Idol: its history

A portraitist sees flesh quantitatively, like a butcher.

Beginner's Guide to Beef Cuts Angus Beef Butcher Chart image 1

In the course of professionally seeing flesh the artist may come to know desire, but his job is to look past what he knows to what he only sees: flesh’s light and color and shape. Because he has starved his senses in the brutal slimming salon of formalism, we customers of his ordeal have been enabled to look at the formal result and say things like, “She looks like she’s alive.” Working the artist’s diet in reverse, we who behold the art have purchased the sensation of flesh rewarmed under a heat lamp.

Back then, back there in the kitchen, the artist worked at a first remove from the space outside, manipulating not a bodily sense of things plein-air but an abstract model of sight made of stone or paint or pixels. In the same way, a historian works at a first remove from time. He works not with event and perception as they occur but in the afterthought of event and perception that’s called retrospect. The artist defamilarizes the spatial, making the appearance of the hitherto real seem different and then replacing it with a counter-reality. The historian defamiliarizes the temporal, replacing the mind’s external sense of is with was and then with a purely mental construct, because. With the advent of because, a newly living past kills a newly dead present. What happened is replaced by an idea of what happened.

So consider this body under two aspects in sequence: first as seen absolutely and without the mediation of thought (by, for instance, an artist) and then, in retrospect, as a relation between words (by, for instance, a historian of words.)

First the perception: a body seen. This is a prehistory.

Second, the perception’s translation into words. A general title for such words might be histoire: a French term that means both “history” and “story.” Of all possible histoires, here’s one.

OED

You can read it with your Larousse.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/c/c0/Logotype_de_Larousse_par_E._Grasset.jpg/250px-Logotype_de_Larousse_par_E._Grasset.jpg

As the word-seeds blow, a matinee metaphor in the present will be seen to have sown an image in the past. Now, with the reading of the metaphor’s words, the curtain before the image rises and an idol begins presiding over its altar. Now is now happily ever after. The image has become a god to be believed in. “He looks like he could be in a movie,” the customers think — and if the artwork has been powerful enough, could be is replaced in their minds by ought to be or even in my bed last night, in a dream, was. A faithful belief in a reality has come into being, even if the stone body newly fallen on the dreaming customer’s pillow doesn’t happen to be warm to the touch.

Tickets here:

Two remedies for distress

In my state, the current lieutenant governor spends one day a week working his other job as an emergency room physician. He also makes media appearances to discuss the course of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But because he promotes science and because he is a Jew, the congregants of a Christian chapel now picket his residence at night, flashing strobes and creating noisy disorder. In the comment stream of the local newspaper they also discuss health policy in language whose wordplay seems to show the influence of Ezra Pound. There, the words attributed to the lieutenant governor are a sheeny dialect from about 1908, the year that Pound left the United States and cut himself off from American language. Of course if you turn on the TV in 2022 you won’t hear the lieutenant governor speaking like that, but Pound was the poet who wrote for eternity, “Literature is news that STAYS news.”

The dictum must also be true for other ways of thinking in language, such as politics and religion. So would you yourself like to be cured of distress, reader? Then perhaps the time has come for you to open your mind to one or both of these ancient word-cures. Their strength is still unexpired.

Hear it. Open a window anywhere in America. The air that flows in will be filled with voices chanting, “Gimme that ol’ time,” and time will be mingled with them. Once more, time sings through the varied carols of America, and once again, as once in 1849, it writes this lyric prescription for healing. Take it now. You are no longer in the past, but the past will be to you a nutritional supplement.

Handbill, Duke University Libraries, https://repository.duke.edu/dc/eaa/B0178. Contrast and detail restored.

And this second revelation, datable to an American childhood in the Eisenhower years, has turned out to be a text immune to time. In your old age it now teaches you, at last! that all you have ever needed is the happiness of feeling with your body a red hat, a red tie, and a gun for threatening with.

Contrast, color and detail restored. About the line “Our 60th year,” this source says the Wilson Chemical Company was founded in 1895: https://perma.cc/96CR-QS3A.

You may address your prayer to the fulfillment department.

 

Unknown word in a too knowable language

At

https://repository.duke.edu/dc/eaa/B0319

and

https://repository.duke.edu/dc/eaa/B0320

you’ll find a pair of documents from 1857 Charleston. They advertise slaves for sale. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_Slave_Mart

In each, a woman named Eve is referred to with the term prolap. In 1857, readers of those advertisements must have known what that word meant, but I don’t know now. It isn’t in the Oxford English Dictionary, the Dictionary of American Regional English, or any of the nineteenth-century dictionaries that I’ve consulted, and a Newspapers.com search through the 1850s yields only an unrelated medical term, prolapse. I didn’t find it, either, in any of the several 1850s gynecology texts that I found at Archive.org. So today I submitted prolap to the OED.

I was being sentimental. I intended to make myself believe that I was completing Eve’s forgotten name and nobly getting it admitted to a dictionary’s kind of memory. But both the dictionary’s language and what memory does with it will tell me I’m no nobleman. All that my memory and my words actually did was to dress me up as a headwaiter, station me with a volume of the OED behind a reservation desk, and let me admit the gentlemen and ladies already in the corpus to the privilege of being known there once again. The grammar of my notion about Eve was possessive, as if she were an Eve of my own to decide about in a future of my own. But long before I was born, the orders concerning Eve had already been written into the book I wielded, and the whiteness of the shirt that I wore when I read them out had always been a part of their language.

Alexandria Gazette (Alexandria, Virginia), October 10, 1853, page 3. In the nineteenth century the word “mechanic” referred to any blue-collar worker, as in Whitman’s “the mechanic’s wife with her babe at her nipple interceding for every person born” (Song of Myself, sec. 41).

Some ceremonies

1

In 1930, in his early middle age, William Faulkner bought an unoccupied nineteenth-century house in his Mississippi home town. The next year he gave it a name, Rowan Oak, and began the remodeling that would occupy the remainder of his life there. As the transformation into an ancestral estate went forward, the estate’s on-site storyteller devised a tradition for it: every evening at dinnertime, one of the family retainers would parade the main course around the table before setting it down. Perhaps the idea was that this would mark the end of one day and the beginning of the next, for always.

Before dinner, the Modernist storyteller had been teaching language some things about time that would make tradition obsolete. In that telling, Quentin Compson had begun the day of his death by tearing the hands off his father’s watch.

2

Chris Wiley’s essay “What Old Money Looks Like in America, and Who Pays For It,”

https://www.newyorker.com/culture/photo-booth/what-old-money-looks-like-in-america-and-who-pays-for-it

introduces the work of Buck Ellison, who photographs carefully staged tableaux of models wearing the very best of understated fashion in the very best of settings, with every blade of grass on the putting green just so and the outdoor or indoor weather always perfect. Before the first image reveals itself, the prose prepares us this way for the responsibility of seeing it.

It’s the cut of the jacket that’s the dead giveaway. The graceful arc it draws above the woman’s waistline looks architecturally engineered, its hourglass effect enhanced by tastefully wide peaked lapels. The fabric, too, looks sumptuous. Cashmere? Probably.

Wiley mentions in passing that Ellison is gay, and the import of this deadpan scrapbook seems to be a travesti like the Trockadero Ballet — a travesti with all the wistfulness of an anatomically male body forcing itself onto pointe but none of the forced hysterical laughter. What’s being acted out through Ellison’s images isn’t at all gentle, but it is acted quietly.

After all, it is acted in The New Yorker, whose language is written in a traditional script. To the native speakers of The New Yorker’s dialect, the discreet but firmly lodged diereses in coöperate and reëlect are to be heard only at the overtones of their natural frequencies, and the ostensibly nonfictional is punctuated at strictly observed canonical intervals with understatedly Homeric descriptions of the characters’ clothes. These details of house style are themes, and they claim a moral purport. Other languages will change, says the house style to itself about itself, but I am as classic as changeless Roman marble. Simultaneously, on the advertising pages, capital is at romp, melting all that is solid into air.

3

In this 1849 print by Nathaniel Currier, one of the men at the foot of George Washington’s deathbed is identified as “Quaker, an intimate friend of Washington.” Perhaps out of Quaker modesty, his name is not named and his face is not shown. But we know the style he would speak in this silent image, because he is wearing the small-clothes of a gentleman at the end of the eighteenth century.

Springfield Museums, https://springfieldmuseums.org/collections/item/death-of-washington-dec-14-a-d-1799-nathaniel-currier/. Color and detail restored.

The other man’s face does show. The man is identified, too: with a euphemism, “Domestic.” But that is a mere pleonasm, because after all the man’s color reveals half of the unnamed truth of what he is.

The clothes reveal the other half. Close enough to the body of the father of his country to love but never to have been loved, this is a sans-culotte.

4

Bernard Faÿ, a French Modernist man of letters, saved the lives of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas during World War II by letting them live, rent-free, in his house in the unoccupied zone. He wasn’t using it himself at the time because he was occupied in administering both the Bibliothètheque Nationale and the Pétain government’s anti-Masonic program. At war’s end, he was one of the bitter-end collaborationists sheltered by the Nazis at Sigmaringen. After the war he escaped from prison with suspicious ease and crossed the French border into Switzerland, where he picked up his career where he had left off and spent the remainder of his professional life at the University of Fribourg.

There he continued his long collaboration with another right-wing Catholic, the Fribourgeois man of letters Gonzague de Reynold. The Fribourg years came and went, and de Reynold marked their passage with a tradition of his own: on special occasions, in the gallery-crypt where the culottes of his ancestors were preserved, he opened the chest and dressed up.

5

How but in custom and in ceremony
Are innocence and beauty born?

Po Em

On the day Fort Sumter surrendered to its rebel siege, a photographer in Massachusetts published a poem.

Fall River Daily Evening News, April 13, 1861, page 1

The poem declares itself to be about creating memory in the face of death. Its words are selfless, or all but. It asks its readers for parts only, not labor. Knowing in retrospect what was about to happen off the page, we can almost laugh at it. Its black-and-white language, with its rote patriotic tags and its unimaginative mercantile underestimates (“a thousand traitors’ hearts”), is about to become an expository prose in blood-red, but as of the first day of the change its wordy surface appearance is still a poem. In inverted syntax, because that’s how poems are, it still asks us to believe that the image of a living man shortly to be dead can be “to nature sure.”

But after all, G. M. Carlisle wasn’t in the business of using language for the purpose of belief, or any purpose. Whether or not he knew, his only business with language was creation itself. See how he used creation’s inventory.

Undated; private collection. https://www.europeana.eu/en/item/2058401/_providedCHO_f0cc6f48_215d_6b6d_3bc3_9cf5aac36364

Removed from their printer’s cases and reassembled, hard images of letters and a flag were made into a line exemplifying brokenness, and then the part of the line that performed a broken word, “Art . .ists,” was made to wrap itself around the Union flag and be drawn back together by it. The purport is, Let that be an example to you. The monition works, too. Thanks to it, you are strong enough once more to face your own brokennesses, and now it can turn out that among those even the broken crayons made their colors a part of you. They did picture your desires. They broke when you tried to communicate fine print with them and write words, but crayon words have been breakable from the creation.

https://notnewyork.net/2011/06/03/the-elusive-flesh-crayon-ignorant-toys/

So it isn’t with words that the faithful soldier in the poem by Geo. M. Carlisle pleads with you to catch his fleshless shadow. The words belong to Carlisle’s poem, not Carlisle’s picture. Colored true to life, the picture is a silent waxen image: not articulate flesh but only a flesh-colored idea. But trust the idea, says the shrewd Yankee work of art. In every description of photographic pictures, the true to life doesn’t need to be alive.

For the Realists

During the nineteenth century, coal and its no longer latent powers began mattering to art and literature. Having been perceived and depicted, they now demanded equal but different rank with the divine. To realize Anna Karenina’s feelings during her night passage on the Moscow-St. Petersburg express was the same problem for Tolstoy that it would have been for Homer, but it was only Homer’s routes that traversed a universe conceivable as a surface hiding no secrets and revealing all there was to reveal. Against that, the moment at the end of Anna’s emptied book when a disconnected fuel tender came rolling by itself down its track (VIII.5) was a revelation of movement without a discoverable origin in intent or terminus in meaning. It may have been that that extorted the last tears from Vronsky. His voyage of discovery had ended without conclusion, in smoky midair.

See how you yourself now perceive this silhouette of eleven womanless men and a danger sign. Inside their collective image, smoke from a waiting parovoz ascends to darken the cloudscape, and that seems to be all the meaning there is. Certainly no one within the artwork’s dark margins is reading the sign’s words.

“Track elevating at road crossing, Joliet, Ill.,” between 1900 and 1905. Detroit Publishing Company Collection, Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/det/item/2016795685/. Post-processed for contrast and detail. Replaces a 2014 restoration, which has now been deleted from the blog.

Signed at under such circumstances, lesser realists such as William Dean Howells and Jacob Riis reacted by filling their non-fictions and their fictions alike with brand names and street addresses, recorded with due accuracy. The intent seemed to have been to force signifiers like the railroadmen’s unread X to give up a meaning. In time, James Joyce came to understand that a record’s significance lies in its words, only. The data of its ostensible content are a pre-text, and that is enough. But the image you have just seen in parallel with Tolstoy’s words is a wordlessness. Its primary signifier is not a history like Tolstoy’s or Joyce’s but a chemistry and a meteorology, and its record is only one of the smudges that coal in the nineteenth century left in the air.