Weeds at embarcation

As he waits to board the car on the right, the young man’s derby seems to be anchored to his head by a cord running to a clip behind his ear. The effect seems disproportionately serious, like the obsessed drawings in one of those books about funny patents. Furthermore, in the years since this photograph from 1905 was taken, the derby itself has acquired comical connotations, and men’s hats in general have gone ironic. But if we treat the image with the common intellectual decency of trying to see it as of 1905, it will go tender on us. The young man and the pretty little woman next to him then might be, oh, Gabriel and Gretta Conroy from “The Dead,” and the little girl in her sailor suit might be one of their children. Backs turned on us who look at them, they are off now to wherever it is that Gabriel and Gretta will voyage through their long snowy night.

Simultaneously, from the door of the car on the left, a young woman is watching two more women say goodbye. One of them, middle-aged, has a foot already on the trainman’s portable step. She is the one who will be leaving on this train, and the car she is about to board has been given a 1905 purpose that, like the derby, is no longer in use: ladies’ dressing room. She seems emotionally undressed herself as she exchanges a kiss with an older woman, but once she boards the dressing room she will become fully clad in the wear of 1905. As to the older woman, she is already dressed because she won’t be boarding the dressing room, and her clothes are another specialization for the seen universe of 1905.

The clothes are called weeds, and weeds were the mourning wear dictated for widows in 1905 America. The word “weed,” singular, had meant “clothing” for about a thousand years before then, from the ninth century through the nineteenth, but it soon acquired specialized meanings which by 1905 had diminished only to one. Some time before 1905, “weed” came to refer only to a widow’s veil, and then (says the Oxford English Dictionary) the rest of the wardrobe followed and became an outfit strictly in the plural.

But the fashions of signifying death didn’t stop changing with that, and as the term “weeds” became incomprehensible in time, the related terms “dressing room” and “lady” also had to be read in new lights. Flash photography, too, is no longer executed with a frying pan full of powdered magnesium, and so we see in new lights as well. On the evidence of this photograph, the fourth wall stood closer to the backdrop in 1905 than it stands now, and the farewell speech in between was more aglare with high contrast.

But we don’t seem able now to read the expression on the face of the third actress, the one standing at the door of her dressing room. In the glare of 1905 it ought to be immediately understandable, but the immediate seems to have vanished from this image. Requiring a mediation that the image can’t supply, the expression on the woman’s face is one more term dated strictly 1905. Time-stamped, it is to be understood as a word extracted from a body language that is no longer comprehensible now.

It has changed, and in the disembodied language you’re now reading we can’t know how. But at least we can say why. Moments after George T. Nicholson took this picture, the ladies’ dressing room rolled away into what’s called forever after, and in the shed whose flashlit form remained in memory over the darkened track, nothing remained.


Source: George T. Nicholson, “CC Ladies’ dressing room on the Limited.” Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2012649442/. Photoshopped. I don’t know what “CC” stands for — “chair car,” maybe? The Chicago & Alton Railroad used the term, and in 1900 its Alton Limited was the subject of a famous panoramic photograph by George T. Nicholson’s employer, George R. Lawrence.


Is coming! Is coming!! Is coming!!!

As Leopold Bloom walks riverwards at the beginning of the Lestrygonians episode, he is handed a throwaway bearing a sort of poem. The revivalist John Alexander Dowie, sings the throwaway, is coming to Dublin.

Is coming! Is coming!! Is coming!!!
All heartily welcome.

That part of Ulysses, as Kevin McDermott documents in entertaining detail, is fiction. During the first half of 1904 Dowie, who styled himself Elijah the Restorer,  toured much of the world, but Dublin wasn’t on his itinerary. A month after Bloomsday, he returned under a dramatic sky to the headquarters of his cult in Zion City, Illinois.

The two tall girdered structures that loomed over the ceremony of welcome were known at the time as moonlight towers. They held arrays of arc lamps which illuminated a large area, and what they signify in this image from 1904 is that Zion City was technologically very up to date. The air view, too, represented an amazing accomplishment for 1904. It was achieved by the photographer George R. Edwards, who used an array of seventeen kites to lift a 49-pound camera to an altitude of 2000 feet, where its shutter was triggered by an electric signal transmitted through a 2000-foot wire.  But Elijah the Restorer was soon to be overthrown in a cathedral coup, and Zion City then ceased to be monumental. Now called only Zion, it is now only one more Chicago suburb, its cult only the cult of the outlet store. All that remains of Dowie and his Christian Catholic Church is a few pages in Ulysses about disposable language. At the beginning of Lestrygonians Poldy will throw Elijah’s throwaway away, at the end of Oxen of the Sun the sound of Elijah’s sermon will be drowned in Stephen’s vomit, and in Circe his prayer for the whores goes unanswered (“Our Mr President, he twig the whole lot and he ain’t saying nothing”).

I’ve posted elsewhere about this (http://theartpart.jonathanmorse.net/unvanquished-sepia/), and McDermott’s post includes one of the many newspaper articles from the time about Dowie and his scandalous reputation. But (a) the photograph of Zion City here is a better reproduction than the one in my earlier post, and (b) I’ve now discovered a couple of items from the Hawaiian Star (now the Honolulu Star-Advertiser) which entertainingly demonstrate one more affinity between the giant story of Ulysses and the little stories of Dubliners. To live either on a small island like Ireland or on a small island like Oahu is to learn experimentally the meaning of the term insular, so in the spirit of the insular I now offer you Honolulu’s view of Elijah the Restorer, 1904. The first two images are the full newspaper pages; the third is trimmed and pasted to show only the two main stories about Dowie, leaving out the third story about his acrostic bank.


Kevin McDermott, “A. J. Christ Dowie and the Harmonial Philosophy.” Music in the Works of James Joyce, http://james-joyce-music.com/extras/dowie_bio.html

Meredith Rizzo, “Before Drone Cameras: Kite Cameras!” http://www.npr.org/blogs/pictureshow/2014/01/15/260152557/before-drone-cameras-kite-cameras

The originals of all three images here are downloadable from the Library of Congress. I’ve photoshopped all of them for clarity and tonal balance. Click any image to enlarge it.

An Aleph word

Recalling with deep gratitude her encounter as a girl with Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, Margo Rabb belatedly Googled the biography of her benefactor. Her report on the experiment didn’t have a happy ending, however. In fact, it was so unsatisfactory that it couldn’t even reach a properly experimental conclusion. Deprived of what she once had thought was communion with a poet, Rabb had to stop turning the pages of her protocol. Before she could resume her happy reading she’d have to start a different experiment on Rilke’s words, but her own words weren’t adequate to writing the experimental design. Staring disconsolately at her idled lab bench, Rabb could only ask: “How could the kind prophet whose lengthy passages I’d copied into my teenage diary be a selfish, sycophantic, womanizing rat?” Herr Rilke wasn’t available to offer an answer, either, and when Rabb made the inquiry of the diary there was no reply.

The unanswerable question had been forced on her by a Google search delivering words of reproach from a book reviewer. There, summarizing Ralph Freedman’s Life of a Poet: Rainer Maria Rilke for The Washington Post, Michael Dirda called Rilke (in her dazed post-diary state, Rabb quoted the phrase) “one of the most repugnant human beings in literary history.” Dirda continued: “ . . . this hollow-eyed communer with angels, Greek torsos and death was not merely a selfish snob; he was also an anti-Semite, a coward, a psychic vampire, a crybaby.” The catalog of pejoratives didn’t stop there, either, and as it went on it became more and more specific. After Margo Rabb had completed her reading of the denunciation, it seemed to leave her memory of Rilke with nothing but silence and condemnation.

Not every reader remains engaged with the memory of a teenage diary, however. If we grownups are asked to think of a poet as damnable, we may find it poetically possible to think disinterestedly about the language through which we understand damnation. Suppose, for instance, we abstract Dirda’s dictionary of insults from its reference to the biography of Rainer Maria Rilke and the autobiography of Margo Rabb. If we do that, if we look at Dirda’s list of words as a vocabulary without a life attached, we may notice that it contains one curiosity: a noun phrase that resists further specification. What’s even more curious is that this particular noun phrase is semi-capitalized and semi-proper: an anti-Semite.

The difference between the way we read an anti-Semite and the way we read a selfish snob will then turn out to be a matter of historical reference. Just like Rainer Maria Rilke, for instance, Evelyn Waugh was a selfish snob. He worshiped the titled and under the distresses of war he ate his children’s rationed bananas. But if we read Waugh’s letters side by side with Rilke’s we’ll discover that the term selfish snob signifies little more than biographical curiosa. Something that means much more than the biographical idea selfish snob ever could, for instance, is the literary idea that Waugh had a sense of humor and Rilke didn’t.

By contrast, the biographical blank ” _____ hated Jews” can be filled in with almost equal results for both Waugh and Rilke. It also turns out to apply to almost any other Christian writer of a modern European language. In the library (Dewey class 920, Biography) the hatred will be seen to express itself in different verbal ways, but the differences will finally amount to little more than biographical trivia. After F. Scott Fitzgerald wound up working in Hollywood with Jewish writers like Budd Schulberg and Nathanael West, for example, the Jewish part of his vocabulary outgrew its childishness. On the other hand, the Jew-hating Edith Wharton specifically loved The Great Gatsby for Wolfsheim. As to the very minor poet Charlotte Champe Eliot, she had a private word, insects, which she used to express her loathing of Jews, and her son T. S. Eliot picked up the term and went on to apply it to humanity in general. Meanwhile, the title page of Hilaire Belloc’s textbook of Jew-hate The Jews was transmitting a secret message to the Jews in secret Jewish code. Many more anecdotes like these are available for the reading in, for instance, George Orwell’s “Antisemitism in Britain.” In terms of their historical consequences some are more portentous than others, but finally they all seem almost equally trivial, almost equally nonsensical, almost completely ineffable. Nobody can understand the word “Jew”; nobody can stop saying it.


Ulysses was published in the same year as the words you have just read. The blind midwife James Joyce delivered Leopold Bloom from the matrix of a dark language centuries old. Another blind man, the compiler of histories of simultaneity Jorge Luis Borges, wrote a fiction about the moment of such a delivery and gave it, as title, the name of a letter in the Hebrew alphabet: “The Aleph.” Aleph happens to be a silent letter, but for the prose purposes of Michael Dirda and Margo Rabb it can be translated approximately into a string of speech sounds. One string, for instance, could be, “He was an anti-Semite.” It’s a boring sound, but the history of Christian civilization teaches us that it also happens to be a language universal. That may matter for a poetry such as Rilke’s which claims to communicate the ineffable. The monosyllable “Jew” might bring us even closer to the idea of a word that says the unsayable, and it would have the added sociohistorical advantage of being what a Waugh character might call discomfort-making.


Belloc, Hilaire. The Jews. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1922.

Borges, Jorge Luis. “The Aleph.” Collected Fictions, trans. Andrew Hurley (New York: Penguin, 1998), 274-86.

Dirda, Michael. “Devil or Angel.” Review of Life of a Poet: Rainer Maria Rilke, by Ralph Freedman. Washington Post 31 March 1996. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/style/longterm/books/reviews/rilke.htm

Rabb, Margo. “Fallen Idols.” New York Times Book Review 28 July 2013.

Unvanquished sepia

In July, the dark summer clouds rolling in from Lake Michigan would have been full of warm rain. But on the flat land beneath them, tiny people in white are moving about in ways that have little to do with the drama overhead. The people in white are forming themselves into a white group before a white arch.

 Click to enlarge.

The clouds and the flat land and the dark sky are vast. They have miniaturized and trivialized everything else in the image. An aerial perspective (in 1904, how? from a balloon?) has scaled down the big buildings and broad streets to fit the tiny people. “Welcome home,” say tiny words on the arch, but up there in the sky is something which is not to be engaged on any terms but its own. The clouds communicate only with themselves, and what they communicate is only moving air and light and the water from which they came, to which they will return.

Within its frame, the picture of clouds and land is captioned, “Welcome home of the General Overseer, Rev. John Alex. Dowie. July, 1904. Zion City, Ill.” Outside the frame, a few clicks in Google will construct a context for those words and convert them to a text illustrated by the people and their arch.

Zion City, Google’s texts can tell us, is a small town north of Chicago, now called simply Zion. With its broad boulevards laid out at the beginning of the twentieth century in the form of the Union Jack, it was a fully planned community with an intended population of 200,000: the proposed Vatican of a cult called the Christian Catholic Church. What it actually became you can learn here from the Zion Historical Society.


And about its founder and first ruler, John Alexander Dowie (1847-1907), you can see and hear a great deal at this site, including three cylinder recordings of Dowie’s voice and a colorized photograph of Dowie, “First Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ,” in the priestly robes of Elijah the Restorer.


These words from outside Zion originate in yet another text: James Joyce’s Ulysses. When the historical John Alexander Dowie passed under his arch into Zion City, there to be overthrown by his followers and to die, he was returning from a tour of the world which took him — in Ulysses, though not in what’s called historical fact — to Dublin, where he passed through the mind of Mr. Leopold Bloom. Searching for Dowie’s words there, the Joycean Kevin McDermott has found them, embalmed them in historical context, and laid them to glorious rest in a cybermausoleum more lasting than any perishable city could ever be under its burden of passing, changing, indifferent cloud.

We clicked Google. It surrounded a photograph with words, but the photograph itself couldn’t be changed back to what it might have been in 1904. A century later, it has become nothing but an artifact. It has faded into its own sepia toning, visually and conceptually. But its visual aspect, at least, can be rejuvenated. All that takes is a few clicks in Photoshop.

The clicks transmute the image’s spectrum. They transfer its tonal range from the pale browns and oxidized-silver grays of a Frederick Henry Evans cathedral over to the glare and muddy green-blacks of a Robert Capa D-Day. Post-Photoshop, these clouds have a different kind of weather to dispense. It still won’t be the weather of 1904, of course. The rain that seems about to fall can no longer be thought of as what Zion City might have expected: a bestowal. Having been photoshopped, the sky over Zion City today is nothing but a formalism: not a manifestation of the presence of God, not even a natural map of regions of air, but only an either-or of black and white.

Those contrasty shades of black and white are on the coat of arms of photojournalism. They seem to tell us that Photoshop can bring history back to life and make it news again. Once more, as if no one need ever die, the sky of 1904 seems current. But under that reborn sky, the triumphal arch of 1904 seems even more ephemeral. The newly victorious sky has reduced it to an irony (“Little did the people of Zion City know . . .”). On them and on what we see now of the great flat land stretching to the horizon, Photoshop has brought down what we might call the Ozymandias Process: “Nothing beside remains.”

Before that moment descended on Zion City, we learn, Zion City’s policemen carried clubs and Bibles and wore badges emblazoned with a picture of a dove and the motto “Patience.” Patiently, let’s close that part of the history of this image and acknowledge that it has forever passed over into the region of sepia, where all will eventually fade to white. No, we’ll never again be able to understand this image. Yes, it is lost now, even as it survives on the page as an incomprehensible artifact. But if that thought comes to us through the agency of a written text, there’s a possibility that our loss may be irreversible but not irremediable. Inside Mr. Bloom’s head, James Joyce’s unillustrated words are still at work, translating the black and white of Zion City into bright color.

I thank Reinhard Friederich for showing me the DVD database Panoramic Cityscape Photo Collection (EURISKOData.com, 2001), where I found the image of Zion City.

Update, July 2, 2013: the image of Zion City was taken by George R. Lawrence (1869-1938), a pioneer aerial photographer who worked first with balloons and then with arrays of large kites, including one seventeen-kite array that lifted a 50-pound camera to an altitude of 2000 feet.


In the Library of Congress collection of Lawrence’s work, the aerial photograph of Zion City is image number 91 of 247.