In 1918 a caption written in American expository prose employed the word twixt. The caption’s author assumed that that word twixt would mean something to his readership, just like the two-word combination Hoffman House. If it has turned out that you don’t know what Hoffman House means, he was wrong. In 1918 his words were part of a lexicon dating from 1918, but that number turned out to be impossible for computers to handle in 1918, when the word computer referred to a person. In 1918, on May 19, James Joyce wrote to Harriet Shaw Weaver about Ulysses, “It is impossible to say how much of the book is really written.” But in 1918 Joyce was in the process of writing off 1918.
In the same magazine, another block of prose suggested ten years as a range of history during which terms like Hoffman House might remain stably conceivable. The thought must have seemed reasonable while its subject was still sharing a present tense with horse traffic.
But now we know that it’s harder to say “It identifies” than we used to think. In 1918 a billboard atop the building at the left of the image of Madison Square identified a remedy for indiscretion, but the identification couldn’t be read in 1918’s Geographic text and in texts post-1918 it can’t be understood.
But now that it can’t be understood, it can be read.
As people say, it goes without saying. Artificial intelligence has transported us up Fifth Avenue to a caption. The caption’s lexicon now comprehends the legible words laxative water on a rooftop and legible fashion on women approaching a door. In the fullness of time, the deposit of data saved on a large-format negative in 1918 has matured at last. Its worth is redeemable now. But what, now, can at last mean?
We have been enabled to read 1918, but all we can do now that 1918 is over is to see it: depictionless, without seeing that its label bears a signature. Unsigned, however, is the glare that comes forward behind the Flatiron and reverberates from the wet paving. That you can still experience as people experienced in 1918: communication in a present not bound to a knowable future. The wordless glare in the gutter isn’t a part of the caption because it isn’t captionable. All along, faithfully paralleling the caption from 1918, has been something just above it on the page: something long pre-1918. There in the unchronicled is image uncaptioned, without words to slow the light that comes flowing down the gutters of Fifth Avenue to us.
For years, three central facets of right-wing politics in the United States — the aggressive online community, the media juggernaut and the leader of the far right — had run at or past the boundaries without issue. Then, over an exceptional 24-hour period, each stumbled.
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.*
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 TheBridge: curveship.
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 GreatRepublic, 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.”
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.
A portraitist sees flesh quantitatively, like a butcher.
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.
You can read it with your Larousse.
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.
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.
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.
You may address your prayer to the fulfillment department.