a partly recovered, partly computer-conjectured knowledge of its external and internal milieux. Whatever else the Daniel moment was in the photographer’s life, we can plausibly understand now that it occurred under a high, glaring sun which threw into relief a gullywork of deep, leathery wrinkles. Sixscore years after that instant, furrows like those aren’t much to be mapped on educated Americans’ faces. Educated Americans know now about the vasoconstrictive effects of tobacco smoke and what those do to the complexion, and so they have trained themselves to believe that this picture labeled “Daniel De Leon” may also be a clinical portrait of a heavy smoker wearing both old-fashioned clothes and old-fashioned skin. On the basis of that belief, can interpreters of that De Leon image know a thing about, say, the old fashion of De Leon’s thought? Of course not. But they may have entered an intimate new understanding of the De Leon who once was this wrinkled body.

Understanding isn’t an idea, of course. At best, this understanding can only help us imagine a body in the physical act of thinking. But think of that thinking body telling you a story about itself. Sentence by sentence, it makes itself into a unity with beginning, middle and end: a conviction, through things seen and words about those things, of itself as a history actually existing. Looking at Daniel De Leon’s newly seen image for the first time, we prepare ourselves to hope that that history may be a communication about itself — say, a communication with a newly imaginable name, Daniel. Whether or not that newly fashioned hope is an optical illusion, it has brought us under the control of a silent image which has commanded us, by sight alone, to believe it is about to tell a story about a man.

The communicable form taken by the story is a man’s wrinkled glyph.


The noun cult entered English in the seventeenth century: belatedly, from both Latin and French, and with its meanings burdened from the start with complication and ambiguity. The OED traces back to 1875 the word’s first negative social sense (“a relatively small group of people having [esp. religious] beliefs regarded by others as strange or sinister, or as exercising excessive control over members”), but the more general sense of “a collective obsession” is found, pejoratively, as far back as 1711, and the political pejorative cult of personality is first found, with specific reference to Wilhelm II, in 1896. Nevertheless, in the first year of Wilhelm II’s Great War a man named Misha Appelbaum manifested in the municipal politics of New York as the organizer of something war-related that he named The Humanitarian Cult.

Well, Appelbaum wasn’t a native speaker of English. I should think most speakers of the native idiom as of 1914 would have regarded his choice of institutional title as strange, and after only a short time the strangeness told. Andrea Nolen,

has found traces of its ephemeral passage through the New York newspapers between 1914 and 1920, but they are only archaeological now. I have almost no idea how to read them, and to reconstruct a way they might have been read in 1914 would be, as literally as literal can be, beyond my imagination.

Of course the Humanitarian Cult hasn’t been the only unidiomatic eccentricity in history. People are fascinated by old newspapers precisely because their communications, clear then, are indecipherable now. (“Did I dress like that?”) We laugh and then forget. But the specific history of Misha Appelbaum in its newspaper morgue happens to be appended to an unchronological anomaly: an artifact somehow resistant to oblivion. It is as dead as anything else in the morgue, but having been seen, it somehow continues communicating a meaning to our (or at least my) senses, through a symbol system they seem to comprehend. I think I feel it desiring. It seems to want me to hear it command, “Forget me not,” and I seem to want to obey. I want to believe it physically possible to hear a soprano voice riding through the air of 1920 once more, on a breath.


“Photograph shows soprano singer Helen York (Helen Sherman Yorke) wife of Misha E. Appelbaum, editor of The Humanitarian and founder and president of the Humanitarian Cult, and director of the Musical Bureau of America. Photograph taken in 1920 in their home at 471 Central Park, West, New York City.” George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, Image cropped, and contrast and detail restored.

If you do see, this image may be an idol. While I’m in its presence, I think it does what an idol does: offer itself for contemplation as a bodily life like mine, but one that happens never to have died. See me, says the idol, and seeing, believe. Regardless of what you know I am not, I am a body communicating a sense of life to your body through an order of meaning to which you can’t not assent. Along your nerves, you understand what you now know you always understood: that I am alive, and I outlived.



Life to that point had been a glitter. What tears came to the eyes only amplified the effect. See how efficient it was.



All the tears that were possible then are dry now, of course. The life at their source was only a matter of time. But scroll back up and look again at the idol.

You do have time for that, because the Helen idol didn’t change during your absence. What glitters though it is unchanging and fundamental: a property of photographic nature, compounded of silver and light and nothing else. The idol is the same to your eyes as it was before. It is a permanence. Never will it be able to communicate anything except joy to us all who lower our gaze before its eyes.