Regina in the Tarnhelm

By the summer of 1922, ten years after the event, Meyer Wolfsheim had shaped its memory into a well formed, well rehearsed narrative, organized classically into beginning, middle, and end. “The old Metropole,” ran Mr. Wolfsheim’s beginning. “Filled with faces dead and gone. Filled with friends gone now forever. I can’t forget so long as I live the night they shot Rosy Rosenthal there.”

During the event’s immediate aftermath, of course, the classical hadn’t yet gone into effect. The very long article that the New York Times published on July 26, 1912, for instance, couldn’t settle down to its storytelling until it had jittered and rasped its way through a pre-classical lead-in groove communicating little more than surface noise. That was the pre-narrative sound-effect analogue of a stage direction reading, “Time: the present.”

Likewise, the contemporaneous photograph that accompanied the article was little more than beginner’s literature, with content predetermined by a didactic caption right up top and a moral communicated by a pair of overly obvious symbols: on one side of the image’s woman protagonist a dark portal, on the other a sign proclaiming, with sweatily indignant irony, “Tables for ladies.” The picture story’s supporting roles, too, betray negligence in the casting department. Pigeontoed gumshoe in ill-fitting suit, bald and distressed proprietor wanting to get back inside: the hiring decision that brought these types onto the scene was 9-to-5 hackwork. This photographed setting is just a trailer for a story that (the picture promises us) is fully communicated somewhere else. It satisfies nothing but whatever demand there may be for an illustration of the words “Dodging camera.” In a composition that amateurishly cancels out the overdetermined with the unseen, can Rose be more interesting than the dark behind the door to her right?

But now submit the image to the discipline of the classical. Delete the dark, for instance, and make Rose symmetrical by arranging for her to become a center. Then see:

The delicate mesh purse, the clutched glove, the ungloved fingers daintily curled beside the daintily tenacious thumb and index, the drooping plumes atop what was called, at the time, a picture hat . . .

Seen now merely as she is, freed from the interpretive shackles of her caption, Rose has become fully visible. Now the details of her image have acquired significance and become character attributes. They are honest agents of their protagonist now, working hard to conform themselves to the Aristotelian unities. A photographer has caught them in the act of policing themselves into subordination to the art of the photograph, which is the art of being caught in the act.

On a stage somewhere else, perhaps in the same moment, an artist in a different medium is making cognate gestures in obedience to the discipline of his own art. This artist is a worker in sound, but at the moment he has become quiet —

Vorsichtig löst er den Helm und hebt ihn der Schlafenden vom Haupte ab: langes lockiges Haar bricht hervor. Siegfried erschrickt.

(He carefully unfastens the helmet and lifts it from the sleeper’s head. Long, curling hair pours out. Siegfried is startled.)

— and as we watch, his silence pours from the stage, fills the theater, and becomes another episode, this one silent, of the story noisily illustrated elsewhere by a photograph and a set of stacked headlines. There on the sidewalk in front of Hanover Lunch, the corresponding part of the story turns out to be an American translation of the moment when the warrior woman Brünnhilde was put to sleep somewhere in Germany, there to await the future.

Looking at the photograph, we may still think it differs from the opera. But the classical organization of detail is the same in both works of art, and perhaps the only significant reason for difference is that the art of helmet-making underwent changes between Wagner’s time and, say, Otto Dix’s. In the days of the helmet-shaped picture hat, a single image of the deathly still could be beautiful enough to startle a heroic tenor into silence. Ten years later, it was only the subject of a picturesque anecdote told by Mr. Wolfsheim to his indulgent young friend Major Gatsby, who had already seen the sights from under a helmet of his own.


Source: George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, Photoshopped.

A martyr’s metaphors

“Here’s the thing,” Rabbi Avi Shafran chummily confides to the Jewish magazine Tablet. Then, summoning his reserves of charm, he proceeds to confess:

“Here’s the thing: I’m a Jewish heretic. I don’t mean forsaking (as some famously have done) traditional Orthodox Jewish belief and practice for a libertine life [. . .] Instead, I refer to a real heresy: my reluctance to accept an orthodoxy so deeply entrenched in contemporary society that its rejection summons a hearty hail of derision and ridicule, and results in effective excommunication from polite society. What I can’t bring myself to maintain belief in is . . . evolution.

“There, I’ve written it.”

If, like me, you grew up in a small town in the days of prayer in the schools, you’ll recognize Rabbi Shafran’s tone from sixty years ago. It’s, “Hey, kids! You know who’s really cool? Jesus!” But this recent history also has a prehistory, and embedded in that are some actually interesting bits. Those are the vestiges within the fossil: traces of classical rhetoric retroactively assimilated into the stone-age dialect of theology. Consider, from the same essay:

“[. . .] the high priests of scientism (and the masses that venerate them) [. . .]”

“Yet it is unassailable dogma among the enlightened these days that non-living matter generated living matter [. . .]”

“I don’t reject science, only speculations and assumptions made in its name. And I’ve read and pondered all the ‘answers’ to my questions.* My skepticism remains unbudged.** [. . .]

High priests, venerate, dogma, the enlightened: here Rabbi Shafran employs irony, or rather irony’s shabby cousin, sarcasm, in the service of his heretical persona. But with these days the mask comes off (in Latin, persona means “mask”) and the rabbinical beard springs back into view. It is a seriously long beard, too. No more “Hey, kids” noises surface from its depths. Instead there comes a piercing and utterly sincere cry de profundis:

“In the meantime, lead me to the stocks, if you must. And as I’m pilloried, I will proclaim [. . .]”

Well, we’re all familiar with this vocabulary of martyrdom. It’s ecumenical. In the United States as of 2015, it’s the property not just of Rabbi Shafran but of the Southern Baptist Convention, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Fox News. It’s also long established. As far back as 1704 Jonathan Swift was taking an interested view of it in A Tale of a Tub.

Meanwhile, in 2015, in Syria and Pakistan and West Africa, Christians actually are being martyred. The tools of their martyrdom aren’t figurative stocks or pillories, either, or even copies of The Origin of Species. No; they’re non-literary, actually literal agents like slavery and murder.

On the scale of the suffering inflicted by those physical things, Rabbi Shafran’s own effective excommunication from polite society may seem to score low. But effective excommunication from polite society does command a reserve of pain that mere slavery and murder don’t have. Unlike slavery or murder, after all, the agents that torture Rabbi Shafran have an aesthetic power. They give pain a form shaped by the concept called metaphor, which works by evoking an analogy between something that doesn’t exist and something that does. Twinned by metaphor with an image of the real, the name of something imaginary (pillory, proclaim) begins to seem real itself. It communicates not pain but an idea of pain from the body (somebody else’s nameless, featureless, who-cares body, where pain is a mere experience) to the mind (Rabbi Shafran’s mind, ark of the undying, unsuffering ideal).

In the mind, of course, it still isn’t real. But now (or rather these days) any language that might have been able to say so lies buried under institutional rock. Look, there, at the strata of language that have been laid down to hold reality’s mute remains still! They shape a tomb whose Hic jacet translates as “Here’s the thing.”

Of course the thing isn’t there. Technically, it never was there. It was a vehicle whose tenor never did exist. The metaphors that built its tomb covered its non-existence with words, spoke more words to make it seem to have disappeared, and then set men happily howling, “I am a martyr” at what they would no longer have to know. No more science commanding, “Know the world”; no more Delphic Oracle commanding, “Know yourself.” Only the howl, the happy wordy howl howling effective excommunication from polite society.

Among its echoes, nothing need remain standing except the tomb. Word-bearing but silent, it is stone all the way to its center; but stone artistically made to appear formerly alive and capable of meaning.

Duomo, Milan


* Yes, the modest polymath did write “all.”

** But isn’t a dogmatic skeptic a contradiction in terms?


Source: Avi Shafran, “Skeptical About Evolution — And Not Because of Religion.” Tablet 20 July 2015, Accessed 23 July 2015.


Don’t read. Look in the mirror.

The historic photograph seems to display no published provenance, and its online caption is obviously a late addition. “German fraternity mirror selfie, 1912,” say the caption’s words. There are only five of them, and they offer no more reward for reading than that. No other names inhabit the caption: names of the boys, names of their corps or their university, locations of their future battlefield graves. At that, three words of the caption’s five aren’t even interesting. Online — for instance, at ,

where I encountered the image on July 3, 2015 — the comment stream spawns dutiful ironies about the proximity of the phrase “German fraternity” to the date “1912,” and those you don’t have to read because you already know. Oh yes: just two years after 1912 will come 1914, and little do they know, these tragic boys in their lead-soldier uniforms. The commenters in their stream find this thought exciting, but perhaps it has previously occurred.

And whether you were among the excited or the unexcited, the idea’s bedazzling undergraduate words might almost convince you not to bother looking at the image they refer to. Nevertheless, the image still does cling to the caption’s border. Pathetically, it even tries to reach a little mirror up from the page and tempt us to look in, as if it had something to show us about ourselves. Look, it pleads; look with my help at the caption’s word no. 3 of 5, the one you’re skimmed past. In the mirror, look for an idea of mirror.

If you humor the request and do look, you’ll discover that during the instant when it made itself seen between two surfaces of a mirrored space, the camera in the picture began showing you an image and then didn’t stop. What the mirrored camera began bringing to light in 1912 is an image not only of the dead fraternity boys but of you who look at them now, you who are said to be alive.

I’ve photoshopped the faded original of this image for contrast, but I haven’t reversed its mirror property. Having been made a part of the image’s settings by the boy with the camera, that wasn’t in my prerogative to change. So the boys with their historical apparatus dated 1912 — the rifle, the bugle, the drinking horn, the scar-inflicting sword — continue looking now the way Alice looked at the moment she exited from our world. The world she entered then has grown more familiar by the day since its discovery by Lewis Carroll, but the world of this photograph is now unfamiliar henceforth. Somewhere in Germany, one day in 1912, a boy with a camera sealed himself and four of his friends behind glass and pumped out the time.

Out of time behind his glass, the boy is now holding the camera’s cable release clear of the imaging apparatus. It’s a long one; he has passed its plunger button all the way behind his back from his left hand to his right, which one day in 1912 held it up to the mirror while a last instant of pre-image history was changed with a click to something else. Something else has been among us ever since. It is the other half of our mirror image: the half that does not change and will not die.

And within its glass, bounded at the front by our world and at the back by the surface that reflects us back to ourselves, is the reaction zone where the two halves of the image, the mortal and the immortal, face each other. Looking at images every day, we cross the zone hour by hour in both directions. We’re as blasé about the daily trip as commuters, and maybe that’s why we turn away from the windows and look around our transport for something to read. If we’re beyond being moved to a sense of the real by a silent image, we may still be movable to excitement by a caption shouting at us like a CNN talker with time to kill. But perhaps there is a route across the zone that lets the traveler disembark for a moment, look around, and become alive to the zone’s interesting dangers. After all, Alice once took the route, and told us how. The secret of her itinerary seems to be a simple one, at least in principle. It may be this: just stop when the signs change to transparent.

Estampe III

August 9, 1914: at the beginning of World War I, the American Line ship New York arrives in New York from Southampton, having departed from an England not yet at war.

In Southampton, the New York had become an interesting footnote to the history of tragedy two years earlier, on April 10, 1912, when suction generated by the propellers of the departing Titanic tore the smaller ship from its mooring and drew it toward the Titanic’s stern. Only skillful ship-handling by the Titanic’s Captain Edward J. Smith averted a collision and allowed the Titanic to resume its journey toward the iceberg. That enriches the New York’s log for April 10, 1912, with irony. By comparison, the log for any other day in the ship’s long history (1888-1923) might as well be blank.

So this second image of the New York on August 9, 1914, is all but meaningless to the kind of history that consists in a log of things seen. The second image was taken closer to the ship in space and time, but proximity has left little ironic context within the image frame for a log’s words to work on. If anything, the camera’s privileged proximity has erased the rest of the contextual universe from consideration. Unlike the first image, this one fills the visual field solely with itself. There, it is nothing but a view of morally neutral steel, and of some human flesh seen in incidental connection with the steel.


But look anyway at these smiling faces steel-engraved into the image. They are among the first refugee photographs of the Great War, and that is their claim on us and on memory. The claim isn’t visible within the image, however. Under that limiting spectral circumstance, the bodies pressed against a port-side railing on board the New York can be seen now only as representations of what is not present to the eye. As of August 9, 1914, in New York, the war zone is still elsewhere. We see the faces that have arrived from there, but as of August 9 we’ll never yet be ready to understand what there will look like and how history will remember it.


Instead, we (don’t we? don’t you?) scroll back up to look again at the pretty ship New York and its busily helping tugs, two of whom have names we can make out: Claremont and Excelsior. Excelsior is the motto of New York State and also the title of an easy-to-read inspirational poem by Longfellow, composed during an era when great ships were being strenuously conceived. But August 9, 1914, was one of the dates when reading poetry began getting harder. If you come close enough now to this picture of a ship approaching land, you may feel the little zephyr of a closing book.

Sources: “NEW YORK arrives, 8/9/14” and “On NEW YORK.” George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, and The two larger images have been photoshopped.

Before history: plein-air composition with women and ship

Parasol, veil, widow’s weeds. The man in the derby may be speaking to the women, but the social group doesn’t include the second man, the one in the sombrero. Hat and all, that man is only a visual element which is adventitious to the composition. The legs are right but the face is in the wrong. At best, the juxtaposition of this figure with the other three or four is feebly ironic, with irony’s requisite little does he know minimally fulfilled by the man’s mere unawareness of the women behind him.

After all, the composition has failed to provide a reason why he should be aware. There’s no drama in this grouping. It’s mere real life.

But an artist once happened to bring the grouping into relation with a massive orthogonal structure forced into the image frame on the diagonal, and immediately a trigonometry took form along lines of sight and began instructing vision in trigonometry’s useful truths. Following one of those truths, a ship’s humble mooring line, white against black, powered itself up and began calling itself to notice. It had become entitled to visibility because it had composed itself and become part of a composition.


Forever after, then, the composition will reach out from the frame toward us, forcing vision on a triangulated course upward and away from the inconspicuous caption printed along the bottom of the picture. Even if we happen to notice the words down there, they will keep evading reading by directing the reading function back toward the image for a translation of what they don’t say. “Sept. 13, ’07,” read the caption’s abridged words, and if we look back upward from their pinched little apostrophe to the richness of the image we’ll be rewarded with an exuberance of millinery history. Here they’ll come, the parasol and the weeds and the hemlines: bursting from their closet after their term in the dark and confiding to us with happy giggles, “We are so [19]07.”

It would take a pedant to keep reading after that. For that matter, the original image in the Library of Congress at is now so faded that the words can barely be seen, let alone read.

But yes: even in the unphotoshopped original, the first word remains visible to pedantry. It reads Lusitania.

And the moment we surrender and read, the widow’s weeds will have acquired a pragmatic force in the future tense. Precisely eight years from now, on schedule, they will become the most heavy-handed of ironies.

Fred Spear, 1915. From 60 Great Patriotic Posters DVD and Book, ed. Mary Carolyn Waldrep
(Mineola, NY: Dover, 2010)

Translated into a word in the imperative mood, the weeds will become moral. In 1907, until their picture was taken, they were a conventional index of membership in a social grouping. After they had been photographed, they became visible to viewers outside the social grouping and so took on formal meaning in the abstract calculus of visual composition. Within a few more years, Marcel Duchamp would be pushing his geometry of the female body toward Platonic invisibility with a glass model of a bride stripped bare. But in 1915 another significance pushed its way into the picture, capturing it in the name of morality with no more warrant than mere association with the not yet fully meaningful first word of its caption. To live on in the mode of that significance, as a historical memory with an associated morality, is to have become a fact: something known and believed to be real. But it’s a fact that lives only by having replaced with an idea what was once the image of a body.

On not getting the joke

Item: as I recall the old article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, an autistic student failed a question on an exam because the question was based on a joke. The student reacted by asking a court to require every assignment written for him to be strictly fact-based, with no humor or other figurative use of language allowed.

Item: to date, my only contribution to the letters page of the TLS responded to a review by A. N. Wilson of a book about the controversial British politician Shirley Porter. Porter’s father was the founder of the giant retail chain Tesco, and, as Wilson observed, the “co” stands for Cohen. Having made that observation, Wilson then took it Python (“Wink wink nudge nudge know what I mean know what I mean?”) and generated a sentence which tried so hard to shriek “I hate Jews” and “I hate Israel” in the same breath that it exploded in a spit-spray of ungrammatical incoherence.

I pointed that out to the readers of the TLS. Back from the United Kingdom came a handwritten aerogram accusing me of antisemitism.

Item: an artist who articulates the connection between item 1 and item 2 is Eli Valley, creator of Stuart the Jewish Turtle. It’s true about Stuart, and it’s sad: we don’t very often talk to the people before us. All we hear and all we respond to, most of the time, is the autistic echo inside our own shells.

Item: in his glass box, to himself, Stuart the Jewish Turtle grumbled “Goddamn antisemites!” during the last months of the George W. Bush administration. Items 1 and 2 above are even older. (Reader, when was the last time you received an aerogram?) But now I’m going to be coy and vague about something that appeared on the Net just last night. Its blurred outline looks like this.

The author of a comic strip I’ve enjoyed for its irony announced, in his opening panel, that his strip had lost its syndication. The rest of the strip was ironic about people too unsophisticated to appreciate irony. I appreciated the strip and sent it approvingly along to a graduate student. But then, for the first time ever, I looked at the author’s blog.

The author turns out to be heavily involved in his small town’s politics. One of his blogposts about that reproduces a handwritten note politely asking him to try to keep his emotions under control in meetings, followed by a handwritten reply ordering the writer of the note never to speak to him again. In another blogpost, the author reproaches his fellow citizens for upsetting him so badly that he had a stroke which left him blind in one eye. And a third post, quite a long one, is the author’s agonized analysis of the love and hate he feels for Holden Caulfield.

Oh poor guy.

And I thought I was getting a sophisticated joke.

There’s probably a moral to this story, and it’s probably cautionary. But now I’m not sure I know what it might be.



Oh look at the bleak desert / rusty old car / abandoned furniture / mentally ill person on the street / shirtless southerner with cigarette. I certainly am good at irony!

From Blake Andrews, this lesson from a master.

Erratum: as of June 28, 2013, clicking on Blake Andrews’ blog returns only a “Blog not found” message from Blogger. But the full title of the post above was “Subjects Rarely or Never Shot by Garry Winogrand,” and the post consisted solely of a numbered list of post-Winogrand, post-Robert Frank cliché subjects, such as bleak deserts, rusty old cars, and mentally ill people on the street. It was a nice piece of Winograndian irony, deadpan in the midst of all the noise. While the machine is to us, here’s another try.

Persistence of vision

Chekhov is famous for the effect: just before the end of one of his plays, a sound will add its wordless voice to the words’ dramatic irony. Just before the end of Three Sisters, both the actors onstage and we in the audience hear a shot in the distance, and that (we and the actors are about to learn together, a moment too late) is the sound of Solyony killing Tusenbach. Just before the end of Uncle Vanya we hear jingle bells, and that is the sound of Astrov going away forever. Just before the end of The Cherry Orchard we hear saws and axes, and that is the sound of the orchard being cut down. After the play’s context has enabled us to establish a verbal interpretation for a wordless sound effect (“That is the sound of . . .”), the interpretation turns its newly real countenance toward us and wordlessly says that there will now be no more happiness, before or ever after the final curtain.

Of course, if we’re sophisticated enough to be in a Chekhov audience, we won’t be naive enough to think the sound effects themselves are real. Of course we know they were written into the play. But because they emanate from offstage, they seem somehow to be at least as much a part of the audience function as of the stage function. If they aren’t onstage, then they’re at least partly offstage with us, down here in the dark of our offstage being where we are simultaneously experiencing the sound of the shot (what was that?) and the memory life we brought with us into the theater (did I remember to lock the garage?). A part of the mixed, impure ongoingness of memory, the sound we hear in the theater seems real in a way we can’t fully believe the actors to be. The actors inhabit a system of meaning with a “The End” at the end of it, but the sound can’t. It propagates forever.

But it isn’t just sound that propagates. History seems to impose a Chekhovian irony on certain visual artifacts too – for instance, photographs taken just before a moment of change, or taken during the change but focused elsewhere. That photograph of people smiling at their desks in an office? Little do the people in the photograph know that those desks are in the World Trade Center and the date is September 10, 2001. Or the long-skirted women in that black-and-white street scene, going about their business unaware that just on the other side of a monitor there are now, forever after, troubled young men desperate to overlook them and catch their sight of Hitler.

In its bin at Costco, the piece of cardboard holding a blister-wrapped camera is big, to discourage shoplifting. With lots of space at its disposal, the cardboard uses that space to signify that this camera, a Canon Elph 100HS, is marketed to women. Words printed all over the front of the card promise that the Elph is small and light and easy to use, and through its blister we can see that the camera itself comes in a variety of pretty colors. The card also offers consumers a look at a picture: a picture of a picture that we are to think might have been taken with a woman’s camera like this one, even though some fine print on the back of the card says it wasn’t. The picture within the picture comes from a woman’s social system, and it seems intended to remind buyers how pictures function as part of a feminine experience of the world.

See: within their pictured frame, three women sit at a table in a restaurant, eating and talking and looking into one another’s faces and laughing. This is a picture that you too will be able to take, promises Costco’s piece of cardboard. You will take the picture, you will pass it around among your friends, and then there will come, for you together with them, a moment of intimate happiness. You will have come into possession of an image that first derived meaning from a context, like a pistol shot offstage, and now reestablishes that context, over and over, one view at a time, as it is passed from hand to hand to hand, forever. Remember yesterday in the restaurant? How happy we were?


Not yet cut apart and discarded, the cardboard implores us to open its blisters and begin. At the moment you take your picture, promises the cardboard, you’ll be both director and camerawoman, you’ll be active. But a moment later and forever happily ever after, you’ll be a part of an audience, passively taking in the picture as you once passively heard the sound of Solyony’s pistol. From then on, there won’t be a thing you can do about it. Your pretty new camera will have taken in a few meaningless milliseconds and changed them to a meaning, forever.