In an email about Ulysses, I typed “Poldy.” GMail autocorrected to
In an email about Ulysses, I typed “Poldy.” GMail autocorrected to
In the Constantin Brancusi archive at the Centre Pompidou, the image linked here is captioned “Erik Satie, John Quinn, Brancusi et Henri-Pierre Roché, golf de Fontainebleau” and dated September 25, 1923.
Satie and Brancusi are the composer and the sculptor. History has decided on their behalf that they need no further introduction. Differing from each other as to hat and beard, they partake differently of their culture, but they occupy the hat-and-beard part of it in common. A century afterward, you too can know what they were doing with their hatted and bearded selves outside the image, and what that meant then and means now. There’s no need to ask permission; the request was made and granted before you were born.
But unless you’re a specialist, Quinn will need to be introduced. A lawyer who hated his work but made it useful to some modernist artists whose work he loved, he lives on in history honorably but secondarily, only as an annotation. Speaking not Quinn’s language but history’s, Quinn’s specialist footnote will say to us, “Quinn was one of the patrons who made James Joyce’s language possible.” It’s an explanation not worth trying to understand unless you already know James Joyce’s language.
And the tall man on the right? To the extent that Henri-Pierre Roché, 1879-1959, may be known outside France, he will be probably be known as the author of Jules et Jim, ostensibly a novel with a title seen at speed as a historically famous movie’s credits roll. But in its pages offscreen, Jules et Jim is less a fiction than a fairy-autobiography: an aesthetic construction about the more or less actual Roché, the more or less actual German writer Franz Hessel, and the woman they both loved.
By contrast, the words embedded in this dust jacket demonstrate that their own tale (subtitled “The Woman who Loved Jules and Jim”) isn’t a story of a more or less actual Helen Hessel (“Helen, die Frau”) but instead a story of a Helen-image projected optically onto a screen. According to that story, the words Jules und Jim printed on their paper are only indices referring statically to a picture seeming to move.
But of course the moving picture has a soundtrack vocabulary, and a vocabulary is a multiplex always undergoing changes of the words through which it means. Franz Hessel’s parents were Jews who converted to Lutheranism, but that change reversed itself when the time came for their son to die in a Vichy concentration camp. Conversely, you and I probably wouldn’t be reading about Henri-Pierre Roché now if François Truffaut hadn’t happened to supplement our language in consequence of picking up a copy of Jules et Jim in a second-hand bookstore (Mary Blume, “The Secret Lives of Jules and Jim,” New York Times 25 April 2003, https://www.nytimes.com/2003/04/25/style/IHT-the-secret-lives-of-jules-and-jim.html). And history can’t do a thing about any of that beyond turning up the lights in the archive, more or less at random.
But at least Photoshop is good about sliding the dimmers. So may I ask you to move to the bright side of the room for a moment and look with me at this Photoshop-renewed picture of a sex athlete standing head and shoulders above Erik Satie and Constantin Brancusi? In the image, he is in his own moment once again, and the story about the image is that when it’s annotated with words it seems to have been, just a moment ago, moving. The sense of movement will be an optical illusion, but while it lasts its Once upon a time words reverse themselves and seem to say what they once did say. Above us, once more, towers Henri-Pierre Roché in the knickered mode of 1923, and for him and for us the illusion is a word seeming to mean Now.
Once upon a time, perhaps in 1922 — the publication date of Ulysses and The Waste Land and of Sinclair Lewis’s social satire Babbitt, with its phonographic transcription of the way Americans talked in 1922 —
once upon a time, perhaps in that year when modes of perceiving words changed, someone looked at a photograph captioned with a Connecticut title and asked it the beginning of a question.
Post-processing this grimy old image of a dog bracketed between sentences restores visibility to what subject dog is doing: wagging his tail. But the bracketing question, as worded, hasn’t been brought to completion. What we perceive of the dog doesn’t have a context. The question may signify, “At what address in Westbrook, Conn., was Major?” But alternatively it may signify, “What became of Major, forever after?” Whatever the answer may be to either of those sub-questions, it can’t be now what it would have been in 1922, the year C. K. Ogden translated into English the sentences, “The world is everything that is the case” and then “The picture is a model of reality” and “The picture is a fact” (Tractatus 1, 2.12, 2.141). In perhaps 1922 someone writing a graceful nineteenth-century hand molded the words “Westbrook Conn.” around a void and shaped it into a model of the fact of permanent self-evidence. The case of the top margin is Westbrook Conn.; what else can it ever be? But evidence is missing from the laborious blockprint at the bottom. Down there, there appears to be no connection between the question on the left and the date on the right.
But the space in the line at the bottom may be a meaning in its own right: a negative one, empty antonym of the space at the top. The gap between Westbrook and Conn at the top is a temporarily vacant lot that can be filled in at any time with more New England, but the question mark at the bottom designates an unbounded void. Worse, and with vast implications, is that the R’s and N’s at the top and bottom of the whole image are similarly formed. The two lines look different at first glance, but they may have had a single writer. What appears to be a real difference may be only an aesthetic one: a consequence of indifferent time. Over the little interval between the top and the bottom of a text the scribe grew old, and the aging worked its way even into the microtexture of each line’s language. The passage from one letter to the next was a decay. Memento mori, therefore: the spaced subject at the bottom, “Where is he? Nov 1922” may signify not just “Major” but “Major as of 1922” or (an all too possible expansion of the frame of understanding) just “1922.” That is, horribly: “1922, when Major and I were, for a moment, alive.”
Major’s picture documents the case of 1922-and-thereafter. During the time it was processed into what you’re now reading it probably remained in physical existence: a soiled little slip of paper marked with silver halides at its center and inked words in its margins. But it’s the center that has now become marginal to the document’s meaning. Any answer we could make to the question “Where is he?” would have to come from there in the halides, but in that sector there never were words to mean with. Once it had been made metallic by a bath in a reducing agent in (let’s say, because we have to say something) 1922, the wordless chemistry of the story became a bords durs trace of what was once a dog’s life. In that dog story it isn’t the exact date of the abrupt transition from blurrily wagging to stilled that matters. Whenever it was imposed, it was imposed forever.
The Freeman’s Journal (Dublin), December 24, 1890:
The print doesn’t welcome your presence. But notice that Mr. Joyce himself persisted with the aid of a magnifying glass.
Persist, therefore. Think of yourself as Gabriel at the Christmas feast and afterward, paying attention right to the end.
Clio and Apollo will rest you merry.
On Thursday, December 23, 1920, The New York Times reported on page 9:
The article was headed “Olympic’s Notables See Gain in Europe,” and among the disembarking notables its reporter interviewed was New York’s Assistant District Attorney Owen W. Bohan, on his way home from having assisted in Italy in a prosecution for murder. A photographer from the Bain News Agency was also on hand.
On the other side of the Atlantic, earlier in 1920, the architect Charles-Edouard Jeanneret had caused himself to be made over as a theory apparatus named Le Corbusier. Throughout that year, that apparatus outputted a series of polemics in a journal named L’Esprit nouveau. In 1923, it collected the articles into a book and called the book Vers une architecture. The title implied that architecture was something that lay ahead, something yet to be achieved. Much of the material that supplied the book’s thesis and body of examples was marine architecture — specifically, the architecture of the great four-stacker ocean liners whose creators were now teaching — if architects would only listen! — that steel could be a system of the human body like muscle and bone. “So old, so old!” cried the apparatus as it contemplated the time when pre-metallic humans lived in caves of stone.
And so, on a December day in 1920, another apparatus sailed up the bay into icy New York: a cylindrical construction built of linen and starch. At its apex, the construction displayed a triumphal decoration shaped like a head. The head looked human, but because the apparatus was made of cloth, the construction was only an idol. The cloth could have been woven in a cave, and one of its purposes as an idol was to represent to its cave-bound worshiper that there is a reality beyond representation. It is waiting to be seen. It is in the light, outside.
And yes: outside on December 22, 1920, looming behind the notable, not wrapped like him in cloth but warm from its own source below decks, there stood a cylinder of steel.
Perhaps the steel thing was only another idol, a transitional object erecting itself to mark the evolutionary passage from soft cloth to hard metal to a pure idea standing at the end of change. If it was, we probably don’t have to worry about our own soft mortal selves. There will be more idols to come, interposing their comforting representations between us and the moment when our hearts stop beating and desire ends. Le Corbusier himself was famously annoyed when the tenants of his buildings insisted on filling them with comfortable furniture. But for the quarter-century that began in about 1920, many people took Corbusian steel itself to be the idea, and worshiped it with temples and blood sacrifice.
Image source: George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2014711873/. Photoshopped.
Background: anonymous Vorticist drawing, 1916.