The camera that took this photograph was probably fitted with a collapsible cloth bellows between the lens and the housing that held a glass-plate negative. As the photographer flexed the bellows in and out for focus, its opaque coating would eventually begin to flake off and shafts of ambient light would penetrate the camera’s dark interior and streak across the image. This adventitious light had evaded the photographer’s intent, and it competed for the viewer’s attention with the subject he had composed according to human rules and labeled with human words.
The words, too, were changing. Within this frame, for example, they were demarcated into separate languages written in separate alphabets, English and Yiddish. But as of the date imprinted by the photographer at the top of his document, the European language Yiddish was undergoing American erasure.
“Help the furrier strikers,” reads the English of 1915 on the pair of cylinders that demarcate the details of the man between them, and his tie and tie pin and the symbols in his buttonhole communicate something 1915-American that complements those words. But the man’s eyes, mouth and hands belong to the naked aspect of his body, and in its nakedness that isn’t regulated by social system. Like the light leak, it is a sign of loss of organization. The text that tries to express it begins in Yiddish, Helft die, “Help the,” but then it collapses into a mere transliteration of English words written in Yiddish’s Hebrew alphabet. It can only stammer, “Helft die furrier strikers.”
The Hebrew letters, unintelligible in Hebrew, are visual evidence for a transition as undeniable as the laws of optics. On balance for the better, a language and its way of thinking are losing the meaning they possessed just one narrow ocean ago.
Wild light that evades control by the lens can be thought of as a sign of something different to come. But as the camera continues in use and the light comes in time to spread over its every image, whatever it was that was intended for shaping by the lens will go as whitely featureless as a blank page.
An earlier post, https://jonathanmorse.blog/2012/08/26/cylindric-equilibrium/, also uses the image of the striker.
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.
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/
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.