Look at the miscellaneous

After we realize we have seen, we sometimes teach ourselves the experience by giving it a name. The publisher George Stacy taught experience to other people for a living, and one day in about 1860 he made it his business to jot down some helpful ideas about an item newly visible then. You might call it American scenery, he suggested, and after that specifically clipper ship with a catalog number and a name, and finally, off in the right margin for any leftovers, miscellaneous.*

Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2017645288/

§

When we think we have completed a naming like that, silence may follow. As of 1860, two technologies that seemed to prepare silence for us were the stereopticon and the lexicon of words specialized for the genre of caption, which shortcuts from perception to understanding on the quiet. Shortly after 1860, however, the Orphic moved melodiously back into the modes of knowing. During the Edison era Hart Crane composed in the presence of a Victrola, and something singable now to Stacy’s image might be one of Crane’s Victrola-words from The Bridge: curveship.

Requires red-and-blue stereo viewer.

§

Or, within Stacy’s margins, the lyric Miscellaneous. Before that came to mind it existed as silent sensation, but then Stacy cordoned it within yellow and connected it into a directory of names. That’s what happened, for instance, when one sensation resolved itself into the name George W. Green, Sail Maker. Roman-font George W. Green, living man, is no more, but through the agency of perception his yellow-highlighted name has entered the breath-warmed history of your own remembered reading. Simultaneously, in front of a building named Wall Street, another name ripens to significance. If the blur that’s barely distinguishable there happens to be a wheel-shaped grindstone, we may be able to begin naming the person treadling the wheel. What emerges from the blur won’t be capitalizable like George W. Green, but historical probability and the sociology of gender will at least let you call it a man. In a poem named “Sparkles from the Wheel,” Walt Whitman poignantly observed that to know such an incidental detail is only an approximation in parenthesis. The man he describes is a reduction to “(an unminded point set in a vast surrounding).” But he is a point.

§

And beyond the parenthesis lies Great Republic’s great dark hull. Ever since 1860, George Stacy’s image has filled us who see it with the desire to become one of its cargoes of shadow. Barely noticed at the foot of Wall Street, however, is another darkness, this one an inky deposit of words. Pasted onto a wall half the length of the pier, it amounts to a collection of promissory notes promising meaning.

The promise can’t be kept, however. Rendered delible by loss of optical and historical signal, the posted words now communicate only miscellaneous, and the meaning of that word doesn’t extend from its aged yellow script to the forever new word-bearing wall. At term, all you can use it for is seeing without reading. The words within the double image of Great Republic mean now only to it, not to us. In an artwork intended to be readable with reference to changing time, they have sunk back into their image and gone timeless again. They are no longer in the stereo plane of readable surface. Having returned to the pre-perceived, they no longer bear the meaning of a readable word, even miscellaneous.

But just offshore of that worded silence lies Great Republic, moored to the still land of words but afloat on its river in tiny tidal motions. If we hope to know it we’ll have to get moving, because the knowing will have to be done on moving’s sole term. That term will be a hapax legomenon: a single generatrix of significance, a curveship not in the lexicon of caption. But if you’ve failed at learning the motion and you’re still on the pier with the unreadable words, do at least whisper to yourself in Great Republic’s shadow, Victrola.

* A small mystery about this stereo pair is that the images appear not to have been taken at the same time, even though stereo cameras generally have twin lenses with synchronized shutters. In the right-hand image, one of the ferry terminal’s three gates is open and the funnel of a boat is visible. In the left image there is no boat, all three gates are closed, and something round on a stand is in front of one of them, with the man I identify as possibly a knife-sharpener. (But what would a knife-sharpener be doing in this neighborhood?) Likewise, the ships in the far background seem to have moved, and in the left image but not the right a boat is visible behind the ship astern of Great Republic. Perhaps Stacy’s published stereo card is a composite of the left half of one pair with the right half of another.


Update, August 10, 2020:

Replying to a query, Michelle L. Smiley, Ph.D., assistant curator of photography at the Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs Division, writes:

“Thank you for contacting the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress. I have looked at the Clipper Ship stereograph in question and your observations about the changes in scene between stereo images seem accurate. These are fascinating differences between images, but they are also not unusual.

“While you are correct that photographers did employ stereographic cameras containing two lenses, true synchronous shutters didn’t come into common use until the 1880s, so many stereo photographs prior to that time are asynchronous. Some photographers used what was called a flap shutter over their lenses to synchronize their exposures, but most were removing a lens cap or a stop individually from each lens. Additionally, it was also a practice for photographers to use a camera with a single lens to take two pictures in succession with a slight adjustment in the position of the camera between shots. After consulting with my colleague, we believe that, given the seeming match of the offset of these two views, Stacy was using a twin lens camera, but making a unique exposure with each lens. My colleague also pointed out that portrait photographers may have been more likely to use a flap, whereas city/landscape photographers like Stacy may have had less of a concern with people or things moving between exposures. It’s also possible that Stacy composited halves of two separate negatives as you speculate, but with only the visual evidence to go off of, it is difficult to say definitively which of these methods was used.”

The future was rubber

Extremely old Americans may remember that vending machines in truck stop men’s rooms once dispensed condoms whose wrappers were printed with the warning, “For the prevention of disease only.” As textual history demonstrates, that was not just a monition but a commandment. In Connecticut, where Congregationalist Protestantism was the state religion until half a century after the American Revolution, Yankee Calvinists wrote religious laws against birth control in the nineteenth century and Irish Catholics enforced them in the twentieth. The legislative climates were similar in other states, but because a part of art is defiance, defiant literature imagined into being a little paragraph of counter-prose. Getting its hands dirty with latex and ink, literature remolded the words of solemn warning into a mocking anti-sanctimony and stocked cash-operated machines with it under the deacons’ noses.

In 1965, however, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Griswold v. Connecticut that people have a right to use birth control for any diseased or undiseased purpose they choose to name, and at that historical point the Trojans lapsed into silence. They’ve remained silent ever since, but it seems possible now that the time will soon return when the men’s room gets noisy as the tiles echo again with priestly bellowings. In 2022, in a concurring opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Center, the decision which reversed the court’s 1973 holding of a constitutional right to abortion, Justice Thomas of the Supreme Court opined that Griswold v. Connecticut must now be reversed too.

Art, however, always anticipates a counter-art. Greek tragedy performed itself in alternation with bawdy satyr plays, and Justice Thomas’s script was anticipated as far previously as 1954, the year Shepherd Mead published his satire The Big Ball of Wax: a novel set in a distant future (1992!), when scripted dreams are beamed directly from TV studios into the brains of the masses. Not all of Mead’s science fiction came true on schedule; his 1992 is still a time of slide rules and carbon paper. On the other hand, a new part of its geography is “St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad), Russia,” and the plot’s key event is that an adman figures a way to get commercials into the dreams. Now that the phones in our pockets are our spying intimates, that part reads like prophecy.

And about that, the cheery satyr-prophets of art invite Justice Thomas, his Christian Church, and every one of the rest of us to unzip a little and dwell on this love scene. Just do the logical thing with the new words that arrive to reclothe your thought, the satyrs suggest, and then what happens after they teach you to speak laughingly will be Happily ever after.

The Big Ball of Wax: A Novel of Tomorrow’s Happy World. Kindle edition, 2012.

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?