At last

In Girodet’s Apothéose des héros français morts pour la patrie pendant la guerre de la Liberté, the heroes, some of Napoleon’s favorite generals, are shaved and bathed and unsullied by their wounds. They’re in uniform, too, as if they had never looked like anything but generals, and at their moment of apotheosis they are no younger than they were at the moment of their death.

Moment, singular. According to their group portrait, that moment occurred just once. At that moment, each hero became forever an element of a composition whose medium was rigor mortis. At the moment of death, each hero became perpetual. With his promotion to Statuary General, he lost the Other Ranks’ privilege of changing his clothes.

Likewise, Girodet’s statuary Ossian is old and blind as he welcomes the group representing sculptured military middle age, while the Rhinemaidens or whoever they are are moisturized and young even though they too are statuary. That’s how the picturesque does elegy. It’s a technique for making visual the idea of simultaneity that is communicated by the elements on either side of the conjunction and in the prayer, “Now and at the hour of our death.”


When the troubled genius Charles Sanders Peirce died in his eccentric edifice of a house, he was laid to rest there, disposed in an eccentric artwork that also included bookshelves and a separate artwork depicting a dog.

I learned this from a book: Joseph Brent’s Charles Sanders Peirce: A Life (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993). This picture of its pages amounts to another display: a trophy gallery of Brent’s expedition through Peirce’s thought and the archives of the Pike County (Pennsylvania) Historical Society. Click it to enlarge.

If you brought a Peircian disposition to the click, you might be able to think of it as an index of me. Shining through a diffuser at the left of the image, for instance, is the brilliant tropical sunlight of Hawaii, where I happen to live. At the top can be seen the property stamp of the Hawaii State Public Library System, where I happen to get delivery service because my wife is a librarian there. And that metal thing at the bottom is a little plastic-and-wire book support whose appearance may signify something about a man in his seventies who still plays with school toys. Elsewhere in the image, too, thanks to sun and shadow and Photoshop, you can glimpse the texture of Indiana University Press’s twenty-two-year-old paper, still imploring the possibility of a staged dramatic reading: “(Pause. Then, with a catch in the throat:)”

But of course Peirce will remain dead. Under a steady drizzle of traces of life, that which once was Peirce has nevertheless undergone its final change. In its interior, the rain-swept stone remains dry. That incongruity between the images of life on the surface of things and the deathly actuality at their center is why elegy is always ironic, with irony’s trick of making us think one thing while knowing another.

But aren’t Napoleon’s death-rewarding Rhinemaidens cute as they frolic on their surface? Let us, as the cantors deludedly intone every Saturday morning, choose life.

To symbolize, insert signifier

The little boy’s cap and coat are brand new. His shoes, however, are scuffed. He has been a little boy in them for some time and taken little-boy dominion. On scuffed floorboards his feet aren’t arrayed in proper new-clothes symmetry, but the cap and the coat are constraining his upper body to their form. Made in a factory, they still incorporate some of the factory’s architecture.

No wonder the little boy is unsmiling. The transaction that has covered him with new cloth may have been love, but he can’t yet feel it on his skin. During the instant when his photograph was taken, he was still in the factory, not yet home.

However, Costică Acsinte, photographer of humanity in the guises of its clothing, understood the problem and devised a fix. Into his image of a body restrained by buttons and buckles he inserted a second image, this one not of one body isolated but of two bodies touching. Merged into single fur, a lithe enclosing integument unites the two bodies in one.  Placed then under Acsinte’s control behind the little boy, the undoubled image takes on the intelligible function of an index of love. It mirrors the giver of the clothing to him- or herself as a body wearing that which has grown out from itself to make contact with another body.

And we are now admitted to the room where a body in a picture grew toward another body and a giver of covering for the body was helped to see.

Source: the Costică Acsinte archive,