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. 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.
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.
Chris Wiley’s essay “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.
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.
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.
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.
How but in custom and in ceremony
Are innocence and beauty born?
On the day Fort Sumter surrendered to its rebel siege, a photographer in Massachusetts published a poem.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 diefurrier 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.
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 . . .