In the port city of Hoboken, New Jersey, bodies are unloaded from a ship and transported through rain and words.
The words come from a two-column article on page 2 of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle for November 13, 1919: “Bodies of 111 U.S. Soldier and Sailor Dead Brought Home. Gallant Michigan Boys Gave Lives in Northern Russia — Impressive Ceremonies at Pier.” It includes the term “curbstones.”
If that plural and the phrase “gallant Michigan boys” read now like antiques, that is not the words’ fault. As of 1919, curbs actually were made of stone and the Michigan war writer Ernest Hemingway hadn’t yet begun publishing his deconstructions of words like “gallant.” But language change makes no allowance for changes in sensibility, and whatever it is that the words may once have represented is harder to feel now. In a cemetery in Michigan there is a war monument in the form of a polar bear,
but the episode of war that it commemorates is now all but forgotten in Michigan: the failed campaign of the American Expeditionary Force, North Russia, between 1918 and 1919. It is where the 111 men of rainy Hoboken met their deaths.
What you have been reading so far, then, in words and allegorical symbols, is a chapter in a history of the no longer wholly comprehensible. Somebody once wrote a marginal scholium on the chapter and called it “Dead Soldiers from Russia,” but it hasn’t integrated with the composition’s imagery. It is extrinsic. To its left, the composition has gone about the business of its rainy day by slow-dancing the hundred and eleven down a diagonal between the human matter of umbrellas (“Chopin’s and other funeral marches”) and the celestial matter of the rain, but the words in the black band don’t sing that music.
But in the rain the silent tree, leafless but living, curving itself down over the music and the dead in obedience to a lyric without words . . .
the last poet who might have gotten away with using the phrase “sin and error” about the Battle of Britain was probably Emily Dickinson (d. 1886), she who successfully wrote a poem (Fr479, “Because I could not stop for death”) containing the word “immortality.” By the time of T. S. Eliot (b. 1888), that era in the possibilities of language had passed. The Wright Brothers, sons of a bishop, had vouchsafed to Eliot’s time a descriptive lexicon that made obsolete some key words of the Book of Common Prayer, but Eliot didn’t journey to the airfield to pick up the mixed parcel of words and mathematics that held his new heritage. Instead, sheltering from bombs, the great modernist poet regressed to black letter. Throughout the Quartets he is articulate about what can’t be easily read through that ornamented face (East Coker II: “A periphrastic study in a worn-out poetical fashion”), but he is a man of letters, articulate only in letters.
Yet the light and air through which another dove is descending as you look are text-free. In the text above, the word “dove” stands in ways not related logically or representationally for both an icon in stained glass and a night-gray Heinkel 111, but the feathered luminance in the image below is merely and wholly a body. It is not an allegory of body; it is body as such. Words wear out, says a T. S. Eliot poem written in words, but the whistling, flapping sounds of descent aren’t words. They subsist in the audible as they have never stopped subsisting: audible only; immortally un-paraphrasable in mortal language. To hear them under that aspect, holding in conscious abeyance the idea of a meaning beyond nature, is a joyous fear. A text in black letter tells us that fear before the supernatural is the beginning of wisdom, but joy is in the understanding that light comes to us by laws of nature as a continuation without an end. What it communicates is not a predication but a melody.
On December 27, 1933, as the Third Reich approached its first anniversary, The Nation published a letter of political protest. The policies being protested weren’t Hitler’s; they were The Nation’s. Wrote the author about the magazine that was publishing him: “Its insinuations that the new leaders [of Germany] are men without conscience — in short, cruel, inhumane, selfish, and even immoral, lacking even one redeeming characteristic — I resent.”
Six and a half years ago, when I discussed that letter on this blog, it seemed obvious that its author’s expression of resentment was meaningless not just factually but ontologically, as if it were a contradiction of its own language. The word “resent” was so totally wrong in its ghastly historical context that it was almost funny. Obviously (it seemed to me in 2013, during the Obama administration), whatever The Nation had opined in 1933 about Hitler must have been provably right — and the proof was in the protest. If a Nazi sympathizer resented someone calling Hitler cruel, the a priori case was that Hitler must have been cruel. But how strange it is to say “cruel” in 2019, when the c-word has changed from a term of disapproval to a term of approval, like “fuck” in the mouth of Lady Chatterley’s lover!
So here, if only for its antique-store curiosity, is my post from 2013.
I reread it yesterday because I’ve learned some new details about its contents, and these are now incorporated in the text. But the text as a whole now seems beyond revision, doesn’t it? I wrote it in the American English that was current in 2013, and as of 2019 that language is becoming incomprehensible. It is a dying language: victim of its writers’ will to cruelty.
In large parts of the United States, a man known to be married to an East Asian woman can expect to be asked, “Does it slant?”
That conversational opener is sometimes followed by the explanation, “Hee hee, I’m just messin’ with yuh.” By acknowledging the irony of the question that has just been asked, this shorts the communicative circuit by making an answer impossible. Functionally, hee hee is equivalent to, “I asked a question about the anatomy of a third party, but the only anatomy I’m actually concerned with is yours. My question, ‘Does it slant?’ wasn’t a whimsical Wallace Stevens query about your wife’s yellow vagina but a demand for your pain. If the pain shows in your face, I’ll know that my demand has been acceded to and you have begun to learn my way of asking.
“Speaking of which, my way of asking is the only way.”
Which implies that yes, a conversation built around a question usually takes the form of a duet, but if the question is Does it slant? the melody and the lyric won’t belong to the same music. The melody of Does it slant? is a vocalise sung in the rising tone of a request for communication, but the spoken lyric says Don’t talk back to me. The tone and the content of the slant question — a question asked in the register of a social context but demanding an answer in the register of a solitary one — are cognitively dissonant, and perhaps that is why the Hee hee usually comes out as a phlegmy wheeze.
Because that’s ugly, we would prefer to keep listening just for the tone. After all, too, everything in language until the downbeat on slant taught us that words form a harmony. So if our partner in the duet should now happen to let a beat pass without Hee hee, we’ll gratefully hope that that nothing will now be the rest of the song. Just that, just the wheezy noise not made while the speaker catches his breath, will be all it takes to give a downbeat to the gratitude and cue us to believe He must mean well.
Unfortunately, the gratitude we feel to the tone won’t be comprehensible to the lyric. Speaking into the silence something hopeful like, “No, it doesn’t slant” will only re-cue the wheeze and the coughing bark: “Slant! Har!” But the echoes of that noise are where we’ll discover something that was in the joke’s libretto all along. To the delight of the barking man, the effect of the discovery will be visible on the surface of our thought, in the darkening face. But behind that surface, in the light of the mind, the discovery itself will be this: in the universal irony of language, words can work against themselves to create anti-meanings, and one of those words is the verb mean.
On May Day, 1909, the English verb in the sign you carried was twinned in Yiddish with a verbless adverbial construction: anider mit, “down with.”
If we separate the verb from its untwin and then further generalize it from transitive to intransitive. it detaches itself from its sentence and its social contexts and becomes half of a new unit of meaning: one twinned not with another word but with you. “Abolish,” says the word in the lower half of the unit, and by not repeating itself in the upper half, it makes that upper half reverberate in silence. There in your half, you will never open your mouth to cry “Abolish!” In relation to each other, you and your own abolition will forever be still unravished brides — or, if you wish, gesticulating professors reminding each other back and forth across the dialectic gap that abolish can translate into Hegelian German as aufheben. But from now on, the word won’t be necessary as such. Having once seen you and your word together as one, your fans forever after are going to know abolish only as a composite of word and silence. Because the word, once seen in that doubly defining way, will never again have a meaning separate from you, it will forever postpone your own abolition. Now you are never going to die.
Image previously posted at https://jonathanmorse.blog/2019/04/24/greetings-from-what-was-once-america/
Published eighty years ago, probably on cheap paper in a mass-circulation magazine (online, it’s unattributed), this page has physically deteriorated in the course of nature.
But we can be helped to see it with refreshed regard. Tear out the page, carry it into a dressing room, read it into a computer, and the light reflecting from the mirror will grow bright again. The film of age will seem to have been windexed away.
Brightened, the pictures (of hat, of corsage) have been repaired and restored to what they seem to have been at the time of their conception: cultural emblems, metonyms of the feminine. Look at me, they say; in myself, as such, I am pretty. That is my primary meaning. But the color pictures bracket a page of words in black, and those have their primary meaning only off the page. They are less a text than a musical score — a score for woman’s voice, solo.
In current performance, this score’s fidelity to register is low. Its reception has been made partially obsolete by advances in recording technology. “Slipper,” the voice was intended to whisper in sibilant soprano. “Meekly obeys,” it was meant to murmur with a smilingly knowing evocation of a vow at a wedding. When it sings, “Put your foot down,” the voice is probably intended to perform a messa di voce, swelling and diminishing between masculine loud and feminine gentle. But after eighty years we hear the shellac rasp and see the whiskers showing through the soloist’s makeup. History is beginning to mime from the aisle that it’s time to cut the performance short and leave. “Treadle” is 1939 sewing-machine nomenclature, but not even a feminine exclamation mark formed with a dainty little circle can make an audience believe now that Buick the Beauty had ruffles around her pedals.
No; despite the page’s restoration in historical space, its time has continued being 1939, decay and all. Photoshop has refreshed the colors of the page’s language console, but the console itself is not a live vocabulary but a Victrola running at 78 rpm. Never to rise away from 1939 and go free, its sound from the time of black and white only fills and refills the yellow-filtered Edward Steichen atmosphere of the stage which Buick traverses. There it enters her open windows. And there in her, treadling as he holds back his tears, slippered gay Jill drags through his errands.
* A treadle, under the unmotorized sewing machine. You rock it with your feet.
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.