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.
Can you look in the spirit of Gertrude Stein’s saying, “One sees what one sees”?
It may be impossible. It certainly may be absurd to say “One.”
Published in 1888 for the Cotton Bale Medicine Company of Helena, Arkansas, this pair of store display cards, each one measuring about 11 by 14 inches, is housed in the Library of Congress in relic state: faded and damaged and mounted for preservation on a backing sheet. In 1888 it wouldn’t have been seen this way. To imagine it as it was then, we probably won’t be able to escape our education. I, at least, find myself imagining literarily. When I display the poster before my mind’s eye, I find myself thinking it into a setting like Jason’s store in The Sound and the Fury, smelling of pine and heat.
But I also have the photoresources to reconstruct it physically, without regard to any shelfspace it may fill in the library of the imaginary.
I look at what I have done and I think I have helped something made of pictures and words escape from time. That thought turns out to be the consequence of an optical illusion, however. The illusion has enabled me to think I can now move in close to “Merit and Success” and read again the fine-print phrase “free to all,” but of course I can’t. When I teach Ulysses in the years that have followed its day in 1904, I have to bracket a word into the text to make sure the class reads Poldy’s throwaway in “Lestrygonians” as a constative, not an imperative: “All [are] heartily welcome.” All used to be understood to mean everybody, but that sense seems to have gone obsolete. Rhetoric has lost something that sounded somehow grander than everybody: not restricted to the mere body or the mere human but universal.
And of course the fine print in the lexicon of the Remedies also says free.
I have reconstructed that word too, but reconstructed it in a time when the people of the bales can read it and write memos of their own. In 1888 that word on this page wouldn’t have been read as ironic by the readership for which it was intended, but it turns out that reading takes place now across a different spectrum. I have also reconstructed the page’s 1888 colors, but even that purely spectral act turns out to be complicated by words. Post-1888 terms that we have to know now when we read this page, for instance, include not just color but also colored and the colored.
And in the sky, cottony clouds . . .
Metaphor too has undergone a change of clothes. There are no remedies for this ceaselessness. Language, it turns out, never was color-fast.
The book’s title is A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. To give you an idea of scale in the image, its length is x + 1779 pages.
What’s contemplating comprehension across the insuperable barrier of the human is one of Hawaii’s big cane spiders, Heteropoda venatoria. As its specific epithet implies, it’s also known as the huntsman spider. But it hunts in silence, without horns or ritual cries or marking of the cheeks of its offspring with the blood of its prey.
Work cited (one of quite possibly hundreds available for analysis): https://www.cnn.com/2018/01/18/politics/kfile-carl-higbie-on-the-radio/index.html. The link is to a CNN article headlined “Trump appointee Carl Higbie resigns as public face of agency that runs AmeriCorps after KFile review of racist, sexist, anti-Muslim and anti-LGBT comments on the radio.” The article includes corroborative audio clips, plural, but it also includes this:
In a Tweet Friday morning, Higbie apologized for his comments. “I’m sorry. I’m not sorry that my words were published, I am sorry that I said them in 2013,” he wrote. “Those words do not reflect who I am or what I stand for, I regret saying them. Last night I informed the WH that I was resigning so as not to distract from POTUS’ many success. #noexcuses”
And in the link below, which dates from four months later in the ontological era, a New York lawyer with a significant history of being a loud aggressive racist in public is identified on video, gets in trouble at work, and then explains, “The manner in which I expressed myself is unacceptable and is not the person I am.”
“Unacceptable” is another term I don’t think I understand. Compare, “The dampness of this water is unacceptable.”
G. Mackenzie Bacon, On the Writing of the Insane (London, 1870):