That June morning in 1903, the rain that fell overnight had let up. The green of the leaves and their smell can still almost be sensed. The academic gowns, too, are a fashion that hasn’t changed between 1903 and now. In their photograph they drape the passage of time in black.
But at some time between 1903 and now there occurred a break in the photograph’s glass negative, and when we look through the break we see nothing. What remains unbroken in the image is what photographers two or three decades years earlier would have called an instantaneous. By 1903, however, advances in photographic technology had made that noun (“the name of a person, place, or thing”) redundant. By 1903, everything seen could be seen at will to be in passage, instant by instant. It no longer had to be anything nameable. Whatever it was as it passed, it passed into oblivion. The function of the instantaneous shutter could now be seen to be a breaking off.
But in the part where the glass was unbroken, the passage across the glass could also be imagined as a returning with the seasons, passing away but recurring like rain on sidewalks or sun warming black gowns. And yes, you see: the piper who played io paean is still playing. Motion-blurred in his image against sharply focused ashlar and bark, right foot down and left foot up, he dances away (at least for now) from the break.
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.
Image previously posted at https://jonathanmorse.blog/2019/04/24/greetings-from-what-was-once-america/
It was a windy day in Honolulu, but I stilled the air by shooting at 1/2000 second. In my hands, a camera’s mechanism recorded an image of whipping fronds immobilized and fixed to an image plane. That record now presents you the option of glancing at the plane, closing your eyes, and no longer seeing the imaged trees but experiencing them as optical illusion and as thought. A bug in the thinking part, however, is that in this instance the mind you think with happens to be vacationing in a tourist economy. Because people were paying to see these palms and these clouds long before you arrived on your own ticket, your own first view of them wasn’t really first and your belief in what you saw on first impression was an oversight. Whatever followed for you from that, whatever idea of palm, was aborted by irony before it had a chance to communicate. Did a Norton Anthology of Poetry word such as tresses recall itself to your memory, for instance? Sorry, that won’t work now. Your memory has already been polluted by poems and shampoo commercials, and the only honest reading of tresses will be a flatfooted dumbing-back-down to trees.
And it won’t even be your own unique dumbing-down. After all, every Saturday of every year along the fence around the Honolulu Zoo, artists sell pictures to tourists of what tourists have come to Honolulu to see: viz., palm trees. The artists call the pictures “real oil paintings,” and the only thing false about that claim is the plural marker at the end of paintings. In reality, of course, there is only one painting, repainted weekly by different painters. Its vacationing buyers buy it as a visual mnemonic, to remind them that once in the presence of a palm they experienced the miracle of first. But a mass-produced memory (the industrial term is souvenir) is perennial: experienced in community, like language, and expressible, like language, only through symbols (paint marks; words) that preexist it. How can it be reconciled with first?
John Keats’s solution was to assimilate first by simile into the continuum of beginnings across time. When Keats’s Cortez stared for the first time at the Pacific Ocean, he was on the brink of realizing that first can also, wonderfully! be all along (like the ocean) and, an instant afterward, forever (like the ocean) — and I (says Keats) felt a moment ago, in the presence of Homer, as Cortez once, for the first time, felt, and thenceforth began to feel forever. I can never feel that way again; I can never not feel that way again.
But the left side of my own composition is palmless.
In the tourist economy, the palms in my composition are also compositions: plantings at a shopping center. If I were to post their picture uncropped, you’d see that at their base is a gas station and to their right is a Starbuck’s. But, per Viktor Shklovsky, who said, “Art is the way of experiencing artfulness,” I cropped. Out of negative space I carved a diptych of trees and, on the other hand, sky. Then, for good measure, I modified my image’s pixels with controls bearing such names as Vibrance / saturation and Graduated neutral density filter. If that manipulation was aesthetically productive, you may have experienced a catch in the throat which you took to be a consequence of tropical light. But if the catch did come, it came as an aftermath of something planned and deliberate and related to the photomechanically produced surface of the picture, not the living palm.
Because you know now that you’ve known that truth all along, you’ll never again be able to experience the peak in Darien in silence. You’ll have to recognize that a camera and a computer have been up there with you all along. You might as well climb back down to sea level. On the other hand, down there you might as well also stop looking for trees in the painting you bought at the zoo and start looking for oil. But that too, it will turn out, has been there all along, and this all along will be seen to be all to the good.
A real oil painting: the picture has always told you that truth about itself. To the veteran wildcatter Viktor Shklovsky, I dare say, whatever is within its frame looks like a real gusher. His investment advice will be to see the picture’s paint as paint and let it make you wealthy in oil’s own way.
Dogmatic note: Shklovsky’s epigram from “Art as Technique” is usually translated as “Art is a way of experiencing artfulness.” But Shklovsky wrote in Russian, a language without direct equivalents to the English words a and the, and I’ve taken that as my warrant for preferring the.
Source: Costică Acsinte Archive, https://www.flickr.com/photos/costicaacsinte/, image ca_20150205_023. Photoshopped.
In front of television cameras in 1998, Representative Henry Hyde regressed for a moment to a pre-television English. As he prepared to consider the impeachment of President Clinton before the House Judiciary Committee, he asked the clerk, “How much time have I?” I still remember being startled by that idiom, the inversion of subject and main verb in a question. For decades before 1998 I had heard it only in old movies, yet suddenly Representative Hyde, on color TV, was speaking the language of a black-and-white newsreel.
Well, the anachronism isn’t mysterious. In 1998 Representative Hyde was 74 years old, and he was simply continuing to speak English as it had been spoken when he was young — for instance, in the year 1938, when a physician in William Carlos Williams’s short story “The Girl with a Pimply Face” asked about a sick baby, “Has it diarrhoea?” (119). I haven’t conducted a systematic search, but from books and movies I get the impression that during the first half of the twentieth century that inverted construction (“Has it diarrhoea?”) gave way rapidly and almost completely to the construction with an auxiliary verb, along with a related change in pronoun reference (“Does she have diarrhea?”). As infant mortality became unusual in the Anglophone world, speakers of English no longer had a practical use for the self-protective reflex of referring to babies as only provisionally human it-objects. But Representative Hyde, by that time in his own history, was no longer noticing.
Outside sickrooms, however, the old idiom’s final years coincided with the aftermath of the war and plague of 1914-1918. Even in health during that time, speakers of American English must have felt the fear of mortality in new ways. At any rate, advertisers seemed to have intuited such an insecurity, for the idiom of their advertisements began straining after the perdurable. Fonts went lapidary, vocabulary went Latinate, and syntax began pacing itself slower to accommodate the dignified walking rhythms of the healthily portly. For the portly in one such advertisement, the penalty of Adam was to be mitigated by something called the Enclosure, and the vocabulary that prepared souls to enter the Enclosure sang of eternal life. Its syntax, too, modulated itself into a gently rocking iambic tetrameter with a feminine ending as it intoned, “Nor have they then a makeshift body.”
But the rite of the Enclosure drew its deepest power from its simplest trait: mobility, the assurance it extended to the enclosed that it wasn’t just an Enclosure but an Enclosure on wheels. After 1918, especially, that assurance drew strength from a new, post-1918 knowledge: the knowledge that at a not unimaginably great distance from the hard stable surface under the Enclosure’s wheels, a body lay barely moving in a bed. The sense of that difference took form as a solemn didactic happiness, and it taught itself to riders in the Enclosure with a single noun scratched deep into its own photosensitized surface. Cripple, said the noun to the world of 1918, in a photographic caption carefully worked into a Socratic lesson plan. And the world of just after 1918 happily responded in the counter-language it had newly learned, “The Enclosure cannot rattle or squeak.”
But to the world no longer inhabited by Henry Hyde the old noun still cries Cripple. A blogger with a taste for the comedy of the antique may have posted the pompous disyllable cannot because “cannot rattle or squeak” makes a more nineteenth-century sound than “can’t rattle or squeak,” but cripple seems unaffected by the passage of time. Affixed to its glass backing, the depicted body of the cripple has a permanent context. The glass is cracked but not altered in its transparency to meaning.
But the cripple’s glass has been paired with another hard permanent document, and that one is reassuringly opaque. Within the image itself, erected directly over the cripple’s bed, a wooden slab promises in knotty pine, “I can’t speak, but if I could I would say, ‘I say unto thee, Arise, and take up thy bed.’ My name, which none of us need to speak because all of us know it, is Makeshift.”
Even more reassuring, Makeshift has another name, in actual speakable language: the word design. Design is a word from the universe of meaning that Keats, making use of a mobile metaphor (“Much have I travell’d”), called the realms of gold. Singing from a libretto scratched deep into the cripple’s image, design assures us who are not yet crippled that in coming times it will enchant us as well. It will dance, too, as it comes. It will dance right through the glass that will begin enclosing us when we sink into our bed. After all, the sinking will still be a motion of the body.
So rejoice, sings the word design. So long as you remain only partially crippled, I will be with you. While you still are able, raise your paintbrush and let it touch me and transmit my strength to you. For the time being, now am I your makeshift body.
Sources: William Carlos Williams, “The Girl with a Pimply Face.” The Collected Stories of William Carlos Williams (New York: New Directions, 1996) 117-30. The story was first published in book form in Life Along the Passaic River (1938).
The automobile advertisement originally appeared in Literary Digest 24 November 1923. I copied it and Photoshopped it for sharpness from http://blog.vintascope.com/post/145306079472/oakland-motor-car-company-19231124-literary
The undated photograph of the man in bed is one of a group of World War I hospital images apparently taken in France. George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ggb2006002284/. Photoshopped.
From 1922, some contemporary satire of the pretentious diction of American advertisements can be found in Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt.
About my post “Embrace your inner Red,” which consists only of a photograph, a comment spammer’s script generates this.
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Until a moment ago, nothing in this photograph was not wood or mud. But as soon as a man within a wooden box picked up an apparatus shaped like an iron flower, he and it carried each other out of the box and into the pictorial record. The record has changed itself accordingly. For example, it now takes into account a space between boxes where there is newly to be seen a man’s clumsily hemmed suit and a name, Edison, in gold amid the mud.
But the man isn’t going to remain in the light of that temporary setting. His music is waiting for him, and the only place for sound here is off the record, back in the dark of the box. After the man has vacated the photograph he has caused to be made, it will seem once again to signify nothing but wood and mud. But the form that once penetrated the record of that which was to be photographed will have changed it forever. From now on, whatever new light falls on the picture will be seen within the spectral limits of a prior illumination that once made visible the panoply of the man: his wrinkled cloth, leather to be sited on mud, and iron horn.
Leaving the interior of the box and carrying the apparatus into the light to be photographed was the dispositive event. By forcing us to see, it obviated our surmise. Now that we know we have seen a flower with a golden name, we know we can hear its music. The man who carried it toward the mud and the light caused it to change forever from the not yet seen to the soon to be heard.
But the effort has left a blankness in his face. Something previously there has been erased. He will never again stare at the Pacific.
Source: I haven’t found a provenance for this image. A chain of Tumblr and Pinterest reblogs eventually terminated without bibliographical data at a site called vinylespassion.tumblr.com.
I have photoshopped the image for contrast and clarity. Kim Bridges contributed extra post-processing in Nik.
Last December, for at least the second time, I received a handwritten letter bearing a Spanish stamp but signed by somebody using a Romanian woman’s name. Enclosing three low-resolution photographs, the writer asked if these depicted me and requested in vaguely menacing language that I get in touch with her or him.
The address was correct, but I’m not Tony Morris and the man in the pictures is not me. My earlier blogpost about that is at http://theartpart.jonathanmorse.net/i-am-not-i/. I took the post’s title from the last line of one of Sidney’s sonnets:
I am not I, pity the tale of me.
That’s still a great last line, but after more than 400 years it’s no longer the last word. Just now, for instance, I’ve done something I couldn’t have done in the days of Sir Philip: scanned one of the pictures to my desktop and then dragged it into Google for a search by image. Up it popped there, instantly: the identical face and pose, and attached this time to a LinkedIn name. The name was Tony Morris, too, and furthermore, wondrously! the text attached to the name was a poem. It wasn’t just any poem either; it came to me demanding to be read in the lofty spirit of Horace’s odi profanum vulgus.
Those are the words of George Chapman, him who spoke out loud and bold to John Keats. As a principle either of writing or of reading, they’re right. Hear for yourself as you give ear to the tale of Tony.
Singing its way down the page as from a score, the reading will complicate beautifully into counterpoint when it reaches the words “Hawaiian Islands,” because nobody in Hawaii refers to his home that way — not even if he also lives simultaneously in Florida and Hong Kong. And Hawaii, ordinarily referred to as such, happens to be part of the United States, where the British-spelled word “defence” isn’t in the name of any of the armed forces. Likewise, the academic abbreviation “BSc” is British, not American, and the University of Hawaii at Manoa doesn’t offer a degree in chemical engineering.
And Tony: you harmonize the registers of mathematics and capitalized General Problem Solving? And you sing not just of Asia but of Asia Good morals? Plus chemicals? Romanian lady of Spain, no wonder this Tony is the man you want to link! He is not I; he is far more. He is language itself, a self-singing lyric with an illustrated libretto: “High and hearty invention expressed in most significant and unaffected phrase.”
And best of all, he is, as Chapman says of his own poems, strange.
Source: George Chapman, Ovid’s Banquet of Sense. London, 1595; facsimile, Menston, Yorks., Scolar Press, 1979.