The English verb on the sign you carried on May 1, 1909, “Abolish child slavery,” was twinned in Yiddish with an adverbial construction: anider mit, “down with.” Strictly speaking, the verb was optional.
So if we readers of that twinned imperative stop reading there, just at abolish, and then further generalize the verb from transitive to intransitive, it can be detached from its sentence. One May Day 1909 the sentence had specifically to do with American labor history, but in isolation its verb becomes half of a new, ahistorical unit of meaning. It no longer means topically, in regard to other words utterable in 1909, but forever, in regard to you in your now seen image. “Abolish,” said the word in the lower half of your image, and by not repeating itself in the upper half where you lived in 1909, it silenced that upper. There, in your half, you will never open your mouth to cry “Abolish!” In relation to each other, you and the possibility of abolition will forever be still unravished brides.
But from now on, the word abolish in this image will no longer have a meaning separable from you as you were in 1909. Having once read your image and your word as one, your fans forever after are going to know abolish as a composite of its letters and your smiling, closed mouth. Because the word will never again have a meaning separate from you, it will postpone your own abolition, forever. Because a word’s letters enfold your body in undying language, you with your mother-bird pin are never going to die.
The name of the brutal victor in the Ruhr Uprising of 1920 is inscribed at the top of this image. Someone with a military education will be able to read additional name-functions on the victorious body itself: the epaulets, the collar badges.
Then, in more specific characterizing detail, the Iron Cross and the Pour le Mérite: the fundamental, defining militaria, the ones that remain after all the inessential others have been taken off the tunic.
Then finally, with enough connotative association to intimate a biography readable as if it were a novel, two traits of the general’s Bildung: the monocle and the dueling scar. Consult your read experience now and you’ll probably discover that the things like these within the photograph and not the words at the top are what communicated to you the term German general. Now that you and I have learned German general, however, we are free to try realizing the general’s pale eyes with more words. The term that forms in our heads might be, for instance, a Nietzscheanism along the lines of blond beast.
He is unidentified, this man in the photo album dated 1923 and titled Soviet Russia in its early years : A collection of photographs presented to the New York Public Library. A reverse Google image search reveals no name for the man except “Unidentified” and no historical reason for the image’s having been created. Unlike the image of General von Watter, this almost contextless image has only the most general connection with the making and the seeing of it. It can’t be understood in words. “I am something having to do with the Soviet Union circa 1920,” it says, and that is all it says.
But of course if we remove the captioned matte from the image, the word-free remainder will be seen to communicate somatically, through body connotations.
Since you’ll appreciate a demo, this other image of nose and mustache shows Nathanael West, whose short life in words was a single extended riff on the trope, “Funny, you don’t look Jewish.” Once upon a time somebody did something Westian to the image of Unidentified: he identified Unidentified with a number, “18,” and wrote it down on Unidentified’s collar. The Westian punchline, of course, was that bleak “Unidentified” and optimistic “18” turned out to mean equally only nothing.
What you thought when you saw a number branded on what looks like a Jew also meant nothing. You are guilty of anachronism, and of course the archives may eventually reveal Unidentified not even to have been a Jew. But you did think your thought anyway. After all, what has happened is terrible, no matter who the butt of the joke was. Something essential has vanished from the continuum of color value between a gray-flecked mustache and a black number on its starchy white ground. A living man’s name was once spoken to a photographer but then forgotten, and then a backup number was written on a photograph but likewise forgotten. All that’s left of all that history is something called Unidentified, and you want that to have an identity and a name, like you.
The face of Unidentified is the face of that want. It is a state as irremediable as death. Unidentified’s eyes can never see beyond the lenses through which they seem to look toward us. Unidentified is locked into his silver halides. Every promontory of the face that he turns to our living gaze has been flattened into a single plane, crystalline and changeless.
But if we are never to see that face in the round, we can at least read it, the way we read General von Watter’s face amid its novelistic accessories. Behind the sensitive halide surface from which both men seem to look is nothing but opacity, but we can see all the way up to the brink of the opacity because the two men between it and us, men highlighted for our reading with embroidery and numbers, can never now strip back to pre-narrative nakedness in the light that wraps their portrayals in layers of verisimilar cloth. Because we don’t see their eyes in the round but read them on the page, they cannot see us back. We are free to read without dread.
Source: “Protest against child labor in a labor parade,” May 1, 1909. George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/ggbain/item/97519062/. Post-processed in Photoshop. The full texts of the signs would read “Anider mit Kinder Shklaferey” and “Abolish child slavery!!”
Both images have been post-processed for color and sharpness. The main caption in the German poster translates, “Fast steamer Deutschland, the fastest ship in the world, entering service early 1900.” In the Jewish image, the American eagle who faces off against the Russian eagle unscrolls a text that reads not E pluribus unum but “Hide me under the shadow of thy wings” (Psalm 17.8).
come from an album of Great War photographs compiled by Fritz Martin, a reserve officer serving in an observation balloon unit of the Nineteenth Uhlan Regiment. The album is at least partly a memoir in pictures, including several of tall, handsome Oberleutnant Martin in the field. It is not a war diary but a finished picture book, formatted with generous margins and captions neatly inscribed in a French script. The captions are separate from the pictures, but the pictures are affected by the script’s insistent readability. They are non-verbal, but we readers are pushed to see them verbally, as history and as history’s words.
Here, for instance, are two of them, paired on a single page. The photographs were probably taken in locations separate from each other, but authorial control has unified them under a single theme: the theme of imprisonment. All of the men here are caged within image frames, but within those frames some of the men are doubly confined. Their defining trait there is the one that’s spelled out below each picture in a caption: the difference between some soldiers in uniform and their prisoners, also in uniform.
In Europeana.eu’s rephotographed archive, a few of the images pasted onto pages like these cast shadows where they have curled up from their browned backing. Most of them don’t, however. They’re so well preserved that some of the words referring to them by means of the twentieth-century technology of blue-black ink still show fresh traces of the blue. Close to the album’s gutter, shut away for a century from light and air, those words are still capable of asking us to read them as Oberleutnant Martin’s family and friends were meant to: instructions directing us to see the photographs as windows through the page into a history on the other side. Even this late in the day, the prisoners on view through those windows need no visual aid beyond a little spiffing in Photoshop. Photoshopped, with the decay of their paper backing compensated for, they become once again immer schon a verisimilar illusion of an event with a name, a date, a place, and a history.
The lights have come back up again there, and we find ourselves staring through the paper into the imaged men’s playspace. There, perspective recedes not to a vanishing point but to a flat plane like a theatrical backdrop, and the actors downstage are elements in another, parallel plane. In that plane, the one closest to the audience, the director has taken extra trouble to individualize the actors through costuming and makeup. One prisoner in the center, for instance, is depicted wearing a conspicuously ragged tunic apparently backward. At stage right another prisoner backs away from the group with a John Wilkes Booth glower, and next to him, for contrast, stands a dead ringer for Ben Turpin, crosseyed star of American silent comedy. Directors of silents didn’t have to worry about language barriers, of course, so in this silent the prisoners and their guards have all been choreographed to count and lunge on the same beat. The planes continue all the way upstage. Then grow some tall, graceful art nouveau trees, and the picture reaches its end.
And we have been freed to turn the page. Through what we thought was a hole in the page we saw a performance featuring men and trees and light, but it was a performance never not under the control of a script written on the page itself. Having been written on the page, it became part of the page’s history, and the subject of that history is to write itself not through our lives but through the prisoners’. In translation, the script reads, “December 1915.” Translation transports it to us across the language barrier, but in the process it communicates the news that an impenetrable fourth wall has erected itself between the action in the playspace and us spectators in the space of reading. It is a wall made of history.
But history builds itself serially, week by week or epoch by epoch. Except in the kiddie matinee’s playspace, it is impossible to anticipate when or whether the “The End” will come.
Consider, for instance, this episode in the historical record for September 11, 1915. It comes to us under a title: “A Free-Balloon Flight.”
The balloon was a German warcraft and it bore a dignified German name, Chemnitz. In retrospect, the reverent thought that went into that christening has acquired a tinge of comical pomposity, for the balloon was directed on its course across the sky only by a few shouting men in a wicker basket. The city of Chemnitz, likewise, underwent what looked like an evolutionary step forward when it was renamed Karl-Marx-Stadt, but after the contemptuous erasure from history of the pompously named German Democratic Republic it quietly reverted. But one pictured part of the story of the balloon has proved resistant to erasure.
There it is, yes: the name Lt. Kohn. The face attached to the name is up in the rigging, and it seems to be illustrative. It looks, as Germans began suggesting on more and more of the days that serially succeeded this voyage, Jewish.
We might think of that additional information as an erratum slip tipped into the album. The album is a creature of 1915, but because its compiler followed the procedure for registering himself in literary history as an author, his phrase “Lt. Kohn” has become a literary text. Henceforth (or, as they say in the stories, “forever after”) it will immer schon be subject to revised readings, issuing serially. Unlike the image, it will have broken through the fourth wall and floated free in the direction of a never to be reached final meaning.
In 2015 I posted a note about the word “Jew” as differently understood by the Victorian Catholic poets Coventry Patmore and Gerard Manley Hopkins. At the time, I thought that the two poets’ correspondence about the word might help us understand the then topical issue of boycotting out of existence the country named Israel and the concept named Jew.
But as of 2017, those two-year-old thoughts of mine have gone anachronistic. Language, including the word Jew, no longer seems to work in all the ways it did two years ago. It has lost some functions and acquired others. So I’ve updated my note. WordPress has filed the revision in its original 2015 position and linked it to its original 2015 title, but the text you’ll reach is new when you click
Aslant on a tilted surface, a ship’s steel curves align themselves into a complex array of near-verticals and are changed from a simple prow into a Richard Serra multiform. Emitting excited puffs of steam as they prepare to nuzzle the new shape, the ship’s companion tugs bustle into line as merrily as if they were executing poses for the jovial approval of Raoul Dufy. As in the sunny vacationland France of a Chelsea gallery, all here in New York harbor is innocence, luxe, and the thoughtfully capitalized beauty of gaits trained by dance. The big ship and her brood of little boats seem to have prepped for their appearance before the camera in a boutique full of Lartigues.
There, after the primpers undercoated the sky with pink and the water with blue, they finished off the big ship’s funnels with a dramatic application of buff.
A hundred years ago, that tint at the source of cloud was a form that hope had chosen for an emblem. Buff cylinders multiplied over water were the insigne of the Hamburg-America Line, the most important transport link between Europe and the United States for the desperate Jews of Russia during the last years of the czars. Imagine you can hope now in the way they hoped then. In the mind’s eye, see a yellow glow travel from right to left across the ocean. See it take on readable form as water and sky unscroll before it.
When the ship with bright funnels comes into its haven, its passengers will disembark into the boutique’s chosen range of the spectrum and commence a different way of being seen.
The immigration image is at Wikimedia Commons, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jewish_immigration_Russia_United_States_1901.jpg. The information there transcribes the copyright date in the lower right corner as 1901, but I read it as 1909 or possibly 1902. A fashion historian might be able to date the clothing. The Hebrew text carried by the American eagle is found in several Jewish prayers. Adapted from Psalm 17.8, it reads, “And hide us in the shadow of thy wings.”
All three images have been Photoshopped for contrast and tone.
From Mitt Romney’s commencement address, Liberty University, May 12, 2012:
You enter a world with civilizations and economies that are far from equal. Harvard historian David Landes devoted his lifelong study to understanding why some civilizations rise, and why others falter. His conclusion: Culture makes all the difference. Not natural resources, not geography, but what people believe and value. Central to America’s rise to global leadership is our Judeo-Christian tradition, with its vision of the goodness and possibilities of every life.